It is in keeping with the mythological character of Arthur that the early Welsh tales recorded of him are of a different nature from those which swell the pseudo-histories of Nennius 1 and of Geoffrey of Monmouth. We hear nothing of that subjugation of the countries of Western Europe which fills so large a part in the two books of the Historia Britonum which Geoffrey has devoted to him. 2 Conqueror he is, but his conquests are not in any land known to geographers. It is against Hades, and not against Rome, that he achieves his highest triumphs. This is the true history of King Arthur, and we may read more fragments and snatches of it in two prose-tales preserved in the Red Book of Hergest. Both these tales date, in the actual form in which they have come down to us, from the twelfth century. But, in each of them, the writer seems to be stretching out his hands to gather in the dying traditions of a very remote past.
When a Welsh man-at-arms named Rhonabwy lay down, one night, to sleep upon a yellow calf-skin, the only furniture in a noisome hut, in which he had taken shelter, that was comparatively free from vermin, he had the vision which is related in the tale
called "The Dream of Rhonabwy". 1 He thought that he was travelling with his companions towards the Severn, when they heard a rushing noise behind them, and, looking back, saw a gigantic rider upon a monstrous horse. So terrible was the horseman's appearance that they all started to run from him. But their running was of no avail, for every time the horse drew in its breath, it sucked them back to its, very chest, only, however, to fling them forward as it breathed out again. In despair they fell down and besought their pursuer's mercy. He granted it, asked their names, and told them, in return, his own. He was known as Iddawc the Agitator of Britain; for it was he who, in his love of war, had purposely precipitated the Battle of Camlan. Arthur had sent him to reason with Medrawt; but though Arthur had charged him with the fairest sayings he could think of, Iddawc translated them into the harshest he could devise. But he had done seven years' penance, and had been forgiven, and was now riding to Arthur's camp. Thither he insisted upon taking Rhonabwy and his companions.
Arthur's army was encamped for a mile around the ford of Rhyd y Groes, upon both sides of the road; and on a small flat island in the middle of the river was the Emperor himself, in converse with Bedwini the Bishop and Gwarthegyd, the son of Kaw. Like Ossian, when he came back to Ireland after his three hundred years' sojourn in the "Land of Promise", 2 Arthur marvelled at the puny size of
the people whom Iddawc had brought for him to look at. "And where, Iddawc, didst thou find these little men?" "I found them, Lord, up yonder on the road." Then the Emperor smiled. "Lord," said Iddawc, "wherefore dost thou laugh?" "Iddawc," replied Arthur, "I laugh not; but it pitieth me that men of such stature as these should have this island in their keeping, after the men that guarded it of yore." Then he turned away, and Iddawc told Rhonabwy and his companions to keep silent, and they would see what they would see.
The scope of such a book as this allows no space to describe the persons and equipments of the warriors who came riding down with their companies to join Arthur, as he made his great march to fight the Battle of Badon, thought by some to be historical, and located at Bath. The reader who turns to the tale itself will see what Rhonabwy saw. Many of Arthur's warriors he will know by name: Caradawc the Strong-armed, who is here called a son, not of Brân, but of Llyr; March son of Meirchion, the underworld king; Kai, described as "the fairest horseman in all Arthur's court"; Gwalchmei, the son of Gwyar and of Arthur himself; Mabon, the son of Modron; Trystan son of Tallwch, the lover of "The Fair Isoult"; Goreu, Arthur's cousin and his rescuer from Manawyddan's bone-prison; these, and many more, will pass before him, as they passed before Rhonabwy during the three days and three nights that he slept and dreamed upon the calf-skin.
This story of the "Dream of Rhonabwy", elaborate
as it is in all its details, is yet, in substance, little more than a catalogue. The intention of its unknown author seems to have been to draw a series of pictures of what he considered to be the principal among Arthur's followers. The other story--that of "Kulhwch and Olwen"--also takes this catalogue form, but the matters enumerated are of a different kind. It is not so much a record of men as of things. Not the heroes of Britain, but the treasures of Britain are its subject. One might compare it with the Gaelic story of the adventures of the three sons of Tuirenn. 1
The "Thirteen Treasures of Britain" were famous in early legend. They belonged to gods and heroes, and were current in our island till the end of the divine age, when Merlin, fading out of the world, took them with him into his airy tomb, never to be seen by mortal eyes again. According to tradition, 2 they consisted of a sword, a basket, a drinking-horn, a chariot, a halter, a knife, a cauldron, a whetstone, a garment, a pan, a platter, a chess-board, and a mantle, all possessed of not less marvellous qualities than the apples, the pig-skin, the spear, the horses and chariot, the pigs, the hound-whelp, and the cooking-spit which the sons of Tuirenn obtained for Lugh. 3 It is these same legendary treasures that reappear, no doubt, in the story of "Kulhwch and Olwen". The number tallies, for there are thirteen of them. Some are certainly, and others
probably, identical with those of the other tradition. That there should be discrepancies need cause no surprise, for it is not unlikely that there were several different versions of their legend. Everyone had heard of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain. Many, no doubt, disputed as to what they were. Others might ask whence they came. The story of "Kulhwch and Olwen" was composed to tell them. They were won by Arthur and his mighty men.
Kulhwch 1 is the hero of the story and Olwen is its heroine, but only, as it were, by courtesy. The pair provide a love-interest which, as in the tales of all primitive people, is kept in the background. The woman, in such romances, takes the place of the gold and gems in a modern "treasure-hunt" story; she is won by overcoming external obstacles, and not by any difficulty in obtaining her own consent. In this romance 2, Kulhwch was the son of a king who afterwards married a widow with a grown-up daughter, whom his stepmother urged Kulhwch to marry. On his modestly replying that he was not yet of an age to wed, she laid the destiny on him that he should never have a wife at all, unless he could win Olwen, the daughter of a terrible father called "Hawthorn, Chief of Giants". 3
The "Chief of Giants" was as hostile to suitors as he was monstrous in shape; and no wonder! for he knew that on his daughter's marriage his own life would come to an end. Both in this peculiarity
and in the description of his ponderous eyebrows, which fell so heavily over his eyes that he could not see until they had been lifted up with forks, he reminds one of the Fomor, Balor. Of his daughter, on the other hand, the Welsh tale gives a description as beautiful as Olwen was, herself. "More yellow was her head than the flower of the broom, and her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and her fingers than the blossoms of the wood anemone amidst the spray of the meadow-fountain. The eye of the trained hawk, the glance of the three-mewed falcon was not brighter than hers. Her bosom was more snowy than the breast of the white swan, her cheek was redder than the reddest roses. Whoso beheld her was filled with her love. Four white trefoils sprung up wherever she trod. And therefore was she called Olwen." 1
Kulhwch had no need to see her to fall in love with her. He blushed at her very name, and asked his father how he could obtain her in marriage. His father reminded him that he was Arthur's cousin, and advised him to claim Olwen from him as a boon.
So Kulhwch "pricked forth upon a steed with head dappled grey, of four winters old, firm of limb, with shell-formed hoofs, having a bridle of linked gold on his head, and upon him a saddle of costly gold. And in the youth's hand were two spears of silver, sharp, well-tempered, headed with steel,
three ells in length, of an edge to wound the wind, and cause blood to flow, and swifter than the fall of the dewdrop from the blade of reed-grass upon the earth when the dew of June is at the heaviest. A gold-hiked sword was upon his thigh, the blade of which was of gold, bearing a cross of inlaid gold of the hue of the lightning of heaven; his war-horn was of ivory. Before him were two brindled white-breasted greyhounds, having strong collars of rubies about their necks, reaching from the shoulder to the ear. And the one that was on the left side bounded across to the right side, and the one on the right to the left, and like two sea-swallows sported around him. And his courser cast up four sods with his four hoofs, like four swallows in the air, about his head, now above, now below. About him was a four-cornered cloth of purple, and an apple of gold was at each corner, and every one of the apples was of the value of an hundred kine. And there was precious gold of the value of three hundred kine upon his shoes, and upon his stirrups, from his knee to the tip of his toe. And the blade of grass bent not beneath him, so light was his courser's tread as he journeyed towards the gate of Arthur's palace."
Nor did this bold suitor stand greatly upon ceremony. He arrived after the portal of the palace had been closed for the night, and, contrary to all precedent, sent to Arthur demanding instant entry. Although, too, it was the custom for visitors to dismount at the horse-block at the gate, he did not do so, but rode his charger into the hall. After greetings had passed between him and Arthur, and he
had announced his name, he demanded Olwen for his bride at the hands of the Emperor and his warriors.
Neither Arthur nor any of his court had ever heard of Olwen. However, he promised his cousin either to find her for him, or to prove that there was no such person. He ordered his most skilful warriors to accompany Kulhwch; Kai, with his companion Bedwyr, the swiftest of men; Kynddelig, who was as good a guide in a strange country as in his own; Gwrhyr, who knew all the languages of men, as well as of all other creatures; Gwalchmei, who never left an adventure unachieved; and Menw, who could render himself and his companions invisible at will.
They travelled until they came to a castle on an open plain. Feeding on the plain was a countless herd of sheep, and, on a mound close by, a monstrous shepherd with a monstrous dog. Menw cast a spell over the dog, and they approached the shepherd. He was called Custennin, a brother of Hawthorn, while his wife was a sister of Kulhwch's own mother. The evil chief of giants had reduced his brother to servitude, and murdered all his twenty-four sons save one, who was kept hidden in a stone chest. Therefore he welcomed Kulhwch and the embassy from Arthur, and promised to help them secretly, the more readily since Kai offered to take the one surviving son under his protection. Custennin's wife procured Kulhwch a secret meeting with Olwen, and the damsel did not altogether discourage her wooer's suit.
The party started for Hawthorn's castle. Without raising any alarm, they slew the nine porters and the nine watch-dogs, and came unhindered into the hall. They greeted the ponderous giant, and announced the reason of their coming. "Where are my pages and my servants?" he said. "Raise up the forks beneath my two eyebrows which have fallen over my eyes, so that I may see the fashion of my son-in-law." He glared at them, and told them to come again upon the next day.
They turned to go, and, as they did so, Hawthorn seized a poisoned dart, and threw it after them. But Bedwyr caught it, and cast it back, wounding the giant's knee. They left him grumbling, slept at the house of Custennin, and returned, the next morning.
Again they demanded Olwen from her father, threatening him with death if he refused. "Her four great-grandmothers, and her four great-grandsires are yet alive," replied Hawthorn; "it is needful that I take counsel of them." So they turned away, and, as they went, he flung a second dart, which Menw caught, and hurled back, piercing the giant's body.
The next time they came, Hawthorn warned them not to shoot at him again, unless they desired death. Then he ordered his eyebrows to be lifted up, and, as soon as he could see, he flung a poisoned dart straight at Kulhwch. But the suitor himself caught it, and flung it back, so that it pierced Hawthorn's eyeball and came out through the back of his head. Here again we are reminded of the myth of Lugh
and Balor. Hawthorn, however, was not killed, though he was very much discomforted. "A cursed ungentle son-in-law, truly!" he complained. "As long as I remain alive, my eyesight will be the worse. Whenever I go against the wind, my eyes will water; and peradventure my head will burn, and I shall have a giddiness every new moon. Cursed be the fire in which it was forged! Like the bite of a mad dog is the stroke of this poisoned iron."
It was now the turn of Kulhwch and his party to warn the giant that there must be no more dart-throwing. He appeared, indeed, more amenable to reason, and allowed himself to be placed opposite to Kulhwch, in a chair, to discuss the amount of his daughter's bride-price.
Its terms, as he gradually unfolded them, were terrific. The blood-fine paid for Cian to Lugh seems, indeed, a trifle beside it. To obtain grain, for food and liquor at his daughter's wedding, a vast hill which he showed to Kulhwch must be rooted up, levelled, ploughed, sown, and harvested in one day. No one could do this except Amaethon son of Dôn, the divine husbandman, and Govannan son of Dôn, the divine smith, and they must have the service of three pairs of magic oxen. He must also have returned to him the same nine bushels of flax which he had sown in his youth, and which had never come up; for only out of this very flax should be made the white wimple for Olwen's head. For mead, too, he must have honey "nine times sweeter than the honey of the virgin swarm".
Then followed the enumeration of the thirteen treasures to be paid to him as dowry. Such a list of wedding presents was surely never known! No pot could hold such honey as he demanded but the magic vessel of Llwyr, the son of Llwyryon. There would not be enough food for all the wedding-guests, unless he had the basket of Gwyddneu Garanhir, from which all the men in the world could be fed, thrice nine at a time. No cauldron could cook the meat, except that of Diwrnach the Gael. The mystic drinking-horn of Gwlgawd Gododin must be there, to give them drink. The harp of Teirtu, which, like the Dagda's, played of itself, must make music for them. The giant father-in-law's hair could only be shorn with one instrument--the tusk of White-tooth, King of the Boars, and not even by that unless it was plucked alive out of its owner's mouth. Also, before the hair could be cut, it must be spread out, and this could not be done until it had been first softened with the blood of the perfectly black sorceress, daughter of the perfectly white sorceress, from the Source of the Stream of Sorrow, on the borders of hell. Nor could the sorceress's blood be kept warm enough unless it was placed in the bottles of Gwyddolwyn Gorr, which preserved the heat of any liquor put into them, though it was carried from the east of the world to the west. Another set of bottles he must also have to keep milk for his guests in--those bottles of Rhinnon Rhin Barnawd in which no drink ever turned sour. For himself, he required the sword of Gwrnach the Giant, which that personage would never allow out of his own keeping,
because it was destined that he himself should fall by it. Last of all, he must be given the comb, the razor, and the scissors which lay between the ears of Twrch Trwyth, a king changed into the most terrible of wild boars.
It is the chase of this boar which gives the story of "Kulhwch and Olwen" its alternative title--"The Twrch Trwyth". The task was one worthy of gods and demi-gods. Its contemplation might well have appalled Kulhwch, who, however, was not so easily frightened. To every fresh demand, every new obstacle put in his way, he gave the same answer:
"It will be easy for me to compass this, although thou mayest think that it will not be easy".
Whether it was easy or not will be seen from the conditions under which alone the hunt could be brought to a successful end. No ordinary hounds or huntsmen would avail. The chief of the pack must be Drudwyn, the whelp of Greid the son of Eri, led in the one leash that would hold him, fastened, by the one chain strong enough, to the one collar that would contain his neck. No huntsman could hunt with this dog except Mabon son of Modron; and he had, ages before, been taken from between his mother and the wall when he was three nights old, and it was not known where he was, or even whether he were living or dead. There was only one steed that could carry Mabon, namely Gwynn Mygdwn, the horse of Gweddw. Two other marvellous hounds, the cubs of Gast Rhymhi, must also be obtained; they must be held in the only leash they would not break, for it would be made
out of the beard of the giant Dissull, plucked from him while he was still alive. Even with this, no huntsman could lead them except Kynedyr Wyllt, who was himself nine times more wild than the wildest beast upon the mountains. All Arthur's mighty men must come to help, even Gwyn son of Nudd, upon his black horse; and how could he be spared from his terrible duty of restraining the devils in hell from breaking loose and destroying the world?
Here is material for romance indeed! But, unhappily, we shall never know the full story of how all these magic treasures were obtained, all these magic hounds captured and compelled to hunt, all these magic huntsmen brought to help. The story--which Mr. Nutt 1 considers to be, "saving the finest tales of the 'Arabian Nights', the greatest romantic fairy tale the world has ever known"--is not, as we have it now, complete. It reads fully enough; but, on casting backwards and forwards, between the list of feats to be performed and the body of the tale which is supposed to relate them all, we find many of them wanting. "The host of Arthur", we are told, "dispersed themselves into parties of one and two", each party intent upon some separate quest. The adventures of some of them have come down, but those of others have not. We are told how Kai slew Gwrnach the Giant with his own sword; how Gwyrthur son of Greidawl, Gwyn's rival for the love of Creudylad, saved an anthill from fire, and how the grateful ants searched for and found
the very flax-seeds sown by Hawthorn in his youth; how Arthur's host surrounded and took Gast Rhymhi's cubs, and how Kai and Bedwyr overcame Dissull, and plucked out his beard with wooden tweezers, to make a leash for them. We learn how Arthur went to Ireland, and brought back the cauldron of Diwrnach the Gael, full of Irish money; how White-tusk the Boar-king was chased and killed; and how Arthur condescended to slay the perfectly black sorceress with his own hand. That others of the treasures were acquired is hinted rather than said. Most important of all (for so much depended on him), we find out where the stolen Mabon was, and learn how he was rescued.
So many ages had elapsed since Mabon had disappeared that there seemed little hope of ever finding news of him. Nevertheless Gwrhyr, who spoke the languages of all creatures, went to enquire of that ancient bird, the Ousel of Cilgwri. But the Ousel, though in her time she had pecked a smith's anvil down to the size of a nut, was yet too young to have heard of Mabon. She sent Gwrhyr to a creature formed before her, the Stag of Redynvre. But though the Stag had lived to see an oak-sapling slowly grow to be a tree with a thousand branches, and as slowly decay again till it was a withered stump, he had never heard of Mabon.
Therefore he sent him on to a creature still older than himself--the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd. The wood she lived in had been thrice rooted up, and had thrice resown itself, and yet, in all that immense time, she had never heard of Mabon. There was
but one who might have, she told Gwrhyr, and he was the Eagle of Gwern Abwy.
Here, at last, they struck Mabon's trail. "The Eagle said: 'I have been here for a great space of time, and when I first came hither there was a rock here, from the top of which I pecked at the stars every evening; and now it is not so much as a span high. From that day to this I have been here, and I have never heard of the man for whom you inquire, except once when I went in search of food as far as Llyn Llyw. And when I came there, I struck my talons into a salmon, thinking he would serve me as food for a long time. But he drew me into the deep, and I was scarcely able to escape from him. After that I went with my whole kindred to attack him, and to try to destroy him, but he sent messengers, and made peace with me; and came and besought me to take fifty fish spears out of his back. Unless he know something of him whom you seek, I cannot tell who may. However, I will guide you to the place where he is.'"
It happened that the Salmon did know. With every tide he went up the Severn as far as the walls of Gloucester, and there, he said, he had found such wrong as he had never found anywhere else. So he took Kai and Gwrhyr upon his shoulders and carried them to the wall of the prison where a captive was heard lamenting. This was Mabon son of Modron, who was suffering such imprisonment as not even Lludd of the Silver Hand or Greid, the son of Eri, 1
the other two of the "Three Paramount Prisoners of Britain", had endured before him. But it came to an end now; for Kai sent to Arthur, and he and his warriors stormed Gloucester, and brought Mabon away.
All was at last ready for the final achievement--the hunting of Twrch Trwyth, who was now, with his seven young pigs, in Ireland. Before he was roused, it was thought wise to send the wizard Menw to find out by ocular inspection whether the comb, the scissors, and the razor were still between his ears. Menw took the form of a bird, and settled upon the Boar's head. He saw the coveted treasures, and tried to take one of them, but Twrch Trwyth shook himself so violently that some of the venom from his bristles spurted over Menw, who was never quite well again from that day.
Then the hunt was up, the men surrounded him, and the dogs were loosed at him from every side. On the first day, the Irish attacked him. On the second day, Arthur's household encountered him and were worsted. Then Arthur himself fought with him for nine days and nine nights without even killing one of the little pigs.
A truce was now called, so that Gwrhyr, who spoke all languages, might go and parley with him. Gwrhyr begged him to give up in peace the comb, the scissors, and the razor, which were all that
[paragraph continues] Arthur wanted. But the Boar Trwyth, indignant of having been so annoyed, would not. On the contrary, he promised to go on the morrow into Arthur's country, and do all the harm he could there.
So Twrch Trwyth with his seven pigs crossed the sea into Wales, and Arthur followed with his warriors in the ship "Prydwen". Here the story becomes wonderfully realistic and circumstantial. We are told of every place they passed through on the long chase through South Wales, and can trace the course of the hunt over the map. 1 We know of every check the huntsmen had, and what happened every time the boars turned to bay. The "casualty-list" of Arthur's men is completely given; and we can also follow the shrinking of Twrch Trwyth's herd, as his little pigs fell one by one. None were left but Trwyth himself by the time the Severn estuary was reached, at the mouth of the Wye.
Here the hunt came up with him, and drove him into the water, and in this unfamiliar element he was outmatched. Osla Big-Knife 2, Manawyddan son of Llyr, Kacmwri, the servant of Arthur, and Gwyngelli caught him by his four feet and plunged his head under water, while the two chief huntsmen, Mabon son of Modron, and Kyledyr Willt, came, one on each side of him, and took the scissors and the razor. Before they could get the comb, however,
Click to enlarge
THE TREASURES OF BRITAIN
From the Drawing by E. Wallcousins
he shook himself free, and struck out for Cornwall, leaving Osla and Kacmwri half-drowned in the Severn.
And all this trouble, we are told, was mere play compared with the trouble they had with him in Cornwall before they could get the comb. But, at last, they secured it, and drove the boar out over the deep sea. He passed out of sight, with two of the magic hounds in pursuit of him, and none of them have ever been heard of since.
The sight of these treasures, paraded before Hawthorn, chief of giants, was, of course, his death-warrant. All who wished him ill came to gloat over his downfall. But they should have been put to shame by the giant, whose end had, at least, a certain dignity. "My daughter", he said to Kulhwch, "is yours, but you need not thank me for it, but Arthur, who has accomplished all this. By my free will you should never have had her, for with her I lose my life."
Thereupon they cut off his head, and put it upon a pole; and that night the undutiful Olwen became Kulhwch's bride.
336:1 History of the Britons", § 50.
336:2 Geoffrey of Monmouth. Books IX and X, and chaps. I and II of XI.
337:1 Translated by Lady Guest in her Mabinogion.
337:2 See chap. XIV--"Finn and the Fenians".
339:1 Chap. VIII--"The Gaelic Argonauts".
339:2 The list will be found, translated from an old Welsh MS., in the notes to Kulhwch and Olwen, in Lady Guest's Mabinogion.
339:3 Chap. VIII--"The Gaelic Argonauts".
340:1 Pronounced Keelhookh.
340:2 The following pages sketch out the main incidents of the story as translated by Lady Guest in her Mabinogion.
340:3 In Welsh, Yspaddaden Penkawr.
341:1 I.e. She of the White Track. The beauty of Olwen was proverbial in mediæval Welsh poetry.
348:1 In his notes to his edition of Lady Guest's Mabinogion. Published 1902.
350:1 So says the text. But a triad quoted by Lady Guest in her notes gives the "Three Paramount Prisoners of Britain" differently. "The three supreme prisoners p. 351 of the Island of Britain, Llyr Llediath in the prison of Euroswydd Wledig, and Madoc, or Mabon, and Gweir, son of Gweiryoth; and one more exalted than the three, and that was Arthur, who was for three nights in the Castle of Oeth and Anoeth, and three nights in the prison of Wen Pendragon, and three nights in the dark prison under the stone. And one youth released him from these three prisons; that youth was Goreu the son of Custennin, his cousin."
352:1 See Rhys: Celtic Folklore, chap. X--"Place-name Stories".
352:2 The "big knife" was, we are told in the story, "a short broad dagger. When Arthur and his hosts came before a torrent, they would seek for a narrow place where they might pass the water, and would lay the sheathed dagger across the torrent, and it would form a bridge sufficient for the armies of the three islands of Britain, and of the three islands adjacent, with their spoil."