Sacred Texts  Legends & Sagas  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 

p. 242



OF, a large proportion, then, of the historical poems, the scenery and events lie in the north; the warriors whose deeds they celebrate were "Gwyr y Gogled," or Men of the North. They are attributed to bards connected with the north, and there is every reason to believe them older than the tenth century. They are, in point of fact, the literature of the Cymric inhabitants of Cumbria before that kingdom was subjugated by the Saxon king in 946.

As soon as this view of their birthplace and home is recognised, localities are identified, warriors recognised, and allusions heretofore obscure become intelligible. During the last half-century of the Roman dominion in Britain, the most important military events took place at the northern frontier of the province, where it was chiefly assailed by those whom they called the barbarian races, and their troops were massed at the Roman walls to protect the province. After their departure, it was still the scene of a struggle between the contending races for supremacy.

p. 243

[paragraph continues] It was here that the provincial Britons had mainly to contend under the Guledig against the invading Picts and Scots, succeeded by the resistance of the native Cymric population of the north to the encroachment of the Angles of Bernicia.

Throughout this clash and jar of contending races, a body of popular poetry appears to have grown up, and the events of this never-ending war, and the dim recollections of social changes and revolutions, seem to have been reflected in national lays attributed to bards supposed to have lived at the time in which the deeds of their warriors were celebrated, and the legends of the country preserved in language, which, if not poetical, was figurative and obscure.

It was not till the seventh century that these popular lays, floating about among the people, were brought into shape, and assumed a consistent form. The sudden rise of the Cymric population to power under Cadwallawn, and the burst of national enthusiasm and excited hope, found vent in poetry. The Cymry were stimulated to combined effort by the voice of the bards, and poems were composed, and the more ancient lays either adapted to their purpose, or embedded as fragments in their own compositions. It is in the seventh century that I place these poems in their earliest consistent shape, and I do not attempt to take them further back.

The hopes excited by the success of Cadwallawn, and the expectations formed of his son Cadwaladyr, were extinguished by the final defeat of the former in

p. 244

[paragraph continues] 655, and the subjection of the Britons to the Angles, which lasted nearly thirty years as to the northern Britons, and probably much longer as to the southern; and we may well suppose that during this subjection the national spirit was kept alive by these popular lays, and by prophetic strains as to a possible future regeneration of the Cymry, accompanied by the usual fable that the king on whom they built so much and who was said to have perished in the pestilence of 664, had not really died, but would re-appear to renew the success of his father.

The accession to the throne of Wales of Mervyn Frych, from the northern region of Manau, seems to have brought the knowledge of the Historia Britonum, to Wales, and the emigration of large bodies of the Cymric population to Wales during the reign of Anaraut, and the termination of their kingdom in 946, when Howel dda, Prince of South Wales, occupied the throne of all Wales, probably made them acquainted with these poems.

But they appear to have found their new home in South Wales. By degrees the memory of the Northern Cymric kingdom passed away, the name of "Y Gogledd" was transferred from Cumbria to Gwynedd, and much of the traditionary history of the north, obscurely reflected in these poems, was applied to North Wales, while the warriors celebrated in them had new homes found for them in South Wales. To' adopt the language of an able modern writer:--"To the inhabitants of the south, Gwynedd (of the

p. 245

past) was an unknown land. Their imagination filled it with giants, fairies, monsters, and magicians. The inhabitants exercised strange arts; they had cauldrons of like virtue with that which renewed the youth of Aeson; a red dragon and a white were buried as a palladium of their metropolis. Among their monarchs was a veritable cat, the offspring of a wandering sow. Their chief philosopher was of gigantic stature, and sat on a mountain-peak to watch the stars. Their wizard-monarch, Gwydion, had the power of effecting the strangest metamorphoses. The simple peasant, dwelling on the shore of Dyfed, beheld across the sea those shadowy mountain-summits pierce the air--guardians, as it seemed, of some unearthly region. Thence came the mists and storms; thence flashed aloft the northern streamers; thence rose through the silent sky the starry path of Gwydion."

It is to this period that I attribute the composition of the oldest group of the prose tales and romances, and especially those peculiarly called the Mabinogi; and while, soon after, a new school of Welsh poetry, which speedily, assumed large, dimensions and exercised a powerful influence, arose in North Wales, the literary spirit of South Wales manifested itself more in prose composition and in the gradual appearance of spurious poetry, written in the style and sentiments of this older poetry of Cumbria.

The introduction of the Arthurian romance into South Wales from Armorica led to the appearance of the Bruts and to the later class of prose tales and

p. 246

romances, and when the kingdom of South Wales terminated by the death of Rhys ap Tewdwr, and the occupation of Glamorgan by the Normans, the extent to which the affections. of the people seem to have centred upon Robert, Earl of Gloucester, as the son of Nest, the daughter of their last king, Rhys ap Tewdwr, by Henry the First, manifested itself in the last Phase of this poetry.

There are therefore four eras connected with these poems, each of which was succeeded by a period of confusion or national depression:--

The era of Cadwallawn and Cadwaladyr, in which they were first brought into shape; that of Howel dda when they were transferred to South Wales, and when some of the later poems in the Book of Taliessin may have been composed; that of Rhys, ap Tewdwr and his grandson Robert Mab Henri, when much of the spurious poetry was written, none of which, however, appears in the Book of Taliessin; and the reign of Henry the Second, when some of these poems, with others of the period, were first transcribed in the Black Book of Caermarthen.

The translation of these poems contained in this work comprises the whole of the poems attributed to these ancient bards, whether genuine or spurious, as we find them in the four books--the Black Book of Caermarthen, the Look of Aneurin, the Book of Taliessin, and the Red Book of Hergest; but in these MSS. they do not appear in chronological order, or in any systematic shape. They are transcribed without reference to date,

p. 247

subject, or supposed author, and are interspersed with poems by authors of the later period. To print the translations in the exact order in which they appear in the MSS. would be to present them in a confused and unintelligible shape, and where the same poem appears in more than one MS., would lead to double translations. It has been thought better, therefore, while the translation has been made as literal and exact a representation of the text in the MSS. as possible, to group the poems so as to bring those which relate to the same subject together, and thus afford the means of easy comparison as well as facilitate a sounder criticism, based upon a true conception of their character in their mutual bearing upon each other.

The translations are therefore printed in the following order:--The poems which are either, strictly speaking, historical, or which contain historical allusions, are separated in each of the four books from those which contain merely the sentiments of the poet, and the latter are classed under the head of "Miscellaneous Poems." Those that maybe called "Historical" fall into two divisions. The first comprises those which contain allusions to early traditions or events prior to the year 560 when Gildas wrote, and to the time when the warriors fought with the kings of Bernicia, whose names are recorded by the author of the Genealogia. This division contains the whole of those poems which contain allusions to the persons mentioned in the oldest class of the prose tales or Mabinogion. There

p. 248

are, first, grouped together under letter A, five poems which refer to early traditions; under letter B, four poems which mention Arthur by name; and it is somewhat remarkable that out of this large body of popular poetry there are only these four preserved, and one other, placed in another group, which mention him at all. Under letter C, eight poems, which refer to Llew and Gwydion, and the combination of the Brython and Gwyddyl, or to the Brithwyr. Under letter D has been placed a poem in the Black Book of Caermarthen relating to Gwyddno Garanhir and the mythic Gwynn ap Nudd. Under the letter E four poems in the Book of Taliessin, which belong to a later period; one of these, "the Kadeir Kerritwen," mentions the Books of Beda, and must have been written after his death; another mentions the line of Anaraut, who died in 913; and the other two contain illusions to the name of Hu, who belongs to a later school. One poem in the Black Book attributed to Gwyddneu is also included in this group. And under letter F are placed five poems, two relating to cities of the Cymry, either real or symbolical, and three relating to the legendary heroes generally, and consisting of the Triads of the Heroes in the Black Book of Caermarthen, the Song of the Horses in the Book of Taliessin, and the Graves of the Warriors in the former book.

The second division comprises the poems more strictly. historical, and alluding to events subsequent to 560. Under letter G are placed four poems attributed to Llywarch Hen, in which the war between

p. 249

his son Mechyd and Mwg Mawr Drefydd is referred to. Under letter H are three poems relating to Gwallawg ap Lleenawg, one of the four kings recorded to have fought against Hussa, who reigned from 567 to 574. Under letter I are nine poems relating to Urien, another of the four kings, concluding with his Death-song. And under letter J are three poems relating to his son Owen, one of the sons who was recorded to have fought with their father Urien against Theodric, who reigned from 580 to 587, and concluding with the Death-song of Owen.

Under letter K is the first poem in the Book of Caermarthen, which relates to the battle of Ardderyd, fought in 573, and the Avallenau, which is placed appropriately after it. Under letter L are the poems relating to the Gododin and the battle of Catraeth. Under letter M are three poems relating directly to Cadwallawn, and concluding with his Death-song; and under letter N the two poems termed Arymes, or the Omen, and another prophetic poem relating to Cadwaladyr. Under letter O are two poems relating to events in Powys--one from the Book of Taliessin, and the other from the Red Book of Hergest. Under letter P the Cyvoesi is first placed, which, as we have seen, ranges in its composition from the time of Cadwaladyr in the seventh to that of Robert, Earl of Gloucester, in the twelfth centuries; and after it are placed six poems, which I conceive to have emerged from South Wales. And this concludes the group of poems which I denominate historical.

p. 250

The "Miscellaneous poems" consist first of those in the Black Book of Caermarthen, and are placed in three groups. Under letter Q are placed five poems attributed to other bards--Meigant, Cuhelyn, and Elaeth. Under letter R ten anonymous poems on religious subjects; and under letter S two poems, which seem connected, and the first of which is the curious poem relating to Yscolan.

There is only one poem in the Book of Aneurin, the Gorchan Adebon, which is not historical. It is placed under letter T.

The "Miscellaneous poems" from the Book of Taliessin are placed under three groups. Under letter U are twelve poems, containing allusions to the personal history of Taliessin, or expressing his opinions on philosophy or religion. Under letter V four poems, containing allusions to the history of the Israelites. Under letter W two poems, relating to the legends connected with Alexander the Great.

The "Miscellaneous poems" from the Red Book of Hergest consist of three groups--one, under letter X, of seven poems attributed to Llywarch Hen, which are not historical; under letter Y, of two poems, beginning Eiry Mynyd, one of which is called the Colloquy of Llywelyn and Gwrnerth; and under letter Z, of two other anonymous poems, the last of which is termed the Viaticum of Llevoed Wynebglawr.

Next: I. The Reconciliation of Llud the Less. Book of Taliessin LIV.