LOUISE DENNIS examines what might be one of the oldest Arthurian legends...
My first introduction to the tale of Culhwch and Olwen was at the Hilary storytelling in 1990. Rhiannon Davies - a stalwart of the Oxford Arthurian Society, who went on to form the Cardiff Arthurian Society - related that part of the tale which deals with the finding of Mabon son of Modron. It has stuck in my mind. Culhwch is a story meant to be told aloud and Rhiannon was a good storyteller.
Culhwch is part of the collection of Welsh tales known as The Mabinogion. It contains eleven tales in all, of which about half involve King Arthur. The earliest known manuscript of The Mabinogion, `The White Book of Rhydderch', dates to 1325. It is believed that this is by no means the earliest manuscript of the stories to have been made and that the stories themselves probably existed long before they were ever written down. It does mean, however, that the stories should be approached with some caution before proclaiming them as `the earliest and original Arthurian legends' or even as examples of Welsh aural storytelling. While the origins of the tales almost certainly lie in Dark Age Wales, their repeated transmission, first from mouth to mouth, and later from manuscript to manuscript, has undeniably garbled them in places. It is possible that later writers may have imposed their own ideas of what a Welsh legend should be like on to their versions. That said, the tales of the Mabinogion remain an important piece of work because so little early Welsh literature survives. From an Arthurian perspective, it is certainly not impossible that these tales are descended from the earliest Arthurian legends.
Three of the Arthurian tales in the Mabinogion - Gereint and Enid, Owein or the Countess of the Fountain, and Peredur son of Evrawg - are clearly related to three romances by the French writer Chretien de Troyes. These are Erec and Enide, Yvain or the Knight of the Lion, and Perceval or the Story of the Grail. It would be nice to be able to claim that the Welsh versions clearly pre-date and influence the French versions since that corresponds strongly to theories concerning the spread of the Arthurian legends. Unfortunately, this is not obviously the case. In fact, there are even arguments that the French influenced the Welsh versions of these tales, and that Gereint, Owein and Peredur came over to Wales from France rather than vice versa. Certainly, by the time of 'The White Book of Rhydderch', Chretien's telling had been in existence for over a century. Culhwch, though, is not used by Chretien, nor does it appear in Geoffrey of Monmouth where some of the stories related in the Mabinogion seem to have had an influence. Thus in several ways it stands alone.
The story tells of Culhwch, the son of the ruler of Kelyddon. His stepmother prophesies that he must marry Olwen, daughter of the chief giant Ysbaddaden. Culhwch is King Arthur's cousin, so he travels to Arthur's court to claim his aid, during the course of which he invokes eight pages worth (in my edition) of the warriors and ladies of King Arthur's court!! Arthur agrees to grant any boon to Culhwch
"excepting only my ship, my mantle, my sword Caledvwlch, my spear Rhongomynyad, my shield Wynebgwrthucher, my knife Carnwennan and my wife Gwenhwyfar."
which shows considerably more sense than your average fairytale king, or even some of the heroes of the other tales in the Mabinogion.
Culhwch then goes in search of Olwen and Ysbaddaden with six of Arthur's warriors.
Kei rose then. He had this talent: nine days and nine nights his breath would last underwater, and nine days and nine nights he could go without sleep. No doctor could cure the wound from Kei's sword. He could be as tall as the tallest tree in the forest when he pleased, while when the rain was heaviest a hand's span about what was in his hand would be dry by reason of the heat he generated, and when his companions were coldest that would be kindling for the lighting of a fire.
Arthur also summoned Bedwyr, who never avoided any errand on which Kei went. No one in the island was as handsome as Bedwyr, save only Arthur and Drych son of Kibddar, and though he was one-handed no three warriors on the same field could draw blood faster than he; moreover he would make one thrust with his spear and nine counter-thrusts. Arthur called upon Kynddylig the Guide, saying, "Accompany the chieftain on this errand," for Kynddilig was no worse guide in a country he had never seen than in his own; he summoned Gwrhyr Interpreter of Languages, who knew every tongue, and Gwalchmai son of Gwyar, since the latter never returned without fulfilling his errand, and was moreover the best walker and rider, and was Arthur's nephew, his sister's son and his first cousin as well. Finally Arthur summoned Menw son of Teirwaedd, for if they came to a pagan land Menw could cast a spell through which they could see everyone and no one could see them.
They meet up with Ysbaddaden who sets them a long list of apparently impossible tasks to accomplish on the grounds that he must die when Olwen is married. The rest of the story deals with the accomplishment of some, though by no means all, of these tasks by Arthur's warriors. Foremost among these are the rescue of the aforementioned Mabon son of Modron by Kei and Gwrhyr and the hunting of Twrch Trwyth son of the ruler of Taredd who, it appears, has been turned into a bear. Twrch Trwyth in fact kills many of Arthur's men and lays waste a great deal of land while they try to capture the comb, razor and shears that lie between his ears. Once this is done Twrch Trwyth is driven into the sea off the Cornish coast and is never seen again. They then return to Ysbaddaden and with surprisingly little difficulty drag him off by the hair to a dunghill where his head is cut off and set on a stake.
There are several 'Celtic' themes in this story. For instance, the central idea that Ysbaddaden must die when his daughter marries. This presumably evolves from notions of a new ruler taking the place of and killing the old, even though, in the story, it is not Culhwch who kills Ysbaddaden. Then again, this story is hardly unique to Welsh legend. The importance of kinship is very prevalent. Arthur goes to considerable lengths and loses many warriors while helping Culhwch. Ceridwen Lloyd Morgan has argued in talks to the Society that kinship, and its duties and responsibilities, is the central theme in Peredur, culminating in Peredur taking revenge upon the hags of Gloucester for killing his cousin and laming his uncle. This highlights the probable importance of theories of kinship in Celtic society.
Most people in the Arthurian Society will be familiar with the Arthurian custom at Pentecost not to embark upon the banquet until some miracle had occurred. This is not mentioned in Culhwch, but another custom is mentioned both in reference to Arthur's court and the court of Wrnach the Giant.
"Knife has gone into meat, drink into horn, and there is a great throng in Wrnach's hall. Except for a craftsman who brings his craft, the gate will not be opened."
Unlike most Arthurian romances Culhwch is not principally about the exploits of one or maybe two knights. The exploits are shared by many heroes, with Culhwch playing quite a minor role. One of these heroes is Kei. The joke figure of later Arthurian legend, Sir Kay the Seneschal, is here the chief hero of Arthur's court. However, half way through Culhwch Arthur makes up a disparaging verse about him and Kei goes off in a huff.
Kei would have nothing to do with Arthur from then on, not when the latter was wanting in strength or when his men were being killed.
Mediaeval authors tend to ascribe some of the disaster that was Camlann to Lancelot's absence from the battle. Perhaps the teller of Culhwch is thinking along similar lines.
One feature of Culhwch that is worth mentioning is that King Arthur does get to do the odd deed, which would become something of a rarity in later romances. In fact it is Arthur who completes the tasks, striking down the Black Hag, daughter of the White Hag, from the headland of the Valley of Distress in the Highlands of Hell.
It is surprising how few of the Welsh characters survive into the mediaeval romances. Arthur, Kei and Gwenhwyfar continue, obviously, and the protagonists of the other three romances, Gereint, Owein and Peredur. Arthur's nephew and foster-son, Medrawd, is mentioned in The Dream of Rhonabwy, which concerns Camlann. Bedwyr is probably a forerunner of Bedivere, though some modern authors identify him with Lancelot. Gwalchmai probably became Gawain. Gwrhyr, so useful in talking to the various animals in Culhwch vanishes, seemingly without a trace.
Culhwch and Olwen can't honestly be said to have had much influence on later Arthurian works either in terms of characters or incidents. The Welsh stories, in general, stand to one side of the main thrust of mediaeval Arthurian literature, but they are definitely worth reading, aloud if possible! They have had bearings on the work of later writers. The nationalist Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, for example, has written The Ancients of the World which I feel conveys much of the feeling of these legends, as well as featuring several of the animals that appear in Culhwch. It's not really the place of Ceridwen's Cauldron to reprint in their entirety the works of modern published authors, but I would recommend that you have a look at it.
All quotations are from the Penguin Classics edition of The Mabinogion translated by Jeffrey Gantz