Dreams and Visions

Gwyddbwyll
Arthur and Owain play at Gwyddbwyll

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of The Kings of Britain , Brutus has a vision of Britain as the land he is destined to inhabit. After leaving Troy he visits a temple of Diana to ask for guidance:

Powerful Goddess, terror of the chase
And of the woodlands wild, you who journey
Wide over land and sky and down into the depths
Of the nether regions below the earth.
Look upon us here and declare our fate,
Tell us where we are destined to dwell,
Where we shall build  temples for your praise
And maidens will chant for you to the end of days.

He repeated these words nine times, then he walked four times around the altar, pouring wine into the fire, after which he laid himself down upon a hind’s skin, spread before the altar, and he slept. At some time during the night, when his sleep was deepest, the goddess appeared to present herself before him, and foretold his future as follows:

Brutus, there lies beyond the lands of Gaul
An island washed by the western seas,
Once giants lived there, but now the ways
Through the land are open to you and free.
Set sail for that place and raise a second Troy
Fate decrees that you and your descendants
Will found a line of kings that will prosper there,
Whose fame will endure and extend across the earth.

As well as featuring the use of dream to consult the goddess, the episode specifies that the sleep that brings about the dream is taken on an animal skin. There are other examples of sleeping on such skins to gain visions or give prophecies in the Irish tradition. It is also a feature of the Welsh tale The Dream of Rhonabwy from the manuscripts in The Red Book of Hergest and usually included with other medieval Welsh tales in the collection known as The Mabinogion. The tale is set very specifically in Powys in the 12th century in the time of the historical King of Powys Madog ap Maredydd. Rhonabwy sleeps on a heifer skin on a raised platform to avoid the flea-ridden sleeping place assigned to him and his companions. His sleep takes him back to the world of Arthur and there are a number of apparent borrowings from the tale Culhwch and Olwen. Unlike those who seek visionary experiences by sleeping on an animal skin, Rhonabwy’s dream visions seem to be an unintentional consequence of doing so. Dreams are often used in medieval literature as a device for moving the narrative to another place or time. But things generally then proceed as if a realistic story were being narrated. Rhonabwy’s dream, however, is unusual in the surreal quality of actual dream experience. Time seems to be running in reverse and although various events seem about to happen, nothing actually does, except via the game of gwyddbwyll – a board game like chess – that Arthur plays with Owain. Rhonabwy finds it difficult to understand the significance of what is going on, so this has to be explained to him by Iddawg who acts as his guide. Arthur asks Iddawg who he has with him and when he is told he is incredulous that such insignificant beings now defend the Island of Britain. This seems to reflect the view of heroes like Arthur as being of greater stature and bearing than ordinary mortals. Such things are specifically said of the heroes in The Iliad and other texts of the ancient world, many of whom are of mixed human and divine descent.

But The Dream of Rhonabwy does not otherwise give us an heroic view of Arthur, seeming for the most part to undermine such a view. Not only does it begin with a grim account of the miserable sleeping arrangements in the house where the dream occurs (the floor is wet with cow piss and strewn not with dry rushes or bracken, but with incongruous holly twigs), but the world he escapes to in the dream is puzzling and arbitrary in spite of the grandeur of its setting. No significance can be attributed or message brought back from this world. Arthur seems to be a petulant and ineffective figure, though Rhonabwy is warned that to suggest this out loud would lead to his death. When Rhonabwy awakes he is told that he has slept for three days and nights. It is as if he has no control over the visions gained from sleeping on the animal skin. He is not a professional seer or awenydd seeking prophecy or a devotee intentionally seeking guidance from a deity. He wanders into this world unawares and appears to be lost in it.

The tale seems to be a parody of the usual Arthurian romance genre. All the literal conventions of the genre are inverted. Nor does it have the folkloric qualities of tales such as Culhwch and Olwen based on traditional oral elements. An afterword added to the manuscript says that no-one can know the dream “ .. neither bard nor story-teller, without a book”. So it could be simply the account of a dream, without allegory or any other message or elements of traditional lore. But if so it is more or less unique in medieval literature. Certainly the characters in the dream are drawn from traditional stories , and the agency of sleeping on the animal skin is well established. But the dream itself tells no particular story. The time span of three days and nights, set against his experience of one night’s sleep, might suggest that Rhonabwy has been in the Otherworld. But he is unable to interpret the significance of what he sees there. For him it was a just a dream of a world that had long since passed into legend. Just as certain interpretative tools are required to ‘read’ a dream, so too the experiences gained from visits to otherworlds may require to be read properly, because, as the afterword to the tale continues, “of the many colours that were on the horses, and their remarkable variety, both on the arms and on their trappings, on the precious mantles and the magical stones”.  Splendours of this sort are sometimes seen as illusions of mundane objects in the ordinary world as in those stories where someone is put into a comfortable bed with silken sheets in the faërie realm and wakes on a bed of damp moss on a cold moor. Equally they may be regarded as parallel correlates in the two worlds. How such experiences are ‘read’ depends on who is reading them.

Finally, it is worth noting that this tale has been seen as a closure of the traditional heroic view of Arthur. Here he brings the board game with Owain to a close by petulantly crushing the pieces. Though Rhonabwy fails to find any significance in what he witnesses, the author of the “book” , without which we are told no sense can be made of the dream, may be announcing the end of the tradition from which the subject matter of the tale has been drawn. Certainly it provides no clear interpretive key to the events in the tale otherwise. As, for better or for worse, the heroic ages pass into history and legend, those who venture on the spirit paths must seek a different focus for their visions, other ways of engaging with the numinous world that may be encountered by sleeping on an animal skin or other ways of opening the portals of vision.

2 thoughts on “Dreams and Visions

  1. I find it really difficult to understand too. I’ve never picked up on time moving backward before. Those ideas you pick up on – the loss of the sacred, the end of the heroic age, and of the sense and meaning of the ox-hide, the colours and trappings, are all very haunting. It’s quite disorientating. Almost post-modern.

What do you think?