Victorian print showing the
Remains of the memorial to Eliseg King of Powys,
dating from the Ninth Century
The sequences of early Welsh poems recording the laments of Heledd date from the Ninth Century, though they record the aftermath of an attack on eastern Powys in the Seventh Century. They are distinctive among the poetry of the time in that many of them do not record heroic values so much as feelings of woe at a time of constant war and unrest. This is particularly the case with the ‘Dref Wen’ sequence. It is a distinctive feature of these poems that each line begins with a repeated refrain to introduce the stanza. So a phrase such as ‘Stafell Gynddylan …’ (Cynddylan’s Hall) or ‘Eryr Eli …” (Eagle of Eli) will begin the first line of each stanza, producing an emphatic pattern of repetition. The ‘Dref Wen’ sequence directs the attention of listeners to the place of that name, often translated literally as ‘The White Town’. There is some uncertainty about where this place may be, except that ‘Trenn’ , thought to be the River Tern in Shropshire, is named and that the sequence is associated with the ‘Stafell Gynddylan’ sequence located in the general vicinity of Shrewsbury. It is said to be ‘between ‘Trenn and Trafal’ and also between ‘Trenn and Trodwyd’. But these places cannot be identified satisfactorily. It may not be a town at all, as the word ‘tref’, though its modern meaning is ‘town’, could apply to any settlement in early Welsh. In the translations which follow I have preferred to translate it as ‘homestead’ as this seems to make more sense in context and it is clearly used in this way in the ‘Stafell Gynddylan’ stanzas. Similarly, ‘Wen’ (white) also has a range of meanings from ‘fair’ to ‘blessed’, so there is no need to think of a place that is white in colour. The sequence is almost tender in evoking the sense of place and serves as a reminder, if we should need one, of the deprivations caused by constant conflict and a counterpoint to those more common poems which praise the bravery and ferocity of the warriors even when lamenting their deaths.
The Fair Homestead, nestled in woodland –
It is as it always was:
Blood smeared on the land.
The Fair Homestead in the landscape –
Again at the green memorial:
Blood smeared underfoot.
The Fair Homestead in the valley –
Always joyful the prey-bird in battle’s mess
Among the people lying dead.
The Fair Homestead between Tern and Trodwyd –
More likely a broken shield after battle
Than an ox should shelter from the sun.
The Fair Homestead between Tern and Trafal –
More likely blood on the grass
Than the ploughing of land left fallow.
There was a tradition in medieval Wales that Y Mab Darogan (‘The Prophesied Son’) would return to restore the Island of Britain to the Brythons. Various legendary and historical characters were identified with this figure, from Arthur to Henry Tudor. Many bards continuing the tradition of Taliesin and Myrddin wrote verses predicting this outcome, the last of which, in the 15th century, was Dafydd Llwyd ap Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. He predicted the revival of Welsh fortunes and the defeat of the English. Legend has it that Henry Tudor stayed with him at Mathafarn in 1485 on his way across Wales to Bosworth in England where he defeated Richard III and so became Henry VII of England. Dafydd Llwyd died not long afterwards thinking that his prophecy had been fulfilled. History proves him both right and wrong. Henry’s first son was called Arthur and the augurs looked good(*). Dafydd Llwyd wrote a prophetic poem welcoming the prince and predicting a glorious life for him. The ‘Mab Darogan’ had arrived and was appropriately named. But Arthur died before becoming king and his younger brother, as Henry VIII, officially joined Wales to England in the Act of Union in 1536. The prophecy, in its fulfilment, transformed itself, as prophecies are apt to do. Wales had to conjure a new future for itself out of its Brythonic past.
On a stll day in Midwinter several years ago I skirted the grounds of Mathafarn. The main house was rebuilt in the eighteenth century but the estate is still intact from his time. It is said that some of the barns and other outbuildings still remain from the original house. But they were hidden from view as we climbed up from the valley of the River Dyfi to the forested hills above. The sun remained low, not far above the trees even at Midday, but the day was bright and cold as high pressure kept the air still and the temperature low. Clearing the conifers of the Dyfi Forest for a while, the open hillside has scattered trees with bare branches to contrast with the drab green of the Douglas Firs and Sitka Spruce of the forestry plantation. Here the twiggy outlines merged to a reddish mist on a distant hillside. In the far distance the distinctive ridge of Cadair Idris dominated the horizon. Such clear, cold weather in December, with the sunlight angled low, gives a particular quality to the light and the perception of colour. Everything seems so pellucid, as if the bright but subdued light is shining through the components of the landscape rather than reflecting off them.
It was easy to imagine the visionary prophet of Mathafarn inhabiting this day with us. Back amongst the enclosed conifer forest the suffused light is more densely poured over – and absorbed by – the green branches. The path winds down steeply through the trees and meets a forest road. Ditches and puddles glistened half way between a frozen and a liquid state. The Sun was behind the hills and the light started to fade. Separate objects began to cohere. We passed a ramshackle farm as we descend further to the valley floor and left the forest behind. A dog barked. Light ebbed away as we passed Mathafarn. It is lost in the dim past. Did Henry Tudor stay there?
An unlikely scrap of verse ascribed to Dafydd suggests he sent him on his way with a blessing:
Harri fu, Harri a fo
Harri sydd, hiroes iddo!
(Henry who was, Henry who will be / Henry who is, long life to him)
But all is now dark.
(*) An astrological chart for Arthur’s birth is given by Mark Williams in Fiery Shapes – Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700-1700 (Oxford, 2010).
This post is developed from a post on my Hills Chronicle blog in 2009 when one of my learned followers appreciated the ‘rare and lovely use of the present subjunctive of the verb bod as a future’ in Dafydd Llwyd’s verse. Quite so.
The most interesting use of Brythonic legendary history for modern fictional purposes is, I think, contained in the later novels of John Cowper Powys. This is done on a grand scale in Porius where the conversations of Taliesin and Myrddin Wyllt are incorporated into a narrative which portrays post-Roman Britain as something of a melting pot of different races and cultures including aboriginal giants. He had drawn upon similar material in his novel Owen Glendower which is a rather more accessibleand and tightly organised work plotted around the historical events of Owain Glyndŵr’s uprising in the 14th century, but no less fictionalised in terms of the personalities of the characters and far from being an ‘historical novel’ in the way the term is often understood. In that novel the aboriginal Brythons are represented by Broch o Meifod in his court at Mathrafal, itself magnifenctly presented as a last bastion of a disappearing world. Broch makes an alliance with Glyndŵr, an alliance between the remnant of the Brythons and the representative of the inheritors of that earlier melting pot who had added to it by inter-marrying with the Norman aristocracy.
In the introduction to Porius, John Cowper Powys had drawn parallels between the 6th and the 20th centuries. He comments that “As the old gods were departing then, so the old gods are departing now”. If, by the time of Owain Glyndŵr, we might think those gods would therefore be in full retreat, they nevertheless haunt the pages of that book too. Owain himself achieves legendary status before disappearing from his Principality of Wales to become a Prince of the Otherworld.
For Powys such material is always evoked as much to portray a personal quest as to illustrate historical, legendary or mythological events. But in the best passages of his works these things come together. At the end of the novel, Owain is cremated by Broch o Meifod and his son Meredith is taking his father’s remains for burial. Here are some edited extracts from the last pages:
“Absolutely motionless – with its head lifted as it sniffed the dawn air – there stood before him on an isolated rock a magnificently-horned stag. …..”
“And now, as the sight of those majestic horns against the dawn brought back memory upon memory, he felt that each one of these images was much more than an owl’s cry, a buzzard’s vigil, a salmon’s leap, a mountain summit above the mist. What were they, what did they have in them, that they could bring such comfort? ……”
“But there came over him now a vision of Arthur’s ship Prydwen sailing between Hell and Heaven, and yet motionless in the depths of a single soul, its great dragon wings reflected in fathomless water….”
“‘What’s that sad-faced man smiling for?’ Cried the oldest winged creature in Edeyrnion the croaking raven of Llangar, to his aged mate, as they swooped down over Meredith’s quickened steps.
‘Nis gwn! I don’t know! Nis gwn!’
croaked the other, and as the pair rose on their heavy-flapping wings and sailed away eastwards, mounting up in huge spiral circles higher and higher as they followed the river’s flow, it seemed to the man watching them as if there were something in that vast broken landscape that echoed that hollow answer in his ears as long as he could remember.”
“But the great birds soared on, heedless of the echoes; soared on till to Meredith’s vision they were dots and specks in the remote distance. He knew not where they were flying. But in his thoughts they were flying over the rocky crest of the Berwyns; they were flying over the fallen roof-tree of Sycharth; they were flying towards the mounded turf and the scattered stones that were all that was left of Mathrafal.”
And so it seems that the old world passes away. But of course, as pervasive as the myth of departing is, it never does. Those old gods, as W P Ker once remarked, even in defeat, “think that defeat no refutation”.
This is edited version of a post that originally appeared on my Gorsedd Arberth (now legacy) blog in 2011.
Following response on the background to the previous Canu Heledd post about verses from a lost saga, here’s a broad sketch of what is known, and not known, about the historical context to the events related in the saga verses. After the Romans left Britain, Viroconium, the town they established in the territory of the Cornovii, a few miles south of the town of Shrewsbury, continued to be occupied up to some time early in the sixth century. It’s thought that by this time the sort of warfare being fought made a different sort of defensible site necessary and a new centre was established at Pengwern. There has been some confusion about where Pengwern was. In the twelfth century Gerald of Wales confidently asserted that it was Shrewsbury, but modern commentators generally doubt this. It may have been located on the hill fort known as ‘Berth’ near Baschurch in the marshy area to the north of Shrewsbury or at Dinlleu Vreconnon on the high ground of the Wrekin overlooking Viroconium.
It’s quite possible that the verses recording the destruction of Pengwern have survived because they formed a framework, as sort of memory aid, for the story-teller who would weave the story around them and that the saga itself may never have been written down. These verses are, anyway, not from the seventh century when the incidents they record happened, but two centuries later. It’s not uncommon that Brythonic written material is a lot later than the events described. They liked to remember their ancestors and tell stories about them – and they had very long memories!
In addition to the laments for Cynddylan and for Pengwern itself, these verses also include an address to the eagles that feed on the battlefield. From the fairly precise description they seem to be sea eagles. There are two of them The Eagle of Eli (possibly a river name) and the Eagle of Pengwern (are they, perhaps, some sort of battle spirits?):
The Eagle of Eli, I hear him tonight, bloodstained he is ……
Eagle of Pengwern, grey-crested, tonight his call is a loud screech …
Eagle of Pengwern, grey-crested tonight, his talon is lifted …
The history behind these stories is difficult to unravel as detailed evidence from the seventh century is sketchy, but we know that there had been an alliance between Powys under Cadwallon and Penda of Mercia against the Northumbrians. So it’s a lot more complex than the old ‘celt against saxon’ story suggests. Penda has been described as ‘the last of the great northern pagans’. Was this an issue at the time? Cadwallon was killed in 633 or 634 and the historian John Davies has suggested that the following year “denotes the extinction of the possibility of restoring Brythonic supremacy in Britain”.(*) But the alliance between Powys and Mercia continued and they defeated and killed Oswald of Northumbria at a battle near Oswestry (not far from Pengwern) in 642. The events recorded in the Canu Heledd verses apparently happened some years later following the death of Penda when a raiding party from Northumbria attacked Pengwern and killed all its defenders.
Was Cynddylan a king of Powys? And what was Powys at this time? Borders fluctuated and it seems that part of Powys became merged with Mercia for a while before being regained some time later. During the eighth century Mercia became a great power in central England and Offa of Mercia built the famous dyke separating England from what was becoming Wales. By the 9th century it possible that Powys as an identified area, had ceased to exist, although the Kingdom of Powys did become a powerful and distinct unit again in the 11th and 12th centuries. T.C. Charles-Edwards asserts that it is unlikely that anyone in the re-shaped 11th century Powys had any idea of the actual boundaries of the area in 850. He suggests that the earlier Powys might have formed as the ‘Pagenses’ (rural hinterland) of the urban centre based on Viroconium of the Cornovii, and then referred “primarily to the people rather than to a kingdom”. (**) John Koch elaborates this point, suggesting that there is some question as to whether places such as Pengwern, Eglwysseu Bassa, and Dinlleu Vreconn are names which have come down from earlier Brythonic habitation of the area, but are perhaps “a later Brythonicizing of an already English countryside, in effect a creative fiction”. (***) Alternatively he suggests that Cynddylan may have been a chieftain who ruled a linguistically mixed country in the 7th century which included Anglo-Saxons.
The question of Cynddylan’s status is confused because there appears to be an alternative lineage – the Cadellings – as rulers of Powys, and the verses of Cynddylan’s elegy regard the Cadellings as enemies. By the time of the 9th century Historia Brittonum it seems that only the Cadellings were remembered and the line of Cynddylan from Cyndrwyn was lost. History, creative history, remembrance, saga, poetry .. . , they all went into the ethos of the re-shaping of the Kingdom of Powys in the 11th century as a powerful political unit in medieval Wales. But what were the 9th century poets and story-tellers remembering of what went on the 7th century? Clearly the Cornovii as a distinct tribe did not survive the abandonment of their centre at Viroconium and the scattered people very likely occupied territories with shifting boundaries as alliances we’re formed and abandoned as the peoples of post-Roman Britain found their new identities. As the Normans took over England, Powys became strong again for a while within Wales, then being subsumed into Gwynedd before that fell to the Normans with the death of Llywelyn in 1282.
(*) John Davies History of Wales (1994)
(**) T.C. Charles-Edwards Wales and the Britons 350-1064 (2013)
(***) John Koch (ed) Historical Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture (2005)
Stauell Gyndylan ys tywyll heno,
Heb dan, heb wely.
Wylaf wers; tawaf wedy.
Cynddylan’s Hall is dark tonight,
Without fire, without bed.
I weep a while; then I am silent.
This stanza is from the Canu Heledd sequence associated with lost sagas telling of the destruction of Pengwern in the area of Powys which then extended into parts of what are now the English counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire. Heledd was Cynddylan’s sister and the verses she ostensibly speaks lament the loss of these lands and of her brother. The run of stanzas beginning with the words ‘Stauell Gyndylan …’ have been translated often, perhaps because they are the most poignant and accessible to modern sensibilities, but also, I think, because they are relatively easy to render into English. By contrast, the run of stanzas spoken by Heledd as a lament for her brother are less frequently translated, I think not only because the praise of his military virtues is less accessible today but also because their structure makes it more difficult to render them into verse that works in modern English. Here is one stanza from this sequence:
Kyndylan gulhwch gynnifiat llew
Bleid dilin disgynnyat.
Nyt atuer twrch tref y dat.
Unlike the Cynddylan’s Hall stanza which which starts with a subject->verb->object structure followed by qualifiers, the sentence in the first two lines here is basically a string of nouns with a single verb. Rendered literally word for word into English these two lines read:
Cynddylan boar[-like?] warrior lion
Wolf following attacker.
Unpacking this into fluent verse is less easy. The third line is only a little less difficult:
Not restore boar place [of] the father.
This could be a general statement that a boar does not return to its place of origin but in context it seems to mean that Cynddylan will never again return to hall he inherited from his father. Calling Cynddylan ‘boar’ is consistent with the animal imagery used to describe him elsewhere in the sequence. So the whole stanza conveys the idea that Cynddylan has the qualities of a boar, a lion and a wolf in pursuing his attacker, but that this did not save him. Is there more?
The word ‘gulhwch’ is suggestive. It looks like the mutated form of the name Culhwch, and it has been suggested that this is deliberate. ‘Hwch’ means pig and Cynddylan has already been described as ‘gwythhwch’ (‘wild pig’, and so ‘boar’) as well as other animals to suggest his ferocity, as was usual for descriptions of warriors at this time. But ‘culhwch’ is more difficult to interpret. The character in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen may take his name from being born in a sty or narrow pig run (‘cul’ means ‘narrow’, though in relation to meat it can mean ‘lean’). Mythological origins of Culhwch as a pig deity have been suggested, though for the purposes of the only tale we have about him he is a typical folklore hero figure who goes on a quest and with Arthur’s help wins the hand of a giant’s daughter. Were there other tales about him which are obliquely referenced in the use of his name in this poem, or should we take the word here as just another synonym for ‘boar’?
That seems the sensible course, but as he is called boar (‘twrch’) in line three of the stanza we might wonder why it has to be repeated. One answer is that the requirements of metre and verbal patterning would have been as much an issue for the poet as the story being told. But then so were the techniques of gnomic reference by which proverbial wisdom or moral maxims could be obliquely included. It could be that there is something about Culhwch that we do not know that is fleetingly included here, lying beneath the surface meaning of ‘boar’. There is also the further possibility of scribal emendation. One suggestion here is that the original word was ‘culwyd’ (‘lord’) which was either accidentally or deliberately changed by the copyist of the manuscript we have.(*) Rejecting this, another commentator thinks it is best seen simply as part of a dense array of animal attributes heaped upon Cynddylan in these verses.(**)
Whatever view we come to in reading this poem, it is clear that translation into an equally concise and multi-referenced English version looks like a vain hope. So let us return to the ‘Cynddylan’s Hall …’ sequence. I have already given the first stanza. Here is the last:
Stauell Gyndylan a’m erwan pob awr
Gwedy mawr ymgyuyrdan
A welais ar dy benntan.
Cynddylan’s Hall I’m rent with rememberance
Of meetings of minds
I beheld on your hearthstone.
(*) Suggested by Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans in their edition of Culhwch ac Olwen (Cardiff, 1997)
(**) Jenny Rowlands in the notes to her Selection of Early Welsh Saga Poems (MHRA. 2014).
I have used this edition as the source of the Welsh texts from which I have translated.
In one of the poems from the early Welsh sagas, Llywarch says to his son Gwên (Gwyn):
Neut atwen ar vy awen
Yn hanvot o un achen
I recognise by my awen
That we spring from one bloodline
The use of awen here is unusual in that it seems to mean something closer to ‘intuiton’ than the usual ‘poetic inspiration’. Although Llywarch may have written the verses in which this conversation occurs, and so his divination could be said to be related to poetic inspiration, this doesn’t appear to be the primary meaning here. There are very few other instances in early Welsh poetry where awen is used to convey some inner quality of an individual, usually military genius, though these may be metaphorical usages by the poets who employ them. But if the common use of awen was to indicate some external power – the muse – with which an individual was, however briefly, possessed, the lines above might suggest that it could also be used for an inner quality which individuals may possess as part of their nature.
If so, each of us has an awen, an innate sense of how things are and what they might become, a facility to intuit and to shape those intuitions in an interaction with divine inspiration: possessing and being possessed by awen. This is to taste the drops from the Cauldron, or the flesh of the divine Salmon, or the sweet hazel nuts that have fallen into the Well of Wisdom. Then awen flows like a stream from the Source, lifts like a crane or a heron from Water to Air, blazes like Fire and settles once more to Earth as a divinely formed thing, an artefact shaped by awen.
So I affirm:
Inspired by awen I sing
From the deep wells of my being
Springing without and within
In Nature they are presences;
In Culture they have form.
So we may sense one – a trace of pheremone
along a river bank, or in a clump of trees,
some redolent place where a streamlet sinks
into sodden leaves – and wonder what has touched
a dormant nerve so that it awakens tentatively
and then retreats slowly back into the web
of neural pathways. Beyond sense.
Or we may match one to a name, a story
one can inhabit, a life that can be lived
vibrantly emerging from sense to sensibility
in our world where meanings are embodied
in aspiration, desire, relationship, things
that can be touched, but are in essence
beyond touch, too deep to be contained by us.
So we claim one, or more, for our tribe,
our land, our story of who or what we are,
and they live with us, finding a form
in the life we give them, growing into identities
or sliding between them as we shape their stories:
becoming familiar they dwell alongside us, companions
to our lives and yet strangers in the shadows of perception.
As we re-construct their past mystery
They are ever-present : never history.
A prose argument developed from this verse can be found on the DUNBRYTHON Blog.
Reflections after a reading of The Wooing of Étain :
Oengus Mac Óc taken from his mother
So his father would not know him
(as Mabon from Modron; Pryderi from Rhiannon)
To be fostered by Midir.
Étain Echraide – (of the horses)
Poured drink for the company;
This was a skill she had, to pour;
A Cup Bearer supreme among many.
It was then that Midir came for her.
Links in a chain of story – beyond time
for time has no part in its telling:
Images and incidents recurring, repeating
the fractured joins of narrative dissolving.
The gods, in their own way, speaking
to us : always now, never history.