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Chapter V
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Celtic Britain

by Nora K. Chadwick

published by Frederick A. Praeger
New York

The text and engravings are in the public domain.


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Chapter VII

 p99  Chapter VI


The intellectual life of a people is most clearly seen in their literature. The art of writing in the Latin alphabet had been introduced into Britain in Roman times, when the country became nominally Christian. We have seen that alongside the Roman alphabet there had been in use, in both Ireland and Britain, probably from the fourth century, an alphabet peculiar to these lands and of native Celtic origin, known as ogam.​1 Both these alphabets survived in Britain from the Roman period in stone inscriptions only. All our surviving examples, whether in the Latin alphabet, which are by far the most numerous, or in ogam, are brief funerary monuments. We have no examples of the use of the ogam alphabet for literary purposes.

Originally the literature of the Celtic peoples of Britain was oral, and there is a wide cultural and chronological gap between the original use of writing for brief inscriptions and perhaps other official purposes on the one hand, and its general use for what we commonly mean by literature on the other. Indeed the most important and the most interesting of the characteristics shared in common by all the Celtic peoples is the cultivation of oral literature. This art was ancient and was guarded and cultivated by a highly privileged class in every court. These repositories of the traditional oral literature had a long and honourable history, in direct descent from their ancestors in Gaul, where in early times they had been divided into several classes according to the specialised nature of their learning or their art.

Caesar speaks​2 of the professional class of the ancient Gauls as druids, to whom he ascribes judicial and priestly functions, and proficiency in natural philosophy and what relates to the  p100 gods. He reports them as responsible for the education of the young Gaulish nobility, and as carrying on this function during many years exclusively in oral poetry, though in almost all other matters they made use of the Greek alphabet in their public and private transactions. Caesar tells us further that the institution of the druids was believed to have originated in Britain, and that those who desired a fuller knowledge of the discipline still resorted to Britain to obtain it. Tacitus also tells us that the order flourished in Anglesey, and gives us a highly coloured picture of their reception of the Roman General Suetonius when he attacked the island.

In later times references to the druids in the British Isles are confined to Ireland, where they figure in the early sagas as possessed of supernatural powers, especially of prophecy, and where they hold a high position at the courts, in general one only residing in any court. A reference to the word druí occurs in the ancient Irish law-tracts of the eighth century or earlier, where the druid is seen shorn of his ancient high dignity, though still grudgingly granted a legal status.​3 Druids as such are not mentioned in connection with St Patrick before the Tripartite Life of the ninth century. Earlier sources speak of the saint's opponents simply as magi. Where British historical documents mention men of supernatural pretensions, such as Broichán, the magus of Brude mac Maelchon, referred to by Adamnán in his Life of Saint Columba, these are not to be interpreted as Druids, who constitute a specific class. Broichán is also referred to by Adamnán as the nutritor4 or 'fosterer' of Brude, and he also refers to Joseph as the nutritor of Jesus Christ; the word is also applied by Gildas (ch. 28) to the two 'guardians' of the princes of Dumnonia.

Strabo​a speaks of two other professional classes among the ancient Gauls, whom he calls vates and bardoi. The vates, like the druids, appear to have survived in ancient Ireland, under the term filid (sing. fili; lit. 'seers'), and to have combined the  p101 intellectual functions of both the druids and the vates of Gaul, being the professional class of oral traditional knowledge, which they transmitted in poetry. The ancient class of poets known in Gaul as bardoi were composers of panegyric songs, and are doubtless represented by the court bards of both Ireland and Wales. Indeed, in Britain the distinction between the early professional classes was no longer observed, and the term 'bard' is in general use in Welsh literature for all professional poets. It seems to have been usual in both Ireland and Britain for a single official bard to have been attached to each court, though we occasionally hear of bards visiting more than one court, and certain courts and princes acquired a reputation as special patrons of the bards. Taliesin addresses elegies to Urien of Rheged in the North, and to his son Owein, as well as to Cynan Garwyn in Powys in Wales, and to Gwallawg, ruler of the British kingdom of Elmet in Yorkshire. He seems to have sojourned at the courts of both Rheged and Powys, whether as a visiting bard, or as a more or less permanent court poet.

The court of Powys in eastern Wales was at all times a great centre of poetry, and here we find reference to Taliesin singing at the court of Cynan Garwyn, son of Brochfael Ysgythrog, who is probably the Brochfael present at the time of the attack by the Northumbrian king Aethelfrith at the Battle of Chester in 616. Indeed, one of the earliest bardic poem which has come down to us is believed to be the Trawsganu Kynan Garwyn mab Brochfael,​5 composed in an archaic form of Welsh, and among the small group of authentic contemporary poems of Taliesin addressed to this prince. In a later poem, Taliesin claims to have sung at the court of Powys to Cynan's father:

I sang in the meadows of the Severn

Before an illustrious lord,

Before Brochfael of Powys

Who loved my awen ('poetic inspiration').

 p102  The son of this Cynan Garwyn was the prince Selyf who lost his life in the battle of Chester (see above), and whose own court bard Arofan was remembered for many centuries thereafter as setting the standard of high perfection in his art.

In the early British courts, essentially heroic, individualistic and aristocratic, it is believed that the bard's most important function was that of custodian of the genealogies. In countries with no written laws, or charters, or wills, genealogies were the only guarantee of the right to a share in land, and of the right to inherit. The chiefs depended largely on the bards for their prestige and reputation. Where there were no newspapers or leading articles, all political and personal propaganda was in the hands of the court poets, and the closest personal tie existed between the poet and his patron. It is not surprising that traditions have come down to us of bards who have killed themselves on the death of their lord. We have seen, for example, that British poetical tradition represents the poet Myrddin as losing his wits after the death of his lord Gwenddoleu in the battle of Arthuret (cf. p64 above).

Almost all our early Welsh poetry is preserved in four medieval manuscripts dating from c. 1150‑1350. Religious poetry is also preserved in three of these manuscripts; but the majority of the poems are in the native Welsh tradition, though Christian allusions are common, as is natural in the poetry of a Christian people. The metres are native Welsh metres, but Latin influence is ultimately responsible for the stanzaic form, and the use of rhyme. The poems show great variety, in both form and subject. The most striking feature is that in Welsh, as in the earliest Irish poetry, narrative is wholly absent. Most of the poems are composed in form of panegyrics and elegies, and there is also a certain amount of occasional poetry, and poetry of celebration, whether of triumph or disaster. The mise-en‑scène, the events which form the subjects, and the persons taking part are indicated by allusion and reference. It is assumed  p103 that the audience is familiar with the background. The poems are, in fact, contemporary in form with the events.

The poetry of this early period relates to the sixth and seventh centuries, and is known as the poetry of the Cynfeirdd, the 'early bards'. Among the most interesting is the Eulogy of Cadwallon (son of Cadfan, see p71 above), perhaps by his court bard Afan feddig (B.B.C.S. VII.31). The majority are anonymous, but the names of four poets are recorded by Nennius in the Historia Brittonum (ch. 62). Immediately after his account of Ida and Outigern he has the following well-known passage:

Then Talhaern Tataguen ('Father of inspiration') gained renown in poetry, Neirin (less correctly but more usually called Aneirin) and Taliesin, and Bluchbard and Cian . . . gained renown together in British poetry.

An appreciable nucleus of the works attributed to Taliesin and Aneirin are believed to have been preserved. In the manuscript known as the Book of Taliesin, dating from c. 1275, Sir Ifor Williams has detected 'a hard core of twelve historical poems which deal with the sixth century'. Nine are in praise of Urien of Rheged and his son Owein; two in praise of Gwallawg (cf. p101 above) and one is addressed to Cynan Garwyn.

A unique manuscript, generally referred to as The Book of Aneirin, opens as follows:

This is the Gododdin, Aneirin sang it.

It is a small book written c. 1250 in two hands; but of the one hundred and three stanzas which it contains about one fifth are copies from a ninth-century original. These were therefore in existence in written form about four centuries earlier than our manuscript, and so must in fact have been recorded at the same time period as the earliest extant example of written Welsh poetry — the three stanzas in the so‑called Juvencus MS., dating from the first half of the ninth century.

 p104  The Gododdin is the most famous of all the Cycles of early North British poetry.​6 It is a corpus of poems, largely elegiac in tone, most of which relate to a disastrous expedition against the Saxons undertaken c. 600 by the war-band of Mynyddawg Mwynvawr, a chief of Manau Gododdin, and which record the defeat of the Cymry in a great battle fought at a place called Catraeth, generally identified with Catterick Bridge in Yorkshire. No account of the battle as a whole appears anywhere, but we learn much incidentally from allusions in the poems — to the fine horses and equipment which the British troops had received from their leader, to the high promises they made to him in return as the expedition was planned during the feasting of the previous season. The name of the English leader is not given. Indeed, none of the heroes has been identified though many are praised by name in exalted terms for their honourable fulfilment of their pledges, their courage and loyalty to the death. The three hundred British warriors were wiped out, but not, it is claimed, before they had taken heavy toll of the English. It is the high tragedy of a small band doomed from the start and with no thought for the issue.

In The Battle of Llwyfein Wood Taliesin celebrates a victory of Owein, son of Urien, over the English.

Great blustering Flamddwyn shouted

'Are my hostages coming? Are they ready?'

Owein, preparing for battle, replied,

'They have not come, they are not ready' . . .

Urein, lord of Erechwydd, shouted:

'Let us carry our spearshafts over the mountain

And lift our faces above the ridge,

And raise our lances over men's heads,

And attack Flamddwyn in the midst of his host,

And slay both him and his companions.'

 p105  And in Taliesin's Death-song (marwnad) to Owein:

It was nothing to Owein to slay Flamddwyn,

He might have done it in his sleep.

— A fine man in his gaudy harness

Who gave horses to his dependents . . .

The soul of Owein ap Urien,

May the Lord have mind to his need.​7

The poet expands nothing; he never reflects or allows for reflection — a series of brilliant brief statements, hyperbole against which criticism must remain silent, tragedy at a white heat, which carries the audience from one heroic image to another with never a moment's pause. It is rhetoric on the grand scale. Then, at the last, the inevitable static conventional motif — the solitary survivor who lives to tell the tale:

Of the company of friends that went with us, sad it is that there returned but one man.

A large proportion of the poetry of the Cynfeirdd relates to persons who lived in the sixth century, most of whom are Britons of southern Scotland and north-western England. The leading subjects are the struggle of the Britons of southern Scotland and north-western England against the encroaching Saxons, the feuds of the Britons with one another, and the prowess of individuals. The heroes of the poems lived in the period of British independence after the departure of the Romans, and before the establishment of the Saxon kingdoms. These poems constitute our earliest record of the British Heroic Age, our earliest native records of British history.

In general the earliest British poetical traditions may be grouped into two Cycles of subjects. The first concerns the battle of Arderydd (cf. p64 above). The story of the battle is nowhere fully related, but it is the subject of numerous allusions in poems and triads. A group of poems of this Cycle but of  p106 later date are concerned with Myrddin (later Welsh Merlin),​8 who was evidently a North British warrior closely attached to Gwenddoleu, perhaps as his court bard. We gather from these poems that he loses his wits, doubtless in the battle,​9 and afterwards wanders in the forest of Celyddon ('Caledonia') for many years. The poems in question are the Cyvoesi, the Ymddiddan ('Dialogue') of Myrddin and Taliesin, composed before 1100, and the Afallennau ('The Apple Trees'), all late. In addition to these more or less coherent Cycles, and poems attributed to well-known cynfeirdd, a number of speech poems have survived, largely in three-line stanzas, and often in the form of monologues and dialogues, which have reference to heroes well-known from other sources, e.g. Arthur, Gereint, Tristan, Taliesin, but which appear to be later than the period to which these heroes can be assigned.

Certain poems in the manuscript known as The Red Book of Hergest claim from their contents to be the work of Llywarch Hen, 'Llywarch the Old'.​10 He is not mentioned by Nennius among the poets of this period, but there can be little doubt that he is a historical person and a contemporary of Urien, though the poems which claim to be by him are believed to belong to a later date, probably about the middle of the ninth century. They are therefore probably to be regarded as 'poems in character', dramatic monologues and dialogues. As always in Welsh poetry, the story, the situation, is indicated by allusion, never by narrative; so the course of events has seem to be inferred by the listener — a convention which, we may be sure, assumes that the audience would be familiar with the background.

The poems attributed to Llywarch Hen are without titles in the MS., but from the nature of their contents they may be divided into three Cycles.​11 The first relates to Urien of Rheged and his sons and members of his court, Taliesin and Llywarch himself. The background of these poems is the disastrous encounters with the English, and the poet describes the death  p107 of Urien and the desolation of his court, now a heap of rubble; the hearth, once a blaze of logs heating the cauldrons, now green with weed and covered with bugloss and dock leaves. Hound and falcon have gone, and the whole scene, once bright with rush lights, gay with the shouts of warriors when Urien and Owein were alive, has become a floor where pigs are rooting and birds are pecking about.

After the death of Urien, his head was borne away by his cousin; perhaps to secure it from desecration by the enemy, perhaps simply in accordance with ancient Celtic custom. And one of the most moving of the Old Welsh poems is the Lament, or keen, purporting to be chanted by Llywarch Hen over the severed head. It is composed in three-line stanzas each beginning with a slight variation of the refrain 'A head I carry', followed by a phrase sharply contrasting Urien in life:

A head I carry, close to my side,

Head of Urien, generous leader of hosts,

And on his white breast, a black carrion crow.

A head I carry. . .

Alive he was a refuge for the old.

A head I carry. . .

Whose war-bands patrol led vast territories

The head of much sung Urien, whose fame is far-scattered.

The poem proceeds by repetition and crescendo, and by stifled contrasting phrases to its rhetorical conclusion:

A head I hold up which once sustained me . . .

My arm is numb, my body trembles,

My heart breaks;

This head I cherish, formerly cherished me.

In the second Cycle we leave Urien of Rheged and his northern wars and the desolation of his hall after the owners have perished, for a different milieu. These poems relate to  p108 Cynddylan, apparently a seventh-century ruler of Powys, whose home Pengwern, somewhere on the English Border, has been desolated, like that of Urien, by the English. Sir Ifor Williams has suggested that they formed the speech-poems of a lost saga, produced c. 850 in Powys, relating how the invading Angles and Saxons in their northward drive conquered Rheged, whence Llywarch, a solitary survivor, fled to Powys. Cynddylan's sister Heledd laments in a passionate keen the loss of Cynddylan and her other brothers, and bewails her solitary and wretched lot as she stands on the bare hill-top and looks down upon the smoking ruins of Shrewsbury, her former home.

Grey-headed eagle of Pengwern,

Tonight his claw hangs poised

Greedy for the flesh I loved.

The compression is startling:

Cynddylan's court is dark tonight,

No fire, no bed;

I weep awhile, then fall silent.

Cynddylan's court is dark tonight,

No fire, no songs —

Tears wear away my cheeks.

Cynddylan's court, it stabs me to see it,

No roof, no fire;

My lord-leader dead, myself alive.

And again:

Wandering Heledd am I called.

O God, to whom are given

The lands of my brothers and their steeds?

I look down from Wrekin Fort

On the land of Freuer.

Longing for the land of my brothers breaks my heart.

 p109  What we may call a third Cycle of poems purporting to be the work of Llywarch Hên are verses spoken partly in monologue by Llywarch himself, partly in dialogue with his son Gwen. In the latter, he urges the boy to give battle to the English invaders of Powys. There is also an elegy over the last of his twenty-four sons. Another poem is a pitiful lament on his own old age and inability to take part in the fight. While these poems are in the traditional style of the early poems described above, the milieu is different and seems to belong to a later age.

It is curious that Llywarch alone of the northern heroes has been transferred by the poet to the Welsh Border from his original milieu in the North. Yet his original connection with Urien is remembered by the horn which Urien is said to have given to Llywarch's son Gwen. Similarly the poet Taliesin, Urien's official bard, speaks of himself as singing to Brochfael, prince of Powys (cf. p101 above), and a saga was current about him in North Wales as early as the ninth century.​12 But these are only a few of the many transitions of the literature and traditions of the North to Wales, following on the annexation of the North British kingdoms by the Saxons, and the establishment of 'Merfyn Mawr from the north' in North Wales (cf. p72 above).

It is almost impossible for anyone who is not a native Welsh speaker, familiar with the strict Welsh metrical prosody,​13 to appreciate justly, still less to convey, the intellectual mastery of this tight-knit poetry, its concentrated brevity of phrase, its use of repetition and inversion and crescendo to achieve the climax of the final impact on the emotions which comes to us almost as a shock. This is, in fact, the effect at which the poet aims, for example, in the Lament for Urien of Rheged above, where the closing stanza achieves the finality of bereavement. To obtain his effect, the bard sacrifices reflection to emotion at a white-heat. Unfortunately no early Scottish poetry has survived.

 p110  The salient feature of all oral Celtic literature, Goedelic and Brythonic alike, is the fact that while from the earliest period we have practically no narrative poetry, and while narrative literature in both Irish and Welsh is embodied exclusively in prose form, little early Welsh prose has been preserved from before the twelfth century. From this period, however, we undoubtedly have the original nucleus of a small number of prose sagas which are native in both form and substance, as can be seen by comparing them with Irish sagas on the one hand, and with contemporary English, French and Icelandic on the other. The most important are the four stories known as the Mabinogion. These are stories related in a highly polished style that have been transmitted from much earlier times by a native professional class of story-tellers, known as cyfarwyddiaid (sing. cyfarwydd). In the course of their long life through the centuries before they were recorded in medieval manuscripts these stories have lost nothing of their charm, though the actual course of the narrative is often confused and obscure. In polish and grace of style they may indeed have gained something under French influence, and medieval literary Irish influence is clearly visible too in some of the stories, notably Branwen.

In contrast to the strange blend of metrical rigidity and emotional tension of early Welsh poetry, the leisurely beauty and magic of the later prose seems to belong to another world. In our slender collection of medieval Welsh prose stories by far the best known is the beautiful quartet referred to above, and now known as The Four Branches of the Mabinogion.​14 The word Mabinogi means 'youth'; later it came to mean 'tales about youth', and finally, 'tales' in a general sense. The apocryphal gospel De Infantia Jesu Christi was translated in Wales in the fourteenth century as Mabinogi Iesu Grist. Perhaps it may be rendered 'Tales of the young'.

The Four Branches are also a contrast to the poems in another important aspect. While the poems relate, or purport  p111 to relate, to contemporary people and events, especially in the North, the stories of the Mabinogion relate to traditional themes of the far past. The poems are realistic and direct for the most part, even when, as in the vaticinatory poems of Myrddin, they are often very obscure. This sense of reality is heightened by the use of direct speech, monologue or dialogue. The scene is laid for the most part in Wales, never in the 'North' and the stories are essentially Welsh. On the other hand the prose is hardly ever realistic, and a sense of illusion is achieved by the simple and almost imperceptible transitions of the story from the world of reality to the world of the supernatural.

The 'Four Branches' are all located in Western Wales, and despite the close correspondence between many of the proper names of the ruling dynasties and those of Irish gods, there is no indication that the Welsh have borrowed from the Irish. The origin of the stories still remains a mystery. It is also a remarkable fact that there is no contact between the heroes of the Mabinogi and the Men of the North. Their worlds never meet. The style of the Welsh prose throughout is refined and courtly, and its delicacy suggests that the stories have been composed in their present form for recital in a lady's bower, even possibly for monastic 'recreation', and we can trace the result of a tardy influence of medieval literary standards penetrating these little Welsh societies.

Two other Welsh prose stories are inspired by a keen antiquarian interest, and these recall heroes of the North. The earliest of them, Kilhwch and Olwen, believed to have been composed c. 1100, has its setting in the old heroic world; heroes and families and fragments of stories of the North mingle with those of Wales and Cornwall — a further reflection of the literary transfer already alluded to above. The framework is picaresque and consists largely of a long series of adventures which Arthur's nephew Kilhwch is obliged to undergo to win  p112 his bride Olwen, the daughter of the giant Yspadaddyn Penkawr; the climax of which is the shaving and tonsuring of the giant himself — perhaps a last satirical reference to the condemnation by the Roman Church of the traditional Celtic tonsure. The many allusions made, and the number of native stories referred to in the course of Kilhwch's adventures, practically amounts to a catalogue of lost native Welsh traditions. Kilhwch and Olwen more than any other prose tale enables us to form some estimate of the riches of earlier Welsh prose sagas, and of her lost literature.

One of the most delightful of the medieval Welsh prose sagas is the Dream of Rhonabwy, which, like Kilhwch and Olwen, again contains links with the old heroic families of the ancient north. The framework of the story is a dream of Rhonabwy, who is introduced to us as a member of the retinue of Madawg, prince of Powys, about the middle of the twelfth century. The dream presents us with a brilliant flashback to Arthur's camp at Rhyd-y‑Groes, the large meadow at the ford over the River Severn, where today we can still see the ruins of the great Abbey of Strata Marcella; and it is tempting to believe that the saga was composed and written to celebrate the arrival c. 1195 of the last of the Welsh princes, Owain Cyfeiliog, to end his days in this abbey. It is probable that the story as we have it was composed by one of the brothers in the abbey. Three other medieval Welsh prose stories are again attached to King Arthur, and although all three reappear in the French romances, the setting and the original nucleus have been shown to be undoubtedly native Welsh.

Dr Thomas Parry has briefly outlined how these romances differ from the older type of prose narratives discussed above.​15 Now the incidents are centred round one man, rather than relating to various families, or to a group of people. The character and function of Arthur have changed. He is no longer an active and daring chieftain, but the ruler of a court  p113 of chivalry at Caerleon from which the hero sets out on his journey and to which he returns. The adventures of the heroes are wholly unlocalised, in this a sharp contrast to those of the Welsh tales in which the ruling princes are firmly located at well-known centres in Wales. The whole atmosphere has changed from the world as we know it, in spite of its magic and transformations, to a world of wholly artificial standards and the atmosphere of the world of chivalry.

The late story of Lludd and Llevelys is believed to represent a purely native tradition, free from Norman French influence, and harking back to pseudo-historical native themes. But by far the best of these stories of pseudo-history is The Dream of Macsen Wledig, a story of thirteenth-century date, in which it is related how the Roman Emperor, Magnus Maximus, came to Britain in response to a dream, and married a noble British bride, Elen Luyddog, 'Elen of the Hosts'.​16 In style and finish the Dream of Macsen shows perhaps the Welsh cyfarwyd's narrative power at its best, and it is said to be most effective when recited. It gives us something of an insight into the attitude of the Welsh story-teller to history, for he has expended his finest art on the Roman emperor who centuries earlier had lived in North Wales, and whose departure with Roman troops was believed to have brought Roman Britain to an end. In Cornwall too he lived on in tradition as Mytern (Welsh macteyrn) Macsen, 'Maximus the Prince', in the medieval Cornish verse miracle play Beunans Meriasek, 'The Life of Saint Meriasek'.​17 Here, however, the hagiological tradition has transformed him into a tyrant who persecutes the saint.

Unfortunately no collections of British sagas have been preserved in the North, though we know from allusions in literature of a later date, especially in the Lives of the Saints, that an extensive saga literature must have been in wide circulation in the North in early times.​18 In particular St Kentigern, the patron saint of Glasgow and of Strathclyde generally, is the focus of a  p114 whole cycle of saga literature. Indeed the anonymous twelfth-century Life of the saint has all the features of oral prose saga. The Life of St Cadoc,​19 though written c. 1100 in South Wales, is a great collection of saga and folklore, part of which relates to the saint's sojourn in southern Scotland, and is especially interesting for its incorporation (ch. 26) of a legend of a Pictish robber chief, Cau of Pictavia, whose collar-bone the saint accidentally digs up while excavating the foundations for a new monastery. Cau must have been a formidable raider, for his collar-bone is big enough for a man on horseback to ride through. He was evidently the centre of a whole cycle of sagas, for the same source states (ch. 27) that he was the father of Gildas scriptor optimus; and the twelfth-century Life of St Gildas de Rhuys claims that Cau belonged to Strathclyde and was the father of Gildas the saint. He is also referred to as the father of several sons associated with King Arthur in medieval Welsh tradition. In the Dream of Rhonabwy his son Gwarthegyt seems to be Arthur's chief councillor, while in Kilhwch and Olwen nineteen sons of Cau are listed as present at Arthur's court.

Many of the most interesting adventures of the Irish hero Cuchulainn, known to us from Irish sagas, take place in Scotland, and seem to be of Pictish origin. The two queens, Scathach and Aoife are natives of Alba, doubtless Pictavia, while the adventures of Emer​20 seem to belong to the same milieu. Many references in medieval Scottish literature, from Wyntoun onwards, speak of stories of marvel relating to Macbeth,​21 and other early Scottish Chronicles refer all to briefly to traditional sagas relating to the early kings.

One of the most widely practised forms of intellectual activity in traditional Welsh literature is the mnemonic convention of the Triad, by which various classes of people, events, etc., having as is suggested some common characteristic, are grouped in sets of three. They are like miniature catalogues of the repertoires of the Welsh story-tellers, by which heroes,  p115 stories, events, etc., can be readily set in their approximate context, a kind of oral library catalogue. As an example we may refer to Triad 24:

Three Battle-Leaders of the Island of Britain:

Selyf son of Cynan Garwyn,

And Urien son of Cynfarch,

And Afaon son of Taliesin.

We have already referred to 'Three Futile Battles of Britain' in Triad 84, one of which was 'fought for a lark's nest (cf. p64 above).

Sometimes the rhetorical effect is heightened and the mnemonic value strengthened by contrasting juxtaposed Triads. Triad 29 names:

Three Faithful War-Bands of the Island of Britain:

The War-Band of Cadwallawn son of Cadfan who were with him seven years in Ireland . . .

And the War-Band of Gafran son of Aeddan, who went to sea for their lord;

And the War-Band of Gwenddolau son of Ce(i)diaw at Ar(f)derydd, who continued the battle for a fortnight and a month after their lord was slain.

As opposed to these we have (Triad 30):

Three Faithless War-Bands of the Island of Britain,

The War-Band of Goronwy Peuyr of Penllyn . . . and the War-Band of Gwrgi and Peredur, who abandoned their lord at Caer Greu, etc.​22

The Triads have much to tell us of the heroes of the North. In this they resemble the Englynion y Beddau, 'Verses of the Graves', which constitute an inventory of the graves of the heroes of Welsh sagas. The origin of neither Triads nor Beddau is known.  p116 Both are undoubtedly ancient, though the people mentioned belong to widely different periods, and both give us some idea of the great wealth of saga which was once current in Britain, but is now lost. Of the eighty warriors listed in the Beddau, the stories of hardly twenty are now known to us, and these are of mythological figures from the Mabinogi and saga heroes of the sixth and seventh centuries whom we have already met in the North, including Rhydderch Hael, Owein ap Urien, and Cynan ap Clydno Eidin. It is again significant of the transference of early northern traditions to Wales, that the graves are almost all located in Wales, chiefly in North Wales.

 p163  The Author's Notes:

1 Recent opinion tends to seek the origin of the ogam alphabet in the Latin grammar schools of the later Roman Empire, as represented by Donatus in the fourth century. See Jackson, E. C. N.W. E., 203.

2 De Bello Gallico VI.XIII.

3 See Binchy, Ériu XII, 41, 71.

4 See Du Cange, s.v. nutritor; and cf. Gregory of Tours, Hist. Franc. VIII.22.

5 Williams, C. T., 1. Cf. further Bromwich, Triads, 319.

6 Edited by I. Williams, C. A. A valuable account of the poem and commentary on the above edition is published by Jackson, Antiquity XIII (1939), 25.

7 The translation is that of Bromwich, in Chadwick, S. E. B. H., 88.

8 For a brief discussion of these poems, see Bromwich, Triads, 470; H. M. and N. K. Chadwick, Growth I, 106.

9 For parallels see 'Geilt', S. G. S. V. (1942), 106, by the present writer.

10 For some account of Sir Ifor Williams's views on the Llywarch Hen poems, see E. W. P., 31; P. B. A., 1932.

11 The Cynddylan Cycles of poems here quoted formed part of broadcast scripts by Glyn Jones, T. J. Morgan and I. Williams, the first two under the title of The Saga of Llywarch the Old; the third by Morgan, The Misfortunes of Princess Heledd. I am indebted to Professor Morgan for his kindness in giving me a copy of the script and permission to quote it here; and to Sir Ifor Williams for similar permission to quote his translations both here and elsewhere.

12 Williams, E. W. P., 59.

13 For a recent brief statement on this subject see Parry, O. B. W. V. (Introduction).

14 The title given by Lady Charlotte Guest to the collection of translations which she published in 1839. The MS. of the Red Book of Hergest uses the term Mabinogi for the first four stories.

15 H. W. L., 87.

 p164  16 'Helen of the Hosts' figures in the Harleian Genealogy 2 as the ancestress of the Dyfed royal Dynasty. She has become confused with Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine.

17 Edited and translated by Whitley Stokes (London, 1872).

18 A brief survey of this subject has been made by the present writer in 'The Lost Literature of Celtic Scotland', S. G. S. VII (1953), 115.

19 Edited and translated by Wade-Evans, V. S. 24.

20 See the versions summarised by Thurneyson, Die Irische Helden und Königsage (Halle-am‑Saale, 1921), 377.

21 These have been studied by the present writer in 'The Story of Macbeth', S. G. S. VI (1949), 189; VII (1951), 1.

22 Translations by R. Bromwich, Triads.

Thayer's Note:

a IV.4.4.

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