‘The Mabinogion: How Culhwch Won Olwen’ (Dewithon19)

The Mabinogion is a collection of eleven stories that were originally written in Middle Welsh, possibly in the 12th-13th centuries. The oldest manuscripts are however from around the end of the 14th century. It is unclear how much the authors of the stories were influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain or Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian tales. In the introduction of my Penguin edition, translated by Jeffrey Gantz, it is suggested that Chrétien could have been influenced by early versions of the Welsh tales and that the modern versions could be Welsh versions of these French re-workings. No doubt scholars write papers and books on these sorts of things but I’m going to look at one of the stories in the collection called How Culhwch Won Olwen as it was one of my favourites from the collection. The title for the collection, The Mabinogion was provided by the first English translator, Lady Charlotte Guest, in 1849. Gantz suggests that a better title might be The Mabinogi and Other Early Welsh Tales but The Mabinogion, though incorrect, is now the established name for the collection of stories.

One of his [Kilydd, Culhwch’s father] advisers said, ‘I know a good woman who would suit you: the wife of King Doged.’ They decided to go and seek her; they killed Doged and brought back the woman, with her only daughter, and seized her husband’s land.

How Culhwch Won Olwen begins by telling us of Culhwch’s parents; his mother’s death when he was young and how his father eventually ‘took’ (see above) another wife. When the king’s new wife discovers that Kilydd has a son she suggests that Culhwch should marry her daughter. When Culhwch protests that he’s too young she puts a curse on him that he will never sleep with a woman until he has won Olwen, daughter of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden. As King Arthur is Culhwch’s first cousin he sets off to ask for Arthur’s help in this quest.

Culhwch set off on a steed with a glossy grey head, four years old; it was firmly crotch-jointed, hollow-hoofed and had a tubular gold bridle bit in its mouth. The lad sat in a precious gold saddle, holding two sharpened silver spears and a battle axe half a yard across from ridge to edge, an axe which would draw blood from the wind, and which was swifter from stalk to ground than the swiftest dewdrop in the month of June, when the dew is heaviest.

The narrative continues with an exquisite description of Culhwch’s clothes and sword and ends with: ‘So smooth was his steed’s gait that not a hair on his head stirred as he journeyed to Arthur’s court.’

Culhwch eventually gets to see Arthur and asks for his help in finding Olwen, daughter of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden. Culhwch then invokes her in the name of Arthur’s warriors and for the next nine pages there is a list of these warriors. It’s tempting to start skimming over this list of names as we get ‘Gwynn son of Esni, Gwynn son of Nwyvre, Gwynn son of Nudd, Edern son of Nudd, Cadwy son of Gereint’ etc., but the author of the tale starts to have some fun as we get people like ‘Drwst Iron Fist, Glewlwyd Strong Grip, Llwch Windy Hand’ et al. At one point we get a list of about twenty ‘sons of Caw’. We then get long descriptions of the attributes of others such as Sgilti Light Foot who ‘never took the road so long as he knew his way, but if there was a forest he travelled along the tree tops, and if there was a mountain he travelled on the tips of the reeds, and never did a reed bend, much less break, so light of foot was he…’ I would have liked to quote the whole list but will instead restrict myself to a few more of the more humorous examples.

Drem son of Dremidydd (who from Kelli Wig in Cornwall could see a gnat rise with the sun at Penn Blathaon in Scotland)…Gwrvan Shaggy Hair…Erwm the Tall and Atrwm the Tall (the day they came to a feast they would seize three cantrevs for their wants and they would eat until noon and drink until night; when they went to sleep they would devour the heads of insects out of hunger, as if they had never eaten; when they went to a feast they left neither fat nor lean, hot nor cold, pure nor fresh, green nor salted)…Gwrhyr Interpreter of Languages, who knew all tongues, Kethtrwm the Priest, Clust son of Clustveinydd (were he buried seven fathoms in the earth he would hear an ant stirring from its bed in the morning fifty miles away), Gwiawn Cat Eye (who could cut a corner from a gnat’s eye without harming the eye)…

And my favourite of them all:

Gwevyl son of Gwastad (when he was sad he would let one lip droop to his navel and raise the other until it was a hood over his head).

These are so inventive and so funny; the cumulative effect makes it even more amusing and is best read in full. What is funnier still is that when Culhwch has finished the list of warriors Arthur replies that he knows nothing of Olwen. He promises to discover where she lives but this takes over a year. Eventually Culhwch reaches Ysbaddaden’s castle and Culhwch can ask for Olwen’s hand in marriage. Ysbaddaden agrees but lists off a catalogue of increasingly difficult, sometimes silly and sometimes impossible tasks in an attempt to deter Culhwch; his attempts to thwart Culwhch are no doubt due to the fact that it has been foretold that Ysbaddaden will die when Olwen marries. Here are a couple of examples together with Culhwch’s replies:

‘…I must untangle my beard before I can shave it, and it will never straighten out until you get the blood of the Black Hag, daughter of the White Hag, from the headland of the Valley of Distress in the highlands of Hell.’ ‘It will be easy for me to get that, though you think otherwise.’
‘Though you get that, there are things you will not get. The blood you get will not be effective unless you get it while it is still warm, and no vessel anywhere will keep liquid warm save the bottles of Gwydolwyn the Dwarf: these retain the heat of what is poured in the east until one reaches the west. He will not give them to you of his own will, nor can you compel him.’ ‘It will be easy for me to get that, though you think otherwise.’

Culhwch then sets off on a series of adventures in Britain and Ireland which are largely unrelated to those set by Ysbaddaden. But don’t worry, there is a happy ending as Culhwch and Olwen marry and Ysbaddaden ends up with his head on a stake.

I read this as part of Paula’s Wales Readathon 2019 (aka Dewithon) at Book Jotter.

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12 Comments

Filed under Anon, Fiction

12 responses to “‘The Mabinogion: How Culhwch Won Olwen’ (Dewithon19)

  1. A superb post, Jonathan – and all the more fascinating for focusing on a single tale. Thank you so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I did think about just having the nine-page list but on reflection thought it might be a bit too much for readers.

      I may see if I can write another before the end of month.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Wales Readathon 2019 – Book Jotter

  3. Sounds very entertaining, Jonathan! I read Chretien de Troyes back in the day, and also Malory, and once you got into their way of telling the tales the books were such fun! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I’ve had this book hanging around for quite a few years. I bought it back when I was also on a bit of run of Arthurian legends. On the whole I found it a bit boring. But this story and a couple more were pretty good. I think though if I were to re-read them again I would appreciate them more. It sometimes takes a first reading to get the hang of the style and idiosyncracies of the different stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Being an ignoramus in the field of literature, outside Australia at least, I have been working backwards from Jane Austen to see what came before. I didn’t know the Welsh had literature (who will have my head for that, I wonder) and the closest I came to the Mabinogian was Marie de France who wrote in French, when that was the language of the English Court, in the C12th, not that I was inspired to actually read her. I’m sure we’ve always had stories but it seems they were committed to paper much earlier than I ever realised.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Well, I’m no expert on mediaeval literature either but I read a few modern translations of some of the Arthurian legends a few years back and came across this in a secondhand bookshop—I hadn’t heard of it before then. I find it interesting to vary my reading over time and place every now and then.

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  5. The labours of Hercules sound like an easy ride in comparison to the challenges set this poor man. I’m long overdue a read of these tales.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I wondered if it was meant as a spoof of Hercules. It seems to me that it was originally meant to be humorous but I get the feeling, from the intro and Wikipedia, that it’s taken seriously by scholars—I don’t think I’d make a good scholar.

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  6. That sounds surprisingly fun. How did you find the translation?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      The translation was fine as far as I could tell. The translator included some amusing footnotes where he was obviously exasperated with some of the inconsistencies in the text.

      Some of the other stories were a bit dull but I may re-read them over the year to see if I like them more a second time.

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