The Dream of Rhonabwy: the Mabinogion

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The Dream of Rhonabwy
Excerpted from a tale in the Mabinogion

"The Dream of Rhonabwy" is the latest of the tales in the collection of early Welsh material, known as the Mabinogion, as well as being the most literary of them. It is believed to date from sometime between 1159 (the date of the death of Madawg, son of Maredudd, a genuine historical figure and a character mentioned in the tale) and about 1200.

The tale takes place in a vision that came to Rhonabwy during a dream. On the road, Rhonabwy meets one Iddawg, the self-styled "Churn of Britain," one of Arthur's messengers at the Battle of Camlann, who escorts Rhonabwy through the dreamscape, patiently answering all his questions.

Arthur is a central character in the tale, and is pictured as the leader of a band of warriors (a typical Welsh view of Arthur, but a characterization never seen in the French tales). But, there are none of the trappings of Arthur's court, here, and we see none of the typical pageantry, knights or tournaments with which he came to be associated when his story was "medievalized" by the French romancers. True, he is called "Emperor," but that term must mean something, here, other than supreme ruler, as he is not accorded the respect that our view of him, or the title of "Emperor," should demand. A possible explanation is that "The Dream of Rhonabwy" may be the genuine echo of very early Welsh Arthurian traditions, before his story was given its medieval veneer.

It is also interesting to note that the most powerful of the medieval influences, Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain" (written years before "Rhonabwy") is invisible, here. The Battle of Camlann, according to Geoffrey, was Arthur's final battle, where he "received a mortal wound." But, in "Rhonabwy," the Battle of Camlann appears to be past history and we see a hale and hearty Arthur alive and doing well.


There he did fall asleep, and at once a vision came: he and his companions were crossing the plain of Argyngrog, and his thoughts and feelings seemed directed towards Rhyd y Groes (ford of the cross) on the Havren.

As he journeyed he heard a commotion the like of which he had never heard before, and looking back he saw a young man with curly hair and a newly trimmed beard riding a yellow horse. This man was green from the tops of his legs and his kneecaps down, and wore a tunic of yellow brocade sewn with green thread; on his thigh was a gold-hilted sword, with a scabbard of new cordovan and a gold buckle. Over the tunic he wore a mantle of yellow brocade sewn with green silk, and the green of the rider's outfit and his horse's was the colour of fir needles, while the yellow was the colour of broom.

His bearing was so awesome that they became frightened and fled, but he gave chase; when his horse breathed out they drew ahead, but when it breathed in they were as near as its chest.

At length they were overtaken and asked for mercy. 'You shall have that gladly, do not be afraid,' said the rider.

'Since you have granted us mercy, chieftain, tell us who you are,' said Rhonabwy.

'I will not conceal my identity, I am Iddawg, son of Mynyo, yet I am better known by my nickname.'

'Will you tell us what that nickname is?'

'I will. I am called Iddawg, the Churn of Britain.'

'Chieftain, why are you called that?' asked Rhonabwy.

'I will tell you. I was one of the messengers at the Battle of Camlann between Arthur and his nephew Medrawt. I was a high-spirited young man, so eager for battle that I stirred up bad feeling between them: when the Emperor Arthur sent me to remind Medrawt that Arthur was his uncle and foster-father, and to ask for peace lest the sons and nobles of the island of Britain he killed, though Arthur spoke as kindly as he could I repeated his words to Medrawt in the rudest possible way.

Thus I am called Iddawg, the Churn of Britain, and that is how the Battle of Camlann was woven. Nevertheless, three nights before the end of the battle I left and went to Y Llech Las (the grey stone), in Scotland, to do penance, and I remained there seven years before I earned forgiveness.'

At that they heard a commotion far louder than the earlier one, and when they looked in its direction they saw a young man with yellow-red hair, but neither beard nor moustache, cutting a noble figure on a great horse. From the point of its withers and from its kneecaps down the horse was yellow, while its rider was dressed in red brocade sewn with yellow silk, and yellow fringes on the mantle; the yellow of his clothing and his horse was the colour of broom, while the red was the colour of the reddest blood in the world.

This rider overtook them and asked Iddawg for a share of the little fellows he had with him, but Iddawg said, 'I will grant you what is fair: to be their companion, just as I am.' The rider accepted that and then went away.

'Iddawg, who is that rider?' asked Rhonabwy. 'Rhuvawn, the Radiant, son of the ruler Deorthach.'

They crossed the great plain of Argyngrog to Rhyd y Groes on the Havren, and a mile from the ford, on every side of the road, there were tents and pavilions and the gathering of a great host. Upon reaching the bank they saw Arthur seated on a flat islet below the ford, with the Bishop Bidwini on one side of him and Gwarthegydd, son of Caw, on the other, and standing before them a big auburn-haired lad with his sheathed sword in his hand. This lad wore a tunic and cap of jet black brocade; his face was as white as elephant ivory and his eyebrows as black as jet, and what one might see of his wrist between glove and sleeve was whiter than a lily and thicker than the small of a warrior's leg.

Iddawg and his companions went before Arthur and greeted him. 'God be good to you, Iddawg,' said Arthur. 'Where did you find these little men?'

'Lord, I found them up the road.' Then Arthur smiled grimly, and Iddawg asked, 'Lord, what are you laughing at?'

'I am laughing out of the sadness I feel at this island's being in the care of such puny men as these, after the sort that held it before.'

Then Iddawg said, 'Rhonabwy, do you see the ring with the stone on the emperor's hand?'

'I do.'

'It is a property of that stone that you will remember all that you have seen here tonight; had you not seen the stone you would have remembered nothing.'

After that Rhonabwy saw a troop coming towards the ford. 'Iddawg, what troop is that?' he asked.

'The companions of Rhuvawn, the Radiant, son of the ruler Deorthach; mead and bragget are set out in their honour, and they are privileged to court the royal daughters of the island of Britain without stint, for that is their right. In every danger they ride both before and behind the emperor.

Rhonabwy could see on the horses and men of that troop no colour that was not as red as blood; if one of the riders were to separate from the troop, he would appear as a column of fire rising into the sky. They pitched their tents above the ford.

After that another troop was seen approaching the ford: from the pommels of their saddles upwards they were as white as the lily. and from that point downwards as black as jet. A rider forged ahead and spurred his horse into the ford so that the water splashed over the head of Arthur and the bishop and their adviser, until they were as wet as if they had been dragged out of the river.

As this rider turned his horse's head, the lad who was standing before Arthur struck the animal with the sword in its scabbard, so that it would have been a marvel if even iron had been unscathed, let alone flesh or bone.

The rider drew his sword half out of its scabbard and said, 'Why did you strike my horse; as an insult, or out of desire to advise me?'

'You need advice. What foolishness caused you to ride so recklessly as to splash the water of the ford over the heads of Arthur and the holy bishop and their advisers, until they were as wet as if they had been dragged from the river?'

'I will accept that as advice,' said the rider, and he turned his horse and returned to his troop.

'Iddawg, who was that rider?' asked Rhonabwy.

'A young man considered the wisest and most accomplished in the kingdom: Avaon, son of Talyessin.'

'And who is the man who struck his horse?'

'A perverse and overanxious lad, Elphin son of Gwyddno.'

Then a proud, handsome man of bold and eloquent speech said that it was a wonder how a large force could be contained in such a confined area, the more so as they had promised to be at the Battle of Baddon by noon in order to fight against Osla Big Knife. 'You may choose to go or not to go, but I will go,' he said.

Arthur answered, 'What you say is true. We will set out together.'

'Iddawg, who is the man who spoke so boldly to Arthur?' asked Rhonabwy.

'A man who has the right to speak as bluntly as he wishes: Caradawg Strong Arm, son of Llyr of the Sea, Arthur's chief adviser and his first cousin.

After that, Iddawg took Rhonabwy up behind him, and with each troop in place, that great host set out towards Kevyn Digoll. When they reached the middle of the ford, Iddawg turned the horse's head round and Rhonabwy looked at the Havren valley: two quieter troops were approaching the ford, and then a shining white troop, everyone wearing cloaks of white brocade with jet black fringes. The kneecaps and legs of the horses were pure black, but everywhere else they were pure white, and the troop's standards were pure white with a pure black tip.

'Iddawg, what is that pure white troop?'

'The men of Norway, led by March, son of Meirchyawn, Arthur's first cousin.'

Then Rhonabwy saw a troop dressed all in pure black, with pure white fringes on their mantles. The kneecaps and legs of the horse were pure white, but everywhere else they were pure black, and the troop's standards were pure black with a pure white tip.

'Iddawg, what is that pure black troop?'

'The men of Denmark, led by Edern son of Nudd.'

By the time these troops overtook the host, Arthur and his force had descended below Caer Vaddon. Rhonabwy could see that he and Iddawg were going the same way as Arthur, and when they too had descended, he heard a great commotion among the host: the men at the edge of the host were running to the centre, and the men at the centre were making for the edge. A rider arrived, armed in mail: its rings were as white as the whitest lily, its rivets as red as the reddest blood, and the rider was careering through the host.

'Iddawg, is the host fleeing before me?'

'The Emperor Arthur has never fled, and had that remark been overheard, you would now be a dead man. No, the rider you see is Kei, the handsomest man in Arthur's kingdom. The men at the edge of the host are rushing to the centre to see Kei riding, while the men at the centre are fleeing to the edge to avoid being trampled by Kei's horse, that is the meaning of the commotion among the host.'

Then they heard Cadwr Earl of Cornwall being summoned, and saw him rise with Arthur's sword in his hand, with a design of two serpents on the golden hilt; when the sword was unsheathed what was seen from the mouths of the serpents was like two flames of fire, so dreadful, that it was not easy for anyone to look. At that the host settled down and the commotion subsided, and the earl returned to his tent.

'Iddawg, who is the man who brought Arthur's sword?'

'Cadwr, Earl of Cornwall, the man whose task it is to arm the king on the day of battle and conflict.'

Then they heard summoned Eiryn the Splendid son of Peibyn, Arthur's servant, a rough, ugly, red-haired man with a red moustache and combed hair; he approached on a big red horse with its mane parted on both sides of its neck, and carried a fine pack. This large red-haired man dismounted before Arthur, drew a gold chair and a ribbed brocade mantle from the pack, spread the mantle, there was a red-gold apple in each corner, and set the chair on it, a chair so large that three armed warriors could sit in it.

Gwenn was the name of the mantle, and one of its properties was this: a man wrapped in it could see everyone, but no one could see him, nor would it allow any colour on it but its own. Arthur sat on the mantle, with Owein, son of Uryen, standing before him, and said, 'Owein, will you play gwyddbwyll?'

'I will, lord,' said Owein.

So the red-haired man brought them the gwyddbwyll set, whose men were gold and whose board was silver. Owein and Arthur began to play, and they were deep into the game when from a white red-topped pavilion with the image of a pure-black serpent, bright-red poisonous eyes in its head and a flame-red tongue, came a young man with curly yellow hair and blue eyes and the beginnings of a beard. He wore a surcoat of yellow brocade, stockings of thin, yellow-green cloth on his legs, and on his feet buskins of mottled cordovan with gold buckles fastening them across his insteps; he carried a heavy gold-hilted, triple-grooved sword, and a black cordovan scabbard tipped with pure red gold.

He came to where the emperor and Owein were playing gwyddbwyll and greeted Owein. The latter wondered that the lad had greeted him and not Arthur, but Arthur read his thoughts and said, 'Do not wonder that the lad greeted you just now, for he greeted me earlier, and besides, his message is for you.'

The lad said to Owein, 'Lord, is it with your permission that the emperor's young lads and servants are harassing and molesting your ravens? If not, then have the emperor forbid it.'

'Lord, do you hear what the page is saying?' said Owein. 'If you please, call your men off my ravens.'

'Your move,' said Arthur, whereupon the page returned to his pavilion.

This portion of "The Dream of Rhonabwy" appears in Gantz, Jeffrey trans. "The Mabinogion," Dorset Press, New York, 1976, pp.178-91

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