King Arthur in Early Welsh Literature: Excerpts from Various Poems and Verses

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King Arthur in Early Welsh Literature
Excerpts from Various Welsh Poems and Verses

Englynion y Beddau, "Stanzas of the Graves" (aka The Graves of the Warriors of Britain) are found in a number of Welsh manuscripts. The earliest and most important collection is in the"Black Book of Carmarthen" containing seventy-three stanzas; sixty-nine of which were copied in the second quarter of the thirteenth century and the other four (numbers 70 to 73) in the second half of the same century. Five such stanzas occur amongst the Llywarch verses in the "Red Book of Hergest" and it is known that these five were once in the earlier (fourteenth century) "White Book of Rhydderch."

The stanzas themselves may well date to the ninth or tenth century. Certainly later court poets of the princes appear to have drawn on this information.

There is a grave for March, a grave for Gwythur,
a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword;
the world's wonder a grave for Arthur.

Mi a Wum, literally "I have been," is found in the Black Book of Carmarthen (Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin) which dates to 1250 but the poem itself is earlier, dating to the tenth or eleventh century. Four of the stanza commence: "I have been where ___ was slain"

I have been where Llachau was slain,
the son of Arthur, awful in songs,
when ravens croaked over blood.

Pa Gur yv y Portaur This is an incomplete poem, usually dated to the eleventh century. It begins as a dialogue between Arthur and Glewlwyd, the porter or gate-keeper, but develops into a list of Arthur's men and their exploits. Many of the names and references are similar to those in Culhwch ac Olwen.

'What man is the porter?'
'Glewlwyd Great-Grip
what man asks it?'
'Arthur and Cai the Fair.'
'What retinue travels with you?'
'The best men in the world.'

Cad Goddau The Battle of the Trees, from Preidu Annwn, is one of the transformation/prophecy poems of the legendary Taliesin.

My fingers are long and white,
far from a shepherd was I reared;
I rolled on the ground
before I became a proficient.
I traversed, I went round them,
I slept on a thousand islands.
I took a hundred forts.
Wise druids, prophesy to Arthur
what will be, what is,
what was once perceived:
the story of the flood
Christ's crucifixion
with Judgement Day at hand.

Kanu y Meirch The Song of the Horses, is a listing poem, this time of heroes and their steeds.

And Caradog's horse,
lively and rightful;
And Gwythur's horse;
And Gwawrddur's horse;
And Arthur's horse,
boldly bestowing pain;
And Taliesin's horse;

Y Gododdin Preserved in the thirteenth century, Llyfr Aneirin, Y Gododdin has a claim to be one of the earliest Welsh poems (or sequence of poems). It contains one reference to Arthur, which may or may not be a later interpolation; if it is original it is the earliest of all references to Arthur:

He charged before three hundred of the finest,
He cut down both centre and wing,
He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,
He gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.
He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
Though he was no Arthur.
Among the powerful ones in battle,
In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.

Trioedd Ynys Prydein The Triads. It is believed that the triads evolved as mnemonic devices to assist the recollection of narrative material and that they were used in the bardic schools, with pupil bards learning triad sequences by heart. In all there are some 96 Triads contained in various Welsh manuscripts. Many of the Triads have Arthurian references (particularly in the later versions):

Three Red Ravagers of the Island of Britain:
and Rhun son of Beli,
and Morgant the Wealthy.

Three Generous Men of the Island of Britain:
Nudd the Generous, son of Senyllt,
Mordaf the Generous, son of Serwan,
Rhydderch the Generous, son of Tudwal Tudglyd.
And Arthur himself was more generous than the three.

Three Well-Endowed Men of the Island of Britain:
Gwalchmai son of Gwyar,
and Llachau son of Arthur,
and Rhiwallawn Broom-Hair.

Three Chieftains of Arthur's Court:
Gobrwy son of Echel Mighty-Thigh,
Cadr(i)eth ('Fine-Speech') son of Porthawr Gadw,
and Fleudur Fflam ('Flame').

Three Frivolous (some say "scurrilous") Bards of the Island of Britain:
and Cadwallawn son of Cadfan,
and Rahawd son of Morgant.

Three Powerful Swineherds of the Island of Britain:
Drystan son of Tallwch, who guarded the swine of March son of Meirchiawn, while the swineherd went to ask Essyllt to come to a meeting with him. And Arthur was seeking (to obtain)one pig from among them, either by deceit or by force, but he did not get it;

And Pryderi son of Pwyll, Lord of Annwfn, who guarded the swine of Pendaran Dyfed in Glyn Cuch in Emlyn;

And Coll son of Collfrewy, who guarded Henwen, the sow of Dallwyr Dallben, who went (when) about to bring forth(?), to Penrhyn Awstin in Cornwall, (and there she went into the sea). And at Aber Tarogi in Gwent Is Coed she came to land. And Coll son of Collfrewy with his hand on her bristles wherever she went, whether by sea or by land. And in the Wheat Field in Gwent she brought forth a grain of wheat and a bee; and therefore that place is the best for wheat and bees. And from there she went to Llonion in Pembroke, and there she brought forth a grain of barley and a bee. From thence she made for the Hill of Cyferthwch in Eryri; there she brought forth a wolf-cub and a young eagle. And Coll son of Collfrewy gave the eagle to Bre(r)nnach the Irishman of the North, and the wolf he gave to Me(n)waedd son of ... Arllechwedd; and these were (the Wolf of) Me(n)waedd and the Eagle of Brennach. And from thence she went to the Black Stone in Llanfair in Arfon, and there she brought forth a kitten; and Coll son of Collfrewy threw that kitten into Menai. And she was afterwards Palug's Cat.

Three Unfortuate Counsels of the Island of Britain:
To give place for their horse's fore-feet on the land to Julius Caesar and the men of Rome, in requital for Meinlas;

and the second: to allow Horse and Hengist and Rhonwen into this Island;

and the third: the three-fold dividing by Arthur of his men with Medrawd at Camlann.

Three Unrestricted Guests of the Arthur's Court, and Three Wanderers:
Llywarch the Old,
and Llemenig,
and Heledd.

Arthur's Three Great Queens:
Gwenhwyfar daughter of (Cywryd) Gwent,
and Gwenhwyfar daughter of (Gwythyr) son of Greidiawl,
and Gwenhwyfar daughter of (G)ogfran the Giant.

And his Three Mistresses were these:
Indeg daughter of Garwy the Tall,
and Garwen ("Fair Leg") daughter of Henin the Old,
and Gwyl ("Modest") daughter of Gendawd ("Big Chin").

Information courteously provided by Jeff Davies of Llys Arthur

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