an excerpt from Robert Graves' "The White Goddess"
(for reviewing purposes only)

Chapter Two

It seems that the Welsh minstrels, like the Irish poets, recited their traditional romances in prose, breaking into dramatic verse, with harp accompaniment, only at points of emotional stress. Some of these romances survive complete with the incidental verses; others have lost them; in some cases, such as the romance of Llywarch Hen, only the verses survive. The most famous Welsh collection is the Mabinogion, which is usually explained as 'Juvenile Romances', that is to say those that every apprentice to the minstrel profession was expected to know; it is contained in the thirteenth-century Red Book of Hergest. Almost all the incidental verses are lost. These romances are the stock-in-trade of a minstrel and some of them have been brought more up-to-date than others in their language and description of manners and morals.

The Red Book of Hergest also contains a jumble of fifty-eight poems, called The Book of Taliesin, among which occur the incidental verses of a Romance of Taliesin which is not included in the Mabinogion. However, the first part of the romance is preserved in a late sixteenth-century manuscript, called the 'Peniardd M.S.', first printed in the early nineteenth-century Myvyrian Archaiology, complete with many of the same incidental verses, though with textual variations. Lady Charlotte Guest translated this fragment, completing it with material from two other manuscripts, and included it in her well-known edition of the Mabinogion (1848). Unfortunately, one of the two manuscripts came from the library of Iolo Morganwg, a celebrated eighteenth-century 'improver' of Welsh documents, so that her version cannot be read with confidence, though it has not been proved that this particular manuscript was forged.

The gist of the romance is as follows. A nobleman of Penllyn named Tegid Voel had a wife named Caridwen, or Cerridwen, and two children, Creirwy, the most beautiful girl in the world, and Afagddu, the ugliest boy. They lived on an island in the middle of Lake Tegid. To compensate for Afagddu's ugliness, Cerridwen decided to make him highly intelligent. So, according to a recipe contained in the books of Vergil of Toledo the magician (hero of a twelfth-century romance), she boiled up a cauldron of inspiration and knowledge, which had to be kept on the simmer for a year and a day.


Season by season, she added to the brew magical herbs gathered in their correct planetary hours. While she gathered the herbs she put little Gwion, the son of Gwreang, of the parish of Llanfair in Caereinion, to stir the cauldron.

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Towards the end of the year three burning drops flew out and fell on little Gwion's finger. He thrust it into his mouth and at once understood the nature and meaning of all things past, present and future, and thus saw the need of guarding against the wiles of Cerridwen who was determined on killing him as soon as he had completed his work. He fled away, and she pursued him like a black screaming hag. By use of the powers that he had drawn from the cauldron he changed himself into a hare; she changed herself into a greyhound. He plunged into a river and became a fish; she changed herself into an otter. He flew up into the air like a bird; she changed herself into a hawk. He became a grain of winnowed wheat on the floor of a barn; she changed herself into a black hen, scratched the wheat over with her feet, found him and swallowed him. When she returned to her own shape she found herself pregnant of Gwion and nine months later bore him as a child. She could not find it in her heart to kill him, because he was very beautiful, so tied him in a leather bag and threw him into the sea two days before May Day. He was carried into the weir of Gwyddno Garanhair near Dovey and Aberystwyth, in Cardigan Bay, and rescued from it by Prince Elphin, the son of Gwyddno and nephew of King Maelgwyn of Gwynedd (North Wales), who had come there to net fish. Elphin, though he caught no fish, considered himself well rewarded for his labour and renamed Gwion 'Taliesin', meaning either 'fine value', or 'beautiful brow'--a subject for punning by the author of the romance.

When Elphin was imprisoned by his royal uncle at Dyganwy (near Llandudno), the capital of Gwynedd, the child Taliesin went there to rescue him and by a display of wisdom, in which he confounded all the twenty-four court-bards of Maelgwyn -- the eighth-century British historian Nennius mentions Maelgwyn's sycophantic bards -- and their leader the chief bard Heinin, secured the prince's release. First he put a magic spell on the bards so that they could only play blerwm blerwm with their fingers on their lips like children, and then he recited a long riddling poem, the Hanes Taliesin,, which they were unable to understand, and which will be found in Chapter V. Since the Peniardd version of the romance is not complete, it is just possible that the solution of the riddle was eventually given, as in the similar romances of Rumpelstiltskin, Tom Tit Tot, Oedipus, and Samson. But the other incidental poems suggest that Taliesin continued to ridicule the ignorance and stupidity of Heinin and the other bards to the end and never revealed his secret.


The climax of the story in Lady Charlotte's version comes with another riddle, proposed by the child Taliesin, beginning:
Discover what it is:
The strong creature from before the Flood
Without flesh, without bone,
Without vein, without blood,
Without head, without feet...
in field, in forest...
Without hand, without foot.
It is also as wide 
As the surface of the earth,
And it was not born,
Nor was it seen...

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The solution, namely 'The Wind', is given practically with a violent storm of wind which frightens the King into fetching Elphin from the dungeon, whereupon Taliesin unchains him with an incantation. Probably in an earlier version [?] the wind was released from the mantle of his comrade Afagddu or Morvran, as it was by Morvan's Irish counterpart Marvan in the early mediaeval proceedings of the grand Bardic Academy, with which The Romance of Taliesin has much in common. 'A part of it blew into the bosom of every bard present, so that they all rose to their feet.'

...since the Hanes Taliesin is not preceded by any formal Dychymig Dychymig ('riddle me this riddle') or Dechymic pwy yw ('Discover what it is') [1] commentators excuse themselves from reading it as a riddle at all. Some consider it to be solemn-sounding nonsense, an early anticipation of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, intended to raise a laugh; others consider that it has some sort of mystical sense connected with the Druidical doctrin of the transmigration of souls, but I do not claim to be able to elucidate this.

Here I must apologize for my temerity in writing on a subject which is not really my own. I am not a Welshman, except an honorary one through eating the leek on St. David's Day while serving with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and, though I have lived in Wales for some years, off and on, have no command even of modern Welsh; and I am not a mediaeval historian.


But my profession is poetry, and I agree with the Welsh minstrals that the poet's first enrichment is a knowledge and understanding of myths. One day while I was puzzling out the meaning of the ancient Welsh myth of Câd Goddeu ('The Battle of the Trees'), fought between Arawn King of Annwm ('The Bottomless Place'), and the two sons of Dôn, Gwydion and Amathaon, I had much the same experience as Gwion of Llanfair. A drop or two of the brew of Inspiration flew out of the cauldron and I suddenly felt confident that if I turned again to Gwion's riddle, which I had not read since I was a schoolboy, I could make sense of it.

...The Romance of Taliesin contains a long poem, or group of poems run together, called Câd Goddeu, the verses of which seem as nonsensical as the Hanes Taliesin because they have been deliberately 'pied'...

[Here Graves goes on to claim that he has made sense of Câd Goddeu ('the Battle of the Trees") and to explain his position...]

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{[1] (footnote): Another form is dychymig dameg ('a riddle, a riddle'), which seems to explain the mysterious ducdame ducame in As You Like It, which jaques describes as 'a Greek invocation to call fools into a circle' -- perhaps a favourite joke of Shakespeare's Welsh schoolmaster, remembered for its oddity.}

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