The Crossing of Gwyddno Garanhir

In an earlier post on this blog I published a translation of the conversation between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir from the medieval Welsh manuscript of The Black Book of Carmarthen. I was impelled to do this as part of my own exploration of the relationship between Gwyn and Gwyddno in terms of the mythical significance of the landscape in which I live. But my intention in publishing it was to make the text available to others who might be inspired by it. One that I thought would be interested was Lorna Smithers who has since made her own use of the translation the result of which is published below. Lorna has taken this material under the mantle of an awenydd in re-imagining it and interweaving the translation with her account of the passing of Gwyddno in her own words. Her researches into the meaning of Gwyddno’s cognomen ‘Garanhir’ (usually translated ‘longshanks’ but literally indicating long legs like a crane, from the Welsh word garan=crane) are put to inspired use in her portrayal of Gwyddno’s re-adoption of his crane nature as he is guided to the halls of the dead by Gwyn ap Nudd as psychopomp.

Lorna showed me an earlier draft of this piece and I spoke of my feeling of the background of Borth Bog as a place that might have been haunted by cranes. The bog stretches down to the beach where the remains of a sunken forest can be seen at low tide, often taken to be the location the drowned land of Cantre’r Gwaelod where the legendary Gwyddno lived in his fort now beneath the waves at the end of a lost road under the sea. I have since been able to share the experience of walking along the bog with Lorna on her recent visit when we also undertook a powerful joint reading of ’The Crossing of Gwyddno Garanhir’ by the sea’s edge at Borth. It was a privilege to be able to work with Lorna on this and for her to be contributing her tale of Gwyddno’s crossing here:

Borth beach

Mist drowns the beach at Borth. Not this-Borth or the other-Borth but somewhere inbetween. An old man, grey-skinned, crane-legged, picks his way along the pebbled edge of his drowned land, spumes of tidal foam spilling over his feet.

He recalls days of watching cranes from the estuary; wide white winged, red and black masked, knowing every step of their dancing legs and its meaning. Words and letters are now slipping away like the patterns of that intricate black-legged dance.

Images wash against him: a drunken sloth, a dishevelled maid, between them a broken cup. Breached floodgates and the sea washing in scarred by lightning bolts beneath a sky of storm.

The madness of a leaping coracle. A face white as sea-foam. A cold hand sliding from his grasp as with a swirl of blonde she was gone.

A youth stirring a cauldron spilling three careless drops. Cracking black iron. A deluge of poison. His beloved horses drinking, rolling, burning, searing, tossing their necks, lips spuming froth.

His son finding that youth sewn into a weathered crane-skin bag instead of salmon in the abundant weir. Unpicking the stitches. The flashing needle speaking its letters. The immortal speech of the radiant-browed one stepping uncanny from the dark unfolding womb.

How that child-bard freed his son from the dragon’s castle. His grey-eyed worry and irregular beating of his heart.

Cors FochnoThe old man can no longer remember any names. He believes this is because the cranes are gone. They upped on white wings on the day of the storm, dark legs carving ominous signs across the skies. Settled in new wetlands. Visited estuaries until the poison spilled, their trembling legs gave way and their wings sunk under the boiling muddy brew (as she sunk years ago).

He will never see each red and black face he knew by name. She will never don her mask. They will never dance, elegant, long-legged at court or knee-deep wading through wetlands.

He will never match faces to names. He will never remember his kinsmen who died fighting in the north as he lay in his chamber afloat on despair and old age lifted only by imagined cries of cranes returning. He can no longer remember his name.

He picks his way along the edge of his drowned land, white tidal spumes tugging at his feet, face grey and weathered like a bag of crane-skin on tall and unsteady legs. His twitching shoulders remind him of wings carrying him to this beach where he drowns in mist and nameless sorrow.

Borth Beach IIBeginning to fear he cannot bear his sadness anymore, he looks west. The sky is lit by a mysterious brightness. Breaking the pall like lightning, a white warrior steps from the mist with a horned helmet, upright shield and spear, leading a white horse streaming from its bridle followed by a white dog with a tail of clouds whose red nose is the setting sun.

The old man sees a thousand battles; shattered shields, broken helmets, heads pierced by spears, in his furious gaze. His ears fill with battle-cries; death-cries.

He sways in awe and terror before this fierce bull of battle, who seems to carry the very dead within his person, yet addresses him in the traditional manner and asks with dignity for protection.

“You who ask shall have protection.” The warrior’s kindness is disarming.

The old man trembles with relief. “Who are you? Where do you come from?”

“I come from many battles. Many deaths.”

Death-scenes flash before the old man’s eyes. Blood drenched armour. Men bent on spears. Words wrenched from agony. Flesh torn by ravens. He sees faces but cannot remember their names although he shares their pain and tears drench his cheeks. A wild whinny shakes him.

“My horse is Carngrwn; terror of the field,” says the warrior. “My name is Gwyn ap Nudd, lover of Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd.”

When the old man hears those names his inner crane-knowing awakens. He remembers his mother’s stories about Gwyn ap Nudd: the warrior-huntsman who haunts wildernesses and places of the dead and may be invoked or placated for love of his partner, Creiddylad. He remembers her crane-tales. How she lifted him from a crane-bag and gifted him with a name.

“My name is… garan…” he stumbles in reply… “Gwyddno… Garanhir.” As he recalls being taken into his mother’s white, feathery wings, other memories flood back to him: the names of his wife Ystradwen, his son Elffin, the child-bard Taliesin, Seithenin and Mererid who broke the flood gates.

Gwyddno speaks his rush of memories to Gwyn, who listens patiently until Carngrwn paws the tides and pulls away from the bridle, chomping foam from his golden bit.

“The white horse calls this talk to an end,” Gwyn speaks abruptly. “We must depart to further bloodshed in Tawe and Nedd, not this Tawe but the one far away where the tide ebbs fiercely on the shore. To my sorrow I attended a battle at Caer Fanddwy…”

Gwyddno shivers at Gwyn’s words of another Tawe and the name of a fortress that is not of thisworld. He recalls stories about Gwyn riding forth from the otherworld to gather the souls of the dead. An awful knowing washes over him like tidal waters, beginning from his toes.

The white hound draws closer ruddy-nosed. “His name is Dormach,” says Gwyn. “Do not fear him. He was with Maelgwn and has accompanied many of the other men of your lineage to protection within my realm.”

Gwyddno’s vision swims. Dormach shifts into mist to dog again his nose to sun to nose. The death-hound’s gaze remains constant, inescapable.

“I was there at the deaths of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio,” Gwyn says, “Bran son of Ywerydd, Llachau son of Arthur, Meurig son of Careian and Gwallog son of Llenog. I helped them cross. They will be waiting for you on the otherside.”

As the names of long forgotten kinsmen return to match their war-torn faces, Gwyddno yearns to be re-united. His crane-wings stir.

Yet the gatherer of souls has not finished his speech. Gwyn cries:

“I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain,
from the east to the north;
I live on; they are in the grave.

I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain,
from the east to the south;
I live on; they are dead.”

Gwyn mounts his rearing white horse and they depart in a fury of sea foam into clouds of unendurable brightness.

Borth Beach IVThe mist lifts and Gwyddno sees his lost land illuminated within a boat’s reach by the light of the setting sun. Yet he does not need a boat and oars to follow where Dormach leads.

Gwyddno Garanhir hears the call of cranes bellowing, aching, sees their white wings, recognises every face, knows it is time to return to the flock. He spreads his wings. Puts on his red-black mask. His legs spell his crossing in black letters across blue-bright skies as he joins his kindred, finally touching feathers with his wife, promising later they will dance their names.

This crossing was not his final one. He may be found at Borth when the mist descends, white winged, crane-legged, a wise old man unsewing a crane bag, speaking of salmon, whispering to horses of sea-foam, a teacher of words and letters, telling often (as his mother did) the stories of Gwyn ap Nudd.

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