The Conversation Between Taliesin and Ugnach

 

blackbookofcarma00evanuoft_0149
The Opening of the poem inThe Black Book of Carmarthen from the facsimile of Gwenogvryn Evans

One of the most intriguing of the ‘conversation’ poems in early Welsh is that between Taliesin and Ugnach. Two separate manuscripts of the poem have survived, one in The Black Book of Carmarthen and another in a separate manuscript also kept in The National Library of Wales. The poem has been interpreted in a number of ways and a few ambiguous words in one of its englyns have given rise to much speculation about the context for the poem. I will discuss these matters after giving my translation.  I should make it clear here that I read it as a straight-forward encounter with an Otherworld character whose identity I will also suggest below. A remarkable feature of the poem, if it is viewed in this way, is that Taliesin is reluctant to accept the invitation offered to him, given the apparently fearless forays into the Otherworld which are a feature of some of the poems attributed to him.

Who is Ugnach that Taliesin should be so deferential to him and yet refuse his offer of hospitality? In the poem he says that he is ‘Ugnach, Son of Mydno’ but Taliesin claims not to know him and there are no references to this character elsewhere unless we can equate him with the ‘Mugnach’ mentioned in the Triads as the father of Fflur who is beloved of Caswallawn. There he is named with the additional appellation ‘Gorr’ which is usually presumed to be an abbreviation for ‘Corrach’ (dwarf) but it might also be a scribal mistake or variant of ‘cawr’ (giant). Names ending in ‘-ach’ tend to signify supernatural characters such as ‘Wrnach’, a giant and Diwrnach, the Irish owner of a magical cauldron, both of whom feature in Culhwch and Olwen. Attaching the suffix -‘ach’ to the Welsh word ‘gwraig’ (woman) gives ‘gwrach’ (witch). So it might be that the name’s significance is as much in its suffix as in any genealogy.

Following the conventional exchange when two horsemen meet each other, Ugnach is immediately insistent that Taliesin should accept his hospitality – ‘You cannot refuse’ – but Taliesin, as politely as possible, does refuse. He says he is on his way to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion (presumably Dinas Dinlleu in Gwynedd, a location which is the setting for part of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi ?) When asked where he is coming from he says ‘Caer Seon’, a place that has a number of possible locations.

Why will Taliesin not go with Ugnach? It may be that he really is in a hurry, but there is a certain tension in the exchange between them that suggests an evasiveness on Taliesin’s part and an insistent lure on the part of Ugnach. It has something of the atmosphere of the exchanges between the boy and the crone or ‘false knight’ in the folk ballad ‘The False Knight on the Road’ and its variants. Here, though, Taliesin does not try to cleverly outwit Ugnach but, in accordance with convention, to politely but firmly decline his offer. Does Taliesin fear the consequences of going with Ugnach, perhaps thinking he may never return? This suggests a skilled mediator with Otherworld beings who is wary of what this one wants with him.

The poem is written in the form of a series of three-line englyns with each of the three lines featuring end-rhyme, something not achievable in the translation but which, along with the syllabic requirements of the englyn form, may have a bearing on the particular choice of words and therefore may be a factor in the issues discussed below.

TALIESIN:

Horseman who rides to the fortress
With white hounds and great horns
I see you but I do not know you.

UGNACH:

Horseman who rides to the estuary
On a steed strong and steadfast
Come with me, you cannot refuse.

TALIESIN:

I cannot go there now
I have no time to delay
Blessings go with you from above and below.

UGNACH:

Warrior who is not seen here often
With the look of one who is fortunate
Where do you go and from where do you come?

TALIESIN:

I come from Cael Seon,
From contesting with strangers;
I go to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion.

UGNACH:

Come with me to my fortress
For shining mead
And fine gold for your spear-rest.

TALIESIN:

I do not know you bold warrior
Who promises mead and a bed,
Your speech honeyed and fair.

UGNACH:

Come to my domain
For wine flowing freely.
Ugnach am I, named son of Mydno.

TALIESIN:

Ugnach, blessings to your Gorsedd,
May you have favour and honour.
Taliesin am I and I’ll acknowledge your feast.

UGNACH:

Taliesin, greatest of men,
Most accomplished in bardic contest,
Stay with me until Wednesday.

TALIESIN:

Ugnach, most richly endowed,
Grace to your great land;
No censure on me that I cannot stay.

§

On the face of it this seems to be an encounter with a character from the Otherworld, a character who bears a striking resemblance to Gwyn ap Nudd with his pack of white hounds. This is how I read it so this has had a bearing on how I have translated it. But other contexts have been argued for, mainly centring on the interpretation of the fifth englyn. There Taliesin says he comes from ‘Caer Seon’ where, in the second line of the englyn, he says he has been ‘ymlit ac itewon’. On the face of it these words seem to mean ‘fighting (or disputing) with jews’. Taking the word ‘itewon’ to be the earliest example of the modern Welsh word ‘iddewon’ (jews) would certainly give such a meaning for the line. This has led to one interpretation of the poem as an account of Taliesin returning from the Crusades, making ‘Caer Seon’ Jerusalem and ‘jews’ a generic term for those being attacked there [1]. A much more likely word, in that case, would be ‘saracens’ but there are several examples in medieval literature in English as well as Welsh of such words being mixed up or having a general application to refer to ‘others’. Elsewhere, saracens were even conflated with saxons, and the precise identity of peoples from other cultures would not necessarily be distinguished and the word for one could serve as the word for others, particularly if they were all ‘enemies’ [2] For this reason I have preferred to translate ‘itewon’ (which end-rhymes with ‘seon’ and ‘gwidion’) as ‘strangers’. There is, of course, no need to opt for the ‘crusade’ theory even if ‘itewon’ is retained as ‘jews’. There are possible locations for ‘Caer Seon’ on the island of Anglesey and near Conwy on the coast of North Wales. Taliesin could have been engaging in theological disputes or bardic contests (rather than fighting) with jews in either of these places, though it seems unlikely. Or he could have been coming from Arthur’s court at Caerleon, where such a contest is a little more possible.

Some scholars have suggested that ‘itewon’ might be a mistake for ‘cerddorion’, and that Taliesin was therefore engaging in expected bardic contests with other poets, especially if Caer Seon is taken to be a court of Maelgwn Gwynedd at Deganwy near Conwy. Similarly ‘itewon’ has been taken as a developed form of the place name ‘Iudeu’ , thought to be on the Firth of Forth, which would mean that Taliesin had journeyed from the Old North, possibly to North Wales or possibly to another destination in the Old North. But all of this is a distraction from the encounter with Ugnach. It seems clear that Taliesin is being invited to an Otherworld caer and that he refuses the invitation. If we may take Ugnach to be Gwyn ap Nudd two possibilities may be considered. One is that Taliesin’s boastful expeditions to the Otherworld, such as that described in Preiddeu Annwn, are conducted as raids either for treasure or for poetic inspiration. Here he is invited to visit as a guest, or perhaps is being lured there to account for himself. Clearly he is not prepared to go on these terms. The other possibility, suggested by at least one scholar [3] is that he is dead and that Ugnach is bidding him come to the ‘great land’ as he acknowledges it, and that he is either not yet ready to go, or he is going elsewhere. If so Ugnach may well be Gwyn ap Nudd, in another guise. The fact that Taliesin says he journeys to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion has been seen as a possible reference to the Milky Way (Caer Gwydion), that is, he has his sights on a higher destination. The possibility that this would mean ‘Heaven’ in a christian sense, or an alternative Otherworld location of which Gwydion is the ruler – imponderable though that may be – is also worth pondering.

References

Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin ed. A O H Jarman (Cardiff, 1982)

‘Rhai Cerddi Ymddidan’ Brinley F. Roberts in Astudiaethau ar Y Hengerdd ed. Rache Bromwich & R. Brinley Jones (Cardiff 1978)

Alexander Falileyev ‘Why Jews? Why Caer Seon? Towards Interpretations of Ymddidan Taliesin ac Ugnach’ in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies No. 64 Winter 2012

[1] By Graham Isaac in an article discussed by Alexander Falileyev (see above).
[2] As suggested by Marged Haycock in her notes to the poem ‘Kadeir TeŸrnon’ Legendary Poems From The Book of Taliesin (CMCS, 2007) p.310
[3] Also proposed by Graham Isaac and discussed by Alexander Falileyev (see above).

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3 thoughts on “The Conversation Between Taliesin and Ugnach

  1. Thanks so much for this translation and fascinating commentary. I haven’t read this poem for a long, long time because I’ve been using Pennar’s translation of The Black Book of Carmarthen and its isn’t included. I recall reading Skene’s translation a few years ago and thinking as a I read the first few verses ‘it’s Gwyn!!!’ I saw him vividly as a white bull-horned figure on a white horse with his hounds surrounded by mist then got to the name Ugnach and though ah, it’s someone very like Gwyn, but not him. I haven’t returned to it for ages.

    If Ugnach is a supernatural name and a title (not sure how the Mydno fits though…) it does seem very possible he is Gwyn, particularly considering the direction of the conversation. Additionally this poem (35) is only one poem after ‘Gwyn and Gwyddno’ (33) and could form part of that lost narrative, much of which is about the fall of the North and Gwyn gathering the souls of the fallen. I’m not surprised to see Taliesin trying to escape death again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A further thought on Ugnach’s name… In the line where he identifies himself he uses the word ‘heno’ which is given in the glossary as a variant on ‘enw’ (‘name’). But ‘heno’ also means ‘tonight’, so could he mean that he is Ugnach just for tonight, and that he is hiding his true identity?

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