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 Caer 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. Rachel 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).

Mererid

Dyfi ynyslas
‘Maes Gwyddno’ : Dyfi Estuary at Yny Las

Mererid

Cup-bearer at the court
of Gwyddno Garanhir
she proffered the mead of prophecy,

Fore-telling the overwelling
of pride, predicting the flood
but not pre-empting the flow

From the poisoned cup of plenty
held by the plaintive stranger,
her presence inviolate.

But respect for her expected
honour waned and without it
she was unprotected.

So was the land. The waters
washed over the fetlocks of horses,
their grazing a gathering place

For dolphins, and she now diving
with them under the waves
that lap at the liminal marshland endlessly


Notes:

The office of cup bearer had its origins in an older custom and was therefore seen as both integral to the court but also an echo of something other, so its holder could be regarded as equally an insider and an outsider as an officer of the court.

Although the principal role of male cup-bearers was as poison tasters, female cup-bearers in Germanic and Celtic tribes were identified with provision and also with prophecy. The office may have had its origins in the goddess Rosmerta, the element ‘smert’  in her name means ‘provider’ , her emblems being the bucket, ladle, cup and the patera – symbols of life-giving food and drink.

The flooding of the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir are recorded in the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod. The older of the extant legends blames Mererid (‘Pearl’) – variously identified as a cup-bearer, a well maiden, the lover of one of Gwyddno’s men who had been killed in battle – as the responsible agent of the flood. The story is confused.

Mererid is portrayed as riding through the flood on a horse.

Gwyddno Garanhir’s horse was said to have been poisoned by the waters rushing down through his lands from the spilling of Ceridwen’s cauldron.

*

Cup bearers are discussed by M J Enright in Lady With a Mead Cup (Four Courts Press, 1995) 

Mererid’s story is contained in a poem in the Welsh medieval manuscript of
The Black Book of Carmarthen

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.

The Name of the Well Maiden

John Rhys, in his study Celtic Foklore (1901), discussing a poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen , dealing with the inundation of Cantre’r Gwaelod on the shores of Cardigan Bay, says this:
“The name … Mererid, Margarita, ‘a pearl’ … but what does it here mean? …. the name given to some negligent guardian of a fairy well. It cannot very well be, however, the name belonging to the original form of the legend.”

My own meditation on this question follows, based on my experience of this landscape and its resonant features.

BorthForestThe remains of trees on the beach at Borth, Cardigan Bay

What is the name of the well maiden?
– the one who wept
tears of grief when the seal was broken
so the engulfing waters swept
over the land , drowning the forest that watched the sea?

Was it ‘Pearl’
– a hidden bud
of moisture in the enclosing earth
and stone, its pulse swelling to a flood
rushing down the cairn-strewn hill?

If not Mererid,
then to what hidden name will she answer
to those who seek the source?
Is she kin to Sulis or Coventina,
or to some sea nymph, say Morgana

Dwelling now in Gwyddno’s fort out under
the crashing waves
where the old road runs into the sea
her hair laved by the ebb and flow of the tides,
her wail echoed in the seabird’s plaintive cries.