In comparison to the rioteous burlesque that is Culhwch and Olwen Llud a Llefelys is an altogether more modest affair. First there is the scale of text itself – which occupies a mere five columns in the Red Book of Hergest (compared with the forty columns filled by Culhwch). Furthermore, it is written in what Brynley F. Roberts characterises as the ‘translator style’ of Middle Welsh prose – resembling as it does the rather stilted language we find in Middle Welsh texts which have been translated from Latin originals by churchmen and scholars rather than bards or professional storytellers. The traces of the oral storytelling background found in the other Mabinogion stories is less apparent in Llud, which resembles nothing so much as an extended version of one the explanatory footnotes which sometimes accompany the Triads (see above) in their original manuscript contexts. Indeed, Llud a Llefelys itself has been described as an ‘extended triad’, being a short narrative account of the ‘Three Plagues of the Island of Britain’ which were represented as taking place during the rule of the Sons of Beli Mawr.
The Sons of Beli Mawr occupy a significant place in the Medieval Welsh tradition, and for this reason a word or two needs to be said about them at this juncture. The most prominent aristocratic families in Medieval Wales claimed descent from this dynasty, which was represented as the dominant power in the British Isles in the period immediately prior to the arrival of the Romans. While the genealogical claims of these medieval warlords may have been largely spurious, the tradition of the Sons of Beli Mawr themselves may not be without some historical foundation. One of the more famous Sons of Beli Mawr was Casswallon, who is usually taken to be a medieval recollection of Cassivellaunos, the native British over-king who waged a guerrilla campaign against Caesar’s legions in 45 BC. One might go further still and relate the tradition of ‘the Sons of Beli Mawr’ to the Belgic hegemony in the South and East of England at the end of the Iron Age. The Belgae, who brought the glorious ‘Iron Age C’ material culture to Britain, seem to have emerged in northern France as a result of an influx from the Danube region in the mid-third century. i Going further back still, it may be possible to link this influx with the fallout from the sacking of Delphi by Celtic-speaking barbarians, led by the warlords Brennus and Bolgios. Indeed, it has been proposed that one of these chiefs, Bolgios, might even be the original Beli Mawr, and may even given his name to the Belgae themselves (taking Belgae as a genitival form, i.e. “(host) of Bolgios”). As we will see below, some memories of the Sack of Delphi may be recalled in the invasion mythology of the Second Branch, with the mythical Bendigeidfran in the place of the warlord Brennus.
While academic opinion is still divided on how far we can pursue these proto-historic connections, it is clear that the Sons of Beli Mawr were closely associates with a compelling idea that obsessed the Medieval Welsh imagination: that of a native, pre-Saxon British sovereignty encompassing the Island of Britain, from capes of Cornwall to Caithness, and the islands of Thanet to Anglesey. This was the starting point of Welsh historiography: the primordial state that existed ‘in the beginning’ before the British started out on the ill-omened path which saw them end up as an embattled and dispossessed people, confined to the western margins of the Island. The Welsh prophetic tradition dreamed of a time when the Saxon enemy would be finally routed and Brythonic control of the Island as a whole finally restored. But the task of Medieval Welsh history was to explain the torturous process by which this native sovereignty was lost in the first place – an outcome that was attributed to a mixture of decadence and moral error on the part of the British people themselves and a variety of hostile alien incursions, known in medieval Wales as ‘plagues’ or gormesoedd (sing. gormes).
Llud a Llefelys takes place in the last days of this primal golden age of pan-British sovereignty. The tale describes a time when the island was starting to be subject to plagues or gormesoedd, but these were still being successfully held at bay by the Sons of Beli Mawr. The latter are represented as being led by Llud son of Beli Mawr, who plays a direct role in defending his people against the gormesoedd. In this endeavour, he is helped by his brother Llefelys, the king of France, in a partnership that has parallels with the co-operative kinship between Nuada Silver-Hand and Lugh in the Irish tale of Cath Maige Tuired (‘The Battle of Moytura’). Indeed, the two medieval tales may well draw on the same Common Celtic mythical foundations. Both involve a series of magical challenges to the sovereignty of the tribal homeland – challenges which involve a foreign invading race, a monstrous giant, and threats the tribe’s food supply and fertility. Both describe how these problems were eventually repelled through a combination of heroic valour and magical cunning.
In the tale of Llud, there are three distinct gormesoedd. The first of these involves the arrival of a hostile magical race called the Coraniaidd whose power is defined by their supernatural omniscience (“there was no conversation anywhere in the Island that they did not know about, however softly spoken, provided the wind carried it”). This creates the immediate problem of how to talk openly without alerting the enemy of their intentions. Llud and Llefelys devise a solution to this in the form of a bronze tube through which they conduct private conversations. This device is initially plagued by a demon, which causes ‘only hateful, hostile words’ to be heard. This bug in the system is literally flushed out by pouring wine through the tube, leaving the Sons of Beli Mawr free to form their countervailing strategies. Llefelys advises that the paste made from a certain type insect will work as an effective magical agent against the Coraniaidd, and that the latter (along with Llud’s own people) should be gathered in one place “on the pretext of making peace between them”. The concoction is then scattered over the assembled crowd, poisoning the Coraniaidd but leaving Llud’s people unharmed, thus resolving the first of the gormesoedd.
So who exactly were these Coraniaidd? They are occasionally mentioned elsewhere in Medieval Welsh literature, but their obscurity has led some scholars to suggest that the name may be a corruption of Cesariaidd ‘Caesarians’, an archaic name used to denote the Romans in one strand of the Welsh tradition.ii The oriental origins and preternatural intelligence of the latter may contain an echo of the impression made by this alien civilisation on their rustic British subjects in the early Roman era, and their disposal by this strange magical means might record a vestigal fantasy of deliverance that may have its roots in the generations leading up to the Boudiccan revolt. Generally speaking, however, the role of the Coraniaidd is simply that of an invading, otherworld race – similar in function to Fomorii in the Irish Cath Maige Tuired – a saga of invasion and resistance which (as we have seen) may well share common prehistoric origins with Llud a Llefelys.
The background of the Coraniaidd, then, owes as much to the generic mythic imagination as it does to any specific historic actualities. The same can also be said of the second plague – a classic gormes in which the well-being and fertility of the tribe is periodically menaced by a mysterious scream, ‘heard above every hearth’ each May-eve:
“It pierced people’s hearts and terrified them so much that men lost their colour and their strength, and women miscarried, and young men and maidens lost their senses, and all the animals and trees and the earth and the waters were left barren” (trans. Davies)
The cause of this debilitating cry is eventually diagnosed as a deep-rooted conflict in the heart of the island itself. Llefelys explains to his brother that two dragons - one representing the Welsh and another representing “a foreign people” – are locked in combat in an underground place, somewhere in the middle of the island. It is the screams of the Welsh dragon that reverberate every May-Eve, with such devastating effect. Llefelys suggests a solution that involves measuring the island to find its exact centre, and then digging a hole. Beside the hole a vat of mead covered with a cloth of brocaded silk is to be left. Llud is then advised to wait patiently until the dragons emerge:
“And then you will see the dragons fighting in the shape of monstrous animals. But eventually they will rise into the air in the shape of dragons; and eventually when they are exhausted after the fierce and frightful fighting, they will fall onto the sheet in the shape of two little pigs, and make the sheet sink down with them, and drag it to the bottom of the vat, and they will drink all the mead and after that they will sleep. Then immediately wrap the sheet around them, and in the strongest place you find in your kingdom, bury them in a stone chest and hide it in the ground, and as long as they are in that secure place, no plague shall come to the Island of Britain from anywhere else.”
Here, again, we find a number of elements that are familiar from elsewhere within Welsh mythology, and the Celtic tradition more generally. The scream and its effects are similar to that threatened by Culhwch at the court of Arthur, as we have already seen. (This is turn might be connected with diasbad uwch annwyn ‘the Scream over Annwfn’ mentioned in the Medieval Welsh law tracts). The motif of underground fighting dragons is found in the 10th-century Historia Brittonum, where they are divined by the boy-prophet Ambrosius as the underlying cause of the repeated collapse of a certain tower. As in Llud a Llefelys, the dragons are identified with the Welsh and a foreign people, in this case specifically the English. The Historia version of the fighting dragons vision sees the red (Welsh) dragon emerging as victorious, this becoming an important motif in the prophetic tradition, symbolising the eventual return of Brythonic sovereignty to the island. In Llud, however, it is interesting to note that fighting dragons assume a variety of forms – starting off as ‘monstrous animals’, before rising into the air as dragons and then sinking back down to the ground as two exhausted piglets. This sequence is reminiscent of the shape-changing battles between Taliesin and Ceridwen recorded in the late medieval chronicle by Ellis Gruffydd. But an even closer analogue is with the conflict between the druid-swineherds in the rémscela or fore-tales of the Irish Tain Bó Cuailgne. Finally, the burial of the fighting dragons at the end of this episodes recalls the talismanic concealment of Bendigeidfrân’s mortal remains at the end of the Second Branch, or those of Gwrthefyr as described in the Historia. The subsequent unearthing of these protective talismans is often lamented in the Welsh tradition, and is often used to explain why later generations were unable to resist the threatening gormesoedd as effectively as their mythological ancestors. As such, these ‘fortunate concealments’ and ‘unfortunate disclosures’ play an important part in the meta-narrative of sovereignty, loss and eventual restoration which we have seen played such a central role in Medievel Welsh historiography.
There is perhaps rather less to say about the final gormes, which is first noticed when it becomes apparent that food was disappearing from the royal stores under mysterious circumstances. Again following his brother’s advice, Llud stands guard personally one night, keeping a tub of cold water by his side to prevent sleep. About half way through the night, Llud heard ‘many wonderful songs and all kinds of music, and felt drowsiness forcing him to sleep’. Resisting this enchantment by plunging himself into the water, Llud then becomes aware of ‘a man of enormous stature’ carrying a hamper, and emptying all the provisions of the court therein. Llud challenges this food-stealing giant and overcomes him in combat. The giant then returns the hamper and pledges allegiance to the British king, bringing an end to tale.
As with the fighting dragons episode, this otherwise unremarkable episode contains a surprising number of familiar motifs. The enemy who arrives by night and uses magic to send the watchmen to sleep is something of a folktale commonplace, and we find something very similar in the First Branch, when the infant Pryderi despite being guarded by six chamber maids (see below). The supernaturally capacious hamper carried by the interloper reminds us of Rhiannon’s magic bag, another key feature of the First Branch. The hidden enemy with magical powers, removing resources from the kingdom by stealth, is more or less the scenario of the Third Branch. Like Llud, Manawydan eventually confronts the interloper, and defeats him in what is essentially a one-to-one struggle for the well-being of the kingdom. (It might be noted that, from a literary point of view, the menace loses much of its potency once it is overtly revealed. What makes the Mabinogi tales so powerful is that the enemy remains obscure and undefined for so long. This suspense in not maintained for so long in Llud, and even then there is still something rather bathetic about the appearance of giant with the hamper when this mystery is disclosed.)
The earlier extant version of the tale is to be found included in the Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s influential Historia Regum Britanniae, in the mid-thirteenth century manuscript Llanstephan MS 1. However, there is no reason to doubt that the material found in this tale was present in an ambient form as far back as the late eleventh century, if not earlier still. As can be seen from the parallels noted above, Llud might be seen as a repository of folktale motifs which are particularly characteristic of the Welsh tradition. Its triplicate structure strongly suggests that it had initially emerged from the Triadic format of native learned memory. It fits securely within the grand ‘meta-narrative’ of the native Welsh historiographical scheme, and the basic theme of the magical defence of the island may well have its roots in pre-Christian Celtic mythology. But the version of the tale we find in the Red and White books is more directly related to the interpolations into Llanstephan Historia, and thus has less direct contact with the traditions of oral storytelling than the other Mabinogion tales.
iVenceslas Crutas The Celts of the West (London: Orbis, 1985)
iiGenerally speaking, however, the Brythonic view of the Roman occupation was altogether more nuanced. It was not regarded as a gormes in quite the same way that as (for example) the arrival of the hated Saxons. In the annexation of Britain to Rome is usually interpreted in more favourable terms, as a client relationship or a marital alliance (as we will see in the legend of Mascen Wledig elsewhere on this site). Despite this, it could be that a body of tradition reflecting the negative aspects of Roman occupation survived (albeit in a distorted and disassociated form) in this medieval legend of the Coraniaidd.