Culhwch and Olwen

The most archaic text in the Mabinogion collection is what is often referred to as ‘the Oldest Arthurian tale’: Culhwch and Olwen, written in the St Davids area c.1090. Culhwch is worth examining in greater detail, as many of the general problems we have in the interpretation of Medieval Welsh prose narratives are presented in stark relief by the structure and content of this particular tale. There are a number of reasons why this should be the case. Not only is Culhwch is the oldest surviving prose tale written in the Medieval Welsh language, it is also generally thought to be the closest to the oral background of traditional story-telling from which the Mabinogion originally emerged. The oral tale, by its very nature, leaves no direct trace on the historical record; so the precise form of these narrative recitals in the Middle Ages must remain a matter for conjecture. Nonetheless, just as there are certain stylistic and structural features which are characteristic of the säge or oral popular tale in all times and placesi , so too are there are also certain stereotypical plot structures and narrative elements which would seem to have their origins in the common prehistory of mankind. That such ‘motifs’ and ‘tale-types’ permeate both the structure and content of Culhwch and Olwen offers a strong indication of the proximity of this popular-oral background.

The Giant’s Daughter, or Six Go through the World

One such traditional plot-structure or tale-type is the so-called ‘Giants Daughter’ or ‘Six Go Through the World’ scenario. This story characteristically begins with an old king or giant who is fated to die should his daughter ever marry. It becomes the Giant’s goal to do all within his power to prevent such a marriage, and thereby maintain his daughter’s virginity. In contravention of this oppressive state of affairs, a young hero appears on the scene and falls in love with the daughter. The Giant responds by setting his would-be son-in-law a series of seemingly impossible and lethal tasks. Danger notwithstanding, the Hero sets out to fulfil these instructions, acquiring on the way a motley band of helpers – each of which has a special talent (a fast runner, a skilful archer, a keen tracker, a prodigious eater etc.). The tasks are confronted one by one, allowing for each of the Helpers to display their peculiarities in a variety of imaginative ways. The tale ends with the successful completion of the final task, the marriage of the Hero and the Daughter, and the subsequent death of her father.

Culhwch is clearly derived from this traditional scenario. Like many fairy-tale heroes Culhwch son of Cilydd is a rather faceless character, relatively unknown elsewhere in Welsh literary culture. He acquires his fated love for the Giant’s Daughter (significantly) as a result of a curse from his jealous step-mother, who decrees that ‘never shall his body strike the side of a woman’ unless it would be that of Olwen daughter of the Giant Ysbaddadenii . And so the tale begins. Culhwch sets out to the court of his powerful kinsman, the Chief Lord Arthuriii , to secure his help in winning the hand of Olwen. His departure is described in a wonderfully overblown sequence, which captures the mood and style of the tale as a whole:

Off went the boy on a steed with light-grey head, four-winters old, with well-knit fork, shell-hoofed, and a golden tubular bridle-bit in its mouth. And under him a precious gold saddle, and in his hand two whetted spears of silver. A battle-axe in his hand, the forearm’s lengt of a full-grown man from ridge to edge. It would draw blood from the wind; it would be swifter than the swiftest dew-drop from the stalk to the ground, when the dew would be heaviest in the month of June. A gold-hilted sword on his thigh, and the blade of it gold, and a gold-chased buckler upon him, with the hue of heaven’s lightning therein, and an ivory boss therein. And two greyhounds, whitebreasted, brindled, in front of him, with a collar of red gold about the neck of either, from shoulder-swell to ear. The one that was on the left side would be on the right, and the one that was one the right side would be on the left, like two sea-swallows sporting around him. Four clods the four hoofs of his steed would cut, like four swallows in the air over his head, now before him, now behind him. A four-cornered mantle of purple upon him, and an apple of red-gold in each of its corners; a hundred kine was the worth of each apple. The worth of three hundred kine in precious gold was there in his foot gear and stirrups, from the top of his thigh to the tip of his toe. Never a hair-tip stirred upon him, so exceedingly light his steed’s canter under him on his way to the gate of Arthur’s court.iv

The young hero then arrives at the gate, where he gains entry to the hall through a mixture of charm and magical coersion (he threatens to raise ‘three great shouts’ that will cause the women of the court to abort or become barren). Once inside he befriends the king (who also happens to be his first cousin) and requests that Arthur cut his hair (a traditional bonding ritual in Early Medieval Wales). Culhwch then demands the assistance of the king, invoking by name each of the members of Arthur’s war-band. Arthur agrees to help the hero find the giant and his daughter, and together they set out with a select group of six of his followers, each of which has a special talent (recalling the helpers ‘Six Go Through the World’). After wandering through the wilderness, they discover a shepherd and his wife who turn out to be kinsmen of Arthur and Culhwch, who themselves have been persecuted by Ysbaddaden the giant, having lost all but one of their twenty-four sons at his hands. Shortly after this, the heroine Olwen makes an appearance, her demeaour being relayed in striking terms, complementing the earlier description of the hero:

And she came, with a robe of flame-red silk around her, and around the maiden’s neck a torque of red gold, and precious pearls thereon and rubies. Yellower was her head than the flower of the broom, whiter was her flesh than the foam of the wave; whiter were her palms and her fingers than the shoots of the marsh trefoil from amidst the fine gravel of a welling spring. Neither the eye of the mewed hawk, nor the eye of the thrice-mewed falcon, not an eye was there that was fairer than hers. Whiter were her breasts than the breast of a white sawn, redder were her cheeks than the reddest foxglove. Whoso saw her would be filled with love for her. Four white trefoils sprang up behind her wherever she went; and for that reason she was called Olwen.v

After that, the hero and his helpers meet the giant Ysbaddaden himself who in contrast to his daughter is a grotesque and misshapen figure, with drooping eyelids propped up with special forks (recalling the demonic Balor of the Irish tradition). At first he throws ‘poisoned stone-spears’ at the hero and his helpers – but on three occasions these are returned, wounding the giant in the leg, belly and eye respectively (the last injury – inflicted by Culhwch – recalling the blinding/killing of Balor by the divine hero Lugh). However, Ysbaddaden doesn’t die, but instead stipulates a number of conditions that must be fulfilled by Culhwch in order to win the hand of Olwen. These include the preparation of a wedding accoutrements for Olwen, grooming equipment for her father, and food and drink for the feast – all of which require the near-impossible acquisition of certain rarefied helpers, materials or ingredients (Olwen’s veil, for example, must be made out of flax grown in a barren field; Culhwch must acquire the help of (among others) the mythical farmer-god Amaethon fab Dôn in order to plough the ground of this field)

The bulk of the rest of the tale sees the heroes undertake a series of adventures as each of these task is undertaken. Giants are killed, prisoners freed, magical treasures seized from their otherworldly owners. The action culminates with the rioteous hunting of the giant boar known as Twrch Trwyth, who is pursued across the countryside of South Wales and Cornwall, before disappearing into the sea at Lands End. The last remaining task, the killing of ‘the Black Witch, daughter of the White Witch’ is achieved by Arthur himself – after a number of his heroes have been consummately humiliated, driven ‘squealing and squalling’ out of her cave. With this task finally accomplished, the hero and his helpers return to the Ysbaddaden, who is ruthlessly shaved ‘down to the bone’ before being killed. The hero marries the heroine, and Arthur and his retinue return to their domains.

Integrating the Functions

Audiences from every land and every culture would have continued to enjoy stories of this kind, offering as they do a well-structured fantasy which gratifies the complex of instinctual and psycho-social urges that constitute human nature on all of its levels. At its most primitive core, we have a patricidal fantasy which is given covert expression through the motif of the killing of the Giant. The ‘Difficult Tasks’ (anoethau) echo the universal experience of the rites de passage: tests, examinations or initiations through which the adolescent must pass to claim his place within the world of mature adulthood. The recruitment of the Skilled Helpers might be seen in terms of a Jungian process of ‘integration of functions’; or (on a macrocosmic level) the evolution of a diversified society. On a narratological level, the structure of the story as a whole offers a convenient serial format: which can be lengthened and shortened to suit the story-teller’s purposes. Its cast-list, at the heart of which stands the eternal triangle of the Giant-Daughter-Hero, is basic and universal enough to accommodate a variety of more local figures. Thus, the Giant’s Daughter offers an eminently workable narrative template: the length, tone and content of which can be varied to the storyteller’s content, without damage being done to its thematic core. Its inherent appeal to both storytellers and audiences might explain why versions of this story are attested in just about every corner of the inhabited world.

An anthropological analysis of the Giant’s Daughter scenario as a pan-human narrative template must be balanced with the actualities of the particular exemplars involved. Here of course we are interested in the detail of the specific varient we find in the story of Culhwch. Arthurian expert Stephen Knight, in his analysis of Culhwch, has considered this question with particular reference to the socio-historical situation in which this ancient story was once again reworked. In particular, Knight has identified evidence of a repeated concern with issues of fertility; a struggle to tame and subdue the wilder forces of nature; and finally a desire to legitimise (through the significant reference to grooming and other cultural tropes) the power of the warrior

That such issues should have been of particular concern in Wales at the end of the eleventh century is by no means incongruous with the broader picture that emerges from that period. The Welsh, by this time, had suffered centuries of humiliating defeat at the hands of the land-hungry Anglo-Saxon warrior-farmers, and with the arrival of Normans in 1066 their borders were under pressure once again. Punitive marriage laws in conjunction with a more scattered demography, may well have meant that the native population of Medieval Wales were in danger of being out-bred as well as out-fought by their aggressive, town-dwelling, Anglo-Norman neighbours. Meanwhile, in their relations with their fellow Celtic nation over the western sea they were facing difficulties of another kind – with even the most hardened Welsh warrior-princes struggling to abide with ‘the evil ways and the evil customs of the Irish’vii . In such a context, one can see how the scenario of glamourous British heroes overcoming primitive giants, breaking repressive curses and freeing up the mechanisms of breeding and fertilityviii would have had a particular resonance in this time and place.

Culhwch and the Carnivalesque

Against this interpretation, we should consider the rather different reading offered by the medievalist Joan N. Radner, in a paper presented in 1988.ix Radner sees Culhwch primarily as an ‘ironic’ treatment of the Giant’s Daughter tale. As the most unambiguous evidence for what she sees as the ‘pervasive pastiche’ within the Medieval Welsh text, Radner draws our attention to the extensive list of Arthur’s warriors invoked by Culhwch soon after his arrival at Arthur’s court.

It is hard to dispute the fact that this list, while possibly being based on a traditional itineraryxi , has clearly been inflated ad absurdem. Covering more than six pages in the standard English translation , this role-call includes cartoonish figures such as Gwefyl fab Gwastad (‘on the day he was sad, one of his lips he would let down to his naval, and the other would be as a cowl on his head) or Uchdryd Farf Drws ‘who would throw the bristling red beard he had on him across fifty rafters which were in Arthur’s Hall’), and many more of a similarly cartoon-like demeanour. As Radner has suggested, the Arthurian court-list appears in many respects to be an extended version of the traditional retinue of helpers in the Giant’s Daughter or Six Go through the World scenario. We have the man with acute hearing (Clust fab Clustfeinad ‘Ear son of Hearer’), the skilled marksman (Medyr fab Medredyd ‘Aim son of Aimer’) as well as the cavernous glutton Huarwar fab Halwn (…‘no glimmer of a smile was ever to be found on him save when he was sated’). Many of these character-types are duplicated or even triplicated throughout the list, in a manner which would appear to be accentuating the inherent comedic tendencies of these side-kicks and bit-part players within the traditional tale. Radnor suggests that ‘the humour comes from the play with the form; the convention of the skilled helpers is [itself] being parodied.’xii

There are other elements within the tale that Radnor highlights as being indicative of this satiric intent. The incongruity between the tasks stipulated by Ysbaddaden and those completed in the text is regarded as further evidence of a sending-up of the genre. Radner finds the mutual exchange of spears between Arthur’s warriors and Ysbaddaden more reminiscent of ‘custard-pie humour’ than the high-drama of the traditional mythical combat between the Hero and the Giant. Commenting on the obsession with grooming (combs, hair-cutting, shaving equipment etc.), Radnor ventures that Culhwch might be plausibly described as ‘the world’s first tonsorial mock-epic (taking the Rape of the Lock perhaps as the second)’xiii . Overall, Radnor offers a view of Culhwch as a product of a cultural world in which ‘the cosmopolitan and the parochial were blended … the audience that would – much earlier – have given unquestioning attention to the oral performance of the pencerdd, bardd, or cyfarwydd had changed to include multiple points of view, and even multiple nationalities.’xiv Within such a milieu, Radner suggests, a text such as Culhwch may have been enjoyed in a light-hearted and fairly sophisticated manner – in the same way, perhaps, as a modern audience might enjoy a mock-Arthurian work like Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

On the face of it, it is hard to square these two widely differing readings of this Medieval Celtic text. On the one hand, Stephen Knight represents Culhwch as a tribalistic narrative – the imaginative reflex of an oppressed and threatened people, drawing strength and legitimacy from a reworking of respected and traditional narrative forms. On the other hand, Radnor offers a reading that would seem to suggest that precisely the opposite was true – that Welsh courts in the eleventh century were ‘places of cultural contact and diplomatic negotiation’, in which audiences were sufficiently urbane and self-confident to be able to poke fun (in writing) at their own cultural heritage.

However, it may be that these two interpretations are in fact less contradictory than they initially appear. It is beyond doubt that there were elements of intentional humour present within Culhwch, but these need to be properly contextualised if we are to appreciate this significant feature of the medieval narrative experience. What is important for us to grasp (and this is relevant to any historically-conscious reading of the Four Branches) is that within medieval narratives of this kind humourous or comedic elements could exist alongside or within other literary modes, including the epical and the tragic.

The role-call of Arthur’s warriors (briefly discussed above) is a good case in point. From this we can see that medieval readers were not insensitive to the comedic potential of the traditional tale, even if we have no way of knowing whether or not the more obviously parodic figures like ‘Gwydden the Abstruce’ or ‘Suck son of Sucker’ were present in the original eleventh-century textxv . A similar propensity might be observed in the delightfully over-blown descriptions of the hero and heroine quoted above. In style, these word-pictures echo the Welsh rhetorical tradition of the areithrau ‘orations’, which have resulted in some similarly burlesque narrative prose, albeit from a rather later literary corpusxvi . (Similarities have also been noted with the descriptive ‘runs’ of the oral narrative of the modern Gaelic worldxvii .) We might conject, then, that a sometimes-humerous hyperbolic quality was a feature of traditional Celtic storytelling from its earliest beginningsxviii . It is within the norms of this narrative culture, then, to place the comedic and the dramatic in proximity to one another, rather than in juxtaposition.

It is crucial to realise the extent to which this differs from modern narrative-cultural norms, where the comedic and the dramatic are mutually exclusive. Modern audiences have become accustomed to the specialised use of parodic humour as a device to undermine, deflate or dismiss ‘serious’ genres; making it hard for us to understand how the comedic and the dramatic can co-exist within the same artistic expression. But such incompatability of genres has by no means always been the case. Just as the monstrous gargoyle can inhabit the same cathedral wall as the saintly icon; or the irreverent doodle can adorn the exegetical manuscript – it cannot always be said that the presence of humour or whimsy within the medieval narrative was intended to undermine its psycho-dramatic potency. Indeed, more often than not, such flourishes signalled a generalised intensification of affect: a cultural experience in which all emotional registers (wonder, hilarity, excitement, fear etc.) were simultaneously subject to heightened stimulation.

This brings us back to the problem of the carnivalesque, and the ‘menippean’ literary form associated with this mixture of playful irony and theatrical excess. Once this curious modality is understood, many of the problems surrounding the interpretation a text such as Culhwch become easier to resolve. Within the context of the carnival spirit, there is no inherent contradiction between the the dramatic and the comedic. What Radner describes as the ‘pervasive pastiche’ of this boisterous eleventh-century tale complements rather than contradicts the fantasy of reproductive renewal that Knight has suggested lies at the heart of the tale. The parade of odd-balls and eccentrics that makes up the Arthurian retinue might look to us like mocking, literary disparagment; but when we recall the intoxicated irony of the carnival spirit, it appears more like unabashed indulgence. The sequence in which Arthur and his warriors pursue the wild boar Twrch Trwyth round the countryside in an attempt to seize a comb and scissors has undeniably burlesque overtones; and by the time we witness Hygwydd and Cacamwri getting chased bare-bottomed out of a cave by the Black Witch, we are clearly into the realms of knockabout slap-stick. But none of this, from a carnivalistic viewpoint, is at all incongruous with the underlying ritualistic aims.

Attempting to rationalise carnival humour any further than this is unnecessary, and perhaps even futile. It is enough to say that stories like Culhwch exhibits that distinctive combination of the over-blown burlesque and garish pageantry which is the very hallmark of carnival milieu. The freakish figures in the Arthurian court list can be seen as a colourful troop of jugglers and clowns, mingling irreverently with the role-call of traditional tribal heroes such as Gwythyr son of Greidawl or Greid son of Eri. In a similar light, we might compare the ogreish adversaries such as Ysbaddaden and the boar Twrch Trwyth to monstrous masked figures, chasing crowds of screaming revellers at the village fair. Figures such as these were intended to inspire (simultaneously) revulsion, laughter, terror, excitement and fascination. They belonged to the distinctly medieval aesthetic of the grotesque which, like the carnival itself, represented a ritual encounter with the dark and erotic powers of the earth, out of which the vital powers of the community were unleashed and restored.

A new translation of Culhwch ac Olwen, with discurive notes and academic bibliography is available here:

iThese are summed up by Axel Ölrik in Epic Laws of Folk Narrative in The Study of Folklore (ed. Alan Dundes, Englewood Cliff NJ : Prentice Hall, 1965)
iiMab. p 96
iiiPenn Teyrnedd = ‘chief lord’. In this early tale, Arthur has not yet evolved into the feudal king of Anglo-Norman imagination, yet he has come some way from the vir modestus described in Historia Brittonum §56.
ivMab. p.97
vMab. p.111
vi‘The threat represented in the essential plot of the story us the failure of the family to reproduce itself. The stepmother’s curse means Culhwch will either go childless or be killed by the giant … the central fear [is] of a sterile generation and of reproductive power lying in enemy hands, whether giants or stepmothers’ (Arthurian Literature and Society Macmillan Press, 1963 pp 16-18). Knight also identifies grooming as a theme of importance in Culhwch, being that which distinguishes culture from nature.
viiByT [1107=1110].The Welsh word an Irishman Gwyddel = ‘Wild (One)’ suggests that these views were by no means untypical in Medieval Wales. The Topographia Hibernica written by Gerald of Wales in the late twelfth century represents perhaps one of the most extreme and prolonged articulations of this cultural prejudice.
viiic.f. n.###, p. ### below
ix‘Interpreting Irony in Medieval Celtic Narrative: The Case of Culhwch ac Olwen’ Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 16 1988 pp 41-59
xWe find a comparable list in the fragment of Old Welsh verse found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, the so-called Pa Gur sequence, which looks as though it might well have provided the prototype for the list in Culhwch. This has been translated by Patrick Sims-Willaims in The Arthur of the Welsh – The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature ed. Rachel Bromwich, A. O. H. Jarman, Brynley F. Roberts Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991 pp 40-45.
xiMab. p.100-107
xii Radnor p. 46
xiiiibid p. 52
xivibid p. 55.
xvThe oldest rescension of Culhwch is to be found (like the Four Branches) in the fourteenth century White Book of Rhydderch, where as the bulk of the text as we find it may have been taken assembled two or three centuries earlier. This phenomenon of on-going scribal modifications and defining what constitutes ‘the original text’ create significant problems for any attempt to define or specify the ‘literary intention’ of these medieval works.
xvi Yr Areithau Pros ed.see Thomas Parry History of Welsh Literature pp. 80, 131
xvii P. K. Ford The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales Berkley: University of California Press 1977 p. 120
xviiiFor a different view see Radner (1988) pp. ##, who regards the parodic elements of Culhwch as a function of literary self-consciousness.