Wales - Llewellyn the Great

About Some Old Welsh Stories And Story-Tellers

Remember that the Celtic family was divided into two branches, the Gaelic and the Cymric. So far we have only spoken about the Gaels, but the Cymry had their poets and historians too. The Cymry, however, do not claim such great age for their first known poets as do the Gaels. Ossian, you remember, was supposed to live in the third century, but the oldest Cymric poets whose names we know were supposed to live in the sixth century. As, however, the oldest Welsh manuscripts are of the twelfth century, it is again very difficult to prove that any of the poems were really written by those old poets.

But this is very certain, that the Cymry, like the Gaels, had their bards and minstrels who sang of the famous deeds of heroes in the halls of the chieftains, or in the market-places for the people.

From the time that the Romans left Britain to the time when the Saxons or English were at length firmly settled in the land, many fierce struggles, many stirring events must have taken place. That time must have been full of brave deeds such as the minstrels loved to sing. But that part of our history is very dark. Much that is written of it is little more than a fairy tale, for it was not until long afterwards that anything about this time was written down.

The great hero of the struggle between the Britons and the Saxons was King Arthur, but it was not until many many years after the time in which he lived that all the splendid stories of his knights, of his Round Table, and of his great conquests began to take the form in which we know them. Indeed, in the earliest Welsh tales the name of Arthur is hardly known at all. When he is mentioned it is merely as a warrior among other warriors equally great, and not as the mighty emperor that we know. The Arthur that we love is the Arthur of literature, not the Arthur of history. And I think you may like to follow the story of the Arthur of literature, and see how, from very little, it has grown so great that now it is known all the world over. I should like you to remember, too, that the Arthur story is not the only one which repeats itself again and again throughout our Literature. There are others which have caught the fancy of great masters and have been told by them in varying ways throughout the ages. But of them all, the Arthur story is perhaps the best example.
Of the old Welsh poets it may, perhaps, be interesting to remember two. These are Taliesin, or "Shining Forehead," and Merlin.

Merlin is interesting because he is Arthur's great bard and magician. Taliesin is interesting because in a book called The Mabinogion, which is a translation of some of the oldest Welsh stories, we have the tale of his wonderful birth and life.

Mabinogion really means tales for the young. Except the History of Taliesin, all the stories in this book are translated from a very old manuscript called the Red Book of Hergest.. This Red Book belongs to the fourteenth century, but many of the stories are far far older, having, it is thought, been told in some form or other for hundreds of years before they were written down at all. Unlike many old tales, too, they are written in prose, not in poetry.

One of the stories in The Mabinogion, the story of King Ludd, takes us back a long way. King Ludd was a king in Britain, and in another book we learn that he was a brother of Cassevelaunis, who fought against Julius Caesar, so from that we can judge of the time in which he reigned.

"King Ludd," we are told in The Mabinogion, "ruled prosperously and rebuilt the walls of London, and encompassed it about with numberless towers. And after that he bade the citizens build houses therein, such as no houses in the kingdom could equal. And, moreover, he was a mighty warrior, and generous and liberal in giving meat and drink to all that sought them. And though he had many castles and cities, this one loved he more than any. And he dwelt therein most part of the year, and therefore was it called Caer Ludd, and at last Caer London. And after the strange race came there, it was called London." It is interesting to remember that there is still a street in London called Ludgate. Caer is the Celtic word for Castle, and is still to be found in many Welsh names, such as Carnarvon, Caerleon, and so on.

Now, although Ludd was such a wise king, three plagues fell upon the island of Britain. "The first was a certain race that came and was called Coranians, and so great was their knowledge that there was no discourse upon the face of the island, however low it might be spoken, but what, if the wind met it, it was known to them.

"The second plague was a shriek which came on every May-eve over every hearth in the island of Britain. And this went through peoples' hearts and frightened them out of their senses.

"The third plague was, however much of provision and food might be prepared in the king's courts, were there even so much as a year's provision of meat and drink, none of it could ever be found, except what was consumed upon the first night."

The story goes on to tell how good King Ludd freed the island of Britain from all three plagues and lived in peace all the days of his life.

In five of the stories of The Mabinogion, King Arthur appears. And, although these were all written in Welsh, it has been thought that some may have been brought to Wales from France.

This seems strange, but it comes about in this way. Part of France is called Brittany, as you know. Now, long long ago, before the Romans came to Britain, some of the people who lived in that part of France sailed across the sea and settled in Britain. These may have been the ancient Britons whom Caesar fought when he first came to our shore.

Later, when the Romans left our island and the Picts and Scots oppressed the Britons, many of them fled back over the sea to Brittany or Armorica, as it used to be called. Later still, when the Saxons came, the Britons were driven by degrees into the mountains of Wales and the wilds of Cornwall, while others fled again across the sea to Brittany. These took with them the stories which their minstrels told, and told them in their new home. So it came about that the stories which were told in Wales and in Cornwall were told in Brittany also.

And how were these stories brought back again to England?

Another part of France is called Normandy. The Normans and the Bretons were very different peoples, as different as the Britons and the English. But the Normans conquered part of Brittany, and a close relationship grew up between the two peoples. Conan, Duke of Brittany, and William, Duke of Normandy, were related to each other, and in a manner the Bretons owned the Duke of Normandy as overlord.

Now you know that in 1066 the great Duke William came sailing over the sea to conquer England, and with him came more soldiers from Brittany than from any other land. Perhaps the songs of the minstrels had kept alive in the hearts of the Bretons a memory of their island home. Perhaps that made them glad to come to help to drive out the hated Saxons. At any rate come they did, and brought with them their minstrel tales.

And soon through all the land the Norman power spread. And whether they first heard them in Armorica or in wild Wales, the Norman minstrels took the old Welsh stories and made them their own. And the best of all the tales were told of Arthur and his knights.

Doubtless the Normans added much to these stories. For although they were not good at inventing anything, they were very good at taking what others had invented and making it better. And the English, too, as Norman power grew, clung more and more to the memory of the past. They forgot the difference between British and English, and in their thoughts Arthur grew to be a national hero, a hero who had loved his country, and who was not Norman.

The Normans, then, brought tales of Arthur with them when they came to England. They heard there still other tales and improved them, and Arthur thus began to grow into a great hero. I will now go on to show how he became still greater.

In the reign of Henry I. (the third Norman king who ruled our land) there lived a monk called Geoffrey of Monmouth. He was filled with the love of his land, and he made up his mind to write a history of the kings of Britain.

Geoffrey wrote his book in Latin, because at this time it was the language which most people could understand. For a long time after the Normans came to England, they spoke Norman French. The English still spoke English, and the British Welsh or Cymric. But every one almost who could read at all could read Latin. So Geoffrey chose to write in Latin. He said he translated all that he wrote from an old British book which had been brought from Brittany and given to him. But that old British book has never been seen by any one, and it is generally thought that Geoffrey took old Welsh tales and fables for a foundation, invented a good deal more, and so made his history, and that the "old British Book" never existed at all. His book may not be very good history - indeed, other historians were very angry and said that Geoffrey "lied saucily and shamelessly" - but it is very delightful to read.

Geoffrey's chief hero is Arthur, and we may say that it is from this time that Arthur became a great hero of Romance. For Geoffrey told his stories so well that they soon became famous, and they were read not only in England, but all over the Continent. Soon story-tellers and poets in other lands began to write stories about Arthur too, and from then till now there has never been a time when they have not been read. So to the Welsh must be given the honor of having sown a seed from which has grown the wide-spreading tree we call the Arthurian Legend.

Geoffrey begins his story long before the time of Arthur. He begins with the coming of Brutus, the ancient hero who conquered Albion and changed its name to Britain, and he continues to about two hundred years after the death of Arthur. But Arthur is his real hero, so he tells the story in very few words after his death.

Geoffrey tells of many battles and of how the British fought, not only with the Saxons, but among themselves. And at last he says: "As barbarism crept in they were no longer called Britons, but Welsh, a word derived either from Gualo, one of their dukes, or from Guales, their Queen, or else from their being barbarians. But the Saxons did wiselier, kept peace and concord amongst themselves, tilling their fields and building anew their cities and castles. . . . But the Welsh degenerating from the nobility of the Britons, never after recovered the sovereignty of the island, but on the contrary quarreling at one time amongst themselves, and at another with the Saxons, never ceased to have bloodshed on hand either in public or private feud."

Geoffrey then says that he hands over the matter of writing about the later Welsh and Saxon kings to others, "Whom I bid be silent as to the kings of the Britons, seeing that they have not that book in the British speech which Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, did convey hither out of Brittany, the which I have in this wise been at the pains of translating into the Latin speech."


The Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest. Everyman's Library. Geoffrey of Monmouth's Histories, translated by Sebastian Evans.
How The Story Of Arthur Was Written In English

 GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH had written his stories so well, that although he warned people not to write about the British kings, they paid no heed to his warning. Soon many more people began to write about them, and especially about Arthur.

In 1155 Geoffrey died, and that year a Frenchman, or Jerseyman rather, named Robert Wace, finished a long poem which he called Li Romans de Brut or the Romances of Brutus. This poem was founded upon Geoffrey's history and tells much the same story, to which Wace has added something of his own. Besides Wace, many writers told the tale in French. For French, you must remember, was still the language of the rulers of our land. It is to these French writers, and chiefly to Walter Map, perhaps, that we owe something new which was now added to the Arthur story.

Walter Map, like so many of the writers of this early time, was a priest. He was chaplain to Henry II., and was still alive when John, the bad king, sat upon the throne.

The first writers of the Arthur story had made a great deal of manly strength: it was often little more than a tale of hard knocks given and taken. Later it became softened by the thought of courtesy, with the idea that knights might give and take these hard knocks for the sake of a lady they loved, and in the cause of all women.

Now something full of mystery was added to the tale. This was the Quest of the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail was said to be a dish used by Christ at the Last Supper. It was also said to have been used to hold the sacred blood which, when Christ hung upon the cross, flowed from his wounds. The Holy Grail came into the possession of Joseph of Arimathea, [from whom we all are related - see our lineage from him elsewhere on my website] and by him was brought to Britain. But after a time the vessel was lost, and the story of it even forgotten, or only remembered in some dim way.

And this is the story which the poet-priest, Walter Map, used to give new life and new glory to the tales of Arthur. He makes the knights of the round table set forth to search for the Grail. They ride far away over hill and dale, through dim forests and dark waters. They fight with men and fiends, alone and in tournaments. They help fair ladies in distress, they are tempted to sin, they struggle and repent, for only the pure in heart may find the holy vessel.

It is a wonderful and beautiful story, and these old story- tellers meant it to be something more than a fairy tale. They saw around them many wicked things. They saw men fighting for the mere love of fighting. They saw men following pleasure for the mere love of pleasure. They saw men who were strong oppress the weak and grind down the poor, and so they told the story of the Quest of the Holy Grail to try to make them a little better.

With every new writer the story of Arthur grew. It seemed to draw all the beauty and wonder of the time to itself, and many stories which at first had been told apart from it came to be joined to it. We have seen how it has been told in Welsh, in Latin, and in French, and, last of all, we have it in English.

The first great English writer of the stories of Arthur was named Layamon. He, too, was a priest, and, like Wace, he wrote in verse.

Like Wace, Layamon called his book the Brut, because it is the story of the Britons, who took their name from Brutus, and of Arthur the great British hero. This book is known, therefore, as Layamon's Brut. Layamon took Wace's book for a foundation, but he added a great deal to it, and there are many stories in Layamon not to be found in Wace. It is probable that Layamon did not make up these stories, but that many of them are old tales he heard from the people among whom he lived.

Layamon finished his book towards the end of the twelfth century or the beginning of the thirteenth. Perhaps he sat quietly writing it in his cell when the angry barons were forcing King John to sign the Magna Charta. At least he wrote it when all England was stirring to new life again. The fact that he wrote in English shows that, for Layamon's Brut is the first book written in English after the Conquest. This book proves how little hold the French language had upon the English people, for although the land had been ruled by Frenchmen for a hundred and fifty years, there are very few words in Layamon that are French or that are even made from French.

But although Layamon wrote his book in English, it was not the English that we speak to-day. It was what is called Early English or even sometimes Semi-Saxon. If you opened a book of Layamon's Brut you would, I fear, not be able to read it.

We know very little of Layamon; all that we do know he tells us himself in the beginning of his poem. "A priest was in the land," he says:

  "Layamon was he called.
  He was Leouenathe's son, the Lord to him be gracious.
  He lived at Ernleye at a noble church
  Upon Severn's bank. Good there to him it seemed
  Fast by Radestone, where he books read.
  It came to him in mind, and in his first thoughts,
  That he would of England the noble deeds tell,
  What they were named and whence they came,
  The English land who first possessed
  After the flood which from the Lord came.

  Layamon began to journey, far he went over the land
  And won the noble books, which he for pattern took.
  He told the English book that Saint Beda made.
  Another he took in Latin which Saint Albin made,
  And the fair Austin who baptism brought hither.
  Book the third he took laid it in the midst
  That the French clerk made. Wace he was called,
  He well could write.
  . . . . . . . .
  Layamon laid these books down and the leaves turned.
  He them lovingly beheld, the Lord to him be merciful!
  Pen he took in fingers and wrote upon a book skin,
  And the true words set together,
  And the three books pressed to one."

That, in words such as we use now, is how Layamon begins his poem. But this is how the words looked as Layamon wrote them: -

"An preost wes on leoden: lazamon wes ihoten.

he wes Leouenaoes sone: lioe him beo drihte."

You can see that it would not be very easy to read that kind of English. Nor does it seem very like poetry in either the old words or the modern. But you must remember that old English poetry was not like ours. It did not have rhyming words at the end of the lines.


Anglo-Saxon poetry depended for its pleasantness to the ear, not on rhyme as does ours, but on accent and alliteration. Alliteration means the repeating of a letter. Accent means that you rest longer on some syllables, and say them louder than others. For instance, if you take the line "the way was long, the wind was cold," way, long, wind, and cold are accented. So there are four accents in that line.

Now, in Anglo-Saxon poetry the lines were divided into two half- lines. And in each half there had to be two or more accented syllables. But there might also be as many unaccented syllables as the poet liked. So in this way the lines were often very unequal, some being quite short and others long. Three of the accented syllables, generally two in the first half and one in the second half of the line, were alliterative. That is, they began with the same letter. In translating, of course, the alliteration is very often lost. But sometimes the Semi-Saxon words and the English words are very like each other, and the alliteration can be kept. So that even in translation we can get a little idea of what the poetry sounded like. For instance, the line "wat heo ihoten weoren: and wonene heo comen," the alliteration is on w, and may be translated "what they called were, and whence they came," still keeping the alliteration.

Upon these rules of accent and alliteration the strict form of Anglo-Saxon verse was based. But when the Normans came they brought a new form of poetry, and gradually rhymes began to take the place of alliteration. Layamon wrote his Brut more than a hundred years after the coming of the Normans, and although his poem is in the main alliterative, sometimes he has rhyming lines such as "mochel dal heo iwesten: mid harmen pen mesten," that is:--

"Great part they laid waste:

With harm the most."

Sometimes even in translation the rhyme may be kept, as:--

"And faer forh nu to niht:

In to Norewaieze forh riht."

which can be translated:--

"And fare forth now to-night

Into Norway forth right."

At times, too, Layamon has neither rhyme nor alliteration in his lines, sometimes he has both, so that his poem is a link between the old poetry and the new.

I hope that you are not tired with this long explanation, for I think if you take the trouble to understand it, it may make the rest of this chapter more interesting. Now I will tell you a little more of the poem itself.

Layamon tells many wonderful stories of Arthur, from the time he was born to his last great battle in which he was killed, fighting against the rebel Modred.

This is how Layamon tells the story of Arthur's death, or rather of his "passing":

  "Arthur went to Cornwall with a great army.
  Modred heard that and he against him came
  With unnumbered folk. There were many of them fated.
  Upon the Tambre they came together,
  The place was called Camelford, evermore has that name lasted.
  And at Camelford were gathered sixty thousand
  And more thousands thereto. Modred was their chief.
  Then hitherward gan ride Arthur the mighty
  With numberless folk fated though they were.
  Upon the Tambre they came together,
  Drew their long swords, smote on the helmets,
  So that fire sprang forth. Spears were splintered,
  Shields gan shatter, shafts to break.
  They fought all together folk unnumbered.
  Tambre was in flood with unmeasured blood.
  No man in the fight might any warrior know,
  Nor who did worse nor who did better so was the conflict mingled,
  For each slew downright were he swain were he knight.
  There was Modred slain and robbed of his life day.
  In the fight
  There were slain all the brave
  Arthur's warriors noble.
  And the Britons all of Arthur's board,
  And all his lieges of many a kingdom.
  And Arthur sore wounded with war spear broad.
  Fifteen he had fearful wounds.
  One might in the least two gloves thrust.
  Then was there no more in the fight on life
  Of two hundred thousand men that there lay hewed in pieces
  But Arthur the king alone, and of his knights twain.
  But Arthur was sore wounded wonderously much.
  Then to him came a knave who was of his kindred.
  He was Cador's son the earl of Cornwall.
  Constantine hight the knave. He was to the king dear.
  Arthur him looked on where he lay on the field,
  And these words said with sorrowful heart.
  Constantine thou art welcome thou wert Cador's son,
  I give thee here my kingdom.
  Guard thou my Britons so long as thou livest,
  And hold them all the laws that have in my days stood
  And all the good laws that in Uther's days stood.
  And I will fare to Avelon to the fairest of all maidens
  To Argente their Queen, an elf very fair,
  And she shall my wounds make all sound
  All whole me make with healing draughts,
  And afterwards I will come again to my kingdom
  And dwell with the Britons with mickle joy.
  Even with the words that came upon the sea
  A short boat sailing, moving amid the waves
  And two women were therein wounderously clad.
  And they took Arthur anon and bare him quickly
  And softly him adown laid and to glide forth gan they.
  Then was it come what Merlin said whilom
  That unmeasured sorrow should be at Arthur's forth faring.
  Britons believe yet that he is still in life
  And dwelleth in Avelon with the fairest of all elves,
  And every Briton looketh still when Arthur shall return.
  Was never the man born nor never the lady chosen
  Who knoweth of the sooth of Arthur to say more.
  But erstwhile there was a wizard Merlin called.
  He boded with words the which were sooth
  That an Arthur should yet come the English to help."

You see by this last line that Layamon has forgotten the difference between Briton and English. He has forgotten that in his lifetimE. ARTHUR FOUGHT AGAINST THE ENGLISH. To him Arthur has become an English hero. And perhaps he wrote these last words with the hope in his heart that some day some one would arise who would deliver his dear land from the rule of the stranger Normans. This, we know, happened. Not, indeed, by the might of one man, but by the might of the English spirit, the strong spirit which had never died, and which Layamon himself showed was still alive when he wrote his book in English.

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