An exclusive story from Christine Willison, author of Pembrokeshire Folk Tales
Pembrokeshire Folk Tales will be published in April 2013
CULHWCH AND OLWEN
Once upon a time there was a young prince called Culhwch. It had been predicted that he would never marry until he could win the hand of Olwen of the white footprints, daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr (called Thornogre in many versions of this story). He was the chief of the giants. Culhwch’s heart was ensnared by her very name and he determined to seek her out.
He saddled his dappled grey horse and set out to ask for help from his kinsman Arthur. He was dressed magnificently: carrying a war horn of ivory and a sword of gold; his stirrups were also of gold. He carried two spears with silver shafts, and two greyhounds wearing collars set with rubies sprang before him. His horse was bedecked in finery befitting a prince. The horse’s bridle was made of golden chains, the saddlecloth of purple. From each corner hung four golden apples. So lightly did his charger step that the blades of grass did not bend beneath his tread.
He arrived at Arthur’s castle and told the King of his mission. He asked for help in gaining the hand of Olwen of the white footprints, daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr, the chief of the giants. Arthur agreed to help. Messengers were sent at once to seek her. They were given a year and a day to return. These messengers of Arthur set out in haste, each taking a different route. They travelled throughout the land of Britain, then to foreign lands asking about Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr. But none had heard of her. When a year and a day had passed, the messengers appeared in the wide White Hall of Arthur’s castle. All declared that they had no knowledge of the maiden.
Culhwch was disappointed. He had set his heart on the marriage. He decided to venture forth himself. A young knight called Cai asked his king if he could accompany Culhwch. Arthur agreed and chose more knights to go with them.
Cai was an excellent spy, who could make himself as tall as the tallest tree in the forest. He could hide himself under water and lie hidden in a lake or river for nine days and nights. He could make fire from his fingertips, walk through torrents of rain and stay as dry as a summer’s day, he could go nine days and nights without sleep and no doctor could heal the wound made by his sword.
Arthur also chose Bedwyr, sometimes called Sir Bedivere. He was the swiftest runner in the land and although he had but one hand, could use a sword better than any other warrior. Then came Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd, sometimes called Uriel, who understood the speech of all people and all animals. The next warrior was Gwalchmai, son of Gwyar, also known as Sir Govan or Gawain, who never returned from any undertaking until it had been completed. The fifth was Menw, son of Teirgwaedd, also known as Merlin, a master of magic who knew how to put a spell on knights to render them invisible. Last came Cynddylig Gyfarwydd (Peregrine), the guide, who could find his way even in a strange land.
So these seven champions set forth to seek Olwen. Culhwch and the six knights rode for many days and nights until they came to a vast plain stretching in every direction farther than the eye could see.
They rode until, through the misty air, they perceived the towers and battlements of a great castle, far away on the borders of moorland. They rode towards the castle all day but never seemed to get any nearer. All the next day they carried on riding and still the castle seemed as far away as ever. The third evening brought them no nearer. At length Sir Gawain declared that this must be ‘Fleeting Castle’, which can always be seen from a distance but can never be reached.
On the fourth day, to their surprise, the castle no longer advanced before them as they approached. Soon they were able to rein in their horses before it. They looked in wonder at the thousands of sheep which grazed on the plains surrounding the massive walls of the castle.
A shepherd sat near the flock with his sheepdog. He was a giant in size, dressed in the skins of animals. His dog was the size of a horse and although an excellent sheepdog he was destructive elsewhere. With his fiery breath he would burn up all the dry bushes and dead trees in the region.
Cai suggested that Uriel, who knew all tongues, should speak to the shepherd. But Uriel had undertaken to go as far as they all went but no further. Then Merlin explained that he had put a spell on the dog so that it would not hurt them. So Culhwch, Cai and Uriel approached the shepherd. They asked him who owned all the sheep and who lived in the castle. The shepherd was surprised, ‘Where have you been that you do not know? This is the castle of Ysbaddaden Bencawr, the chief of the giants. And I am Custennin (Constantine), the brother of Ysbaddaden. A fine brother he has been to me, he has taken all my lands and possessions, and now I am obliged to earn a living by tending his sheep.’
They explained that they were seeking Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden. ‘Go back from whence you came, no one who has tried to find her has ever returned from this place alive.’ The seven champions loudly insisted on staying.
Custennin, the giant’s brother, on hearing Culhwch’s name, threw his arms around the prince and almost hugged all the breath out of him, explaining that he was his nephew and as such, he and his companions must stay in his house. Culhwch gave his newly discovered uncle a gold ring. The giant’s fingers were too big for the ring so he put it into a glove which he hung from his belt as a sign of his rank as chieftain. Then he signalled to his dog to drive the sheep towards home.
The company followed the dog, Custennin went into the house to tell his wife that their nephew had come and was staying overnight with his companions. She was so delighted that she came out of the house with arms outstretched. Cai realised that her hug would probably squeeze the life out of the prince, so he snatched up a log from the fireplace and pushed it into her arms. When she released it they all saw that it was twisted out of shape. They all followed her into the house where she served a simple supper on wooden platters. The company learned that Ysbaddaden Bencawr had left his brother without plates or cutlery, and very little furniture.
After supper the shepherd’s wife took Cai and Uriel to the chimney corner where she opened the lid of a stone box. They were amazed to see a beautiful boy sleeping there. Why was he kept hidden there? The shepherd’s wife told them that all of her twelve sons had been killed by Ysbaddaden Bencawr, and that the only way to keep her son safe was to hide him. She was saddened to think that her boy would never have a chance of performing valiant deeds or becoming a knight. Cai told her to set the boy free and that he, Cai, would protect the boy with his own life.
When she discovered the reason for her nephew’s visit, she tried to persuade them to return home, since her own sons had perished in this very quest. She saw that they could not be persuaded to return, and said that she would help. She explained that Olwen came to the shepherd’s house every Saturday to wash her hair. She took off all her jewels and left them in the water which she used. She never asked for them again.
It so happened that this was the very day that she would come to wash her hair. The shepherd’s wife agreed that they could wait in the room and meet the maiden, provided that they did not attempt to carry her off against her will. They readily agreed and waited for Olwen.
She came wearing a robe of flame-red silk, with a red gold torque around her neck, wearing precious pearls and red jewels. Her hair was fairer than the flowers on the gorse. All the stories about her beauty were true. They also saw that four white trefoils sprang up wherever she trod, which was how she came to be named Olwen of the white footprints. Culhwch fell in love with Olwen and she looked upon him with interest.
He felt sad when it was time for her to leave, but she promised to return the next day. She came to the shepherd’s house every day that week, spending time with Culhwch. She also fell in love. He asked her to marry him. When she refused, he was distraught. The next day he asked her again, and again she refused. On the third day he told her that he could not live without her. Olwen explained that she had refused him because she was afraid for him. She would bring him danger as the daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr. Also it had been foretold that her father would die on her wedding day.
Culhwch said he didn’t care about her father, he wasn’t afraid, although he was sad to think that her father may die on the day of their marriage. He told her that if she didn’t marry him he would walk to the far north of Wales and live the life of a hermit.
Olwen agreed that he could approach her father, and that she would marry Culhwch if her father approved, but she warned him that Ysbaddaden Bencawr would set Culhwch some impossible tasks. She told him he must agree to carry out the tasks no matter how impossible they might seem. She would help with the tasks. Besides if he refused, he would not escape with his life. She then returned to the castle.
The seven champions approached the home of the giant with great trepidation. It was dark but they found their way quite easily by following the trail of white trefoils left by Olwen’s footprints. The castle was guarded by nine men at the gate and nine watchdogs along the road that led to it, but a strange silence had fallen upon both men and beasts. They were able to pass by without challenge. They passed through the great door and entered the hall of the castle. Ysbaddaden Bencawr sat on a throne. He was huge, with an ugly head and a mane of tangled hair. Close by his hand lay three poisoned darts.
The giant asked them in and sat them down. He then allowed Culhwch to declare his love for Olwen and to explain that he wished to ask for her hand in marriage. The giant listened and then he asked his daughter what she wished. She told him she wished to marry Culhwch. His great eyes stared, his beard bristled, and he gritted his teeth. He said it was not a match he would have wished for but that he would consider the proposal and that they should return next day for his answer.
The seven champions left the hall. As they did so, Ysbaddaden Bencawr threw one of the poison darts. Bedwyr caught it and threw it back with such good aim that it caught the giant’s knee. He roared and shouted with pain. They could still hear him from two miles away.
They returned to the castle next day, and Culhwch again asked for the hand of Olwen. Her father, the giant said that he could not assent until he had consulted her grandparents. He asked them to return the next day when this had been done. The seven champions left the hall. As they did so, Ysbaddaden Bencawr threw another poison dart. This time it was caught by Menw who threw it back with such force that it entered the giant’s chest. He roared and shouted as they left. They could still hear him from five miles away.
They returned again to the castle. As they approached his throne in the great hall the giant threw the third poison dart. This time Culhwch caught it and threw it back at him. It pierced his left eye. He roared and shouted as they left. They could still hear him from ten miles away.
They returned again to the castle. The events of the previous visits made the giant treat his visitors with more civility. Besides, he had no more poison darts. He did, however, ask again why they had come and Culhwch made his proposal of marriage yet again. Ysbaddaden Bencawr replied that to win the hand of his daughter, Culhwch would have to accomplish some particular tasks. Culhwch agreed, but was astonished to learn that there were forty tasks to perform, all of which seemed impossible.
The seven most important of these tasks were: To gather seven bushels of flax sown hundreds of years ago in a field of red earth from which never a seed had sprouted. Not one grain was to be missing. These grains were to be planted again in a freshly ploughed field and the flax which grew was to be used to make Olwen’s wedding veil. To find Mabon, the son of Modron, who was taken from his mother when he was but three days old, and who had not been heard of since. To find the Cauldron of Diwrnach Wydde, in which, if one tried to cook food for a coward, he would wait forever for the water to boil. But if it was a brave man, the meal would be ready directly once the food was placed therein. All the food for the wedding feast was to be cooked in this cauldron. To bring the white tusk from the head of Ysgthithrwyn Pen Baedd, the boar-headed branch breaker, which was to be taken whilst he was still alive, and then used as a razor for the giant to shave for the wedding. To wash the giant’s hair – all matted and dirty – Culhwch had to bring the charmed balsam, kept by the Black sorceress, daughter of the White sorceress, from the source of the Brook of Sorrow at the edge of the Twilight Land. To bring the comb and scissors from between the ears of Twrch Trwyth – the magical wild boar. Those scissors, alone, would perform the task of treating the giant’s hair without breaking. To obtain the sword of Wrnach Gawr (Wrnach the Giant), which alone would kill Twrch, the magical wild boar, as the comb and scissors could not be obtained unless he were vanquished.
Culhwch agreed to perform these and thirty-three other impossible tasks.
The Seven Champions left the castle of Ysbaddaden Pencawr. Not far along the road they were joined by the fair-haired son of the shepherd giant, who had lived all his life in the chest. He implored them to take him with them. They agreed and started their journey of tasks.
By evening they reached the gates of a very great castle, the largest they had ever encountered. As they pulled up outside a giant came out of the gate and asked what their business was. They asked whose castle this was and were told it was the castle of Wrnach Gawr, Wrnach the Giant. ‘May we gain entry; we have a favour to ask?’ The giant at the gate said that Wrnach Gawr did not like visitors. No stranger ever came out alive. Nevertheless the Seven Champions rode up to the gates and called for admittance. The porter refused and said that there was a gathering inside the castle this day and that no person may enter unless they brought their craft with them. Cai said that as the best burnisher of swords he should be allowed entry. They waited while the porter went to speak to Wrnach Gawr. Wrnach Gawr was delighted, since he was keen to have someone clean, brighten and sharpen his sword. So he gave his permission to the porter.
Cai entered with Bedivere, they were taken to the giant who ordered that his sword be brought. Cai drew out his whetstone and set to work on the sword. He polished half and held it up for the giant to see. The giant was delighted and asked Cai to complete the task. Whilst the giant and all his company watched Cai at work, the fair-haired son of the shepherd climbed over the castle wall and helped his companions over. They made their way stealthily to the hall and hid behind pillars, doors, and curtains, so that they could see the company without being seen.
When Cai finished the sword he walked towards the giant as if to hand it back, but instead he raised up the sword and cut off the giant’s head. Before the guards could capture Cai, Culhwch and the rest of the champions came out of their hiding places and imprisoned the rest of the company. They took the precious sword and left.
They set out for Arthur’s palace, and on the way they accomplished some of the minor tasks set by Ysbaddaden Pencawr and reached the palace two days later. They asked Arthur’s advice about which of the remaining six tasks to undertake next. Arthur said they should seek out Mabon next. He chose Uriel, because he could understand the speech of all men and that of animals and birds, Idwal, because he was a kinsman of Mabon, and Cae and Bedivere because they were known never to turn back from any task until it was accomplished. These four set out upon their quest.
Mabon had been lost so long ago that even the oldest man on earth had heard nothing about him. But Idwal remembered that many birds and beasts lived longer than the oldest man so they determined to seek out the oldest of these: the Blackbird of Pengelli. They made their way through the great forest until they came to a shadowy place. There, on a stone, sat the Blackbird. Uriel asked her if she knew of Mabon who had been taken from his mother when he was only three days old.
She explained that when she first came to the forest, she was a young fledgling. Where she now sat had been a smith’s stone anvil. Since her arrival no hand had touched it, but every evening she had pecked at it with her beak and smoothed her feathers on it before sleeping. ‘Now all that remains of it is this small pebble upon which I sit and yet in all this time I have never heard of Mabon son of Modron. But don’t despair I will take you to a creature older than me.’
She took them to the foot of mother oak, the most ancient tree in the forest. There, by a decaying stump lay a stag. They asked him if he knew of Mabon, son of Modron taken from his mother when he was but three days old. He explained that when he first came to this place, this forest was a vast plain where one tiny oak sapling grew. The sapling in time became a magnificent oak tree. After its long lifetime it gradually decayed and became this stump. In all that time he had never hear of Mabon, son of Modron. But he said he would take them to a creature who had been here longer and led them to the Owl of Pengelli.
The Owl of Pengelli explained from his cavernous home that in the many years that it took for this valley to become a vast wood which then decayed and then grew up again, this also decayed and another grew (three times in all), he had never heard of the one they were seeking. But said he would take them to Eryr Llwyn Gwernog, the Eagle of Aldergrove – the oldest creature in the world. The Eagle said, ‘When I first arrived in this place, there was a rock so high that I could perch on the top and peck at the stars. I have been here so long that the rock has eroded until it is little more than a few inches high. In all this time I have heard of the man you seek but once. It was when I visited the pool at Nant Ceibwr. There I dug my claws into a salmon, hoping to kill him for my supper. He dragged me into deep water and I barely escaped with my life. I returned to that place with my flock and he pleaded with me to spare his life. The salmon showed such wisdom that I could not have killed such a creature, so I spared him. He promised to be my guide whenever I needed one. I will take you to him. He took them to a pool at Nant Ceibwr and called the Salmon. Cai and Uriel asked about Mabon, son of Modron. The salmon looked at them wisely and told them that the man they sought was held prisoner in the dungeon beneath a castle to which he would take them. Cai and Uriel came into the water and stood upon the shoulders of the salmon. The salmon swam swiftly down the river which spilled its water into the lake and eventually they came to the high walls of a castle. The salmon told them to listen. As they did so they heard a wailing in deepest sorrow. The salmon said it was the voice of Mabon. Uriel called to him and asked if he could be ransomed with silver and gold. But he replied that he could not. Only a battle would set him free.
Cai and Uriel returned to their companions and they all returned to King Arthur. He prepared a great army and they marched by land to the castle where Mabon was held. Whilst the army attacked the gates of the castle, Cai and Uriel went into the water, where they met the Salmon once more. He took them to the water side of the castle, which was unprotected. They broke through the wall and carried off Mabon, son of Modron. A celebration took place at the court of King Arthur. During the celebration a Knight called Gwyther was walking over a mountain in his own land Gwlad y Wawr (the Land of Dawn), deep in thought. He didn’t notice a heath fire taking hold on the side of the mountain. He was brought up short when he heard a sad little cry. Up and down he looked, but could see nothing. The cry came again from beneath his feet. He saw an ant hill. Inside the ant hill the small creatures were wailing and crying. The heath was on fire and their little kingdom would soon be ablaze. Prince Gwyther drew his sword and cut off the ant hill with one blow and threw it into a place of safety. The ants cried out in gratitude and asked of Gwyther what they could do in return for saving them. He thought, and the impossible tasks of his friend Culhwch came to him. He asked that the ants fulfil the task of bringing nine bushels of flax seed to be sown in his field to make the wedding veil for his bride. If one grain is missing the wedding will be forbidden. ‘None of us is able to find the tiny seeds, can you help?’ The ants agreed, and made their way to the fields of Ysbaddaden Pencawr, to collect the seeds. When the sun started to sink in the west they returned to Gwlad y Wawr, the Land of the Dawn, where Prince Gwyther had set up a bushel measure. Up its sides they climbed, each with a seed in its mouth. They filled the bushel measure nine times. Before nightfall the last seed was dropped in the bushel measure. The nine bushels of flax seed were taken to Culhwch.
Next the seven champions set off for Ireland to look for the Cauldron of Diwrnach Wyddel, owned by Odgar, King of Ireland. They came to his palace and were invited in for a banquet. After the banquet Odgar was presenting gifts to all his guests, but the seven champions said that they wished for nothing but the Cauldron of Diwrnach Wyddel, in which if one tries to cook food for a coward, one may wait forever for the water to boil, but for a brave man the meal is ready directly once the food is placed therein.
Odgar said that he would never part with the cauldron. No matter how much the seven knights tried, he could not be persuaded. However the fair-haired shepherd child discovered that Odgar was fond of riddles. They bet him that he could not guess a riddle they would pose. If he failed they would have the cauldron as a prize. He agreed. The shepherd’s boy asked the following riddle of Odgar, ‘Which warrior is so mighty that tall trees bow down as he passes. The warrior has no eyes, no nose, no mouth, no arms or legs, no skin and no bones And yet he can fly the length and breadth of the land.’ they gave him a day and a night to guess the answer. He huddled in the corner with his wise people but they failed to solve the riddle. The boy proudly gave the answer (which I am sure you have guessed). It is of course ‘The Wind’. Diwrnach Wyddel honourably gave up the cauldron. After the cauldron had safely been taken to Wales and placed in he safety of Culhwch’s household, the seven set off on the next quest: to obtain the charmed balsam, that was guarded by the Black sorceress, daughter of the White sorceress at the Brook of Sorrow on the edge of the Twilight Land. Two Knights entered the cave in which she dwelt, but they were beaten and cast out. All the knights tried but were attacked by the sorceress.
Sir Bedivere took up his flute and played music so sweet that it charmed the sorceress. She was so taken with the music that she sat and was lulled to sleep . Whilst she slept the seven champions helped themselves to some of the charmed balsam and took it to Culhwch’s palace. The next task was to hunt out the Ysgthithrwyn Pen Baedd, the boarheaded branch breaker. They found that the only man who could pluck out the tusk from the living head of this creature was Odgar, King of Ireland. It was with some difficulty that they persuaded Odgar to accompany them. Eventually the hunting party assembled and made ready to hunt the boar. They came upon him and as Odgar plucked the tusk from the living animal, Cai was ready with his sword to kill the boar. They added the tusk to the rapidly growing collection of items requested by Ysbaddaden Pencawr and kept under lock and key at the palace of Culhwch. Lastly, they had to seek out the comb and scissors kept between the ears of the Twrch. He was said to be the son of Prince Tared, cursed into the form of a wild creature; with poisonous bristles, and a pair of scissors and comb between his ears. Ysbaddaden told Culhwch that the only hound who could hunt Twrch was Drudwyn, the whelp of Greid. First, Menw son of Teirgwaedd went to check that the comb and scissors were still between Twrch’s ears. Taking the form of a bird he flew to Twrch’s lair, encountering the boar with seven piglets. Menw tried to swoop down and snatch one of the implements from Twrch’s scalp, but managed to take only one silver bristle. Twrch, agitated, shook himself, scattering venom onto Menw, wounding him.
He was then so angry that he set out on the rampage and killed all the men in Daugleddau (the Cleddau Estuary). He then continued and killed kings, princes and knights. Arthur and his knights rose up in a body; Menw gave them the gift of hounds. These hounds chased Twrch and the piglets. They killed the piglets one by one and Twrch ran into the sea and was washed away firstly to Hafren (the Severn) and then on to Cornwall, where the scissors and comb were taken from him and he was finally killed by Arthur and the hounds. Culhwch had now accomplished all of the tasks set. He journeyed to the giant’s castle to claim his bride. He spread all the marvels before Ysbaddaden Pencawr who allowed Culhwch to shave, wash and comb him. All was made ready for the wedding and after the ceremony the bride and groom came to make peace with the bride’s father. But Ysbaddaden Pencawr could not be found, and has never been seen since. Culhwch and Olwen lived long and happy lives together.