Gwyn, Gwythyr and Creiddylad: A Story from the Old North

From the tales contained in the Mabinogion—the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain, compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions—that of Culhwch and Olwen is one of the most fascinating, its complexity, symbolism and various metaphors revealing it to be much more than a common folktale, elevating it to a rich work of art. This post focuses on a particulat episode recounted in the story, analyzing its themes and exploring the truth behind the powerful myth as well as its relevance to our life in the present.

From Peneverdant

Cherry BlossomCulhwch and Olwen is one of the oldest and most fascinating repositories of ancient British mythology. It originates from two texts; a fragmented version in The White Book of Rhydderch (1325) and full version in The Red Book of Hergest (1400). The main narrative centres on Culhwch’s quest to win Olwen for which he enlists the help of Arthur and his retinue; a medley of historical and mythological characters.

Embedded within it we find fragments of other tales which may be of older origin and have stood alone. These include the hunt for the legendary boar Twrch Twryth and release of Mabon from imprisonment in Gloucester. Most significantly for me as someone who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd, we find the story of his rivalry with Gwythyr ap Greidol for the love of Creiddylad and their battle for her every May Day.

This story is central to understanding Gwyn’s mythology. Because…

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Olwen: Myth and Religion in the Fantastic (Part I)

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Culhwch at Ysbaddaden’s court. An illustration by E. Wallcousins in Celtic Myth and Legend, Charles Squire, 1920

In my mythic fantasy novel, currently titled The Fruit of Passion, I’ve drawn extensive inspiration from various sources of Celtic myth and legend and incorporated many events and episodes of fabulous origin into my main narrative.

However, Celtic tradition is divided into several branches. Of particular interest to me is the rich and wonderful material pertaining to the Welsh, namely the Mabinogion (the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain, compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions) and The Spoils of Annwn (Preiddeu Annwfn), a cryptic poem of sixty lines in Middle Welsh, found in the Book of Taliesin and  recounting an expedition with King Arthur to Annwn, the Welsh name for the Celtic Otherworld.

The stories contained in the Mabinogion are highly entertaining, providing a wide panorama of fantasy, romance, drama, philosophy, tragedy and humour. Beasts and giants, magic and illusions, kings and noble ladies, knights and fair maidens, quests and lasting friendships, battles and deceptions, mercy and valour are only a small sample of what one will encounter in the pages of this book.

Set in the dual worlds between the valleys and forests of Wales and the mysterious, shadowy realms of the Otherworld, many of the tales move within a dreamlike atmosphere that weaves a web of seduction all over the reader.

And I was seduced in the twinkling of an eye. It was love at first sight for me. As soon as I finished reading the first page, I was bewitched. Deeply moved by the tales, I thought to transfer many of their motifs, themes, episodes, characters and general ambience into my own novel in an attempt to infuse my own work with the Celtic mentality and worldview, keeping as close to the original source but doing so in my own way so as to create a distinction between my narrative and the Mabinogion.

It’s my personal view that the creation of a new religion is one of the most intriguing and fascinating aspects of world-building in a work of fiction. Immediately, we writers are called to answer the question of how we can go about crafting a new system of divine faith. Do we rely upon preexisting religions? If yes, do we borrow elements and doctrines from one or are we to consider multiple at the same time? Do we blend facets of one familiar to us with made-up dogmas and creeds our imagination conjures? Or are we to give complete and free reign to our fancy and see where this path leads us?

I believe there’s no definite, clear-cut reply to that as the most important thing in fiction that eclipses all other ”rules” and ”regulations” is to write and incorporate that which best serves our narrative and story arc.

With that in mind, my own approach was to combine a few attitudes already found in a religion familiar to me with those found in paganism. So, I kept some Christian tenets like those of love, benevolence, truth and forgiveness and aimed for an amalgam with the concepts and tropes that abound in one of the stories in the Mabinogion, namely that of Culhwch and Olwen.

One of the most complex and celebrated stories in the collection, Culhwch and Olwen recounts the trials and tribulations the titular character face in order to enjoy their happily ever after.

After a difficult childbirth, King Cilydd, son of Celyddon, loses his wife, Goleuddydd. When he remarries, his son, the young Culhwch, rejects his stepmother’s attempt to pair him with his new stepsister. Offended, the new queen puts a curse on him so that he can marry no one besides the beautiful Olwen, the daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden Pencawr. Though he has never seen her, Culhwch becomes enamoured of her at the sound of her name, but his father warns him that he will never find her without the aid of his famous cousin, Arthur.

Culhwch sets off and finds him at his court in Celliwig in Cornwall. Arthur consents to aid him, and sends a number of his finest warriors to join Culhwch in his search for Olwen. The group meets some relatives of Culhwch’s that know Olwen and agree to arrange a meeting. Olwen is receptive to Culhwch’s attraction, but she cannot marry him unless her father agrees, and he, unable to survive past his daughter’s wedding, will not consent until Culhwch completes a series of about forty impossible-sounding tasks. The tasks completed, the giant is killed, and the lovers are free to marry.

Although the titular characters do not feature prominently in the tale, the challenges Culhwch undergoes in order to earn his happy end with his beloved are beyond fascinating. So Culhwch’s determination and Olwen’s limitless patience operated as a canvass for me in order to work on their personalities and make them both fully-fledged individuals.

My novel being highly character-driven, I couldn’t relegate these two into shadowy presences at the fringes of the narrative. I transformed them into characters of cunning and action and strength, motivated by their goals and desires. Populating my novel with a series of female characters of undeniable agency, I thought to add one more in the form of Olwen.

Assigning to her a much more active role than the one she enjoyed in the Mabinogion, I conceived her as an otherwordly maiden to be courted not by Culhwch this time, but by a strong warrior named Sil, the son of an eastern enchantress forced to flee her natal land and seek refuge in the isles of the North: thus bringing into the mix the legend of the ancient king Sil who is rumoured to be buried atop his horse with his golden armour in the mound of Silbury).

When Sil completes the tasks requested by Olwen’s father, King Pen, the couple marries and they flee with some of the maiden’s kin to the mortal realm, to the fictional island of Rumia where Sil and his kniswomen live. Now populated, the island begins to thrive and due to her innate kindness and her magical abilities associated with fertility, Olwen is venerated by the islanders and at her death, she acquires divine status and is worshipped as the goddess of the sun.

Etymologically speaking, Olwen means white footprint. In the Mabinogion, she was so gentle and fragile that white trefoils would grow beneath her feet. Something which I changed in my novel, opting for white lilies instead. Some authorities consider her to have been originally a solar goddess, based on the etymology of her name and light-related attributes. And that is the line I’ ve followed in my own novel.

Below follows an excerpt from the story of Culhwch and Olwen where the latter is described in exquisite, vivid detail.

The maiden was clothed in a robe of flame−coloured silk, and about her neck was a collar of ruddy gold, on which were precious emeralds and rubies. More yellow was her head than the flower of the broom, and her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and her fingers than the blossoms of the wood anemone amidst the spray of the meadow fountain. The eye of the trained hawk, the glance of the three−mewed falcon was not brighter than hers. Her bosom was more snowy than the breast of the white swan, her cheek was redder than the reddest roses. Whoso beheld her was filled with her love. Four white trefoils sprung up wherever she trod. And therefore was she called Olwen.

 

Book Review: Love in the Western World

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Love in the Western World is an impressive and singular scholarly work penned by the Swiss writer and cultural theorist Denis de Rougemont. In this mammoth of a book, Rougemont takes a deep breath and plunges headlong into the ocean, eager to stir the depths of our subconscious and bring to light that which hasn’t ceased tormenting the western culture for whole centuries: the polarity between Eros dressed as passion and Love dressed as Agape.

Etymologically speaking, passion derives from the Greek word ”πάσχω” which means ”to suffer”. Therefore, passion means suffering. And this is the thread Rougemont is eager to unwind in order to unfold his analysis. In the book, the basis of the study begins with the quintessential Celtic myth of the star-crossed lovers Tristan and Iseult. After all, this love affair covers a rich, fertile ground ready for the harvester’s hand: drama, intensity, passion, obstacles, infidelity, courtly love, melancholy, adventure etc. There could be no better myth for the work at hand.

We read that, ”What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love, but its passion. And passion means suffering.”

Rougemont doesn’t get carried away with romantic ideas. On the contrary, he delves into the heart of the matter, bringing to the surface the dark truth that lies at the bottom of perhaps the most enduring and celebrated European myth.

Rougemont, with his remarkable insight, maintains the idea that what propels the actions and decisions between the lovers is not the love the one nurtures for the other, but the narcissistic love that each one harbours for one’s own self. Tristan and Iseult become involved with each other, entangled in a deadly game due to a magic potion they accidentally consume. A potion destined for Iseult and her future husband and Tristan’s uncle, king Mark of Cornwall.

The lovers are drenched in desire. But it’s not a desire burning for the beloved person. It’s a desire that flares up every time an obstacle rises in their way. It’s a desire for passion. In other words, it’s a desire for suffering, for frustration, for adventures. Every time they are about to be exposed before the king’s eyes, their desire magnifies tenfold, for the risk looming over their heads kicks up their adrenaline.

Separation and reunion. That’s the endless circle into which they’re running. Lost to the outside world, as if dead to every other stimulus, they are not interested in possessing each other. What they care about is their own selfish pleasure and satisfaction, their own excitement, their own longing for more suffering that energizes them.

The myth of Tristan and Iseult is a tragic story, a delicious torment that surpasses the boundaries of good and evil. It’s a true romance in all its nostalgic glory.

Rougemont writes that, ”To love in the sense of passion-love is the contrary of to live. It is an impoverishment of one’s being, an askesis without sequel, an inability to enjoy the present without imagining it as absent, a never-ending flight from possession.”

Rougemont observes that the myth equally conceals and discloses its terrible secret through a mystical language carried by the tradition of the Druids and later the trobadours. And what exactly is that secret? None other than love. But it’s not a love for the beloved person. It’s love for the idea of love.

Tristan doesn’t love Iseult and neither does Iseult love Tristan. Both are in love with the idea of love. They don’t need so much each other’s presence. It’s the absence that ignites their passion, leading them to a triumph of a most narcissistic nature.

In Wagner’s work Tristan wonders, ”For what fate? The ancient tune tells me once more: to yearn – and to die. No! Ah, no! That is not it! Yearning! Yearning! While dying to yearn,
but not to die of yearning!” 

But this love for love cleverly hides an even darker truth: love for death. Death is the final destination. The only destination that can liberate them from their terrible passion. By dying, Tristan and Iseult retaliate against the magic potion and all the maelstrom it generated. This was always what the lovers longed for. This was the ultimate truth they weren’t even aware of. A truth that turned against them in the end.

Rougemont traces the religious origins of the myth in platonism, druidism and manichaeism. The dialectics of Eros introduces something of a most extraordinary nature, for it has to do with a desire that doesn’t diminish, that can find satisfaction nowhere, that evades its completion in this world because it longs to embrace everything. Its final goal is to reach the Infinite, to seek union with the Divine.

Eros despises the terrestrial pleasures because it’s a desire without end whose fruition lies beyond this world.

Rougemont always returns to the polarity between Night and Day, between life and death, between desire and obligation. Desire and obligation spring from courtly love that later turns into an heresy, Catharism. The damsel in courtly love is always married to an older, noble man. Always loyal and unapproachable, she is merciless and cold to her young lover to whom she pays no attention. The damsel becomes his mistress and the lover her vassal.

And if marriage is nothing more than a political pact between two families, it becomes patently clear why love outside of marriage wasn’t viewed as infidelity by the travadours but as an ideal relationship which merited poetry and songs and eternal praise through a carefully crafted and mystical language.

Eros is an askesis, a withdrawal within the self, an impoverishment where the outside world languishes and the inner world becomes intoxicated.

The exceptional psychology of the cult of Eros is revealed through language, a language that at the same time has the potential to tell lies and reveal what it truly wants to express. It’s a language preserved through the conviction that others won’t understand what it wants to convey. Therefore, in this misunderstanding, the very essence of passion isn’t understood, thus saved.

Rougemont then proceeds to bring to the table the concept of love as it has been portrayed in literature through Petrarch, plays by Corneille and Racine, the myths created by Don Juan and Sade and the movement of Romanticism.

Of particular interest is the parallelism Rougemont draws between love and war, between the military and the sexual instinct. The proof of this lies in the vocabulary applied. ”Cupid’s arrows”, ”the battle for love”, ”the siege of the lady’s body and heart”, ”the conquest of the object of our desire”, ”the defences that can be lowered”, ”the prisoner who can be won”, ”the sweet defeat and surrender”, ”the vassal into which the lover is turned”.

Imperialism is seen as a desire without end, a desire to conquer nations because the need for new territories arises. But war signifies death in the manner that love dressed as passion signifies death, even though nobody admits this openly.

Rougemont concludes his work with a burning issue that still remains pertinent: fidelity and the crisis of matrimony. Far removed from the social, political and historical context that gave birth to the myth of Tristan and Iseult, our society views marriage under a completely different light. Iseult might be a symbol of the ideal woman, a woman we can never possess and, if we possess her, she loses her idealistic qualities. And the same applies to Tristan.

But Eros is saved when transformed to the Christian concept of Agape. Infidelity arises when the idealistic object of our dreams enters into our possession. Once possessed, the dream wanes, and we find ourselves on the prowl, seeking for a new object on which to project our passions and desires. Agape, though, isn’t based on reflections or illusions, but on equality. Man and woman are treated as equal beings, not as romantic projections of mythic and dream-like proportions. The narcissistic desire withers and dies, giving its place to love and the desire for the well-being of the beloved person.

Love in the Western World is definitely an ambitious work that attempts to unearth the secrets of Eros-passion and Agape-love through historical, cultural, religious and philosophical dimensions. It’s not a book for everyone. I found it equally fascinating and bewildering. It opened my eyes to a lot of things I hadn’t considered before and, although it’s not a book that can be absorbed with the first reading, it has offered me plenty of food for thought. I will certainly come back to it many times in the future.

Love in the Western World strikes at the heart of the western culture, providing answers and challenging our notions regarding a matter still very much relevant to our existence. Almost 80 years after its initial publication, it remains meaningfully modern, for it still hasn’t finished saying what it has to say, as is the case with all good works.