Now let me try to make peace with our Welsh cousins, for they have dealt hard blows at British literature. If they were provoked thereto by MacPherson, he did them good, for the work of Owen Jones, which is a standard work still, was not begun till long after MacPherson had set the world upon the study of Celtic literature, and Chatterton to invent African odes and Rowly’s poetry.
As an example to be followed, let me point to the work of Hersart de la Villemarqué.1
The first thing which must strike the reader, is the contrast between the language of this distinguished foreigner in speaking of Welsh antiquities, and the spirit of most writers on the Ossianic controversy.
One aims at discovering truth, the others at proving their own case. Villemarqué is a Celt, but he upholds Celtic antiquities; he is no Welshman, but he upholds Welsh literature, instead of running it down; he can refer to hundreds of ancient Welsh manuscripts, but he does not therefore insist that all Welsh manuscript poems of great age are far more ancient than the manuscripts in which they are found; he can quote French versions of old romances, but he does not therefore claim them for France. Finding a poem attributed to Taliesen, written in a vellum manuscript of great antiquity, he does not therefore assume it to be Taliesen’s composition; but working steadily onwards, he compares manuscript with manuscript, till he finally sifts out a residuum which seems to bear the stamp of age and originality, he assumes that this may have been the work of the ancient bard; he does not, like MacPherson, assert it; and he gives the original, and quotes his authorities; he alters the orthography, but he states the fact; and he translates the result of this process into the plainest of French, without aiming at anything but an honest rendering of what he believes to be genuine old poetry. He collected the traditional songs of the Bretons, and their prose tales; but he does not claim for Bretons all the traditions which he found in their country. In short, he is a man of sense, learning, and liberality; and the fame which he has acquired is well earned. He does not even stand up for the Celtic dialect of his native country, to the injury of all others; but in his difficulties he has recourse of all surviving Celtic dialects alike; and he seeks, and finds aid in translating old Welsh, in Irish, Gaelic, Cornish, and Breton, and thereby he arrives at a valuable result, instead of maintaining a contemptible squabble; and he can point to Owen Jones of Myvyr, a Welsh peasant, who devoted his life to the publication of Welsh poems from ancient manuscripts. He was the MacPherson of Wales, in that he drew attention to the literature of his country; but warned, perhaps, by the errors of his predecessors in the field of Celtic literature, his work was the very opposite of MacPherson’s, for it was all Welsh, instead of all English, and all founded upon ancient documents which still exist. The work was published in 1801 and 1807 – that is, at the same time as the Gaelic of Ossian. For the one there is old authority, for the other there is none.
Now, in this work of Mons de Villemarqué, I find traits which recal Gaelic traditions and Ossianic poems, as published by Gillies, Stewart, and MacCallum, in Scotland; and by Miss Brooke and the Ossianic society of Dublin in Ireland. For example, there are three chief Welsh bards, and all of these, like Oisein, join in battles, and sing of their own exploits. Two of them, like Oisein, live to a great age, and survive the friends of their youth. Liwarch Henn, Aneurin, Taliesen, and Oisein, have much in common in their story, if not in their poems. Taliesen ends his days with St. Gildas in Armorica [Brittany, France]; Aneurin laments the loss of all his friends and comrades; Liwarch Henn holds parley with an angel in the form of a churchman, and is urged to repentance in his old age; and Oisein holds parley with St. Patrick, and closes his life with him in the practice of forced austerities, in constant regret for the departed glories of his race. Even in Protestant Scotland the old blind bard is sometimes represented as singing his songs, and telling his stories to Padraig or Paul. If this religious element has been weeded from the Ossian of MacPherson, the bard is still an old man, singing of the past; he is always miserable and worn out, blind and deserted, but with the mind of a warrior still fresh within him, and the spirit of an old pagan to argue with Malvina, if she had been a Christian angel. So much there is in common, and it would seem to point to a struggle between the old religion and the new faith, Paganism and bards against Christianity and Churchmen. One poem, the song of Urien, is like the “Lay of the heads” published by MacCallum in 1816, and repeated to me by a man in Uist in 1860. Cuchullin had been slain by numbers, and Conall, his “oide,” heard of it. The messenger told that Cuchullin had got a new house; when he lay down, his nose touched the roof, and the back of his head was on the floor; and when he stretched himself, his feet were at the lower end, and his head at the upper, and so the messenger saved his life, for Conall had sworn to slay any one who brought tidings of Cuchullin’s death. Then Conall and another swore that they would not stop till they had filled a withy with the heads of king’s sons, as eric for Cuchillin. They did so and let the knot at the end slip thrice, and the song is a dialogue between a lady and Conall, who tells the history of the heads, and the exploits of their former owners. The traditional version of the song, as written down for me, gives the name of the comrade “Laoghaire,” says that they filled seven withies with heads, and adds a great many details which are not in MacCallum. There are sixty-two lines instead of sixty, but there is little difference in the versions, except in arrangement and substitution of words. The song of Urien is in like manner a dialogue, and one of the speakers is returning from battle with a head, and he describes the prowess of the man who owned it.
But the Welsh poetry quoted differs entirely from the Gaelic. The stanzas consist of three lines instead of four; the whole system of assonance and rhyme, so far as I can make it out, seems utterly different; there is hardly anything in common, except that both treat of heroic actions, war, and slaughter.
There is not much resemblance, then, between the poems of these two branches of the Celtic stock, and it would be strange if there were, for the languages, though Celtic, differ widely. But fortunately a distinguished lady of high rank has enabled us to judge of another class of popular lore, as it existed long ago in Wales – the popular tales of the fifteenth century – and in these I should expect to find the remains of something far older than Oisein or Taliesen; the old myths which wandered westward with the Celtic race, which are embodied in Gaelic tales, written and unwritten, Scotch and Irish, and which seem to be common to most of the Aryan languages, of which the Celtic is one of the oldest. The poor despised popular tales, which are branded as wicked lies in the West Highlands, and which such men as Grimm and De la Villemarqué believe to be some of the oldest known products of the human mind. Let me shew, so far as I can, wherein Scotch and Welsh popular tales agree, and wherein they differ.
The Mabinogion, by Lady Charlotte Guest, is a collection of ancient Welsh popular tales, taken from a MS. supposed to have been written about the close of the fifteenth century. These contain the frame-work of many of the romances of chivalry which pervaded all Europe at a far earlier date.
For instance, “The Chevalier au Lion,” is the same story in the main as “The Lady of the Fountain”; and the romance is attributed to “Crestien de Troyes” at the close of the twelfth century.
These romances “are found in England, France, Germany, and even Iceland.” They are in various metres, but the same stories can be traced in all; the heroes are still British worthies, and their exploits are traced back to Welsh popular tales and to Celtic traditions.
It is impossible to read the text of the Mabinogion, and the notes, without seeing the strong resemblance which these traditions bear to modern Gaelic popular tales.
The resemblance is not that of one entire story to another; were it so, it would be less striking; but it is a pervading resemblance interwoven throughout, and which pervades in a less degree the whole system of popular tales, so far as I am acquainted with it. The Welsh and Gaelic stories are, in fact, often founded on, and consist of the same incidents variously worked up, and differently told, to fit the various manners and customs of different ages, different people, and different ranks of society.
Take, for instance, “The Lady of the Fountain,” strip it of all that is local, and makes it specially Welsh, and fixes a date, the names, the dresses, the decorations, the manners and customs, which were, without doubt, those of the people who delighted in in the Mabinogian when it was popular in Wales, and there will remain a bare skeleton of incidents, many of which will be found in these volumes. These I take to be Celtic, to have travelled West with Celtic tribes, and to be founded on still older traditions – the common stock from which the popular tales of Germany, and of that whole family of nations were also drawn.
First the frame-work is the same; one man tells a story, which starts another, as is the case in Conall, Nos. V. VI. and VII.; and in Conall Gulban, No. LXXVI.; in Murdoch MacBrian, No. XXXVIII.; and in many others which I have in manuscript. The knight comes to a castle, where he finds maidens who shew him the way, and entertain him, as happens in popular tales of all lands; for there is always some one who provides the adventurer with a bowl, or a clue, which shews him the road to his place of trial, or with some other means of conveyance, as in the story of the Calenders; but in this case the number is 24, as in the Gaelic story of Magnus, No. LXXXIV.; and the dress is yellow, as is the dress of the mysterious people in the Lay of the Great Fool, and generally in the Gaelic and Welsh tales, and yellow was the colour of dresses of honour in the west long ago. The first person he meets is a great black giant with a club, who appears in the Breton tale of Peronek the Idiot, and in the Rider of Grianaig, No. LVIII., and in a great many other Gaelic tales. He come next to a mystic fountain; and mystic fountains are the scene of wonders in endless Gaelic stories – for instance, Nos. XLVI. and LVIII., where the transformations occur at a fountain. Then there is the arrival of a man on a black horse in a shower, who insults the warrior; which incident occurs in Nos. I., LII., LXXVI., and is common to many others, and is especially distinctive of Gaelic tales. There is the healing vessel of balsam in the keeping of a female, which is continually turning up in every possible shape in Gaelic. There is the fight between a snake and a creature of another kind, which opens the story of the Battle of the Birds, No. II.; and there is the animal who helps his deliverer, as the raven helped the prince; and as the lion, wolf, and falcon, help the fisherman’s son in the Sea Maiden; and in Straparola’s Italian version of that old tale, which is at least as old as 1567.
There is the knight who wanders about with his rescued lion, conquering giants and monsters, like Magnus, in No. LXXXIV.; and like the boy in the Norse tale of the Blue Belt; and like heroes in plenty of other tales besides.
In short, through these old Welsh tales of chivalry, there shines an older system of popular tales, as clearly as the Welsh tales shine through the French and English romances; and the remnants of these very traditions exist in fragments at this day amongst the other branches of the Celtic race.
I do not mean that Gaelic-speaking tribes have a peculiar claim to them, rather than the Welsh, or that Celtic tribes invented them; I mean that these traditions are Celtic, and probably were Eastern; and that the popular tales now current amongst the poorest and least instructed of the Gaelic population, dwelling in the far west, throw light upon the subject so ably treated om the Mabinogion by a distinguished lady, aided by Welsh scholars.
Compare the Breton traditions and popular ballads, founded on these same traditions of Arthur and his knights, with the next story in the Mabinogion, “Peredur, the son of Errawc,” and with the story of the Great Fool, No. LXXIV.; and the general Celtic resemblance for which I am contending will appear in strong relief.
Peredur is the last of seven sons of the “Earl of the North,” and he is brought up by a wise mother, in a distant country, so that he should not be a warrior, and perish as his father and brothers had done.
One day he sees some hinds, and not knowing what they are, he drives them in with the goats. So the great fool sees deer, and not knowing what they are, catches them by speed of foot.
On another day, Peredur sees knights on horseback, and knows as little what they are; but having found out, he gets him a horse, and goes to the king’s palace, and there he begins by slaying a warrior. So the great fool catches a horse, and rides to the king’s palace, and slays a man; and so Peronek, the Breton idiot, is a fool, and becomes a hero; catches a horse, and rides to Kerglas; and there are numerous other traits in Breton ballads which represent similar incidents, though in a wholly different dress.
Where parallel fails with one story, it holds elsewhere. Peredur is recognised, and is saluted by two captive dwarfs, who had been his father’s dwarfs. Conall Gulban is recognised, and is saluted by Duanach, who had been his father’s “draodh.”
Peredur, when he sets off in quest of adventures, comes to old men, brothers, who instruct him, and forward him on his way, as happens in the story of Black, White, and Red, in a story told me by tinker MacDonald, in Norse Tales, and in endless popular tales besides. The old men replace the maidens, and the old man who entertains the knight in the Lady of the Fountain. And through all the magnificence of knightly pageantry, there peep forth such traits of popular manners as the scarcity of food.
When it comes to battles, the principle on which they are conducted is to be traced in Gaelic tales. There is the arrival of knights of increasing rank, and their overthrow by the hero; and further on, Peredur overthrows three hundred warriors exactly as Conall Gulban and other Gaelic warriors do; but these are not the mailed knights of the romances.
There is the incident of the bird of prey, the blood and the snow, which suggest love to Conall Gulbhan, and remind Peredur of the lady of his love; and that one incident joins the whole Celtic family, for it is all over the Highlands now. See page 201. It was in Wales in the fifteenth century. It is in a manuscript in the Advocate’s Library, where “Darthula,” in the story of the children of Usnoth, is joined to it. This is “Hiberno-Celtic,” “intelligible to a Gaelic scholar,” according to the account which I have of it; and the same incident is a Breton tale.
Kai, the counterpart of Conan, “ever in scrapes, ever ready for a fight,” appears in his usual character.
Caerleon is the dwelling of King Arthur. Turleon is that of the King of Lochlann in “The witch,” No. LXXIII.
There is the lady in the dwelling of the wild heathen people who befriends the wanderers – the character who appears so often, for example, in Nos. I., V., VI., VII., XLIV., LII., LVIII., LXXX., and still oftener in Norse and German stories.
There are even such little touches of resemblance, as “Bald swarthy youths” in Gaelic “Maol Carrach;” and such strong bonds of kindred as the three wounded men, who are always fighting Addank, a monster, and mystic armies; who always conquer, but never win; who are wounded, and healed with precious balsam; exactly like the youths in the Knight of the Red Shield, who appear in many other Gaelic tales in other shapes.
There is even the Talisman, the stone of mystic virtues, which occurs in Conal Gulban, and elsewhere, and which is actually used at this day as an amulet to cure sick cattle.
There is the warrior who comes to a trial of arms disguised, who borrows money and clothes from a craftsman, wins, and will not come for his reward; who resists force by force, but comes at last for fair words; like the “Gille carrach dubh” in No. IV., vol. i., and the Smith’s Apprentice in No. XVI.; and like Boots in many Norse tales, a character who appears in German also.
There is the hideous woman with the enormous teeth, who appears so often in Gaelic tales. There are sorceresses who, like the big women of Jura in No. XLVI., have to do with feats of arms, and generally, if this story of Peredur were modern, and the subject of adverse criticism, it might be said that it was composed of the incidents of half a dozen popular tales, disjointed, separated, shaken together, reunited, and polished; but as it is older than Straparola, an illiberal Welsh critic, if such there be, might claim all collections of later date as borrowed from Welsh ideas.
Now, this story of Peredur has been worked into romances, and exists in many of the languages of Europe, including Icelandic. The question for argument is, Did the old fishermen of the Hebrides, the old wives of Norway, the old nurses of Germany, the people of Brittany, and the writers of “Hiberno-Celtic” manuscripts, all learn their incidents, which they have in common with “Peredur,” from their ancestors, the ancestors from wandering minstrels, the minstrels from manuscripts, and the authors of the manuscripts from Welsh bards? or, Have the peasantry of Europe preserved the traditions from which writers and reciters made books and romances? and, in particular, have the Highlanders of Scotland preserved the Celtic traditions, which were also written in “the Welsh Red Book,” in another guise, in the end of the fifteenth century? I hold the latter as the more probable, if only, because I have found no trace of some romances which are as widely spread. The story of Geraint, the son of Erbin, is in as many languages, including Icelandic, as the Lady of the Fountain, and I have not yet found a single incident in Gaelic common to it, unless it be the old knight and the dwarf encouraging their friends in the combat with the knight of the Sparrow-hawk, as Duanach encouraged Conall in his battles; and the magic mist which was dispersed by the hero, which occurs in the lay of the Great Fool, which is in a Manx tradition, and which occurs in several Irish stories – for example, “The Chase,” in Miss Brooke’s collection of Irish poems.
Take the story of Kilwich and Olwen, in the second volume, as another example. It opens like many Gaelic stories. A king has a son, and marries a second time. He conceals his son with a swineherd, and the stepmother finds him out and brings him to court, and he is sent off to encounter great perils, and seek objects difficult of attainment – adventures suggested by the stepmother. So the son goes off in the “Knight of Riddles,” and one of his adventures is to obtain the hand of a lady, and so a whole system of popular tales is founded on a stepmother’s dislike for her stepchildren. The manner of telling the story agrees closely with the manner of telling Gaelic stories; many of the names could be explained by Gaelic – for example, Lychlin is surely Lochlann; Mil du, Maol dhu; Kilhwich, son of the king of Kellydon, is surely Gil mhuic, the swine lad; and the Welsh word has the same meaning, for the king’s son was so called because he was hidden in a swine’s barrow.
The whole principle of the story is popular, in that the hero rises to a palace from a stye.
The first thing he asks from King Arthur, when he gets to court, is to have his hair cut, and though this is said to have been an ancient ceremony, I am inclined to think it is nothing but the common incident in all popular tales, which the following sketch from nature, made on the Tana river, on the Russian bank, in 1850, may save me from explaining in words.
Here is a quotation from the Norse tale of Soria Moria Castle.
De satte sig da der, og da de havde siddet en stund sagde den yngste Prindsessen: “Yeg faaer vel lyske dig lidt jeg Halvor,” ya Halvor lugde hovodet i hendes havn, saa lyskede hun ham, og det varede ikke laenge forend Halvor sov; etc. (page 153, Norske folke eventyr. 1852).
In the list of Arthur’s warriors, too, there are many old familiar friends, the gifted men of Fortunio, who appear in many languages, and who have counterparts in Gaelic, see vol. i., p. 250. In another story, Bolagam Mor, I have LURAGA LUATH, nimble shanks, who catches deer by speed. CLARSNEACHD MHAITH, who hears the grass grow. TOIN CHRUAIDH, who is found clearing a field of stones by sitting on them. CUIMSE DIREACH, the marksman who is found with a gun at his eye aiming at a bird in Eirinn; and BOLAGAM MOR Great Gulp, who is found swilling a lake, and spouting it out again. They all join “the widow’s son,” and sail in a ship which could go over mountain or sea, Muir na Monadh, which is like Arthur’s ship, and they go to win a king’s daughter, and do win her by feats. Nimble shanks runs a race with “nighean dubh na luideag,” the black girl of the clouts, to try who could first take a bottle of water from the green well that was about the heaps of the deep. “Tobar uaine thu ‘n iomal torra domhain,” the keen eared man, hears all the plans, the swift man is enticed into falling asleep, and his head is laid on a horse’s skull by the black girl who runs off with the water, but the marksman shoots the head away, and he awakens and wins.
The next feat is to bring “Torc Neamha,” a deadly boar that is in a forest, alive to the king’s house. Nimble shanks goes to catch him, and Hard haunches to ride him home, and home they come with him, and here is manifestly the same boar with the deadly spikes in his back which appears in the story of Diarmaid and elsewhere.
The third feat is to sit at meat with the king in a chair with a deadly spike in it, and this Good hearing finds out, and Hard haunches performs.
And the fourth is to bring a loch from the hill top to a hollow near the king’s house, which Great Gulp accomplishes by swallowing it, and spouting it out again till the people were nearly drowned, and then the lady was married and won, and she is the daughter of the king of the island of women. This was written in 1859 by Hector Urquhart, from the telling of old John Mackenzie, and I know that I have not got half the story yet. There is a man who made a bridge of his foot, and another who shot arrows into the moon, of whom I have heard, and there is the man who produced intense cold by moving his hat, who is in Grimm, and who appears in a story which I got from Gairloch.
Now, all these and more are in stories collected in modern times elsewhere, and they are all in this Welsh story at the court of Arthur.
There is the man of sharp sight. “When the gnat arose in the morning with the sun, he could see it from Gelli wic, in Cornwall, as far as Pen Blathaon in North Britain,” explained to be from the Land’s End to the Ord of Caithness.
There is the “marksman,” Gelli wic, “he could in a twinkling shoot the wren through the two legs upon Esgeir Oervel, in Ireland.”
There is the man of hard feet who cleared the way for King Arthur, and struck sparks of fire from hard things with the soles of his feet.
There is Gilla coes Hydd, the chief leaper of Ireland was he.
There is the nimble man who could run over the tops of the trees.
There is Clust Reinad (?) cluas an ear), “though he were buried seven cubits beneath the earth he could hear the ant fifty miles off rose from her nest in the morning.”
There is the man who made a bridge of his dagger, like a lady who came to visit Fionn in a story which I have.
There is the man who could suck up the sea.
And there are many others of the same stamp, some familiar, some who, so far as I know, do not appear elsewhere in popular tales, but every one of whom is intensely popular, and mythological, and might be, and probably was the hero of a separate myth.
Kai, in particular, is here an epitome of much which is told of several gifted men in Grimm and elsewhere, and therein he agrees with Conan, who in a story about the Feinne (I think Irish) is invisible and able to fly, and blinds the Lochlanners with a sting.
Now, to leave the region of popular tales for a moment, and turn to mythology. In Gylfis mocking Thor, the Norse god goes to the land of giants, where he is cheated most ignominiously; but he plays the part of “Great Gulp,” for he swills at a horn whose end is in the sea, and makes the sea sink down many feet by his mighty draught, but he cannot empty the horn. Loki plays the part of the great eater (vol. i. p. 138), but he is beaten, for his adversary is fire. Thor is the strong man who appears in Fortunio, but he is beaten again, for he cannot lift up the great serpent, which appears to him as a great gray cat, though it goes round the world; and Thor’s companion plays the part of the swift man and is beaten, for his adversary is thought, and no one can run a race with thought; and, as it seems to me, the same thing may be meant by the Gaelic “black daughter of the clouts.” Anything which is invisible, and hidden, and incorporeal, is called “black.” As – “Each dubh ‘s each donn, bonn ri bonn ‘s luaithe ‘n t-each dubh na ‘n t-each donn.” A black horse and a brown horse sole to sole, swifter is the black horse (the wind) than the brown (water). And lastly, Thor is the wrestler, but he is beaten, for his adversary is old age; and this seems to indicate that Thor, though a divinity, had once been a mortal.
Here then is King Arthur placed on the same level with Thor, and the same incidents associated with both, the one in a Welsh MS. collection of popular tales, the other in a very early Icelandic manuscript, which gives nearly all that is known of the pagan creed of the Northmen, and the very same characters and incidents are found to pervade the popular tales of the greater part of Europe, including those of the West Highlands.
The only possible deduction from these facts seems to be, that these are traces of a mythology once common to Celts, Scandinavians, Italians, Germans, and mayhap ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Aryans. And so with the rest of the story of this Welsh prince of Kellydon. When he goes out with his gifted comrades, they meet with a mythical herdsman, a captive, with a dog as mythical as they are themselves, and he plays the part of the herdsman in the Slim-waisted Giant, as told me in Uist, and in the Red Etin of Ireland, printed by Chambers in broad Scotch in 1858. The herdsman, like the maidens in the Lady of the Fountain, shews the way, and tells what is to be met with in this land of wonders, and he entertains the adventurers; and when they are set tasks by the king whose daughter they have come to win, it is like reading a list of tasks picked out of a library of popular tales, with scraps of Norse mythology, and classical mythology all jumbled up with other tasks which I have not found elsewhere.
Here is list of similar tasks from the tale mentioned above, as preserved in the Advocates’ Library, which I assume to be written in Irish. I quote from an abstract of an abstract.
Tale I. the fate of the sons of Tuireann. In the reign of Nuadh the silver-handed, the Foghmhairs, a Scandinavian race (I should say the giants), had the Tuatha de Dannans under tribute. The officers come to a king seated on a hill; Lughaidh Lamhfada comes in splendid attire, rushes on the Foghmairs and kills them all but nine, whom he sends back. They tell, and an expedition is decided on. Cian meets Uar, Ichuar, and Ichuarba, three sons of Tuireann Beagruin. Cian transforms himself into a swine. The sons transform themselves into swift hounds. Iuar kills him, and buries him under a heap of stones. As compensation for the crime, they are required to procure for Lughraich –
1. The apples that grew in the garden of the King of Hisbheirna. 2. A sow’s skin that belonged to the King of Greece. 3. A Persian spear. 4. The horses and chariot of Doghoir innsefidhe. 5. The seven swine of Easol, King of Colchos. 6. A whelp in the possession of the king of Toruath. 7. Some magic rods from an island in the Tyrrhene sea, and seven other articles of magic properties, which are not given in the abstract. They were also to utter three cries on the summit of the hill of Miodachan. After sixteen quarto pages of adventures, they return with the articles, but have not uttered the three cries, so they ask for a magic curach and go. The eldest brother, in a cover of glass, explores the sea for fifteen days. They get a magic rod, utter the three cries on the top of the hill, after a severe battle return to Ireland, die, and are buried.
This manuscript is supposed to have been written about say 1750. “It is evidently a transcript.” The language bespeaks high antiquity. The man in a glass case occurs in a story mentioned to me in Uist in 1859, and the tale of the sons of Tuireann is one of those mentioned by Professor O’Curry as probably composed before A.D. 1000.
Now let these Irish tasks be compared with the Welsh tasks, and they will be found to resemble each other in nature, though they are not the same; and they also resemble, in the same general way, the labours of Hercules and the tasks in the Battle of the Birds, in the Master Maid, in Straparola’s Fortunio, and in many of Grimm’s German stories.
When the Welsh heroes set off to accomplish their tasks it is the same thing. They go to the beasts, birds, and fishes for information, as men go to the winds in the Norse tale of East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon; and the three old men who herd the beasts, and the birds, and the fishes in the Three Princesses of Whiteland, characters who appear continually in Gaelic tales in various shapes. Sometimes they are old men, sometimes three old women, sometimes herds. These generally provide the wanderer with a cup, or a boat, or a pair of old shoes, which carry him on his journey, and come home. But the Welsh creatures are especially old and mythical; one is an eagle, which has sat on a rock and pecked at the stars for some extraordinary number of ages; another is a stag, who is as old; and the third is a salmon, who takes Kai on his back and carries him to his destination.
And when the grand climax is approaching, it appears in the shape of a magic boar, who is a transformed king, and behind whose ears are scissors, a comb, and a razor, which, like Gaelic combs and iron instruments, are the keys to the whole magic. King Arthur rouses the boar, and hunts him from Ireland to Wales, and over the Welsh mountains, and he is finally slain; and surely this magic boar and boar hunt by the mythical British king and his gifted warriors, is the same as the magic boar of Gaelic tales; and the hunt by Fionn, the mythical king of the Feine; and the hunt of Adonis, and must be some old myth as old as the races who have worked up the common stock into so many shapes.
When I first read this Welsh story, it was like a confused dream, made up of fragments from all that I had read and collected during the last two years, and yet though thus interwoven with the general mass of Gaelic, Norse, German, French, and Italian tales, the justice of the observation in the first note is undeniable. It is “purely British,” in that it has no parallel or exact counterpart in any other language.
The dream of Rhonabwy has few incidents which I can recognise. There is a horse who, like the giant in Conall, drew men towards him when he drew in his breath, and blew them away when he breathed out. It is a strange tale of chivalry, and Owen’s army of ravens are peculiarly mythological. I have a great deal about ravens, as, for instance, in the battle of the birds; but I have no army of ravens, and I know of no such army in any other popular tale; but in a note at page 436, is the outline of a story of which I have given an abstract at page xcv., Introduction. That story was repeated to me by an old tinker at Inverary, and it is in the metrical and prose versions of Perceval de Galles, according to the note.
The story of Pwyll, prince of Dyved, has a great many incidents which I recognise. The opening is like the lay of the Great Fool. The prince goes alone to hunt, and falls in with hounds whose like he had never seen, “white with red ears.” They catch a stag, and he drives them away, and sets his own hounds on the deer; and there comes a man clad in garments of gray woollen, the owner of the hounds, who accuses him of discourtesy. He is Arawn, a king of the Annwoyn.
The next adventure is like the opening of Murdoch MacBrian, No. XXVIII., and an incident in Conall. The king sits on a mound, and there comes a maiden on a steed, whom no one can overtake, which again has a relation to the opening of Boighre Borb, and the Irish story of the chase. Then comes the incident of a king disguised as a beggar, which is in the end of Murdoch MacBrian, in the Odyssey, and in many stories in Gaelic, Norse, and German.
And then there is the man enticed into a bag and beaten; as the giant’s mother was enticed by Maol a’ bhoibean, and beaten to death.
Then comes the woman who is mysteriously robbed of her children, and accused of eating them, which is in many stories; for example, in the French story of Princess Fair-Star; in the Norse story of the Lassie and her God-mother; in the Hoodie, No. 3, and in No. 12 in Gaelic, and in endless stories besides. For example, in one called, “An t-urisgeal aig na righre, Righ na thuirabhinn agus righ nan Ailp.” The king of the Ailp quarrelled with the Druids, and was killed, leaving a single daughter and son. She was educated by the Druids till she was able to do many of their tricks, but they coloured her skin as green as grass. But the son fled up a mountain, called Beinn ghloine, because it was always covered with glass (or ice) in the winter, and he took his father’s sword and sceptre. Then came a Druid and smote him as he slept, and turned him into a gray dog. Then he returned to the palace, leaving his sword and sceptre, and his sister got leave to come and see him, and there they staid; the green woman and the greyhound, and there they were to stay till some one would marry the greyhound of her own accord, and till the king’s daughter should nurse three children, and get a kiss from the king’s son. And no one was to bury the bones of those who fell in the Druid’s battle till their grandchildren should do it. Then the king of the Urbhin went off with his men through the hills to fight with another king, and lost his way in a mist, and he cried out “keep with me;” and there answered him but a hundred. Then the mist was so thick that he could not see the end of his sword, and he shouted again, and there answered him but a score; and he cried out again, and there answered but three; and next time he cried, none answered at all; and so he wandered alone till he came to the palace, where he found nothing but a greyhound. He wandered about, found food and a bed, and ate and slept. Next day he wandered about and found a lot of bones, and began to kick the skulls idly, when the gray dog sprang upon him, and threw him down, and spoke, and abused him for kicking his father’s skull, and then comes the story of beauty and the beast. The king had three daughters and a son, and he promised that a daughter should come in his stead, and the green girl went to carry the news. She put on “a’ chaisbhairt shiubhai,” her travelling foot gear for them also. The youngest staid as hostage for the king, and the rest went home, and she slept in the same room with the dog and the green sister till the year ran out, and the king came back. Then, to save her father’s life, the youngest sister agreed to marry the hound, and the green girl got a priest, and they were married. In the morning when she woke, of course it was a fine young man who was beside her; and she asked where was the gray dog. Then the two elder sisters were furious; and the king fell in love with the green girl after he had taken a draught of the “mheadair Bhuidhe,” yellow mead, from her hand. The two sisters concoct a scheme with a Druid to become queens instead of the brother and sister; and the first step is to get hold of their sister’s child, and give it to the Druids. They carry her off, and when the child was born, “there came a green hand in at a window, and it took away the child.” So in Welsh there came a great claw, and so a lake fairy took away Lancelot in the romance. And so it happened thrice, but a drop fell from the eyes of the children, and the mother gathered the drops, and treasured them.
Then the king who had been twice deceived, and who did not know that he had seen his wife, determined to marry again, but he would marry none but she who could fetch his sceptre and sword of victory from the top of the glass mountains. Many tried, but failed; and the wicked sisters who had made the youngest lose the strength of her feet, cured her, and when she succeeded, stole the prize, and claimed the reward. Then they were set to wash the bloody shirts of those who had been slain in the great battle of the Druids; the sister washed them all but one, and before she would wash that one, she must sleep three nights in the king’s room, but he had his sleepy drink, and she sang –
Rug mi do thriùir cloinne dhuit,
‘S dhirich mi a’ Bheinn ghloine dhuit,
‘S nigh mi do léintean fala dhuit,
‘S tha mi nam laidhe maille ruit,
‘S ciom’ a gaoil nach teann thu rium.
I bore thy three babes for thee,
And I climbed the glass peaks for thee,
And I washed thy bloody shirts for thee,
And I am laid beside thee here,
And why my love not turn to me.
On the third night he heard. And in so far the story is like many others, but it has many adventures which I have found nowhere else.
The king, and his wife, and his green sister, go back to the palace of the Ailp, and hold a feast; Duchmalurraidh the wicked Druid comes, and a wicked sister is transformed into the likeness of the queen, and when the true queen came her rival was in her place, and no one could make out which was the right queen. Then came the green sister, and produced a garter with which the queen had tied the sword and sceptre when she brought them from the glass hill, and the true queen had the other on.
Then the green sister brought in the three children, which she said she had carried off from the uirabhinn to save their lives, and they all three squinted for want of the drops that had fallen from their eyes, and the true mother had the drops, and put them back, and they saw straight.
Then the green girl marked the sham queen with a black spot, and put salt into the Druid’s food, and a sleepy drink into his cup, and when he slept she put him amongst the bones, where he could work no more spells. The Druid, to get free, told her to wash in the water of the well that was at the foot of the blue rock, in the Island of Deer, in a high hill, and the young prince of the uirabhinn fetched it and she was cured, and they married.
The wicked sisters try to burn the house, and put magic draughts into their sister’s drink but they fail. The Druid is made drunk and beheaded; the sisters drink their own draught, lose the power of their legs, and fall into poverty and disgrace, and the young sister and the king of the Ailp who had been a gray dog, and his sister who had been green, and the young king of the Uira Bhinn, lived happily thenceforth, and their grandchildren buried the bones.
Now this was a nursery story told to John Dewar, by a servant maid, about 1812; and this rough outline will shew that it is a version of the same popular tale which was written in Wales about 400 years before, which was in the Golden Ass of Apuleius 1600 years ago, and has to do with Cupid and Psyche, and is in the Arabian Nights. I have other Gaelic versions of the same incidents, including a detailed account of the manner of climbing the mountains, and the accusation of eating children; but my object here is to shew the relationship between Gaelic and Wlsh stories, and this must suffice for the present.
In the next story, Branwen, the daughter of Llyr, which, if Gaelic, might mean black and white daughter of the sea, there is little which I can recognise. There is a great deal about ships which come from Ireland; and the caldron which brings warriors to life when they are slain is like the vessel of balsam. The origin of the “five-fifths of Eirinn” is given, and, as I have not found the myth elsewhere, and as the term is common in Gaelic stories, I quote it. After a great battle there were left alive but five women, and they bore five sons, and these, when they grew up, took each other’s mothers to wife, and they peopled Ireland and divided it.
The name of the smith is like Gaelic. Llasar Llaesgywdd might be kindled flame.
I have nothing in common with the next story except a magic white boar, nor with the next, nor with the dream of Maxen Wledig, nor with the story of Lludd. Some of these I should class with popular history.
But the next, “Taliesen,” begins with the well-known incident of the man who mysteriously acquires knowledge by tasting unwittingly drops of magic liquor from a caldron. The man’s name is Gwion Bach; and the story is now told of Fionn MacCumhail. This seems to join Fionn and Gwion, and to this I have referred elsewhere.
The pursuit, in various forms, by the witch lady, has an exact counterpart in a story of which I have many versions, and which I had intended to give if I had room. It is called “The Fuller’s Son,” “The Collier’s Son,” and other names, and it bears a strong resemblance to the end of the Norse tale “Farmer Weathersky.” That belongs to the Arabian Nights also, and so carries us eastwards as usual.
The incident of sending a man to try the fidelity of a wife, and his deceit with a ring token, has a counterpart in No. XVIII. which leads to Shakespeare and Boccaccio, and proves what I had suspected, that there actually was a British popular tale current before the time of Shakespeare, from which he might have taken some of his ideas. The very same idea will be found in a Breton tale (Invention des Ballins Foyer Breton, vol. i., p. 180), where a Breton gentleman goes to court, boasts of his wife’s beauty and fidelity, and a French courtier goes to test his words. He gets a ring and other tokens, and sends them to Paris, and when the enraged husband comes home to take vengeance on his lady, he finds that she is innocent. The gallant is found weaving sacking in a room where he had been enticed by the lady, and where she had starved him into submission, and taught him to weave, after his own fashiojn, a new kind of cloth of his own invention. Here, then, one incident joins Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton, and joins them to English, French, and Italian tales, and brings them into contact with famous names, and carries them back a long way.
But while this is true of incidents, the groundwork of the Welsh story and the poetry of Taliesen have little in common with any popular tale of which I know anything. Taliesen, according to the notes, was a Welsh bard of the sixth century, his history is mixed with Irish adventures, he was a knight of the round table, with Arthur at Caerleon, upon Usk, in Glamorgan; but if so, the Taliesen of the story is a very different personage; he is a kind of demigod, and in all likelihood ancient myths about the spirit of song have clustered round a famous name.
The names Taliesen, the offspring of GWION, and Oisein, the son of FIONN, suggest that these mythical bards may once have been the same.
In a note, I find that Cardigan Bay was once the site of a submerged country; the same, no doubt, which can be traced in Breton, in Irish, in Manks, and Gaelic; in Norse, and in Italian, a country submerged for wickedness, and whose houses can be seen under water, and occasionally rise to the surface; a tradition common to many nations which bears upon that of the mysterious western land hidden in the mist, which once was the Isle of Man, and is now to the westward of Man.
So far, then, I have endeavoured to shew that Welsh popular tales of the fifteenth century, and Gaelic popular tales of the nineteenth, have a strong relationship to each other, that they are both intimately connected with mediæval romances, and with modern Norse tales, and with old Norse mythology; with the oldest known collections of popular tales made in Europe, and with the last; with Irish traditions in the Far West, and with the Arabian Nights in the East. My opinion is, that these are all founded upon incidents which have been woven into popular tales almost ever since men began to speak; that they are all Celtic only because Celts are men, and only peculiarly Celtic because Celts are admitted by all to be a very ancient offshoot from the common root. They are peculiarly Cymric or Gaelic, because each fresh branch has a separate growth, and different tribes have varied their stories, as they have altered their language.
2 thoughts on “Welsh Stories, pp.246-273.”