Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Samhain Tale: The Miser's Feast

I thought of writing about Samhain - the Celtic Halloween - today, but decided instead to post an excerpt from Storyteller and let you read the Wikipedia article yourselves.

The following passage is from the chapter called "The Making of Arthur's Crown", where Gwernin's teacher Talhaearn tells a tale one evening. (Reminder: the pdf version of Storyteller is still available free - see the sidebar for the link.) Here begins the tale; Talhaearn is speaking:

[In order to make the crown] ... we first needed gold from seven British Kings. Now the crowned Kings of Britain in those days were Tudwal Tudclyd of Strathclyde, and Cynwyd of Eidyn, and Cynfarch Oer of Rheged, and Lleenawg of Elmet, and Maelgwn Hir of Gwynedd, and Brochfael Ysgithog of Powys, and Geraint mab Erbin of Dumnonia. And this gathering of gold from them was no easy task; for many considered Arthur to be an upstart, with no good claim to Uthur Pendragon’s chair, while others had ambitions themselves to be High King. And in order for our magic to be true and right and potent, we might not get the gold other than by free gift.

So my Master devised a plan, and it was this: no King could risk the dispraise of a pencerdd, a master bard, however strong he felt himself, whether the dispraise was only by silence, the mere omission of his name from a list of Generous Ones, or by the sharper attack of satire. If each King were to believe that all the others in our list had given generous gifts to our endeavor, than each in his turn would give as well, not to be outdone. The difficulty lay in starting the process.

We went, therefore, first to the court of Rheged, which was ruled in those days by Cynfarch Oer, Cynfarch the Cold, who could as well have been called Cynfarch Caled, Cynfarch the Miser. For as my Master said truly, if we could win gold freely given from that skinflint, than no one else would dare to hold back, for fear of dishonor. And we arrived on the eve of Samhain, then as now one of the great festivals of the year, when even Cynfarch would be forced to hold a feast.

Now my Master's name was known in those days the length and breadth of Britain, and not for lack of resource. So in order not to put Cynfarch on his guard, we agreed that I would appear in my own proper person, but that he would dress himself in our oldest clothes and pretend to be my servant. And thus we arrived at Cynfarch’s hall, where a feast – of sorts – was in progress.

Cold, did I say was Cynfarch's calling? Cold was the hospitality of his hall as well. Few indeed were the torches that lit that hall, and small and feeble the hearth-fire, so it was little enough that could be seen through the drifting haze of smoke. The benches were thronged by such as had no hope of better entertainment elsewhere, but little good did they get by it, for the bowls of broken meats came half-empty to the table, and the drink was small sour beer. It is true that Cynfarch's retinue was served somewhat better – a war-band which is not feasted will soon find another lord – and better yet was the food on Cynfarch's own table, but I swear to you that Arthur's war-band in the field after a three-day's battle ate better than he. Nevertheless, we came into the hall, and I followed close after the porter to be announced, while my Master joined the servants near the door.

Now Cynfarch, though a miser, was no fool; and my own name was not unknown in the land of Britain. Yet like all those who value gear and goods above honor, he could not resist the prospect of getting something for nothing, or nearly nothing: in this case, my songs in exchange for his poor entertainment. It would be a bold bard who satirized him there in his own hall; and if my praise was less than fulsome, why, he could live with that. Indeed, he had been doing so for a long time. So he waved me to a seat at his own table, and presently he bade me sing.

I sang, first, a song in praise of Arthur, calling him Bull of Battle and Bulwark of Britain, Red-Ravager and Gold-Giver. This produced a little applause from Cynfarch, but rather more from his war-band, who like everyone else had heard tales of Arthur's success. Clearly they were now wondering if he might be a more generous provider than Cynfarch. Next I told the tale of Pwyll's winning of Rhiannon, when he comes to her wedding feast dressed as a beggar but carrying a magic bag which cannot be filled, however much is put into it. At this I heard one of the retinue say to another, "Well for him that he came not here!" and laugh, and Cynfarch shifted uneasily in his chair. "Have you no better tales than this?" he asked me. "Give me something new."

"Alas, Lord," I said, "I am weary from traveling and need food and time to rest. Perhaps you would hear a tale from my servant while I eat? He is not without experience."

"Gladly," said Cynfarch. "Let him come up."

My Master came to the front of the hall, still in his disguise. "Good evening to you, Lord," he said. "Would you hear a tale suited to the night, which I learned long ago in Ireland?"

"Gladly," said Cynfarch. "Tell your tale."

My Master then began to tell the most terrifying story I have ever heard, of unquiet spirits and monsters which could not be killed, and murdered men returning from the grave for vengeance, their empty eyes burning with the fires of hell. And as he spoke the hall grew darker, and the torches burned faint and blue, and outside the wind rose and moaned about the court, and there were voices in it. Even the retinue grew quiet and huddled closer together on their benches; and their faces were pale, and their hands moved uneasily now and then to their knife-hilts. Cynfarch's eyes went round and round the hall, as if he saw movement in the shadows, and sweat stood upon his brow; and I myself felt the skin creep on my shoulders, and the hairs on my neck stand up. And still my Master spoke, and the wind rose, and one or two of the torches flickered and went out.

At last Cynfarch could stand no more. "Enough!" he cried. "End your tale now, old man!"

"But how shall I do that," my Master asked, "and the tale not half finished?"

"I will pay you to end it," said Cynfarch. "In silver, if need be."

"Nay," said my Master, "that would be ill doing. For it would be bad luck to me to end the tale untimely, and silver is not enough to pay for that misfortune."

"Let it be gold, then," said Cynfarch, and he hauled off from his arm the great twisted bracelet of red gold which he wore there, and which no one had ever seen him without, and threw it into my Master’s hands. "Take it, and be silent." And my Master bowed, and turned away; and as he did so, the torches burned up again, and the wind died away to nothing.

We did not linger long at the hall of Cynfarch Rheged, but went on with our journey. At all the other Kings' courts we showed the arm-ring, and praised Cynfarch's generosity, and we had no trouble in getting their gold. And so the first of our tasks was accomplished...

(the above (c) 2007 by G. R. Grove)

Happy Samhain to you all!

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