Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bards and the Law of Hywel

There are three classes of bard mentioned in the Law of Hywel: the pencerdd, or master bard; the bardd teulu, or bard of the household; and the cerddor, or singer. The Law has a good bit to say about the first two, and rather less about the third, but much of it is intermingled with other material and must be separated out by the curious reader. This post will be about the pencerdd; I will take up the other two classes of bards later.

The pencerdd (pronounced pen-kerth) or master bard is defined as "the bard when he wins a chair," i.e., a bardic competition. His seat in the court is next to the court justice, and his lodging with the edling, or King's heir. He is one of the fourteen persons who have chairs in court. He sings first at the feasting, and sings two songs: one praising God, and one praising the King. He pays no fees to the King for his land, but rather receives payments from others: twenty-four pence from each of his pupils when he leaves the master's instruction, and twenty-four pence from every maiden when she marries.

In addition, the pencerdd can solicit, or receive payment, from those for whom or about whom he sings, and that without competition: "No bard can solicit for anything within his pencerdd area, without his permission, unless he is a bard from a strange country. Even if the King forbids the giving of goods within his realm until the end of a period, the pencerdd will be free of the law." Moreover, "from what he and his companions gain together he is entitled to have two shares." With all of this, it is clear why the pencerdd's Irish equivalent was described as one of three whose wealth could not be measured.

The pencerdd's harp is valued at six score pence, and its tuning-horn at twenty-four pence, the same as the King's harp. (A nobleman's harp, in contrast, is valued at sixty pence.)

Next: the Bard of the Household.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

after the weekend...

Well, things were moderately productive at Tre Gwernin this weekend, even if not on the blog itself. I got a narrative problem resolved which had been hindering progress on The Flight of the Hawk for about a month. Great relief ... the problem was that I had the right story but was dithering about location. If I can't make it work on the map, I can't make it work in my mind. Right location, problem solved ... onward!

On non-literary matters, I planted out 16 (new-world) tomato plants, but didn't get the lawn mowed. And it's supposed to rain today...

Friday, May 25, 2007


Have a good weekend, folks. I probably won't be posting much before tuesday - too much writing and gardening to do - and I hope you have something better to do than read blogs as well!

Thursday, May 24, 2007


The picture at the left is of my two cats (Falco and Titus) four years ago, when they were half-grown. Basic tabbies, they are the type of cat which would have been around in Gwernin's day. We're not sure just when domestic cats arrived in Britain - the European wild cat, of course, was already there - but it seems certain that the Romans brought more with them.

They were valued for their mousing, as the Law of Hywel shows: "The value of a cat, fourpence. The value of a kitten from the night it is born until it opens its eyes, a legal penny; and from then until it kills mice, two legal pence; and after it kills mice, four legal pence, and at that it remains for ever. Her properties are to see and hear and kill mice, and that her claws are not broken, and to rear kittens; and if she is bought, and any of those is wanting, a third of her value is to be returned ... The value of a cat which guards a king's barn, if killed ... her head is set down on a clean level floor, and her tail is raised up, and wheat grains are poured over her until they hide the end of her tail. That will be her value; if the grain is not obtained, a milking ewe with her lamb and her wool." If a couple divorces, "the man is entitled to all the hens, and to one of the cats, with the rest for the woman."

Cats are also mentioned in one of the Arthurian poems in the Black Book of Caermyrddin, "Pa Gwr",where Kay, Arthur's foster-brother, goes to Ynys Mon to destroy a monster called Cath Paluc (Paluc's Cat). Possibly she was an early version of the mysterious black cats still being observed in western Britain today!

Did I mention that my sister and I saw one once? Well, that's a story for another day...

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Only so much time

Having built up a backlog of posts on this site for perusal by those interested, I'm going to slow the rate of substantial posts down to a couple a week. This doesn't mean I won't be putting other things on from time to time as well. It's just that I've found out, like many other writers before me, that time spent blogging is not time spent working on the next book.

I'm also feeling more than usually aware of the fragility and finiteness of life. In the last month two people I knew fairly well - one a next door neighbor, another a friend - have died suddenly. Things unsaid, things not yet done, press about me. I need to do them now.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Interesting thread on publishing

Something I read this morning on GuardianUnlimited:,,2085039,00.html

Monday, May 21, 2007

What's For Dinner? Part II

Thinking about medieval food brings up the subject of New World introductions: a fairly large percentage of what we -- Europeans and North Americans -- normally eat originated in the Americas. To see how large, let's look at some common menus.

Breakfast first. Bacon, eggs, and toast are on firm ground: the ingredients, if not the manner of preparation, were available in 6th century Britain. Oatmeal porridge with milk or cream is also safe. Cornflakes, however, are right out: maize is New World.

Lunch is a bit more of a problem. Hamburgers are fine, as long as you leave off the (tomato based) catchup, but you can't have fries with them. Potatoes are New World. Salad greens are mostly safe, and so are cucumbers, but again no tomatoes. Olive oil and vinegar are Mediterranean, and garlic. So are most pizza ingredients, if you leave off the (tomato) sauce.

And so to dinner. Contemporary feasting, like its medieval counterpart, includes large cuts of meat. Beef, pork, lamb, and chicken are no problem. Turkey is North American, as some of us notice every November. As I've already said, no potatoes, no tomatoes, no corn on (or off) the cob, and definitely no baked beans (all our beans except fava beans and related broad beans are New World). Rice was Old World, though probably not available in 6th century Britain, and the ingredients for pasta were there, though again probably not the thing itself. Beets and turnips are European. Many if not most hot peppers are originally New World; so are sweet peppers. Pumpkin or blueberry pie wasn't available, but apples, strawberries, dates and almonds have all been found in Roman deposits. The Romans had plenty of wine, and the Celts and Germans made beer in great quantity, but there was no tea or coffee in medieval Europe -- and definitely no chocolate!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Long Weekend

I'm getting ready now for a long weekend of SCA activity, so there'll probably be no new posts on this blog until Monday. In the meantime, for those of you who haven't seen it, I direct your attention to some of the background on how I came to write Storyteller -- here. The SCA is where I learned my bardic craft, and one of the places I practice it.

And to see what we get up to in August, look here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

How Many Mabinogi? or, What's in My Library?

Last July, as I have in 7 out of 10 of the last summers, I attended Cymdeithas Madog's one-week intensive Welsh Course, known to its friends as Cwrs Cymraeg. On Tuesday night we had "Pub Night", which included a quiz session, and one of the questions was "How many stories make up the Mabinogion?" As usual, I knew a little too much for my own good, so I asked in return, "Whose version?" The person asking the questions replied "My version!" which didn't help. If she had said, "Lady Charlotte Guest's version," I would have got the answer right, and it would have been "12". (No, not "42" - that's a different blog!) But I answered "11", and was adjudged wrong.

To explain my confusion, I should say that I collect versions of the Mabinogion. There are more than you might think, especially when you count scholarly editions of individual stories. The version most familiar to English-speakers, however, is the first English translation, published by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 1850's. It consisted of eleven stories from two 14th and 15th century Welsh manuscripts, plus the Tale of Taliesin from a much later source.

Let's start with the manuscripts. Of the two mentioned (the Red Book of Hergist and the White Book of Rhydderch), I have an edition of part of the latter, with additions from the Red Book -- Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch: Y chwedlau a'r Rhamantau, edited by J. Gwenogvryn Evans and R. M. Jones and published by Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru in Caerdydd in 1973. Without going into details, this book contains the four related tales called Pedeir Kainc y Mabinogi (the Four Branches of the Mabinogi), the three Arthurian romances (Peredur, Gereint, and Owein), Breudwyt Maxen Wledic (M. W.'s Dream), Llud a Llevelis, Breudwyt Ronabwy (R.'s Dream), and the older Arthurian tale Kulhwch ac Olwen: a total of eleven stories.

Next in my library: Pedeir Keinc Y Mabinogi, allan o Lyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, by Sir Ifor Williams, published by Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru in 1951. This book contains only the Four Branches, and is more or less the standard edition. I also have separate copies of all the eleven stories with Welsh text and English commentary, mostly in the small red-bound editions published by The Dublin Institute For Advanced Studies in the 1980's. The exceptions are Patrick K. Ford's editions of Manawydan Uab Llyr (aka the Third Branch), Math Uab Mathonwy (the Fourth Branch), and Ystoria Taliesin, and Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans' edition of Culhwch and Olwen. (I don't see Maxen Wledic on the shelf - maybe he's misfiled?)

Moving on to Modern Welsh editions and retellings, I have Y Mabinogion by Dafydd and Rhiannon Ifans (eleven stories), Gwerthfawrogi'r Chwedlau by Rhiannon Ifans (5 assorted tales with Welsh commentary), Y Mabinogi by Gwyn Thomas (an illustrated translation/adaptation of the Four Branches, aimed at children but equally delightful for adults), Culhwch ac Olwen (ditto), and several smaller excerpts and/or learner's versions of individual tales which I won't bother to catalogue.

On, then, to the English translations! The Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, is the most literal rendition and my favorite (I have two editions). This has the eleven tales from the Red and White books. My next favorite, Patrick K. Ford's The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales, has seven stories: the familiar Four Branches, Lludd and Lleuelys, Culhwch and Olwen, and his translation of the Tale of Taliesin (the first new English translation since Lady Charlotte Guest's, and from an earlier manuscript than the one she used). Then there is Jeffrey Gantz's The Mabinogion (eleven stories), and finally a new edition which I just acquired and recommend highly, Sioned Davies' The Mabinogion (eleven stories).

See why I was confused? In the last 150 years, so far as I know, Lady Charlotte Guest's book (and, I suppose, reprints derived from it) has been the only version of The Mabinogion to contain 12 stories. (But judging from my trawl through Amazon, my collection is by no means comprehensive!)

Why did she call it The Mabinogion, when most of my other versions use Y Mabinogi? Ah, that is a post for another day.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Another Review

Leo Stableford has published a lengthy and perceptive review of Storyteller on his blog. Having grown up in Wales, he is uniquely qualified to evaluate the accuracy or otherwise of my portrayal of the country. Happily, it seems that by and large I pass muster. I've visited the country several times and studied the language on and off for about twelve years, but research is no substitute for actually living in a place and seeing the flow of its seasons. I'm glad to hear I got most of it right.

Friday, May 11, 2007


I was just looking at Storyteller's Amazon page, and I noticed they have added some interesting new stuff. One thing that caught my eye was an item called text stats. Apparently Storyteller is seventh grade reading level (Flesch-Kincaid index of 7.7). I think this is mostly due to my preference for short Anglo-Saxon words as opposed to longer Latin-derived compounds, but I can't prove it. Interestingly, the stats are roughly comparable to those on some of Rosemary Sutcliff's young adult novels such as The Lantern Bearers and The Shining Company, which have had a big influence on my writing style.

So I guess I got that right.

P. S. a few more comparisons:

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters (first book in the Brother Cadfael series) has almost exactly the same complexity stats as Storyteller and a Flesch-Kincaid index of 8.3.

The King Must Die by Mary Renault is 5th grade reading level (Flesch-Kincaid index of 5.6); so is Mary Stewart's Merlin Triology (FKI 5.7). Lindsey Davis' The Silver Pigs (the first book in her Falco series) falls in between.

For the curious, most Amazon selections with the "Search Inside" feature also show statistics. Check out your favorites.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

What's For Dinner?

I mentioned some food preferences in Roman and sub-Roman Britain earlier, as indicated by archeology. Another approach, using later literary sources, takes us back to the Law of Hywel. This source, remember, is 9th to 13th century, but it does give us some insight into what was available and how it was managed.

Like everyone else, a King and his court had to eat. How did they get their supplies? Well, one way was by going a circuit through the land, stopping at various places where the noble owners or the bound peasants were required to feed them. Another source was customary food renders, paid on a seasonal basis. Here's an example: the food-gift owed by a free township to the King in winter-time consists of "a horse-load of the best flour that grows on the land, and a meat steer, and a vat's quota of mead ... oats as horse-fodder ... a three-year-old pig, and a salt flitch with fat three fingers' breadth thick, and a vessel of butter three fistbreadths deep ... and three wide ... if the mead cannot be had, two quotas of bragget; if bragget cannot be had, four of beer." Summer food renders also mention cheese made from cow's milk. Vegetables are evidently much less important.

If this all sounds like the ingredients for a bacon cheeseburger, or possibly a pizza (without tomatoes!), there may be reasons. More tomorrow...

Free books

Taking a break from King Arthur's adventures (yes, that was the entire poem, but I'll come back to its discussion later), I'm moving on to news and upcoming attractions.

First, the title: free (e-)books! Last night I notched up my 100th sale since Storyteller was released in January. Now, by mass market standards, that's not much, but for a self-published, barely-promoted, only-available-in-person-or-on-the-internet, doesn't-fit-in-any-standard-category first novel, I think it's pretty good, so I'm celebrating. The first 10 people who e-mail me at the address in the sidebar will get a free pdf. version of Storyteller, no strings attached. It won't even cost you a(n about to increase in price) stamp!

This brings me to coming attractions: what I'll be posting on next. Topic: what's for dinner? Food in 6th century Britain. Starting later today.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

King Arthur's Raid on Hell - Part III

The story continues...

Three and three hundred horses swiftly ran
with Arthur, Kai, and Bedwyr in the van.
Beside them Mabon rode, a gold-haired boy,
beardless and slender; bright he shone with joy
to leave his prison, even for a while.
He face was fair, and Arthur saw no guile
within him. – ‘Lad, tell me if you do know,
where are we riding, and who is our foe?’ —
‘His name is Hafgan. He with you will fight
before his castle. Many are his knights
and strong his walls. You’ll never come within
unless you slay him, and the battle win.’
All day the horses bore them o’er the plains
of that wide land, which neither snow nor rain
can wet. They camped that night; at dawn rode on.
So passed three days, until they saw upon
a hill ahead of them a castle gray.
An army stood before it in their way.
Before he reached them, Arthur stopped his men
and set them in good order. Slowly then
he rode ahead with Mabon by his side.
A knight came out to meet him in his pride.
His armor shone, gold-crowned his helmet was.
‘Who are you, lord,’ he cried, ‘and with what cause
do you come here?’ — ‘If Hafgan is your name,
we ride to slay you and your land to claim.
My name is Arthur – far across the sea
I’ve come to fight, and with my blood to free
this boy.’ — ‘Have I no choice?’ asked Hafgan then. —
‘No choice.’ — ‘Then draw, and straightway we’ll begin!’
Mabon lifted a horn and blew it long,
and at its sound the force three hundred strong
charged forward shouting. Arthur drew his sword
and it met Hafgan’s. Not another word
they spoke between them all that bloody day,
but each one strove the other king to slay.
In the first hour, Kai slew a hundred men.
Bedwyr rode singing through the battle’s din
and left two hundred corpses on the field.
None could withstand him; shattered were their shields.
Menw mab Teirgwaed slew three score and one
before he fell, and Gwarthgydd, Caw’s last son,
slew twice as many. Four score men and two
was Rheiddwn’s count, and Ysgawd son of Glew
clove five-score shields before his own blood flowed.
Isgofan Hael six score and three men mowed
with his great sword before he felt death’s chill,
and Isgawn son of Ban died on a hill
of bodies; Gwydre cut two hundred down,
and splintered shields he scattered on the ground.
Gwrgi Aur Gwallt was fighting like a fiend,
blood to his thighs. No mother’s son has seen
such valor since, as they displayed that day:
mighty the price they did for Mabon pay.
Arthur was laughing, though his blood did flow;
Caledfwlch sang as she paid blow with blow.
Hafgan still fought. Long since he’d cast aside
his shattered shield, but still his fierce pride
upheld him, though his blood in rivers ran.
Of all his army scarce was left a man.
His sword-stroke missed, and Caledfwlch came down
like lightning striking. On the bloody ground
she laid him dying. As he breathed his last
Arthur struck off his head, and tied it fast
beside his saddle by its blood-soaked hair,
then raised his eyes and looked on Hafgan’s caer.
Its gates stood closed; within he could not go
for Annwn’s treasures, till he laid them low.
Grim was the evening on that field of blood.
Silk banners and bright weapons in the mud
and filth lay mingled. Wide-eyed bodies stared
as ravens gathered. None was left who cared.
Before the iron-barred gates of Hafgan’s caer
those who lived gathered. Of three hundred there
but six remained – Arthur, Bedwyr and Kai,
Mabon the Young, and Manawyd whose eye
could see for leagues, and Gwrgi Golden-Hair:
no more survived the fight for Hafgan’s caer,
and none of these without some wound or blow.
Said Arthur, ‘Back from here we cannot go
without the treasures we were sent to find.’
Then spoke Manawyd – ‘Can you bring to mind
their names and uses? For I cannot now.’ —
‘An ox, a sword, a cauldron – and somehow
this door we needs must open.’ — ‘By God’s Word,
that is the key – Llemnawg’s – no, Hafgan’s sword!
Slung on your saddle by his bloody head.’ —
‘Then we will try it,’ Arthur grimly said,
‘and pray you’re right.’ He drew it from its sheath
and faced the oaken door that stood beneath
the stone-built gatehouse, hefted once the blade,
then swung it, and sliced through that barricade
as if through water. Oaken timbers stout
fell at their feet – nothing now kept them out.
Within were women, servants, old men too,
who cowered back before that gory crew.
Arthur assured them that their lives they’d keep
and set them all to work to delve a deep
wide grave. In this, they laid their friends in rows,
but Hafgan’s men they left to feed the crows.
When all that work was done, and rest and food
they’d taken, on a wagon, wide but crude,
the mighty Cauldron Arthur lifted then –
a feat of strength beyond most mortal men –
harnessed the Speckled Ox to draw the cart,
and set off, though they went with heavy heart.
Long was their journey, for the Ox went slow,
and many a day had passed before they saw
ahead of them the jet-black tower rise
lifting its burning beacon to the skies.
Twice weary were they ere they reached the gate
and dragged within the Cauldron’s mighty weight.
Again the porter led them to the hall,
and there the King awaited. Candles tall
burned in the lanterns, colored hangings bright
glowed on the walls to banish death and night,
and Taliesin in a carven Chair
sat playing on his harp a song most fair.
‘My lord,’ said Arthur, ‘we have kept our word
and brought you back your Cauldron, Ox, and Sword.’ —
The Dark King frowned. ‘Then Hafgan now is dead?’ —
‘He is.’ And Arthur flung the bloody head
before the throne, and drew forth Llemnawg’s Sword.
‘Now give us leave to go, and keep your word.’ —
The Dark King smiled, and spoke a word of power.
The Sword rang on the floor, and Arthur there
stood helpless – he could neither move nor speak.
‘If I wished, Man, in my dark dungeons bleak
I now could chain you. Be glad I do not.
You wanted Mabon – take then what you’ve got,
and leave while you still can. The loser pays –
Mabon may go, but Taliesin stays.’ —
Then Taliesin laid hand on his strings
and said, ‘My Lord, grant me that I may sing
one song for Arthur, ere he does depart.’ —
The Dark King nodded. ‘You’ve a generous heart,
and this one boon, my Bard, I’ll gladly give –
it’s only for your sake I’ve let him live.’
Then Taliesin smiled, and from his strings
such music did he draw as angels’ wings
must make within the choirs of Heaven high –
and as he sang the King began to cry.
The music changed, and mirth ran through the hall;
the Dark King laughed, and of his warders all
felt their hearts light. The music changed once more,
and all the guards fell senseless to the floor.
Upon his throne the Dark King closed his eyes
and slumber took him. Arthur stared surprised,
then turned as Taliesin carefully stood
and softly set his harp upon the wood
of his fine Chair, and there it still played on.
He smiled and said, ‘Let’s leave him to his song.’
They took the Sword, the Ox, the Cauldron, too,
all bought by blood, to pay the debt was due,
and quietly left the Caer while all within
lay sleeping. To the strand they came again,
took ship in Prydwen and in her alone –
upon the beach the red fire gnawed the bones
of her two sisters. Long behind them burned
that silent pyre, but never back they turned.
Seven alone they came to Severn-side
one clear spring night. To Mabon at his side
turned Arthur then. Above them burned the Star,
so high and distant in the heavens far,
and Arthur sighed, and said, ‘I now recall
why we did sail, lad, to that distant hall
to bring you back with us. Can you tell me
what means this star?’ — The boy smiled. ‘Now I’m free,
my Lord, I’ll tell you gladly all I know.
That firedrake burns as you burn here below.
It’s your Red Dragon flaming in the sky –
long as it shines, your legend will not die.’ —
And Arthur said, ‘I knew it long before
within my heart.’ And so they came ashore.”
The Bard was done; the court applauded long.
The King smiled; gold he gave him for his song,
but said, “Good Minstrel, tell me if you can,
if Arthur’s Star still shines above this land.” —
“It does, Sire. Your can see it there tonight.
High in the east now glows its ruddy light
near Arthur’s Sword – Orion, as some men say –
and even so his tales are told today.”
Before he slept the Bard gazed on that star
and smiled, as once he smiled in Annwn’s Caer
where in his Chair his harp it still played on,
and Arawn dreamed in Taliesin’s song.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

King Arthur's Raid on Hell - Part II

The second increment of the long poem I started posting yesterday - the story continues.

To Severn’s banks then Arthur brought his fleet
as promised, there the Salmon old to meet.
Of his three ships the first was named Prydwen,
and laden full with five-score mighty men
she stemmed the tide, Fair Beauty of the sea.
Above her Arthur’s banner floated free –
a dragon red on silken meadows green,
wrought by the hands of Guenievere his Queen.
His second white-hulled ship was Gwennen named–
far had she sailed, and farther was she famed.
Her cargo equaled Prydwen’s – five-score braves –
bright spears and shields they bore across the waves.
Last of the three, not least, was Bronwen called –
five-score bold Britons rode within her walls.
For captain she had Kai – from no man he
would take a blow without returning three.
On Gwennen’s deck stood Bedwyr, mighty man,
with his four-cornered spear and shield in hand.
In Prydwen Arthur led them – bright his crown
glittered in sunlight golden; fierce his frown,
until he saw before them in the sea
the ancient Salmon – longer than a tree
his back stretched, silver scales like shields on him
were all his armor; huge and grey and grim
he loomed before them, and he gave this call:
‘Follow who will – I’ll swim to Hell’s own walls
as I have promised.’ And he was away. —
Then Arthur blew his horn, and ‘Come what may,’
he shouted, ‘we shall follow through the foam
and Mabon from his prison we’ll bear home!’
Flying bright banners, so they put to sea –
but grimmer far their journey home would be.

Nine days and nights they sailed – no sight of land
they had, no glimpse of rock or shore or sand,
only green waves above the mighty deep
that roared like lions and rose like mountains steep
beside them, while above them still the Star
burned red and baleful in the heavens far,
till ragged clouds that rushed across the sky
brought utter darkness. They could only try
to keep their course by wind and wave and prayer
through driving rain and bitter salt-filled air,
until they saw at last through freezing dark
above the sea a tiny glowing spark
that grew into a candle, then a flare,
and then a beacon blazing through the air.
It burned upon a tower tall and black,
darker than jet, without a chip or crack
to mar its smoothness, and about it, walls
massive as mountains, iron-barred gates and halls
lit with red light and full of well-armed men.
‘This is Caer Sidhe ,’ said Taliesin then.
‘Its walls by magic long ago were made.’ —
The Salmon seemed a minnow in their shade.
‘So far I’ve brought you, Arthur,’ he cried then.
‘What I’ve begun, it is for you to end!’ —
Then, ‘Men,’ cried Arthur, ‘follow me ashore!
We’ve come to fight – let’s show them now a war!’

When all of them had brought their ships to land,
captains and warriors gathered on the strand.
Bright were their weapons and fierce their array.
Toward the gate they climbed a winding way.
Six thousand men were waiting on the walls –
not easy to be heard above their calls! –
But Arthur shouted, ‘Open now the gate!’ —
Replied the Porter, ‘Who comes here so late?’ —
‘Arthur am I , and King in my own land!’
The gate swung open. — ‘Enter with your band,
and I will guide you to my lord’s own hall.’
They came within, past walls and towers tall.
Huge beyond dreaming was that stone-built place.
The sneering Porter led them on apace.
At last they came into a gold-roofed hall –
lofty it was; hangings on every wall
glowed in bright colors, red and blue and green.
A thousand lanterns lit the splendid scene.
Within that hall upon a carven throne
a man sat waiting. Of all kings he’d known,
never had Arthur one so kingly seen.
Black were his hair and beard; his eyes shone green;
snow-white his skin, and blood-red silk his robe;
within his hands he held a gilded globe.
‘Be welcome, strangers,’ said he. ‘Tell us now
your names and whence you’ve come, and why, and how.’—
‘Our mission to you, Lord, is easily told:
we seek your prisoner Mabon.’ — ‘Not for gold
or silver will he ever be set free,
but you may win him, if you’ll do for me
one task.’ — Then Arthur grinned a wolfish grin.
‘Name but your task, and swiftly we’ll begin!’ —
‘Long years ago I ruled o’er all this land.
One day a stranger landed on my strand
as you have done. He made fell war on me
and I could not defeat him. To win free
full half my land I gave, and three things more –
three splendid gifts to seal the end of war:
the Speckled Ox, whose collar is of gold;
the Cauldron of Pen Annwn, which can hold
enough to feed this company and more;
and Llemnawg’s sword, which opens every door.
If you can go and slay my enemy
and these three treasures gather back for me,
then Mabon’s yours.’ — Said Arthur, ‘Who will guide
us through your land, and shall we walk or ride?’ —
‘Three and three hundred horses shall bear you.
Mabon himself shall be your guide most true,
but surety I’ll have for his return:
I see one here, does bright with awen burn:
his Chair’s prepared; for me he’ll sing his lays –
Mabon may go, but Taliesin stays
until to me you bring those treasures three.’
And Arthur nodded — ‘Short time will it be
till we return – but Lord, I warn you now,
when we come back, be sure you keep your vow!’

Monday, May 7, 2007

King Arthur's Raid on Hell

This week's offerings are going to center around a long narrative poem I wrote a few years back for a competition. As it is 432 lines long, I will be posting it in chunks over the next few days. Friday's post will be background information on where I got the ideas I used in writing it. Those of you who have read Storyteller will recognize the plot as one of the long interior stories from the book - but the poem came first.

King Arthur’s Raid on Hell

The King was sitting in his winter hall
and for some song or story he did call
to cheer the evening and make waiting sweet
until such time the company sat at meat.
Of all his bards the eldest then stood up
and said, “My Lord, by Jesus’ Sacred Cup,
there is a story that in Wales men tell
of how King Arthur led a raid on Hell
to free a prisoner and great treasure bring
back to his court.” — The King commanded, “Sing!”
“In Winter’s darkness, e’en as now we are,
my tale begins. One night there shone a star –
a burning dragon in its form and flight –
whose awful radiance reddened all the night.
The Porter came, the watchmen from the walls,
and all who saw it, into Arthur’s halls
to bring the news, and cried, ‘My lord, come see
this fearful sight, and tell us if it be
the Day of Judgment, for afraid we are.’
Then all within came out to see the star
which burned above them. Arthur gazed full long
upon it, then spoke to his courtly throng –
‘Who reads this riddle, let him prove his worth!’ —
And Taliesin Chief of Bards stood forth.
‘My King, last night I dreamed a curious dream.
I stood beside a fortress, as it seemed,
and heard within a voice lamenting long
his heavy chains and most enduring wrong.
Then I awoke. My lord, the only one
can read this riddle is Madrona’s son.
Mabon they called him – he’d no time to grow
into a longer name, as all men know,
for on the third night following his birth
he vanished – none knows where on middle-earth
he is, or if he lives, or if he’s dead.
But he must read your riddle.’ — Arthur said,
‘Then who will find him?’ — Taliesin smiled
and said, ‘My Lord, I know of tame and wild
all that a man may know twixt earth and sky,
but there is one knows more of lore than I.’
Arthur then bade him, ‘Go, and bring me word
where Mabon lies, and when your tale I’ve heard
I’ll forth and free him, I and all my men!’
And so the Bard his journey did begin.
Far in the North upon a treeless dome
the Ouzel of Kilgwri made her home.
There Taliesin came, and ‘Bird,’ he said,
‘You know the names of all men live or dead,
so long you’ve dwelt upon this mountain high.’ —
‘Not so,’ the dark-winged singer made reply.
‘I know your quest, though not the one you seek:
although a smithy’s anvil with my beak
I’ve worn down to a nut, through sharpening it,
yet you’ll no news from me of Mabon get.
But if you’ll come with me, and boldly fly,
I’ll lead you to one older still than I.’
Then Taliesin took the Ouzel’s form
and on the winds of heaven they were borne
until a forest glade below them lay
where dwelt the noble Stag of Rhedynfre.
‘O Stag,’ the poet said, ‘your ears are keen:
have you heard aught of Mabon, who has been
so long unknown?’ — The great Stag shook his head.
‘I cannot tell you whether live or dead
is he, although in truth I’ve lived so long,
I’ve watched an acorn grow to oak tree strong,
wither away, and fall, and go to dust.
But follow me; I’ll show you one who must
know what you seek, although she shuns the sun.
Take you my shape, and with me swiftly run!’
Then Taliesin took the Stag’s swift form
and ran beside him over meadows warm,
then into tangled forest grim and dark
where fungus bloomed, and moss was thick on bark
and twisting vines grew green to block the light.
There, in a trackless glen as black as night,
perched on a limb in darkness unalloyed
they found the ancient Owl of Cwm Caw Llwyd.
‘O Bard,’ hooted the Owl, ‘ I know your name,
your birth and kindred, and not small your fame.
Yet more than you by far I still do know –
within this glen I’ve watched two forests grow
and be cut down – and this one is the third.
Older than almost every mortal bird
am I – yet must I own, I do not know
where Mabon is. In my shape you must go
if you would find him – follow then and see
that ancient one who’s older still than me.’
Then feathers covered Taliesin’s skin,
his arms were wings, his feet grew talons grim.
He soared through darkness and yet clearly saw
all things about him, tasted flesh blood-raw,
became the ancient Fear that shuns the light
and knew the trackless pathways of the night.
They left the forest and through moonlight flew
o’er stony slopes, where wider stretched the view,
and came at last where on a mountain’s crest
the Eagle of Gwernabwy built his nest.
As rose the sun, the Eagle raised his head.
‘O Taliesin, long you’ve searched,’ he said,
‘for news of Mabon. I of all the birds
the Eldest am, yet nothing have I heard
of him, though in my lifetime day by day
I’ve watched the very mountains wear away
to pebbles. Still, I think there yet may be
one creature God created before me.’
Then Taliesin took the Eagle’s form
and soared above the world, o’er field and farm,
o’er forest green and mountain cold and grey
until they came at last at close of day
to a deep lake, and saw within their view,
Oldest of all, the Salmon of Llyn Llyw.
Weary was Taliesin when as man
at last he stood upon the lake’s white sand
and faced the one he’d come so far to see.
‘Salmon,’ he said, ‘traveler of lake and sea,
far you have journeyed. Tell me, have you heard
in all your life of Mabon’s fate one word?’ —
‘I have,’ the Salmon said, ‘and you I’ll tell:
his prison lies upon the Shores of Hell.
Heavy his chains, his ’prisonment is long,
and sadder than any other’s is his song.
If you would free him, I will lead you there,
but bring an army with you, for that Caer
is strong and well-defended – on its walls
six thousand stand, and brave is he who calls
its gates to pass. Of living men but one
could bring it down, and that is Uthur’s son.’ —
‘Salmon,’ said Taliesin then, ‘my thanks
be with you. One year hence between the banks
of Severn meet us, and across the sea
we’ll follow you, and Mabon we’ll set free!’

Saturday, May 5, 2007


I got another good review yesterday for Storyteller at the PODler, to go along with the two earlier ones here and here. These links are also in the sidebar.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The Law of Hywel

The Law of Hywel Dda is the name given by the Welsh to the native law of Wales as it developed before the Edwardian conquest in 1283. The Law is preserved in a collection of manuscripts written between the early 13th and early 16th centuries, but containing much older material, the core of which is said to have been in some way the work of the mid-10th century king called Hywel Dda (H. the Good).

All very interesting, you say with a yawn, but why should I care about a bunch of medieval lawbooks from a thousand or more years ago?

If your intention is to understand the medieval Welsh, and the British tribes and kingdoms from whom they evolved, you should care a great deal. Do you want to know what was important to the early Welsh, what they valued and did not value, and more especially the valuation they placed on differing items and ideas? How a king's court was structured, and manned, and sustained? How the tribes and kindreds interacted, how property was inherited, how crimes were defined, and how compensated? All of this and more is in the Law of Hywel. True, it is a rag-bag collection, copied and recopied by lawyers who added and subtracted elements down the centuries according to what they deemed important, so that 9th and 13th century material mixes indiscriminately; while the researcher interested in earlier periods must guess and backdate, borrowing from other sources as she goes. But it is the best thing we have.

Some of it, moreover, is amusing reading. Among the King's officials is the Serjeant. "It is right for him to stand between the two posts and to watch lest the house should burn while the King is eating, and it is right for him to drink with the officials" -- two contradictory duties, one would think! The Porter, or gate-keeper, the laws say, "is entitled to a handful of every gift that comes through the gate ... berries and eggs and haddock. From every load of firewood that comes through the gate he is entitled to a stick which he can draw out without holding up the horse." The Falconer, among other things, is entitled to "a handsbreadth of wax candle from the Steward so as to feed his birds and make his bed." Furthermore, "on the day that he takes a notable bird" by his falcons "when the King is not at the place, when the falconer brings the bird to the court it is right for the King to rise before him; and if he does not rise ... to give the raiment he is wearing to the falconer." If a falcon belongs to a King, it is worth a pound, but if belongs to a villein, "whether it be a sparrowhawk or a falcon or any bird in the world ... it is of the same value as a hen: it is worth a penny." For of course a King's possessions are more valuable than those of a villein, whatever their quality.

But that's another post.

(Quotations in this article are from The Law of Hywel Dda: Law Texts from Medieval Wales translated and edited by Dafydd Jenkins: Gomer Press, 1990.)

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Why a Storyteller?

"What power lies in a name? Gwernin Kyuarwyd am I, Gwernin Storyteller. So have I said before. And yet I practice all the bardic arts, so far as I am able – poetry and song and harping, as well as story-telling and the recitation of lore. So why do I call myself Gwernin Kyuarwyd, Gwernin Storyteller, and not Gwernin Fardd, Gwernin the Bard?" -Gwernin, in Storyteller

In early Wales, as I indicated in a previous post, bards might - among other things - be storytellers, but storytellers were not necessarily bards. True, their services were valued, but they were not on the same social level as the men of art, and there is no sign, even in the Irish laws, that they were regulated in the same way. It was a niche an aspiring young man might fill, while hoping for a chance to do better.

In historical fiction, and especially in fantasy, if a traveling entertainer is involved in the story, he (or sometimes she) is usually a bard or harper. These, by the way, are not the same, and there are some grounds for doubting that the harp in its modern form was even present in 6th century Britain and Ireland. However, some archetypes are too deeply engrained to dislodge, and I have allowed my bards to keep their harps, whether justified or not!

Why have a storyteller for my narrator? Partly because at the time I started the monthly column which eventually became a book, I felt myself, like Gwernin, to be a storyteller, but not yet a bard. And partly because ... that's just how it happened! As to why, in the quote above, Gwernin declines to so describe himself, even after meeting the qualifications ... well, for that answer, you'll have to read the book.

Or wait for another day.

Running Late

No, I haven't posted yet today - yes, there will be something this afternoon. Thanks for checking - come back soon!

In the meantime, here are some nice pictures from Scotland.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Rainy Days

I just heard a faint rumble of thunder outside and went to the window. Yep, spring thunderstorms coming up. The last few days have been rather warm, and convection has kicked in.

What did a wandering storyteller do when it rained in medieval Wales? (I say "when," not "if," advisedly!) It seems to me that he had three choices: (1) find shelter, (2) get wet, or (3) put on the medieval Welsh equivalent of a raincoat and hope for the best.

Choice #1 would be good enough for a sharp, short shower, but in a prolonged storm you could get hungry (if sheltering under a tree, rock, or some other natural feature) or wear out your welcome (if you had been lucky enough to find a house). The last time I was in Wales it poured for several days in a row. Fortunately I wasn't on a walking tour!

Choice #2 (get wet) would have happened fairly often, but it isn't fun, and would motivate anyone who could to avoid it. That leaves choice #3. What did the medieval Welsh use for raincoats?

The collection of manuscripts called the Law of Hywel Dda has an interesting section on the distribution of old clothes. One item mentioned is "the King's [old] rain capes, in which he rides." The Groom of the Rein is entitled to these, but unfortuately no detail is provided on their construction. My personal guess would be oiled leather, but that's only a guess - examples of something similar have been found in Danish bogs.

There are also records of woolen cloaks, sometimes very shaggy ones, worn by the Irish. Assuming the natural lanolin was left in the wool, these might keep you reasonably dry, or at least warm - wool has some insulating value even if wet. Some sort of British cloak was also mentioned as being imported by the Romans, and may come in the same family. And then there's the Orkney Hood. Possibly British, possibly Pictish, possibly who-knows-what, it wouldn't keep all of you dry, but you would look stylish.

And that has to be worth something!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Beltane Fires

Storyteller begins and ends at Beltane, the spring fire-festival of the Celtic lands which is still celebrated as May Day. Beltane is the beginning of summer, as Samhain (modern Halloween) is the beginning of winter, that dark half of the year when herdsmen and wise warriors stay at home, and wandering bards winter where they can. After Beltane, the herds of cattle and sheep were driven up the mountains to their summer pastures, where they could make good use of the rough grazing, safely distant from the growing crops below. Often, before they went, they were blessed and purified by being driven between the Beltane fires:

“We watched as the black and brown cattle were driven bawling between the fires, the cows with their calves at their heels, and the sparks flying wild about them; and after the cattle, the sheep, with the sheepdogs barking behind. Then, as the fires were dying down, the men and women went through, the young ones running and laughing, some of them holding hands…” -Gwernin, in Storyteller

Most of our surviving traditions for Beltane come from Ireland and Scotland; that the festival was celebrated in the same manner in the Wales of Gwernin’s time seems likely but unprovable. As in all such quandaries, the storyteller makes a choice: you can see my choice above.

Happy Beltane to you all!