THE QUEST FOR THE RAID
The knower kept the cauldron
Boiling without failure of flame;
It could make the dead alive,
A task most difficult.
- The Festival from Book of Taliesin.
The early Welsh poem known as the Preiddeu Annwfn remains one of the most enigmatic texts in British literature. It appears to tell the story of a raid, led by the hero Arthur on the Otherworld, to steal a magical cauldron from its guardians. This in itself is enough to make it an important work, which throws light on both the myths of Arthur and the later story of the Quest for the Grail undertaken by his knights. Yet the origin, authorship, date and above all the meaning of this poem have been the subject of scholarly debate since the middle of the 18th century, when its first editor, Sharon Turner, said of it that 'all connection with thought seems to have been studiously avoided.'
Turner's attempt at a translation seems quaint now, and is certainly one of the most inaccurate, but even here he seems to have felt its mysterious nature. The next scholar to tackle it, D.W. Nash, made little advance, and though his translation benefited from a steadily advancing scholarship in Celtic languages, it still fell far short of those that followed. In the twentieth century, a variety of experts brought their skills to bear on it: the great Welsh scholar Sir John Rees gave us a spirited rendition, and this was followed by the Arthurian scholar R. S. Loomis, who brought it firmly into the modern world - though still far from accurately or completely. More recent scholarly editions have appeared from the hands of Sarah Higley and John Carey, both of whom acknowledge the sterling work of Marged Haycock, whose critical edition stands as a beacon of clarity.
Less well equipped, but no less fascinating versions were penned by other enthusiasts, including the poet Robert Graves, who made The Preiddeu Annwfyn an important part of his seminal book on poetic myth, The White Goddess. It is this version that remains the best known to modern, non-academic audiences, though several more accurate versions have appeared since. Partly through Graves' book, and in part through other popular studies of Celtic myth and Arthurian legends, the Preiddeu Annwfyn has become at once well known and increasingly misunderstood. Just about everyone who has done any work on the text has characterised it as 'difficult', 'obscure', 'nonsensical', or just plain 'weird'. The reasons for this will be explored in the work that follows, in which is presented a new translation of the complete poem and the commentary by Caitlín Matthews.
The poem is in fact far less difficult than might at first seem to be the case. Though the language is not always easy, and the references encompass a wide variety of Celtic lore, some of the meanings of which have been lost to us, there is still sufficient information to be gleaned from the text to enable it to be both understood and better appreciated for what it is: an extraordinary work by an extraordinary author. That this author's name itself remains doubtful, though it has long been associated with the work, is part of the fascinating trail we set out to follow in this book.
THE TEXT AND ITS NARRATOR
To begin at the beginning, with the text itself, the Preiddeu Annwfyn exists in several manuscript copies, now held by the National Library of Wales. The oldest of these Peniarth 2, which has been dated to the first quarter of the 14th century and is the basis upon which all subsequent copies are founded. This comparatively late date has caused some scholars to doubt the authenticity of the Preiddeu Annwfn as a genuinely ancient document, but a close and careful scrutiny of the manuscript and, in particular, of its language and structure, suggests that its origin was far earlier than the existing version. In fact it may date from as early as the 7th century, or from the 9th century at the latest, dates at odds with the attribution of authorship to the 6th century Welsh bard Taliesin, a character of whom much has been written, but who remains less understood than that of his near-contemporary Myrddin, better known to us today as Merlin. Both authors have a long and complex history, far too prolix to deal with here. Both were considered to be prophets and seers in their time, and in the case of Merlin, his character metamorphosed from that of a Prince of Britain at the end of the 6th century into the endlessly fascinating figure of King Arthur's magician of medieval times. That he was at one time better known as a bard, some of whose works have survived to this day, is less well known. The existence of a dialogue between Myrddin and Taliesin, in which they try to outdo each other in prophetic statements, may well date from a later time, but demonstrates how both were perceived in the period after they lived: as wise and all-knowing seers rather than bard or warrior.
Most of what we know about Taliesin is to be found in a few brief references in early British texts. In the following passage from the Historia Brittonum, a work attributed to the ninth century monk Nennius, we find the following:
Tunc Outigirn in illo tempore foriter dimicabat contra gentem Anglorum. Tunc Talhaern Tataguen in poemate claruit; et Neirin, et Taliessin, et Bluchbard, et Cian, qui vocatur Gueinth Guaut, simul uno tempore in poemate Brittanico claruerunt.
(At that time Outigern then fought bravely against the English nation. Then Talhaearn Tad Awen was famed in poetry; and Aneirin and Taliesin and Bluchbard and Cian, known as Gweinth Gwaut, were also famed in British verse)
Several details are notable here. The dating of the Historia seems to indicate a period at the end of the 6th Century when the historical poet Taliesin flourished, yet the actual wording of the text is ambiguous. Does it mean that Taliesin, along with the other bards mentioned, was famous for his poetry at that time, or that he was a famous character in the poetry of the time? The former would seem, on the strength of internal evidence, to be the case. Yet the secondary meaning is very much in line with the belief that Taliesin actually dated from a much earlier period. It seems that there was already, at this comparatively early date, some confusion between the historical figure and a more primitive, semi-mythical personality, sometimes referred to as 'the Taliesin persona' to whose name a huge body of floating lore had become attached, much of which was transmitted orally and thus had no specific author.
These memories were still locked in the unconscious minds of the people who lived in these lands during the 6th century, and who were still half-conscious of a more primitive persona as late as the 16th, when a Welsh writer, Llewellyn Sion, created a text known as Hanes Taliesin (The Life of Taliesin). Here, the character of Taliesin has become wholly mythologized, and performs deeds of magic as well as poetry – though it should be noted that it is the magical quality of his words that are emphasised. Poems from 14th century Llyfr Taliesin (Book of Taliesin) appear within Hanes Taliesin, revealing that Sion was recording an existent tradition. This story (see p.000) places Taliesin very firmly in the magical world of the great Celtic myth-book known as the Mabinogion, which, as one of its translators put it: "probably dates back to the dawn of the Celtic world," although the earliest editions we possess date from a 14th century transcription.
The author of Preiddeu Annwfyn was certainly familiar with works like Etymologies the work of the 6th century encyclopedist, Isadore of Seville, which suggests that, though he inveighs against book-learned clerics, he could read himself.
Taliesin thus appears to have two personae: as the historical 6-7th century figure who enjoyed the patronage of Urian of Rheged and his son Owain; then as the Taliesin who accompanied the titantic Bran the Blessed on a voyage to Ireland in primordial times. The story of his cauldron-birth only exists in a late ms. as we have seen, but it is obviously resonant with Arthur's own cauldron quest.
It is clear from this that Taliesin was seen as an important figure in Welsh tradition. The reasons for this have been explored at length in my book Taliesin: the Last Celtic Shaman (2000) where it is argued that the eponymous bard represented the last vestiges of a very ancient Celtic tradition, that of the seer-poet, whose visionary and prophetic skills make him a form of British shaman. This is not the place to reiterate this argument. However, it should be noted that the way in which Taliesin was perceived - as a fountain of all knowledge from a much earlier time - predates the manuscript in which his writings, or at any rate those attributed to him, appear. The collection, known as Llyfr Taliesin or The Book of Taliesin, comprises some 77 poems that bear his name, including the Preiddeu Annwfyn. It is possible to view this entire collection as an early medieval attempt to explore the wisdom of the pre-Christian world, and to draw many elements of Celtic mythology into the medieval world-view of Wales.
Preiddeu Annwfyn is presented to us, then, through a lens clouded by time and history and filled with references to topics that would have become obscured through time. The language in which it is written is often difficult to interpret without the lens of a poet. Many of the earlier scholars who attempted translations of the poems of Taliesin, understood the meanings of the words, but not the metaphors of the poems, which are dense and layered with obscure metaphysical and mythological references.
The task is indeed a daunting one. It takes us deeply into British as well as Irish myth, and into the glorious realm of Arthurian legend. Through its lines we catch a glimpse of another, older Arthur, a figure far removed from that of the medieval legend, but every bit as fascinating and exciting, as well as of a world vibrant with metaphysical meaning and wisdom.
Marged Haycock dates the poem to anywhere between the 9th to the 12th centuries. John T. Koch suggests it is older, and our own view is consonant with this, based on the linguistic evidence as well as the structure of the poem, which appears to follow the earliest forms of Welsh verse to have survived. The verses of the poem are written in awdl or ode form, with each of the first six stanzas ending in a short three line closure. This is an ancient verse form in which the poet displays a facility both in composition and in the allusive under-meanings that hint at deeper mysteries, suggesting that he was indeed a bard steeped in the archaic knowledge of ancestral beliefs.
This leads us to a consideration of the nature of the narrative voice of the poem. Do we choose to accept on face value the role of Taliesin as narrator or should we look to a much more common poetic device? A clue to this lies in a poem composed at about the same time as Preiddeu Annwfyn. In the Northern British poem of Y Gododdin where the British warriors of the kingdom of Gododdin (in the region of Edinburgh) ride south to fight at Catraeth (modern Catterick) the reciter of the epic says of himself 'it is I, yet not I, Aneirin.' Yet the poem clearly tells us elsewhere that Aneirin was killed, so how can he recite or remember his poem if he is dead?
In the bardic tradition of the Britain, whoever recited an old poem embodied or invoked the undying soul of its composer, so that, through the cynosure of the poetic vision, the living poet was able to be at one with that of a dead one. In this context of poetic embodiment, which was almost certainly a feature of actual performance, for the poet says, "Taliesin of skilful song knows it." Taliesin is invoked here as a witness because he was known by British bards to have been omnisciently present at events throughout the whole of time. In the extant poems attributed to Taliesin, he frequently gives us instances of his poetic omniscience in poems that begin "I have been" or "I am..." and lists people, objects, landscape features from times and places far distant. This poetic omniscience and embodiment of knowledge dates back to a pre-Christian era in which bards were not mere versifiers who sang for their keep or for gold and cattle, but poets who had the magical and shape-shifting skills of druids. Through their poetic vision, they enabled others to "be present at" events long distant in time and place.
This is still a major role of performers today: to bring us into the presence of an event and its personages so that we become witnesses. Even aspects of performance can be handed down, as we see today within Shakespearean performance or in the choreography of ballet. From the viewpoint of Preiddeu Annwfyn's composition, we can see that this mythic katabasis or descent into the underworld cannot be told by just anyone. As the pre-eminent poet of the old unconquered North, who else but Taliesin could be worthy of being Arthur's bard and fellow-traveller – he who has been in so many places and times through poetic embodiment?
Taliesin's narrative voice immediately gives us the reassurance that we are in the hands of 'one who knows.' This is borne out in stanzas 5-8 of Preiddeu Annwfyn where he is shown as a gnostic poet of the oral tradition who knows things more completely than the book-learned, literal-minded clerics who have succeeded the bards as the keepers of knowledge. It is fitting that an initiate of the cauldron should tell us about Arthur's own cauldron quest. His authoritative voice speaks of mysteries that were once close to the heart of British spiritual tradition, but which are now mere leaves in the wind: core traditions about the role of the underworld prisoner, the cosmography of the underworld itself and descent of heroes to fetch forth the hallowed treasure that can change all things.
Whether the historical Taliesin wrote this work or was someone who chose to identify himself as Taliesin, or whether the poem was so ascribed by the later scribes who copied the work does not matter. This poem was made part of a collection of obscure gnomic texts ascribed to Taliesin as a figure long associated with wisdom and myth. In fact only one poem in the Book of Taliesin actually bears his name as author; others either contain personal references to him as a character, or are entitled 'The Chair of Taliesin' or 'The Wisdom of Taliesin'. It is only in Preiddeu Annwfyn that he is represented as both the author/narrator and as a character.
THE THEMES OF THE POEM
As Marged Haycock has pointed out, the narrative content of the poem (an unusual feature of early Welsh poetry) breaks down into several stories, which must, we presume, have been familiar to the audience for whom the work as intended. These included:
- a raid on the otherworld, carried out by Arthur and his warriors in quest for a sacred or magical vessel.
- the capture and imprisonment of a character called Gweir, and his release, possibly by Arthur
- a story featuring Pwyll and Pryderi; figures familiar to us today from the Mabinogion.
None of these stories, with the possible exception of the latter, have survived in any complete form, though there are hints of the others in the Welsh Triads, Culhwch and Olwen and The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain. We can guess at the direction of the stories to some extent from a comparison of these references, though we cannot go too far on this route due to the fragmentary nature of the references themselves. These themes are explored in Chapters 2 and 3. Further secondary, but no less important themes arise as we read on:
- By means of a voyage Arthur visits several named fortresses within the otherworld
- The cauldron sought by Arthur is owned by the Chief of the Underworld, Pen Annwfyn: a being about whom there is a body of forgotten knowledge
- In addition to the cauldron, a speckled ox lives there.
The tradition of voyages (immrama) to otherworldly islands, though absent from British lore, is a frequent feature of Irish myth. Arthur's voyage to the underworld is by means of water, a fact consistent with the prehistoric British belief in the ancestral underworld; into which votive deposits of precious objects were thrown into bodies of water which were seen as portals to the ancestral underworld. Pen Annwfyn, the Chief of the Underworld, is named as Arawn in the 1st branch of the Mabinogion, but we might also look to the tradition that tells us that Arthur disinterred Bran's head so that he might himself become the palladium defender of Britain. Is this poem part of that mythic tradition? Does Arthur earn his right to this august role by means of this raid on Annwfyn, the ancestral underworld? There are many mysteries here, like the speckled ox, that might also be a beast with a silver head, which also appears in Culhwch and Olwen as one of the anoethu or impossible tasks undertaken by its eponymous hero in order to win the giant's daughter, Olwen.
Once we examine the Preiddeu Annwfyn closely, we become aware that there is a central metaphor running through it, a metaphor of the 'theft' or acquisition of wisdom, 'stolen' from the Otherworld. This opens up the heart of the work, but leaves us wondering – is the poem a narrative about the theft of a cauldron, the rescue of a hero, and the defeat of an otherworldly master, or is it all just a metaphor for the poetic discovery of knowledge. Or, even more daringly, could it be both? We explore this possibility in Chapter 3.
The sadness of the poet, as expressed in the bitterness of the song sung by Gweir may be, as Sarah Higley suggests, an echo of the sadness and loss felt by the poet for heroic days gone by. This is certainly so if we consider the poems attributed to the long-lived poet Llywarch Hen, dating from roughly the same period as the Preiddeu Annwfyn: Llywarch's verses are suffused with sadness for a time that will not come again. But the context of the Raid reveals Gweir's sorrow to be as much about the loss of the many men who fail to return to their earthly life after their sub-aquatic voyage to the underworld. It is the same glorious, heart-breaking loss that we find in the fall of the 300 men who rode out for Catraeth in the poem Y Gododdin, or the shock of carnage that drove Myrddin mad and sent him fleeing into the Forest of Caledon.
Terrible though such losses may be, there is no greater sorrow than forgetfulness of one's cultural heritage. In providing an accessible edition of this key poem in its mythic context we hope to restore the reader both to memory and participation within the treasures of the British mythic tradition. We have striven to bring together many scattered sources that are difficult to access into one place, for it has been our desire to give readers the background and supporting material to understand this most enigmatic of poems for themselves.
We are further blessed to be able to marry the poem with the haunting pictures of Meg Falconer who has studied the meanings of the poem for nearly 20 years. Meg's incandescent painting draws us ever deeper into the mystery of the poem, hinting at the myths and mysteries that lie within Preiddeu Annwfyn . Through this poem run the major mythic strands of the British mysteries. In bringing together its sources and revealing its themes, we honour this poem as a true compendium of bardic memory.