The Wooing Of Olwen

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. – William Butler Yeats

John Duncan, Riders of the Sidhe, 1911

Ah, Saturday morning, and I am just finishing this up. It has been a busy week here at Caer Llwydd. Spring is in the air of course, and everything is rushing to the Equinox. The buds are out, and a sense of renewal can be felt everywhere. Time to do some replantings, and to start prepping the garden.

This entry is a return to roots, to that part of my heart which is never far away, regardless of the paths and roads my mind wanders. It seems when I need a reset, it is to these old tales, and poetry that I go to. I find my perspective on my life, and the culture that I am in through these meanderings.

I was going to write about the recent shootings, and political situations, but there is enough of that in the world. Time will put it in perspective, and we are moving through and past a rough spot in our stories. We are part of a greater tale, and these times will fade like others. What will be of value will be hopefully retained, and that which is not shall dissipate, and fade. Know that we will get through all of this.

A note on the art in this edition. You’ll find 3 pieces here of my favourite Scottish Symbolist, John Duncan. He first went to art school when he was 11… and his art only got better. There has been a revival of sorts around his works, which I am happy to see. We have had a piece of his (a poster) in our Bedroom for over 20 years.

A note on the music in this edition. Alan Stivell. What can one say about this Breton native, except that he was and is central to the Celtic Revival in Brittany, and elsewhere in Europe. I had the pleasure of seeing him in very small venues in Europe over the years. His music is sublime, and really worth exploring if you get a chance.

I hope you enjoy your visit.

On The Menu:
The Links
Alan Stivell – Suite Irlandaise
The Wooing Of Olwen
Alan Stivell – YS
Ancient Celtic Poetry
Alain Stivell – Ar Voraerion

Resurrect The Extinct?
The Mermaid Of Fornham
The Stakes Are High
Against Popular Culture
Alan Stivell – Suite Irlandaise / The King of the fairies


John Duncan (1866-1945)

The Wooing Of Olwen
Celtic Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs, [1892]

SHORTLY after the birth of Kuhuch, the son of King Kilyth, his mother died. Before her death she charged the king that he should not take a wife again until he saw a briar with two blossoms upon her grave and the king sent every morning to see if anything were growing thereon. After many years the briar appeared, and he took to wife the widow of King Doged. She foretold to her stepson, Kuhuch, that it was his destiny to marry a maiden named Olwen, or none other, and he, at his father’s bidding, went to the court of his cousin, King Arthur, to ask as a boon the hand of the maiden. He rode upon a grey steed with shell-formed hoofs, having a bridle of linked gold, and a saddle also of gold. In his hand were two spears of silver, well-tempered, headed with steel, of an edge to wound the wind and cause blood to flow, and swifter than the fall of the dew-drop from the blade of reed grass upon the earth when the dew of June is at its heaviest. A gold-hilted sword was on his thigh, and the blade was of gold, having inlaid upon it a cross of the hue of the lightning of heaven. Two brindled, white-breasted greyhounds,  with strong collars of rubies, sported round him, and his courser cast up four sods with its four hoofs like four swallows about his head. Upon the steed was a four. cornered cloth of purple, and an apple of gold was at each corner. Precious gold was upon the stirrups and shoes, and the blade of grass bent not beneath them, so light was the courser’s tread as he went towards the gate of King Arthur’s palace.

Arthur received him with great ceremony, and asked him to remain at the palace; but the youth replied that he came not to consume meat and drink, but to ask a boon of the king.

Then said Arthur, “Since thou wilt not remain her; chieftain, thou shalt receive the boon, whatsoever thy tongue may name, as far as the wind dries and the rain moistens, and the sun revolves, and the sea encircles, and the earth extends, save only my ships and my mantle, my sword, my lance, my shield, my dagger, and Guinevere my wife.”

So Kilhuch craved of him the hand of Olwen, the daughter of Yspathaden Penkawr, and also asked the favour and aid of all Arthur’s court.

Then said Arthur, “O chieftain, I have never heard of the maiden of whom thou speakest, nor of her kindred, but I will gladly send messengers in search of her.”

And the youth said, “I will willingly grant from this night to that at the end of the year to do so.”

Then Arthur sent messengers to every land within his dominions to seek for the maiden; and at the end of the year Arthur’s messengers returned without having gained any knowledge or information concerning Olwen more than on the first day.

Then said Kilhuch, “Every one has received his boon, and I yet lack mine. I will depart and bear away thy honour with me.”

Then said Kay, “Rash chieftain! dost thou reproach Arthur? Go with us, and we will not part until thou dost either confess that the maiden exists not in the world, or until we obtain her.”

Thereupon Kay rose up.

Kay had this peculiarity, that his breath lasted nine nights and nine days under water, and he could exist nine nights and nine days without sleep. A wound from Kay’s sword no physician could heal. Very subtle was Kay. When it pleased him he could render himself as tall as the highest tree in the forest. And he had another peculiarity-so great was the heat of his nature, that, when it rained hardest, whatever he carried remained dry for a handbreadth above and a handbreath below his hand; and when his companions were coldest, it was to them as fuel with which to light their fire.

And Arthur called Bedwyr, who never shrank from any enterprise upon which Kay was bound. None was equal to him in swiftness throughout this island except Arthur and Drych Ail Kibthar. And although he was one-handed, three warriors could not shed blood faster than he on the field of battle. Another property he had; his lance would produce a wound equal to those of nine opposing lances.

And Arthur called to Kynthelig the guide. “Go thou upon this expedition with the Chieftain.” For as good a guide was he in a land which he had never seen as he was in his own.

He called Gwrhyr Gwalstawt Ieithoedd, because he knew all tongues.

He called Gwalchmai, the son of Gwyar, because he never returned home without achieving the adventure of which he went in quest. He was the best of footmen and the best of knights. He was nephew to Arthur, the son of his sister, and his cousin.

And Arthur called Menw, the son of Teirgwaeth, in order that if they went into a savage country, he might cast a charm and an illusion over them, so that none might see them whilst they could see every one.

They journeyed on till they came to a vast open plain, wherein they saw a great castle, which was the fairest in the world. But so far away was it that at night it seemed no nearer, and they scarcely reached it on the third day. When they came before the castle they beheld a vast flock of. sheep, boundless and without end. They told their errand to the herdsman, who endeavoured to dissuade them, since none who had come thither on that quest had returned alive. They gave to him a gold ring, which he conveyed to his wife, telling her who the visitors were.

On the approach of the latter, she ran out with joy to greet them, and sought to throw her arms about their necks. But Kay, snatching a billet out of the pile, placed the log between her two hands, and she squeezed it so that it became a twisted coil.

“O woman,” said Kay, “if thou hadst squeezed me thus, none could ever again have set their affections on me. Evil love were this.”

They entered the house, and after meat she told them that the maiden Olwen came there every Saturday to wash. They pledged their faith that they would not harm her, and a message was sent to her. So Olwen came, clothed in a robe of flame-coloured silk, and with a collar of ruddy gold, in which were emeralds and rubies, about her neck. More golden was her hair than the flower of the broom, and her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and her fingers than the blossoms of the wood anemone amidst the spray of the meadow fountain. Brighter were her glances than those of a falcon; her bosom was more snowy than the breast of the white swan, her cheek redder than the reddest roses. Whoso beheld was filled with her love. Four white trefoils sprang up wherever she trod, and therefore was she called Olwen.

Then Kilhuch, sitting beside her on a bench, told her his love, and she said that he would win her as his bride if he granted whatever her father asked.

Accordingly they went up to the castle and laid their request before him.

“Raise up the forks beneath my two eyebrows which have fallen over my eyes,” said Yspathaden Penkawr, “that I may see the fashion of my son-in-law.”

They did so, and he promised them an answer on the morrow. But as they were going forth, Yspathaden seized one of the three poisoned darts that lay beside him and threw it back after them.

And Bedwyr caught it and flung it back, wounding Yspathaden in the knee.

Then said he, “A cursed ungentle son-in-law, truly. I shall ever walk the worse for his rudeness. This poisoned iron pains me like the bite of a gad-fly. Cursed be the smith who forged it, and the anvil whereon it was wrought.”

The knights rested in the house of Custennin the herds-man, but the next day at dawn they returned to the castle and renewed their request.

Yspathaden said it was necessary that he should consult

Olwen’s four great-grandmothers and her four great-grand-sires.

The knights again withdrew, and as they were going he took the second dart and cast it after them.

But Menw caught it and flung it back, piercing Yspathaden’s breast with it, so that it came out at the small of his back.

“A cursed ungentle son-in-law, truly,” says he, “the hard iron pains me like the bite of a horse-leech. Cursed be the hearth whereon it was heated! Henceforth whenever I go up a hill, I shall have a scant in my breath and a pain in my chest.”

On the third day the knights returned once more to the palace, and Yspathaden took the third dart and cast it at them.

But Kilbuch caught it and threw it vigorously, and wounded him through the eyeball, so that the dart came out at the back of his head.

“A cursed ungentle son-in-law, truly. As long as I remain alive my eyesight will be the worse. Whenever I go against the wind my eyes will water, and peradventure my head will burn, and I shall have a giddiness every new moon. Cursed be the fire in which it was forged. Like the bite of a mad dog is the stroke of this poisoned iron.”

And they went to meat.

Said Yspathaden Penkawr, “Is it thou that seekest my daughter?”

“It is I,” answered Kilhuch.

“I must have thy pledge that thou wilt not do towards me otherwise than is just, and when I have gotten that which I shall name, my daughter thou shalt have.”

“I promise thee that willingly,” said Kilhuch, “name what thou wilt.”

“I will do so,” said he.

“Throughout the world there is not a comb or scissors with which I can arrange my hair, on account of its rankness, except the comb and scissors that are between the two ears of Turch Truith, the son of Prince Tared. He will not give them of his own free will, and thou wilt not be able to compel him.”

“It will be easy for me to compass this, although thou mayest think that it will not be easy.”

“Though thou get this, there is yet that which thou wilt not get. It will not be possible to hunt Turch Truith without Drudwyn the whelp of Greid, the son of Eri, and know that throughout the world there is not a huntsman who can hunt with this dog, except Mabon the son of Modron. He was taken from his mother when three nights old, and it is not known where he now is, nor whether he is living or dead.”

“It will be easy for me to compass this, although thou mayest think that it will not be easy.”

“Though thou get this, there is yet that which thou wilt not get. Thou wilt not get Mabon, for it is not known where he is, unless thou find Eidoel, his kinsman in blood, the son of Aer. For it would be useless to seek for him. He is his cousin.”

“It will be easy for me to compass this, although thou mayest think that it will not be easy. Horses shall I have, and chivalry; and my lord and kinsman Arthur will obtain for me all these things. And I shall gain thy daughter, and thou shalt lose thy life.”

“Go forward. And thou shalt not be chargeable for food or raiment for my daughter while thou art seeking these things; and when thou hast compassed all these marvels, thou shalt have my daughter for wife.”

Now, when they told Arthur how they had sped, Arthur said, ” Which of these marvels will it be best for us to seek first?”

“It will be best,” said they, “to seek Mabon the son of Modron; and he will not be found unless we first find Eidoel, the son of Aer, his kinsman.”

Then Arthur rose up, and the warriors of the Islands of Britain with him, to seek for Eidoel; and they proceeded until they came before the castle of Glivi, where Eldoel was imprisoned.

Glivi stood on the summit of his castle, and said, “Arthur, what requirest thou of me, since nothing remains to me in this fortress, and I have neither joy nor pleasure in it; neither wheat nor oats?”

Said Arthur, “Not to injure thee came I hither, but to seek for the prisoner that is with thee.”

“I will give thee my prisoner, though I had not thought to give him up to any one; and therewith shalt thou have my suport and my aid.”

His followers then said unto Arthur, “Lord, go thou home, thou canst not proceed with thy host in quest of such small adventures as these.”

Then said Arthur, ” It were well for thee, Gwrhyr Gwalstawt Ieithoedd, to go upon this quest, for thou knowest all languages, and art familiar with those of the birds and the beasts. Go, Eidoel, likewise with my men in search of thy cousin. And as for you, Kay and Bedwyr, I have hope of whatever adventure ye are in quest of’ that ye will achieve it. Achieve ye this adventure for me.”

These went forward until they came to the Ousel of Cilgwri, and Gwrhyr adjured her for the sake of Heaven, saying, “Tell me if thou knowest aught of Mabon, the son of Modron, who was taken when three nights old from between his mother and the wall.

And the Ousel answered, “When I first came here there was a smith’s anvil in this place, and I was then a young bird, and from that time no work has been done upon it, save the pecking of my beak every evening, and now there is not so much as the size of a nut remaining thereof; yet the vengeance of Heaven be upon me if during all that time I have ever heard of the man for whom you inquire. Nevertheless, there is a race of animals who were formed before me, and 1 will be your guide to them.”

So they proceeded to the place where was the Stag of Redynvre.

Stag of Redynvre, behold we are come to thee, an embassy from Arthur, for we have not heard of any animal older than thou. Say, knowest thou aught of Mabon?”

The stag said, “When first I came hither, there was a plain all around me, without any trees save one oak sapling, which grew up to be an oak with an hundred branches. And that oak has since perished, so that now nothing remains of it but the withered stump; and from that day to this I have been here, yet have I never heard of the man for whom you inquire. Nevertheless, I will be your guide to the place where there is an animal which was formed before I was.”

So they proceeded to the place where was the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, to inquire of him concerning Mabon.

And the owl said, “If I knew I would tell you. When first I came hither, the wide valley you see was a wooded glen. And a race of men came and rooted it up. And there grew there a second wood, and this wood is the third. My wings, are they not withered stumps? Yet all this time, even until to-day, I have never heard of the man for whom you inquire. Nevertheless, I will be the guide of Arthur’s embassy until you come to the place where is the oldest


animal in this world, and the one who has travelled most, the eagle of Gwern Abwy.”

When they came to the eagle, Gwrhyr asked it the same question; but it replied, “I have been here for a great space of time, and when I first came hither there was a rock here, from the top of which I pecked at the stars every evening, and now it is not so much as a span high. From that day to this I have been here, and I have never heard of the man for whom you inquire, except once when I went in search of food as far as Llyn Llyw. And when I came there, I struck my talons into a salmon, thinking he would serve me as food for a long time. But he drew me into the deep, and I was scarcely able to escape from him. Mter that I went with my whole kindred to attack him and to try to destroy him, but he sent messengers and made peace with me, and came and besought me to take fifty fish-spears out of his back. Unless he know something of him whom you seek, I cannot tell you who may. However, I will guide you to the place where he is.

So they went thither, and the eagle said, “Salmon of Uyn .Llyw, I have come to thee with an embassy from Arthur to ask thee if thou knowest aught concerning Mabon, the son of Modron, who was taken away at three nights old from between his mother and the wall.”

And the salmon answered, “As much as I know I will tell thee. With every tide I go along the river upwards, until I come near to the walls of Gloucester, and there have I found such wrong as I never found elsewhere; and to the end that ye may give credence thereto, let one of you go thither upon each of my two shoulders.”

So Kay and Gwrhyr went upon his shoulders, and they proceeded till they came to the wall of the prison, and they heard a great wailing and lamenting from the dungeon.

Said Gwrhyr, “Who is it that laments in this house of stone?”

And the voice replied, “Alas, it is Mabon, the son of Modron, who is here imprisoned!”

Then they returned and told Arthur, who, summoning his warriors, attacked the castle.

And whilst the fight was going on, Kay and Bedwyr, mounting on the shoulders of the fish, broke into the dungeon, and brought away with them Mabon, the son of Modron.

Then Arthur summoned unto him all the warriors that were in the three islands of Britain and in the three islands adjacent; and he went as far as Esgeir Oervel in Ireland where the Boar Truith was with his seven young pigs. And the dogs were let loose upon him from all sides. But he wasted the fifth part of Ireland, and then set forth through the sea to Wales. Arthur and his hosts, and his horses, and his dogs followed hard after him. But ever and awhile the boar made a stand, and many a champion of Arthur’s did he slay. Throughout all Wales did Arthur follow him, and one by one the young pigs were killed. At length, when he would fain have crossed the Severn and escaped into Cornwall, Mabon the son of Modron came up with him, and Arthur fell upon him together with the champions of Britain. On the one side Mabon the son of Modron spurred his steed and snatched his razor from him, whilst Kay came up with him on the other side and took from him the scissors. But before they could obtain the comb he had regained the ground with his feet, and from the moment that he reached the shore, neither dog nor man nor horse could overtake him until he came to Cornwall. There Arthur and his hosts followed in his track until they over-took him in Cornwall. Hard had been their trouble before, but it was child’s play to what they met in seeking the comb. Win it they did, and the Boar Truith they hunted into the deep sea, and it was never known whither he went.

Then Kilhuch set forward, and as many as wished ill to Yspathaden Penkawr. And they took the marvels with them to his court. And Kaw of North Britain came and shaved his beard, skin and flesh clean off to the very bone from ear to ear.

“Art thou shaved, man?” said Kilhuch.

“I am shaved,” answered he.

“Is thy daughter mine now?”

“She is thine, but therefore needst thou not thank me, but Arthur who hath accomplished this for thee. By my free will thou shouldst never have had her, for with her I lose my life.”

Then Goreu the son of Custennin seized him by the hair of his head and dragged him after him to the keep, and cut off his head and placed it on a stake on the citadel.

Thereafter the hosts of Arthur dispersed themselves each man to his own country.

Thus did Kilhuch son of Kelython win to wife Olwen, the daughter of Yspathaden Penkawr.
Alan Stivell, YS

Ancient Celtic Poetry
Translated by Kuno Meyer

The Messenger of Tethra – John Duncan

The Sea-God’S Address to Bran
Then on the morrow Bran went upon the sea. When he had been at sea two days and two nights, he saw a man in a chariot coming towards him over the sea. It was Manannan, the son of Ler, who sang these quatrains to him.

To Bran in his coracle it seems
A marvellous beauty across the clear sea:
To me in my chariot from afar
It is a flowery plain on which he rides.
What is a clear sea
For the prowed skiff in which Bran is,
That to me in my chariot of two wheels
Is a delightful plain with a wealth of flowers.
Bran sees
A mass of waves beating across the clear sea:
I see myself in the Plain of Sports
Red-headed flowers that have no fault.
Sea-horses glisten in summer
As far as Bran can stretch his glance:
Rivers pour forth a stream of honey
In the land of Manannan, son of Ler.
The sheen of the main on which thou art,
The dazzling white of the sea on which thou rowest about—
Yellow and azure are spread out,
It is a light and airy land.
Speckled salmon leap from the womb
Out of the white sea on which thou lookest:
They are calves, they are lambs of fair hue,
With truce, without mutual slaughter.
Though thou seest but one chariot-rider
In the Pleasant Plain of many flowers,
There are many steeds on its surface,
Though them thou seest not.
Large is the plain, numerous is the host,
Colours shine with pure glory,
A white stream of silver, stairs of gold
Afford a welcome with all abundance.
An enchanting game, most delicious,
They play over the luscious wine,
Men and gentle women under a bush,
Without sin, without transgression.
Along the top of a wood
Thy coracle has swum across ridges,
There is a wood laden with beautiful fruit
Under the prow of thy little skiff.
A wood with blossom and with fruit
On which is the vine’s veritable fragrance,
A wood without decay, without defect,
On which is a foliage of a golden hue.
We are from the beginning of creation
Without old age, without consummation of clay,
Hence we expect not there might be frailty—
Transgression has not come to us.
Steadily then let Bran row!
It is not far to the Land of Women:
Evna with manifold bounteousness
He will reach before the sun is set.
Deirdre’s Lament
And Deirdre dishevelled her hair and began kissing Noisi and drinking his blood, and the colour of embers came into her cheeks, and she uttered this lay.

Long is the day without Usnagh’s Children;
It was never mournful to be in their company.
A king’s sons, by whom exiles were rewarded,
Three lions from the Hill of the Cave.
Three dragons of Dun Monidh,
The three champions from the Red Branch:
After them I shall not live—
Three that used to break every onrush.
Three darlings of the women of Britain,
Three hawks of Slieve Gullion,
Sons of a king whom valour served,
To whom soldiers would pay homage.
Three heroes who were not good at homage,
Their fall is cause of sorrow—
Three sons of Cathba’s daughter,
Three props of the battle-host of Coolney.
Three vigorous bears,
Three lions out of Liss Una,
Three lions who loved their praise,
Three pet sons of Ulster.
That I should remain after Noisi
Let no one in the world suppose!
After Ardan and Ainnle
My time would not be long.
Ulster’s high-king, my first husband,
I forsook for Noisi’s love:
Short my life after them,
I will perform their funeral game.
After them I will not be alive—
Three that would go into every conflict,
Three who liked to endure hardships,
Three heroes who never refused combat.
O man that diggest the tomb,
And that puttest my darling from me,
Make not the grave too narrow,
I shall be beside the noble ones.
The Host Of Faery

White shields they carry in their hands,
With emblems of pale silver;
With glittering blue swords,
With mighty stout horns.
In well-devised battle array,
Ahead of their fair chieftain
They march amid blue spears,
Pale-visaged, curly-headed bands.
They scatter the battalions of the foe,
They ravage every land they attack,
Splendidly they march to combat,
A swift, distinguished, avenging host!
No wonder though their strength be great:
Sons of queens and kings are one and all;
On their heads are
Beautiful golden-yellow manes.
With smooth comely bodies,
With bright blue-starred eyes,
With pure crystal teeth,
With thin red lips.
Good they are at man-slaying,
Melodious in the ale-house,
Masterly at making songs,
Skilled at playing fidchell.

(Fidchell – a game like draughts)
Alain Stivell – Ar Voraerion 1978

Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking. – William Butler Yeats

John Duncan – Tutt’Art

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