The Wye Valley threads through the forested hills of southern Wales: a small, myth-haunted, Celtic country that stretches along Britain's western coast (above Cornwall, below Scotland, across the Irish Sea from Dublin Bay). The stone ruins of Tintern Abbey rise from the banks of the River Wye, its 13th-century walls crumbling, clouds for a roof, grass for a floor. "Once again," wrote the poet William Wordsworth, standing on this spot in the summer of 1798, "do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs, which on a wild secluded scene impress thoughts of more deep seclusion. . . . Oft in lonely rooms, and mid the din of towns and cities, I have owed to them, in hours of weariness, sensations sweet, felt in the blood, and felt along the heart, and passing even into my purer mind with tranquil restoration. . . . While with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things. . . ."
Almost two hundred years later, walking in Wordsworth's footsteps, I find myself thinking similar thoughts, reflecting on the power of this wild landscape to enchant, inspire and restore. My own journey is a far more prosaic one than Wordworth's romantic sojourn here -- I've come merely to pick up an old car I've bought from friends with a farm in Powys. It's a five-hour trip back home to Devon, and my thoughts have been focused on road maps, traffic, and remembering to drive on the left-hand side. But as I pass through the narrow lanes, over hills, through glens, along the banks of the River Wye, the landscape works its spell on me. It is a subtle and pervasive magic, delicate as the evening mist that settles on the dark green hills.
These were the hills where the Celts retreated from the Saxon invasions of the 6th and 7th centuries. These hills held the sacred groves of the Druids, the ceremonial springs of the Triple Goddess, the caves where hermits and seers once lived. Stories of Welsh princes and kings still echo through the oaks and sycamores; the wind in the pines whispers Merlin's name, or Myrddin, as they know him here. Like the Celtic lands of Ireland and Scotland, the landscape of Wales is steeped in poetry. When I stop the car and walk among the stones of Tintern, I am reminded not only of the words of William Wordsworth, but of Arthur Machen, a fantasist from early in our own century. "I shall always esteem it as the greatest piece of fortune that has fallen to me that I was born in that noble, fallen Caerleon-on-Usk in the heart of Gwent," wrote Machen in his autobiography. "The older I grow, the more firmly I am convinced that anything I may have accomplished in literature is due to the fact that when my eyes were first opened in early childhood they had before them the vision of an enchanted land."
The country of Wales has its own language, lovely to hear and strange to read, distinguished by its marked absence of vowels. It was the language of the bards, whose poems and tales (a handful of which still survive today) are at the root of fourteen centuries of Welsh literary tradition. The Celtic bards were more than poets: they were historians, genealogists, magicians, seers, and advisers to kings. Taliesin, the greatest of them all, was a shape shifter and prophet. "I was in many shapes," he says in The Battle of the Trees (translated by Patrick Ford); ". . . I was rain-drops in the air, I was stars' beam; I was a word in letters, I was a book in origin; I was lanterns of light for a year and a half; I was a bridge that stretched over six estuaries; I was a path, I was an eagle, I was a coracle in seas; I was a bubble in beer, I was a drop in a shower; I was a sword in hand, I was a shield in battle; I was a string in a harp enchanted nine years. . . ." (Those familiar with Irish mythology will notice how this poem echoes "The Song of Amergin.")
Nennius' Historia Brittonum lists Taliesin as one of five distinguished poets of the 6th century. Unlike the other four, a good deal of work ascribed to Taliesin remains extant, much of it from the 13th-century Book of Taliesin. Celtic scholars view Taliesin as two distinct figures: the historical poet, and the poet-magician of Celtic myth. The story of the later is told in The Tale of Gwion Bach and The Tale of Taliesin. These tales come to us through 16th-century manuscript sources, although they are clearly much older works; together they form a continuous narrative about the Welsh bard's early life.
According to this legend, the witch Ceridwen gave birth to an extremely ugly son. She determined to compensate for this by giving her hapless child the gift of wisdom and prophecy. She gathered herbs with the help of two assistants, one of whom was Gwion Bach. The witch brewed the herbs for a year and a day to distill three drops of a magical potion -- but while she slept, Gwion Bach swallowed the three crucial drops himself. Ceridwen woke and the boy fled, with the furious witch in hot pursuit. He turned into a hare, she turned into a hound; he turned into a fish, she turned into an otter; he turned into a bird, she turned into a hawk and chased him across the skies. Finally he turned into a grain of wheat; the witch was a hen who gobbled him up. He lay in her belly for nine long months, and then Ceridwen gave birth to him. The witch couldn't bear to do the infant harm, so she put him into a basket and set it adrift in the sea. There he was found by Elphin, the spendthrift son of a wealthy squire. Elphin named the child Taliesin (beautiful brow) and gave him to his wife to raise. The rest of the tale concerns Elphin's exploits, and how the young Taliesin cleverly saves him time and time again -- a tale that Thomas Love Peacock has drawn upon for his charming novel, The Misfortunes of Elphin, published in 1829. The Arthurian scholar John Matthews has also made use of this material in The Song of Taliesin: Stories and Poems from the Books of Broceliande, an interesting and unusual work that is part fiction, part myth, part history, and part what he calls "mystery teaching."
Taliesin appears again in the 13th-century Black Book of Carmarthen, in dialogue with another famous prophet: Merlin, or Myrddin (pronounced, more-or-less, as "Mirthen"). Wales has its own strong Arthurian tradition, and Myrddin is a prominent figure in it. The city of Carmarthen is one of the places that claims to be Myrddin's birthplace. An old oak tree is carefully preserved by the Carmarthen authorities, for legend has it that "When Mryddin's tree shall tumble down, Then shall fall Carmarthen town." Some say the magician is still alive, trapped by Vivien's enchantments, in a cave in Bryn Myrddin (Merlin's Hill) some two miles east of the city.
The Merlin of Welsh legend is a rather shamanic figure who (like Suibhne in Irish poetry) goes mad and spends years as a wildman in the woods, living a solitary, animal existence, before he emerges into his full power as a magician and seer. His prophesies are contained in poems said to be written by Myrddin himself from the 9th century onward; many can be found in Llyfr Du Caerfryddin and The Black Book of Carmarthen. In the "Afallennau" and "Oineau" poems (from The Black Book, translated by Meirion Pennar), Myrddin portrays his life among apple trees in the forest of Celydonn: "Ten years and two score have I been moving along through twenty bouts of madness with wild ones in the wild; after not so dusty things and entertaining minstrels, only lack does now keep me company. . . ." He despairs that he, who once lay in women's arms, now lies alone on the cold, hard ground, with only a wild piglet for company (a creature much revered by the Celts). This flight into wilderness is a common theme in shamanic initiation from cultures around the globe. Through deprivation, an elemental existence, and even madness, the shaman embarks on an inward journey; when he returns to the world he is a changed man, aligned with the powers of nature, able to converse with animals and to see into the hearts of men. Mary Stewart vividly portrays this Merlin of Welsh legends in her adult novels The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, books which are now considered modern classics of Arthurian fantasy literature. Peter Dickison has also drawn on Welsh Arthurian legends, among others, for his splendid book Merlin Dreams, illustrated by Alan Lee.
As in Scotland and Cornwall, many Welshman claim the legendary King Arthur as one of their own. One of the very oldest surviving Arthurian stories, "Culhwch and Olwen," is to be found along with later Welsh Arthurian romances among the tales of The Mabinogion (preserved in The White Book of Rhydderch and The Red Book of Hergest, from the 14th century). While some consider these stories to have been influenced by Norman-French literature, other scholars consider the influence to have gone quite the other way around. This "is part of the wider issue between the 'Continental' and 'Welsh' schools of thought," write Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, the men whose beautiful translation of The Mabinogion, published in 1949, has still never been equaled. "The former has held that Wales contributed very little or even nothing of importance to the Arthurian legend as it developed in France and Germany and then England. . . . On the other hand, there have been many scholars to maintain that the continental romances were derived from Welsh sources, whatever the links and transmission. There seems little room for doubt that the argument is now swinging to the 'Welsh' side, and that Chretien de Troyes' sources, little though we know of them, were derived from Welsh originals. The evidence of comparative folktale, of proper names and linguistics, and what might be reasonably if tentatively deduced from the methods of literary composition in the Middle Ages, is telling with increasing weight against the opposite view. The achievement of Chretien and the German poets is not affected by this; their poems stand, their influence remains; their contribution to the Arthurian legend is impressive enough, though they are denied what they themselves never claimed, its origin and fountain-head."
While the stories of King Arthur's court are the best known of all the Welsh legends and myths, this small country has also produced another cycle of magical stories which are equally fascinating and indisputably Welsh: the four primary stories of The Mabinogion, known as the "Four Branches." I first came across these extraordinary tales in the fantasy novels of Evangeline Walton, drawn directly from Mabanogi legendry: "The Prince of Annwn," "The Children of Lyr," "The Song of Rhiannon," and "The Island of the Mighty." As wonderful as these novels are (and I highly recommend them), the original old tales are well worth seeking out, particularly in the Jones and Jones translation. In my opinion, there is little in the field of Myth, Epic and Romance that can compare to this one cycle of stories for sheer magic and mystery, for complex characterization and evocative descriptions of the pagan world.
The First Branch ("Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed") is set in the southwest of Wales and concerns the prince of that region: his adventures in the Otherworld, his marriage to the magical Rhiannon, and the birth of Pryderi, their son. Rhiannon is a wonderful character: direct, resourceful, and nobody's fool. Pwyll first sees her astride a majestic white horse, but although she seems to be riding at a stately pace, no one can catch up to her either on foot or on the fastest horse of Dyfed. At last, in despair, Pwyll cries out to her to wait. She stops immediately, telling the prince wryly, "I will wait gladly, and it had been better for your horse had you asked it long ago."
The Second Branch ("Branwen, Daughter of Llyr") is set in mid-Wales. It tells the story of the gigantic Bran the Blessed, his brothers and his tragic sister, Branwen -- who is pledged to be married to a king of Ireland to strengthen bonds between that country and Wales. The ensuing story involves treachery, the magical Cauldron of Rebirth, and the famous severing of Bran's head -- which continues to talk, feast and give advice until at last it is put in its final resting place (underneath the Tower of London).
The Third Branch ("Manawydan, Son of Llyr") returns us to Rhiannon (married now to Manawydan), who becomes entrapped in an enchanted fort along with her son, Pryderi. Manawydan's subsequent effort to find his family and lift the enchantment on his land results in one of the most peculiar and funny scenes in Celtic literature as he attempts to hang a pregnant mouse on a gallows (you will have to read the story to find out why. . .).
The Fourth Branch ("Math, Son of Manthonwy") is the most magical of all, set in Gwynedd in the north of Wales. It concerns the magician Gwydion, his sister Aranrhod, his sister's son, Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Lleu's marriage to a woman made of flowers. The complexity of relationships in this tale, particularly in the interactions of men and women, make for fascinating reading and one of the most unusual sagas in mythic literature. Gwydion and his brother, for instance, are punished by Math for the rape of a young maiden in Math's court by being transformed into animals over a three-year period: first deer, then wild boars, and then wolves. In this form they must procreate, and each man takes his turn as the female of the pair; thus each experiences a female existence and the pains of childbirth.
To learn more about Welsh mythology, I recommend the following titles (in addition to The Mabinogion itself, as translated by Jones & Jones, Lady Charlotte Guest, or P.K. Ford): Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales by Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees; Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx (2 volumes) by John Rhys; A Celtic Miscellany by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson; Mysterious Wales by Chris Barber; Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland by John Matthews; and The White Goddess by Robert Graves.
Evangeline Walton is not the only modern fantasy writer to have been influenced by the stories of the Mabinogi and other distinctively Welsh legends. Lloyd Alexander's "Prydain" series, Susan Cooper's "Dark is Rising" series and Alan Garner's Owl Service all draw heavily from this ancient material and are highly recommended. Artists and musicians have also been drawn to the mythic forests of Welsh legendry. Some years ago Robin Williamson, the harpist, created a lovely album of Celtic music entitled "The Mabinogion"; the music was originally used for live performances of the tales. Alan Lee, one of England's foremost illustrators (his work includes Faeries and the recent anniversary edition of The Lord of the Rings) has long been a connoisseur of Welsh legends. He spent two and a half years creating his sumptuously illustrated edition of The Mabinogion (using the Jones & Jones translation), full of richly detailed watercolor paintings bordered by intricate Celtic knotwork. This volume is, sadly, out of print now, but well worth seeking out in secondhand and specialty shops. (I have recently learned that Dreamhaven Books in Minneapolis has just discovered a large cache of copies -- which is good news indeed.) Alec Lewis is a Welsh artist who now lives and works on Dartmoor. His sculpture, painting, and paper collages are steeped in Celtic legendry -- particularly "Cypher," a wooden sculpture that echoes the shapes of standing stones, etched with ancient Celtic symbols, and Lewis' potent, mysterious "Green Man." Both were created for an annual exhibition on the theme of "The Mythic Garden."
In addition to the high mythic tradition of Wales, the country is also rich with folk and fairy lore. The Tylwyth Teg (the Fair Family) generally live underground or under water. They love to dance, to bargain at market (with coins that inevitably turn back into leaves), to steal cattle and human babies, or to lead drunken country folk astray. Welsh fairy women can be won as wives, usually by gifts of bread and cheese; they will live with human folk for a time and bring dowries of fairy cattle. The Gwyllion are the hill fairies of Wales, great friends of the goats, whose beards they comb. The Gwragedd Annwn are water nymphs; they row about on isolated mountain lakes in little skiffs. Wild Edric is the Wild Huntsman who rides, with his host and his fairy wife, along the Welsh borders by the dark of the moon. The Llamhigyn y Dwr is a monstrous toad with wings and a tail instead of legs, so big that it devours sheep. When fishermen hook it on the end of their lines it lets out with a blood-curdling scream. The Anfanc and the Water Leaper are two other creatures you don't want to meet in the Welsh wilds by night.
According to a Mr. David Williams of Carmarthen, "the Tylweth Teg were as small in stature as dwarfs, and always appeared in white. Often at night they danced in rings amid the green fields. Most of them were females, though they had a king and, as their name suggests, they were very beautiful in appearance. The king was called Gwydion ap Don. His residence was among the stones and was called Caer Gwydion. His queen was Gwenhidw. I have heard my mother call the small, fleece-like clouds which appear in fine weather the Sheep of Gwenhidw." The great folklorist Katharine Briggs includes Welsh fairy lore in her Encyclopedia of Fairies and The Fairies in Literature and Tradition. The Welsh Fairy Book by W. Jenkyn Thomas (with illustrations by William Pogany) is a wonderful old source for enchanting tales. Sylvia Townsend Warner draws on Welsh fairy lore for the charming, wry tale "Visitors to a Castle" in her collection of adult fairy stories, Kingdoms of Elfin (many of which were first published in The New Yorker and are highly recommended). "Visitors to a Castle" concerns a small community of fairies that live in the shadow of Mynnydd Prescelly, a Welsh mountain that has the annoying habit of randomly disappearing. . . .
Rich with old stories and with great natural beauty, it is no wonder Arthur Machen and others have considered Wales the Enchanted Land. Yet it is also a small country struggling hard to preserve its cultural identity while remaining, politically, a part of Great Britain. To those unfamiliar with Wales or its myths, the name tends to evoke images of coal mines, slag heaps and grey industrial towns. But this describes only a small portion of the country; much of it is green and beautiful, dotted with ancient castles everywhere, fine old villages and small working farms, blessed with the wild mountain landscapes of Snowdon and the Brecon Beacons. The preservation of the Welsh language has done much to preserve a Welsh national identity; and the country's extraordinary literary heritage, from Taliesin to Dylan Thomas, is a national treasure without price.
"Let no man despise Wales," wrote D. Lloyd George in 1906, "her language or her literature. She has survived many storms; she has survived many Empires. When the last truckload of coal reaches Cardiff, when the last black diamond is dug out of the earth at Glamorgan, there will be men then digging gems of pure brilliance from the inexhaustible mines of the literature and the language of Wales."
Art: "Blodeuedd" (from the Mabinogion) by Alan Lee, 1990
About the Author: Terri Windling is a writer, artist, and editor, and the founder of the Endicott Studio and the Journal of Mythic Arts. For more information, please visit her website for more information.
Copyright © 1996 by Terri Windling. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine in 1996. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.