Saturday, 12 June 2010

Culhwch & Olwen

from The Mabinogion, translated by Jeffrey Gantz.

Arthur then said, 'Chieftain, I have heard nothing of this girl, nor of her parents, but I will gladly send messengers to learn of her.' That night messengers set out, and when at the end of a year they had found nothing Culhwch said, 'Everyone else has obtained his request but I am still waiting. I will leave, and bear your shame with me.' 'Chieftain, you are not fair to Arthur,' said Kei. Come with us - until you say that the girl does not exist or until we find her we will not leave you.' Kei rose then. He had this talent: nine days and nine nights his breath would last under water, and nine days and nine nights he could go without sleep. No doctor could cure the wound from Kei's sword. He could be as tall as the tallest tree in the forest when he pleased, while when the rain was heaviest a hand's span about what was in his hand would be dry by reason of the heat he generated, and when his companions were coldest that would be kindling for the lighting of a fire.

Arthur also summoned Bedwyr, who never avoided any errand on which Kei went. No one in the island was as handsome as Bedwyr, save only Arthur and Drych son of Kibddar, and though he was one-handed no three warriors on the same field could draw blood faster than he; moreover he would make one thrust with his spear and nine counter-thrusts. Arthur called upon Kynddilig the Guide, saying, 'Accompany the chieftain on this errand,' for Kynddilig was no worse guide in a country he had never seen than in his own; he summoned Gwrhyr Interpreter of Languages, who knew every tongue, and Gwalchmei son of Gwyar, since the latter never returned without fulfilling his errand, and was moreover the best walker and rider, and was Arthur's nephew, his sister's son and his first cousin as well. Finally Arthur summoned Menw son of Teirwaedd, for if they came to a pagan land Menw could cast a spell through which they could see everyone and no one could see them.

This party rode out until they reached a great level plain and saw a fortress, the strongest one ever. They journeyed throughout the day, and when they expected to reach the fortress they were no nearer than at first; yet as they travelled along the plain they could see a great flock of sheep with neither end nor limit to it, and a shepherd watching form the top of a mound, a cloak of skins on him, and a shaggy mastiff at his side, larger than a nine-year-old stallion. He had never lost a lamb, much less a sheep, nor did there pass him any company which he did not harm or wound mortally, for his breath had burned every dead tree and bush on the plain to the ground.

Kei said to Gwrhr Interpreter of Languages, 'Go and talk to that man over there.' 'Kei, I never promised to go any farther than you did, so let us go together,' said Gwrhyr, and Menw son of Teirwaedd said, 'Do not worry - I will put a spell on the dog so that it harms no one.' They approached the shepherd and said, 'You are well off, shepherd.' 'May you never be better off than I,' was the reply. 'By God, because you are the head man.' 'Apart from my wife, no wound annoys me.' 'Whose sheep are you tending, and whose is the fortress?' 'Everyone knows that this is the fortress of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden.' 'And who are you?' 'Custenhin son of Mynwyedig, and because of my wife Chief Giant Ysbaddaden has ruined me. And who are you?' 'Messengers of Arthur who have come for Olwen' 'God protect you, men - for all the world, do not say that, for no one who made that request has ever left here alive.'

Then the shepherd rose, and Culhwch gave him a gold ring; he tried to put it on but it did not fit, so he put it in the finger of his glove and went home and gave it to his wife. She took the ring out and asked, 'Where did this ring come from? It is not often you find treasure.' 'I went to the seas to find sea-food, and what did I see but a body washing in on the tide. I never saw so beautiful a body, and on its finger I found this ring.' 'The sea strips dead men of their jewels - show me the body.' 'Wife, you will see the owner of that body here soon.' 'Who is he?' she asked. 'Culhwch son of Kiydd son of the ruler Kelyddon, by Goleuddydd daughter of the ruler Amlawdd - he has come for Olwen.' The woman had divided feelings: she was happy that her nephew, her sister's son, was coming, buy she was sad because she had never seen anyone who came with that request depart with his life.

The visitors came on to the gate of the shepherd Custenhin's court, and when his wife heard the clamour of their arrival she ran out to give them a joyful welcome. Kei drew a log form the woodpile as she approached and sought to embrace them, and when he thrust the log between her two hands she squeezed it into a twisted coil. 'Woman, had it been I whom you squeezed so, no one else would ever need to love me,' said Kei. 'A bad sort of love yours!' They entered the house and their needs were seen to, and after a while, when everyone was busy, the woman opened a chest near the hearth and out jumped a lad with curly yellow hair. Gwhyr said, 'A shame to hide such a lad as this. I know it is not his own fault that he is so treated,' and the woman replied, 'He is the last one; Chief Giant Ysbaddaden has killed twenty-three of my sons, and there is no more hope for this one than there was for the others.' Kei said, 'Let him come along as my companion; he shall not be slain unless I am.'

Then they ate, and the woman asked, 'On what errand have you come?' 'We have come to ask for Olwen.' 'As no one from the fortress has yet see you, for God's sake, turn back!' 'God knows, we will not turn back until we have seen the girl - will she come to some place where she can be seen?' 'She comes here every Saturday to wash her hair; she leaves her rings in the washing bowl, and neither she nor her messenger ever comes after them.' 'Will she come if she is sent for?' 'God knows, I will not sell myself by betraying the one who trusts me, but if you swear to do her no harm I will send for her.' 'We swear.' Messengers were sent and Olwen came, dressed in a flame-red silk robe, with a torque of red gold round her neck, studded with precious pearls and rubies. Her hair was yellower than broom, her skin whiter than sea-foam, her palms and fingers were whiter than shoots of marsh trefoil against the sand of a welling spring. Neither the eye of a mewed hawk nor the eye of a thrice-mewed falcon was fairer than hers; her breasts were whiter than the breast of a white swan, her cheeks were redder than the reddest foxgloves, and anyone who saw her would fall deeply in love. Wherever she went four white trefoils appeared behind her, and for that reason she was called Olwen.

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