How Culhwch Won Olwen: The Family Reunion King Arthur Never Asked For

How Culhwch Won Olwen’ is from the Mabinogion, a collection of early Welsh prose stories originally collected in the 12th and 13th centuries and later translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 19th century. This story is one of the earliest Arthurian legends and presents quite a different court from what is familiar. Also, it introduces us to King Arthur’s big embarrassing family.

Cilydd, son of Celyddon Wledig, and his wife Goleuddydd are expecting their first child when Goleuddydd experiences that well-known medical phenomenon, pregnancy-induced madness, and takes off into the wilderness. She gives birth in a pig-run, causing her son to be named Culhwch, which literally means ‘pig-run’ (or at least, it does in a specific interpretation). The child is given to foster parents and Goleuddydd, knowing herself to be dying, instructs her husband not to marry again until a two-headed briar grows on her grave. Which sounds very mystical, only her next step is to commission her chaplain to keep her grave cleared so that no briar will grow there at all.

Seven years later, the chaplain slips up and Cilydd gets the all-clear to marry again, which just leaves the task of finding an appropriate bride. Cilydd’s councillors have a woman in mind already. Unfortunately she’s married to King Doged, but that’s only a problem until they kill him, and bingo, Cilydd has a new queen! The lady promptly finds an old woman to dish the dirt on her new husband. “Hag, for God’s sake will you answer my question?” she demands with understandable force. “Where are the children of the man who violently abducted me?” In other words, is she going to get an heir out of this rotten deal? The old woman at first toes the official line and tells her that Cilydd has no child, but when she sees the queen’s sharp displeasure, admits that Cilydd has a son.

The new queen wants Cilydd’s boy to marry her own daughter, which is a logical way to cement her own political position even if it is a tad incestuous from a modern perspective, but Culhwch protests that he is not yet old enough to marry and his stepmother retaliates by declaring he won’t marry at all until he earns the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr. There seems to be some magical emphasis on that statement, because that’s it, Culhwch is in love with a girl he’s never met.

Cilydd is unconcerned about his son’s newfound obsession.“Arthur is your cousin,” he tells Culhwch. “Go to Arthur to have your hair trimmed, and ask him for that as your gift.” This refers to a tradition by which Arthur will cut Culhwch’s hair as recognition of their familial connection and if he is accepted in this way, Culhwch will be able to ask Arthur for a gift of some kind. Thus, kitted out as the prince he is, Culhwch leaves for Arthur’s court.

The gatekeeper flatly refuses to allow him inside. There is a banquet taking place and no one save for princes and craftsmen offering their services will be seeing the king tonight. The gatekeeper offers Culhwch comfortable lodgings elsewhere, promising ‘a woman to sleep with you and songs to entertain you’, but Culhwch basically threatens to scream the place down if he doesn’t get to see Arthur himself. “And all the women in this court that are pregnant shall miscarry,” Culhwch continues vindictively, “and those that are not, their wombs shall become heavy within them so that they shall never be with child from this day forth.” That’s super specific and super uncomfortable!  

The gatekeeper, Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr, goes to talk to Arthur. What he actually says is, “I never in my life saw a man as handsome as the one who is at the entrance to the gate this very moment”, which gets Arthur’s attention. “We are noblemen as long as others seek us out,” Arthur says. “The greater the gifts we bestow, the greater will be our nobility and our fame and our honour.” This sentence is striking to me personally because it is a summary of what I perceive Arthur to be; an idealised monarch with open hands and open doors. When Culhwch rides through Arthur’s gate asking for a gift, Arthur agrees to give it, though prudently he first lists his exceptions: he will not be giving away his ship, his mantle, his sword Caledfwlch, his spear Rhongomyniad, his shield Wynebgwrthucher, Carnwennan his dagger or Gwenhwyfar his wife. I realise this is a list of treasured possessions and thus misogynistic as hell, but I do like Gwenhwyfar being listed among all those weapons. Fortunately Culhwch does not want any of these things. He asks for Arthur to cut his hair and when the king brings a comb and shears to perform this ritual, he recognise Culhwch as being of his family.  

There follows a whacking great paragraph listing what appears to be every significant member of Arthur’s court. I shall not be repeating it, but in the middle of all that reference is made to a knight named Gormant son of Rica, Arthur’s brother on his mother’s side, the son of the chief elder of Cornwall – which, if you try to make it work with Malory’s account of Igraine and Uther’s marriage, fits in startlingly well. Arthur’s mother is also credited with a number of brothers – Llygadrudd Emys,  Gwrfoddw Hen, Gwair Gwrhyd Enwir and Gwair Gwyn Baladr – and Gwenhwyfar is given a sister, Gwenhwyfach. None of whom are at all relevant to this story! But discovering this sort of the detail is for me the whole point of slogging through dozens of knights and their entire genealogical history, and sharing is caring.

Arthur responds to Culhwch’s explanation by saying he’s never heard of this girl Olwen but whatever, he’ll send messengers to take a look. After a year of searching, they return empty-handed and Culhwch threatens to leave, taking Arthur’s honour with him. Got to say, he’s coming across as the touchy sort. At this point a knight named Cai intervenes. He has many magical abilities – the ability to hold his breath underwater for nine days and nine nights, to go without sleep for the same length of time, to inflict wounds that no one can heal, to stand as tall as a tree when he chooses and to give off such heat that whatever he holds will stay dry in a downpour. He also comes as a matched set with Bedwyr, who is noted as the handsomest man in the realm apart from Arthur himself and Drych son of Cibddar. Bedwyr is one-handed but still one of the most formidable warriors in the court. With these as the first volunteers for the quest to find Olwen, Arthur quickly recruits Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd, who knows all languages, and Gwalchmai son of Gwyar, who has never returned from a journey without the thing he went to find, and Menw son of Teirgwaedd, who can cast spells to conceal them from dangerous eyes.

The warriors set off together to seek the elusive Olwen. What they find is an enormous fort and a gloomy shepherd seated on a hill nearby. The knights approach him to discover who lives in the fort and are told it belongs to Ysbaddaden Bencawr. The shepherd is his brother and unhappy about that. Culhwch slips him a golden ring, which does not fit, so the shepherd hides it in his glove and takes it home to his wife. He tells her he took the ring off a corpse. “Alas, husband,” she answers, “since the sea does not tolerate a dead man’s jewel, show me that corpse.” The shepherd admits who really gave him the ring and the woman recognises Culhwch’s name at once. He is her nephew. As Culhwch and Arthur are cousins, both grandsons of Anlawdd Wledig, that makes this woman Arthur’s aunt too. The shepherd’s wife is glad of Culhwch’s coming but regrets the quest that brings him to the fortress, as no one has sought Olwen’s hand and lived.

The shepherd’s wife poses her own threat. When she goes to embrace the knights, Cai pushes a stake of wood between them and her powerful grip destroys it. “Had you squeezed me like that,” Cai remarks, “it would be useless for any one else ever to make love to me. That was an evil love.” More evidence of a dysfunctional household is seen within the shepherd’s house, when the lady of the house opens a chest and a curly-haired boy climbs out. The shepherd’s wife has given birth to twenty-three sons and Ysbaddaden Bencawr has killed all the others. Cai declares that if she gives the boy to his care, he will live or they will die together. The woman tells the entire party to turn back before it is too late; the knights refuse.

As it turns out, the shepherd’s wife knows Olwen very well. Ysbaddaden Bencawr’s daughter comes to wash her hair in this house every Saturday. When asked if she will summon Olwen, the shepherd’s wife is dubious. “God knows I won’t destroy my friend,” she warns. “I won’t deceive one who trusts me. But if you give your word that you will do her no harm, I will send for her.”

Olwen is a golden-haired beauty dressed in red silk and weighed down with jewels. Culhwch recognises her instantly and asks for her to come away with him. Given the abruptness of this proposal, it’s something of a relief that she says no. She has given her father her word that she will not take a husband without his approval, as he will live only until she marries. That is what you might call a screwed-up situation! Why can no one get married in a normal way around here!

The knights follow Olwen back into the fortress, slaughtering the keepers of nine gates until they reach the great hall of Ysbaddaden Bencawr, where they petition for Olwen’s hand. He tells them to return the next day for his decision and as soon as the knights go to leave, throws a poisoned spear after them. Bedwyr catches it and flings it straight back, getting Ysbaddaden Bencawr through the kneecap. So that’s a great start to negotiations, and it only gets better from there! The knights return the next day with flat terms: either Ysbaddaden Bencawr allows them to have Olwen or they’ll kill him and take her anyway. Olwen’s father excuses himself from making a decision once again, saying he must consult with elders of the family, and seizes the opportunity to throw another spear. This time Menw throws it back and it stabs Ysbaddaden Bencawr through the chest. On the third day, he is warned not to try this trick again, and when he does it is Culhwch who flings the spear back, piercing his father-in-law-to-be through the eye. Ysbaddaden Bencawr lives, though in great pain and foul temper.

On the fourth day he tells Culhwch what he must do to win Olwen as his bride. A large thicket stands within sight of the fortress; the knights are to burn it down and from the ashes grow a wedding feast, all in a single day. The only ploughman who may till the land is Amaethon, who will not come willingly; and only Gofannon may set the plough, and only the two oxen of Gwlwlydd Winau may pull the plough. Ysbaddaden Bencawr continues on and on, listing task after task, until he has a list of forty terms and conditions, each more impossible than the next.

Culhwch is undaunted. “Arthur, my lord and kinsman, will get me all those things,” he tells Ysbaddaden Bencawr. “And I will get your daughter, and you shall lose your life.” This quest is well and truly underway now.

Before long the party of knights come to the largest fort in the world, home to Wrnach Gawr, who has never heard of hospitality. Only craftsmen bringing their craft may enter and live. Cai claims to be the best furbisher of swords, which I gather means he’s saying that he is really epic at polishing. Fortunately this is a skill in demand, and Wrnach Gawr is so pleased with Cai’s work that he permits the entrance of Bedwyr and the shepherd’s son that they adopted. Everyone else sort of sneaks in behind them, like Bedwyr is so pretty that they won’t be noticed, which to be fair appears to be what happens. Then Cai finishes with the sword, lops off the giant’s head, and that’s one task down, thirty nine to go.

They return to Arthur’s court, where the king himself joins them to seek a man named Eidoel, in order to get at his kinsman Mabon son of Modron. Look, it’s a whole thing, Culhwch and co. basically have to get one over every intimidating individual Ysbaddaden Bencawr could think of. Freeing Eidoel from his prisoner is more or less effortless, all Arthur needs to do is ask and the man’s gaoler decides to tag along too. His part done, Arthur goes home and the rest of them go to find Mabon. They ask directions from the Oldest Animals, including the Blackbird of Cilgwri, the Stag of Rhedynfre, the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, the Eagle of Gwernabwy and the Salmon of Llyn Lliw. It is the Salmon who carries Cai and Gwrhyr to a house of stone where Mabon is imprisoned, and who break him out while Arthur’s men attack as a diversion. So that’s another task done.

Next they seek Rhymi and her two pups. Arthur sails off in his ship Prydwen and God chimes in with a kingly favour by changing the three of them ‘back into their own shape’, that presumably being humans. Gwythyr wins the loyalty of an ant-hill. Cai and Bedwyr follow the smoke of a campfire and find the great warrior Dillus Farfog, whose beard they pluck out to make into a leash. Look, bear with me, there are a lot of tasks to get through and they all make about as much sense as each other. Cai and Bedwyr bring the leash to Arthur, who sings a sarcastic little song about it, and Cai resents this so much that he stomps right out of the story.

Arthur continues to power through his cousin’s problems, such as resolving a violent love triangle by sending the lady Creiddylad back to her father’s house and pitting her suitors against one another in an eternal duel where she doesn’t have to get involved at all. In fact Arthur is making friends and influencing people all over the place, accompanied by his horse Llamrei and his dog Cafall. There is altogether too much genealogy and axe-murdering going on for me to keep track of, so let’s move on to the bit where Menw seeks out the treasures of the boar Twrch Trwyth. The boar has been on a rampage, so Menw takes the form of a bird to spy out its lair. When Menw lunges to get hold of the treasures all he gets is a poisoned bristle.

While he’s failing at that, Arthur is having setbacks of his own. He is trying to gain possession of the cauldron of Diwrnach Wyddel, which will boil the meat of a coward slowly and the meat of a courageous person with great speed – a cool thing to have around if you like cookware that makes moral judgements for you – but Diwrnach Wyddel does not feel like handing it over, even when the king of Ireland leans on him on Arthur’s behalf. So Arthur shows up in force, eats at Diwrnach’s table and his people kill their host without hesitation. Though there is resistance from the Irish, Arthur wins the day and sails away with the cauldron, which proves (to quote Terry Pratchett) that you can be excused just about anything if you are a hero.

Arthur then turns his attention to Twrch Trwyth. Hunting hounds are set on his trail, to no success. It is not only the great boar they are up against, it is his ‘seven little pigs’ as well, at least one of whom used to be a king who ended up so deep in the red with God that he was turned into a pig. And it seems really likely that more of the pigs have a similar backstory because when one of Arthur’s men shifts shapes to negotiate with them, the response he receives is “By Him who shaped us in this image, we will not do and will not say anything to help Arthur. God has done us enough harm by shaping us in this image, without you too coming to fight against us”. That’s fair enough.

In fact Arthur has riled up the Sinner Pigs so much that they head for Wales to wreak as much havoc as possible. Many of Arthur’s men fall in battle with Twrch Trwyth, including two of his uncles and his own son Gwydre, and most likely many more innocent bystanders across the devastated countryside. But gradually Arthur and his warriors pick off the ‘piglets’. They seize hold of the boar and take two of the treasures from him – it takes the price of more lives, but eventually they take the third treasure, making a complete set of razor, shears and comb. After that Twrch Trwyth is driven off the coast of Cornwall into the sea, and no one knows what becomes of him after that.

That leaves a final task: to obtain the blood of the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch, which sounds like a tasteless knock-off of Wicked. The witch in question lives in the north, minding her own business in a cave. The brothers Cacamwri and Hygwydd are sent inside and the witch immediately seizes Hygwydd by the hair, dragging him to the ground. Cacamwri catches hold of her hair and pulls her off. That only makes her angrier. She beats the pair of them and sends them ‘shrieking and shouting’ out of her cave. Which is what happens when you invade a witch’s personal space! Arthur wants to go fight the witch himself but his men think it is inappropriate, so it’s not until another two warriors fail to take her down that Arthur attacks. He flings his knife, Carnwennan, from the entrance of the cave and strikes what appears to be a mortal blow. They most certainly get their blood.

Every task has been completed. Culhwch sets off for the fortress of Ysbaddaden Bencawr, with Gorau son of Custennin at his side and a grim retinue behind them, eager less for a wedding than to bring death on the instigator of their quest. They shave Ysbaddaden Bencawr, as he himself tasked them to do, carving off his ears and the skin of his jaw along with his beard. “Have you been shaved, man?” Culhwch demands. “And is your daughter now mine?” “Yours,” comes his father-in-law’s response. “And you need not thank me for that, but thank Arthur, the man who arranged it for you. If I’d had my way you never would have got her. And it is high time to take away my life.” Gorau hacks off his head without further ceremony and impales it in public view. Culhwch takes Olwen to bed that night as his wife, and Arthur’s men disband to return to their own lands, and I personally am having fond fantasies about the modern marvel of divorce lawyers.

So, what do we take away from this version of Arthur and his court? They are warriors, to begin with – not shining beacons of courtesy dedicated to defending the weak, but men with a brutal brand of honour and a loyalty to one another that is terrifying in its mythic proportions. I have deep concerns for Olwen, who could not be more objectified and powerless within the narrative, whose father is tortured and killed by her vindictive new husband and his allies. It does not bode well for her marriage into the future. And yet there are powerful women in this story, marginalised as they are. The shepherd’s wife, with her crushing grip and uncompromising determination. The witch, who defeats four of Arthur’s warriors before he takes her down himself. Even Culhwch’s mother, brief though her role in the story may be, reaches beyond the grave to stamp her will on the world. I feel like she would have got along with her husband’s new wife better than she got on with the man himself.

What truly struck me, re-reading this story, is when the quest ends and Culhwch, far from running to win his ‘love’, is out for vengeance against Ysbaddaden Bencawr. It is a deeply disturbing scene. Ysbaddaden Bencawr did not have to die because his daughter married. He died because that was what Culhwch wanted, and if there is one thing this story established from start to finish, it is that Culhwch got what he wanted, no matter the cost to anyone else.

That’s myth for you. It’s not over until someone gets dismembered.

Source: The Mabinogion – translated by Sioned Davies (Oxford University Press, 2007)

2 thoughts on “How Culhwch Won Olwen: The Family Reunion King Arthur Never Asked For

  1. …Yeah, I’d feel better if Olwen was explicitly stated as being in on the decision to kill her father? It certainly seems like they had a controlling relationship, but MAYBE SHE DIDN’T WANT HIM DEAD, CULHWCH. Smh. Killing the guy is probably bad either way, but not having her decide she wanted this just makes it even worse.
    Did Olwen even WANT this relationship?? Good heavens.
    Bedwyr sounds very cool! I’ll admit I never knew as much about him, but I really like the idea of a knight who is very pretty, disabled, and badass 😉

    There is so much going on in this story! It is fun, though. It certainly does portray Arthur and his knights in quite a different light than you usually see them. How old do people think this story is?

    • This version of the story dates back to somewhere in the 11th or 12th century but it seems to be based on an oral tradition so there may have been older variants. It’s fascinating to see Arthur and his court from this angle – from Olwen’s perspective, though I doubt the original storytellers would have seen it that way. I wonder what the young brides who heard it thought?

      Bedwyr has it all, doesn’t he: beauty, fighting prowess, an intense homoerotic friendship…and it’s good to see a disabled character take on such a significant and powerful role. Cai is also a great character in this, much more rounded than in later versions where he becomes Kay the Grouch.

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