So, how are we all feeling about March? Are you enjoying the experience being part of a global historical event? No, me neither. Thus far 2020 in Australia has been a rollercoaster of drought, bushfires, floods and Coronavirus. Frankly I think we should all get our money back or have 2020 traded in for a year in better condition. It’s been hard to keep up my motivation with the current project, but who else is going to bring you opinions about esoteric Arthuriana in this time of crisis?
Preiddeu Annwn: The Spoils of Annwn is a poem from the fourteenth century Welsh text Llyfr Taliesin. I am using Sarah Higley’s translation from the University of Rochester’s Camelot Project and given the obscurity of the poem’s phrasing, I am also leaning on her analysis of what it is all about. I understand there is another, incomplete translation by Robert Graves in The White Goddess, so you may have encountered this poem before in one incarnation or another.
To clarify: Annwn is the Welsh Otherworld, ruled by Gwyn ap Nudd in Arthurian tradition. The poem also references Pwyll and Pryderi, who are father and son, kings of Dyfed. Pwyll makes a cameo in ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’, where he is a member of Arthur’s court. He is as terrible a husband as I imagine Culhwch probably was but is also a close ally to Arawn, the other king of the Otherworld in Welsh mythology. Pryderi is Pwyll’s son. He is killed by the vicious scheming of the magician Gwydion, who is responsible for a lot of things that are wrong with the world, such as that one time he created a woman out of flowers because his beloved nephew needed a bespoke wife and was shocked and appalled when the woman in question showed a mind of her own.
There are a lot of men in mythology that we could all do without, honestly.
Preiddeu Annwn begins by praising the Lord (pretty safe to assume this is the Christian God) whose sovereignty extends across the world. We then take a sharp detour to the Mound Fortress, prison of Gweir ‘throughout the account of Pwyll and Pryderi’. Gweir is described as singing bitterly ‘before the spoils of Annwfyn’ – presumably a reference to great treasures. The poem then continues ‘Three fullnesses of Prydwen/ we went into it/ Except seven/ none rose up/ from the Fortress of the Mound’. It sounds like this is referring to a raid or battle, one that cost many lives.
The poem then diverges into a little self-congratulatory wonder at its own brilliance. “I was honoured in praise./ Song was heard/ in the Four-Peaked Fortress…My poetry/ from the cauldron/ it was uttered./ From the breath of nine maidens/ it was kindled,” the poet declares. The cauldron, though, is a fairly potent symbol in Welsh mythology, and the poem is quick to tie literary allusion to mythology. ‘The cauldron of the chief of Annwfyn,’ we are told, ‘what is its fashion?/ A dark ridge around its border and pearls./ It does not boil the food of a coward,/ it has not been destined.’ Does that sound familiar? It should. Arthur stole a cauldron with the same properties in ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’, only it belonged to Diwrnach Wyddel in that story. We are told that the ‘sword of Lleawch’ has been lifted against it (meaning, I assume, that it was seized by Lleawch) and that it was left in the keeping of Lleminawe. And we are told, once again, that only seven returned from ‘the Fortress of Mead-Drunkenness’. It would seem that this battle went quite differently from the one in ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’.
‘I am honoured in praise,’ the poem continues, ‘song is heard/ in the Fortress of Four-Peaks,/ isle of the strong door…Three fullness of Prydwen/ we went on the sea./ Except seven none rose up/ from the Fortress of Hardness.’ For all these different names, it sounds like the same fortress, maybe on a remote island. There is a history of Otherworldly islands in Celtic mythology.
From here the poet starts taking things more personally:‘I merit not the Lord’s/ little men of letters./ Beyond the Glass Fortress they did not see/ the valor of Arthur,’ and the poem continues to say that six thousand men stood upon the wall. But only seven rose up ‘from the Fortress of Guts’. Well, that’s explicit.
‘Little men’ are referenced again. The footnotes to the translation clarifies this as a reference, and quite obviously an attack upon, a group of monks. The footnotes also theorise that the poem isn’t really about Arthur at all, instead being an intricate metaphor about poetic composition. Given the number of verses dedicated to other people’s perceived failings, this seems a reasonable stance – the final verses don’t reference Arthur at all, descending into a somewhat vitriolic tirade against monks who ‘pack together like young wolves’ and who ‘do not know when midnight and dawn divide’.
Over and over again, though, the poem circles back around to Arthur’s men and the seven who survived out of six thousand. There is something rather dreadful about that repetition, that consistent reminder of a battle so vicious that only seven warriors made it out alive. As with so many Arthurian legends, the power of it is in the obscurity, something great and terrible half-seen as if through a mist.
Arthur brought a battle against the Otherworld, and it seems he won, but – again, as with so many of the legends – only just. That lucky streak will run out on him one of these days.
Take care everyone, wherever you are in the world, as we head into the unknown of April. Come chat if you want to. We live in very strange times, but that’s no reason to face this alone.