Thursday, February 27, 2014

Culhwch and Olwen

Culhwch and Olwen, trans. Patrick K. Ford

This is one of the very early Arthurian tales, and of course it is Welsh.  It dates from something like the 11th century.

The story has Culhwch, a king's son, put under a curse by his stepmother that he will never marry anyone but Olwen Giants-daughter.  Culhwch promptly becomes enamored of the girl he has never seen, but the task of winning Olwen is impossible; her father will never give permission for her marriage, as he is fated to die as soon as it happens.  Culhwch asks his cousin Arthur for help in the name of every single one of his warriors, which takes pages, but is very fun to read because they come with amazing descriptions.  (Sometimes you might see a familiar name some later author has lifted--there is for example a Fflewdwr Fflam.)  Arthur gladly agrees to help Culhwch, and together with the best men of the court, they set out.

Culhwch asks the giant for Olwen, and is given forty impossible tasks to do.  This takes the form of one of those very Welsh lists you see, so it is fun to read.  On Olwen's advice, Culhwch agrees to everything, but it's really Arthur and his men who go off to accomplish the tasks.  It takes quite a long time--they have to hunt down the oldest and wisest creatures, and sail to Ireland, and battle monsters and dogs and enemies.  At last Culhwch is able to present the giant with all the completed tasks, take Olwen for his own, and chop off his father-in-law's head.

While the later Arthurian tales leave Arthur in the background and focus on the knights' deeds, here Arthur is the main actor and Cwlhwch is the one who fades away for the adventure.  Arthur's trusty warriors include his two oldest companions, Cei (Kay) and Bedwyr (Bedivere).  In these Welsh tales, Cei is a supernaturally strong warrior, and has a hot temper, but he doesn't have the famous surly disposition.  Cei and Bedwyr both have talents, but Cei is always over the top:
Cei had these gifts: he could hold his breath under water for nine nights and nine days; a wound inflicted by Cei no doctor could heal; victorious was Cei; he could be as tall as the tallest tree in the forest when it pleased him.  He had another peculiarity: when it would be raining hardest, whatever he held in his hand would be dry for a fist-length all around because of the greatness of his passion; and when his companions were coldest he would be fuel to kindle their fire.

There was this about [Bedwyr]: none was so fair as he in this island except Arthur and Drych son of Cibddar.  And this too: though he were one-handed, three armed men in the same field as he would not draw blood before him.  Another gift of his was that his spear held one wound and nine counter-thrusts.
Cei and Bedwyr ride the Salmon of Llyn Llyw

I always like reading these medieval Welsh stories, with their strange and wonderful literary conventions and lists of wonders.  They are just so much fun.

I'm not sure what I'll read next; I've got the German Parzival by Wolfram Eschenbach on the way, but I think I might read Beroul's Romance of Tristan first, because it's an older text, from the early 12th century.  It's one of the earliest Tristan tales we have.


2 comments:

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

Forty! Good heavens! Even angry Hera only gave a person twelve tasks at once!

You're such a boss of the Arthurian lit. I'm checking now to see if I can find a copy of this to read.

exploringclassics said...

I own the Beroul version of the Romance of Tristan, but I have only read the Thomas version. I look forward to your review. I am interested in knowing what the differences are between the two versions.