Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Taliesin in his hide-covered basket

First, my apologies to my readers for pulling my earlier piece on the 'Marwnat Vthyr Pen' or 'Death-Song of Uther Pen[dragon]'.  I had relied overmuch on the faulty translations of others and was further misled by new suggested emendations.  As a result, the idea I presented in that particular blog was seriously flawed.

When I realized my error, I set to work to translate the critical lines of the poem myself - checking with Dr. Simon Rodway of The University of Wales as I went.  The result of this second attempt to analyze the poem was both exciting and somewhat disturbing.

The critical lines run as follow:

Neu vi tywyssawc yn tywyll:
It is I who’s a leader in darkness:

a’m rithwy am dwy pen kawell.

Neu vi eil kawyl yn ardu:
It’s I who’s a second kawyl in the gloom:
I began by asking Dr. Rodway if kawell and kawyl could actually be the same word.  He responded:

"That’s quite possible, in the light of frequent examples of e ~ y in MW, and occasional examples of ll ~ l."

The most obvious word then is "basket".  Long ago I wondered if this basket could have something to do with the hide-covered one (a coracle?) of Gwion Bach/Taliesin.  Going with this idea, I rendered the second, most problematic line as:

Our Lord transforms me, Chief of the Basket

It is this line which may have provided the impetus or inspiration to Geoffrey of Monmouth, who has Uther transformed by Merlin into Gorlois (from gorlassar in the Marwnat Vthyr Pen, a description for Uther himself).  'Chief of the Basket' is a title for Gwion Bach/Taliesin, who spent many magical years in his hide-covered basket.

The last line then reads:

It's I who's a second basket in the gloom

Seems nonsensical, until we remember that Elphin found Gwion Bach's basket in his weir AT NIGHT and that the moment he slit the basket open with his knife he beheld the "radiant brow" that gave Taliesin his name.  

In other words, Taliesin's radiant brow guides his warriors in the dark.  

But if this poem is an elegy pronounced by the dead Taliesin, why is it called 'Marwnat Vthyr Pen'?  And why does he refer to himself as the 'second basket'?

Because, as was the case with Bran the Blessed, it is Taliesin's decapitated head that is speaking - a truly "uthr" (fearful, dreadful, awful, terrible, tremendous, mighty, overbearing, cruel; wonderful, wondrous, astonishing, excellent) head.  The second basket is likely that in which his head is deposited after he is slain.  Marged Haycock in her edition of the poem had asked if the Pen Kawell were the chief basket used to collect the heads of the battle-slain.  Line 18 of the 'Marwnat Vythr Pen'  mentions the 100 heads Uthr cut off during his martial career. 

In other words, he was brought into life in a basket, and he leaves life in a second one.   

The metaphorical term dragon, as I surmised before when I thought Uther Pen might be a designation for Urien Rheged, was added by a copyist who wrongly interpreted Pen in the sense of leader, possibly in an attempt to prevent future confusion.  This act had the unintended effect of producing an entirely new personage, viz. Uther Pendragon, the Terrible Chief-warrior.

If I'm right about this poem, and my translation  is allowed to stand, then we are faced with a very curious conclusion:  the greatest British hero Arthur was a son of none other than the greatest British poet, Taliesin.  

I've drawn from P.C. Bartram's A CLASSICAL WELSH DICTIONARY for what little is known about Taliesin, historically speaking:

The poet's date seems to be a bit late for Arthur.  However, my work on Eliwlad as the 'Prince of Eli'  eagle from Powys (ancient Cornovia; cf. Kernyw/Cornwall, where Arthur was often placed in Welsh tradition) does point to an origin for Uther in that kingdom.  

It is always possible Taliesin of the Terrible Head was not the father of Arthur, of course.  This may have been an invention of just about anybody.  If Arthur's father were unknown, but someone came across his name in the 'Marwnat Vthyr Pen' elegy, such a relationship might well have been assumed.

I would say that this Terrible Head could still be that of Urien Rheged, and Taliesin was merely putting words into the mouth of this decapitated king, but it's difficult - if not impossible - to do so given the references to cawell, 'basket', and its relationship to darkness.   Still, there is that 'gorlassar' which we find otherwise used only for Urien.  Haycock translates gorlassar as 'armed in blue', but the literal meaning is simply 'very blue'. This could refer to armor or weapons or (I would offer) woad tattooing. 

In closing, I would like to include some of Marged Haycock's commentary on the poem.  Here she reflects upon the possibility that some or all of the lines may represent the voice of Taliesin himself:

The speaker of the present poem presents himself in lines 1-25 as a warrior
above all. In the second half, lines 26-35 the emphasis is on the speaker’s poetic
skill, and his ability as a harpist, piper and crowder (player on the crwth). Other
poems in this collection such as §5 Kat Godeu indicate that both martial and
artistic qualities (as well as others) coexist in the delineation of Taliesin himself,
and it is tempting to assume that he is the speaker of the whole poem.
Alternatively, the second half may have been originally a ‘Taliesin’ piece which
became attached to a soliloquy (?by Uthr) because of the very marked egocentric
nature of the two, and perhaps because Taliesin was imagined to have sung the
deathsong of Uthr (not necessarily the first part of our poem), just as he was the
putative author of Dylan’s elegy and the poem on Cunedda (§§22 and 23).

NOTE: M. Haycock also suggests that kawell could be for cannwyll, found with the following definitions in the GPC:

"candle, luminary, transf. of star, sun, moon, lamp; fig. of light, brightness, instruction, leader, hero, choicest or best of anything."

According to Dr Rodway: 

"That seems possible. Perhaps the copyist missed an n-stroke over the a. We find n for nn quite often in medieval MSS, and l for ll occasionally."

If this were the case, the two lines could be rendered differently:

Our Lord the chief luminary transforms me
It's I who's the second light in the gloom.

I would read this as a reference to Uther's star in Geoffrey of Monmouth -

"A star of great magnitude and brilliance, with a single beam shining from it.  At the end of this beam was a ball of fire, spread out in the shape of a dragon.  The star signifies you in person, and so does the dragon beneath the star."

I'd once pointed out that the appearance of this star at the time of the death of Ambrosius, by medieval tradition, would indicate the star represented Ambrosius himself, and not Uther.  This formed part of my earlier argument that Uther Pendragon, the Dreadful Chief-warrior/leader, was merely a designation for Ambrosius, who was the dragon-lord of Dinas Emrys and the dread (timore) of Vortigern.  The French romances called Ambrosius Pendragon, which has misled many into thinking the Pendragon epithet was some sort of inheritable title. 

The 'Marwnat Vythr Pen' is thought by many to predate Geoffrey, but this is not at all certain.  Or we could postulate that Geoffrey knew of this motif from earlier tradition.

Such a translation fits the earlier "leader in darkness" line, and makes sense of the "in the gloom" of the later line.  A leader is, like God, metaphorically the guiding light of the warriors who follow him into the darkness of battle. 


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