Of Sojourning in Other Worlds

Fantasy_World_Wikia

It’s an old shamanistic art, the art of the fay, taking people away through a story to sojourn in Other Worlds and (unlike some fairies) bringing them back, bedraggled, teary, but safe, to Thisworld.

My first teachers were fantasy writers – C. S. Lewis, Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, Ursula Le Guin, Robin Hobb. Reading the visionary poets Blake, Shelley, Coleridge, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, provided intimations otherworldly visions might be real and imagination was a channel to the Divine.

Studying philosophy and literature, not just reading but practicing Husserl’s epoché and Rimbaud’s ‘systematised disorganisation of the senses’, I experimented with intoxicants at festivals, night clubs, parties on the tops, beaches, local woodlands. I gained my own visions of the Otherworld. Some hair-raisingly beautiful, others confusing, odd, downright uncomfortable, some terrifying, mortifying.

The day I ended up on a rock at the end of the world staring into the abyss, unable to decide whether to live or die (I might have died or gone mad if three beings I now know were fay hadn’t brought me back), I decided my journey was at an end and tried to slam the doors of perception shut.

The result was a year of anxiety and panic attacks – terror of the world(s) I’d shut out intruding on this one. I managed to scrape through the third year of my degree, saved by writing a dissertation on the Sublime, which was based on my experience of sublimities undoing my mind and gained me a first.

Studying for my MA in European Philosophy I caught a glimpse of a way of understanding my experiences. In Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy I came across the notion of Dionysian ecstasy giving birth to Apollonian visions, only I hadn’t been seeing  dancing satyrs…

Searching for a deeper understanding of how we envision and imagine Other Worlds I started studying Blake’s conception of the Imagination at PhD level. My lack of funds and growing intuition Imagination cannot be conceptualised led me to abandon my studies and return to working with horses.

I loved the horses, but the force that led me to Other Worlds would not leave me alone. Whilst working as a groom in Hertfordshire I started writing stories about otherworldly encounters. I conceived an idea for a fantasy novel and eventually gave up my equine career, moving back in with my parents and taking a less demanding job in a supermarket to make this my focus.

During this period I discovered polytheism – that people worshipped the old gods and worked with spirits. Failing to connect with the Graeco-Roman deities I discovered Britain has its own. Finally I met Brigantia, goddess of the North, Belisama, goddess of the Ribble, Maponos, ‘the Son’ and Matrona, ‘the Mother’, who have altars at Ribchester. Yet it wasn’t until I met Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn/Faery, our ancient British Otherworld, read the fairylore that my experiences made sense.

Gwyn taught me how to journey to Annwn/Faery with intent and come back with stories of my own. He became my patron and I his awenydd and I have served him ever since. When we first met, his condition of traveling with him to the Otherworld was that I give up my ambition to become a professional fantasy writer. This was tough at the time but worth it for the wonders he’s shown me, which lie beyond the limited stretches of my own mind and the pastiche of the fantasy world I created.

For nearly five years I didn’t dare to so much as open a fantasy book. Then my mum told me about some new novels by Robin Hobb about dragonkeepers and I was soon stuck in, reading them and the final trilogy about Fitz and the Fool, before returning to the whole series again. Then re-reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea quartet, then all the Dragonlance books by Weiss and Hickman.

When I consulted Gwyn about whether he minded I received the gnosis he’d led me to those Other Worlds.

Why, then, did he ban me from becoming a professional fantasy writer? I’ve been reflecting on this question a lot over the past year. I think one of the reasons was that when I was writing fantasy I was locked in a world that was a projection of my thoughts rather than truly engaging with Other Worlds.

Also, there are differences between the Otherworld(s) of our world myths and the Other Worlds of fantasy. The Otherworld(s) of our many traditions, such as Annwn, Helheim, Hades, even Heaven and Hell, are intrinsically connected with our lives in Thisworld, on this Earth, and are places where our gods, spirits, and ancestors reside. Fantasy worlds are Secondary Worlds with their own Otherworlds. They are not where we live, their laws differ, and our souls won’t go there when we die.

That is not to say those Other Worlds are not real and do not have lessons to teach us. I’ve had dreams and visions where persons from novels have appeared as real as gods. I’ve learnt more about the nature of magic from the wizards of Earthsea and Krynn than from any modern grimoire; of devotion, sacrifice, the undoing of time and space, the sundering and making of worlds.

In contrast the magic of Thisworld and our Otherworld(s) is subtle. Centuries of Christianity have cut us off from the gods and spirits of the land beneath of our feet and our immanent Otherworld(s), denying them as devils, and rationalism and science have denied their existence entirely. Thus it’s become easier to sojourn in Other Worlds comforted by the premise they are only fantasy.

The popularity of the fantasy genre is evidence for the intrinsic yearning of our souls to visit the Otherworld. How many people long to meet with gods and experience magic but don’t dare take that first step because they’re afraid of stepping outside the limits of reality imposed by rationalism?

I’m slowly beginning to perceive why Gwyn banned me from becoming a professional fantasy writer. He wants me instead to open people’s eyes to the magic of this land and of Annwn – the Deep, its hidden depths; to the voices of the gods, dragons, giants, witches, who reside there. I’m being led to fantasy writers again as visionary teachers because of their mastery of the craft of storytelling.

It is my task to create a vision of Thisworld and Annwn as beautiful, enticing, and heart-rending as theirs to entice people away from the restrictions of rationalism and the lies of capitalism to encountering the magic within the land and the Otherworld and to living lives enriched by myth.

It’s a big task. And not one I’m certain I’m able to achieve. But, like the persons in the books who continue to haunt me, I’d rather die trying to fulfil a near-impossible task than surrender to the powers who deny our gods, steal our magic, suck out our souls, thrive on us being mythless and lost.

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Caer Ochren: The Birth of Pen Annwn and the Silver-Headed Beast

The final fort which Arthur, Taliesin and their party raid in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ is Caer Ochren. Marged Haycock translates Caer Ochren as ‘Angular Fort’ (from ochr ‘edge’, side’). This name could relate to the fortresses having four corners/quarters/turrets/peaks. Ochr also translates as ‘aspect’ or ‘facet’. My working thesis is we’re looking at seven names for the same fort. Caer Ochren thus encompasses all its facets rolled into one.

Once again Taliesin berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) for their lack of knowledge of certain mysteries:

‘I don’t deserve to be stuck with pathetic men, with no go in them,
(those) who don’t know on what day the Lord is created,
(nor) when, at noon, the Ruler was born,
(nor) what animal it is they guard, with his silver head.’

Haycock draws parallels with Christian tradition. ‘What hour was he (Christ) born? As the prophet says, he came at midnight from his regal thrones’. ‘At what time of the day or night was the world made, and (at what time) will it be destroyed, and (at what time) did the Lord arise from the dead?’

However, this relies on the translation of ‘Lord’ from Pen which literally means ‘Head’. Considering the poem centres on the theft of the cauldron of Pen Annwn (‘Head of Annwn’), it seems more likely he is the subject of the riddles and they refer to the day of his creation and the hour of his birth.

This is the interpretation of Caitlin and John Matthews, who refer to ‘the conception and birth of the Chief (of Annwn)’. In an evocative painting of Caer Ochren*, Meg Falconer depicts the Chief’s face as he awaits birth beneath a snowy mound accompanied by running deer, a triskele, and slither of new moon. The text around the painting reads: ‘Caer Ochran – the cold castle under the stone – the magic beast of the silverhead – day of the kings birth.’ It seems significant the birth of Pen Annwn is linked with the last fort in the poem.

Next we come to the silver-headed animal. ‘Animal’ is translated from vil (mil) by Haycock whereas the Matthews favour ‘beast’. We find the repetition of pen (aryant y pen ‘silver head). Sarah Higley and the Matthews translate Perchen as ‘owner’, which suggests it belongs to Pen Annwn and is guarded by his people. The question of the identity of this beastie has produced a proliferation of divergent conjectures.

Robin Melrose suggests the silver-headed animal/beast is the Brindled Ox from the previous verse. The lines about the Brindled Ox are also preceded by a similar riddle about the birth at mid-day of Dwy, ‘God’ (Pen Annwn?) and it’s possible this verse echoes the one before it. An old ox could certainly be pictured with silver hairs.

An alternative theory is put forward by Marged Haycock. She says ‘Mil is understood as an ‘animal’ guarded by the monks, perhaps a riddling question referring to ‘a silver-headed crozier with a zoomorphic crook bearing a reliquary box.’

The Matthews point out ‘The animal that most commonly has silver hair on its head is an elderly human.’ They suggest this may be a kenning for Henben ‘Old Head’, an epithet of Maelgwn Gwynedd’s chief poet Henin Fardd. Further ‘the real Henben or Old Head is Brân himself.’

The mention of a silver-headed beast puts me in mind of Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’. One of his piglets is Grugyn Gwrych Eraint, ‘Grugyn Silver-bristle’; ‘all his bristles were like wings of silver, and one could see the path he took through the woods and over fields by the way his bristles glittered.’ It seems likely Grugyn inherited his silvery bristles from his father.

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur leads the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, yet lines stating the hunt cannot begin until Gwyn ap Nudd is found suggest Gwyn was the original leader. Gwyn is a candidate for the title Pen Annwn and it seems possible his people guard the silver-headed beast. An objection is the Twrch is a wild animal unlikely to be owned or guarded.

Another suggestion is the animal owned by Pen Annwn is a dog. Both Gwyn and Arawn are connected with hounds of Annwn. Gwyn owns a dog named Dormach who is ‘fair’, ‘red-nosed’ and pictured with two serpent’s tails. He could possess a few silver hairs. However it’s more likely he’d be doing the guarding than being guarded!

The silver-headed beast slips from grasp like quick-silver and perhaps that’s the key. Many animals in Celtic mythology were shapeshifters and didn’t stay the same for long. Interestingly there is no record of Arthur getting his hands on this evasive beast.

The verse ends with the refrain:

‘And when we went with Arthur, sad journey,
save seven none came back from Caer Ochren.’

The journey of Arthur, Taliesin and the other survivors is complete. It is drawn into connection with the birth of Pen Annwn. In Caer Ochren end and beginning meet. Yet the poem has not finished. Taliesin has plenty of insults left for those monks…

~

Caer Ochren

I am the end and the beginning.
Count my angles. You will never count them all
because I am spinning beyond the terminal velocity
of sight. You will never know what is behind,
beyond the walls unless you come in,
scratch the head of a silver-headed beast,
a hound beside the chair of the one who rules the fort
and has been absent half a year. How he stretches
his great jaws, unrolls himself into a serpent.
Where teeth touch tail the story ends
and begins again.

P1170370

*In King Arthur’s Raid on the Underworld. Some of Meg’s paintings can be viewed HERE.

Hoddom and Brydekirk: The Fire of the Gods Endures

St Kentigern on Glasgow Coat of Arms, Wikipedia Commons

In Jocelyn’s The Life of St Kentigern there is a story about the saint’s recall from Wales to the Old North by Glasgow’s ruler, Rhydderch Hael. Following an angelic vision, Kentigern sets out with 665 disciples and arrives in Hoddom where he is greeted by a multitude of people.

Drawing a cross and invoking the Holy Trinity, Kentigern orders anyone against the word of God to depart. This results in ‘a vast multitude of skeleton-like creatures, horrible in form and aspect’ departing from the assemblage and fleeing from sight.

Reassuring the terrified crowd Kentigern ‘lays bare’ what they believe in. He condemns their idols to the fire and tells them their principal deity ‘Woden’ from whom they claim descent is nothing more than a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is ‘loose in the dust’ whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

As Kentigern preaches faith in Jesus Christ the flat plain of ‘Hodelm’ rises into a hill which remains to this day. The people ‘renounce Satan’ and are washed in the waters of baptism.

This foundation legend explains the association of the site of the church and the graveyard beside the river Annan across from Woodcock Air (the hill) at Hoddom with St Kentigern.

Woodcock Air Hill

The Life of St Kentigern was commissioned by Jocelyn, Bishop of Glasgow, and written by Jocelyn, a monk of Furness, in the 12th century. As a literary hagiography it was clearly designed to promote the life of Kentigern (who lived in the 6th century) and vilify paganism. As a historical document it should be approached with caution, particularly in light of the anachronism concerning Woden.

Whilst there is archaeological evidence of a Northumbrian monastery based around St Kentigern’s church at Hoddom it was not founded until the 8th century. (This is evidenced by an 8th century letter sent by Alcuin to Wolfhard, Abbott of Hodda Helm). The Anglo-Saxons did not arrive until long after Kentigern died. It seems Jocelyn wove later tales concerning the conversion of Woden’s worshippers into the text.

This leaves us with the question of who the people of Hoddom venerated prior to Kentigern’s arrival. The existence of a local cult is evidenced by a Roman altar stone found in the wall of the church at Hoddom Cross and built into the porch in 1817. Unfortunately when it was found the sides could not be seen and the ‘mouldings of the capital and base’ had been ‘dressed off’. There are no clues who it was dedicated to.

However the surrounding area echoes with pagan memories: the place-names Brydekirk and Lochmaben; an altar to Vitris and a ram’s head at Netherby; the story of Gwenddolau, the last pagan Brythonic king, whose soul was gathered by Gwyn ap Nudd after he was killed at the Battle of Arfderydd. Myrddin Wyllt’s flight from Arfderydd in battle-madness to Celyddon.

Intrigued and troubled by the story of Kentigern’s conversion of the people of Hoddom, wondering whether between the lines and beneath the Hollywood-style Biblical pyrotechnics any ‘truths’ (or at least personal gnoses) about their pagan religion may be intuited from the land, I returned to the area North of the Wall.

Walking from Ecclefechan to Hoddom, the first thing that struck me was the teeming of nature in the Scottish villages and fields. Flocks of spotted starlings on the roofs and telephone wires. Droves of sparrows flitting in and out of the hedgerows. The un-mowed roadsides were alive with flowers and every flower was covered with bees. Slick black slugs wandered through long grasses. I felt an unusual liberty in ‘the right to roam’.

Hoddom CrossMy first stop was at the church at Hoddom Cross. Roofless and derelict due to a fire, ivy climbed its walls and mausoleums. Ferns and wildflowers pushed through the railings to adorn older graves marked by sandstone gravestones. Newer graves with shiny porcelain headstones adorned with freshly wrapped bouquets glimmered in the background.

Something birch-white caught my eye. Going to investigate I found myself blinking in disbelief. In a Christian graveyard a couple of miles from any village I was staring at what to all appearances was a carving of a white dog with a purposively painted red nose. Dormach red-nose! I thought immediately of Gwyn ap Nudd’s famous hound who accompanies him as he guides the dead to the otherworld.

Admittedly it had antler-like twigs for ears and might have been a representation of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. But why carve it white from birch? It looked far more like a dog and a hound of Annwn at that. Too strange a find in a graveyard to be pure coincidence when I was tracing the deity(s) associated with the Roman altar (which I did not see).

River AnnanAfter visiting the ‘new’ church I walked to St Kentigern’s graveyard at Hoddom across the Annan from Woodcock Air. Watched over by a tall fir (or pine?) tree it was blissfully overgrown with ferns, yarrow, willowherb, bee-humming knapweed, decorated by harebells.

St Kentigern's Graveyard

Wandering amongst the gravestones I noticed carved images of skulls and crossbones and remarkable winged souls which a notice recorded as ’18th century folk art’. So here are Kentigern’s skeletons, I thought, unbanished. Symbols of death and our transition to the otherworld living on through years of Christian rule.

From the vantage point on Woodcock Air as I looked down on St Kentigern’s graveyard the sandstone gravestones shifted into brown-clad people. I gained a sense of the slowness of lives decanted by prayer, steady seasonal work in the fields, the slow turning of cart wheels, the satisfaction of self-subsistency and knowing you would die and be buried in your land close to your community.

St Kentigern's Graveyard from Woodcock AirAnd beneath the Northumbrian monastery did I gain a sense of St Kentigern’s church? The scene of conversion? The deity(s) to whom the ‘idols’ were dedicated? The ‘truth’ felt buried deep. Momentarily seeing the raised area where the church stood as a burial mound I thought back to Jocelyn’s words about ‘Woden’ being a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is in the dust whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

Could these words be read obliquitously to refer to a deified ancestor or ancestral deity believed to live on in the brightness of the world beyond this world? Perhaps even to Gwyn who as a psychopomp and leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ is Woden’s closest Brythonic equivalent?

BrydekirkI also had the opportunity to visit Brydekirk. Intriguingly Ronald Cunliffe Shawe claims Gwenddolau worshipped ‘Woden’ and ‘a fire goddess’. His reference leads to the passage about Woden in The Life of St Kentigern. I can’t find anything mentioning a fire goddess. However Gwenddolau’s worship of such a deity would make perfect sense if Brydekirk is named after Bride or Brigid. Brigid was later venerated as St Brigid and her priestesses tended an eternal flame.

At the church I was told by one of the parishioners it was indeed named after St Brigid of Ireland. I also learnt St Bryde’s Well was a natural spring and was gifted with an indispensable description of its location.

My walk to the well down the Annan then alongside fields was accompanied by a curious herd of cows who followed peeping out through gaps in the hedge. Their strange behaviour led me to recall the story of how St Brigid was raised by a white cow with red ears: another otherworldly animal.

CowsThe area surrounding St Bryde’s Well was hopelessly overgrown with brambles, nettles and Himalayan Balsam. With the guidance of the parishioners I still couldn’t find it. Ready to give up I saw what looked like a pink veil. I first assumed it was a votive offering marking the spring. When I got closer I realised it was a balloon strung with pale gauze. Another extraordinary marker that proved to be no mere coincidence.

Turning round, I noticed a water dispenser and beyond heard running water. Seeing a rivulet at the bottom of a steep bank running into the Annan, I followed its course to find a small stream leading to the natural spring pouring from amongst mosses and ferns into an orangey circular basin: St Bryde’s Well.

Across the river I also visited the remains of St Bryde’s tower. All I found was a single flight of steps climbing upward into the fire of the sun. Could this has have been a stairway walked by Brigid’s priestesses who maintained her eternal flame?

St Bryde's TowerI returned to Penwortham with no clear answers about how or whether St Kentigern converted the people of Hoddom or what they experienced and believed. Such ‘truths’ can only be conjectural and are always determined by our questions, assumptions and  beliefs.

What I gained was a deeper understanding of how our physical and literary landscapes interweave. How sign and signified lead the dance of a journey which is led by the gods who lead us to places where all distinctions break down in the numinosity of their presence.

At Hoddom and Brydekirk I met a myriad inhabitants of a northern land and I met Gwyn and Bride (who I know here in Lancashire as Brigantia) in new ways. I learnt that within the land and its stories and even in the most depredatory of Christian texts the fire of the gods endures.

The lump of my ‘workshyness’ and wanting to change the world

“I want to change the world.”

I state my desire to my deity in meditation at 7am aware as I do so of the rest of the world getting up, feeding the cats, walking the dog, jamming down breakfast, starting the car and joining the endless chug of exhaust fumes to offices and retail centres.

I’m not going to work today. My statement is laden with guilt. As I’m not working and have the luxury of sitting in meditation I feel driven to make my focus changing the world which forces so many other people into mind-numbing meaningless jobs:

sitting in call centres 9-5 Monday to Friday wired up to head phones trying to sell double glazing and insurance;

cleaning the crumbs and greasy handprints off the computers and desks and emptying the bins spilling sandwich and crisp wrappers of the people selling double glazing and insurance;

taking complaint after complaint about benefit fraud and dealing with the pettiness of complaints regarding people claiming to have had a heart attack or to be suffering from depression daring to go outside in the garden or take a walk.

I’m speaking from experience. I’ve done all these jobs: call centre, cleaner, benefit fraud hotline. I’ve also been a chamber maid, shelf-stacker, packer and administrative assistant. I’ve done what is necessary to support my study and later my writing and performing but never managed to stick such jobs because they conflict with what I really want to do.

It’s a vicious cycle and not one I can escape by earning money from my vocation. It’s extremely rare I get paid for my writing and performances or facilitating workshops. Occasionally I sell a book. My yearly income would barely keep me for a month.

If I lived in Nazi Germany I would no doubt be classified as ‘arbeitsscheu’ ‘workshy’ and incarcerated in a concentration camp. Horribly across the UK a similar phenomenon is recurring as people on disability benefits due to physical or mental illness are being reclassified as fit for work. In many instances this has led to suicide.

I’m lucky as I’m not forced to work full-time because my parents put me up. I’m not too ill to work at the moment but I have suffered from anxiety and depression (and still do on and off) and know soul-destroying jobs unfailingly grind me down to tears and hopelessness.

My desire to write goes first. Then my ability to commune with nature and hear the voices of the gods. Meaning and purpose swiftly departs and with that any reason to be alive. If I didn’t have the back-stop of my parents’ home and their support I don’t know what position I’d be in or if I’d be here at all.

Which is why I want to change the world. I want to live in a world where the life of every individual is intrinsically valued. Not this world where a person’s value is determined by their capacity to work in a meaningless job supporting an economy which benefits only the rich and is destroying the earth and human society. A world epitomised by the small-minded vindictiveness of someone who despises their job grassing up the person unable to work because of their depression for taking a walk.

Realistically I don’t possess many qualities suited to changing the world. I’m impractical, illogical and socially inept. I beat myself up continuously because I’m not cut out to be an activist or legislator. Attempting to take a stand on environmental issues at local council meetings I stumble on facts and figures and get the names of councillors wrong to smothered laughs. Unlike some people who buzz off social situations I find them draining and buckle quickly under pressure. I feel like a spare part at protests.(Although I still attend local meetings and protests and will continue to).

What I am good at is poetry and myth. Not the first places you’d look at a time when the greatest need is for manufacturers of pikes, rioters to wield them and thinkers who can traverse the lies and double-speak of parliament with the grace and dexterity of an otter.

Is there anything more useless to this world than a poet? I can think of nothing more useless and could not find a way out of my feelings of uselessness this morning when I dumped the statement of my desire to change the world like a lump of plasticine unformed and unceremoniously at the altar of my god.

Within this monstrous cacophany of thoughts you’re probably wondering whether he got a word in edgeways.

Gwyn ap Nudd’s a King of Annwn: a master of visions and glamoury renowned for his interruptions of hunting horns and a hundred hounds howling on otherworldly winds with a chill to stop one’s heart, his shining beauty and cauldron full of stars.

Today he’s silent. All I see is a depth of indigo and at its edges the melee of my thoughts rattling their pikes. Then further into the deep other pike rattlers throughout the ages who have stated the same desire albeit probably not to Annwn’s King.

Gwyn’s half-smile creases the indigo like a wave. Rattling through the ages comes the answer: there’s no easy solution.

I’m angry. That was not the answer I wanted to hear. I want to throw the ugly unformed plasticine lump of “I want to change the world” out of the window or into the deep.

Sensing my wish curious voices rise. Restless spirits reach forward to examine the plasticine with what may be hands or serpentine tails or wings. I get the impression they want to take it and mould it in their world.

Now it comes down to it I’m not sure I want to give my lump to them. I clutch it close to me. It’s my lump. My problem. My burden. What’s more I want to be seen carrying it and I want to be in control.

They prise it from my fingers. Hold it up to the starlight shining from the seas of Annwn. I see it for what it is. A desire in itself authentic but baked clumsily in the crucible of work and workshyness to the chant of uselessness and guilt. They dive with it back into the deep still indigo.

My guilt and uselessness dissolve and I realise they stem from taking on the values of a system set on devaluing all religion that it cannot harness for political control and all art that does not beg to the custodians of the establishment or market itself as mass entertainment. A system founded on the destruction of mytho-poetic worldviews.

I catch a glimmer of the Awen in what the system needs to keep destroyed. No easy solution but I see what I need to do.

I speak farewell to the lump of my ‘workshyness’ and wanting to change the world.

I assert the value of myth and poetry and the value of a poet ‘useless’ and ‘workshy’.

I pour a libation for Gwyn, the spirits of the deep, the pike-wielding ancestors and walk in trust with a pike in my hand to change the world.

***

*This piece was written yesterday and was provoked by two excellent articles on contemporary political issues: one by Brian Taylor ‘Austerity Watch, Cut to Death‘ and one by Mark Rosher ‘Living with Madness‘ and an awful article condemning ‘otherworldy polytheism’ by John Halstead ‘If It Doesn’t Help Me Save This World, I Don’t Want Your Polytheist Revolution‘.

The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid

I journeyed for weeks
through mist and hunger
to find the split rack of her bones,
bones stripped, flesh burnt
and boiled in the cauldron,
blood drained and bottled in two jars.

I plundered the ashes where the cauldron stood,
sniffed for blood where the jars were filled.
Played maracas with her bones,
made intricate arrangements,
chanted and sung
but could not raise her ghost.

“She is amongst the spirits of Annwn now,”
spoke the god I called instead.

“Lay her bones to rest. In the fire of poetry
console her burning spirit.”

***

I’m laying her bones to rest. The Last Witch of Pennant Gofid. Her name was Orddu. It meant ‘the Very Black Witch’. Whether she had black skin, black hair or used black magic seem irrelevant now. All that is left is her scapula split in twain, her shattered pelvis, two arms, two legs, her broken skull. Jagged shadows in two orbits retrieved from either side of the cavern.

Her bones are still. I am angry and restless. I cannot abide the story of her death. How Arthur came as he always did into every story every world every myth with his hatred of witches: sword slung over his shoulder like a sundered lightning bolt, a living knife in his hilt, a shield on his thigh adorned with an image of the Virgin Mary, aboard a huge mare.

Caw of Prydyn behind him a giant with a curling beard and the damned jars like heinous milk bottles on each side of his saddle; half a man in size, well-stoppered, thick-glassed, unbreakable. Then the retinue with spear and shield, tawdry banners and flags.

Following to stragglers’ jeers Hygwydd the servant staggering bow-legged bent-backed beneath the gigantic cauldron that brewed food for the brave. Hygwydd’s brother Cacamwri with Hir Amren and Hir Eiddil dragging ponies piled with saddle-bags of food and weapons.

At Arthur’s right Gwythyr ap Greidol, a gristled war-lord with fire and a hundred bloody campaigns in his eyes. A blazing passion. And to Arthur’s left Gwyn ap Nudd, the guide who tricked and dizzied their quest cloaked in mist summoning his hounds to eat the fallen from the mountainside.

Of the host who went to Pennant Gofid only a fragment reached the cave where Orddu plaited her black hair, blackened her skin with war-paint, fastened down her helmet. Sharpened her sword then set it aside like an afterthought. Cracked her knuckles and flexed her talons.

When Arthur blanched a voice mocked from the mist “if you’re scared, witch-killer, why not send your servants in instead?”

Arthur pointed Hygwydd and Cacamwri toward Orddu beckoning. She grabbed Hygwydd by the hair, dragged him to the floor, threw off Cacamwri’s assault, arrested their weapons, beat them out bloody and bruised. Arthur sent Hir Amren and Hir Eiddil in to be crushed in her wrestling hold, torn by her talons, beaten out with broken bones. Arthur fumbled for his knife.

“Why are you afraid, Christian warlord?” Orddu asked. “Far from home. Far from heaven. Do you remember I trained your northern warriors? Without my wisdom, gifts from our gods, they will be nothing but bickering chieftains with a lust for gold and immortality that will bring Prydain’s downfall?”

Overcome by fury Arthur threw his knife in a wrathful arc that sliced down through Orddu’s helmet through her ribs. Dropped to the floor as she fell aside in two halves screaming “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” as the mist writhed and the hounds of Annwn howled.

When her twitching halves lay still Caw filled the bottles with her blood still warm and jammed down the corks. They stripped her of armour and flesh. Boiled a merry meal. Stole her sword. Left with a cauldron filled with northern treasure whilst her spirit watched aghast in the misted arms of Gwyn ap Nudd.

***

I cannot abide the story of Orddu’s death. How Arthur came as he always came into every story every world every myth with his hatred of witches with his living knife to put an end to wild recalcitrant women. Now I’ve laid it to rest I’ll share another story instead.

I shall tell what this fatal blow and the blows on the Witches of Caerloyw cost Prydain (“Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!” “Prydain will fall!”). Not only the fall of the Old North and the Men of the North. The rise and fall of the British Empire (it had to needed to fall). But the splitting and bottling of magical women for over a thousand years.

Draining of our blood. Boiling of our flesh. Testing if we float. Gave us The King James Bible and The Malleus Maleficarum. Took away our prophecies and visions, gods and goddesses, our fighting strength. Gave us virginity and chastity belts. Cut us off from plants and spirits, rocks and rain, rivers and mist, otherworlds.

Over a thousand years on we are but shadows of ourselves. Mirrored pouts tottering on high heels. Watching ourselves on selfie-sticks. Worshipping televisions. Still split in half, bottled, boiling, floating, banging to get out.

Not long ago I split the jars. Escaped to another place. Wandered my estate kissing Himalayan Balsam. Watching Ragwort sway with wasps. Mugwort flowering like coral. But this was not enough. Gods and fairies walked to the world of the dead and called me after them. Since then I have seen the dead walk in the bright eye of the sun.

I could not go back to the jars. To glass windows and tower blocks. To numbers on computer screens. The pencil skirts of offices. To fracking rigs threatening to break both worlds.

So I came to Pennant Gofid searching for answers and companionship on my lonely path. Found only Orddu’s bones and the god who took her spirit. Yet found a link in spirit with a companion and a god in the magical tradition of the Old North.

***

So I constructed a fire of poetry and spoke my words of consolation:

“Orddu Last Witch of Pennant Gofid
know you are not the last
to walk these paths
to caves and mountain ranges,
through otherworlds and distant ages,
seeking visions of the present
the future and past.

The rule of Arthur has fallen.
Though Prydain still falls
we have broken the jars.
Our blood is no longer contained
by the tyrants of Arthur’s court.
We are winning back our flesh.
Our magic. Our strength.

Remembering our gods.
Know your life will be remembered
where there are prophecies and hailstorms,
rain and rivers, caves and heresy,
in the mists of Gwyn ap Nudd
where your spirit burns
forevermore.”

Then I took her bones in my rucksack and crawled through to a dark chamber. On a little shelf beside Orwen ‘the Very White Witch’ I laid Orddu’s bones to rest.

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Gwyllon: ‘Wyllt-ness’ and the Healing Power of Art

Barrow Mound, Fulwood

The wight whose footsteps I heard
imprinted on my cold soul,
the cold marrow of my bones.
He walked in soul as his bones laid still
and my soul reached out to him:
another one of the gwyllon.

The glimmer of fairy lights.
This place secluded and so still.

Fulwood Barrow MoundSometimes you stumble somewhere and forget yourself. No longer breathing. In the time of the gods. You hear the footsteps of a deity. Not your deity. But one connected with him.

***

In the mythology of ancient Britain, Gwyn ap Nudd (a ruler of Annwn and guide of the dead) is intimately connected with ‘gwyllon’: madmen, wildmen, wraiths, who through some traumatic experience have become ‘outside themselves’, open to the otherworld, ‘wyllt’.

The most famous is Myrddin Wyllt. Myrddin is a golden-torqued warrior of the court of the northern British ruler, Gwenddolau, who becomes wyllt after the Battle of Arfderydd; a conflict between Brythonic kinsmen renowned for its carnage and futility.

Looking across the battlefield, stricken with guilt because his sister Gwendydd’s sons are amongst the dead, Myrddin sees an unendurable brightness and martial battalion in the sky. It seems possible this is Gwyn (‘white’ ‘blessed’ holy’ from Vindos or Vindonnus ‘white’ ‘clear light, white’) and his host: the spirits of Annwn and the war-dead, approaching to gather their kindred to the otherworld.

‘Torn out of himself’ by one of these spirits, Myrddin flees to Celyddon (the Caledonian forest). He wanders there ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon’. These gwyllon are ‘seven score men’ who also fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished.

Similar cases are found in The Triads of the Island of Britain: ‘Tri Gwyd Ellyll Ynys Brydein’ ‘Three Wild Spectres of the Island of Britian’. The notes state ‘ydellyll’ (for ‘gwyd ellyll?’) ‘occurs in the Gododdin in reference to furious activity in battle’ and could relate to tales of men who become wyllt as a consequence of war.

What makes Myrddin’s story unique is his recovery. Amongst wild creatures of the forest; a piglet, a wolf and a favourite apple tree he undergoes a healing process through which he learns the art of poetry and uses it to prophecy against future bloodshed.

***

Cyledyr Wyllt possesses an entirely different story. In Culhwch and Olwen, after Gwyn abducts Creiddylad, his rival Gwythyr ap Greidol raises an army of northern men to win her back. Amongst them are Cyledyr and his brother, Pen, his father Nwython and his great grand-father’s brother, Gwrgst Ledlwm. If Gwrgst is still living this means Cyledyr must be in his teens.

Gwythyr and his army attack Gwyn. My intuition is this attack represents a raid on Annwn. Gwyn triumphs over Gwythyr and the northern men and takes them prisoner. During their captivity he kills Nwython and feeds his heart to Cyledyr, who goes mad. The etymological links between Cyledyr and Celyddon suggest that, like Myrddin, he flees to the forest.

Gwyn’s motive for torturing Cyledyr is never explained. Did he do it from fury? For vengeance? Did he have some darker purpose in feeding a young man his father’s heart? Could this have originated from some arcane rite of the past whereby the strength of one’s ancestors was conferred by eating their flesh, of which Gwyn makes a mockery?

Another question worth asking is ‘Did it happen at all?’ The historical Nwython is recorded to have died in his bed.

It seems possible Cyledyr’s fevered recollections result from the effects of unbidden entry to Annwn, the battle between Gwyn and Gwythyr’s forces and time spent in prison on an impressionable young mind. Whilst Cyledyr is telling this story Nwython could be anguishing over the unknown fate of his son. Whether Cyledyr recovered from his trauma or died in Celyddon remains uncertain.

***

Another story I believe features Gwyn (as the King of Fairy) and a human ruler who becomes wyllt is Sir Orfeo. This begins when the Fairy King abducts Heurodis, Orfeo’s wife. Driven wyllt by grief, Orfeo abandons his sovereignty and departs ‘like a beggar’ for the wilderness where his only solace is playing his harp, which brings joy to the wild creatures.

After ten long years Orfeo finally finds a way into Fairyland. After travelling sunlit green plains and hunting grounds he comes to the Fairy King’s glass palace. Therein he makes a terrible discovery: ‘Folk long thought dead… as living found’ headless, armless, torn, ‘with dreadful wounds’, ‘full-armed on horses’, strangled, drowned, burned, wives laid in child-bed ‘stolen out of life’: those ‘the fairies seize and keep’. Heurodis lies amongst them.

These images represent a little-known truth, rarely made explicit in Brythonic mythology: the beauty of Fairyland is founded on the horror of death. The knights and damsels of the Fairy King’s hunt who feast in his hall number the war-dead, murder-victims, women who have died in labour.

Heurodis is amongst them because when the Fairy King took her whilst she slept beneath an orchard tree she died or became comatose or catatonic. Such superstitions can be traced through Brythonic fairylore to earlier beliefs about Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn conveying souls to the otherworld.

This knowledge does not prevent Orfeo from entering the Fairy King’s hall and playing his wondrous music. The King is so moved he offers Orfeo anything he wants. Of course, Orfeo asks for Heurodis. He brings her back to this-world where the pair are re-united in sovereignty.

This story shows how Orfeo gains his ability as a musician from his period wandering wyllt and that hard-won art has the power to move the gods, to sing the souls of those held captive in Fairyland back to this earthly home.

***

These myths represent the experience of becoming wyllt at the outermost limits of human experience. The ‘wyllt-ness’ of Myrddin and Cyledyr results from battle trauma. Cyledyr’s battle trauma is exacerbated by his unwarranted entry into Annwn, imprisonment in the ‘not-world’ and real or imagined torture by Gwyn.

Orfeo’s story differs slightly. His wyllt-ness results from loss. His time spent wandering the wilderness provides him with the strength to survives his gnosis of the terrible truth at the heart of Fairyland and Heurodis’ fate to win her back and return to his seat of rule.

Key to the survival of becoming wyllt is the power of art. For Myrddin and Orfeo giving voice to their trauma and to the powers of nature who surround and console them is an essential part of the healing process. It is possibly because he does not discover art that Cyledyr remains wyllt. This may also be the case for the other gwyllon who lapsed into madness and perished.

These stories contain lasting significance for modernity where art and nature therapy are recognised as powerful means of helping victims of war and loss.

***

Later folktales represent a variety of different encounters with and responses to Fairyland. In most we find the recurrent themes of wyllt-ness and art. People who meet fairies, stumble into or are taken to Fairy invariably become ‘dead, mad or poets’. My personal experiences with Gwyn and his realm bear stronger resemblances to these tales.

Glastonbury TorIn the year 2000 at Glastonbury Festival (long before I knew the name of the mysterious god of the Tor) I had a vision of what I recognise now to be Fairyland which left me shocked, stunned and profoundly questioning the nature of reality.

My quest for an explanation led me through a dangerous combination of drink, drugs, all-night dancing and all the texts of the Western European philosophical tradition, deeper into madness, to the brink of an abyss where I was faced with the choice of life or death.

Unable to choose either I was confronted by three beings I now recognise as ellyllon (‘fairies’ akin to gwyllon). What followed was equally beautiful and perturbing and put an end to the pain of having to make that choice. My experiences left me half-wyllt, wandering between life and death, plagued by anxiety and panic attacks and put a temporary end to my vision-quest.

After giving up my philosophy PhD, I spent four years working with horses. During this period of re-connecting with the land, the seasons and the animal world, working hard and thinking little, I underwent a return to nature that bears a little analogy to the flight of the wyllt to Celyddon.

When I met Gwyn and put a face to the god who governed the magical landscape I haphazardly intruded on at Glastonbury Festival twelve years ago, my initial terror was edged by relief. I finally knew the source of the calling to the otherworld that had haunted me for as long as I can remember. Gwyn became my patron and I his awenydd: ‘person inspired’ or ‘poet’.

***

In the contemporary world where poetry, let alone pagan poetry, is rarely acknowledged or valued the path of the awenydd is not an easy vocation. Deep gnosis of nature and Annwn and its deities necessarily places one outside the bounds of ordinary experience; makes one wyllt, other. With Celyddon gone there is no wild and wooded place of retreat outside the norms of society where gwyllon can flee and gather in company.

Yet in the shaded spaces of our localities where trees still stand and that great forest stood before it walked to Scotland centuries ago we can commune with the gwyllon of old and find unison with the gwyllon of today. Sharing can also take place in the green nooks and crannies of books, in the pubs and cafes and wooded stages where we perform and on the internet. In our stories we find camaraderie.

In a world becoming increasingly superficial where we are losing touch with the deep knowledge our ancestors held to help those touched by the wyllt-ness of Fairyland be it through trauma, loss, enchantment or some silly mistake, we have never had a greater need for the stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and the gwyllon. For the healing power of art.

Castle Hill from Fairy LaneSOURCES

Bromwich, Rachel (ed) The Triads of the Island of Britain (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Bromwich, Rachel and Evans, Simon D. (eds) Culhwch and Olwen (University of Wales, 1998)
Davies, Constance ‘Classical Threads in Orfeo’ The Modern Language Review, Vol 56, No 2, (Modern Humanities Research Association, April 1961)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Friedman, John Block ‘Eurydice, Heurodis and the Noon-Day Demon’ Speculum, Vol 41, Vol 1 (Medieval Academy of America, 1966)
Hunt, Edward Eyre Sir Orfeo (Forgotten Books, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Thomas, Neil ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’ in Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwallog ap Lleenog: One Brother Dies and the Other Lives On

In The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyn states his presence at the death of Gwallog ap Lleenog ‘From a long line of princes / Grief of the Saxons’. Gwallog is a descendant of Gwyr y Gogledd ‘The Men of the North’. His descent on his father’s side is recorded in the Harleian Genealogies. ‘[G]uallauc map Laenauc map Masguic clop map Ceneu map Coyl hen.’ This places him amongst the lineage of Coel Hen (Old King Cole).

More importantly within the context of my research on Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North, Gwyn, Gwallog and Caradog are mentioned as half-brothers through their shared descent on the maternal side from Tywanwedd in Descent of the Saints. Tywanwedd is the daughter of Amlawdd Wledig, a Welsh prince who may have ruled on the border of Herefordshire.

These three brothers appear again in an entry in Peniarth MS 132: ‘Gwyn ap Nudd greiddyei (?) ap Lludd. He went to Llew ap Llyminod Angel. He went between sky and air. He was brother to Caradog Freichfras and Gwallog ap Lleenog. He and they had the same mother.’

Between Sky and Air
Between Sky and Air

In Geraint son of Erbin Caradog, Gwallog, Gwalchmai and Owain son of Nudd appear alongside Arthur as ‘guarantors’ of Edern son of Nudd after he is mortally wounded by Geraint. Caradog and Edern appear together as Arthur’s ‘counsellors’ in The Dream of Rhonabwy. This brings to light further familial links.

It is of great interest to note that if Tywanwedd is Gwyn’s mother, this places him in the same lineage as Arthur (Arthur’s mother was Eigr daughter of Amlawdd) and Culhwch (Culhwch’s father was Goleuddydd, son of Amlawdd): the three are first cousins (!).

However, Peter Bartrum argues due to Gwyn, Gwallog and Caradog’s ‘disparate nature’ in ‘character, place and time’ it was more likely their mother was a fairy like Gwyn. Considering Gwyn is a god whose worship as Vindos / Vindoroicos / Vindonnus can be traced back to the Romano-British period it seems clear she must also have been divine: a goddess who, like Gwyn, may later have been perceived as a fairy.

As within Brythonic mythology there is a long tradition of relations between deities and mortals, often bearing offspring (for example Owain Rheged’s parents were Urien Rheged and the goddess Modron, mother of Mabon) it seems possible the story behind Gwallog’s birth was that his father, Lleenog, slept with a fairy woman. Perhaps one of her guises was Tywanwedd, and as Tywanwedd she seduced Lleenog?

The story of Gwallog’s birth from a fairy woman provides some fascinating insights into the continuity of pagan beliefs within a northern British society that was nominally Christian. It also supports my growing intuition that Gwyn, his father (and now his mother) were viewed as ancestral deities by the Britons of the Old North, Wales and beyond.

***

Gwallog’s kingdom is traditionally Elmet. This is derived from Ifor Williams’ translation of lines in The Song of Gwallawg ap Lleenawg where Gwallog is named ‘a judge over Elmet’. Bede speaks of ‘silva elmete’ (‘the forest of Elmet’) saying ‘subsequent kings made a house for themselves in the district, which is called Loidis.’ Loidis is Leeds and place-name evidence suggests Elmet covered West Yorkshire.

Further evidence Gwallog ruled Elmet comes from Nennius’ History of the Britons. He tells of how Edwin of Northumbria ‘occupied Elmet and expelled Certic, king of that country’. Certic is usually identified as Ceredig, Gwallog’s son.

Gwallog’s renown as a war-leader is evidenced by the Triads, where he is named as one of three ‘Pillars of Battle’, ‘Bull Protectors’ and ‘Battle-Leaders’ of Britain. According to Nennius he was amongst four kings; Urien, Rhydderch the Old, Gwallog and Morcant, who played a leading role in defending the north against the Bernician Angles. Whilst some scholars assume Nennius refers to an alliance between the four kings, Tim Clarkson believes he refers to separate campaigns and these northern rulers were as likely to have been enemies as allies.

Whilst the existence of an alliance is impossible to prove or disprove we know Morcant ordered Urien’s assassination at Aber Lleu (opposite Lindisfarne) and Gwallog fought either with or against the sons of Urien Rheged ‘Gwallach, horseman of battle, planned / to make battle in Erechwydd (Rheged) / against the attack of Elphin’ following Urien’s death.

In two poems attributed to Taliesin we find further evidence Gwallog fought just as ferociously against other Brythonic war-lords as against the Angles and Saxons. In The Song of Llenawg, Taliesin lists battles in Agathes, Bretrwyn, Aeron (a river in Ceredigion), Arddunion, the wood of Beit, Gwensteri and the marsh of Terra. He also mentions a cattle raid and conflict ‘At the end of the wood of Oleddyfein, / From which there will be pierced corpses, / And ravens wandering about.’

In The Song of Gwallog ap Lleenawg, Taliesin says Gwallog ‘rejected uniform ranks of the rulers, / Of the hosts of Rhun and Nudd and Nwython’. This shows he battled against other well-known northern rulers. He is finally described as ‘king of the kings of tranquil aspect’ over Caer Clud (Dumbarton, capital of the kingdom of Strathcylde), Caer Caradawg (the location of one of three ‘perpetual harmonies’ of the Isle of Britain) and the land of Penprys (Powys?). It seems he subjugated a number of other kings.

In The Black Book of Carmarthen we find an enigmatic poem called A Song on Gwallawg ab Lleenawg which refers to how Gwallog lost an eye in his youth. He is said to have lost it to an ‘accursed tree’ which appears thrice: as ‘black’, ‘white’ then ‘green’. In another variant he loses it to a ‘white goose’.

That Gwallog and his battles are so well remembered suggests this fearsome one-eyed warrior was known across Britain during his time and centuries later. Whilst his exploits are celebrated by the Bards I can only imagine his opponents and the ordinary people must have lived in dread of being caught up in the conflicts or ordered to fight.

Sadly we have no records of how anybody outside the ruling classes viewed Gwallog. However in the poem about how he lost his eye we may find reminiscences of a folk tradition. One can imagine gatherings around the fire whereby beery speculations led to a plethora of ‘how Gwallog lost his eye’ songs.

***

The only record I have been able to find which may relate how Gwallog met his end is in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain. He refers to Guallauc of Salisbury who dies fighting against the Romans in the Battle of Saussy (France). Whether this is ‘true’ and whether Gwallog and Guallauc are the same person remains uncertain.

In The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyn tells Gwyddno he was present at Gwallog’s death. Within the context of Gwyn’s rulership of Annwn and role as a psychopomp, I assume he appeared to guide him to the land of the dead. The knowledge that Gwyn and Gwallog were half-brothers adds a whole new dimension to this scene and to their relationship. Gwyn was not only acting as a guide of the dead to a celebrated warrior but to his kinsman.

Gwyn also mentions his presence at Llachau’s death. Llachau is Arthur’s son. If Tywanwedd was Gwyn’s mother, this makes them cousins once removed. Again he gathers the soul of a relative.

At the end of The Conversation, Gwyn laments that he is alive whilst the warriors of Prydain (Britain) are slain and in their graves. Knowledge of Gwyn’s ancestral connections with these men provides a deeper understanding of why he chooses to recite their names to Gwyddno and particularly grieves their fall.

Because Gwyn is a god of Annwn whose role is to guide and contain its spirits until the world’s end, he is fated to witness the deaths of his mortal and semi-mortal kindred as he lives on.

Cotton Grass, Winter HillSOURCES

Bartrum, Peter A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000 (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Bromwich, Rachel (ed) The Triads of the Island of Britain (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Clarkson, Tim The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (John Donald, 2010)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Heron (transl) Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Monmouth, Geoffrey of The History of the Kings of Britain (Penguin Classic, 1973)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)