Daronwy – The Prophetic Oak

Daronwy Long 300

I. The Oaken Warrior

In The Book of Taliesin there is a prophetic poem titled ‘Daronwy’. Taliesin poses the question ‘Py pren a vo mwy; / No get daronwy?’ ‘What tree is greater / Than he, Daronwy?’

Dar is an alternative form of derw ‘oak’. Thus Daronwy is an oak tree. Pren ‘tree’ or ‘wood’ is also a figurative term for a warrior and its fluidity is the key to understanding Daronwy’s nature. In medieval Welsh literature warriors are often referred to as trees and even plants. In The Gododdin the combatants are called ‘trees of battle’ and ‘battle-leeks’. The army of Brân the Blessed is seen as a marching forest in ‘The Second Branch’ and Gwydion enchants trees to do battle against an army of ‘herbage and trees’ led by Brân  in ‘The Battle of the Trees’. Thus Daronwy is both tree and warrior.

In Triad 26 Daronwy is referred to as ‘one of the Three Great Oppressions of Mon’ along with Palug’s Cat and Edwin, king of Lloegr. This suggests he was located on Anglesey and may have been a tree who local people believed had the capacity to come to life and fight on notable occasions.

He perhaps gave his name to the township and stream Dronwy (formerly Daronwy) in North-East Anglesey. Other place-names derived from Daronwy include Daron in Llyn, Darowen near Machynlleth, and Darwen here in Lancashire. They may all once have had their own Daronwy stories.

II. Thundering Prophecies

Additionally, John Williams notes thaty daran is a ‘servile form’ of taran ‘thunder’. Thus ‘dar’ signifies both ‘oak’ and ‘thunder’. The thundering voice of derw ‘oak’ is mentioned in ‘The Battle of the Trees’: Derw buanwr: / racdaw crynei Nef a llawer.’ ‘Oak swift of shout: / Heaven and Earth trembled before him.’ This fits well with the image of Daronwy as a great oaken warrior.

Another word that derives from dar is darogan ‘prophecy’. This is significant because oaks are linked to thunder gods and their prophets across Western Europe. At Dodona the priestesses of Zeus prophesied by the sounds and movements of the leaves and branches of the sacred oaks. There were oaks on the Alban Mount where Jupiter was worshipped and at Praeneste where he was reverenced with his mother (who is elsewhere seen as his daughter) Fortuna whose oracle prophesied with oak rods. Donar’s Oak, sacred to Thor, in Hesse, was sadly cut down by Saint Boniface in the 8th century.

The term ‘Druid’ originates from derw and gwydd ‘knowledge’, suggesting that the Druids gained wisdom and prophetic insights from their relationships with oak trees. In ‘The Battle of the Trees we find the lines: ‘Derwydon, doethur, / daroganwch y Arthur!’ ‘Druids, wise men, / prophesy Arthur!’

Unfortunately there are no direct references to our Gallo-Brythonic thunder god, Taranis, having a sacred oak. However, in his Natural History (77-79), Pliny speaks of the Gaulish Druids sacrificing two white bulls in an oak grove. Bulls were sacred to Zeus and Jupiter and a white bull was sacrificed to the latter during the feriae in the Capitol. Thus it seems likely this sacrifice was to Taranis and that the Druids, like the prophets of Zeus and Jupiter, practiced dendromancy in oak groves. That they communed with Daronwy whose thundering voice was one with the thunder god’s.

III. The Oak Between Two Lakes

Taliesin goes on to say: ‘Yssit rin yssyd uwy – / gwawr gwyr Goronwy; / odit a’e gwypwy.’ ‘There is a secret which is greater – / the radiance of Goronwy’s men; / it is a rare man who knows it.’ Marged Haycock suggests the name Daronwy may mean the ‘oak tree of Goronwy’. The identity of Goronwy is a question of debate. Possible candidates are Goronwy, who hung Roger de Pulesdon during the Anglesey revolt in 1294, and Goronwy ab Ednyfed, who led king Llywelyn ap Grufudd’s troops to triumph against the Marcher Lords in 1263. I suspect Goronwy may be an older mythic figure.

Haycock says it’s possible the name derives from Gronw Befr. An oak is central to the story of the rivalry between Gronw and Lleu Llaw Gyfes in ‘The Fourth Branch’, yet it is far more intimately connected with Lleu than with Gronw. Gronw is the lover of Lleu’s wife, Blodeuedd. Together they plot to kill Lleu, who can only be killed with a spear crafted for a year every Sunday when people are at mass and ‘cannot be killed indoors nor out of doors… on horseback, nor on foot’. Blodeuedd tricks Lleu into enacting the only position in which his death is possible. Lleu stands with one foot on a billy-goat and the other on a bath tub with an arched roof over it and Gronw strikes with the spear.

The wounded Lleu departs in eagle form to an oak ‘between two lakes’ in ‘a valley’ (Llyn Nantlle Uchaf and Llyn Nantlle Isaf in Nantlle). This tree occupies a liminal position and possesses magical qualities: ‘Rain does not wet it, heat no longer melts it.’ Lleu’s wound turns rancid. As flesh and maggots fall from him they are eaten by a great sow. The sow leads Lleu’s uncle, the magician god, Gwydion, to him. Gwydion sings Lleu down from the oak with a trio of englyns and nurses him back to health.

IV. The Lightning Tree

In Lleu’s story we find two liminal images which may have their origin in pre-Christian traditions. The conditions of Lleu’s death distantly echo the story of the infant Zeus being dangled on a rope from a tree so he was was suspended between earth, sea, and water, thus invisible to his child-eating father, Cronus. It is also of interest that Jupiter Dolichenus, a thunder god worshipped throughout the Roman Empire between the 2nd and 3rd centuries, including here in Britain at Vindolanda, was depicted holding a lightning-rod, standing on a bull, and accompanied by an eagle. The strange, parodic, and slightly pathetic image of Lleu on his billy-goat and roofed bath tub may derive from these.

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Lleu’s ascent in eagle-form to the oak following his spear wound contains echoes of Odin’s sacrifice of himself to himself on Yggdrasil, the World Tree,where an eagle sits in the highest branches, to gain the knowledge of the runes. And the fate of Jesus, pierced by a spear on the holy rood – a wondrous and sentient tree. Lleu’s ritual death and rescue by Gwydion, who sings him down from the heights, to the middle, to the bottom of the oak, contains elements of shamanic initiation.

It also seems significant that Lleu’s ability to kill Gronw with a spear results from his initiatory experience. Lleu is cognate with the Irish Lugh who possesses a lightning-like spear. Oak is renowned for being a tree that attracts lightning and mistletoe was believed to be produced by lightning and thus to contain its magical qualities as a gift from the thunder god. For this reason the cutting of mistletoe from an oak, along with the slaughter of the two white bulls, was part of the Druid ritual shared by Pliny. It seems that Lleu won his lightning-spear and, perhaps, also the lightning-like inspiration of prophesy from the thunder god whilst in bird-form in Daronwy’s branches.

Lleu’s associations with the lightning tree suggest it was not connected with his darker rival, Gronw. It seems the identity and stories of Goronwy, who may be referred to by Taliesin in the lines, ‘now no-one visits me but Goronwy from the water-meadows of Edrywy’, have been lost in the mists of time along with the great secret of the radiance of his men. Perhaps this was the lightning-like battle-skills and prophetic inspiration gained by initiates of the mysteries of Daronwy?

IV. The Fruitful Wand

The following lines, which mention Mathonwy, who is referred to in ‘The Fourth Branch’, add strength to the argument that Daronwy is associated with Lleu’s epiphany:

Hutlath Vathonwy,
ygkoet pan tyfwy,
ffrwytheu rwy kymrwy
ar lan gwyllonwy.

Mathonwy’s magic wand,
when it grows in the wood,
promotes fruits/successes
on the bank of the Gwyllonwy.

Mathonwy is the father of Math, who is the uncle of Gwydion. Math uses his own magic wand to punish Gwydion and his brother, Gilfaethwy, for plotting the rape of his footholder. He turns them into boars, deer, and wolves, alternately male and female, who mate with each other and bear offspring.

Lleu is ‘born’ as a ‘small something’ dropped by Arianrhod after the sturdy yellow-haired boy Dylan when she steps over Math’s wand. He is raised by Gwydion who takes the role of foster-father.

The hutlath ‘wand’ or ‘staff’ is essential to Mathonwy and his descendants for the arts of magic and enchantment. As these lines appear in a poem dedicated to Daronwy it seems likely their wands were made of oak and channelled the lightning of the thunder god. Perhaps by this power Math and Gwydion brought Taliesin and Blodeuedd to life, respectively from the seven elements and the blossoms of oak, broom, and meadowsweet, and Gwydion enchanted the trees to battle against Brân’s army.

The image of the wand growing in a wood is a fascinating one that works on many levels. Here it regains its life as a tree, bearing fruit, both literally and metaphorically. Haycock notes that, in the Christian tradition, ‘Aaron’s rod (sometimes equated with the rod of Moses)… put forth buds, blossoms and ripe almonds… this miraculously flowering staff of Scripture was connected typologically with the incarnation of Christ, and its wood with both the Tree of Life and Christ’s Cross.’

V. The River of Madness

The location of the wand ‘on the bank of the Gwyllonwy’ is also significant. This river-name derives from gwyllt, which means ‘mad’, ‘wild’ and ‘spectre’. Throughout the Celtic tradition there are many instances of people becoming gwyllt or geilt in the Irish language. One of the most famous is Sweeney Geilt, who becomes geilt and takes bird-form after being cursed for murdering a psalmist:

His brain convulsed,
his mind split open…
His fingers stiffened,
his feet scuffled and flurried,
his heart was startled,
his senses were mesmerized,
his sight was bent,
the weapons fell from his hands
and he levitated in a frantic cumbersome motion
like a bird of the air.

It may be suggested that when Myrddin Wyllt becomes gwyllt after murdering his son and daughter at the Battle of Arferderydd he takes the form of a merlin before retreating to the forest of Celyddon. The experience of becoming gwyllt gives Myrddin his powers of poetry and prophecy.

Suffering trauma, becoming gwyllt, taking the form of a bird and taking to the trees are common motifs in Celtic literature. This is exactly what happens to Lleu. It may thus be suggested that the wand/oak is located ‘on the bank of the Gwyllonwy’ because this river represents the stream of gwyllon, of those who have become gwyllt, living and dead, who have received initiations in the trees.

V. Daronwy – The Brythonic World Tree?

The centrality of Daronwy, the prophetic oak, in the epiphany of Lleu suggests he may have been seen as the Brythonic World Tree. The image of the wounded Lleu in eagle-form receiving lightning-like inspiration from the thunder god in his upper branches whilst down beneath the great sow (who may be the goddess Ceridwen, who takes the guise of a black tailless sow on Nos Galan Gaeaf) devours the rotten flesh and wriggling maggots of his former being is a powerful one.

Perhaps it is because Daronwy was associated with initiatory rites and prophetic wisdom along with sacrifices to the thunder god that he was viewed as an oppression. I wonder whether such rituals were viewed as giving power to the oak, who could be invoked as a warrior for strength in battles, who might come to life with a marching forest of oaken warriors to the aid of his people at times of need?

Daronwy Wide

*With thanks to Greg Hill for passing on Marged Haycock’s translation of ‘Daronwy’, which is cited here.

SOURCES

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Arthur Bernard Cook, ‘Zeus, Jupiter and the Oak’, The Classical Review, Vol.17, No.3, (1903)
Diego Chapinal Heras, ‘Between the Oak and the Doves: Changes in the Sanctuary of Dodona Over the Centuries’, Simple Twists of Faith, (2017)
James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, (Oxford World’s Classics, 2009)
John Williams, Gomer; or a Brief Analysis of the Language and Knowledge of the Ancient Cymry, (Hughes and Butler, 1854)
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Marged Haycock (transl), Prophecies from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2013)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray, (Faber & Faber, 2001)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)

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.

The Brightness beyond Endurance: Gwyn ap Nudd and the Battle of Arfderydd

In my waking dream spears pierce the night sky opening onto another night filled with rainbows and blinding stars. Battle cries ascend from black fog. In a stained glass window I glimpse a man with a hunched back in a green and mossy gown departing from a picture into darkness. From these images I derive my research on Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North should begin with the Battle of Arfderydd. This is an account of my initial findings and thoughts to date.

The Battle of Arfderydd haunts Britain’s consciousness as one of three of the most futile Dark Age battles. It took place in 573 and was fought between Brythonic rulers of the Old North; Gwenddolau ap Ceidio and his cousins Gwrgi and Peredur ap Eliffer. All were descendants of Coel Hen. Thus it epitomises the internecine strife that prevented northern rulers from putting up a successful resistance to the Angles of Northumbria.

The Triads of Ancient Britain tell us it was fought over a lark’s nest. This probably refers to Caerlaverock (‘Lark’s Fort’) on the site of which still stands a stunning medieval castle. It is generally believed the Battle of Arfderydd took place on the plain between Liddel Water and Carwinley Burn. It is possible the motte and bailey named Liddel Strength was the location of Gwenddolau’s fort. After Gwenddolau was killed, his war-band retreated to the fort and held out for ‘a fortnight and a month’ before their defences fell and they too were slain and (according to a local tradition) buried near Upper Moat.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.’

That Gwenddolau adhered to a pre-Christian mythos featuring Gwyn as a god who gathered the souls of the dead to Annwn is hinted at by certain lines in the Triads. Gwenddolau is referred to as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of Britain. Gwyn himself is referred to as a ‘Bull of battle’. Contrary to popular belief, Celts and not Vikings wore helmets affixed with bull horns. The bull was viewed as a sacred animal and its qualities were attributed to war leaders and psychopomps. It is also of interest ‘Gwyn’ and ‘Gwen’ both mean ‘white’ or ‘blessed’.

Gwenddolau is also said to own a pair of birds who wear a ‘yoke of gold’ and devour two corpses of the Britons for dinner and two for supper. If the latter is an oblique reference to funerary practices whereby bodies are left on stone slabs for their flesh to be consumed by carrion birds this shows Gwenddolau and his people were not performing Christian burials. The northern Britons may have believed Gwyn’s presence as a gatherer of souls was signalled by the approach of corpse-eating birds (or dogs or wolves). Gwenddolau’s birds may have had a permanent position in this role.

Another striking passage which may read as a portrayal of Gwyn’s presence at the Battle of Arfderydd with the spirits of Annwn can be found in The Life of St Kentigern. Here, Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) tells the saint of a vision which drove him to madness in Coed Celyddon (the Caledonian Forest):

‘In that fight the sky began to split above me and I heard a tremendous din, a voice from the sky saying to me ‘Lailocen, Lailocen, because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan, and until the day of your death you will have communion with the creatures of the wood. But when I directed my gaze towards the voice I heard, I saw a brightness too great for human senses to endure (my italics).

The Brightness beyond EnduranceI saw, too, numberless martial battalions in the heaven, like flashing lightning, holding in their hands fiery lances and glittering spears which they shook most fiercely at me. So I was torn out of myself and an evil spirit seized me and assigned me to the wild things of the woods, as you see.’

It seems possible the introduction of the voice of God and angels of Satan are a Christian cover for the appearance of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn. Gwyn’s earlier name Vindonnus ‘clear light, white’ links him to the unendurable brightness. As a god of thresholds; between the worlds and life and death, experiences of his presence take place on the edge of human sense. Hence Lailoken / Myrddin’s transition from ‘sanity’ to ‘madness.’

The battalions in the sky look more like warriors than angels. The notion that the spirits of Annwn include deified ancestors arriving to take their fallen kindred fits with their numinous apparel. These spirits are frequently demonised by Christian writers. That an ‘evil spirit’ (ie. a spirit of Annwn) tears Lailoken / Myrddin ‘out of himself’ and assigns him to the wildwood is a significant factor in his flight and later recovery.

In the saga poetry of The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest we witness Myrddin’s transformation from a golden-torqued warrior of Gwenddolau’s court into a poet who prophecies against war. Myrddin shares harrowing depictions of ‘the blood-shed of battle’ and his guilt about the deaths of Gwendydd’s children. Whether he is literally responsible for killing them or feels responsible is uncertain.

‘Now Gwendydd loves me not and does not greet me…
I have killed her son and daughter.
Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?
For after Gwenddolau no lord honours me.’

He mourns Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I have seen Gwenddolau, a glorious prince,
Gathering booty from every border;
Beneath the brown earth now he is still,
Chief of the kings of the North, greatest in generosity.’

Myrddin also speaks of his flight from ‘Rhydderch Hael, defender of the Faith’. Rhydderch was ruler of Alt Clut and renowned for championing Christianity and his patronage of St Kentigern. Myrddin’s words have led some scholars to believe Arfderydd was fought between Pagan (Gwenddolau) and Christian (Rhydderch) forces. After Gwenddolau’s death Rhydderch rises to greater power, forming an alliance with Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Mercant Bwlc against the Angles at Lindisfarne.

During this period Myrddin retreats to Celyddon, keeping the company of wild creatures such as wolves, a piglet and a favoured apple tree. He states he has wandered ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon.’ Myrddin’s epithet ‘gwyllt’ means ‘mad’ or ‘wild.’ ‘Gwyllon’ can refer to ‘madmen’, ‘wildmen’ or to ‘spirits’ or ‘shades.’ They may be equated with the ‘seven score men’ who fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished. These gwyllon are ancestral presences; spirits of Annwn.

Myrddin’s capacity to see the spirits of Annwn may result from his vision of the brightness beyond endurance. Whilst initially it tips him over the edge, it confirms the existence of Gwyn and his spirits and an afterlife. This provides him with the strength to live through suffering; ‘Snow up to my hips among the wolves of the forest, / Icicles in my hair’ until his ‘threefold’ death. Myrddin says ‘After enduring sickness and grief in the Forest of Celyddon / May I be a blissful man with the Lord of Hosts.’ (In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn is referred to as ‘Lord of Hosts’.)

Associations between Gwyn and healing processes that take place in the wild also appear in a fourteenth century Latin manuscript called Speculum Christiani: ‘Some stupid people also stupidly go to the door holding fire and iron in the hands when someone has inflicted illness, and call to the king of the Benevolent Ones and his queen, who are evil spirits, saying ‘Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for the love of your mate allow us to come home.’

Myrddin’s vision also grants him the power of prophetic poetry. It is noteworthy that this former warrior uses poetry to give voice to the horror of warfare and to warn against future bloodshed. A critical attitude toward war differentiates the saga poems from earlier heroic poetry. We might recall similarities between Myrddin’s ‘Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?’ and Gwyn’s ‘I have been where the warriors of Britain were slain / I live on; they are dead’. Both are laments.

Unfortunately, the northern British stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and Myrddin Wyllt and the deep, wild wisdom they contain are little known in contrast to the courtly Christian tales of King Arthur, Merlin and his knights. For a medieval aristocracy later bent on Crusades; ‘One King, One God, One Law’ there was no room for a northern wild man and his words against war or the ruler of an otherworld and ancestral presences immanent in the wild places of this-world. Perhaps this can be changed…

***

SOURCES

Blake, William The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Anchor Books, 1988)
Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
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/
Hunt, August The Arthur of History: A Reinterpretation of the Evidence (August Hunt, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rudiger, Angelika H. ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: Transfigurations of a character on the way from medieval literature to neo-pagan beliefs’ in Gramarye, Issue 2 (University of Chichester, Winter 2012)
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)

Lady of the Oak

I leave the shelter of the grove ducking beneath twisted hawthorn branches. The trees weave the entrance closed behind me. Rain hits my face, falling from a heaven of relentless grey. Reading the sky’s grimace I wonder what has been seen.

A crow caws his warning. Sprinting toward me up the hollow way I see a young man, legs a blur of blue white checkers and feet a splash of mud and leather. Hair slicked to his head, his dark eyes flicker with awe and wariness. The first dapples of a beard play across his chin like leafy shadows.

“M-my Lady of the Oak,” he stammers pulling up.

His breathless chest heaves beneath a sodden tunic. It is rare for youths to approach me without an elder. Looking more closely at my gnarled face his eyes widen in dawning horror. “Bad news travels from up river. A Man of the Oak wishes to speak with you.” He runs away in a flurry of muddy feet.

I follow down the hollow way heedless of the downpour weighing my cloak for the damp of the air already resides deep within my bones. Looking east, rain drenches the green hill, our sacred headland, and the greener barrow housing our ancestors. The torrent’s drumming beat strikes bubbles across the marsh land. As I walk onto the wooden pad way the reeds hiss like snakes. Decay bites my throat. The steely cast of the river of shining water reflects the glumness of the sky.

In a canoe roped to the jetty my cousin Drust sits hunched in his robes. I question what he is doing here, alone.

The river’s song answers. Her visions flood my mind. I see the battle at the ford of roaring water. Broken chariots, tribesmen slaughtered, the hero light vanishing from their eyes like fleeing stars. The eagle standard flies high, reflected in the crimson river. Seeing the pale flicker of their separating ghosts I speak a prayer for the souls doomed to return to a land where they no longer belong.

Sorrow chokes me like bile. I vomit it in anger at Drust, “what are you doing here, when your clan are dead?”

Drust looks up, yet his face remains hidden by his cowl. “I am taking the remnants of our traditions and our gods to the island across the sea.”

I laugh, a throaty brittle sound like twigs twisting and snapping. “Gods are not like saplings, to be taken away and re-rooted and traditions are not nurtured by foreign soils. It seems the ideas of the invaders have penetrated more deeply than I imagined.”

Drust tenses. Drawing my knife from its leather sheath I lean down and slice the rope tying his canoe to the jetty. The river sluices him west and out to sea.

The wind carries enemy voices. Reflected in the falling droplets I see swords and plumed helms. Slipping on the wood and slithering up the hollow way I reach the grove and beg the hawthorns for passage. A peace of ancient green breaks over me, like I’m sinking into a bed of moss. Beneath the canopy’s protective shadow I believe myself safe until tumult disturbs the roots. Crows caw, anticipating carrion.

I cross a sea of acorns and approach the grove’s mighty king. Putting my arms around his trunk, I press my face to the rough bark. “Brother Oak, let me see into the future.”

My heartbeat merges with the pulse of rising sap. My feet become roots reaching downward through damp soil to the outer edges of the grove. My arms stretch into branches and split, bearing bunches of lobed leaves nourished by the hidden sun, washed by the rain, flourishing green.

The ground shudders at the march of soldiers, galloping hooves and chariot wheels. Battle cries are hollered. Bows hum to the crash of metal. Screams and groans rock me. I taste blood and its bitterness fills me.

Earth and water shift as ditches are cut, fields plundered to feed the enemy. Ancestral ghosts clutch my twigs shrieking of their barrow torn down and a temple built to a foreign god. I moan at the ache of rot softening my flesh, bowing and creaking as my branches snap and innards hollow. I beg for lightning’s merciful release but there is no answer from the clouds of sorrow.

“Brother, let me return,” I speak. “The tribe need my support in their defeat.”

I ease back from the oak as the hawthorns scream and turn to see branches broken, shredded leaves and burst haws at the sandaled feet of a man dressed in a plumed helmet, iron breast plate and red woollen tunic. His eyes are blue, skin tanned by the sun of a hotter land. Brandishing a sword stained with blood and sap he accuses me of witchcraft, of sacrificing innocents to divine the future from their death throes.

I smile. The man freezes in horror. I draw my knife and mustering all my oaken might I drive it between the iron plates and slice open his stomach, spilling his guts upon the grass. Attempting to gather them in like rope he drops twitching and groaning to his knees.

I read the future of his people and their empire from his pulsing entrails.

Kneeling, I pick up a handful of blood soaked acorns and address my brother, “do not fear. Whilst tribes and empires rise and fall, the steady strength of oak will conquer all.”

Oak, St Mary's graveyard, Castle Hill