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"Awen yn codi o'r cudd ac yn cydio'r cwbl"
- Waldo Williams
(Awen arising from hiding and everything binding)

W J Gruffydd : Poet, Literary Critic, Mythographer

What it actually says on the gravestone of W J Gruffydd (1881-1954) is ‘Athro, Bardd, Llenor’ which indicates that he was a teacher, a poet and a man of letters. Why I have put it slightly differently in my heading will become apparent in what follows. He was initially a teacher, at first in a school and later in a university where he developed a career as a scholar. He published several volumes of poetry. His activities as a man of letters included his long-standing editorship of the Welsh literary journal Y Llenor and he was throughout his life an active player in the literary politics of Wales. But my characterisation of him as a mythographer is based on the perhaps surprising fact that, in his work on the texts of the medieval Welsh tales known as Mabonogi, he chose specifically not to write about them primarily as works of literature, but attempted to look behind the literary texts to reconstruct the mythology contained in the oral tales from which the literary texts were shaped. In his study of the First and Third Mabinogi tales, Rhiannon (1953) he states that his main concern is to reveal the “pure mythology … of the divine beings of the ancient world” rather than their “cultural significance” in the folklore and legend which embodied them and was in turn embodied in the work of literary creation by a single individual which became Y Mabinogi.

It was not only that he wanted to distance the literary text from its sources in oral tales and folklore, but that he also wanted to separate the elements of native lore and legend from the “Universal Myth” which he saw as the ultimate source: the story of the  Great Mother and her child who is taken to the Otherworld and is later released. The literary tale, by contrast, has many other aspects, not least the artifice of the single creator who shaped it. But if he attempted a separation of anthropological and literary features in his role as a mythographer, he was also capable of fusing mythic themes into his own literary creations. Here is my translation of his poem ‘Y Tlawd Hwn’ which provides a mythical background to the chief literary aim of presenting an individual whose poverty does not deny him the riches of his visionary gift:

One Poor Man

Because the wind was troubled for a time

And the sound of weeping in the beating of the rain

An insinuating echo of affliction in resounding rhyme

Ringing through his soul again and again,

The heave of the distant ocean on a quiet evening

Affirming intimations from generations before

And the babble of the rivers awakening

The anguish of all the suffering that he bore —

He went, struck dumb, into a silent reverie

As his companions withdrew one by one

Leaving him to dwell in a great mystery

To listen to strange voices all alone.

He perceived beauty while his brothers

Called God’s curse upon foulness of the world,

He refused their pathway to Heaven

For the echo of enchanted pipes, barely heard 

And the murmur of bees in the vineyards of Arawn

Heavy under honeyed dew on the valley bed

And hidden nectar of the dwellings that abound

In the golden ramparts of Caer Siddi overhead

Where he could feast in halls before his burial

And listen to the choir of Rhiannon’s birds sweetly

Singing through the entrances of pearl

Out to the oblivion of the eternal sea.

That was written in 1930 when he was nearly 50 years old. It’s form and structure is a development of his early inspiration by the romantic verse of the late nineteenth century. It also reflects his belief in the importance of the sensitive individual, from whatever class, who turns away from the commonplace concerns of the world to nurture an inner life. The same belief can be witnessed in a poem in the full romantic style written when he was a young man. The sonnet ‘Gwerful Fychan’ tells of a young woman in the 15th century whose poems had survived chiefly in the oral memory of North Wales rather than in the written record. Gruffydd’s imagined portrayal of her has as much to do with mythic reconstruction of local legend as it has to do with literary history. In the words of one critic it is based on  “common belief rather than facts”[*]. But whatever it tells us about its subject it reveals much about Gruffydd’s idealisation of the gifted individual and the fragile temporality of the riches which come from having such a gift. Here is my translation of the sonnet:

Gwerful Fychan

In the spring of her days she saw the freshness

Of the world dancing past; on every crest

There was a crown of roses, and careless tresses

Lay soft and easy on each blessed breast;

On the breezes the scents of musk and wine

And intoxicating perfumes were concealed;

A thousand kisses ripened on lips divine

And every heart the joys of life revealed.

She took up her harp then to declaim

It all in song — her summer burgeoned,

Distilled the sun, the dew, the rain —

In immortal and audacious verse; then turned,

With a tear on her cheek, away from all delight

And walked bereft into the darkness of the night.

The Welsh texts translated from:

W. J. Gruffydd Detholiad o Gerddi. Golygwyd gan Bobi Jones (Caerdydd, 1991)

(*) “y gred cyffredin yn hytach na’r ffaith” ( Bobi Jones in the notes to the volume above).

Artio to Arthur - The Path to Caerleon


As well as being a poem which presents the landscape of Britain using Welsh words as signifiers, The Sleeping Lord presents a landscape which contains the 'Sleeping Lord' of its title not simply in the traditional legendary sense of him lying asleep somewhere beneath it awaiting the hour of need for his return, but as the poem's concluding series of questions has it:


Are the slumbering valleys

                                him in slumber

                                are the still undulations

the still limbs of him sleeping?

Is the configuration of the land

                                the furrowed body of the lord

are the scarred ridges

                                his dented greaves

do the trickling gullies

                                yet drain his hog-wounds?

Does the land wait the sleeping lord

                                or is the wasted land

that very lord who sleeps?


This represents Arthur very differently from the view of him as the Romano-British 'Director of Toil' in the fight against Saxon invaders, different even from the early Welsh representation of him as the chief of a band of adventurers who interact with giants, witches and magical  adversaries. It is in absolute distinction to the 'king' of later medieval romance. Rather it presents him as a chthonic embodiment of the land itself, sleeping not beneath it but as the land sleeps in winter or when it is 'wasted'. In other parts of the writing, particularly in the central section, set out as prose rather than verse, Arthur's legendary attributes are evoked. But in both the beginning and the end of the piece he appears as the land itself: "his bed deep on the folded strata". Yet this is a poisoned land, wasted in ways that even a Brythonic warrior cannot have imagined:

Is the Usk a drain for his gleaming tears

who weeps for the land

who dreams his bitter dream

for the folk of the land

does Tawe clog for his sorrows

do the parallel dark-seam drainers

mingle his anguish-stream

with the scored valleys’ tilted refuse?

A similar, though more briefly sketched, view of Arthur in this light also appears in the shorter fragment 'The Hunt', based on the boar hunt in Culhwch and Olwen: "was he riding the forest-ride or was the tangled forest riding?". There is a quite startling development of this when it is suggested of "the bleeding man in the green", as he turns to meet the riders who follow him and their eyes meet, that "it would be difficult to speak of so extreme a metamorphosis", as if only then does his humanity return.

This is the ground of his being. In spite of his own attachment to the Christian mythos, David Jones suggests, in a long essay on 'The Myth of Arthur’,(1) that Arthur’s origins might be found not in a defender of Romanitas, but farther back in an Iron Age bear goddess. His appellation of Arthur as 'the Bear of the Island' conflates this sense of him as a warrior of wild-animal ferocity (a common feature of heroic poetry) with a sense of his origins as an actual bear deity. The discussion of him in the essay references Gaulish inscriptions of a male bear god Artaius and a female deity Artio and suggests that the bear might have been a totem animal for the earlier Gaulish tribes and that "the hero god may later have become associated with Arthur the man-hero". He notes that there are other precedents for agricultural deities becoming gods of war, and that this was so for the early development of the Roman Mars. A bronze statue of the goddess Artio was much more recently shown in the exhibition 'The Celts' which toured Britain a few years ago. It has the inscription 'To the Goddess Artio, dedicated by Licinia Sabinilla'.


What is particularly interesting about this statue  is that the exhibition catalogue notes that the human figure is a later addition and that the statue was originally just the bear figure (2). The assumption is that the addition occurred when the statue was acquired for use in the Romanised Gaulish villa where it was found. This suggests that the original statue reflected an earlier practice of representing the deity in animal form, but that this was unacceptable to the romanised individual who acquired it so the human figure was added. The statue was found in northern Gaul. Inscriptions to the male god Artaius are recorded mainly in the south which was romanised earlier. One reads  "to Holy and August Artaius".(3) Was there a male and female pair of bear deities or, as David Jones suggests, did one develop into the other? A shift, that is, from female to male and then on from animal to humanised deity.

If so, how might a bear goddess and god, recorded in epigraphy and iconography in Gaul, become the Arthur of British tradition? Clearly bear deities did not fit well with the tendency of the Romans to assimilate Celtic deities to their own pantheon, but these bear deities are attested and did survive Romanisation, at least for a time. So when a heroic figure resisting the Saxons is commemorated in the ninth century Welsh-Latin Historia Brittonum with the same  'Arth-' (bear) stem to his name, and as such a name is not common, it is worth asking where this name might have come from. It also  the case that the name Arthur is attached to a figure in early folklore in Welsh which feeds into such literary manifestations as the tale Culhwch and Olwen, an Arthurian story which predates the appearance of Geoffrey of Monmouth's shaping of Arthur in his 'History'. Surveying early Arthurian literature in Welsh, O J Padel has written; "the Arthur of local legends and magical animals is the dominant one until the 12th century, when the military one becomes prominent". (4) This early Welsh Arthur was a leader of a group of rugged and often themselves magical individuals rather than a 'king'. Padel compares them variously to Robin Hood's band and the Fianna under Finn in Ireland. In this context it is easier to see how such a view of the emergence of Arthur from a bear deity, and such a representation of him as the Green Man or a chthonic Sleeping Lord, begins to make sense.

Arthur's continuing presence in folklore as a giant should also be borne in mind, as should the legend that his wife Gwenhwyfar was the daughter of a giant. This view of him seems to have easily survived his translation to the king of medieval romance and seems to be persistent from earlier traditions. It is reflected in many landscape features such as 'Arthur's Seat', suggesting a giant-sized occupant; there are many cromlechs, other megaliths and large rocks citing Arthur in their name or with a legend connecting him to them. Other members of Arthur's retinue such as Gawain are also credited with gigantic stature(5).  In Culhwch and Olwen the ‘chief giant’ Ysbaddaden Pencawr says that Arthur is one of his men although he is helping Culhwch to fulfil the task that Ysbaddaden has set for him. It is easy to see how a folklore giant who becomes human might later be portrayed as confronting or otherwise dealing with giants. Arthur's dog is called Cafall (horse) making it a suitable sized dog for a giant.

All of which underlines the metamorphic nature of mythic narratives, legends and folk memory. Though contexts and forms of representation might change, the underlying figure remains. The sequence "Bear - Goddess - God of the Soil - God of Weapons - Romano-British General - Christian King..." (6) suggests that we make what we will of what has come down to us from the storehouse of our mythic life. It’s a long way from bear deity/giant/chthonic-sleeper to the ‘Dux Bellorum’ of Roman Caerleon and then on to the ‘king’ of medieval romance.  Many accretions have been accumulated on the way. The task, then, to conclude with David Jones: “ ... is to make significant for the present what the past holds  ..... this is the function of genuine myth, neither pedantic nor popularizing, not indifferent to scholarship, nor antiquarian, but saying always ‘of these that thou hast given me have I lost none’.” (6)



 All verse quotations from David Jones The Sleeping Lord (Faber, 1974)

Other references:

  1. David Jones  ‘The Myth of Arthur’ in Epoch and Artist (Faber, 1959)
  2. CELTS : Art and Identity Exhibition catalogue (British Museum, 2015)
  3. Inscription from Beaucroissant CIL 12, 02199, referencing Mercury together with Artaio dedicated by Sextus Genius Cupitus
  4. O J Padel Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature  (University of Wales Press, 2000)
  5. William of Malmesbury mentions an outsize grave of Gawain in the 1120’s. Many references to Arthur as a giant also occur in Chris Grooms The Giants of Wales/Cewri Cymru (Lampeter, 1993)
  6. David Jones ‘The Myth of Arthur’ in Epoch and Artist (Faber, 1959)

David Jones' The Sleeping Lord - A Bilingual Poem?

Is it possible to write a bilingual poem? I don't mean a poem with an accompanying translation by the poet, but one that is written in one language but contains elements of another language embedded in it. Nor am I even thinking of a situation where a writer inhabits a fully bilingual culture and can depend upon both languages being understood by readers of the poem, as, for instance, a poem written mainly in Welsh but containing words or phrases in English.  I want to look at an example of the reverse of that situation: a poem written in English but containing words and phrases in Welsh and published for a readership that includes many with little or no knowledge of the Welsh language.  To write such a poem is both a creative endeavour, exploring the limits of bilingual expression, and a statement of cultural affiliation, placing the poem within a tradition that has its main expression in the Welsh language. A poem which sets out to do this is David Jones' The Sleeping Lord. Much of his writing incorporates elements of Latin as well as Welsh into the main language of English. But parts of The Sleeping Lord contain a density of Welsh words that begins to convey the impression of Welsh as the poem's paralanguage and main tonal register. 

One of David Jones earliest interpreters, his friend René Hague, expressed reservations about this aspect of his poetry: "His ingenious use of Welsh words as though they had some magical quality reminds one of the Saxon invader in The Anathemata who will "Latin runes tellan....." [1]  Another interpreter, Roland Mathias, offers a lengthy rebuttal of this claim in general terms with better understanding of the Welsh context, but does not offer a specific analysis of the linguistic issues.[2]  It is not that the structure of the language used is Welsh. The words used are almost all nouns or short noun phrases. They are often placed in the text so as to take the primary stress both in passages of verse and in passages of prose. So, in The Sleeping Lord,

It is the great ysgithrau of the Porcus Troit that have stove in the wattled walls of the white dwellings, it is he who has stamped out the seed of fire,  shattered the pentan-stone within the dwellings; strewn the green leaf-bright limbs with the broken white limbs of the folk of the dwellings, so that the life-sap of the flowers of the forest mingles the dark life-sap of the  fair bodies of the men who stood in the trackway of the long tusked great hog, y twrch dirfawr ysgithrog hir. [3]

In terms of the number of words the use of Welsh here is not great. But  Welsh words carry the  English sentence's simple base structure and foregrounded subject: 'It is the the great ysgithrau of the twrch dirfawr that has done this'. The foregrounding of important imagery is a characteristic strategy of David Jones' visual  art as well as his writing. marking points of symbolic detail in a tangle of variety that is the whole.  Here the figure of the legendary hog stands out from the text with the vividness of similar foregrounded figures in his paintings. Seen in this way the use of the Welsh words is as much a matter of technique as it is of cultural affiliation, or rather the two are wedded in a way that René Hague's comment indicates that he was oblivious to. 

Elsewhere in the poem Welsh occurs with Latin in long lists or, as below, in a series of reference points in the natural landscape:

and the resistant limbs

of the tough gnarled derwen even

lean to all the briary-tangle

that shelters low

in the deeps of the valley-wood

the fragile blodyn-y-gwynt.

And the wind gusts do not slacken

but buffet stronger and more chill

as dusk deepens

over the high gwaundir

and below in the glynnoedd

where the nentydd run

to conflow with the afon

where too is the running of the deer

whose desire is towards these water brooks.

It is quite true that words are used here, as Hague puts it "as though they had some magical quality". It is also, perhaps, possible to understand why some might not appreciate their function of making the fine detail of the natural landscape specific to a particular place, though it seems to me that, however artful their placing here, they vividly capture that natural landscape in a way that English words would not, and so form the natural ground of the artifice of the poem. Those responding positively to the full resonances of these very specific landscape indicators will not object to Hague's ascription of magical qualities to them. But his "as though" seems strangely wide of the mark. To the reader without some knowledge of Welsh they may appear 'runic', and some have appreciated them at that level. But this characteristic is removed, even for the English monoglot, with careful reading and an easily acquired familiarity with the meanings of the words. Such a reader will be able to follow the rhythms of the lines, taking in the richness of their specifity. It is the skill with which they are woven-in that will appeal, as much as that they stand out. David jones worked assiduously at the careful placing of significant words and would have taken particular care with these Welsh words to ensure their effect and that they were correctly used. The words themselves came to him not because he was in any way a fluent speaker of Welsh, but as a result of his extensive reading and his attempts to learn the language. He told the poet Vernon Watkins: "When I write these names in the stuff I've tried to make they come naturally because by accident I've for long been interested in what they signify in English translations." [4]

If they also have an incantatory function this is consonant with the author's view of works of art as things "made over" to the gods, giving them a prayer-like function. It is also meant to evoke a complex of associations both with the landscape and with ancestral cultures of the Island of Britain. But he also had a sense of the inherited presence of these cultural references ebbing away. He never expected all of his readers to understand Welsh, but he did hope that the references to Y Twrch Trwyth, Rhiannon, Ceridwen and other names might mean something in the way that references to Classical or Biblical mythology are more commonly used in order to convey the range of associations that go with the act of their naming. In one sense this seems to be a different issue from the use of Welsh words or phrases other than proper nouns. But the act of naming is an attempt at resonance. Using the Welsh word for oak tree (derwen), the fragile wood anenome (blodyn-y-gwynt), meadowland (gwaundir) and streams (nentydd) running into the river (afon) names all the markers of landscape in Welsh giving way only in the final line to 'water brooks'. The English narrative fills in the details of the Welsh scene, the still remaining features of Ynys Prydain inhabited now by speakers of English but the landscape itself singing 'yma o hyd' (still here).

So Welsh words form an outline that is inevitably filled-in in English. They represent an attempt by a writer with little Welsh but that he was able to acquire by extensive reading to firmly identify with the language and its associated culture as well as to affirm the continued presence of the historical roots of that culture in the landscape. One finds no such attempt by many of his near contemporaries among the English-language writers of Wales, although many of them came from Welsh-speaking backgrounds. A fair sprinkling of Welsh place names may appear, or an occasional short quotation in Welsh at the head of an English text, but nothing like the structural reinforcement of English sentences with Welsh substantives that we find in the work of David Jones.


This post is adapted from a piece I wrote in the journal 

Materion Dwyieithog/Bilingual Matters 2, 1990 pp.7-9 



[1]  René Hague (ed) Dai Greatcoat (Faber, 1980) p.24

[2] Roland Mathias  A Ride Through the Wood (Seren, 1985)

[3] David Jones The Sleeping Lord  (Faber, 1974)

[4] David Jones (ed. Ruth Pryor) Letters to Vernon Watkins (University of Wales Press, 1976)

AFALLENNAU : Myrddin in the Wildwood

The oldest of the verses in The Black Book of Carmarthen are thought to be those telling the story of Myrddin Wyllt, particularly the Afallennau sequence, and within that those that tell of his life in the Caledonian Forest. These are framed by verses containing prophecies which, according to A O H Jarman, were later additions fulfilling the political purpose that prophesies often did in the Middle Ages. Jarman distinguishes these prophetic verses from the earlier ‘mythological’ verses which he thinks may have been attached to a lost saga telling Myrddin’s story (*). 

There is another sequence of verses telling the same story in the manuscript known as Peniarth 3. Some of these verses are the same as those in the Black Book, some are different, and they are in a different order. Ifor Williams dates the Peniarth verses earlier than those in the Black Book but also suggests that they come from a different source (**). This implies a lost original with multiple variations of which only two survive, though they may also have given rise to other sequences such as the prophetic verses contained in the ‘Prophecies of Myrddin and Gwenddydd’ in The Red Book of Hergest. Gerald of Wales, writing before the Black Book verses were copied, also claims to have seen a manuscript containing Myrddin’s prophecies in Nefyn in North Wales. (***). 

Clearly this material was shaped and re-shaped for different purposes in the Middle Ages. The verses below are the result of my own re-shaping, partly based an earlier one I wrote about the Battle of Arfderydd written several years ago and partly on loose translations made more recently of the core verses in the Black Book. I would have liked to include some version of the Peniarth 3 verses too, but further study of these will have to wait until research libraries are open again, when the sequence may be extended.

Myrddin Wyllt

Like a wolf pack biting

into bone, bloody-chapped

we bit the bitter core

of that battle and gulped

Its poison; Gwenddolau sighed

his last breath as Rhydderch’s shield

was held high over the land.

I stole away by ditch and field.

Where could I hide but the wild wood

from Rhydderch’s men? That tree

with apples on its boughs

guards the glade they cannot see.

Sweet apples falling to earth

forsaking ripeness

fester slowly into another year

a freight of sadness.

The cycle broken: the circle

shrunk to this one glade

in the wildwood; defeat

dogged us but I made

A spell here and grew hair

like a wild thing in the wild

wood which I wander like a wolf

under leaf shade ashamed but undefiled

by the new lord’s common law.


Under the mantle of this tree

cast wide over the glade,

my refuge from fear,

and from the bustle of far-folk,

the shadows hide

and cast a cloak of stillness 

and silence to succour me, 

even when wolf calls, when wind blows

and the forest sings in a clatter

of branches and leaves

or - when wind is still -

and owl’s quaver is carried

through the quiet of the night,

or when I hear the screech of jay

through the soft hum of day

in the long hours of summer.

In winter no-one comes anyway

and I dwell here harried

by ice and snow - where else to go?

For this is my world

contained as an apple seed,

settled in a hidden nook

to grow a new life 

far from the rumours of battles

and the hurts of the world.


Sweet apple tree that grows in this grove

you know how to hide me from Rhydderch’s men 

milling around, a host of them, richly arrayed.

But there is no Gwenddydd to greet,

her love lost to me. No woman comes

for delightful dalliance. Once I wore

a gold torc around my throat, now

the necks of swans are splendid to me.

Sweet apple tree of tender blossoms

here in this hideaway I hear

Gwasgawg curse me day and night

for the slaughter of his son

and of his daughter.


Sweet apple tree that grows by this river,

by rushing water, your fruits out of reach

of any intruder. Once I dallied here beneath them

in wanton play with a graceful girl, a lost companion.

Time tracks away: wild time in the woods

with wild things, far from fair words

of bards and the songs of minstrels

heard only now in the empty space

that is their absence. All that was dear

in the court of Gwenddolau, my Dragon Lord,

Echoes through the trees of Celyddon,

my awen’s aid: it’s service now

all that sustains me.


(*)   A O H Jarman Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (Caerdydd, 1982)

(**)  Ifor Williams  Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies IV, 121-5

(***) Gerald of Wales  Journey Through Wales  various editions.