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



Lockdown




We think of the Plague, or 'Black Death', as something that affected the Middle Ages. But it carried on well into the early-modern era, when they began to take measures to alleviate its spread. Lockdown 17th century style included putting guards outside houses where the infection was present and preventing anyone entering or leaving. Here is part of a contemporary account of the measures taken:

“This shutting up of houses was a method first taken, as I understand, in the plague which happened in 1603, at the coming of King James the First to the crown; and the power of shutting people up in their own houses was granted by Act of Parliament, entitled, 'An Act for the charitable Relief and Ordering of Persons infected with the Plague'; on which Act of Parliament the Lord Mayor and aldermen of the city of London founded the order they made at this time, and which took place the 1st of July 1665, when the numbers infected within the city were but few, the last bill for the ninety-two parishes being but four; and some houses having been shut up in the city, and some people being removed to the pest- house beyond Bunhill Fields, in the way to Islington, - I say, by these means, when there died near one thousand a week in the whole, the number in the city was but twenty-eight, and the city was preserved more healthy in proportion than any other place all the time of the infection.”
Daniel Defoe. Journal of a Plague Year (1665)



The Birds of Rhiannon


Woodcut by Sarah Young



For those who dwell apart, 
for those who are passing, 
for those who suffer anguish,  
may the Birds of Rhiannon sing the song you need to hear.

The Birds of Rhiannon are mentioned in two of the texts included in the collection of medieval Welsh tales known as The Mabinogion. In the earliest of these tales - Culhwch and Olwen - the giant Ysbaddaden Pencawr says he wants the Birds of Rhiannon - "they that wake the dead and lull the living to sleep" -  to entertain him on the night Culhwch weds his daughter.  This is one of the many seemingly impossible tasks he sets for Culhwch as a condition of the marriage. Although the tale does describe how several of the tasks are achieved, it does not describe all of them and there is no mention of how - or if - the Birds of Rhiannon are obtained. Of all the tasks set this would require more than the skills and ingenuity of Arthur's men that enables most of them to be completed. We learn no more about the birds in this tale.

But they are also mentioned in the second of the sequence of four Mabinogi tales. On their return from Ireland with the head of Bendigeidfran the seven survivors of an expedition to rescue Branwen hear the song of these birds far out over the sea. Bendigeidfran had told them that this would be so before they returned: "You will be feasting seven years, with the Birds of Rhiannon singing to you". So it was, and when they heard these birds there were three of them "and whatever kind of song they had heard before was unpleasant compared to that song". The birds sang from far away "but their song was as clear to them as if they were there with them". Here the song lulls the living feasters into a state of timeless suspension for the seven years of the feast and then for a further eighty years with the head of Bendigeidfran on the island of Gwales. When they return to the world it is as if no time had passed and events continue as if they had just left it, and all of the pain and trouble of the world returns to them. 

So the song of these birds is a song of enchantment, bringing those who hear it into a state of bliss. They are otherworld birds. For Culhwch to have brought them to Ysbaddaden would have been a feat to outdo all the other marvellous tasks that were fulfilled. Yet, we are to suppose, the birds did entertain the wedding feast and lulled Ysbaddaden to sleep when, like Bendigeidfran, his head was struck off and he left the world for an otherworld repose whose time is not yet ended, if it has even yet begun.



For those who dwell apart, 
for those who are passing, 
for those who suffer anguish, 
 may the Birds of Rhiannon sing the song you need to hear.

Goldfinches



Charmed by goldfinches, though aggressive they are
To each other at the seed tray
Rising in a spinning squabble
Of red and yellow before they settle
To wait their turn as others haggle.

A March Evening



Dusk fades to dark ¬ a half-moon and Venus ¬ equally bright in an indigo sky ¬ a blackbird singing ¬ the notes ringing ¬ bridging the brightness of day  ¬ and the deeps of the night. 

 Moon, Star and Bird of Rhiannon ¬ demarcations dissolving ¬ out of the air ¬ making otherness thisness ¬ a visiting presence  ¬ containing the darkness  ¬ insistently clear.



Picture: detail from ‘Night Flight’ by Sarah Young

Transient Treasures in the Sand



These marks on the beach below the sand dunes at Ynys-Las appeared in serried ranks after the retreating tide.

They are known as 'rill marks'. Water running down through the sand following the retreating tide often leaves marks of this kind, imprinted up the beach away from the tide line and much less noticeable than the ribbed sand marks which can be seen further down the beach. Rill marks often spread out in rough branch-like fashion, but these exquisite patterns, repeated right along this stretch of beach, are some of the most delicate and striking I've seen.

Being on the beach in Winter at low tide when there is no-one else around enables close inspection of such features in the sand otherwise unmarked except for the occasional faint tracks of sandpipers scuttling across it, but those are more apparent further along the beach among the rock pools and the outcrops of peat which are the remains of a long-submerged forest. Here there is just sand and its bareness and unblemished expanse down from the dunes to the sea invites closer inspection of the different textures across the apparently smooth surface.

Such subtle jewels of revelation on a still day are treasured. A storm is coming and after that the beach will be a very different place, with other things to discover.

The Hedge of Mist




     “If you travel on the road below you will never come back, 
there is the Hedge of Mist and within it there are enchanted games.” 

Who would venture there, 
into the Hedge of Mist,
past the severed heads on poles, 
through to the empty chair?

And who like Geraint 
(rider of long-legged horses, 
reddened by the onslaught of eagles,
slayer of giants, victor of Edern fab Nudd)
Would arrive to ensure
that “enchantment be no more”? 

     

(Quotations, direct and indirect, from the story of Geraint fab Erbin included in the Mabinogion collection and verses about Geraint - a warrior from Devon - in The Black Book of Carmarthen.)

~*~

The series of englynion in The Black Book of Carmarthen in praise of Geraint Fil' Erbin has been taken as an example from the south-west of Britain (specifically Devon) of the praise of warriors such as those in poems from the north, in particular The Gododdin. That Geraint was a great warrior is also a starting point for the presumably much later story about him in one of the romances in the French style that are included in The Mabinogion collection. Here his prowess in battle and his determination to be, as the Black Book poem has it, “the enemy of affliction/the enemy of oppression”, leads him to right a series of wrongs , first at Arthur’s court, then elsewhere before marrying Enid and returning to his own lands. It is only then, something like half-way through the tale, that his own story is told in what is a quite sophisticated psychological portrait for a medieval tale. Convinced that Enid no longer loves him he takes her on an aimless quest to prove something that even he is unsure of. This is a sort of madness which is only resolved towards the end of the story which culminates in the ‘Hedge of Mist’ episode. He banishes the mist and the magic that underpins it in the final vanquishing of its perpetrator, an act of destruction that could also be taken as a metaphor for the removal of his delusions about Enid.


But what of origins? There is a parallel tale in French from Chretien de Troyes, but called Erec et Enide. The name Erec is thought to derive from Breton Gwerec > Weroc. Enid(e)’s name comes from from ‘Bro Wened’, the original territorial name for the area of Vannes in Brittany as suggested by Rachel Bromwich. The question of origins, influences and borrowings is always difficult with this material but the balance of opinion seems to be that both the French and the Welsh stories have their origin in an older source, possibly from Brittany which had connections across the sea with the Brythonic-speaking peoples of the Cornish peninsula. It is significant that the name of the female character Enid/Enide remains the same in both versions while the male character has a different name in each. Geraint might stem from Gerontius, and so have an historical origin. Enid has been seen as a sovereignty goddess in origin, so it would be appropriate for her name to remain constant while the name of her suitor, the local chieftain or hero, would change with the change of location for the story, whether in time or space. 

So Geraint’s reconciliation with Enid can be seen as reflecting the pattern of the tale’s mythological origins in the chieftain’s renewal of his pact with the sovereignty goddess. At the same time the medieval tale can be seen as embodying chivalric conventions about the knight and, as the tale puts it, “the woman he loves the best”, and of her faithfulness to him. But because the tale also contains the literary devices already referred to, any analysis of it as a literary text also needs to recognise these. Going further, I suggest that this presentation of psychological problems within human relationships itself embodies mythic allusions. The final participation of Geraint in the hud a lledrith of the enchanted games when he enters the Hedge of Mist immediately follows his emergence from a psychotic state and his reconciliation with Enid.  The fact that he then brings an end to the enchanted games is a feature of much Arthurian literature where magic is still alive in the world but is being driven out of it. Geraint plays his part as a worthy Arthurian knight in this respect. Thus the tale operates as a mythic (diachronic) structure both in terms of its original mythic pattern and in the working out of its surface narrative. But it also operates as a synchronic structure in that it conforms to the conventions of the Arthurian romances of the early Middle Ages and, indeed, develops these conventions to portray the psychological tensions of human relationships in ways that such tales rarely achieve. The Hedge of Mist covers much that evaporates with the mist itself. Enchantment is elusive; it can be lost and then found, or not recognised at all. What we discover when we look into it, or into a tale of this sort, may depend on what we seek: a remnant myth, a living mythic narrative, a human drama, or simply an old tale about Arthur and his knights.




The tale of Geraint is included in all modern translations of The Mabinogion.

Text of The Black Book of Carmarthen taken from A.O.H Jarman Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (Caerdydd, (1982)

Rachel Bromwich discusses the origins of both Geraint and Enid and the relevance of the sovereignty theme in Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Cardiff, 2006)