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



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.


3 comments:

  1. Very powerful. I like the way the apple imagery ties everything together from 'bit the bitter core' to the apple trees and particularly the line 'this is my world / contained as an apple seed' which seems very pertinent for these times...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello Greg, good to see you again!

    It’s a pleasure to finally be “back” and to read your poetry and research again! Sorry I’m so late, but on the upside I had a chance to read and digest your new imagining of Welsh poetry before making my comment.

    It’s amazing to see how well your poetic sensibilities slide so neatly into a mythic schema. Your background as a scholar in Welsh is made to good effect. These are my favorite stanzas:

    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.

    Together I think they have the most expertly crafted set-up and payoff: your allusion to the conflict in the first two quoted lines mirrors the fallen apples in the second quoted stanza. It brings to mind windfall fruit as a symbol of fallen warriors, slain in their youth, “forsaking ripeness.” The following lines, “festering slowly...” etc. provoked in me the gruesome but necessary and powerful images of bodies decaying in the mud of the battlefield as symbolized by the fruit moldering on the forest floor, autumn giving way to winter. Now because of some of my previous critiques of your work you may think that I have an issue with the line “a freight of sadness,” but on the contrary Greg, when I read that line I stood up and cheered!!! Well I really thought it was brilliant anyway. I’m aware that the words ‘freight’ and ‘fraught’ are related, and thought that the duality of your language worked splendidly in context. The poem is very good, but I think those stanzas are your crowning achievement.

    To mention what I didn’t care for, in my inexperienced opinion, is the alliteration in the lines:



    like a wild thing in the wild
    wood which I wander like a wolf

    I think the substance of those lines are appealing, but the persistent alliteration was distracting, and in my infinite ignorance I couldn’t see why there would be such a unique emphasis on these particular lines in the poem. I wondered if the alliteration was a writing device on your part to imitate the sound of a wolf’s howl, and also suspected a connection to the later alliterative line “when wolf calls, when wind blows.” Maybe those lines are central to the work because it captures Myrddin’s moment of transformation into the true wildman of legend. I could be wrong to make an issue of the alliteration.

    That was what moved me to reflection the most, and the excerpted stanzas are up there with the best of your stuff, but rest of the piece is rife with fantastic similes and imagery as well. It’s great to read your material again, I hope to do it again sooner rather than later!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good to hear these most detailed comments. Both the part you liked and the part you had reservations about come from an earlier poem of quite a few years ago on The Battle of Arfderydd which I adapted as a starting point for the new loose translation which follows. It is quite possible that I got carried away with the alliteration in that bit you quote, but I think I was trying to get a sense of Myrddin getting ‘wound in’ to the forest hideaway and becoming one with it. It’s good to get a sense of how something like this sounds to a reader not involved in the original experience of conjuring the poem. So Diolch yn Fawr/Many Thanks for that.

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