Midweek Writer-Rummage: Tales of the British Isles - Taliesin

The first and, possibly, greatest Welsh poet was Taliesin. He was said to have lived between 534 and 599, and is associated with the Book of Taliesin, a 10th century text containing his poems. The legend that details his birth is full of wonder…

Taliesin (prydain.wikia.com)

Once, in the past, there lived a good man named Tegid Foel and his wife, Ceridwen. In time, she bore two children. Their daughter, Creirwy, was as fair a girl as one could hope to see. But their son, Morfran, must surely have been the ugliest boy in the world. Believing he would never be allowed among men of noble birth, Ceridwen resolved to use her magic knowledge to turn Morfran into the greatest bard that ever lived.

Ceridwen began to boil a cauldron of inspiration and knowledge, which, for the spell to work, had to be kept boiling for a year and a day after which the three blessed drops of inspiration would be produced. Because she would be busy gathering the necessary herbs each day, she had an old blind man named Morda kindle the fire beneath the cauldron, and young Gwion Bach to stir the cauldron.

All was proceeding according to Ceridwen’s plan until one day, near the end of the year, while she was preparing herbs, three drops of the magic brew flew out of the cauldron onto Gwion’s finger. Because they were scalding hot, he quickly put his finger in his mouth. Instantly he foresaw all that was to come in the world. Knowing also that he would have to guard against Ceridwen and her magic, Gwion fled back to his own land.

The cauldron burst and spilled the rest of the brew, which, apart from the three magical drops, was poisonous. Ceridwen, furious that her year’s labour had been lost, hit blind Morda but he protested his innocence. Then she knew the real culprit was Gwion Bach and pursued him.

Seeing her bearing down on him, Gwion changed into a hare. Ceridwen turned herself into a greyhound and was almost upon him. As he was near a river, he changed into a fish. But she became an otter. Leaping from the water, Gwion turned into a bird. But Ceridwen changed into a hawk and pursued him, giving him no rest. Spying a heap of wheat, Gwion dropped from the sky and turned into a single grain. But there was no escape; Ceridwen became a hen and scratched at the wheat until she discovered him and swallowed him.

It was said that Ceridwen soon found herself with child. Realising the baby must be Gwion she swore to kill it. But when the baby was born, he was so beautiful that she did not have the heart to kill him. Instead, she wrapped him in a leather bag and set him adrift on the sea.

There lived at that time one who was believed to be the unluckiest prince in Wales, Elphin. His father, Gwyddno Garanhir, hoped to turn his son’s luck and, on the advice of his council, granted him the drawing of the annual salmon catch. But when the river keeper drew in the nets, there was not a single fish in them, only a leather bag.

Elphin instructed the man to open the bag and they were shocked to find a small boy inside. The river keeper said he had a noble brow, and Elphin decided to call him ‘Taliesin’, which means ‘how radiant his brow is’. Placing the child on his horse with him, Elphin made his sad way home, knowing how disappointed his father would be. Then, to Elphin’s surprise, the child sang a poem, which consoled the unhappy prince and told of the honours that would come to him.

When they came to Gwyddno’s castle, the man was intrigued when his son told him that he had caught something far better than fish. When Elphin said that he’d hauled up a bard, Gwyddon was distressed for what good would a bard be to his son. At which Taliesin himself answered and sang a song telling of his wisdom and knowledge of the future. Elphin gave the boy to his wife who cared for him and loved him as her own. From that day, Elphin’s luck changed for the better and he grew in riches, much to the delight of his father.

Some years later, when Taliesin was thirteen, Elphin was invited to the castle of his uncle, Maelgwn Gwynedd, for Christmas. There were many other lords in attendance and they all spoke highly of their host, Maelgwn. They also praised the beauty, grace, wisdom and modesty of his queen. And they swore that no other had braver men, nor swifter horses, or wiser bards than the great Maelgwn.

When they had finished praising the king, Elphin said that only a king could compare himself to a king, but if they were not speaking of kings, Elphin was sure that his wife was as virtuous as any lady and that his bard was more skilful than all the king’s bards. Unfortunately for Elphin, his words found their way to Maelgwn who ordered the hapless prince to be thrown in prison while he considered if there was any truth to Elphin’s words.

The story goes that Maelgwn sent his son, Rhun, to discover the truth of the virtues of Elphin’s wife. But Rhun possessed hardly any grace and was known to speak ill of any woman or girl whose path he crossed. And he was determined to bring disgrace on Elphin’s wife.

Taliesin, however, already knew what had transpired. He told his mistress of her husband’s imprisonment and of Rhun’s imminent arrival. Although distressed, she did as Taliesin said and dressed one of her maid’s in her clothes, put her best rings on the girl’s fingers and instructed her to act like the mistress while she herself acted like the maid. When Rhun arrived, he suspected nothing when he was taken to the maid, believing her to be Elphin’s wife. They had supper together, and laughed together. According to the story, the girl became so intoxicated that she fell asleep. When Rhun cut off her little finger, which bore the signet ring of Elphin, the girl did not even feel it. And so Rhun returned to his father with the finger and the ring as proof that Elphin’s wife had been so drunk, she had not even woken when he’d cut her finger from her hand.

Delighted, Maelgwn had Elphin brought before him and gleefully showed him the finger and the ring, and accused his wife of being a drunken woman with no virtue. But Elphin, far from distressed, studied the finger and said the only true thing before him was his ring. He knew for a fact the finger was not his wife’s for she diligently cut her nails every Sunday and it was plain to see that the nail on the finger before them had not been recently cut. Also, it was obvious that the finger had come from a hand that had been kneading rye dough and he assured the king that his wife had never kneaded rye dough. Elphin’s stout defence of his wife only served to anger Maelgwn who ordered the prince be thrown in prison until he could prove the wisdom of his bard.

At Elphin’s house, Taliesin told his mistress that her husband was still in prison and that he, Taliesin, would go to Maelgwn’s court and free his master. When he arrived at the court of Maelgwn, he took himself to a quiet corner near the space given to bards and minstrels. When they passed him for the giving of gifts and to proclaim the power of the king, Taliesin pouted his lips and, putting his finger to his lips, made a ‘blerwm, blerwm’ sound. None took any notice of him but when they stood before Maelgwn, they spoke not a word; instead, they put their fingers to their pouted lips and said ‘blerwm, blerwm’ just as Taliesin had done.

Shocked, Maelgwn accused them all of being drunk but the chief bard, Heinin Bardd, begged the king to be merciful, saying they were being influenced by a spirit that sat in the corner in the form of a child. Taliesin was brought before the king. When asked who he was, he answered in verse that he was chief bard to Elphin whose country was filled with wonders. Maelgwn ordered Heinin to compete with the boy in verse. But Heinin could do nothing but say ‘blerwm, blerwm’.

An increasingly anxious Maelgwn asked Taliesin what his errand was, and the boy replied in song that he had come to free Elphin. The end of his song was a spell to summon the wind, and a mighty storm of wind arose, seeming to shake the castle walls. Maelgwn hurriedly ordered Elphin to be brought before him. Taliesin sang a verse and the chains fell from Elphin. Then Elphin's wife entered and showed that she was still in possession of all her fingers.

Being a proud man, Maelgwn felt he had been humiliated by Elphin and his young bard. Angrily, he said that surely Elphin had no horse that was better or swifter than the king’s horses. Elphin knew he did not but Taliesin whispered to him to answer that he did. So it was that twenty-four of Maelgwn’s swiftest horses were prepared to race against Elphin’s one. Taliesin gave the rider of Elphin’s horse twenty-four holly twigs that had been burnt black, and instructed the rider to strike each of Maelgwn’s horses once as he passed them, after which he was to drop the twig. He also told the rider to watch when his own horse stumbled and to throw his cap down to mark the spot. The rider did all that he’d been told to do, and won the race.

Then Taliesin brought his master to the spot where his horse had stumbled, and told him to have the ground dug up. When a deep enough hole had been made, a large cauldron full of gold was revealed. And Taliesin told his master that was his reward for having taken Taliesin out of the river and for raising and caring for him.

It is said that, when he was older, Taliesin went to the court of Arthur, where he was chief bard and adviser to the king. And he came to be known as Taliesin Ben Beirdd, or ‘Taliesin, Chief of Bards’.

Midweek Writer-Rummage: Tales of the British Isles - King Lear

The very first mention of King Lear was in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’, written in the 12th century. According to Geoffrey, who referred to Lear as Leir, the king was the founder of the city of Leicester.

Lear’s father was Bladud, a descendant of Brutus who had conquered Britain. Bladud had built the city now known as Bath. His rule was cut short when he died attempting to fly with artificial wings.

On succeeding his father, Lear rules the land for sixty years. His only children are his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Although he loves them all dearly, it is Cordelia he is most fond of.

Gustav Pope - The Three Daughters of King Lear.JPG

'The Three Daughters of King Lear' ~ Gustav Pope

Aware of the passing of time and his advancing years, Lear gives thought to the future of his kingdom. He makes the decision to, first, divide his realm amongst his daughters and then marry them to husbands worthy of them. Wondering who should receive the largest share, he decides to give it to the one who loves him the most.

Lear calls his daughters to him. First, he asks the oldest, Goneril, how much she loves him. Goneril replies that her father is dearer to her than her own soul, and this she swears by god in heaven. He is most pleased with her answer for she has chosen to set him before her own life. Lear states that he will marry her to a man of her own choosing, and give her one third of Britain.

He then asks his second daughter, Regan, the same question but fails to notice how eagerly she replies as she swears that she loves her father better than anyone else in the world. Delighted with her answer, he makes the same promise to her as he has done to Goneril.

Now it is the turn of the youngest. Unlike her father, Cordelia has seen through her sisters’ false flattery and resolves to bring her father to his senses by answering honestly. She tells him that she loves him as a daughter loves a father, no more and no less, and goes on to say that she could not, in all honesty, tender all her love toward him for when she is married, it is only right that she then turn her devotion to her husband.

Mistakenly believing that she has rejected him, Lear angrily denounces her, swearing she will never share the kingdom with her sisters. Still, because she is his daughter, he will see her married… to some stranger from another country.

Following the advice of his nobles, Lear marries Goneril to Maglaunus, duke of Albany, and Regan to Henvin, the duke of Cornwall. For their dowry, he gives them half the kingdom between them while he yet lives, and on his death, the whole of it.

Meanwhile, Aganippus, king of the Franks, sends ambassadors to Lear, asking for Cordelia’s hand in marriage, for he has heard of her beauty and would make her his wife. Still angry with her, Lear agrees to the marriage but states that he will not be giving Cordelia any dowry. As a ruler of a third of Gaul, Aganippus replies he has no wish for any dowry. And so Cordelia is sent to Gaul to be the wife of Aganippus.

'Cordelia's Farewell' ~ Edwin Austin Abbey

Years pass… Lear’s sons-in-law rebel against him and strip him of his crown and his kingdom, bringing his reign to an end. A truce is reached and Maglaunus agrees to maintain Lear with a household of sixty knights. Barely two years later, Goneril, angry that she has to feed her father’s household, persuades her husband to order Lear to dismiss half his knights and to be content with thirty.

Furious, Lear leaves them and travels to Henvin and Regan where he is received with honour. Barely a year later, disagreements flare up between Lear’s knights and those in Henvin’s service. Regan demands her father dismiss his knights, and to be content with five. Grossly insulted, Lear returns to Goneril but finds she is as angry as when he’d left, this time insisting that one knight is more than he needs for he is a man with nothing to call his own.

Left with only one knight, Lear is plagued by memories of when he was an honoured king. More and more, he finds himself thinking of Cordelia and wonders if he should travel to her court. He cannot be sure how well she will receive him, if at all, for he cannot deny that he had treated her most dishonourably. But he can no longer bear his mean existence, and so sets out for Gaul.

When Lear arrives at the city where Cordelia lives, he does not enter but, instead, waits outside and implores a messenger to take news of his pitiful state to his daughter. On being given the message, Cordelia weeps for her father, and is horrified to learn that he has no one, only a single knight, waiting with him outside the city.

Cordelia does not go to Lear but sends the messenger back to him with sufficient coin to take her father secretly to another city and ensure he is bathed, clothed and fed. She also orders that forty knights be appointed to her father. When Lear is ready, only then is he to announce himself to Aganippus and Cordelia.

Fully recovered and dressed in royal robes, Lear sends word to Cordelia and her husband, informing them that he has been driven out of Britain by his sons-in-law. He has come seeking their aid in recovering his kingdom. Lear realises the extent of his youngest daughter’s love for him when, instead of summoning him to their court, Cordelia, her husband and their court come to receive him with all honour.

An impressive number of knights answer Aganippus’ summons to help him recover his father-in-law’s kingdom. Lear, Aganippus and Cordelia lead the assembled army into Britain where they successfully defeat the treacherous sons-in-law, and Lear reclaims his lands. However, a mere three years later, both Lear and Aganippus die.

Cordelia is now queen of Britain, and she governs the kingdom in peace for five years. Then she finds herself beset by troubles. Her own sisters’ sons – Margan, son of Maglaunus, and Cunedag, son of Henvin – rebel against her for they do not think it fit that a woman should rule Britain. Proud and ambitious, they assemble an army and begin to lay waste to parts of Britain. After defeating Cordelia in several battles, they finally succeed in capturing her. Imprisoned, overwhelmed with grief, she takes her own life.

Fantastic Friday - The Art of Jim Fitzpatrick

I know the usual day I post ‘art’ is on Sunday, but this is tied to Wednesday’s Tales of the British Isles – ‘The Transformations of Tuan…’

I’ve had these books for ages, and I bought them for the artwork, not necessarily the stories. Each time I took them out, it was to ogle the art, and it was quite a while later that I finally read the stories. Not surprisingly, they added meaning to the images, making them even more powerful.

The artist, Jim Fitzpatrick, is Irish, and he wrote ‘The Book of Conquests’ in 1978, following it with ‘The Silver Arm’. The stories are retellings of Irish myths to do with the legends of the Tuatha de Danaan and the Fir Bolg.

The image qualities aren’t the greatest as I took them directly from the books instead of finding them on the internet. My reason for sharing them here is to, obviously, showcase the gorgeous work of Jim Fitzpatrick – in my humble opinion, I think he should be more well-known – and to add to the richness of the stories.

Jim F - Tuan stag.JPG

Tuan reborn as a stag

Jim F - Tuan sea-eagle.JPG

Tuan the great sea-eagle

Nuadu, king of the Tuatha de Danaan

Streng, champion of the Fir Bolg

The death of Eochaí, king of the Fir Bolg

Balor of the Piercing Eye

Nuadu of the Silver Arm

The Coming of Lugh

Nuadu battling Indech, king of the Fomor - The Second Battle of Mag Tuired

Lugh rides to battle on Enbarr of the Flowing Mane

Lugh in battle

Lugh readies his sling-stone against Balor

Midweek Writer-Rummage: Tales of the British Isles ~ Ireland

The Transformations of Tuan and the Battles of Mag Tuired

Here, then, is the tale of Tuan, the only Partholónian to survive the plague that killed 9,000 of his people.

Tuan lived alone for many years and finally passed away in his sleep. But death did not claim him. He awoke the next morning, not as a man but as a young stag, complete with his memories of his life as a man. With that knowledge, he became king of the deer. King though he had become, he could only stand by and witness the subjugation of Nemed’s people, his people, by the Fomorians, led by their king who was also a wizard, Balor of the Piercing Eye. And he watched as the Nemedians rose up against their oppressors to fight bravely. But after three victories, the fourth battle ended with their defeat. With a heavy heart, Tuan watched as the surviving Nemedians, barely 30 in one ship, left Ireland.

As the years passed, Tuan grew old; he waited for his end. Like before, when his last breath left him, he did not die but underwent another transformation. He awoke as a black boar, young and powerful again. Like before, his memories of his past lives remained with him and he became king of the boars. It was as a boar that he witnessed the arrival of another race of men – the Fir Bolg, descendants of the Nemedians. They were led by their king, Eochaí, a good and benevolent ruler. Under his rule, the people and the land flourished.

But Eochaí’s dreams were troubled, fuelled by rumours of a sinister fleet of ships, led by Balor, the wizard-king of the Fomorians. When Eochaí’s own wizard, César, fathomed the king’s dreams, it filled him with anguish for it foretold that those who were coming to Ireland did so as enemies; they were of the same blood, sons of Nemed, the Tuatha de Danaan.

As Tuan heard of the Coming of the Tuatha de Danaan, he felt the weariness that he now realised preceded, not his death, but his change. It was summer when he fell into the deep sleep that was so like death. When he opened his eyes, he beheld spring, for winter had come and gone. Instead of four legs, he found he now had wings and, spreading them wide, took to the skies. Tuan was now a mighty sea-eagle.

He remembered Eochaí’s prophetic dream and watched for the coming of the Tuatha de Danaan. Using their knowledge of magic, the Tuatha de Danaan conjured thunder-clouds and mists to hide their arrival. Soaring high above the clouds, Tuan alone saw them in their great fleet of ships.

When the Fir Bolg finally learnt that the Tuatha de Danaan had gathered, Eochaí sent his champion, Streng, to spy on the newcomers. After many days’ journey, he came upon their camp and, having painted himself as if for battle, strode out to meet them.

Nuadu, king of the Tuatha de Danaan, sent his champion, Breas the Beautiful who was renowned for his beauty, to meet Streng. When Breas spoke, Streng recognised the language of his people, and greeted Breas as he would a brother. They spoke together, each telling the other who they were and where they had come from. When Breas stated the Tuatha de’s terms, for the Fir Bolg to give the Tuatha de half of Ireland or face them in battle, Streng replied that he would readily give half of Ireland but it was not his to give, and he would return to Eochaí with the terms. Before parting, both men pledged their brotherhood.

Tuan flew overhead as Streng returned to his king. He listened as the warrior spoke of the Tuatha de and advised the assembly to divide the land and let the newcomers have half as they shared the same blood. But the Fir Bolg did not heed Streng’s wise counsel, believing that if they let the Tuatha de have half of the land, they would then take all of it.

When Breas told Nuadu, his king, of the fearsome weapons that the Fir Bolg possessed, Nuadu ordered that the Tuatha de move further west and fortify their camp. When Tuan witnessed this, he knew the days of peace were numbered.

As the sun rose on Midsummer’s Day, the hosts of the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danaan faced one another. Both were proud people, descended from the mighty Nemed; the fighting would be hard and bloody. Thus began the First Battle of Mag Tuired (Battle of Moy Tura). Tuan soared overhead as battle was joined, and he heard the battle-cries and screams, saw the slaughter and hideous face of war.

The battle lasted days, and it was Streng, facing Nuadu in single combat, who dealt the sword-thrust that struck through Nuadu’s right arm, cleaving it from his body. Bent on avenging their father, three of Nuadu’s sons, sought out Eochaí with 150 men.

Despite the odds, Eochaí fought bravely. Tuan witnessed the king sweep the enemy before him, driving Nuadu’s sons into the sea. Although mortally wounded, he slew the three sons of Nuadu before he himself fell. And Tuan silently mourned the passing of a just and noble king, the first High King of Ireland.

Greatly saddened, the surviving Fir Bolg gathered together. Streng pleaded with the Assembly to find a peaceful solution but they did not listen, and Streng was made to lead the last onslaught. He challenged Nuadu to single combat, to finish the fight they had begun earlier. Despite his injury and pain, Nuadu faced Streng. But when Streng saw that Nuadu was missing his right arm, he spared Nuadu inevitable defeat and death by releasing him from any obligation to fight and stating that the fight had already been resolved. Streng’s noble gesture led to the Tuatha de offering the Fir Bolg a choice of the provinces, and a pact of peace and friendship. Streng agreed and so ended the First Battle of Mag Tuired, the Plain of Pillars.

Tuan’s relief at the end of the battle was marred by Nuadu’s fate. It was the Tuatha de Danaan’s law that a man not whole in body could not be king. And so, despite having led his people to victory over the Fir Bolg, Nuadu, having lost his right arm, had to hand over his crown to the elders.

The rule of the Tuatha de was given to Breas the Beautiful. A brave warrior, alas he was no leader of men. His father, whom he had never known, was Elathan the Immortal, sea-lord of the Fomor. This brought sorrow and trouble to the Tuatha de Danaan for Breas was unable to deny his father’s people their demand for taxes. The proud Tuatha de had to pay tribute to the king of the Fomor.

By the magic of his people, Nuadu regained his right arm, which was made of silver and fashioned to move as if he had been born with it. He was reinstated as king and came to be known as Nuadu of the Silver Arm. And Tuan the sea-eagle rejoiced with the warriors of the Tuatha de Danaan at the return of their noble king.

Breas, unhappy at the loss of his kingship, sailed for the land of the Fomor under a flag of truce. He still saw himself as a son of Ireland yet met with his father, Elathan, for he wanted his father’s support to win back his crown. But Elathan was an honourable man, and when he learned that his son’s rule had not been just, he would not help him. Instead, he advised him to seek out the wizard, Balor.

Breas travelled deep into the land of the Fomor. His fear was great, for Balor could stop the hearts of men simply by opening his eye; he could reduce an entire army to ashes with a single glance. But that did not stop Breas asking Balor to help him regain his honour; and Balor agreed, showing him, in a vision, the Second Battle of Mag Tuired.

While Breas was in the land of the Fomor, there came to the Tuathe de Danaan a great host led by the fairest of men. This was Lugh, the Ildánach (‘skilled in many arts’). He rode his white horse, Enbarr of the Flowing Mane; no one seated on her could fall or be killed. At his side hung his sword, Freagarthach, the Answerer; no man could survive a wound from it. The warriors who followed him were of the Sidhe, the Faerie Host.

It had been prophesied that Balor would meet his end at the hands of his own grandson. That grandson, born of the Tuatha de Danaan, was the all-powerful, invincible Lugh. But Balor did not believe the young hero was his grandson for he believed the son of his daughter to be dead. He had kept his daughter, Lugh’s mother, imprisoned in a tower and so heavily guarded that no man had been allowed near her. But, as they say, love will always find a way, and so it was that Lugh’s father found his way to her side. When Lugh was born, he was switched with a still-born infant and smuggled away.

Tuan rejoiced at the coming of Lugh for he was the one who would free the children of Nemed from their humiliating bondage.

At the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, Lugh and his warriors faced Breas, who had come ahead of the Fomorians and Balor. Lugh succeeded in defeating Breas, but, instead of killing him, spared the lives of him and his men.

At the end of the battle, Nuadu defeated Indech, the Fomorian king. When the man refused to yield, Nuadu severed Indech’s head from his shoulders.

Tuan felt a great foreboding, for he knew Balor would come to avenge Indech’s death and put an end to the Tuatha de Danaan. The wizard summoned a fell beast to battle Nuadu. The king fought valiantly but was unable to defeat such evil. So died Nuadu, king of the Tuatha de Danaan.

Lugh’s grief at the death of the noble king swiftly turned to anger. Shining bright as the sun, Lugh rode Enbarr to face Balor, engulfed in darkness. For the first time, the Fomor wizard knew real fear.

Balor opened his Piercing Eye and a thousand warriors, Fomor and Tuatha de Danaan, fell in an instant, turned to ashes. Then Lugh drew his most powerful weapon, his sling-stone, a fireball of untold energy. Raising it in a long sling, he swung it over his head and released it. It flew straight into Balor’s eye, destroying the wizard.

As Lugh severed the head of Balor and held it aloft, fulfilling the prophecy of long ago, Tuan watched in awe. Then he wept at the passing of Nuadu and his slain warriors. He witnessed Lugh taking Nuadu’s place as king of the Tuatha de Danaan.

As the years passed, Tuan, who had passed from a sea-eagle to be reborn as a salmon, saw the mantle of king passed down until there came the day when the Tuatha de passed into legend.

This time Tuan did not live a long life nor did he die in his sleep. Instead, he was caught, cooked and eaten by a woman. She became pregnant and gave birth to Tuan. Given the form of man once more, he remembered all that had happened in his past lives. And when he grew old, older than any man, he met with the priests of the new religion. They were curious about the tales he told. And Tuan recounted the entire history of his people, the Nemedians, the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danaan to St. Finnian. This time, when Tuan died, no longer was he fated to be reborn but was finally allowed to rest.