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…
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’.