2017 is the ‘Year of Legends’ in Wales, and we delved deeply into our collection to see what treasures relating to this fabulous theme might come to light. We selected a few, some of which will be included in a small display at the School of Art; others will only be viewable online. This is an on-going project and from time to time we might add to this post, so keep an eye out for updates.
The Life of St. David
Editor: Ernest Ryhs
Illustrations: Horace Bray
Publisher: Gwasg Gregynog, 1927
St. David as born in the early 6th century to St. Non (Nonita), a maiden who had been violated by Sant (Sanctus), son of the King of Ceredigion. Legend has it that Non gave birth to her son on a cliff by the sea in Pembrokeshire during a thunderstorm. The holy water that was used for the boy’s baptism apparently cured a man of his blindness. As a young man, he became a monk and was taught by Paulinus whose blindness he also cured. He was very frugal, drank only water and ate no meat. Hence, he is also known as Dewi Ddyfrwr (David the water drinker). He founded a dozen monasteries, establishing in each of them his austere rules. In one of the monasteries, some fellow monks decided to poison him, as they were annoyed with his strictness. An angel told Aidan, who was one of David’s disciples and dwelled in Ireland at the time, of the treacherous plan. Aidan sent St. Scuthyn (Scuthinus) to warn St. David; hence, David blessed the poisoned bread and could eat it without danger. His greatest miracle was that of Llanddewi Brefi. He preached there to a large crowd and those standing at the back had problems hearing him. Then a white dove landed on the saint’s shoulder and the ground on which he stood rose up creating a great hill. This made it possible for everybody to hear his sermon. A church was built on that hill, and the dove became one of St. David’s emblems. David eventually became archbishop of all of Wales. In his last sermon, he told his followers to “do the little things, the small things you’ve seen me doing.” St. David is said to have died on the 1st March 589; another source claims that he lived to the miraculous old age of 147. He is buried St. David’s Cathedral. His shrine became a popular place of pilgrimage and the 1st March is celebrated throughout Wales in honour of their patron saint, St. David.
The Dream of Macsen Wledig
According to legend, 4th century Roman emperor Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig) built Caernarfon Castle. The story goes that, whilst falling asleep on a hunt with his peers near Rome, he dreamt of a beautiful maiden within a sumptuous castle, far beyond the borders of his empire. He fell head over heels for the unknown lady and began to neglect his duties, unable to ban her from his thoughts. A humble servant of his remarked that he had become very unpopular due to his negligence; hence, the emperor summoned the wise men of the city and they recommended that he send some of his men to search for the woman of his dream. When his messengers found her on the island of Britain, they told her about the Macsen Wledig’s love for her and asked her to accompany them back to Rome. However, the lady, whose name was Elin (also Helen or Elen), refused and demanded, if his love for her was so great, that he should come to her himself. The men went back to the emperor with the message, and no sooner had he received it, he set out to see her. Elin became his bride and demanded as part of her dowry that Britain would be given to her father and that three great castles would be built for her, namely Caernarfon, Caerlleon and Carmarthen. These wishes were happily granted. Macsen stayed in Britain for seven years; unfortunately for him, it was tradition in Rome to name a new emperor after that time. When Macsen Wledig heard of the change, he travelled back and, with the help of Elin’s brothers, reclaimed his throne. Re-established as emperor of Rome, Magnus Maximus gratefully granted that the brothers could conquer any region in the world they desired. After years of conquests, Cynan and Adeon were tired of battle; Adeon went home to Britain and became ruler of the land, and Cynan remained and ruled in an area that is now called Brittany.
(Two images of Caernarfon Castle from David Woodford’s series of etchings Four Great Castles Caernarfon – Conwy – Harlech – Beaumaris are on display at the School of Art.)
The Misfortunes of Elphin
Author: Thomas Love Peacock
Illustrations: Horace Bray
Publisher: Gwasg Gregynog, 1928
Elffin (Elphin) ap Gwyddno Garanhir’s story forms part of the legend of the bard Taliesin within the Mabinogion. Taliesin, born to the enchantress Ceridwen (Caridwen), was the reincarnation of the boy Gwion Bach. Ceridwen wanted to kill him at first, but was so moved by his beauty (Taliesin means ‘radiant brow’) that she decided to put him into a leather bag and set him free on a river. Taliesin was found by Elffin in Gwyddno’s weir between Dyfi and Aberystwyth. Already able to speak and sing, the infant persuaded father and son to keep him as he could bring hapless Elffin good fortune. When the bard was only 13 or 14 years old, Elffin was invited by his uncle Maelgwn to his castle at Dyganwy. During the festivities, Maelgwn boasted of the beauty and faithfulness of his wife, the skills of his bards and the swiftness of his horses. Elffin in his drunkenness claimed that his wife’s even more virtuous, his bards more talented and his horses faster than those of his uncle. Enraged, Maelgwn threw Elffin into prison and sent his son Rhun to seduce Elffin’s wife. With the help of Taliesin, she swapped roles with a servant maid. Maelgwn’s son spent the night with the woman he assumed to be Elffin’s wife and cut off one of her fingers that bore a signet ring. When Rhun returned with the finger of the supposedly unfaithful noblewoman, Elffin could say with certainty that it was not his wife’s.
This was confirmed later when the very lady appeared at Maelgwn’s court with all her fingers still intact. Next, Taliesin put a spell on Maelgwn’s bards so that they were unable to recite their verses properly and thus beat them. Elffin’s horse also won the race against his uncle’s horses with the bard’s assistance. Furthermore, Taliesin had ordered the rider of Elffin’s horse to throw his cap where his horse would stumble; after the race, a hole was dug at that place and a large cauldron of gold found. Taliesin gave this treasure to Elffin as a reward for bringing him up.
Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) published his satire The Misfortunes of Elphin, based on the above legend, in 1829. This is a short paragraph from the book, which not only seems to ridicule legendary bards but also seems to imply criticism at contemporary writers:
“There was no liberty of the press, because there was no press: but there was liberty of speech to the bards, whose persons were inviolable, and the general motto of their order was Y GWIR YN ERBYN Y BYD: the Truth against the World. If many of them, instead of acting up to this splendid profession, chose to advance their personal fortunes by appealing to the selfishness, the passions, and the prejudices of kings, factions, and the rabble, our free press gentry may afford them a little charity of the excess of their own virtue.”
Both, ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ and ‘Taliesin’, are part of the Mabinogion, a collection of ca. 13th century Welsh stories.
The Story of Heledd
Editors: Glyn Jones, Thomas John Morgan, Jenny Rowland
Illustrations: Harry Brockway
Publisher: Gwasg Gregynog, 1994
(Please click on the images to enlarge them.)
The Song of Heledd (Canu Heledd) was composed in the 9th or 10th century and is one of the longest traditional Welsh poems known as englynion. It is set in the 7th century and narrated by Heledd, a Welsh noblewoman. She bemoans the loss of her family, including her brother Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn, lord of Pengwern in Powys, and the destruction of his court where she had lived. She reveals that he and other brothers were killed whilst defending a town named Tern against the English; Heledd and her maidens had managed to flee into the hills but had watched the battle from afar. She is the only surviving member of the royal house of Powys and, due to her loose tongue blames herself for its ruin. There is no definite explanation of what that is supposed to mean, but this book’s version of the story suggests that she became unruly after her beloved sister Ffreuer had died and rudely refused a Saxon chieftain’s offer of marriage. After burying Cynddylan in Basa cemetery next to their father Cyndrywn’s grave, Heledd, homeless and without the comforts her former life, starts roaming the land horrified by the scenes of death she witnesses. Eventually, a friendly goatherd offers her food and shelter. She stays with him for a while; however, guilt and grief drive her mad and she dies alone on Wrekin Hill. These are her last mournful words:
“Wandering Heledd I am called.
Oh God, to whom are given
The steeds of my brothers and their lands?”
Image: Dinas Bran
Princes and Castles – The Legacy of Thirteenth Century Wales
Author: J. Beverley Smith
Illustrations: Hilary Paynter
Publisher: Gwasg Gregynog, 2010
Castell Dinas Bran was once the home of Myfanwy, the fairest maiden in all of Powys. She was famous across the country and many suitors would come to the castle to court her. Yet their riches, good looks or power were nothing to her if they could not present her with songs and verses that would perfectly describe her beauty. None of them succeeded to woo her. However, in the valley beneath the Dinas Bran lived a poor young bard called Hywel ap Einion. He was in love with Myfanwy and courageously walked up to the castle to try his luck. He was allowed to perform for her, and she was very impressed and listened to him like to no other before. The bard thought happily that he had won the noble lady’s hand. Unfortunately, another suitor, more handsome, rich and even more eloquent than Hywel came along and Myfanwy instantly forgot all about the poor bard. Deeply disappointed, Hywel went into the forests of Dyfrdwy and composed a poem about his unrequited love.
The legend probably refers to the Welsh noblewoman Myfanwy Fychan and the poet Hywel ap Einion Llygliw who lived in the 14th century. An English translation of the Hywel’s poem can be found in Thomas Pennant’s Tours in Wales. Pennant (1726-98), writer, traveller and naturalist, explored Wales in the early 1770s and published his book in three volumes between 1778 and 1783. John Ceiriog Hughes’s poem Myfanwy Fychan o Gastell Dinas Bran (Myfanwy Fychan of Dinas Bran Castle) tells the story of the Myfanwy and Hywel. It won him the 1858 Llangollen Eisteddfod and became one of the most popular Welsh poems of the Victorian era. Composer Joseph Parry (1841-1903) penned the song Myfanwy, which is still one of the most popular Welsh songs ever written.
Author: Jón Árnason
Translators: George E. J Powell and Eiríkr Magnússon
Publisher: Richard Bentley, 1864
(Please click on the images to enlarge them.)
Although the book Icelandic Legends appears to have nothing at all to do with Wales at first glance, there is a modest link; a Welshman, George Powell of Nanteos (1842-1882), translated the stories in the book from the Icelandic into English. Powell must already have had an interest in Nordic mythology as a teenager as his nom de plume for his self-penned poetry publications of 1860/1 was Mjolnir (Miölnir), which is the Icelandic name for the god Thor’s hammer. In 1862, he travelled to Iceland and met the Icelandic scholar Eirikur Magnusson on his return journey. Magnusson introduced him to Jón Arnason’s collection of legends. Powell was fascinated and suggested that they should translate them into English and publish them together. They became friends and spent Christmas together at Nanteos. The first volume of Icelandic Legends was published by Bentley, London, in 1864, the second in 1866. The books’ illustrations were created by Powell’s friend, the German artist Johann Baptist Zwecker (1814-76). Powell had written to the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) to ask his permission to dedicate the second volume to him. The poet happily agreed and visited Powell in Aberystwyth the same year initiating a close friendship between the two young men. Neither book was a great success, but it can be assumed that the venture was a labour of love for Powell rather than for financial gain. Iceland was struggling for independence from Denmark at the time and, in common with many Victorians, Powell held a romantic view with regard to the fight for freedom and national identity. He supported the Icelandic patriotic leader Jón Sigurdsson with a gift of £1,500. The idea was that Sigurdsson should compose the ultimate history of his homeland. However, that plan was never carried out.
In connection with Icelandic Legends, Powell also commissioned Zwecker to create the above watercolours; a version of Iceland is the frontispiece of the 2nd volume of Icelandic Legends, and one of The Troll is included in the pages of the 1st volume.
Bartrum, Peter C. A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A. D. 1000. Aberystwyth: The National Library of Wales, 1993. Print.
The Mabinogion – translated by Lady Charlotte E. Guest. Eds. Stanley Appelbaum and Adam Frost. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1997.
Hutchins, Michael. Printing at Gregynog: Aspects of a Great Private Press=Argraffu Yng NGregynog: Agweddau ar Wasg Breifat Fawr. Trans. David Jenkins. Cardiff: Welsh Arts Council, 1976. Print.
Jones, Gwyn. Welsh Legends and Folk-Tales. London: Oxford UP, 1955. Print.
Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopaedia. Ed. John T. Koch. Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2006. Print.
Nanteos: A Welsh House and its Family. Ed. Gerald Morgan. Llandysul: Gomer P, 2001. Print.
Parry-Jones, D. Welsh Legends and Fairy Lore. London: B. T. Batsford Ldt., 1953. Print.
Pettifer, Adrian. Welsh Castles: A Guide by Counties. Woodbridge: The Boydell P, 2000. Print.
Saunders, Christian. Into the Dragon’s Lair – A Supernatural History of Wales. Llanrwst: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2003. Print.
Stevenson, Peter. Ceredigion Folk Tales. Stroud: The History P, 2014. Print.
Styles, Showell. Welsh Walks and Legends, South Wales. Cardiff: John Jones Cardiff Ltd., 1977. Print.