Culhwch and Olwen
Washington State University
“CULHWCH AND OLWEN”
The Mabinogion is the title for a collection of eleven medieval Welsh prose tales (“Mab” = youth –> tale of a youth or hero). The manuscript is dated about 1325, but the collection probably dates from 1100, and that after some of the tales had been in oral transmission who knows how much earlier. They draw on myth, folklore, and Celtic history.
“Culhwch and Olwen” is the earliest Arthurian story and probably appeared in written form first in the late 10th century. Reading this one can be frustrating and is certainly disorienting. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to “read” (evenly in pace as we’re used to) much of this tale. How do you explain, or even describe, the strangeness of the story? Why do we feel confused or uncertain reading this? Discuss the pace or the flow of the tale.
For example, the lists (of warriors, of chores, of accomplishments) create too much of a time/space stretch: a moment drawn out for half a dozen pages, months or years compressed into a couple lines. The elasticity may be refreshing, but it is extreme.
There seems to be no narrative distance. The story consists of recorded happenings, presented as immediate and unquestioned. We have no separate authorial comment, so there’s a childlike quality to this.
Applying the qualities of the romance genre to this “story” can be illuminating: the characters being types, the motivation being almost absent, the action in time and setting in space being elastic, the plot amounting to a chronicle, and the atmosphere being like what?
“Love” seems to be serving merely as an artificial and arbitrary motivation, even an excuse. This is particularly noticeable since motivation or indeed any explanation for events (I don’t even want to say “plot” points) is absolutely lacking throughout the piece. Perhaps “love” is never entirely explicable anyway; hence the lame attempts at declaring couples to have “chemistry,” or as being “meant for each other,” or “work[ing] well together,” or sharing common interests, or “belong[ing] together.” But I’d also say that there’s a downside to supplying motives, filling gaps, overexplaining, psychologizing. These features can reduce art (or love or action) to the formulaic and mechanical, ignoring other modes of thinking and experiencing action, life, love. Such features destroy mystery, spontaneity, freedom. In “Culhwch and Olwen” we are forced to confront blatant non-motivation and an absence of rational explanations.
The ritualistic quest combines with the unexplained visual quality of the work to provide seemingly haphazard vignettes. Things just happen. In terms of the romance genre, these effects have been compared to the dream state — an alternate type of experience and consciousness.
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And the boy was baptized, and the name Culhwch given to him because he was found in a pig-run. (95)
Quoth the crone: “He has no children.” Quoth the queen: “Woe is me that I should have come to a childless man!” Said the crone: “Thou needst not say that. It is prophesied that he shall have offspring. ‘Tis by thee he shall have it, since he has not had it by another. Besides, be not unhappy, he has one son. (96)
She said in reply: “I will swear a destiny upon thee, that thy side shall never strike against woman till thou win Olwen daughter of Ysbaddaden Chief Giant.” The boy coloured, and love of the maiden entered into every limb of him, although he had never seen her. (96)
The coloring and the mention of the limbs suggest a rudimentary understanding of a portion of the new physiology of love (according to Andreas in The Art of Courtly Love), but everyone from Andreas to comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth emphasizes the tradition of love entering through the eyes. So how can we have Amor or even Eros when Cuhlwch hasn’t seen even an image of Olwen?
“And I invoke her in the name of thy warriors.” He invoked his boon in the name of Cei and Bedwyr, and … [seven pages of names] — in the name of all these did Culhwch son of Cilydd invoke his boon.
Arthur said, “Ah, chieftain, I have never heard tell of the maiden thou tellest of….” (100-107)
… and Morfran son of Tegid (no man placed his weapon in him at Camlan, so exceeding ugly was he; all thought he was a devil helping. There was hair on him like the hair of a stag), and …. (102)
Drem son of Dremidydd, who saw from Celli Wig in Cornwall as far as Pen Blathaon in Prydein, when a fly would rise in the morning with the sun…. (103)
… Sol and Gwaddyn Osol, and Gwaddyn Oddeith (Sol could stand all day on one foot. Gwaddyn Oddeith, if he stood on top of the highest mountain in the world, it would become a level plain under his foot….) (104)
Cacamwri, Arthur’s servant (show him a barn, were there a course for thirty ploughs there in, he would beat it with an iron flail till it was no better for the boards, the cross-pieces and the sidebeams than for the small oats in the mow at the bottom of the barn)…. (105)
Thirty-nine tasks are assigned (113-121); the knights accomplish some of these in their scavenger hunt, but they also fetch lots of items that were not assigned (121-136).
And Culhwch said, “Hast had thy shave, man?” “I have,” said he. “And is thy daughter mine now?” “Thine,” said he. “And thou needst not thank me for that, but thank Arthur who has secured her for thee. Of my own free will thou shouldst never have had her. And it is high time to take away my life.” And then Goreu son of Custennin caught him by the hair of his head and dragged him behind him to the mound, and cut off his head, and set it on the bailey-stake. And he took possession of his fort and his dominions.
And that night Culhwch slept with Olwen, and she was his only wife so long as he lived. And the hosts of Arthur dispersed, every one to his country.
And in this wise did Culhwch win Olwen daughter of Ysbaddaden Chief Giant. (136)
“Culhwch and Olwen.” The Mabinogion. Trans. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1949. Rpt. 1977.