December 31, 2020

#08-030: Culhwch and Olwen, a Welsh Tale from The Mabinogion

Conan-looking guy with his arm around a woman, standing in front of a one-eyed giant with a huge sword
Culhwch at the court of the giant Ysbaddaden

Note: Although most people have never heard of it, the book called The Mabinogion should be on every shelf. This collection of eleven stories of Arthurian and pre-Arthurian lore contains the earliest prose stories (as opposed to poetry) in British literature.

Get Ready: Have you read The Lord of the Rings, or seen any of the films? If so, what were they like?

The Mabinogion was originally compiled in Welsh in the 12th-13th centuries, though the stories were based on earlier oral traditions. The first full English translation was undertaken by Lady Charlotte Guest and published between 1838 and 1845.

It's hard to pick a favorite, but one of the stories I like best is called "Culhwch and Olwen." Scholars say J.R.R. Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings) used it as the basis for one of his tales.

Just after Culhwch, son of King Cilydd, is born, his mother dies. His father later marries a widow, who insists that Culhwch marry her daughter, his new stepsister. When he refuses, the stepmother curses him so he can love no one but Olwen, the beautiful daughter of Ysbaddaden, a "Chief Giant." (Welsh names are hard for English speakers!)

Culhwch, under the spell, falls irretrievably in love with the maiden--without ever seeing her. With his father's blessing, he rides to the court of his cousin King Arthur. With his gleaming armor, his sturdy courser, and his ruby-collared greyhounds by his side, he cuts quite a figure as he approaches the gate of Arthur's palace.

Arthur receives him with great ceremony, and asks him to remain at the palace; but the youth replies that he has come not to consume meat and drink, but to ask a boon of the king: he would marry Olwen. Arthur confesses he has never heard of her, but will send out riders to find her.

But by year's end, the term of the agreement, no news of Olwen has surfaced. Disappointed, Culhwch prepares to leave. But Sir Cai, who has many supernatural powers, insists that he, along with five other equally gifted knights--Bedwyr, Gwalchmei, Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd, Menw son of Tairgwaedd, and Cynddylig Gyfarwydd--will accompany Culhwch to find the girl.

Approaching a great castle, they asked a herdsman who the castle might belong to. He tells them no one who has gone there had ever returned alive. But the herdsman's wife tells them that Olwen comes to their house every Saturday to do her wash.

When she does indeed come, Culhwch proposes to her. She accepts, on the condition that he complete the tasks her father will set. The giant sets him around forty nearly-impossible labors, knowing that on the day of his daughter's marriage, he (the giant) will die, and postponing that day as long as he can.

The text only tells us a few of the challenges--acquiring magic items and slaying monsters, for example, as with Hercules--but he completes them all with the help of Arthur and his men.

In the end, the giant is killed, and Olwen is free to marry Culhwch, son of King Cilydd.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. boon
  2. courser
  3. curses
  4. gleaming
  5. greyhounds
  6. herdsman
  7. irretrievably
  8. prose
  9. stepmother
  10. surfaced

  1. slender gray dogs used in hunting
  2. wife of one's father by a later marriage
  3. fast horse used in battle
  4. one who keeps cows
  5. shining
  6. not able to be reversed
  7. writing in ordinary language, not verse
  8. puts a spell on
  9. come to light; appeared
  10. favor

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 31, 2020

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. j; 2. c; 3. h; 4. e; 5. a; 6. d; 7. f; 8. g; 9. b; 10. i