Kestrel's Nest

Culhwch ac Olwen

The oldest Arthurian tale

Part One
From the White Book of Rhydderch
and the Red Book of Hergest



Culhwch's Birth and Enchantment

Cilydd son of Cyleddon Wledig desired a wife as well born as he. The wife he desired was Goleuddydd,1 daughter of Anlawdd Wledig. After he spent the night with her the country went to prayer so that they might have offspring, and they obtained a son through the prayers of the country. And from the hour she became pregnant she went mad and she did not come near to habitation. When her time of delivery came to her she came to her proper reason. It came at a place where a swineherd was tending a herd of pigs, and the queen gave birth from fear of the pigs, and the swineherd took the boy until he came to the court. And the boy was baptised, and he was named Culhwch2 because he was born in a pig-run. However the boy was noble; he was first cousin to Arthur.3 And the boy was given to be fostered.

And after that the boy's mother, Goleuddydd daughter of Anlawdd Wledig, fell ill. She called her spouse to her and she said to him, 'I will die from this sickness and you will desire another wife, and wives are now dispensers of gifts.4 However it is bad for you to injure your son. I ask that you will not take a wife until you see a briar with two heads upon my grave.' He, for his part, promised that to her.

She called her confessor to her and asked him to strip her grave bare every year so that nothing might grow on it. The queen died. The king sent a lad every morning to see whether anything was growing on the grave. At the end of seven years the confessor failed to do that which he had promised to the queen.

One day the king was hunting. He made for the graveyard; for he wished to see the grave whereby he would get a wife. He saw a briar. And when he saw that, the king summoned a council as to where he might get a wife. One of the councillors said, 'I knew of a woman and she would suit you well. That is the wife of King Doged.'5 They planned to seek her. And they killed the king and brought his wife home and her only daughter together with her. And they conquered the land of the king.

One day the noblewoman went out to walk. She came to the house of an old hag who was in the township who had not a tooth in her head. The queen said, 'Hag, will you tell me what I ask of you, for God's sake? Where are the children of the man who captured me by force?' The witch said, 'He has no children.' The queen said, 'Woe to me that I have come to a childless man.' The hag said, 'No need for that. There is a prophecy that he will get offspring; from you that may be got since it might not have been got from another. Do not be sad either; he has one son.'

The noblewoman went home happily, and she said to her spouse, 'What reason do you have to conceal your child from me?' The king said, 'I will not conceal him.' The boy was sent for and he came to the court. His step-mother said to him, 'It is good for you to seek a wife, son. And I have a daughter fit for any nobleman in the world.' The boy said, 'I am not yet of an age to seek a wife.' Said she, 'I swear a destiny6 on you that you may not rub your side against a wife until you get Olwen daughter of Ysbaddaden7 Chief Giant. The boy blushed, and love of the maiden went into every limb of him though he had never seen her.8 His father said to him, 'Son, why are you blushing? What is wrong with you?' 'My step-mother has sworn a destiny on me that I will never get a wife until I get Olwen daughter of Ysbaddaden Chief Giant.' 'That is easy for you to get, son,' said his father to him, 'Arthur is your first cousin. Go to Arthur and ask him to dress your hair,9 and ask him for that as a gift to you.'

Culhwch journeys to visit Arthur

The boy went on a horse with a light-grey head, four winters old, with a well-knit fork, shell-hoofed, and a tubular gold bridle bit in its mouth. A precious golden saddle under him, and two whetted silver spears in his hand. A battle-axe in his hand, a forearm's length of a full-grown man from ridge to edge. It would seek the blood from out of the wind; it would be quicker than the quickest dewdrop falling from the stalk to the ground when the dew was greatest in the month of June. A gold-hilted sword on his thigh with a gold cross-piece10 to it, and a gold-chased shield on him with the colour of heaven's lightning on it and an ivory boss. And two speckled white-breasted greyhounds before him, with a red-gold collar on the neck of each one from the swell of the shoulder to the ear. The one that might be on the left side would be on the right side, and the one that might be on the right side would be on the left side, like two sea-swallows frolicking around him. Four clods of earth, that the four hoofs of his horse would cut, like four swallows in the air over his head, sometimes before him, sometimes behind him. A four-cornered purple mantle upon him with a red-gold apple on each corner of it. One hundred cattle was the worth of each apple. Worth three hundred cattle was the great quantity of gold in his foot gear and his stirrups, from the top of his thigh to the tip of his toe. Not a tip of a hair stirred on him from the lightness of the canter of his horse under him, making for the gate of Arthur's court.

The boy said, 'Is there a porter?' 'There is. And you, may your head not be yours,11 why is it that you ask? I am porter to Arthur every first day of January, and my deputies, however, do the job at other times of the year;12 namely Huandaw and Gogigwr and Llaeskemyn,13 and Penpingyon who travels on his head to save his feet, not heavenwards not earthwards, like a rolling stone on a court floor.' 'Open the gate.' 'I will not open it.' 'Why will you not open it?' 'Knife has gone into meat, and drink into horn and a throng to Arthur's hall. Unless you are a king's son of a land having lawful claim, or a craftsman who might bring his craft, you will not be admitted. There will be fodder for your dogs and for your horse, and hot peppered chops for you, and wine overflowing, and entertaining songs for you. Meat for fifty men will come to you at the guesthouse. People from afar eat there and sons of other countries who might not proffer a craft in Arthur's court. It will not be worse for you there than for Arthur in the court. There will be a woman to sleep with you and entertaining songs before you. Tomorrow, at tierce,14 when the gates are opened for the host that came here today, the gate will be opened for you first. And you may take a seat in the place that you might choose in Arthur's hall, from its upper end to its lower end.'

The boy said, 'I will have nothing of that. If you open the gate, it is well. If you do not open it, I will bring dishonour to your lord and ill-report to you. And I will give three shouts at the entrance of this gate so that they will not be less audible at Penwith Head15 in Cornwall and in the depths of Dinsol in the North and in Eskeir Oerfel in Ireland.16 And as many pregnant women as there are in this court, their pregnancy will fail, and as many of them as are not pregnant, their wombs will become excessively heavy so they will never become pregnant from today onwards.' Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr17 said, 'What you may shout however long about the laws of Arthur's court, you will not be allowed in until I might go speak with Arthur first'.

And Glewlwyd came to the hall. Arthur said to him, 'You have news from the gate?' 'I have. Two thirds of my life have come, and two thirds of yours to you. I have been before now in Caer Se and Asse, in Sach and Salach, in Lodor and Ffodor. I have been before now in Greater India and Lesser India. I have been before now in battle with the two Ynyrs18 when the twelve hostages were brought from Lychlyn.19 And I was before now in Egrop,20 and I was in Africa, and in the islands of Corsica, and in Caer Brythwch and Brythach and Nerthach. I was before now when you slew the war-band of Gleis son of Merin,21 when you slew Black Mil son of Dugum. I was before now when you overcame Greece towards the east. I was before now in Caer Oeth ac Anoeth,22 and Caer Nefenhyr Naw Nawdd;23 fair princely men we saw there, I never saw a man as handsome as this who is at the entrance of the gate this hour.'

Arthur said, 'If you came in walking, go out running. And he who looks at the light and opens his eye and shuts it, an injunction on him.24 And let some serve with a golden drinking horn and others with hot peppered chops so there is an ample supply of food and drink for him. It is outrageous to leave under the wind and rain a man such as you speak of.' Kei said, 'By the hand of my friend, if my counsel were followed the laws of the court were not broken for him.' 'Not so, fair Kei. Noble men are we as long as we are sought. It becomes us the greatest of the gifts we might give, all the more will be our nobility and others' faith in us and our honour.'

And Glewlwyd came to the gate, and opened the gate to him. And he did not do what everyone did, dismount at the gate on the horseblock, but he came inside on his horse. Culhwch declared, 'Hail, Chief of Princes of this Island. Let it not be worse to the lower end of the house than to the upper end of the house. Let this greeting be equally to your nobles and your retinue and your leaders of hosts. Let no one be without a share from that. As it is fully I have given greeting to you, let your grace and your credibility and your honour be full in this Island.' 'Let it be truth to God, chieftain. Hail to you! Sit between two of the warriors, and pleasant song before you and the privilege of a prince25 (one who expects a kingdom) on you however long you may be here. A when I may divide my goods to guests and people from afar, it will be from your hand that I will begin in this court.' The boy answered, 'I have not come here to wheedle food and drink. But if I get my boon I will repay it and praise it. If I do not get it, I will take away your honour as far as your fame was in the farthest four corners of the world.' Arthur said, 'Even though you will not stay here, chieftain, you will obtain the boon your head and your tongue might name, as far as wind dries, as far as rain wets, as far as sun reaches, as far as sea stretches, as far as earth is, except my ship and my mantle, and Caledfwlch26 my sword, and Rongomynyad27 my spear, and Wyneb Gwrthucher28 my shield, and Carnwennan29 my knife, and Gwenhwyfar30 my wife.' 'Truth to God on that?' 'You will have it gladly. Name what you will.' 'I will name it. I desire a trimming of my hair.' 'You will have that.' Arthur took a gold comb, and scissors with silver loops, and combed his head. And he asked who he was. Arthur said, 'My heart is growing tender towards you. I know you to be from my blood. Tell me who you are.'31 'I will tell you. Culhwch son of Cilydd son of Cyleddon Wledig am I by Goleuddydd daughter of Anlawdd Wledig, my mother.' Arthur said, 'This is true. You are first cousin to me. Name what you will name, and that which your head and your tongue might name you will obtain.' 'God's truth to me about that, and truth of your kingdom?' 'You will have it, happily.' 'I name you to get me Olwen daughter of Ysbaddaden Chief Giant; and I call on your warriors as witness and guarantee.'


From the texts in the White Book of Rhydderch (Peniarth MS4, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, cols 452-88), which dates from around 1350, and the Red Book of Hergest (Jesus College, Oxford, MS111, cols. 810-44), which dates from between 1382 and c.1410. For practical purposes this translation has been made from the annotated text in Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1992). This text uses the earlier White Book text as its primary source but, because this is incomplete, uses the Red Book for the remainder (from the freeing of Eiddoel).

(1) Her name means 'Light of Day'. (back)

(2) To the redactor the name cul + hwch meant pigsty but cul in the sense of 'sty' isn't known this early. Idris Foster pointed out that cul also means 'slim' or 'thin', hence 'slim pig', implying an original story in which our hero was a king's son transformed into a boar, the fate of Twrch Trwyth later in the story. (See Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen (Cardiff, 1992), pp. 46-7) (back)

(3) His mother Goleuddydd was sister to Eigr (Igerne) mother of Arthur. (back)

(4) In both the First and Second Branches, after their marriage, both Rhiannon and Branwen are said to give away many fine gifts and 'princely jewels'. (back)

(5) Doged, saint and king, is known only from one church dedicated to him at Llanddoged near Llanrwst in the Conway valley. (See Culhwch and Olwen, op. cit., p. 49) (back)

(6) Literally 'I destine a destiny'. Aranrhod does this three times to Lleu in the Fourth Branch. (back)

(7) The name means a hawthorn or whitethorn tree. So 'Hawthorn Chief Giant'. (back)

(8) Falling in love without having seen the lover is a frequent theme in Celtic literature. So with Rhiannon in the First Branch and with Étain in the Irish story of the Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel. (back)

(9) The symbolic act of cutting the hair by another was acceptance of blood-relationship. A similar instance is reported when Vortigern accepted his daughter's son as his own child by incest. (See Historia Brittonum: The Vatican Version, ed. D.N. Dumville (Cambridge, 1985), p. 90 as quoted in Culhwch and Olwen, op. cit., p. xxxi) (back)

(10) The word here is racllauyn and is usually translated as llafn, blade. However, a sword with a gold blade, though decorative and valuable, would be useless as a weapon. Rac can mean before so I have translated the word as the piece of the sword before the blade, i.e. the cross-piece. Rac can also mean a rack or framework. On a sword the blade passes through the cross-piece so this meaning could be equally valid. (back)

(11) The Middle Welsh equivalent of 'clear off'. Cantankerous porters recur in both Welsh and Irish stories. (back)

(12) Literally 'the year except that'. (back)

(13) Huandaw - 'good hearer or hearing'; Gogigwr - 'little meat-man'; Llaeskemyn - 'slow(?) step'. (See Culhwch and Olwen, op. cit., p. 55) (back)

(14) The third canonical hour, around 9am. (back)

(15) Land's End. (back)

(16) 'The Ridge of Coldness in Ireland'. A number of suggestions have been made for the whereabouts of this place, which appears only in this tale. Patrick Sims-Williams has suggested 'that Uarbel was the Irish name for the gap between the Little Sugar Loaf and Bray Head, the only coastal high ground between Howth and Wicklow'. ('The Irish Geography of Culhwch and Olwen', Celtic Studies in Honour of Professor James Carney, ed. Liam Bretnach et al. (Maynooth, 1988), pp. 413-4) (back)

(17) The porter's name means 'Strong-grey Great-grasp'. He also appears as porter in the poem Pa Gur from the Black Book of Carmarthen where he is opposing Arthur's entry to the gate he controls. (back)

(18) Ynyr wystlon are mentioned in the Book of Taliesin 42,2. (back)

(19) Norway. (back)

(20) Possibly Europe is intended. (back)

(21) 'Young Salmon son of Wave'. (back)

(22) 'The Fortress of Difficulty and Wonder' is mentioned in a triad. (See Trioedd Ynys Prydein, ed. Rachel Bromwich (Cardiff, 2006), No. 52.) (back)

(23) This might mean the 'Fortress of High Heaven of the Nine Blessings', however, there are other interpretations. (See Culhwch and Olwen, op. cit., p. 59) (back)

(24) Literally: 'constrained bondage to him'. In other words: 'anyone who doesn't respond to what I'm saying now is in trouble'. (back)

(25) The word used is edling, a direct borrowing from Anglo-Saxon atheling, the son of a king. The following phrase in brackets appears to be a scribal gloss on the word. (back)

(26) 'Battle breach'. This name is rendered Caliburnus in Geoffrey of Monmouth, from which came the Excalibur of the French romances. However, which of the two is earlier is a moot point. (See Culhwch and Olwen, op. cit., pp. 64-5) (back)

(27) From rhon, spear and gomyniad, slayer, striker. (See Culhwch and Olwen, op. cit., p. 65) (back)

(28) 'Face of evening', or possibly 'Face of twilight'. (See Culhwch and Olwen, op. cit., p. 66) (back)

(29) 'Little White Haft'. (See Culhwch and Olwen, op. cit., p. 66) (back)

(30) Possibly 'White fairy or enchantress'. (See Culhwch and Olwen, op. cit., p. 66) (back)

(31) It was normal practice for an inferior to name himself to his superior at the time of greeting. Clearly, from his entry to the hall on horseback and from not naming himself until now, Culhwch considers himself Arthur's equal, as his first cousin. (back)


Translation and notes © Angela Grant 2008