The Freedom in Education Story Newsletter 3
This is the first instalment of a story set in the time of King Arthur. It is from the famous collection of Welsh stories called the Mabinogion.
Once upon a time there lived a king called Cilyth, and he took to wife a lady called Goleuthyth. After a little while she bore him a son, and they gave him the name of Culhuch.
While the child was still young the Queen fell sick, and she called her husband to her.
“Husband,” she said, “I am going to die of this sickness, and in time you will wish to take another wife. However, I ask you not to marry again until you see a briar with two blossoms growing on my grave.”
The King agreed, and the Queen sent for her old counsellor, and told him to make sure that her grave was always kept clear, so that no plants would grow upon it.
Soon afterwards she passed away, and every morning the King sent down a servant to the grave, to see whether the briar had grown.
When seven years had passed by, the old counsellor neglected his promise to the Queen, and when the King visited the grave he saw a briar with two blossoms growing upon it.
The King hurried home and summoned his advisors: “Tell me where I may find a wife,” he said.
“I know of a woman who would make a good wife, my lord,” said one of his advisors. “She is at present the wife of King Doged.”
So the King and his men rode to the dwelling place of King Doged, and they slew him and carried away the lady and her daughter, and took possession of his lands.
King Cilyth did not tell his new wife that he already had a son, and the boy lived with his nurse, far away from the court.
The new Queen often wondered why her husband had no children and one day she visited an old woman who lived in the village, and asked her what had become of the children of her husband’s first marriage.
“He has no children,” said the old woman.
“Alas,” said the Queen. “Woe is me that I have been carried off by a childless man.”
“Do not say so,” said the old woman. “You will soon bear him a child, and in truth he already has one son.”
The Queen returned home joyfully, and went to her husband.
“Why do you hide your child from me?” she asked.
“I will hide him from you no longer,” said King Cilyth.
So messengers were sent to fetch the boy, and he was brought to the court.
One day the Queen called her stepson to her and said: “Son, you would do well to take a wife, and I know of none so suitable as my own daughter.”
“Nay, I am too young to take a wife,” said Culhuch.
“Why, then, I swear that you shall never lie with any woman until you win Olwen, daughter of Yspathaden, Chief Giant.
The boy blushed and was filled with love for the maiden, although he had never seen her.
“Why, my son, why do you blush? What ails you?” asked his father.
“My stepmother has sworn that I shall never win a wife until I win Olwen, daughter of Yspathaden, Chief Giant,” said the boy.
“That is easy for you to achieve, my son,” said the King. “Arthur is your first cousin. Go to Arthur and ask him to trim your hair, and then ask him to assist you.”
So the young man rode away upon a four-year-old grey steed, with shell-shaped hooves, a golden bit, and a beautiful golden saddle. In his hand he held two sharpened silver spears, and he bore a great battle axe that could draw blood from the wind and was swifter than the swiftest dewdrop falling from a blade of grass to the ground. A gold-hilted sword was on his thigh, and its blade was also of gold. On his arm he bore a gold-edged shield, that sparkled white as lightning, and in the centre of which was an ivory boss. Two white-chested greyhounds ran before him, each with a collar of red gold about its neck, and they gambolled about the horse’s hooves like two sea swallows swooping above the waves. As he rode forward, his horse sent up four clods of earth, and they rose up about his head like four swallows, now before, and now behind him.
He wore a mantle of purple, and an apple of red gold – worth a hundred cows – was in each corner. The gold in his foot gear and stirrups was worth three hundred cows, and so lightly did his horse pass over the ground, that his hair barely stirred as he rode towards the gate of Arthur’s court.
When he arrived, he found the gate shut, with a gatekeeper standing before it.
“Are you the gatekeeper?” asked Culhuch.
“I am, and I wonder that you should ask!” said the man. “I am gatekeeper to Arthur each first day of January.”
“Open the gate,” said the young man.
“I will not,” said the gatekeeper.
“Why will you not open it?” asked the young man.
“Because the feast has begun in Arthur’s hall, and save for the son of a righteous king, or a craftsman who brings his craft, none may enter. You shall be given a place for the night in yonder hospice, and your horse and dogs shall be fed. Tomorrow, when the gates are opened, you shall enter Arthur’s court, and sit where you will.”
“I will do none of that,” said the young man. “If you open the gate, all will be well, but if you do not, I will raise my voice in three shouts that will be heard from the top of Pengwaeth in Cornwall, and the depths of Dinsel in the North, to Esgeir Oerfel in Ireland, and every woman in the court that hears that sound shall miscarry, or never bear children again.”
“You may shout as much as you will about the laws of Arthur’s court,” said the man, “I will not let you in until I first go and speak with Arthur.”
The gatekeeper entered the hall and Arthur said: “Have you news from the gate?”
“That I have.” replied the man, “Two thirds of my life are passed, and two thirds of yours. In my youth I was in India the Great and India the Lesser. I was in Egypt, and in Africa, and the Island of Corsica. I was there when you slew the war-band of Gleis, son of Merin, and I was there when you slew Mil the Black, son of Dugum. I was there when you conquered Greece, to the east, and I was in Caer Oeth and Anoeth and Caer Nefenhyr Nine-teeth. I saw there many fair, kingly men, but never saw I a man so comely as he who awaits at the gate.”
“If you did enter walking, go out running,” said Arthur, “and let some bring golden drinking horns, and others hot peppered chops, so that there be ample meat and drink. For it is a shameful thing to leave such a man as he of whom you speak, outside in the wind and the rain.”
“Lord,” said Cei (Kay), “it seems to me that the laws of the court should not be broken for his sake.”
“Not so, fair Cei,” said Arthur. “We are noble men only so long as people seek our aid or generosity. The greater the bounty we show, the greater will be our nobility and our fame and our glory.”
Then the gatekeeper opened the gates, and Culhuch did not dismount from his horse, but rode into the great hall.
“Hail, sovereign prince of this island,” he said, “and let this greeting also be to your noblemen and your retinue, and the leaders of your war bands. And may your grace and your faith and your glory ever be in this island.”
“God’s faith, so be it, chieftain!” said Arthur. “And greetings to you in return. Sit down between two warriors, and you shall be fed and waited upon so long as you remain here.”
“I have not come to beg for food and drink,” said the young man. “I have come to ask a boon, and if you grant it, I will repay it, and praise it. But if you do not, your dishonour will spread far and wide.”
“Although you will not remain here with us,” said Arthur, “I will grant you whatever your tongue may name as far as wind dries, rain wets, sun runs, sea stretches, and earth extends, save only my ship, and my cloak, and my sword, and my spear, and my shield, and my dagger, and Guinevere, my wife.
“Do you give your word upon this?” asked Culhuch.
“You shall have it gladly,” said Arthur. “Now, ask for what you will.”
“I ask to have my hair trimmed,” said the young man.
“That you shall have,” said Arthur, and he took a golden comb, and scissors with handles of silver, and he combed the young man’s head.
“My heart feels kindly towards you,” said Arthur. “Tell me who you are.”
“That I will gladly,” said the young man. “I am Culhuch, son of Cilyth, and my mother is Goleuthyth, daughter of Anlawth Wledig.”
“That is true, and you are my first cousin,” said Arthur. “Ask for whatever you will, and you shall have it.”
“I wish that you would win for me the hand of Olwen, daughter of Yspathaden,” said Culhuch.
“Alas, chieftain, I have never heard tell of the maiden whom you name,” said Arthur, “nor have I heard of her parents. I will despatch messengers to seek her.”
Culhuch & Olwen, adapted from the Mabinogion, a collection of Celtic stories preserved in Medieval manuscripts written in the Welsh language.
Next instalment: Part 2: Yspathaden, Chief Giant