It is a cryptic poem of sixty lines in Middle Welsh, found in Llyfr Taliessin (Book of Taliesin). The text recounts an expedition with King Arthur to Annwn, the Welsh name for the “Celtic” Otherworld. Preiddeu Annw(f)n is one of the best known of mediæval British poems. English translations, in whole or in part, have been published by R Williams (in William Forbes Skene’s Four Ancient Books of Wales), by Robert Graves in The White Goddess, and by Roger Sherman Loomis, Herbert Pilch, John T Koch, Marged Haycock, John K Bollard, and Sarah Higley.
At some points it requires individual interpretation on the part of its translators owing to its terse style, the ambiguities of its vocabulary, its survival in a single copy of dubious reliability, the lack of exact parallels of the tale it tells, and the host of real or imagined resonances with other poems and tales.
A number of scholars have pointed out analogues in other mediæval Welsh literature: some suggest that it represents a tradition that evolved into the Grail of Arthurian literature. Marged Haycock (in The Figure of Taliesin) was the first to point out that the poem is “about Taliesin and his vaunting of knowledge”, and Sarah Higley calls the poem “a metaphor of its own making – a poem about the material ‘spoils’ of poetic composition”.
Just how old is Preiddeu Annw(f)n?
The poem is uniquely preserved in Llyfr Taliessin (Aberystwyth, NLW, MS Peniarth 2), which has been dated to the first quarter of the Fourteenth Century AD, according to Marged Haycock. The text of the poem itself has proved extremely difficult to date. Estimates range from the time of the bard Taliesin in the late Sixth Century AD to that of the completion of the manuscript.
On the basis of linguistic criteria, Norris J Lacy suggests that the poem took its present form around AD 900. Marged Haycock notes that the poem shares a formal peculiarity with a number of pre-Gogynfeirdd poems found in Llyfr Taliessin, that is, it usually divides into a longer and shorter section. Haycock contends, however, that there is no firm linguistic evidence that the poem pre-dates the time of the Gogynfeirdd (being that level of Bards known as the “Poets of the Princes” who date their existence to the Eleventh Century AD).
Structure of the Poem, and its reference to Annw(f)n itself
The poem may be divided into eight stanzas, each for the most part united by a single rhyme but with irregular numbers of lines. The first stanza begins and the last ends with two lines of praise to the Lord, generally taken to be Christian (but not necessarily so). In the last pair of each stanza, except the very last, the speaker mentions a dangerous journey into Annwn with Arthur and three boat-loads of men, of whom only seven men returned, presumably with the “Spoils” from Annwn.
Annwn is apparently referred to, somewhat incorrectly, by several names, including “Cær Sid(d)i” (“Mound or Fairy Fortress”), “Cær Pedryvan” (“Four Peaked or Cornered Fortress”), and “Cær Wydyr” (“Glass Fortress”), though it is very possible these are intended to be distinct locations. Whatever tragedy did occur is not clearly explained. Each stanza, except the last two, begins in the first person; the first stanza begins “I praise the Lord”, the second and third “I am honoured in praise”, the next three declare “I do not merit little men” who rely on books and lack understanding. The last two refer to crowds of monks who again trust the words and the knowledge of authorities and lack the type of experience the poem claims.
Contents of the Poem (per stanza)
The first six stanzas offer brief allusions to the journey. In the first, Gweir is encountered imprisoned in “Cær Pedryvan”. He is a character whom Rachel Bromwich associates with Gwair, one of “Three Exalted Prisoners of Britain” from Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Welsh Triads, or Triads of Isle of Britain) in Triad 52.
He is imprisoned in chains, singing before the “Spoils of Annw(f)n”. The second stanza describes the cauldron of the Chief of Annwn and how it was taken, presumably being itself the “Spoils”. The third and fourth allude to difficulties with the forces of Annwn while the fifth and sixth describe a great ox that may also form part of Arthur’s “Spoils”.
The first stanza mentions Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed, who in the first branch of the Mabinogi (Mabinogion) becomes the Chief of Annwn after helping its king, Arawn (who is credited with ownership of a cauldron). The speaker may be Taliesin himself, for the second stanza says “my poetry, from the cauldron it was uttered, from the breath of nine maidens it was kindled, the cauldron of the chief of Annw(fy)n” and Taliesin’s name is connected to a similar story in the legend of his birth, according to Sarah Higley.
A song is heard in “Cær Pedryvan”, which therefore seems also to be (or is in) Annwn: Gweir was imprisoned in perpetual song before a cauldron that first gave out poetry when breathed upon by nine maidens, reminiscent of the nine muses of classical Greece (as well as other groups of nine sacred females). Just as the cauldron “does not boil the food of a coward”, so the song it inspires is “honoured in praise”, too good for petty men of ordinary mentality.
Preiddeu Annw(f)n compared to other stories
Two works in particular, the tale Branwen verch Lyr (Branwen, daughter of Llyr) in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and a tale included in Culhwch ac Olwen (Culhwch and Olwen) in which Arthur’s retinue sail to Ireland aboard Prydwen (the ship used in Preiddeu) to obtain the Cauldron of Diwrnach, are frequently cited as narratives resembling that of Preiddeu Annw(f)n. In Branwen, Bran (the brother of Branwen) gives his magic life-restoring cauldron to his new brother-in-law Matholwch of Ireland when Matholwch marries Branwen. Matholwch mistreats his new wife and Bran’s men cross the Irish Sea to rescue her. This attack involves the destruction of the cauldron, which Matholwch uses to resuscitate his soldiers. There is a battle between the hosts and in the end only seven of Bran’s men escape alive, including Taliesin and Pryderi.
Keep in mind that “seven” is considered a “holy” or “divine” number is a great majority of European cultures. In Culhwch ac Olwen, Arthur’s entourage also sail to Ireland (aboard his ship Prydwen) to obtain the cauldron which, like that in Preiddeu Annw(f)n, would never boil meat for a coward whereas it would boil quickly if meat for a brave man were put in it. Arthur’s warrior Llenlleawc the Irishman seizes Caladvwch (Excalibur) and swings it around, killing Diwrnach’s entire retinue. Taliesin is mentioned in Culhwch among Arthur’s men, as are several Gweirs.
Preiddeu Annw(f)n is usually understood to say that a sword described either as “bright” or else “of Lleawc(h)” was raised to the cauldron, leaving it in the hands of “Llaw L(l)eminawc” (Cledyf lluch Lleawc idaw rydyrchit | Ac yn Llaw Leminawc yd edewit). Some scholars have found the similarity to Llenlleawc compelling, but the evidence is not conclusive. Sarah Higley suggests a common story has influenced these various Welsh and Irish accounts. Sir John Rhŷs was quick to connect these campaigns in Ireland with the symbolic Western isles of the “Celtic” Otherworld and, in this general sense, Preiddeu Annw(f)n may be associated with the maritime adventure genres of Immram (a class of Old Irish tales concerning a sea journey) and Echtra (a type of Old Irish literature about a hero’s adventures in the Otherworld or with Otherworldly beings).
John Rhŷs, as well as Dan Merkur, noted that the Isle of Lundy was formerly known as Ynys Wair (Gweir’s Isle), and suggested that it was once accounted the place of Gweir’s imprisonment. Culhwch also recounts Arthur’s nearby rescue of another of the three famous prisoners, Mabon ap Modron, a God of poetry after whom the Mabinogi are named, and gives details of another ruler of Annwn, Gwynn ap Nudd, King of the Tylwyth Teg (the fairies in Welsh lore) “whom God has placed over the brood of devils in Annw(f)n lest they should destroy the present race”. Gwynn is also made one of Arthur’s warriors, though he is the son of a God, after Arthur intervenes in Gwynn’s dispute over Creiddylad (the daughter of King Lludd).
In the First Branch of the Mabinogi (Pwyll Pendeuc Dyfed, or Pwyll Lord of Dyfed), Pwyll marries Rhiannon and their son Pryderi receives a gift of pigs from Arawn, the ruler of Annwn. Pryderi (and Manawyddan) later follow a white boar to a mysterious tower. Against Manawyddan’s advice, Pryderi enters the tower and is trapped by a beautiful golden bowl in an enchanted “blanket of mist”. After being told of Pryderi’s predicament, Rhiannon too enters the tower and suffers the same fate as her son. Rhiannon, Pryderi, and the tower vanish. Dan Merkur claims that this motif can also been compared with that of Gweir’s/Gwair’s imprisonment.
Roger Sherman Loomis pointed out the similarities between Preiddeu’s description of the “Glass Fortress” and a story from Irish mythology recorded in both Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of Invasions, also known as The Book of the Taking of Ireland) and in the Ninth-Century AD Historia Brittonum (History of Britons), in which the Milesians, one of the groups of ancestors to the Irish people, encounter a “Glass Tower” in the middle of the ocean whose inhabitants do not speak with them, just as, in Preiddeu, the “Glass Fortress” is defended by 6,000 men and Arthur’s crew finds it difficult to speak with their sentinel. The Milesians attack and most of their force perishes.
According to Sarah Higley, another fortress, “Cær Sid(d)i” or “Cær Sidydd”, is often linked with the Irish fairyland where the Tuatha Dé Danann live, whom the Milesians conquered. The meaning of the name “Cær Sid(d)i” is uncertain, except to say that “cær” means “fort” and “sid(d)i” or “sidydd” may be related to the Irish word Sidhé (which is a mound or a hill where fairies live, or used to denote the fairies themselves, or to refer to something that has a “fairy nature” about it). “Cær Sid(d)i” appears again in the same collection (Llyfr Taliessin), in Kerd Veib am Llyr, (Song before the Sons of Llyr), in language that closely follows that of Preiddeu: “Complete is my chair in Cær Siddi | No one will be afflicted with disease or old age that may be in it. | Manawyddan and Pryderi know it. | Three (musical) instruments by the fire, will sing before it | and around its borders are the streams of the ocean | and the fruitful fountain is above it …” The poet this time, definitely speaking as Taliesin, claims to have been with Bran in Ireland (Bran and Manawyddan being the sons of Llyr). Sarah Higley affirms that Annwn is “popularly associated with the land of the Old Gods who can bestow gifts, including [what appears to be] the gift of poetry (here called ‘awen’)”. Higley cites another poem in the same collection, called Angar Kyfyndawt (The Hostile Confederacy), which states that Annwn is in the deeps below the earth, and that “It is Awen I sing, | from the deep I bring it”. The great ox has “seven score links on his collar” while in Angar Kyfyndawt “awen” has “seven score ogyrven” within it, though this latter is not a well-understood term.
In a third poem, Kadeir Teyrnon (The Chair of the Sovereign), three “awens” come from the ogyrfen/ogyrven (ogyrwen, gogyrwen), just as in the birth legend Taliesin receives inspiration in three drops from the cauldron of Cerridwen, the enchantress who gives a second birth to the legendary Taliesin, and who is also mentioned in other poems from the collection, Kerd Veib am Llyr and Kadeir Kerrituen (The Chair of Cerridwen), and by another poet, Cuhelyn, in connection with ogyrfen/ogyrven (of which a discussion can be found at Mary Jones’ Celtic Encyclopedia entry for ogyrfen/ogyrven: http://www.maryjones.us/jce/ogyrfen.html). As a side note, it is worth observing that ogyrfen/ogyrven/ogyrwen/gogyrwen closely resembles one of three Gwenhwyfars’ (Guineveres’) father’s name in Triad 54 as (G)ogfran/Gogrvan/Ogrfan/Ocvran. In general, the term “awen” is not completely understood, nor is it consistently defined. These poems draw freely upon a wide variety of otherworldly tales, representing the fateful voyage, the battle, various imprisonments, and the cauldron as allegories of a mystical poetic knowledge beyond the ordinary. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves aligned himself personally with the poets’ standpoint, commenting that literary scholars are psychologically incapable of interpreting myth.
Preiddeu Annw(f)n’s relationship to Grail stories
Early translators suggested a link between Preiddeu Annw(f)n (taken together with Branwen verch Lyr) and the later Grail narratives, with varying degrees of success. Similarities are sometimes peripheral, such as that both Bran the Blessed and the Grail Keeper (the Fisher King) receive wounds in their legs and both dwell in a castle of delights where no time seems to pass. The Graal portrayed in Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, or Le Conte del Graal (Perceval, or The Story of the Grail) is taken to be reminiscent of Bran’s cauldron, and, as in Preiddeu, the Grail romances always result in initial tragedy and frequently in a huge loss of life. Earlier scholars were quicker to read “Celtic” origins in the Holy Grail stories than their modern counterparts. Whereas early Twentieth-Century AD “Celtic” enthusiast Jessie Weston unequivocally declared that an earlier form of the Grail narrative could be found in Preiddeu Annw(f)n, modern researcher Richard Barber denies “Celtic” myth had much influence on the legend’s development at all. Roger Sherman Loomis, however, argued that it was more logical to search for recurrent themes and imagery found in both the Grail stories and so-called “Celtic” material rather than exact antecedents; many modern scholars share this opinion. As yet, no solid consensus has been reached on the matter.