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Thursday, April 02, 2020

A To Z Blogging Challenge 2020: C Is For Culhwch and Camelot

Public Domain
Culhwch is the youthful hero of the Welsh prose tale Culhwch and Olwen, which probably dates to some time in the 12th century. It was translated in the 19th century by Lady Charlotte Guest, along with the stories of the Mabinogion. There have been other translations since then. 

It’s particularly interesting because it has a long list of Arthur’s warriors and the magical abilities they had. Cei(Kay) and Bedwyr are in it, along with many others whose names you have to be Welsh to pronounce properly. I rather think that many of them must be the heroes of their own stories, perhaps lost, and were made Arthur’s men for the purposes of this story. 

Culhwch is the son of King Cilydd. His mother went crazy, ran amok and died giving birth to him after being scared by a herd of swine. His father sends him away to be nursed, so that when he eventually remarries, the new Queen doesn’t know about him immediately. 

Culhwch is sent for and she puts a curse on him when he refuses to marry her daughter. The only woman he can marry, she declares, is the beautiful Olwen, daughter of the giant Yspaddaden. Immediately he falls in love with this girl he has never seen and vows to win her. 

His father gives him advice: go to the court of his cousin, King Arthur, and ask for help. So off he goes to Arthur’s court at  Celliwig in Cornwall(not Camelot!), described in great detail as he mounts his wonderful grey horse and rides off, a very pretty youth with glittery clothes and very sharp weapons. 

At the castle, he encounters the porter Glewlwyd and demands to be admitted. Glewlwyd finally agrees to go ask his boss and Arthur makes him welcome, asking what he can do for his young cousin. Culhwch explains his needs and demands the help of the long list of all Arthur’s warriors, beginning with Cei, Bedwyr and Gwalchmai, threatening to tell the world about it if Arthur doesn’t co-operate. 

His first offer of help is from Cei, who tells him not to be so rude to Arthur and vows to go with him until he either gets Olwen or can’t. Six of Arthur’s warriors go with Culhwch. Along the way, they find that Yspaddaden doesn’t have many friends, but plenty of enemies. This is helpful.

 Culhwch gets to meet Olwen, the most beautiful girl in the world. She tells him firmly, however, that if he wants her, he has to ask her father for her hand. 

The trouble is, Yspaddaden has had a prophecy. When his daughter gets married, he will be killed. So he asks for a series of impossible tasks to be completed before he will agree to the marriage - and while he’s about it, throws poison spears at the departing companions. They throw them back, injuring but not killing him. He complains bitterly. 

Time to return to cousin Arthur. Culhwch doesn’t complete the tasks himself, of course. Arthur and his warriors do that. The final task, after a lot of people have been killed, is hunting the wild boar Trwch Trwyth, who has scissors, comb and razor between his ears, needed to shave Yspaddaden for his daughter’s wedding.That is a quest that ranges across entire countries; Trwch Trwyth is not just any animal. 

Well, the giant, who has killed a lot of people in his own time, gets his comeuppance and Culhwch gets to marry Olwen. I’ll speak more about her in the O post. 

Gustav Dore. Public Domain.
Briefly, let’s talk about Camelot. Despite all the arguments about where it might have been located, such as Cadbury in Somerset and Roman Camulodunum - Jack Whyte’s Arthurian novels use that idea, with two retired Roman army buddies founding it and naming it for their old home - it was first mentioned by mediaeval French writer Chretien De Troyes in his Lancelot stories. He may even have invented it. Apparently he was known for inventing stuff. 

That didn’t stop Henry VII from deciding that Camelot was Winchester, and even getting his very own Round Table with a Tudor Rose painted on it. (If his son hadn’t died young, he would have been King Arthur - and six women would have had very different lives) 

We all have a thing about Camelot, really. “Camelot” symbolises idealism. The John F Kennedy administration was known as Camelot - the Broadway show was going at the time, and John and Jackie played the record over and over. 

We imagine it as the place where knights and their ladies lived and loved and knights went on quests, begged for help by damsels in distress, the towers and the blue sky above. It has inspired a lot of art and music. 

Here’s a link to a YouTube video of the song from the musical. Enjoy! 


AJ Blythe said...

I didn't know about King Henry VII and his round table etc. Thanks for sharing, Sue. Fascinating.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, yes! Henry even made sure his son was born in Winchester so he’d be born in “Camelot”.

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

I love Culhwch and Olwen too! Especially because it's an early example of my favorite folktale type, Extraordinary Helpers. The forerunner of superhero team-ups :D Plus I have a soft spot for Kay.

The Multicolored Diary

Sue Bursztynski said...

That’s a nice point about superhero team ups! Yes, Kay is a good character. Have you read Phyllis Ann Karr’s Idylls Of The Queen? She has a soft spot for him too. That novel is a murder mystery set in Camelot, with Kay as the detective. It’s taken from a story in Malory that went for two or three pages!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I look forward to learning more about Olwen when we get to O.
I do like teams of heroes working together, but I have to confess that most of the Arthurian legend heroes just annoy me!
Black and White (Words and Pictures)

Sue Bursztynski said...

This is intriguing, Anne! Who annoys you and why? Now me, I am not a fan of Lancelot, but I am very fond of Gawain.

Melanie said...

I love the idea that Camelot was in Winchester XD And I love that Richard Burton song - but I'd never heard of the musical until I saw the movie Jackie! I don't know the story of Culhwch and Olwen, but I have a feeling that'll be the same for most of these. Can't wait!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Melanie! The Winchester thing was Henry VII, not sure why he thought that, but who knows? The poem Orfeo, about Orpheus, made Winchester the location of Thrace!

I hope you will enjoy the rest of the posts!

Roland Clarke said...

I'd never read about Culhwch - and have to admit my copy of the Mabinogion remains unfinished. Plus, even though I lived briefly in Wales and my WIP is set in North Wales, my Welsh pronunciation is terrible. But I try.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I do hope you will find time to finish the Mabinogion! The translation I read at university was the Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones one. Then, when you have read the Four Branches, why not discover Evangeline Walton‘s four books inspired by it? Or just read Walton if you’re not keen to do the original stories, they are beautiful!

Stuart Nager said...

I really love tales about King Arthur. So much to search out and read. Thanks

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Stuart! Got any favourites?

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

As usual, I love your book recommendations! :) Thanks!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Zalka! I always enjoy yours too.

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

I haven't heard of this young hero before, so thank you! I really enjoy your posts :-)

An A-Z of Faerie: Cù Sìth