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!