The next meeting of the Memori Reading Group will be Wednesday the 23rd of April, 2014 in the John Percival Humanities building, room 2.50, at 3:10 pm (just to make it difficult!). We will be discussing extracts from Jenny Rowland’s (1990) fantastic Early Welsh Saga Poetry. Please email for a copy of the text.
The Early Welsh Sagas or the Saga Englynion are a collection of some of the oldest poems known to medieval Welsh literature. The poems are customarily split into three cycles, the ‘Canu Llywarch Hen’, ‘Canu Heledd’ and ‘Canu Urien’, plus the miscellaneous poems which do not seem to fit in anywhere. We will be reading a very short selection of poems from all of these categories:
Canu Llywarch Hen
- Gwen and Llywarch, pp.468-9
- Marwnad Gwen pp.469-70
- Can yr Henwr pp.474-6
- Pen Urien, pp.477-8
- Celain Urien pp.478-9
- Marwnad Cynddylan p.483-4
- Stafell Gynddylan p.484-6
- Eryr Eli p.486
- Eryr Pengwern p.486-7
- Claf Abercuawg p.497-9
- Kyntaw Geir, pp.499-500
- Llym Awel, pp.501-4
- Gwyn ap Nudd pp.506-7
- Mi a wum p.507
- Yscolan p510
- Trystan p.510
- Three Juvencus Englynion p.510
It’s about 20 pages of poetry in translation, so easily read in an hour! Come along and tell us what you thought, or come along and listen to me praise it for an hour, and then suggest something more exciting for us to read next month!
Questions for Discussion:
What is the Date of the texts?
Most of this material is found in the mid-thirteenth century Black Book of Carmarthen, the oldest predominantly Welsh manuscript, and the late fourteenth century, Red Book of Hergest, the famous anthology which also provides a source for all the tales published in the various versions of the Mabinogion. This would provide an absolute Terminus Ante Quem (date which the texts must have been written by) of 1250, but there are some other things which may or may not be explainable if the text was written right before the manuscript:
- Part of ‘Canu Llywarch Hen’ is interpolated into the medieval manuscript of ‘Y Gododdin’, the thirteenth century copy of what is called the oldest heroic British poem.
- The language of some of our poetry, especially some of the miscellaneous material is definitely Old Welsh, which might suggest an earlier date.
- The ‘Juvencus Englynion’ are from a ninth century manuscript. Do these belong with the rest of the poems?
- ‘Canu Urien’ and possibly ‘Canu Heledd’ seem to tell the story of the loss of Rheged, one of the kingdoms of ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ (the Old North). King Urien was a real king who ruled this area, although he was later more famous as the father of the Arthurian knight, Owein/Yvain. The kingdom is not in Wales but around Cumbria in what is now north England. This area was overtaken by Northumbria, the Saxon kingdom shortly before 730 A.D. Could the texts be that old?
Possible Discussion Questions
- What do you think the date of the main poems is? Does it remind you of any medieval texts you have read? Do the poems seem older than the prose ‘Culhwch’ and ‘Rhonabwy’?
- Are the texts actually sad and moving, or is the sadness over the top?
- Are the texts pro- or anti-war?
- Is Heledd a realistic character? Is Llywarch Hen?
- Does Heledd embody for you ‘the sadness of Wales’?
- Do the miscellaneous texts embody the Celtic love of nature?
- Are the wolves ‘beasts of battle’? Is it a good thing to be a boar in battle?
- What is with those eagles in ‘Canu Heledd’?
- What is the back-story of ‘Canu Urien’? Was Urien betrayed? Was he a good king?
- If you’ve read the Old English Elegies, do you see any connections with ‘Can yr Henwr’ or ‘Claf Abercuawg’?
- Is Kyntaw Geir a Taliesin poem? Is Gwynn ap Nudd?
- Does Yscolan remind you of anything else you have ever read?
- Can you explain the Trystan fragment?
The following extracts are from ‘Historia Brittonum’, supposedly dated 828.
At that time, Talhaiarn Cataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.
Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien. But at that time sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were defeated, and he shut them up three days and three nights in the island of Metcaut; and whilst he [Urien] was on an expedition he was murdered, at the instance of Morcant, out of envy, because he possessed so much superiority over all the kings in military science.
(Giles, J.A. (trans, 1891),
Do they help explain the poems at all?