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"Pa gur" and "The Spoils of Annwn."

A Lecture by Mark Adderley, Georgia Tech University

On the face of it, "Pa gur" is an immensely obscure poem. It's a dialogue between Arthur and Glewlwyd (pronounced Gloo-LOO-id) Mighty-grip. Who was Glewlwyd? Well, he's in "How Culhwch Won Olwen," where he appears as Arthur's porter. In this poem, Arthur seems to be craving admittance somewhere, but before he can get in, Glewlwyd wants to know who is with Arthur; and Arthur's response is interresting. It's possible to figure out an awful lot about Arthur's retinue by cross-referencing the names in other Welsh stories that are roughly contemporary.

Wythneint, Elei and Sywon are the first three; all three, as far as I can tell, unknown elsewhere.

Mabon son of Modron. According to "How Culhwch Won Olwen," Mabon is the only huntsman who can catch Twrch Trwyth, but "He was taken from his mother when three nights old, and it is not known where he now is, nor whether he is living or dead." Where Mabon now is is impossible to say. Eventually, Arthur has to ask a series of animals, each one older than the last, where Mabon is, and rescues him from prison by attacking the castle he is in; Cei and Bedwyr approach the castle on a salmon's back, and liberate him. Here, however, he is known simply as "Uther Pendragon's man." According to R. S. Loomis, he was originally the Celtic god Maponos, whom the Romans associated with Apollo, god of the sun and poetry.

Cystaint son of Banon is unknown.

Gwyn Godyfrion sounds a lot like Gwynn ap Nudd, i.e., Gwyn the son of Nodens, who was one of the Celtic gods. Gwyn himself seems to have been King of the Wild Hunt, who therefore might have been a sort of Celtic god of the sky, like Zeus in Greek mythology.

Manawydan son of Llyr is in the Mabinogion; Llyr (Irish Lir, English—believe it or not—Lear) was the god of the sea, though he remains a bit elusive; he is almost entirely eclipsed by his son. Oddly enough, Manawydan fought at a battle called Tryfrwyd which, by a fairly natural linguistic mutation, becomes the Tribruit familiar to us from Nennius's battle list.

Another Mabon, this time the son of Mellt; Anwas the Winged, unknown.

Llwych of the Striking Hand; his name resembles a character in the story of "Math, son of Mathonwy" in the Mabinogion: "Llew Llaw Gyffes . . . the lion with the steady hand." Llew is killed by treachery, but then returns as a bleeding eagle, a clear indication of the common theme of death and resurrection in pre-Christian literature. A character called Lleu was also the son of Gwydion, and fought against the forces of Annwn (also called Ochren in this poem) in a poem called "Cad Goddeu" or "The Battle of the Trees."

Next we find references to a battle fought at "Eidyn on the borders." This is clearly Edinburgh, in Scotland, and here we find the remarkable lines about Cei. With the newer spelling of Kay, of course, we can recognise Arthur's foster-brother, but here Cei is "My nephew," a relationship of some closeness in Celtic society. Look at what Cei is doing: "Cei pleaded with them / While he slew them three by three. . . . Cei pleaded with them / While he hewed them down." This pleading with one's enemies seems to indicate some kind of civil war; and if the Tribruit, mentioned above, was also in Scotland, what emerges here is an insular battle between Arthur's forces and the residents of the place now called Scotland, the Picts. If you remember, according to the historical accounts of events before Arthur's reign, Vortigern asked the Saxons Hengist and Horsa over to help him settle the Picts; did Arthur perhaps, according to myth or maybe even in real life, conduct a war against the Picts? If so, you can see why he would slay them with sorrow—they were distracting him from his real business, turfing the Saxons out of Britain. We get the names of four of Arthur's adversaries: Wrnach, perhaps a "hag;" Penpalach, Dissethach, and Garwlwyd, who was slain by Bedwyr, son of Bridlaw. Bedwyr later became that Bedivere who throws Arthur's sword into the lake as he is dying in the Vulgate Cycle and Malory.

Apart from the fact that he is here Arthur's nephew, not his foster-brother, we learn other things about Cei from "Pa gur." He is, of course, a mighty fighter and a heavy drinker ("When he drank from a horn / He would drink as much as four"), but he is also invulnerable, except by supernatural means: "Unless God should accomplish it, / Cei's death would be unachieved." He fought with "Llacheu," possibly Arthur's son, and in Mon (i.e., Ynys Mon or Anglesey, a large island off the coast of North Wales) he slew lions and possibly nine witches. Who were these witches? Well, possibly they were pagan priestesses. When the Romans wanted to destroy the druids in 42AD, they went to the sacred island of Mon—in fact, that's where they were when Boadicea rebelled, and that's why she enjoyed some early success in her rebellion. Perhaps what we are seeing here is Arthur and his warriors opposing the ancient religion. However, the poem is unclear as to whether the lions or the witches or both were on Mon, so perhaps it's better not to put too much store into this idea. Cei's final achievement is the slaying of Palug's Cat, but since the fragment of the poem ends here, the manuscript in which it survives being damaged at this point, we can't tell much more about the story than that. When Palug's Cat reappears in the Vulgate Cycle, it is Arthur who kills it.

"Pa gur" tells perhaps a portion of a story more fully explored in "The Spoils of Annwn." Here, Arthur journeys in his ship, Prydwen, with two other boats full of warriors, to Annwn, where he takes part in a disastrous battle from which only seven people return.

Although Arthur's particular enemies are not named in "The Spoils of Annwn," their fortresses are—or, perhaps, their fortress is named many times. Here are the various names of this place, along with rough approximations in modern English:

Caer Sidi

Siddi, or Sidhe, i.e., faerie (the ancient Celtic gods') fortress

Caer Pedryfan

four-cornered, also described as "four times revolving"

Caer Feddwid

Fort of Carousal (i.e., partying) or of the Perfect Ones (perhaps the gods, associating it with Caer Siddi)

Caer Rigor

Possibly Royal Fortress

Caer Wydr

Glass Fort; interestingly, this might be identified with Glastonbury, which was called Ynys Witrin, the Glass Island, by the Welsh, and hence with Avalon, Arthur's final destination after the fatal Battle of Camlann

Caer Goludd

Gloomy Fortress; this is linked with the stanza about Annwn being a place forever in between twilight and night—sounds a lot like death

Caer Fandwy

High Fortress

Caer Ochren

Possibly "Fort of the Shelving Tide," but Ochren is used as a synonym for Annwn in "The Battle of the Trees."

If Caer Feddwid really is associated with the "Perfect Ones," then it becomes associated with Caer Siddi, and we begin to realise that all the fortresses are different names for the same place. Arthur was opposed to them, which means that he was opposed to the ancient Celtic gods in a battle that was utterly disastrous—as you might expect a battle against the gods to be. The use of the term "Caer Wydr" seems to indicate that this was Arthur's last battle, the original trip to Avalon, not to be "healed of his wounds," but to fight a fatal battle against the old gods. Of course, he never came back, and nobody saw his corpse, and this gave rise to the stories about his possible return.

This, of course, must not be considered factual; it's a mythological version of his last battle, as the entry in the Annales Cambriae is a historical account (whether or not it actually happened). So what we've found now is that the story of Arthur has its roots in two branches of story: first, the historical or pseudo-historical, and second, the myth.

The myth tells of Arthur and three shiploads of heroes sailing to Annwn. This expedition was perhaps to obtain the magical cauldron described in the second stanza. In the Mabinogion story, "Branwen, Daughter of Llyr," Bran the Blessed goes to Ireland to win the Cauldron of Plenty, and there is a similar story told of Arthur in "How Culhwch Won Olwen." Was this perhaps one of the original exemplars of the Holy Grail, another expedition to find a life-giving vessel which resulted in the deaths of a large majority of Arthur's warriors?

The poem finishes with the poet criticising monks, who "crowd together like dogs." These monks are ignorant of the things the poet has been describing, and he asks himself, "Is there but one course to the wind, one to the water of the sea, / Is there but one spark to the fire of the unbounded tumult?" He seems to have accepted this, since he begins and ends his poem with references to the Christian God, but reluctantly. The monks were the Celtic missionaries who were driving out the old gods and replacing them with Christ. The poet seems to have converted, then, but not without a backwards glance at the old gods, so romantic, so beautiful. The monks don't seem to appreciate beauty at all, and perhaps this is what the poet means by "The grave of the saint is vanishing from the foot of the altar." The monks are too dense even to appreciate the beauty of their own faith. The poet finishes up seeking his consolation in Christ.

The poem then mythologizes the conversion of Britain from paganism to Christianity, standing at the midpoint of that conversion, written by a Christian who remembers paganism fondly. This was a historic situation, but the poet also represents the story mythically, showing how the Christian Arthur took arms against the old gods, dying heroically. The monks don't seem to appreciate this heroism which is, after all, a pagan virtue; yet Arthur did it on behalf of Christ, and perished doing it. Like Beowulf, "The Spoils of Annwn" is a moving elegy for a dying way of life.

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