Arthur's costly raid on the Otherworld
The peom Preiddeu Annwfn has been interpreted from many angles, a proto-grail story, a boastful poem of the poet's own prowess, as well as a lost campaign of Arthur in Ireland. The poem seems to resonate with a sad and mournful tone however. Let's look at the poem first.
Taliesin opens with this with praise to God first.
"I praise the Lord, the Ruler of the kingly realm,
who has extended his sway over the extent of the world.
Maintained was Gwair's prison in Caer Siddi throughout
Pwyll and Pryderi ’s story."
"No-one went there before he did—
into the heavy grey chain guarding the loyal lad.
And before the spoils of Annwfyn he was singing sadly,
and until Doom shall our poetic prayer continue."
Gwair (possibly Gwydion, the trickster/hero of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi), who is also found in the triads as one of the 'exalted prisoners of Britain' is chained in Caer Siddi, a fortress of the otherworld. The otherworld is an island, surrounded by the 'heavy grey chain' of the sea. Gwair is there until Judgment Day “Doom”.
"Three full loads of Prydwen we went into it:
save seven, none came back from Caer Siddi."
Prydwen is Arthur's ship, and though three boats worth of men went with Arthur to the otherworld only seven survived. Prydwen also features in Culhwch and Olwen, setting sail to Ireland, to take the Cauldron of the giant Diwrnach, a tale which features an early reference to Caledfwlch, the sword that would become Exalibur. While Caledfwlch is Arthur’s sword, it is in a moment wielded by the Proto-Lancelot, Llenlleog the Irishman. Caer Siddi or Caer Sidi is almost certainly related to the Irish Sidh, giving further otherworldly, Fae, connections.
At the end of each stanza it is repeated, that only seven survived after leaving Annwfn, with different fortresses mentioned each time. Some interpret these as distinct fortresses within the otherworld, though I tend to think they are poetic flourishes for the ‘stronghold’ of the otherworld itself.
My first utterance was spoken concerning the cauldron
kindled by the breath of nine maidens.
The cauldron of the Head of Annwn, what is its disposition
a dark trim, and pearls?
It does not boil a coward’s food, it has not been destined to do so;
Lleog ’s flashing sword was thrust into it,
and it was left behind in Lleminog ’s hand.
The magic Cauldron of Annwn is described, and similar to the aforementioned Cauldron of Diwrnach, it will not boil a cowards food. Lleog and Leminog are both mentioned here, both who fill a role similar to Llenleog in Culhwch and Olwen, likely all conflations of the real hero/King Llenneac ap Mar of Elmet with the ancient god Lugh. Llenneac was the first King of Elmet, likely ruling from the 490s until his death some time in the 530s. Llenneac is the brother of the most likely historical inspiration for King Arthur, Arthwys ap Mar, the King of Ebrauc from the same period.
"And in front of the door of Hell’s gate lamps were burned
and when we went with Arthur, famed in tribulation,
save seven, none returned from the Mead-Feast Fort."
Here Annwn is stripped of it’s Fae trappings and directly likened to the Christian Hell.
Annwn is often interpreted as a land of fairies, and land of plenty and eternal youth, and the initial fortress encountered is etymologically related to the Irish Sidh further relating it to the Fae, however the reference to Hell gives a potential darker aspect, and it is left ambiguous whether those that Arthur lost were lost to otherworldly pleasures, akin to Odysseus’ men and the Lotus Eaters, or lost through the violence inherent in the darker vision of Hell.
"in the four quarters of the fort, stout defence of the island.
Fresh water and jet are mixed together;
sparkling wine is their drink, set in front of their battalion."
A four cornered fort guarded by many warriors, echoes the old roman forts that littered the landscape especially along the wall, like Camboglanna, where Arthwys ap Mar likely died fighting against Caw’s sons. Caw was a northern chieftain, and likely the father of the monk Gildas, who penned the fiery excoriation De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. Camlann is remembered as being fought in 537 in the Annales Cambriae, likely the year after Gildas was writing De Excidio. Gildas’ De Excidio is known for it’s condemnation of five kings, and it’s conspicuous absence of Arthur.
"I don’t rate the pathetic men involved with religious writings,
those who hadn’t seen Arthur’s feat beyond the Glass Fort:
six thousand men were standing on its wall;
it was hard to communicate with their watchman."
Taliesin starts with a quick jab at Churchmen (possibly even targeting Gildas himself, who would have composed De Excidio a short time before this) and claimed of Arthur's prowess, standing against a six thousand strong host of the otherworld. Taliesin as a learned Bard would have had a foot in both worlds, while being extremely dedicated and knowledgeable of religious matters, he would also have had a respect for the burdens of kingship, with an understanding that Gildas lacks. Taliesin judges a man by his great deeds, not his sins.
"I don't deserve to be stuck with pathetic men with their trailing shields,
who don't know who’s created on what day,
when at mid-day was God born,
nor who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy;"
Taliesin laments the unworthiness of those he accompanies now in Arthur's absence, calling them 'pathetic men' with ‘trailing shield’, He resents the men of his age, they have little knowledge of matters of God or battle-prowess. He again laments.
"And when we went with Arthur, sad journey,
save seven none returned from Caer Vandwy."
Taliesin shows great disdain for those after Arthur "I don't deserve to be stuck with pathetic men, with no go in them," Men who are content to stay where they are, who do not further their lot, or their kingdom’s lot in life. He views them as weak, and pathetic. This portrays the generation before Taliesin as being worthy of their legendary bearing, men who changed the path of their kingdoms, if only for a short time. Arthur’s victory at Badon, the hallmark of his reign, gave the Brythonic kingdoms peace from the attacks of the Germanic invaders, with even migration back to the continent happening in it’s wake. Taliesin’s generation had only known this peace, and as such, were comfortable, soft men.
Taliesin then turns and sharply attacks the men of the Church
"Monks congregate like a pack of dogs
because of the clash between masters who know
whether the wind [follows] a single path, whether the sea is all one water,
whether fire — an unstoppable force — is all one spark."
"Monks congregate like wolves
because of the clash between masters who know.
They don’t know how the darkness and light divide
and the wind’s course, its onrush,
what place it devastates, what land it strikes,
how many saints are in the void, and how many altars."
and he finally closes with another appeal to God.
"praise the Lord, the great Ruler:
may I not endure sadness:
Christ will reward me."
My friendbelieves that this is Taliesin's account of Arthur/Arthwys ap Mar’s death at Camlann and transportation to Aballava/Avalon/Annwfn.
The archaic poem “Preiddeu Annwfn” was Taliesin’s attempt to mythologise his first hand account of Arthurs final passage to the Otherworld. It is fair to say he successfully enchanted Western Culture for millennia with his inspired work. It recounts a voyage to the Otherworld Annwfn by Arthur and his warriors. The major theme seems to be Taliesin's sadness at Arthurs passing, variations of “And when we went with Arthur, sad journey” are repeated throughout the poem which ends with “may I not endure sadness”. Arthurs physical burial in Avalana was conflated with Taliesin's account of his passing to Annwfn which is why the term Avalon became simply another name for the otherworld. The poem may also contain an intellectual attack on Gildas with Taliesin repeatedly attacking men of the church with such lines as “I don’t rate the pathetic men involved with religious writings”. It seems he had a disdain for those who complain without taking action “pathetic men with their trailing shields, with no go in them”. Taliesin says that of the many men that accompanied Arthur on his raid only seven returned which is perhaps a reflection of the Battle of Camlann itself. Taliesin describes seven different forts in the otherworld, although these seven forts are thought to symbolise the ascent through the seven heavens or celestial bodies, knowledge of which Taliesin displays in his “Song of the Macrocosm”.
I certainly agree with this interpretation, and believe it's a wonderful look again at how these Brythonic poets such as Taliesin were adept at weaving history, myth, and current events all into one coherent song. @p5ych0p0mp also speculated that it may be the origin of the Grail legend.
In the earliest Arthurian romances that feature the grail it is guarded by the “Fisher King” sometimes called “Bron” which is an allusion to Bran. In the French romance “Perceval, the Story of the Grail” the hero receives the grail whereas in the Welsh equivalent romance “Peredur son of Efrawg” the hero instead receives a severed human head in place of the grail. Another extremely common manifestation occurs throughout the romances which is known as the “beheading game” such as that in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It is thought that when the warrior submits to receiving the decapitating blow he undergoes a symbolic death and rebirth. These cultural artefacts date back to the practices of the ancient celts who were known by classical writers to revere the head as the seat of the soul. As Tolstoy points out there was a custom at the festival of Lughnasa of taking a carved stone God head from its sanctuary and placing it on top of a hill for the duration of the festival. It is for this reason carved stone heads of deities are one of the most common artefacts found in Celtic regions. There are large numbers of these artefacts found in the Old North, those found in the Rheged and Hadrian’s Wall area are thought to depict Mabon. Llywarch’s account of decapitating Urien after his death and carrying his head back to the “land of Mabon” is probably evidence of similar beliefs flourishing in the time of Arthur “A head I bear by my side, The head of Urien, the mild leader of his army”. Perhaps the head of the sovereign symbolised the soul of the kingdom which must be rebirthed through the divine mother (Modron) and divine son (Mabon).
You can find more on’s theory that Preiddeu Annwfn is an allegorical tale for a young Taliesin transporting Arthwys ap Mar to Aballava after the disastrous battle of Camlann.
Most of the early indications of Arthur have pretty clear northern connotations, and you can find more about the case for a ‘northern Arthur’ here, and Preiddeu Annwfn is probably one of the earliest extant tales of this Northern Arthur, pre-dating the tales in the Mabinogi, and most of the other ‘Welsh Matter’. Most of the ‘Arthurian’ matter within the Book of Taliesin, “Preiddeu Annwfn”, “Kadeir Teyrnon”, and “Marwnat Vthyr Pen”, eschew the later Welsh locales, as many tales and poetry from the Hen Ogledd were trimmed of their northern trappings, and re-tooled for the still Celtic southern and western lands. These three poems are glimpses into an earlier Arthur, more closely rooted in the 5th and 6th centuries, While the Welsh Matter, like Culhwch and Olwen, probably portray an Arthur who is more akin to a 9th century king, than the early Post-Roman leader he truly was, as seen in the song likely praising the Northern Arthur Arthwys ap Mar of Ebrauc’s son Eliffer, Marwnat Vther Pen, who Taliesin boasts of:
I broke a hundred forts.
I slew a hundred stewards.
I bestowed a hundred mantles.
I cut off a hundred heads.
and in Kadeir Teyrnon, which is about Arthur himself, with a reference to both Hadrian’s wall, and Roman military presence in the North
From the armoured Legion
Arose the High-King
Around the old renowned boundary.
As mentioned earlier Culhwch and Olwen draws a large part of it’s scenario revolving around Diwrnach the Irishman from Preddei Annwfn, with setting and characters swapped. Diwrnach for Arawn, and Annwfn for Ireland. This is a common occurrence, with many figures be located from their northern origins to familiar places, possibly explaining the predilection for Northern heroes and kings to ‘retire’ to a monastic life in Wales. There may be truth to some of these, but it would seem there’s a common template being applied.
This interpretation of course bolsters the Northern Arthur theory, the inclusion of Lleog as one of the few other named figures also adds weight to this, as we have determined earlier that Lleog is likely Llenneac of Elmet, Arthwys ap Mar’s brother, and another of the foremost heroes of his day. With an understanding of where people belong in this period, it can be surmised that Llenneac as well likely fell at Camlann, as his son Guallauc was operating in the late 6th century, which would place his birth fairly late into his father’s floruit. Guallauc is unlikely to have been born before 520, and the kingdom of Elmet does not seem to have had a succession crisis upon Llenneac’s death, so we can assume Guallauc was of an age to take leadership of the kingdom, so Llenneac dying at the near-apocalyptic battle of Camlann in 537 makes sense as well, and Preiddeu Annwfn seemingly corroborates it with one of the few named figures being the mythologised version of Llenneac, Lleog. One wonders why men such as Arthwys and Llenneac are not found within much of the early heroic and praise poetry, but the easy answer is, they are, their names have only been replaced. Arthwys of course over time became Arthur, and Llenneac first became Lleog, then Llenlleog, then eventually Lancelot.
With this understanding, and approach to Preiddeu Annwfn it is easy to see wherehas drawn his conclusions from, along with other evidence of course.
Preiddeu Annwfn stands as an interesting glimpse into the mindset of a Brythonic poet, and how he would have approached the death of his lord, and all the ills he blames for it, from bookish corrupt churchmen, to men with 'no go in them’. Preiddeu Annwfn eclipses the simple style of a traditional ‘Marwnat’ or Death-Song, and makes Arthwys into something greater. The replacement of Arthwys with ‘Arthur’ and the beginning of Arthur’s ascent into legend.