This is a surprise one: I had been wondering about traditional tales around the world. Immediately to hand was the Mabinogion. Why? Well, I am very fond of Wales, Welshness and Walesiness. I still think Welsh is one of the loveliest languages to hear spoken/sung etc etc.
So, I was skipping through the Lady Charlotte Guest copy, an Everyman edition ,when I alighted upon this tale. Not that none of the others fit the bill, or the ring, as it were, but it is the first one I looked at.
And? Well the whole story is peculiar, the editors admit as much; and the tale appears a little more rough-and-ready than the rest of the more polished ones in the book. Purportedly written in the twelfth century with the rest of The Mabinogion.
Well? Is it a ring? Part of it looks as though it is – and it will surprise you, if you know traditional tales, particularly Grimms.
Kilhwych/Culwych and Olwen is a tale of romance, and supposedly one of the first written references to King Arthur: Kilhwych wants to win Olwen, and yes, she seems keen too.
Trouble is, things have to be done first, challenges have to be met.
Kilhwych is a cousin of King Arthur. To gain his proper status he has to call on him at his court. So he does; he is a wily sort, though, he has tricks and wisdom beyond his years – probably because of his parentage.
He has to win his entrance to the court, first of all, and that is no easy task. Once allowed in and introduced he begins to give his demands as a relative. That is, to marry Olwen. She just happens to be the daughter of a giant, Ysbaddaden. And no one knows where they live. So an expedition is arranged; this is where the reader gets a first glimpse of the rigmarole of this tale: Kilhwych rolls off the list all he knows of who sit at Arthur’s table.
And the list goes on for three of four pages!
There are names, and honorifics, amusing asides: – and some of these are quite hilarious: there is a bit a wicked humour at play here: ‘Morvran the son of Tegid (no one struck him in the battle of Camlan by reason of his ugliness; all thought he was an auxiliary devil….)…’.
So, they set out. Ok, eventually they find the court of Ysbaddaden. They are warned off: no one ever comes back alive. So they wile their way into admittance. It so happens that the herdsman’s wife is Kilhwych’s aunt. To gain entrance they invite Olwen down to the hut; she comes willingly, and rather takes to Kilhwych right away. So that saves a lot of bother. They then have three audiences with Ysbaddenden; as they leave at each one he throws a poisoned dart at them, it is caught in turn by members of the company and thrown back, the last time by Kilhwych. Ysbaddenden’s response each time as he is hit by his own poisoned dart is “A cursed ungentle son-in-law…!”. This phrase became quite a quotable commodity at one point amongst Welsh scholars! To continue: on the last day they kill all nine gate keepers, and their dogs/hounds, without alerting anyone in the process. Then the proposal is put, that is, the offer-that-can’t-be-refused is made – and then it begins.
Ysbaddaden lays down certain tasks for Kilhwych to complete before he has his blessing.
No problem, says Kilwych. ‘Yes, but,’ says Ysbaddaden, ‘to do that you must first do this.’ No problem, says Kilhwych. And so it goes on, sub-clause upon sub-clause, for page after page: there are forty sub-clauses!
The company begins – and treads the ladder of sub-clauses back down to the beginning, the main clause.
This is a proper chiasmus. We can perhaps identify this format from wonder tales, the stories from the Grimm brothers, many traditional tales.
Here, at the end of the tasks, Ysbaddaden has to be killed to ensure his promise is kept (no going back, see, if you’re dead!). It was the same with Kilhwych’s father: his wife, Kilhwych’s mother, died soon after his birth. To gain a new wife he went out deliberately and killed the husband, a local king, and took her and her daughter away.
The listings of tasks and Arthur’s table guests reference Welsh cultural heroes and icons extensively; the tale is above all else a tour de force of legitimation. The main task in winning Olwen is the capture and tethering of the Twrch Trwyth, a mythical boar of great proportions and ferocity. Maybe a family likeness here to the Irish ‘Tain’, the Cattle-Raid of Cooley?
The solving of the tasks does not follow closely the chiasmus of the sub-clauses. This is not a problem; maybe it saves the reader’s patience?! So, there is a proper chiasmus – but is there a ring? No, I don’t think so; there is no ‘turn’, and the beginning and ending are rather arbitrary.
I have now come upon several such structures as this – that they are not rings, yet share many of the basic structures of rings, is quite interesting. Is it, as I suggested earlier in another blog, a period of transition from ring structure to something more linear in construction? It could well be so. Hmm.
There really was no way round the killing of Ysbaddeden. Psychologically perhaps this is the overcoming of the father figure as the girl-child becomes a woman, and independent – and, even more lethal, free to choose a mate. But then, psychological models do tend to follow the format laid down by traditional. tales, whether Greek myth, or whatever. Whether these tales were put out as the ideal, by over-patriarchal establishment figures, or did actually reflect contemporary practice/mores, are questions we do not know the answer to.