The Wooing of Olwen, by Joseph Jacobs
Shortly after the birth of Kilhuch, the son of King Kilyth, his mother
died. Before her death she charged the king that he should not take a
wife again until he saw a briar with two blossoms upon her grave, and
the king sent every morning to see if anything were growing thereon.
After many years the briar appeared, and he took to wife the widow of
King Doged. She foretold to her stepson, Kilhuch, that it was his
destiny to marry a maiden named Olwen, or none other, and he, at his
father's bidding, went to the court of his cousin, King Arthur, to ask
as a boon the hand of the maiden. He rode upon a grey steed with
shell-formed hoofs, having a bridle of linked gold, and a saddle also
of gold. In his hand were two spears of silver, well-tempered, headed
with steel, of an edge to wound the wind and cause blood to flow, and
swifter than the fall of the dew-drop from the blade of reed grass upon
the earth when the dew of June is at its heaviest. A gold-hilted sword
was on his thigh, and the blade was of gold, having inlaid upon it a
cross of the hue of the lightning of heaven. Two brindled,
white-breasted greyhounds, with strong collars of rubies, sported round
him, and his courser cast up four sods with its four hoofs like four
swallows about his head. Upon the steed was a four-cornered cloth of
purple, and an apple of gold was at each corner. Precious gold was upon
the stirrups and shoes, and the blade of grass bent not beneath them,
so light was the courser's tread as he went towards the gate of King
Arthur received him with great ceremony, and asked him to remain at the
palace; but the youth replied that he came not to consume meat and
drink, but to ask a boon of the king.
Then said Arthur, "Since thou wilt not remain here, chieftain, thou
shalt receive the boon, whatsoever thy tongue may name, as far as the
wind dries and the rain moistens, and the sun revolves, and the sea
encircles, and the earth extends, save only my ships and my mantle, my
sword, my lance, my shield, my dagger, and Guinevere my wife."
So Kilhuch craved of him the hand of Olwen, the daughter of Yspathaden
Penkawr, and also asked the favour and aid of all Arthur's court.
Then said Arthur, "O chieftain, I have never heard of the maiden of
whom thou speakest, nor of her kindred, but I will gladly send
messengers in search of her."
And the youth said, "I will willingly grant from this night to that at
the end of the year to do so."
Then Arthur sent messengers to every land within his dominions to seek
for the maiden; and at the end of the year Arthur's messengers returned
without having gained any knowledge or information concerning Olwen
more than on the first day.
Then said Kilhuch, "Every one has received his boon, and I yet lack
mine. I will depart and bear away thy honour with me."
Then said Kay, "Rash chieftain! dost thou reproach Arthur? Go with us,
and we will not part until thou dost either confess that the maiden
exists not in the world, or until we obtain her."
Thereupon Kay rose up.
Kay had this peculiarity, that his breath lasted nine nights and nine
days under water, and he could exist nine nights and nine days without
sleep. A wound from Kay's sword no physician could heal. Very subtle
was Kay. When it pleased him he could render himself as tall as the
highest tree in the forest. And he had another peculiarity?so great
was the heat of his nature, that, when it rained hardest, whatever he
carried remained dry for a handbreadth above and a handbreadth below
his hand; and when his companions were coldest, it was to them as fuel
with which to light their fire.
And Arthur called Bedwyr, who never shrank from any enterprise upon
which Kay was bound. None was equal to him in swiftness throughout this
island except Arthur and Drych Ail Kibthar. And although he was
one-handed, three warriors could not shed blood faster than he on the
field of battle. Another property he had; his lance would produce a
wound equal to those of nine opposing lances.
And Arthur called to Kynthelig the guide. "Go thou upon this expedition
with the Chieftain." For as good a guide was he in a land which he had
never seen as he was in his own.
He called Gwrhyr Gwalstawt Ieithoedd, because he knew all tongues.
He called Gwalchmai, the son of Gwyar, because he never returned home
without achieving the adventure of which he went in quest. He was the
best of footmen and the best of knights. He was nephew to Arthur, the
son of his sister, and his cousin.
And Arthur called Menw, the son of Teirgwaeth, in order that if they
went into a savage country, he might cast a charm and an illusion over
them, so that none might see them whilst they could see every one.
They journeyed on till they came to a vast open plain, wherein they saw
a great castle, which was the fairest in the world. But so far away was
it that at night it seemed no nearer, and they scarcely reached it on
the third day. When they came before the castle they beheld a vast
flock of sheep, boundless and without end. They told their errand to
the herdsman, who endeavoured to dissuade them, since none who had come
thither on that quest had returned alive. They gave to him a gold ring,
which he conveyed to his wife, telling her who the visitors were.
On the approach of the latter, she ran out with joy to greet them, and
sought to throw her arms about their necks. But Kay, snatching a billet
out of the pile, placed the log between her two hands, and she squeezed
it so that it became a twisted coil.
"O woman," said Kay, "if thou hadst squeezed me thus, none could ever
again have set their affections on me. Evil love were this."
They entered the house, and after meat she told them that the maiden
Olwen came there every Saturday to wash. They pledged their faith that
they would not harm her, and a message was sent to her. So Olwen came,
clothed in a robe of flame-coloured silk, and with a collar of ruddy
gold, in which were emeralds and rubies, about her neck. More golden
was her hair than the flower of the broom, and her skin was whiter than
the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and her fingers than
the blossoms of the wood anemone amidst the spray of the meadow
fountain. Brighter were her glances than those of a falcon; her bosom
was more snowy than the breast of the white swan, her cheek redder than
the reddest roses. Whoso beheld was filled with her love. Four white
trefoils sprang up wherever she trod, and therefore was she called
Then Kilhuch, sitting beside her on a bench, told her his love, and she
said that he would win her as his bride if he granted whatever her
Accordingly they went up to the castle and laid their request before
"Raise up the forks beneath my two eyebrows which have fallen over my
eyes," said Yspathaden Penkawr, "that I may see the fashion of my
They did so, and he promised, them an answer on the morrow. But as they
were going forth, Yspathaden seized one of the three poisoned darts
that lay beside him and threw it back after them.
And Bedwyr caught it and flung it back, wounding Yspathaden in the knee.
Then said he, "A cursed ungentle son-in-law, truly. I shall ever walk
the worse for his rudeness. This poisoned iron pains me like the bite
of a gad-fly. Cursed be the smith who forged it, and the anvil whereon
it was wrought."
The knights rested in the house of Custennin the herdsman, but the next
day at dawn they returned to the castle and renewed their request.
Yspathaden said it was necessary that he should consult Olwen's four
great-grandmothers and her four great-grand-sires.
The knights again withdrew, and as they were going he took the second
dart and cast it after them.
But Menw caught it and flung it back, piercing Yspathaden's breast with
it, so that it came out at the small of his back.
"A cursed ungentle son-in-law, truly," says he, "the hard iron pains me
like the bite of a horse-leech. Cursed be the hearth whereon it was
heated! Henceforth whenever I go up a hill, I shall have a scant in my
breath and a pain in my chest."
On the third day the knights returned once more to the palace, and
Yspathaden took the third dart and cast it at them.
But Kilhuch caught it and threw it vigorously, and wounded him through
the eyeball, so that the dart came out at the back of his head.
"A cursed ungentle son-in-law, truly. As long as I remain alive my
eyesight will be the worse. Whenever I go against the wind my eyes will
water, and peradventure my head will burn, and I shall have a giddiness
every new moon. Cursed be the fire in which it was forged. Like the
bite of a mad dog is the stroke of this poisoned iron."
And they went to meat.
Said Yspathaden Penkawr, "Is it thou that seekest my daughter?"
"It is I," answered Kilhuch.
"I must have thy pledge that thou wilt not do towards me otherwise than
is just, and when I have gotten that which I shall name, my daughter
thou shalt have."
"I promise thee that willingly," said Kilhuch, "name what thou wilt."
"I will do so," said he.
"Throughout the world there is not a comb or scissors with which I can
arrange my hair, on, account of its rankness, except the comb and
scissors that are between the two ears of Turch Truith, the son of
Prince Tared. He will not give them of his own free will, and thou wilt
not be able to compel him."
"It will be easy for me to compass this, although thou mayest think
that it will not be easy."
"Though thou get this, there is yet that which thou wilt not get. It
will not be possible to hunt Turch Truith without Drudwyn the whelp of
Greid, the son of Eri, and know that throughout the world there is not
a huntsman who can hunt with this dog, except Mabon the son of Modron.
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."
"It will be easy for me to compass this, although thou mayest think
that it will not be easy."
"Though thou get this, there is yet that which thou wilt not get. Thou
wilt not get Mabon, for it is not known where he is, unless thou find
Eidoel, his kinsman in blood, the son of Aer. For it would be useless
to seek for him. He is his cousin."
"It will be easy for me to compass this, although thou mayest think
that it will not be easy. Horses shall I have, and chivalry; and my
lord and kinsman Arthur will obtain for me all these things. And I
shall gain thy daughter, and thou shalt lose thy life."
"Go forward. And thou shalt not be chargeable for food or raiment for
my daughter while thou art seeking these things; and when thou hast
compassed all these marvels, thou shalt have my daughter for wife."
Now, when they told Arthur how they had sped, Arthur said, "Which of
these marvels will it be best for us to seek first?"
"It will be best," said they, "to seek Mabon the son of Modron; and he
will not be found unless we first find Eidoel, the son of Aer, his
Then Arthur rose up, and the warriors of the Islands of Britain with
him, to seek for Eidoel; and they proceeded until they came before the
castle of Glivi, where Eidoel was imprisoned.
Glivi stood on the summit of his castle, and said, "Arthur, what
requirest thou of me, since nothing remains to me in this fortress, and
I have neither joy nor pleasure in it; neither wheat nor oats?"
Said Arthur, "Not to injure thee came I hither, but to seek for the
prisoner that is with thee."
"I will give thee my prisoner, though I had not thought to give him up
to any one; and therewith shalt thou have my support and my aid."
His followers then said unto Arthur, "Lord, go thou home, thou canst
not proceed with thy host in quest of such small adventures as these."
Then said Arthur, "It were well for thee, Gwrhyr Gwalstawt Ieithoedd,
to go upon this quest, for thou knowest all languages, and art familiar
with those of the birds and the beasts. Go, Eidoel, likewise with my
men in search of thy cousin. And as for you, Kay and Bedwyr, I have
hope of whatever adventure ye are in quest of, that ye will achieve it.
Achieve ye this adventure for me."
These went forward until they came to the Ousel of Cilgwri, and Gwrhyr
adjured her for the sake of Heaven, saying, "Tell me if thou knowest
aught of Mabon, the son of Modron, who was taken when three nights old
from between his mother and the wall."
And the Ousel answered, "When I first came here there was a smith's
anvil in this place, and I was then a young bird, and from that time no
work has been done upon it, save the pecking of my beak every evening,
and now there is not so much as the size of a nut remaining thereof;
yet the vengeance of Heaven be upon me if during all that time I have
ever heard of the man for whom you inquire. Nevertheless, there is a
race of animals who were formed before me, and I will be your guide to
So they proceeded to the place where was the Stag of Redynvre.
"Stag of Redynvre, behold we are come to thee, an embassy from Arthur,
for we have not heard of any animal older than thou. Say, knowest thou
aught of Mabon?"
The stag said, "When first I came hither there was a plain all around
me, without any trees save one oak sapling, which grew up to be an oak
with an hundred branches. And that oak has since perished, so that now
nothing remains of it but the withered stump; and from that day to this
I have been here, yet have I never heard of the man for whom you
inquire. Nevertheless, I will be your guide to the place where there is
an animal which was formed before I was."
So they proceeded to the place where was the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, to
inquire of him concerning Mabon.
And the owl said, "If I knew I would tell you. When first I came
hither, the wide valley you see was a wooded glen. And a race of men
came and rooted it up. And there grew there a second wood, and this
wood is the third. My wings, are they not withered stumps? Yet all this
time, even until to-day, I have never heard of the man for whom you
inquire. Nevertheless, I will be the guide of Arthur's embassy until
you come to the place where is the oldest animal in this world, and the
one who has travelled most, the eagle of Gwern Abwy."
When they came to the eagle, Gwrhyr asked it the same question; but it
replied, "I have been here for a great space of time, and when I first
came hither there was a rock here, from the top of which I pecked at
the stars every evening, and now it is not so much as a span high. From
that day to this I have been here, and I have never heard of the man
for whom you inquire, except once when I went in search of food as far
as Llyn Llyw. And when I came there, I struck my talons into a salmon,
thinking he would serve me as food for a long time. But he drew me into
the deep, and I was scarcely able to escape from him. After that I went
with my whole kindred to attack him and to try to destroy him, but he
sent messengers and made peace with me, and came and besought me to
take fifty fish-spears out of his back. Unless he know something of him
whom you seek, I cannot tell you who may. However, I will guide you to
the place where he is."
So they went thither, and the eagle said, "Salmon of Llyn Llyw, I have
come to thee with an embassy from Arthur to ask thee if thou knowest
aught concerning Mabon, the son of Modron, who was taken away at three
nights old from between his mother and the wall."
And the salmon answered, "As much as I know I will tell thee. With
every tide I go along the river upwards, until I come near to the walls
of Gloucester, and there have I found such wrong as I never found
elsewhere; and to the end that ye may give credence thereto, let one of
you go thither upon each of my two shoulders."
So Kay and Gwrhyr went upon his shoulders, and they proceeded till they
came to the wall of the prison, and they heard a great wailing and
lamenting from the dungeon. Said Gwrhyr, "Who is it that laments in
this house of stone?"
And the voice replied, "Alas, it is Mabon, the son of Modron, who is
Then they returned and told Arthur, who, summoning his warriors,
attacked the castle.
And whilst the fight was going on, Kay and Bedwyr, mounting on the
shoulders of the fish, broke into the dungeon, and brought away with
them Mabon, the son of Modron.
Then Arthur summoned unto him all the warriors that were in the three
islands of Britain and in the three islands adjacent; and he went as
far as Esgeir Ocrvel in Ireland where the Boar Truith was with his
seven young pigs. And the dogs were let loose upon him from all sides.
But he wasted the fifth part of Ireland, and then set forth through the
sea to Wales. Arthur and his hosts, and his horses, and his dogs
followed hard after him. But ever and awhile the boar made a stand, and
many a champion of Arthur's did he slay. Throughout all Wales did
Arthur follow him, and one by one the young pigs were killed. At
length, when he would fain have crossed the Severn and escaped into
Cornwall, Mabon the son of Modron came up with him, and Arthur fell
upon him together with the champions of Britain. On the one side Mabon
the son of Modron spurred his steed and snatched his razor from him,
whilst Kay came up with him on the other side and took from him the
scissors. But before they could obtain the comb he had regained the
ground with his feet, and from the moment that he reached the shore,
neither dog nor man nor horse could overtake him until he came to
Cornwall. There Arthur and his hosts followed in his track until they
overtook him in Cornwall. Hard had been their trouble before, but it
was child's play to what they met in seeking the comb. Win it they did,
and the Boar Truith they hunted into the deep sea, and it was never
known whither he went.
Then Kilhuch set forward, and as many as wished ill to Yspathaden
Penkawr. And they took the marvels with them to his court. And Kaw of
North Britain came and shaved his beard, skin and flesh clean off to
the very bone from ear to ear.
"Art thou shaved, man?" said Kilhuch.
"I am shaved," answered he.
"Is thy daughter mine now?"
"She is thine, but therefore needst thou not thank me, but Arthur who
hath accomplished this for thee. By my free will thou shouldst never
have had her, for with her I lose my life."
Then Goreu the son of Custennin seized him by the hair of his head and
dragged him after him to the keep, and cut off his head and placed it
on a stake on the citadel.
Thereafter the hosts of Arthur dispersed themselves each man to his own
Thus did Kilhuch son of Kelython win to wife Olwen, the daughter of
THE WOOING OF OLWEN.
Source.—The Mabinogi of Kulhwych and Olwen from the translation of
Lady Guest, abridged.
Parallels.—Prof. Rhys, Hibbert Lectures, p. 486, considers that
our tale is paralleled by Cuchulain's "Wooing of Emer," a translation
of which by Prof. K. Meyer appeared in the Archaeological Review,
vol. i. I fail to see much analogy. On the other hand in his Arthurian
Legend, p. 41, he rightly compares the tasks set by Yspythadon to
those set to Jason. They are indeed of the familiar type of the Bride
Wager (on which see Grimm-Hunt, i. 399). The incident of the three
animals, old, older, and oldest, has a remarkable resemblance to the
Tettira Jataka (ed. Fausböll, No. 37, transl. Rhys Davids, i. p. 310
seq.) in which the partridge, monkey, and elephant dispute as to
their relative age, and the partridge turns out to have voided the seed
of the Banyan-tree under which they were sheltered, whereas the
elephant only knew it when a mere bush, and the monkey had nibbled the
topmost shoots. This apologue got to England at the end of the twelfth
century as the sixty-ninth fable, "Wolf, Fox, and Dove," of a rhymed
prose collection of "Fox Fables" (Mishle Shu'alim), of an Oxford Jew,
Berachyah Nakdan, known in the Records as "Benedict le Puncteur" (see
my Fables Of Aesop, i. p. 170). Similar incidents occur in "Jack and
his Snuff-box" in my English Fairy Tales, and in Dr. Hyde's "Well of
D'Yerree-in-Dowan." The skilled companions of Kulhwych are common in
European folk-tales (Cf. Cosquin, i. 123-5), and especially among the
Celts (see Mr. Nutt's note in MacInnes' Tales, 445-8), among whom
they occur very early, but not so early as Lynceus and the other
skilled comrades of the Argonauts.
Remarks.—The hunting of the boar Trwyth can be traced back in Welsh
tradition at least as early as the ninth century. For it is referred to
in the following passage of Nennius' Historia Britonum ed. Stevenson,
p: 60, "Est aliud miraculum in regione quae dicitur Buelt [Builth, co.
Brecon] Est ibi cumulus lapidum et unus lapis super-positus super
congestum cum vestigia canis in eo. Quando venatus est porcum Troynt
[var. lec. Troit] impressit Cabal, qui erat canis Arthuri militis,
vestigium in lapide et Arthur postea congregavit congestum lapidum sub
lapide in quo erat vestigium canis sui et vocatur Carn Cabal."
Curiously enough there is still a mountain called Carn Cabal in the
district of Builth, south of Rhayader Gwy in Breconshire. Still more
curiously a friend of Lady Guest's found on this a cairn with a stone
two feet long by one foot wide in which there was an indentation 4 in.
x 3 in. x 2 in. which could easily have been mistaken for a paw-print
of a dog, as maybe seen from the engraving given of it (Mabinogion, ed.
1874, p. 269).
The stone and the legend are thus at least one thousand years old.
"There stands the stone to tell if I lie." According to Prof. Rhys
(Hibbert Lect. 486-97) the whole story is a mythological one,
Kulhwych's mother being the dawn, the clover blossoms that grow under
Olwen's feet being comparable to the roses that sprung up where
Aphrodite had trod, and Yspyddadon being the incarnation of the sacred
hawthorn. Mabon, again (i.e. pp. 21, 28-9), is the Apollo Maponus
discovered in Latin inscriptions at Ainstable in Cumberland and
elsewhere (Hübner, Corp. Insc. Lat. Brit. Nos. 218, 332, 1345).
Granting all this, there is nothing to show any mythological
significance in the tale, though there may have been in the names of
the dramatis personae. I observe from the proceedings of the recent
Eisteddfod that the bardic name of Mr. W. Abraham, M.P., is 'Mabon.' It
scarcely follows that Mr. Abraham is in receipt of divine honours