Taliessin of the Radiant Brow
by Thomas Wentworth
In times past there were enchanted islands in the Atlantic Ocean, off the
coast of Wales, and even now the fishermen sometimes think they see them.
On one of these there lived a man named Tegid Voel and his wife called
Cardiwen. They had a son, the ugliest boy in the world, and Cardiwen
formed a plan to make him more attractive by teaching him all possible
wisdom. She was a great magician and resolved to boil a large caldron full
of knowledge for her son, so that he might know all things and be able to
predict all that was to happen. Then she thought people would value him in
spite of his ugliness. But she knew that the caldron must burn a year and
a day without ceasing, until three blessed drops of the water of knowledge
were obtained from it; and those three drops would give all the wisdom she
So she put a boy named Gwion to stir the caldron and a blind man named
Morda to feed the fire; and made them promise never to let it cease
boiling for a year and a day. She herself kept gathering magic herbs and
putting them into it. One day when the year was nearly over, it chanced
that three drops of the liquor flew out of the caldron and fell on the
finger of Gwion. They were fiery hot, and he put his finger to his mouth,
and the instant he tasted them he knew that they were the enchanted drops
for which so much trouble had been taken. By their magic he at once
foresaw all that was to come, and especially that Cardiwen the enchantress
would never forgive him.
Then Gwion fled. The caldron burst in two, and all the liquor flowed
forth, poisoning some horses which drank it. These horses belonged to a
king named Gwyddno. Cardiwen came in and saw all the toil of the whole
year lost. Seizing a stick of wood, she struck the blind man Morda
fiercely on the head, but he said, "I am innocent. It was not I who did
it." "True," said Cardiwen; "it was the boy Gwion who robbed me;" and she
rushed to pursue him. He saw her and fled, changing into a hare; but she
became a greyhound and followed him. Running to the water, he became a
fish; but she became another and chased him below the waves. He turned
himself into a bird, when she became a hawk and gave him no rest in the
sky. Just as she swooped on him, he espied a pile of winnowed wheat on the
floor of a barn, and dropping upon it, he became one of the wheat-grains.
Changing herself into a high-crested black hen, Cardiwen scratched him up
and swallowed him, when he changed at last into a boy again and was so
beautiful that she could not kill him outright, but wrapped him in a
leathern bag and cast him into the sea, committing him to the mercy of
God. This was on the twenty-ninth of April.
Now Gwyddno had a weir for catching fish on the sea-strand near his
castle, and every day in May he was wont to take a hundred pounds' worth
of fish. He had a son named Elphin, who was always poor and unsuccessful,
but that year the father had given the son leave to draw all the fish from
the weir, to see if good luck would ever befall him and give him something
with which to begin the world.
When Elphin went next to draw the weir, the man who had charge of it said
in pity, "Thou art always unlucky; there is nothing in the weir but a
leathern bag, which is caught on one of the poles." "How do we know," said
Elphin, "that it may not contain the value of a hundred pounds?" Taking up
the bag and opening it, the man saw the forehead of the boy and said to
Elphin, "Behold, what a radiant brow" (Taliessin). "Let him be called
Taliessin," said Elphin. Then he lifted the boy and placed him sorrowfully
behind him; and made his horse amble gently, that before had been
trotting, and carried him as softly as if he had been sitting in the
easiest chair in the world, and the boy of the radiant brow made a song to
Elphin as they went along.
"Never in Gwyddno's weir
Was there such good luck as this night.
Fair Elphin, dry thy cheeks!
Being too sad will not avail,
Although thou thinkest thou hast no gain.
Too much grief will bring thee no good;
Nor doubt the miracles of the Almighty:
Although I am but little, I am highly gifted.
From seas, and from mountains,
And from the depths of rivers,
God brings wealth to the fortunate man.
Elphin of lively qualities,
Thy resolution is unmanly:
Thou must not be oversorrowful:
Better to trust in God than to forebode ill.
Weak and small as I am,
On the foaming beach of the ocean,
In the day of trouble I shall be
Of more service to thee than three hundred salmon.
Elphin of notable qualities,
Be not displeased at thy misfortune:
Although reclined thus weak in my bag,
There lies a virtue in my tongue.
While I continue thy protector
Thou hast not much to fear."
Then Elphin asked him, "Art thou man or spirit?" And in answer the boy
sang to him this tale of his flight from the woman:—
"I have fled with vigor, I have fled as a frog,
I have fled in the semblance of a crow scarcely finding rest;
I have fled vehemently, I have fled as a chain of lightning,
I have fled as a roe into an entangled thicket;
I have fled as a wolf-cub, I have fled as a wolf in the wilderness,
I have fled as a fox used to many swift bounds and quirks;
I have fled as a martin, which did not avail;
I have fled as a squirrel that vainly hides,
I have fled as a stag's antler, of ruddy course,
I have fled as an iron in a glowing fire,
I have fled as a spear-head, of woe to such as have a wish for it;
I have fled as a fierce bull bitterly fighting,
I have fled as a bristly boar seen in a ravine,
I have fled as a white grain of pure wheat;
Into a dark leathern bag I was thrown,
And on a boundless sea I was sent adrift;
Which was to me an omen of being tenderly nursed,
And the Lord God then set me at liberty."
Then Elphin came with Taliessin to the house of his father, and Gwyddno
asked him if he had a good haul at the fish-weir. "I have something better
than fish." "What is that?" asked the father. "I have a bard," said
Elphin. "Alas, what will he profit thee?" said Gwyddno, to which Taliessin
replied, "He will profit him more than the weir ever profited thee." Said
Gwyddno, "Art thou able to speak, and thou so little?" Then Taliessin
said, "I am better able to speak than thou to question me."
From this time Elphin always prospered, and he and his wife cared for
Taliessin tenderly and lovingly, and the boy dwelt with him until he was
thirteen years old, when Elphin went to make a Christmas visit to his
uncle Maelgwyn, who was a great king and held open court. There were four
and twenty bards there, and all proclaimed that no king had a wife so
beautiful as the queen, or a bard so wise as the twenty-four, who all
agreed upon this decision. Elphin said, on the contrary, that it was he
himself who had the most beautiful wife and the wisest bard, and for this
he was thrown into prison. Taliessin learning this, set forth from home to
visit the palace and free his adoptive father, Elphin.
In those days it was the custom of kings to sit in the hall and dine in
royal state with lords and bards about them who should keep proclaiming
the greatness and glory of the king and his knights. Taliessin placed
himself in a quiet corner, waiting for the four and twenty bards to pass,
and as each one passed by, Taliessin made an ugly face, and gave a sound
with his finger on his lips, thus, "Blerwm, Blerwm." Each bard went by and
bowed himself before the king, but instead of beginning to chant his
praises, could only play "Blerwm, Blerwm" on the lips, as the boy had
done. The king was amazed and thought they must be intoxicated, so he sent
one of his lords to them, telling them to behave themselves and remember
where they were. Twice and thrice he told them, but they could only repeat
the same foolishness, until at last the king ordered one of his squires to
give a blow to the chief bard, and the squire struck him a blow with a
broom, so that he fell back on his seat. Then he arose and knelt before
the king, and said, "Oh, honorable king, be it known unto your grace that
it is not from too much drinking that we are dumb, but through the
influence of a spirit which sits in the corner yonder in the form of a
child." Then the king bade a squire to bring Taliessin before him, and he
asked the boy who he was. He answered:—
"Primary chief bard I am to Elphin,
And my original country is the region of the summer stars;
I am a wonder whose origin is not known;
I have been fostered in the land of the Deity,
I have been teacher to all intelligences,
I am able to instruct the whole universe.
I was originally little Gwion,
And at length I am Taliessin."
Then the king and his nobles wondered much, for they had never heard the
like from a boy so young. The king then called his wisest bard to answer
Taliessin, but he could only play "Blerwm" on his lips as before, and
each of the king's four and twenty bards tried in the same way and could
do nothing more. Then the king bade Taliessin sing again, and he began:—
"Discover thou what is
The strong creature from before the flood,
Without flesh, without bone,
Without vein, without blood,
Without head, without feet;
It will neither be older nor younger
Than at the beginning;
Great God! how the sea whitens
When first it comes!
Great are its gusts
When it comes from the south;
Great are its evaporations
When it strikes on coasts.
It is in the field, it is in the wood,
Without hand and without foot,
Without signs of old age,
It is also so wide,
As the surface of the earth;
And it was not born,
Nor was it seen.
It will cause consternation
Wherever God willeth.
On sea and on land
It neither sees, nor is seen.
Its course is devious,
And will not come when desired.
On land and on sea
It is indispensable.
It is without equal,
It is many-sided;
It is not confined,
It is incomparable;
It comes from four quarters;
It is noxious, it is beneficial;
It is yonder, it is here;
It will decompose,
But it will not repair the injury;
It will not suffer for its doings,
Seeing it is blameless.
One Being has prepared it,
Out of all creatures,
By a tremendous blast,
To wreak vengeance
On Maelgwyn Gwynedd."
And while he was thus singing his verse near the door, there came
suddenly a mighty storm of wind, so that the king and all his nobles
thought the castle would fall on their heads. They saw that Taliessin had
not merely been singing the song of the wind, but seemed to have power to
command it. Then the king hastily ordered that Elphin should be brought
from his dungeon and placed before Taliessin, and the chains came loose
from his feet, and he was set free.
As they rode away from the court, the king and his courtiers rode with
them, and Taliessin bade Elphin propose a race with the king's horses.
Four and twenty horses were chosen, and Taliessin got four and twenty
twigs of holly which he had burnt black, and he ordered the youth who was
to ride Elphin's horse to let all the others set off before him, and bade
him as he overtook each horse to strike him with a holly twig and throw it
down. Then he had him watch where his own horse should stumble and throw
down his cap at the place. The race being won, Taliessin brought his
master to the spot where the cap lay; and put workmen to dig a hole there.
When they had dug deeply enough they found a caldron full of gold, and
Taliessin said, "Elphin, this is my payment to thee for having taken me
from the water and reared me until now." And on this spot stands a pool of
water until this day.
The Taliessin legend in its late form cannot be traced back beyond the
end of the sixteenth century, but the account of the transformation is to
be found in the "Book of Taliessin," a manuscript of the thirteenth
century, preserved in the Hengwt Collection at Peniarth. The Welsh bard
himself is supposed to have flourished in the sixth century. See Alfred
Nutt in "The Voyage of Bram" (London, 1897), II. 86. The traditions may be
found in Lady Charlotte Guest's translation of the "Mabinogion," 2d ed.,
London, 1877, p. 471. The poems may be found in the original Welsh in
Skene's "Four Ancient Books of Wales," 2 vols., Edinburgh, 1868; and he
also gives a facsimile of the manuscript.