Of the Welsh tales collectively known and translated as The Mabinogion, ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ has generally been regarded as the oldest. The material evidence for this is based on analysis of language which has now been questioned by at least one scholar, but regardless of the outcome of the debate about this, it will remain the case that the tale preserves earlier forms of folk narrative in a less developed way than other tales in the collection.
The main structural elements of the tale are two motifs that are recognised international ‘types’ of folk narrative: ‘The Jealous Stepmother’ and ‘The Giant’s Daughter’. In the first, typically the child’s mother dies and the father marries another woman who is hostile and tries to do harm to the child of the first marriage. In ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ the mother wants Culhwch to marry her daughter and when he refuses she says that he will marry no-one unless it be the daughter of Ysbadadden Pencawr, which is much the same as saying he will marry no-one or die trying. This is the outer ‘frame’ of the story which serves to propel Culhwch on his impossible quest. The inner frame of the story is the ‘Giant’s Daughter’ motif in which typically a giant or ogre will die when his daughter (who is usually not a giant) is married. So he sets any suitor a series of dangerous or impossible tasks. But the suitor manages to complete these tasks (often with help) and marry the daughter. In ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ the tasks are completed with the help of Arthur but also, and this is another common variation, with the help of certain animals.
As well as these two folk-tale motif frames, there are a number of episodes which could be tales in their own right although they emerge from the series of tasks set by the giant. Chief of these is the hunt for the boar Twrch Trwyth, but others worth noting are the ‘Oldest Animals’ episode in which each animal refers back to another who is even older and remembers past ages of the world, and (connected to this) the imprisonment of Mabon [Maponos] son of Modron [Matrona] where the remnants of an earlier myth are embedded in the tale.
Although these elements are all on the surface in the sense that they are easily identified as separate items, it is not just a roughly stitched together jumble of different elements but a unique literary construction that exceeds the sum of its parts. Gwyn Jones said that “the zest of this unknown storyteller still hits one like a bursting wave”. In addition to this literary judgement, the same critic (and co-translator) of the tale regarded it as “… a storehouse of folktale and a window on legend; a Celtic thesaurus”.
So it is possible to approach the tale as a medievalist, assessing its provenance in the contemporary context and attempting to assign a reasonably accurate date to it; as a folklorist, identifying international motifs and any specific cultural variations; as a literary critic, assessing its value as a well-told story; and more perhaps beyond these categories. How much more? The tale has attracted particular attention from psychological analysts of the Jungian school. John Layard, for instance, suggests that we shouldn’t regard the characters in the story as persons at all, but as “traditional motifs, all centring round the same theme of the heroic quest for the missing psychic substance called anima.” An approach as specific as this might well be extremely enlightening in terms of the context of the investigation, but will only be a partial view of the holistic entity which is the tale.
Similarly, a ‘myth kitty’ approach will give us some brilliant flashes of insight through the ‘window’ that Gwyn Jones spoke of. But, in the same essay, he also stresses that there is “no question of it being put together as an historical record” and that it is “not interpretable … in a coherent fashion as portrayals or illuminations of myths”. That is, however we might choose to [re]construct the freeing of Mabon from the dungeon of Caer Loyw (Gloucester, or rather the Roman fort of Glevum) where he has lain for longer than anyone can remember, it is always going to be questionable whether the person who constructed the tale as we have it would recognise our [re]construction.
But neither would he have been aware of techniques of psychological analysis that see the tale as a quest for anima. Or rather, as a psychologist might suggest, he was not conscious of such an awareness. Can we say the same about the mythological record? It may be, strictly speaking, impossible to assess the state of knowledge and/or tacit awareness the author ever had of Modron and Mabon and their antecedents. But if we are to propose, as I think we can on literary grounds, that the author knew what he was doing, it seems churlish to propose that he was ignorant of the significance of these names. Similarly the ‘Oldest Animals’ can be , I think, validly for us a resonant echo of an animist past in which humans shared the Creation with its other inhabitants. What the medieval author made of it is, of course, anyone’s guess, but if his tale can have that effect on us, might we not suppose that this was either consciously or instinctively part of his own perception?
As for Arthur and the boar hunt, this was legendary history at the time the tale was written, with a similar hunt involving Arthur recorded by Nennius in the ninth century. With all this matter set in the context of recognised universal themes it is hardly surprising that the tale has been seen as probing both psychological and cultural depths. There is no need to construe coded or corrupted mythical schemes behind the episodes of the tale to be able to read it as containing such material. In many ways it wears them on its sleeve. And the psychological depths that lie behind those identified folklore motifs are, in themselves, soul stuff of the deepest kind.
Culhwch and Olwen is contained in all the currently available translations of ‘The Mabinogion’.
The standard edition of the medieval Welsh text is available either with modern Welsh or English Introduction, Notes and Glossary: Culhwch ac Olwen ed Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans (1977)
Quotations above are from:
Gwyn Jones Kings, Beasts and Heroes (1972)
John Layard A Celtic Quest (1975)