The oldest of the verses in The Black Book of Carmarthen are thought to be those telling the story of Myrddin Wyllt, particularly the Afallennau sequence, and within that those that tell of his life in the Caledonian Forest. These are framed by verses containing prophecies which, according to A O H Jarman, were later additions fulfilling the political purpose that prophesies often did in the Middle Ages. Jarman distinguishes these prophetic verses from the earlier ‘mythological’ verses which he thinks may have been attached to a lost saga telling Myrddin’s story (*).
There is another sequence of verses telling the same story in the manuscript known as Peniarth 3. Some of these verses are the same as those in the Black Book, some are different, and they are in a different order. Ifor Williams dates the Peniarth verses earlier than those in the Black Book but also suggests that they come from a different source (**). This implies a lost original with multiple variations of which only two survive, though they may also have given rise to other sequences such as the prophetic verses contained in the ‘Prophecies of Myrddin and Gwenddydd’ in The Red Book of Hergest. Gerald of Wales, writing before the Black Book verses were copied, also claims to have seen a manuscript containing Myrddin’s prophecies in Nefyn in North Wales. (***).
Clearly this material was shaped and re-shaped for different purposes in the Middle Ages. The verses below are the result of my own re-shaping based on an earlier poem I wrote about the Battle of Arfderydd and partly on loose translations made more recently of the core verses in the Black Book.
Like a wolf pack biting
into bone, bloody-chapped
we bit the bitter core
of that battle and gulped
Its poison; Gwenddolau sighed
his last breath as Rhydderch’s shield
was held high over the land.
I stole away by ditch and field.
Where could I hide but the wild wood
from Rhydderch’s men? That tree
with apples on its boughs
guards the glade they cannot see.
Sweet apples falling to earth
fester slowly into another year
a freight of sadness.
The cycle broken: the circle
shrunk to this one glade
in the wildwood; defeat
dogged us but I made
A spell here and grew hair
like a wild thing in the wild
wood which I wander like a wolf
under leaf shade ashamed but undefiled
by the new lord’s common law.
Under the mantle of this tree
cast wide over the glade,
my refuge from fear,
and from the bustle of far-folk,
the shadows hide
and cast a cloak of stillness
and silence to succour me,
even when wolf calls, when wind blows
and the forest sings in a clatter
of branches and leaves
or – when wind is still –
and owl’s quaver is carried
through the quiet of the night,
or when I hear the screech of jay
through the soft hum of day
in the long hours of summer.
In winter no-one comes anyway
and I dwell here harried
by ice and snow – where else to go?
For this is my world
contained as an apple seed,
settled in a hidden nook
to grow a new life
far from the rumours of battles
and the hurts of the world.
Sweet apple tree that grows in this grove
you know how to hide me from Rhydderch’s men
milling around, a host of them, richly arrayed.
But there is no Gwenddydd to greet,
her love lost to me. No woman comes
for delightful dalliance. Once I wore
a gold torc around my throat, now
the necks of swans are splendid to me.
Sweet apple tree of tender blossoms
here in this hideaway I hear
Gwasgawg curse me day and night
for the slaughter of his son
and of his daughter.
Sweet apple tree that grows by this river,
by rushing water, your fruits out of reach
of any intruder. Once I dallied here beneath them
in wanton play with a graceful girl, a lost companion.
Time tracks away: wild time in the woods
with wild things, far from fair words
of bards and the songs of minstrels
heard only now in the empty space
that is their absence. All that was dear
in the court of Gwenddolau, my Dragon Lord,
Echoes through the trees of Celyddon,
my awen’s aid: it’s service now
all that sustains me.
(*) A O H Jarman Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (Caerdydd, 1982)
(**) Ifor Williams Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies IV, 121-5
(***) Gerald of Wales Journey Through Wales various editions.