Everyone knows who Merlin is – or do they?

For many the stories about a wizard who aids King Arthur are an integral part of the Arthurian Romance tradition. But trace that tradition back far enough and both Arthur and Merlin have separate existences unrelated to each other. The two were brought together by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136). Geoffrey had previously published a series of Prophecies of Merlin and included these in his ‘History’. Some years later he wrote a long verse ‘Life of Merlin’ which draws upon pre-existing Welsh legendary material about a character called Myrddin who lived as a wild man in the Caledonian Forest. Gerald of Wales, writing later in the twelfth century, speaks explicitly of two Merlins: Merlin Ambrosius and Merlin Silvestris. While he is likely to have drawn these from the work of Geoffrey he may also have seen other material and claimed he had his own ancient book of the prophecies of Merlin, though he never published these.

Geoffrey based the Merlin of his ‘History’ on a character called Ambrosius mentioned by Nennius in the ninth century and attached him to the stories about King Arthur. He may not have become fully familiar with the earlier Welsh legendary material about ‘Myrddin Wyllt’ until after writing his ‘History’, his later ‘Life of Merlin’ is based on earlier material in Welsh, some of which has survived. This Merlin, like Taliesin, was regarded as a prophet and had a number of verses attached to his name over an extended period of time. The earliest ones, probably from the ninth or tenth centuries rather than the sixth century when he was supposed to have lived, are contained in a series called the ‘Afallenau’ because they are addressed to an apple tree which seems to afford him some sort of protection and prevent others finding him:

In this glade a sweet apple tree

From Rhydderch’s men hides me

Though many are there to see.

(Awallen peren atif in llanerch/y hanger tae hargel rac riev Ryderch/amsaethir in y bon. maon yn y chilch.)

He was living in the woods as a wild man following the Battle of Arfderydd where Gwenddolau was defeated by Rhydderch Hael. This battle is an historically attested event and is thought to have taken place at Arthuret near to the border between England and Scotland in the year 573. It is likely that the legendary ‘wild man’ stories (which have parallels in the Scottish tale of Lailoken and the Irish tale of Suibhne Geilt) became attached to the story about a survivor from the Battle of Arfderydd. There are references in the ‘Afallenau’ to Merlin having the company of a “fair, wanton maiden” ( bun wen warius) in his early days in the forest but she has left him by the time the verses are written. There is also a dialogue between Merlin and his sister Gwendydd whose son Merlin has slain in the battle and this is given as a reason for the madness that made him flee to the forest.

Armes Prydein (‘Prophecies of Britain’) in The Book of Taliesin contains the phrase “Merlin predicts …” which appears as a parallel to “Awen predicts …” elsewhere in the poem. Also attributed to Merlin is a ‘conversation poem’ (Ymdiddan) between himself and Taliesin. And so he becomes one of the ‘Cynfeirdd’ (earliest poets writing in Welsh) located in the area known later in Wales as ‘The Old North’, and like Taliesin a bard with prophetic powers. Once his legend was established in Wales it also became associated with Carmarthen because his name seems to be contained in the Welsh form ‘Caerfyrddin’, though this actually originates in Moridunon which would naturally have developed into ‘Mer-ddin’ (Sea Fort) and the tautology ‘Caer’ would have been added when it was thought of as ‘Merlin’s Town’. This is compounded by the fact that the verses of Myrddin are recorded in the manuscript of The Black Book of Carmarthen and therefore seeming to record a local tradition. At the same time, Geoffrey’s composite Merlin was gaining fame across Europe as the wizard behind the throne of King Arthur and gaining further accretions as it did so. He has been reinterpreted in our own day among other things as, e.g., Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, and reconstructed by the writer Nikolai Tolstoy, as a remnant druid and priest of Lugh surviving in the Celtic kingdoms of the North. He still has the power to conjure such images as a figure who answers the call to something embedded deep in psychic space: the magician, the wise man, the hermit removed from but integral to our cultural life.


History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth (translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, various editions)

Life of Merlin (Vita Merlini) by Geoffrey of Monmouth (translated by Richard Barber in Myths and Legends of the British Isles, Folio Society 1998) ; also JJ Perry (Forgotten Books, 2008)

Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales by Gerald of Wales (translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, various editions)

‘Early Stages in the Development of the Merlin Legend’ by A.O.H. Jarman in Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd (ed. Rachel Bromwich a Brinley Jones, Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1978)

Trioedd Ynys Prydain ed Rachel Bromwich (University of Wales Press, various editions) also contains useful discussion and quotations.

The poems attributed to Myrddin are contained in the manuscripts of The Black Book of Carmarthen and some are anthologised though these are hard to find in translation (the translation above is mine). A good source of extracts is the edition with translations by Meirion Pennar (Llanerch, 1989)

Faërie Gold


Dolbury Camp

In one of her County Folklore (Somerset) volumes, Ruth Tongue records a comment collected in 1907 about the legend of buried treasure on Dolbury Camp:

“ but but nobody hasn’t found the treasure yet. And for why? Well, to start up with it don’t belong to they, and so they won’t ever meet up with it. Twill go on sinking down below never mind how deep they do dig. I tell ee tis the gold of they Redshanks as used to be seed on Dolbury Top. To be sure there’s clever book-read gentlemen as tell as they was Danes, and another say twere all on account of their bare legs being red with the wind, but don’t mind they.

My granny she did tell me they was fairies, ah, and all dressed in red, and so if the treasure med be theirs. If they was Danes how do ee explain all those little clay pipes as ee can find on Dolbury? They did call em ‘fairy pipes’, old miners did. An if there be fairy pipes then there was fairies, and nobody need doubt they was the Redshanks.”

It’s interesting that these faeries wear red. Green is a more usual colour, though red caps are often worn. Sometimes they are naked, or wear old brown-coloured rags. So there is no consistency. Faerie treasure can never be found and even if bestowed may become worthless if misused. Here it is said that it can only be found by those it belongs to.

These faeries have departed, as often with stories about them. Often they leave a place because they don’t like the bell installed in the church or because some human development gets too close. As there is less wild land the faeries shrink into smaller spaces and become less visible. There are many stories of the last of them on their way to somewhere else. But there are always traces. They do not leave entirely, or at least have not done so yet.

Their gold still gleams in hidden caverns out of sight. Its story brightly seams the lands we love; we cannot own it but it is ours to cherish with delight.

Rhiannon, Thisworld and the Otherworld

rhydderch So the manuscript breaks off as we hear that Manawydan has never met a more beautiful woman than Rhiannon. In the First Branch of Y Mabinogi she arrives with a magical aura about her but soon makes her presence felt as a real enough woman letting Pwyll know what she wants from him. In the Third Branch, the beginning of which the above illustrates, she is even more practically present as Manawydan’s wife at least until she passes into an enchanted fort. She has, as any ordinary woman, grown older from the First to the Third Branch, re-married and plays her part in the domestic events of the tale. But between these, in the Second Branch, her birds sing over the sea to those that returned from Ireland, “and all the songs they had ever heard were harsh by comparison”. In Culhwch and Olwen these same birds of Rhiannon are said to “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep”. We might wonder how two tales that lead one into the other, regard the same character at once as a person in the story and an other-world enchantress with magical birds?

One answer is to say that elements came into the tale from different stages of an earlier mythological tradition, but this suggests a tale-teller that wasn’t in full control of the material. Whatever we think of Culhwch which is full of what might be regarded as loosely integrated folk-tale material, the author of the Four Branches does seem to be writing stories in which the elements are consistently integrated. But the two identities of Rhiannon do not seem consistent even in the context of interactions between Thisworld and the Otherworld. The final pages of Branwen eerily evoke an otherwordly atmosphere in contrast to the matter-of-fact way characters move between the two worlds in the other tales. 

How can the ghostly and scarcely human Rhiannon of the birds suddenly become Manawydan’s wife? Could the author engage in a sort of double-think? We could propose that the sensibility of medieval authors was different from ours so that they could know what they were dealing with in terms of earlier mythical material while at the same time get on and present a story set in the world they inhabited. Sometimes with medieval literature it seems so, but at others medieval writers appear prone to an intense literalism attached to material objects like obviously fake holy relics. It might be that they knew full well that they were fakes but nevertheless were able to believe in their efficacy. The art of thinking mythically and literally at the same time is one that is more difficult for modern readers. One way to open the borders between the worlds is to cultivate that art, which does not imply either a naive credibility or a cunning sophistry, but a creative openness to the life of the soul-world as well as the life of the physical-world, bringing together what should never be parted.

Tolkien on Faërie

“Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the Sun, the Moon, the sky; and the Earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves … when we are enchanted.”
J. R. R. Tolkien from his essay on Fairy Stories : Tree and Leaf

This seems to have something in common with the view of James Stephens that “we do not go to but become Faery”. Does this mean that is simply a state of mind? Stephens does not appear to believe this and Tolkien clearly indicates that he doesn’t either when he also defines it as “the realm or state in which fairies have their being”. His preferred name for the inhabitants of this realm was ‘elves’ as is clear from his other writings. Here he declares “if elves are true and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them.” The implication of this, and of other statements Tolkien made about what he called “the Perilous Realm”, is that it is an ‘Otherworld’, one which is indescribable in scientific or historical terms though, for all that, not imperceptible. To enter that realm one needs not magic in the sense of a will to power over its guardians or to see through the veils of its borders, but enchantment which derives not from power but from art. Enchantment is the craft of elves while magic is the craft of humans. So Tolkien implies.

The sense, then, in which we do not ‘go’ to Faery but ‘become Faery’, as James Stephens has it, is the same sense in which Faërie contains all the things to be found in this world, as the quotation from Tolkien asserts. The Well of Enchantment is not, after all, so difficult to find. The art of looking not so much with a direct gaze as out of the corner of an eye as we look into its waters may be more difficult to acquire. But to get there it’s only necessary to step off the path which does not lead to it.

Brownies and Wildness

A good example of how changes in the way the faërie folk have been regarded over time is provided in the accounts of brownies. These faeries have been represented as domesticated and happy to do household chores or farm work, but as such became idealised over time. Originally mainly restricted to the North of England and Scotland they were regarded as easily offended and likely to turn into less beneficial faeries or bogles. An extreme example of this development is that of the Scottish brownie called Aiken Drum or The Brownie of Blednoch who is described in earlier accounts as being naked except for a kilt of green rushes but appears in a later ‘traditional’ nursery rhyme as having “a hat of cream cheese, a coat of roast beef with buttons of penny loaves”. Although genuine faërie lore does not go that far in transforming brownies, many later accounts do show a development in describing the way they should be treated and whether or not gifts should be offered.

The earliest accounts stress their independence from humans and suggest that any attempt to offer them anything for the work they do would result at best in no more work being done and at worst by some sort of reprisal such as the undoing of work or the destruction of crops or farm implements. Then, perhaps, a bowl of cream might be left where they might find it, not as a direct gift but so that they are free to help themselves. Their independence is particularly stressed in the matter of their lack of clothes. One account tells how a brownie was offended when some clothing was left out for him to wear and was not seen again after this. In later accounts this changes to brownies being offended by offers of old or poor quality clothes with the suggestion that only best new linen is good enough for them. Such developments seem to ‘humanize’ the brownies away from their wild and independent nature and so attempt to domesticate them. Once this happens they are lost to us as we, rather than they, become further away from wildness.


Snowdrops break the seal of spring
As light laps at the gloaming;
Ffraid – or Bride – your blessings come
Bright candles wish you welcome.


Midwinter Reckoning


There were two brothers who lived on a rented small holding after their parents were dead. But it could not support both of them. So one took the money that was left and went to see the world and the other stayed in that place and inherited the implements and animals which was estimated at about the value of the remaining money. So they were equal. But as his brother left John, who was to remain, gave his brother another shilling that he had earned the season before when he went away to work. For a while John just about survived from year to year, but only just.

Midwinter Day was a day of reckonings. The yearly rent was due. But John was sixpence short and wasn’t sure how he was going to pay. All he had was an old donkey and a cow that was like a skeleton together with with three apple trees. He never grumbled but always cut the grass along the lane to feed the donkey and the cow and gathered a few herbs and apples for cider. Somehow he had kept going but now as Midwinter Day approached he began to wonder how he would pay.

The short days shrank and light thinned early into dark until the eve of Midwinter Day. That night the darkness was entire. There was no Moon for she, too, had waned to nothing so no glimmer of her light could be seen. Clouds covered the stars and rain dripped intermittently from the overcast sky. But John needed no light to guide him around his land. He raked his fire and mulled the last of his cider with a poker and drank a toast for the Solstice and the embers he would keep smouldering through the night. Then he went out with the cup in his hand and followed his senses through the gloom along a path down into the boggy hollow just beyond his fields.

An old lichened willow tree stood down in the hollow shaded by pines on the higher ground around it. No-one remembered when it last had leaves. But mosses grew up its trunk and the fine green lichens over its bark and the hanging lichens from its branches were as good as leaves. Though most thought it dead John knew better. So he went down to the tree and stood and wondered what future there was for those whose wealth was shed and scattered by the winds and withered in the wet ground. Then he poured the remains of his cider over the roots as a gift for the tree. Rain dripped from the hanging lichens as he stood in the dark and felt life ebbing away from him and running away in the trickling streams.

As he stood he heard a voice, though it was not quite a voice but still it spoke to him and he knew that this dark time would pass. He went back along the dark path to his cottage where the hearth still glowed and he banked it up with peat for the rest of the night. Then he slept soundly and awoke not particularly early but before the Sun was up and he went out to greet the first light of day. Later, looking across to the far hills, he saw a figure coming towards him. As it approached he saw that it was a man and as he came even closer he suddenly recognised his brother coming with yuletide gifts and to re-pay the shilling he had been given now that he was doing well in the world. So the rent was paid and the fire burnt brightly in the hearth that Yule and the cottage was warm and bright.

Adapted and extended from a traditional tale about Midwinter Reckonings

Thomas the Rhymer


According to the legend Thomas was carried off by the Queen of Faery one day as he sat under the ‘Eildon Tree’ in the Tweed Valley in Scotland. The most well-known version of the story is the Ballad which tells briefly of his being carried off by the Queen on a white horse and told that they are taking neither the road to Heaven nor the road to Hell but a third way which leads “over the ferny brae” to “fair Elfland”. When he returns he has a tongue that can never tell a lie and the gift of poetic speech. The text of the Ballad is on another menu on this site HERE->.

Thomas of Erceldoune was a real person who lived in the Tweed Valley in the thirteenth century and had a reputation as a prophet and a versifier. A much longer version of the story about him is contained in a verse romance  in a fifteenth century manuscript which describes the Queen (there called the Lady) in some detail which has a marked resemblance to the description of Rhiannon in the medieval Welsh tales collected as The Mabinogion. This much more extensive account of the story is followed by a series of prophecies relating to the conflicts between England and Scotland. A detailed comparison of the different versions of the story and their sources can be found HERE->.

Both versions contain initiatory elements involving travel underground, through water and even through blood to get to the Otherworld. Like other legendary poets such as Taliesin, Thomas has the power of prophecy as well as poetic inspiration. Other stories about him in Scottish folklore (e.g. THIS ONE->) portray him as a person able to cross the borders between this world and the Otherworld and as acting as an agent for the faërie folk.

In common with other  stories of legendary bards Thomas’s legend has the elements of identity with a real person or authorial presence which develops into something more than the original identity and becomes the definitive type of the inspired poet, prophet or visionary crossing the boundaries between the worlds.  Other elements within the folklore tradition are gathered in an enlarged story about an awenydd, an initiate of the mysteries or the mouthpiece for prophetic visions some of which have social as well as mystical significance, embodying the aspirations of the tribe in the public arena as well as inner spiritual wisdom.

The Cauldron of Inspiration

The breath of Nine Maidens

Yg kynneir, o’r peir pan leferit:
o anadyl naw morwyn gochyneuit

“So”, Taliesin said, “even when Pwyll went into Annwn, and throughout the time of his sojourn there, , no-one knew of Gweir imprisoned in Caer Sidi, no-one had been there. He dwelt there alone, singing a sad song. But we went, three shiploads of us sailed with Arthur in Prydwen, but of those only seven of us returned.”

It was a story he liked to tell and, not noted for his modesty, the part he played in that raid on the Otherworld was his main theme. It was him, he claimed, that first thought of it, going after the cauldron that was held there in that perilous place. They say it was kindled with the breath of nine maidens, that its rim had pearls on the dark edge of it. It’s virtues were many and various magical things could be done with it, but for him, always in pursuit of the awen, it was the source, the Cauldron of Inspiration, and all the other stuff was just trivia. Those nine maidens were the muses, and each of them had infused it with an element of the awen – three times three, three for the bards, three for the ovates, three for the druids: for bardic craft, learning and wisdom. These comprise the elements of song, but a tenth, the deep infusion of all of them, sung secretly in the heart of a true poet, that was his quest, and that was the song that Gweir sang, imprisoned in his lonely fort.

Could he capture this? So Arthur took him there, braved the engulfing waters, his men eager for the spoils of Annwn. But Taliesin had no patience with them, with men at arms or those who were supposed to be wise, dismissing the soldiers as sluggards with trailing shields, and the priests and scholars as men who knew nothing. Even his fellow poets didn’t fare well in his opinion. What did they know? He, on the other hand, knew everything. He was an awenydd, with the gift of the awen, a true poet blessed by the muse.

So when that man, ‘Death-Dealer’ they called him, stuck his sword in the cauldron and his mate ‘Leaper’ grabbed hold of it, he knew they would never leave that place. Just to have been there, to have looked upon it, to have heard Gweir’s sad lament, that was all he needed. Were they really with him at all? Yes, they went on a raid for loot, and a few of them came back. But which of them went into the Otherworld? Only him, if you know what he found there. No-one else knew, and it was nothing he could show you. But it was a prize he’d sacrifice an eye for if he had to.

Taliesin, the Bardic Tradition and the AWEN /|\

Preiddeu Annwn
Preiddeu Annwn from the Manuscript of
The Book of Taliesin

Who was Taliesin?

(1) The Historical Poet

This view of Taliesin sees him as the bard of the Brythonic chieftain Urien in the sixth century kingdom of Rheged which extended from Strathclyde (around modern Glasgow) down into Cumbria in the northern part of the Lake District. Of the mass of poems in The Book of Taliesin a few are still held to be possibly written by this poet. They mainly sing the praises of his lord in common with much of the poetry composed by tribal bards at this time. But The Book of Taliesin is a fourteenth century manuscript collection given that name when discovered in a library in the seventeenth century. So the poems in it are not, in the form we have them, from the sixth century but later copies. As, initially, no-one could read them, they were assumed to be the work of a poet writing in Old Welsh. By now it has been established that most of the poems must be much more recent than that and all are, in fact, written in Middle Welsh in the manuscript versions we have.
If that was all that could be said, Taliesin would be no better known than Aneirin, another poet from what is now southern Scotland writing around the same time, who composed a series of elegies for the members of the Gododdin tribe who were wiped out in an attack on the Angles at the battle of Catraeth (modern Catterick in Yorkshire). That is, as with Aneirin, the debate about him would mainly be restricted to scholars attempting to date the poems from linguistic and historical evidence or discussing their contribution to the successive literary tradition in Welsh.

But Taliesin, like Myrddin, a third poet identified with the same area, has been mythologised in a number of ways. And if the mythologisation of Myrddin as Merlin is at least clear and transparent, Taliesin has been transformed into a much more complex wizard for later generations.

(2) The Legendary Bard

Many of the poems in The Book of Taliesin contain prophecies which link them to historical events in the ninth and tenth centuries. Others refer to stories that link them with prose tales in Y Mabinogi. Or with legendary exploits such as the raid by Arthur on Annwfn – the Brythonic Other World – to capture a magical cauldron. What is clear from consideration of the range of poems attributed to Taliesin is that, like Arthur, his name became a magnet for disparate material but also that he became the ‘type’ of the inspired poet. When later generations of Welsh poets in the Middle Ages looked back to the sources of their tradition, the place of beginning was ‘The Old North’, an area of southern Scotland and Northern England. Here the earliest poets using Welsh after it had developed from the Brythonic language some time after the Roman occupation, were seen as forefathers of the Welsh bardic tradition – one was called ‘Tad Awen’ (Father of the Muse) by Nennius in the 9th century, though none of his poems have survived. Collectively they were called the ‘Cynfeirdd’ (the earliest poets) and Taliesin became their iconic representative. So already, by the ninth century, he was being represented as a prophet and a magical figure who was present (whether imaginatively or otherwise) at various historical and legendary events from the beginning of the world to Arthur’s raid on the Other World. He was, in the Second Branch of Y Mabinogi, one of the seven who returned with the head of Brân from Ireland and sojourned with that head in Gwales in a timeless suspension of the everyday world. This is the poet as ‘awenydd’, an inspired individual such as those described by Gerald of Wales in the twelfth century, going into a prophetic or visionary state. He could now be regarded as the Spirit of Poetry.

(3) The Spirit of Poetry

At some point, inevitably, Taliesin entered the folklore tradition. The familiar story about Gwion Bach being given the job of stirring the cauldron of the witch Ceridwen and gaining universal knowledge by tasting a drop of the contents using a common folklore narrative pattern. Similarly the sequence of shape-shifting as Ceridwen chases him and each turn into something different until she, as a hen, gobbles him up when he is disguised as a seed. His rebirth from her womb, his survival in his new identity as Taliesin, and his subsequent exploits at the court of Maelgwn Gwynedd, link this story to the legend of the gifted poet. In one sense this is just another example of the ‘magnet’ effect mentioned above, with the name Taliesin simply being attached to existing folk tale motifs. But in another sense it indicates how the figurative shape-shifter has become a ‘type’ not just of the Welsh bardic tradition but of the Spirit of Poetry itself.

Patrick Ford in his discussion of Ystoria Taliesin (the sixteenth century prose tale in Welsh based on his continued presence on the folk tradition) says this:
“Clearly the tales of Gwion Bach and Taliesin cannot be lightly dismissed as “folktale” or late developments. Perceptible in them and in their attendant poems, despite the layering of successive generations and external influences, lies the myth of the primeval poet, in whom resides all wisdom.” [1]

Patrick Ford sees the story of Gwion being swallowed by Ceridwen and cast into the waters in a leathern bag to emerge as Taliesin as a death and rebirth theme, still being retold in the version known as Ystoria Taliesin. He presents this as the poet sacrificing himself to his muse, to be compared therefore with mythological figures such as Odin sacrificing himself to himself, and with representations of the Spirit of Poetry in Irish stories such as the one discussed HERE. He defines the ideal form of the awenydd or inspired poet and the condition that such a figure aspires to attain.

Many of the elements in the folktale can be found in the poems of The Book of Taliesin. For instance, in a number of the  poems the source of poetry is identified as a cauldron, most often identified as the Cauldron of Ceridwen. But in one poem there is a quite dense poetic construction in which the word for cauldron (peir) can also mean ‘sovereign’ which is often used as a metonym for God. So the words

“pan doeth o peir / ogyrwen awen teir” can be translated

“when there came from the cauldron / the ogyrwen of three-fold inspiration”,

or they could equally be translated as

“when there came from the Sovereign (God) / the three aspects of inspiration”.

In the most recent scholarly edition of these poems[2] Marged Haycock describes this as “a nicely calculated ambiguity”, indicating that both meanings are intended here. The Book of Taliesin is a difficult text to interpret even for scholars and the poem from which these lines come – Kadeir Teÿrnon – has been described as bewildering and unintelligible. So any interpretations are provisional. But from its use here and elsewhere it is clear that ‘ogyrwen’ is the name of at least one of the three divisions of awen, or it is a term describing all three ( so, ‘the three ogyrwen of awen’). But what is clear is that the poem deliberately conflates the cauldron and God (as the Trinity) as its source. We might regard this as a neat bit of theology or an example of clever bardic word-wizardry of the sort the Taliesin figure often boasts about.

This reference is, in fact, just one example of a debate about the nature of awen among the early Welsh bards. In a discussion of this issue Patrick Ford[2] cites an exchange between the bards Rhys Goch and Llywelyn ap Moel about the source of awen as to whether is comes from the “Holy Spirit” or from “The Cauldron of Ceridwen” and also cites a line from another medieval Welsh bard, called Prydydd y Moch, who conflates the two options with the line “The Lord God gives me sweet awen , as from the cauldron of Ceridwen”. It is thought that Prydydd y Moch might have written some of the poems in The Book of Taliesin and so would be Taliesin himself in his thirteenth century guise. That is, he would have adopted the Taliesin persona for the purposes of an awenydd rather than in the context of his duties as a court poet for which he would use either his own name or his recognised bardic title (Llywarch ap Llewelyn/Prydydd y Moch ).

Patrick Ford comments; “It seems appropriate that the persona of Taliesin, as representative of the old native tradition, should insist on the magical origins of awen and its use as a vehicle for traditional kinds of knowledge.” [3] But he also refers to the view of Marged Haycock[4] that the medieval Welsh bards were also working within the context of Christianity and the persona of Taliesin also had to function within this world view rather than as a “druid desperately making a last stand for paganism”. He looked both ways, expressing current Christian thinking about God conceived of as a Trinity, locking this into the concept of the threefold nature of awen, but also maintaining his status as one who had links back to the older world.

So Taliesin denounces the other bards not as Gildas had done for their ungodliness, but because they have lost touch with the real roots of poetry, with the authentic awen. At the same time he ensures that he cannot himself be accused of being ungodly. But alongside this older notion awen is a developing concept during the Middle Ages and its divine nature necessarily takes on the prevalent Christian sense of divinity.

By the end of the eighteenth century, when Iolo Morganwg was putting together the scattered remnants of this tradition and the process of re-interpreting it was getting under way, the awen became the central symbol and ideal expression of the druidic renaissance as it is still held to be today both in the religious practice of druidry and in the continuing bardic tradition among Welsh language poets.

[1] Patrick Ford Ystoria Taliesin (Cardiff, 1992)
[2] Marged Haycock Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin (CMCS, 2007).
[3] Patrick Ford’s introduction to his edition of Y Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales (1977) which contains the story of Gwion Bach and Taliesin.
[4] ‘Preiddeu Annwn and the Figure of Taliesin’ in Studia Celtica18/19, as cited by Ford, though since this article was published Marged Haycock has developed her ideas in greater detail in the work cited at [2] above and in also her more recent Prophetic Poems from the Book of Taliesin (2013).