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Chapter 19

PART II.
THE MABINOGEON.

CHAPTER XIX.
THE BRITONS.

THE earliest inhabitants of Britain are supposed to have been a
branch of that great family known in history by the designation of
Celts. Cambria, which is a frequent name for Wales, is thought to be
derived from Cymri, the name which the Welsh traditions apply to an
immigrant people who entered the island from the adjacent continent.
This name is thought to be identical with those of Cimmerians and
Cimbri, under which the Greek and Roman historians describe a
barbarous people, who spread themselves from the north of the Euxine
over the whole of Northwestern Europe.
The origin of the names Wales and Welsh has been much canvassed.
Some writers make them a derivation from Gael or Gaul, which names are
said to signify "woodlanders"; others observe that Walsh, in the
Northern languages, signifies a stranger, and that the aboriginal
Britons were so called by those who at a later era invaded the
island and possessed the greater part of it, the Saxons and Angles.
The Romans held Britain from the invasion of Julius Caesar till
their voluntary withdrawal from the island, A.D. 420,- that is,
about five hundred years. In that time there must have been a wide
diffusion of their arts and institutions among the natives. The
remains of roads, cities, and fortifications show that they did much
to develop and improve the country, while those of their villas and
castles prove that many of the settlers possessed wealth and taste for
the ornamental arts. Yet the Roman sway was sustained chiefly by
force, and never extended over the entire island. The northern
portion, now Scotland, remained independent, and the western
portion, constituting Wales and Cornwall, was only nominally
subjected.
Neither did the later invading hordes succeed in subduing the
remoter sections of the island. For ages after the arrival of the
Saxons under Hengist and Horsa, A.D. 449, the whole western coast of
Britain was possessed by the aboriginal inhabitants, engaged in
constant warfare with the invaders.
It has, therefore, been a favorite boast of the people of Wales
and Cornwall, that the original British stock flourishes in its
unmixed purity only among them. We see this notion flashing out in
poetry occasionally, as when Gray, in "The Bard," prophetically
describing Queen Elizabeth, who was of the Tudor, a Welsh race, says:

"Her eye proclaims her of the Briton line";

and, contrasting the princes of the Tudor with those of the Norman
race, he exclaims:

"All hail, ye genuine kings, Britannia's issue, hail!"

THE WELSH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE.

The Welsh language is one of the oldest in Europe. It possesses
poems the origin of which is referred with probability to the sixth
century. The language of some of these is so antiquated, that the best
scholars differ about the interpretation of many passages; but,
generally speaking, the body of poetry which the Welsh possess, from
the year 1000 downwards, is intelligible to those who are acquainted
with the modern language.
Till within the last half-century these compositions remained buried
in the libraries of colleges or of individuals, and so difficult of
access that no successful attempt was made to give them to the
world. This reproach was removed, after ineffectual appeals to the
patriotism of the gentry of Wales, by Owen Jones, a furrier of London,
who at his own expense collected and published the chief productions
of Welsh literature, under the title of the Myvyrian Archaeology of
Wales. In this task he was assisted by Dr. Owen and other Welsh
scholars.
After the cessation of Jones's exertions, the old apathy returned,
and continued till within a few years. Dr. Owen exerted himself to
obtain support for the publication of the Mabinogeon, or Prose Tales
of the Welsh, but died without accomplishing his purpose, which has
since been carried into execution by Lady Charlotte Guest. The legends
which fill the remainder of this volume are taken from this work, of
which we have already spoken more fully in the introductory chapter to
the First Part.

THE WELSH BARDS.

The authors to whom the oldest Welsh poems are attributed are
Aneurin, who is supposed to have lived A.D. 500 and 550, and Taliesin,
Llywarch Hen (Llywarch the Aged), and Myrddin or Merlin, who were a
few years later. The authenticity of the poems which bear their
names has been assailed, and it is still an open question how many and
which of them are authentic, though it is hardly to be doubted that
some are so. The poem of Aneurin, entitled the "Gododin," bears very
strong marks of authenticity. Aneurin was one of the Northern
Britons of Strath-Clyde, who have left to that part of the district
they inhabited the name of Cumberland, or Land of the Cymri. In this
poem he laments the defeat of his countrymen by the Saxons at the
battle of Cattraeth, in consequence of having partaken too freely of
the mead before joining in combat. The bard himself and two of his
fellow-warriors were all who escaped from the field. A portion of this
poem has been translated by Gray, of which the following is an
extract:-

"To Cattraeth's vale, in glittering row,
Twice two hundred warriors go;
Every warrior's manly neck
Chains of regal honor deck,
Wreathed in many a golden link;
From the golden cup they drink
Nectar that the bees produce,
Or the grape's exalted juice.
Flushed with mirth and hope they burn,
But none to Cattraeth's vale return,
Save Aeron brave, and Conan strong,
Bursting through the bloody throng,
And I, the meanest of them all,
That live to weep, and sing their fall."

The works of Taliesin are of much more questionable authenticity.
There is a story of the adventures of Taliesin so strongly marked with
mythical traits as to cast suspicion on the writings attributed to
him. This story will be found in the subsequent pages.

THE TRIADS.

The Triads are a peculiar species of poetical composition, of
which the Welsh bards have left numerous examples. They are
enumerations of a triad of persons, or events, or observations, strung
together in one short sentence. This form of composition, originally
invented, in all likelihood, to assist the memory, has been raised
by the Welsh to a degree of elegance of which it hardly at first sight
appears susceptible. The Triads are of all ages, some of them probably
as old as anything in the language. Short as they are individually,
the collection in the Myvyrian Archaeology occupies more than one
hundred and seventy pages of double columns. We will give some
specimens, beginning with personal triads, and giving the first
place to one of King Arthur's own composition:-

"I have three heroes in battle;
Mael the tall, and Llyr, with his army,
And Caradoc, the pillar of Wales."

"The three principal bards of the island of Britain:-
Merlin Ambrose
Merlin the son of Morfyn, called also Merlin the Wild,
And Taliesin, the chief of the bards."

"The three golden-tongued knights of the Court of Arthur:-
Gawain, son of Gwyar,
Drydvas, son of Tryphin,
And Eliwood, son of Madag, ap Uther."

"The three honorable feasts of the island of Britain:-
The feast of Caswallaun, after repelling Julius Caesar from this
isle;
The feast of Aurelius Ambrosius, after he had conquered the
Saxons;
And the feast of King Arthur, at Caerleon upon Usk."

"Guenever, the daughter of Laodegan the giant,
Bad when little, worse when great."

Next follow some moral triads:-

"Hast thou heard what Dremhidydd sung,
An ancient watchman on the castle walls?
A refusal is better than a promise unperformed."

"Hast thou heard what Llenleawg sung,
The noble chief wearing the golden torques?
The grave is better than a life of want."

"Hast thou heard what Garselit sung,
The Irishman whom it is safe to follow?
Sin is bad, if long pursued."

"Hast thou heard what Avaon sung,
The son of Taliesin, of the recording verse?
The cheek will not conceal the anguish of the heart."

"Didst thou hear what Llywarch sung,
The intrepid and brave old man?
Greet kindly, though there be no acquaintance."

Thomas Bulfinch