Tales of the Mabinogi is the feature where I tell you about a story that comes from Welsh mythology. This week’s tale is Culhwch and Olwen, which is the story of a young prince who sets out to marry a beautiful princess. Culhwch and Olwen tends to be seen as the oldest Arthurian tale, so there may be a few Merlin gifs in this post. Also, I should warn you, this story does get just a bit weird sometimes.
Before I start, I’ll just give you a bit of back story. Culhwch is the son of Cylidd Wledig, a Welsh king, and Goleuddydd, who went a little crazy before giving birth to Culhwch. He ends up being born on a farm and is raised in secret. While this is going on, his father kills a fellow king and takes his widow, daughter and lands. This, of course, is a totally reasonable thing to do in Welsh mythology.
Culhwch’s story really starts when he first goes to court and meets his stepmother. She thinks that Culhwch should marry her daughter – Culhwch refuses. Unluckily for him, it turns out that this queen can cast curses and she curses Culhwch so that he can only marry Olwen, the beautiful daughter of Ysbadden Pencawr, king of giants. Culhwch magically becomes obsessed with Olwen (which is a bit creepy) and goes to ask his cousin King Arthur for help to find her.
Arthur’s cool with helping Culhwch and sends some scouts to looks for her, but after a year Cei (Culhwch’s friend) suggest that they go and look for her themselves. One of the knights who ends up traveling with Culhwch is Gwalchmei, better known as Sir Gawain.
After some traveling, the men reach the house of a shepherd, and Culhwch is told that Olwen washes her hair at the house every Saturday. The men wait until Saturday which is when Olwen arrives. Wherever she walks, white flowers spring up (which is literally what her name means). Culhwch falls in love with her the moment he sees her and explains to her why he’s there. Olwen seems happy to marry him, but she explains that if she gets married her father will die, so her father gives every suitor a list of tasks to complete.
One of the main tasks is to cut Ysbadden’s hair and shave his beard – it’s not as easy as it sounds. The only way to do this is to acquire the shears, comb and razor from between the ears of the Twrch Trwyth, an Irish king who’s been turned into a boar. Also needed is the blood of the Black Witch to soften Ysbaddaden’s beard.
A variety of things are needed to find and kill Twrch Trwyth – the group have to free Mabon ap Modron, the only man who can handle the hound needed to find Twrch Trwyth. Culhwch and his friends also acquire some weapons to use against him – the sword of Wrnach the giant and the tusk of Ysgithyrwyn, the wildest boar in the land. Clearly, these guys want to be prepared.
After this they hunt down Twrch Trwyth and follow him to Ireland. He escapes to Preseli in North Wales, but Culhwch, Arthur and his men chase him and trap him on the bank of the River Severn. They take the shears, comb and razor from between Twrch Trwyth’s ears before driving him into to the sea so he drowns. Which means they didn’t even need the sword and tusk from earlier. After this, Arthur kills the Black Witch so that they can have the blood to soften Ysbaddaden’s beard.
Culhwch heads back to Ysbaddaden’s castle and cuts his hair and shaves his beard. Ysbaddaden soon dies, and Culhwch and Olwen get married.
Personally, although it’s a bit strange, I love this story. I did look to see if there have been any retellings of this story but nobody seems to have managed that yet. It’s a shame because I’d love to read a retelling of this, just because it’s such an interesting story.
Have you heard this story before? What did you think of it?