The Tale of Taliesin
by Jennifer Cochrane
Once there was a witch named Ceridwen, and she had two children. The one, her daughter, was as beautiful a child as you could ever hope to see; the other, her son Morfran, was so ugly, ill-favored and stupid that he sickened everyone who saw him.
Ceridwen was grieved that Morfran was so horrible, and resolved by her magic arts to make him into such a great bard that no-one would mind his ugliness. She began to cast a great spell. Many were the plants that she cast into her cauldron, many the incantations said over it. An old blind man named Morda was set to keep the fires burning beneath it, assisted by a young boy, Gwion.
The Cauldron of Wisdom and Inspiration must be kept boiling for a year and a day, and then the first three drops from it would impart ultimate knowledge to the one who drank them. But the rest of the liquid would be deadly poison.
Long labored Ceridwen, roaming far to find the rare and exotic herbs she required, and so it chanced that she fell asleep on the last day of the spell. The boy Gwion was stirring the brew when three drops flew out onto his thumb, and they were scalding hot, so that he thrust it into his mouth to stop the burning. Instantly, he had the wisdom and inspiration of ages, and the first thing that occurred to him was that Ceridwen would be very angry.
He ran away from the house of Ceridwen, but all too soon he heard the fury of her pursuit. Using his new magical powers, he turned himself into a hare. She turned into a greyhound bitch, and gained ever more on him. He came to a river, and quick as thinking became a fish. She became an otter. He leapt from the water, and in the middle of his leap became a bird of the air. The witch Ceridwen became a hawk. In desperation, he looked down and saw a pile of wheat. He dived, landed, and as it scattered he turned into a single grain. Then she landed and became a hen, and pecked at the grain until she had swallowed Gwion.
Soon after, Ceridwen found herself with child, though she had lain with no man. When she realized that the baby was Gwion, she resolved to kill it, and Morfran wanted her to also, in revenge for his not becoming a bard. In due course, the babe was born, and Morfran would have slaughtered him on the spot, but the mother said no, because it was the most beautiful child ever seen. But she took him and, sewing him in a bag, set him adrift on the ocean.
Now there was at that time in Gwynedd, a lord named Gwyddno Garanhir, who had a son, Elphin, that was reckoned the most unlucky man alive. There was a weir on Gwyddno's land that had always had a huge catch of salmon in it on May Eve, so Gwyddno resolved to let Elphin have it to help turn his luck.
So it was that on May Eve, Elphin and two of his father's men went to the weir. Net after net he pulled, but there were no fish.
"Why, you've turned the luck of the weir," they growled.
"Just wait," said Elphin, "I haven't finished yet. There might still be something..."
There were no fish. But just as they were about to go, Elphin noticed something caught on a pole of the weir. He waded out and brought it back.
"More bad luck," grumbled the men.
"There may be a treasure inside," Elphin replied as he carefully slit open the greased leather bag he held.
To his very great astonishment, he saw the forehead of a baby, so white and beautiful that it seemed to shine.
"A radiant brow!" he exclaimed. (tal iesin in Welsh.)
"Yes, Taliesin, that will do well enough," said the baby.
Elphin was so surprised he nearly dropped it. The men muttered and made the sign against evil.
He put the child in front of him on the horse and they rode for home. While they rode, Elphin's thoughts were gloomy, as he realized they still had no salmon. But the babe in front of him spoke, saying
"Fair Elphin, cease your lament!
Swearing profits no-one.
It is not evil to hope
Nor does any man see what supports him,
Not an empty treasure is the prayer of Cynllo,
Nor does God break his promise.
No catch in Gwyddno's weir
Was ever as good as tonight's.
"Fair Elphin, dry your cheeks!
Such sorrow does not become you,
Although you consider yourself cheated
Excessive sorrow gains nothing,
Nor will doubting God's miracles.
Although I am small, I am skilful.
From the sea and the mountain,
From the river's depth
God gives His gifts to the blessed.
"Elphin of the generous spirit,
Cowardly is your purpose,
You must not grieve so heavily.
Better are good than evil omens.
though I am weak and small,
Spumed with Dylan's wave,
I shall be better for you
Than three hundred shares of salmon.
"Elphin of noble generosity,
Do not sorrow at your catch.
Though I am weak on the floor of my basket,
There are wonders on my tongue.
"While I am watching over you,
no great need will overcome you.
be mindful of the name of the Trinity
And none shall overcome you."
"How can this be, that you, a babe, can talk?" marveled Elphin.
Again Taliesin replied with a poem.
"Firstly I was formed in the shape of a handsome man,
in the hall of Ceridwen in order to be refined.
Although small and modest in my behavior,
I was great in her lofty sanctuary.
"While I was held prisoner, sweet inspiration educated me
and laws were imparted to me in a speech which had no words;
but I had to flee from the angry, terrible hag
whose outcry was terrifying.
"Since then I have fled in the shape of a crow,
since then I have fled as a speedy frog,
since then I have fled with rage in my chains,
- a roe-buck in a dense thicket.
"I have fled in the shape of a raven of prophetic speech,
in the shape of a satirizing fox,
in the shape of a sure swift,
in the shape of a squirrel vainly hiding.
"I have fled in the shape of a red deer,
in the shape of iron in a fierce fire,
in the shape of a sword sowing death and disaster,
in the shape of a bull, relentlessly struggling.
"I have fled in the shape of a bristly boar in a ravine,
in the shape of a grain of wheat.
I have been taken by the talons of a bird of prey
which increased until it took the size of a foal.
"Floating like a boat in its waters,
I was thrown into a dark bag,
and on an endless sea, I was set adrift.
"Just as I was suffocating, I had a happy omen,
and the master of the Heavens brought me to liberty."
By the time he finished, they had arrived at the court of Gwyddno.
Everyone crowded round to see how big the catch was. Elphin held up Taliesin for them all to see.
"What is that? Where is the catch?" asked Gwyddno.
"Here is the catch, father, see, I have caught a bard."
"Well, what use is that? Don't you have a good wife, who can bear you many strong sons of your own?"
"He will get more profit from me than the weir ever gave you," said Taliesin.
"Can you speak, and you so small?" asked Gwyddno.
"Indeed, I am better able to answer than you are to question me." claimed the baby.
Then Gwyddno asked him what else he had to say, and Taliesin replied with another poem. So Elphin rejoiced, that his luck had turned, and gave Taliesin to his wife to care for. She loved the baby very much, and time passed and he grew up.
The king of the land at that time was Maelgwn, a somewhat vain man who surrounded himself with toadies and fawning sycophants. The year that Taliesin turned thirteen, Elphin received a summons from the king, demanding his presence at the Christ Mass feast at midwinter. Elphin would much rather have stayed home with his wife and foster son, but as a dutiful subject (and a relative of the king besides) he went.
As they all sat around the high table, the other men vied with one another to see who could praise Maelgwn the most. Elphin was an honest man, and he couldn't honestly say that the king's bards were better or the queen a fairer woman, than those waiting at his home.
"What, so silent, Elphin? Can our loyal subject then find nothing to praise his king for?" said Maelgwn.
"Well, my lord," said Elphin, "I would say that though I am not a king, yet my wife is as fair and as virtuous as any woman in the kingdom - and my bard the best in Gwynedd."
"Insolence!" roared Maelgwn. "Throw him in our deepest dungeon! Let him be chained there until the falsity of his monstrous claim can be shown once and for all! And we think we know just how to do that..."
Taliesin was out skating. As he bent down to take the skates off, he glanced at a patch of ice, and fell into a trance, where he saw all that had befallen Elphin. When he woke, he rushed home to tell Elphin's wife.
Maelgwn had a son named Rhun, a lecher so revolting that to be seen with him would tarnish a woman's reputation beyond repair. This son he sent to Elphin's home, to seduce his wife and show the falsity of his claim. When Rhun came to the gate, he was welcomed, if not warmly, then civilly, by young Taliesin. He showed the prince into the hall, where sat a woman dressed in finery, with rings upon her fingers and a golden torque.
"How delicious!" thought Rhun. "I'll enjoy this, I can tell."
She made him welcome and they supped together. Rhun poured cup after cup of wine for her, and foolishly she drank it all. Soon she was giggly and silly, and she assented to his request to withdraw with him to some place more private. Rhun waited until she fell asleep in a drunken stupor, then tried to remove the ring from her plump hand. It would not come off, so quick as lightning he cut the finger off, ring and all.
Laughing, he rode back to his father's house. Maelgwn was delighted with his son's performance. He called for Elphin to be brought forth.
"Well, cousin, how say you now? The prince Rhun has had your wife with her willing cooperation. Do you persist in your stupid claim that she is so very fair and virtuous?"
Elphin paled, and feared for his wife, for he did not really believe that any woman, let alone she, would lie with Rhun by choice.
"How do you know this, my king?" he asked.
"My son's word is good enough for me - and should be for you, too."
"I'm sorry, my king, but even the money-lenders ask for solid proof where the prince Rhun is concerned."
The king growled, but the courtiers were, this once, murmuring in agreement with Elphin.
"Since that's not enough for you, see here is her finger. Do you deny that this is her ring?"
Elphin looked closely at the severed digit.
"Indeed, my lord, it is her ring, but I do deny that it's on her finger."
"How so, knave?" roared the enraged monarch.
"For three reasons, my king. First, my wife is a small woman, and this ring sits loosely on her thumb, but it's jammed so tightly on this finger that it won't come off. Second, ever since I've known her, my wife has trimmed her nails every Sabbath Eve, and this nail hasn't been trimmed this month, I'd say. Third, we keep servants for kneading bread dough - I certainly don't require my lady wife to do it. And yet you see under this nail and in the creases of the finger, traces of the rye dough this hand was lately kneading. I fear that the prince has despoiled some innocent kitchen wench, but whoever it was, it wasn't my wife."
The court cowered before Maelgwn's fury.
"You won't get away from it that easily!" Maelgwn declared. "If your bard is so great, let him come and compete with ours. Now take him away, before we get tired of him."
Hurriedly, the guards took Elphin back to the cell.
Taliesin was already seeing about provisions for the journey, while Elphin's wife looked after the poor nine-fingered maidservant. He arrived at the court two days later, and slipped through the gates. He made his way to the throne room and sat in the corner. When the king's bards filed in, he pouted his lips at them and played blerwm, blerwm on them, and the bards stood still and played blerwm, blerwm on their lips instead of praising Maelgwn. Maelgwn finally ordered a guard to strike Heinnin Fardd, his chief bard. This broke their trance enough that Heinnin Fardd could explain to Maelgwn that there was a devil in the form of a child who had cast a spell on them.
Then Maelgwn had Taliesin brought out, and questioned him.
"I have come to salvage Elphin's honor and his freedom. Taliesin am I, primary chief bard to Elphin.
"Primary chief poet
Am I to Elphin.
And my native country
Is the place of the Summer Stars.
"John the Divine
Called me Merlin,
But all future kings
Shall call me Taliesin.
"I was nine full months
In the womb of Ceridwen.
Before that I was Gwion,
But now I am Taliesin.
"I was with my king
In the heavens
When Lucifer fell
Into the deepest hell.
"I carried the banner
I know the names of the stars
From the North to the South.
"I was in Caer Bedion
I accompanied Heon
To the vale of Hebron.
"I was in the canon
When Absalom was slain.
I was in Llys Don
Before the birth of Gwydion.
"I was patriarch
To Elijah and Enoch.
I was there at the crucifixion
Of the merciful Mabon.
"I was the foreman
At the construction of Nimrod's Tower.
I was three times
In the prison of Arianrhod.
"I was in the ark
With Noah and Alpha
I witnessed the destruction
Of Sodom and Gomorrah.
"I was in Africa
Before the building of Rome.
I came here
To the remnant of Troy
"I was with the Lord
In the manger of the ass.
I upheld Moses
Through the water of Jordan.
"I was at the Cross
With Mary Magdalene.
I received the muse
From Ceridwen's cauldron.
"I was a harping bard
To Deon of Lochlin.
I have gone hungry
For the Righteous One.
"I was at the White Mount
in the court of Cynfelyn.
In stocks and in fetters
For a year and a day.
"I was in the larder
In the land of the Trinity.
And no-one knows whether my body
Is flesh or fish.
"I was instructor
To the whole universe.
I shall be until the judgement
On the face of the Earth.
"I have sat in the perilous seat
Above Caer Sidi.
I shall continue to revolve
Between the three elements.
"There is a marvel in the world
Which I cannot reveal."
"And all this makes you think you're better than my bards," sneered Maelgwn, "My bards, who have trained for twenty years."
"They are as nothing beside me," declared Taliesin.
"Well then, my lord," said Heinnin Fardd, so as not to be left entirely out of the proceedings, "certainly a contest will decide the matter."
"Why not? Me against all the king's bards. The contest - to compose a poem on the wind." Taliesin was serenely confident.
"Of course the king must judge," fawned Heinnin Fardd. "Who better?"
"And this contest will take place in twenty minutes," Maelgwn announced. (He was getting bored.)
"Twenty... my lord, I entreat you, I implore you, how can an epic be composed in -" Heinnin Fardd was desperate.
"Just do it, get on with it, I'm getting sick of this."
Heinnin Fardd and the king's bards huddled in the corner, consulting scrolls of rhymes and metaphors. Every so often, one let out a yelp of frustration. Taliesin lounged on the floor, laughing at their discomfiture.
When the time was up, the king's bards stood in a line before the throne and bowed.
"O greatest of kings, hear our song.
"Knaves! Fools! Miserable swine! Was it for this that I paid you in gold and precious gems?" The court had never seen Maelgwn so angry. The bards groveled in the rushes. "Mighty king, it was not our fault! It's that demon child."
Taliesin, admittedly, was smirking in a most irritating fashion.
"So it's my turn?" he asked. He stood up straight and began. While he sang, a great wind arose and buffeted the castle, shaking it to its foundations. Maelgwn was afraid, and he called for Elphin to be brought out.
As soon as Elphin was brought out, Taliesin stopped the wind, and sang a new song that caused Elphin's chains to fall away from his ankles and wrists. Then he cried out to Elphin's wife to enter the hall, and she held her hands up so that everyone could see that she had ten fingers. Maelgwn was angrier than ever.
"You think you're so great. You're nothing! I bet my horses are better than yours, anyway."
Taliesin smiled and whispered to Elphin, "Take him up on it - I know how to make us win."
"I accept, my king."
"Then let there be a horse race."
Elphin led the other two home. On the appointed day, they returned, leading a lame old horse. Maelgwn rubbed his hands in glee.
The horses started - Taliesin riding old Dobbin. As each horse of the king's overtook him, he struck it on the rump with a holly twig, then let it fall. As the king's horses got further and further ahead, no-one could understand why Taliesin was still smiling. He slowed down and dropped his cap - again, no-one knew why.
Old Dobbin reached half-way, and Taliesin stopped him for a rest. The king's horses had long since passed them on the way back. Dobbin started back. As the king's horses passed the discarded holly twigs that Taliesin had struck them with, they stopped, reared up on their hind legs, and began to dance. The whole court was in fits of ill-concealed laughter, except Maelgwn and Rhun.
Taliesin and Dobbin wandered past them to the finish line. Maelgwn saw no alternative to letting them go. On the way home, Taliesin bid Elphin stop where he had dropped his cap. He had some men dig a hole at the spot, and they dug up a great chest full of treasure.
"Truly, Taliesin, never could I regret the day I pulled you out from the weir," said Elphin as they rode away.
(It is said that afterwards, Taliesin went to the court of Arthur, where he was chief harper and adviser to the king.)