The Age of Chivalry, by Thomas Bulfinch

Chapter XXXII.

Taliesin.

GWYDDNO GARANHIR was sovereign of Gwaelod, a territory bordering on the sea. And he possessed a weir upon the strand between Dyvi and Aberstwyth, near to his own castle, and the value of an hundred pounds was taken in that weir every May eve, And Gwyddno had an only son named Elphin, the most helpless of youths, and the most needy. And it grieved his father sore, for he thought he was born in an evil hour. By the advice of his council his father had granted him the drawing of the weir that year, to see if good luck would ever befall him, and to give him something wherewith to begin the world. And this was on the twenty-ninth of April.

The next day, when Elphin went to look, there was nothing in the weir but a leather bag upon a pole of the weir. Then said the wier-ward unto Elphin, “All thy ill-luck aforetime was nothing to this; and now thou hast destroyed the virtues of the weir, which always yielded the value of an hundred pounds every May eve; and to-night there is nothing but this leathern skin in it.” “How now,” said Elphin, “there may be therein the value of a hundred pounds.” Well! they took up the leathern bag, and he who opened it saw the forehead of an infant, the fairest that was ever seen; and he said, “Behold a radiant brow!” (in the Welsh language, taliesin.) “Taliesin be he called,” said Elphin. And he lifted the bag in his arms, and, lamenting his bad luck, placed the boy sorrowfully behind him. And he made his horse amble gently, that before had been trotting, and he carried him as softly as if he had been sitting in the easiest chair in the world. And presently the boy made a Consolation and praise to Elphin; and the Consolation was as you may here see:–

“Fair Elphin, cease to lament!

Never in Gwyddno’s weir

Was there such good luck as this night.

Being sad will not avail;

Better to trust in God than to forebode ill;

Weak and small as I am,

On the foaming beach of the ocean,

In the day of trouble I shall be

Of more service to thee than three hundred salmon.”

This was the first poem that Taliesin ever sung, being to console Elphin in his grief for that the produce of the weir was lost and, what was worse, that all the world would consider that it was through his fault and ill-luck. Then Elphin asked him what he was, whether man or spirit. And he sung thus:–

“I have been formed a comely person;

Although I am but little, I am highly gifted;

Into a dark leathern bag I was thrown,

And on a boundless sea I was set adrift.

From seas and from mountains

God brings wealth to the fortunate man.”

Then came Elphin to the house of Gwyddno, his father, and Taliesin with him. Gwyddno asked him if he had had a good haul at the weir, and he told him that he had got that which was better than fish. “What was that?” said Gwyddno. “A bard,” said Elphin. Then said Gwyddno, “Alas! what will he profit thee?” And Taliesin himself replied and said, “He will profit him more than the weir ever profited thee.” Asked Gwyddno, “Art thou able to speak, and thou so little?” And Taliesin answered him, “I am better able to speak than thou to question me,” “Let me hear what thou canst say,” quoth Gwyddno. Then Taliesin sang:–

“Three times have I been born, I know by meditation;

All the sciences of the world are collected in my breast,

For I know what has been, and what hereafter will occur.”

Elphin gave his haul to his wife, and she nursed him tenderly and lovingly. Thenceforward Elphin increased in riches more and more, day by day, and in love and favor with the king; and there abode Taliesin until he was thirteen years old, when Elphin, son of Gwyddno, went by a Christmas invitation to his uncle, Maelgan Gwynedd, who held open court at Christmas-tide in the castle of Dyganwy, for all the number of lords of both degrees, both spiritual and temporal, with a vast and thronged host of knights and squires. And one arose and said, “Is there in the whole world a king so great as Maelgan, or one on whom Heaven has bestowed so many gifts as upon him,– form, and beauty, and meekness, and strength, besides all the powers of the soul?” And together with these they said that Heaven had given one gift that exceeded all the others, which was the beauty, and grace, and wisdom, and modesty of his queen, whose virtues surpassed those of all the ladies and noble maidens throughout the whole kingdom. And with this they put questions one to another, Who had braver men? Who had fairer or swifter horses or greyhounds? Who had more skilful or wiser bards than Maelgan?

When they had all made an end of their praising the king and his gifts, it befell that Elphin spoke on this wise: “Of a truth, none but a king may vie with a king; but were he not a king, I would say that my wife was as virtuous as any lady in the kingdom, and also that I have a bard who is more skilful than all the king’s bards.” In a short space some of his fellows told the king all the boastings of Elphin; and the king ordered him to be thrown into a strong prison until he might show the truth as to the virtues of his wife and the wisdom of his bard.

Now when Elphin had been put in a tower of the castle with a thick chain about his feet (it is said that it was a silver chain, as he was of royal blood), the king, as the story relates, sent his son Rhun to inquire into the demeanor of Elphin’s wife. Now Rhun was the most graceless man in the world, and there was neither wife nor maiden with whom he held converse but was evil spoken of. While Rhun went in haste towards Elphin’s dwelling, being fully minded to bring disgrace upon his wife, Taliesin told his mistress how that the king had placed his master in durance in prison, and how that Rhun was coming in haste to strive to bring disgrace upon her. Wherefore he caused his mistress to array one of the maids of the kitchen in her apparel; which the noble lady gladly did, and she loaded her hands with the best rings that she and her husband possessed.

In this guise Taliesin caused his mistress to put the maiden to sit at the board in her room at supper; and he made her to seem as her mistress, and the mistress to seem as the maid. And when they were in due time seated at their supper, in the manner that has been said, Rhun suddenly arrived at Elphin’s dwelling, and was received with joy, for the servants knew him; and they brought him to the room of their mistress, in the semblance of whom the maid rose up from supper and welcomed him gladly. And afterwards she sat down to supper again, and Rhun with her. Then Rhun began jesting with the maid, who still kept the semblance of the mistress. And verily this story shows that the maiden became so intoxicated that she fell asleep; and the story relates that it was a powder that Rhun put into the drink that made her sleep so soundly that she never felt it when he cut off from her hand her little finger, whereon was the signet ring of Elphin, which he had sent to his wife as a token a short time before. And Rhun returned to the king with the finger and the ring as a proof, to show that he had cut it off from her hand without her awaking from her sleep of intemperance.

The king rejoiced greatly at these tidings, and he sent for his councillors, to whom he told the whole story from the beginning. And he caused Elphin to be brought out of prison, and he chided him because of his boast. And he spake on this wise: “Elphin, be it known to thee beyond a doubt, that it is but folly for a man to trust in the virtues of his wife further than he can see her; and that thou mayest be certain of thy wife’s vileness, behold her finger, with thy signet ring upon it, which was cut from her hand last night, while she slept the sleep of intoxication.” Then thus spake Elphin: “With thy leave, mighty king, I cannot deny my ring, for it is known of many; but verily I assert that the finger around which it is was never attached to the hand of my wife; for in truth and certainty there are three notable things pertaining to it, none of which ever belonged to any of my wife’s fingers. The first of the three is, that it is certainly known to me that this ring would never remain upon her thumb, whereas you can plainly see that it is hard to draw it over the joint of the little finger of the hand whence this was cut. The second thing is, that my wife has never let pass one Saturday since I have known her, without paring her nails before going to bed, and you can see fully that the nail of this little finger has not been pared for a month. The third is, truly, that the hand whence this finger came was kneading rye dough within three days before the finger was cut therefrom, and I can assure your highness that my wife has never kneaded rye dough since my wife she has been.”

The king was mightily wroth with Elphin for so stoutly withstanding him, respecting the goodness of his wife; wherefore he ordered him to his prison a second time, saying that he should not be loosed thence until he had proved the truth of his boast, as well concerning the wisdom of his bard as the virtues of his wife.

In the meantime his wife and Taliesin remained joyful at Elphin’s dwelling. And Taliesin showed his mistress how that Elphin was in prison because of them; but he bade her be glad, for that he would go to Maelgan’s court to free his master. So he took leave of his mistress, and came to the court of Maelgan, who was going to sit in his hall, and dine in his royal state, as it was the custom in those days for kings and princes to do at every chief feast. As soon as Taliesin entered the hall, he placed himself in a quiet corner, near the place where the bards and the minstrels were wont to come, in doing their service and duty to the king, as is the custom at the high festivals, when the bounty is proclaimed. So, when the bards and the heralds came to cry largess, and to proclaim the power of the king, and his strength, at the moment when they passed by the corner wherein he was crouching, Taliesin pouted out his lips after them, and played, “Blerwm, blerwm!” with his finger upon his lips. Neither took they much notice of him as they went by, but proceeded forward till they came before the king, unto whom they made their obeisance with their bodies, as they were wont, without speaking a single word, but pouting out their lips, and making mouths at the king, playing “Blerwm, blerwm!” upon their lips with their fingers, as they had seen the boy do. This sight caused the king to wonder, and to deem within himself that they were drunk with many liquors. Wherefore he commanded one of his lords, who served at the board, to go to them and desire them to collect their wits, and to consider where they stood, and what it was fitting for them to do. And this lord did so gladly. But they ceased not from their folly any more than before. Whereupon he sent to them a second time, and a third, desiring them to go forth from the hall. And the last the king ordered one of his squires to give a blow to the chief of them, named Heinin Vardd; and the squire took a broom and struck him on the head, so that he fell back in his seat. Then he arose, and went on his knees, and besought leave of the king’s grace to show that this their fault was not through want of knowledge, neither through drunkenness, but by the influence of some spirit that was in the hall. And he spoke on this wise: “O honorable king, be it known to your grace that not from the strength of drink, or of too much liquor, are we dumb, but through the influence of a spirit that sits in the corner yonder, in the form of a child.” Forthwith the king commanded the squire to fetch him; and he went to the nook where Taliesin sat, and brought him before the king, who asked him what he was, and whence he came. And be answered the king in verse:–

“Primary chief bard am I to Elphin,

And my native country is the region of the summer stars;

I have been in Asia with Noah in the ark,

I have seen the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,

I was in India when Rome was built,

I have now come here to the remnant of Troia.”

When the king and his nobles had heard the song, they wondered much, for they had never heard the like from a boy so young as he. And when the king knew that he was the bard of Elphin, he bade Heinin, his first and wisest bard, to answer Taliesin, and to strive with him. But when he came, he could do no other than play “Blerwm!” on his lips; and when he sent for the others of the four and twenty bards, they all did likewise, and could do no other. And Maelgan asked the boy Taliesin what was his errand, and he answered him in song:–

“Elphin, the son of Gwyddno,

Is in the land of Artro,

Secured by thirteen locks,

For praising his instructor.

Therefore I, Taliesin,

Chief of the bards of the west,

Will loosen Elphin

Out of a golden fetter.”

Then he sang to them a riddle:–

“Discover thou what is

The strong creature from before the flood,

Without flesh, without bone,

Without vein, without blood,

Without head, without feet;

It will neither be older nor younger

Than at the beginning.

Behold how the sea whitens

When first it comes,

When it comes from the south,

When it strikes on coasts.

It is in the field, it is in the wood,

But the eye cannot perceive it.

One Being has prepared it,

By a tremendous blast,

To wreak vengeance

On Maelgan Gwynedd.”

While he was thus singing his verse, there arose a mighty storm of wind, so that the king and all his nobles thought that the castle would fall upon their heads. And the king caused them to fetch Elphin in haste from his dungeon, and placed him before Taliesin. And it is said that immediately he sung a verse, so that the chains opened from about his feet.

After that Taliesin brought Elphin’s wife before them, and showed that she had not one finger wanting. And in this manner did he set his master free from prison, and protect the innocence of his mistress, and silence the bards so that not one of them dared to say a word, Right glad was Elphin, right glad was Taliesin.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32