Welsh Mythology

Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury tale of Sir Thopas | The Mabinogion: Culhwch and Olwen

14th century Middle English, a handful of manuscripts and numerous printed editions | 14th century Middle Welsh, National Library of Wales.

Culhwch approaches the giant's fortress and meets with a shepherd whose dog is the size of a fully-grown horse.

'Geoffrey Chaucer wasn’t Welsh,' said Miranda.

'But he knew that you had to write a giant into the story,' replied Quintin. 'He sends Sir Thopas galloping through a wood like a maniac. There was no path – no way of avoiding the trees and overhanging branches. And then, after he comes to grief, as he surely would, he finds himself in elfland and sees the giant Sir Oliphant ahead of him. Giants are often found in an Otherworld. Irish heroes find them beyond a magic mist. Scandinavian heroes are taken across water to giantland in a boat or through a mist, or carried there by eagles and vultures. Ever been carried by a vulture? Dead meat! And let's not miss the most obvious thing of all.'

'Which is?'

'To a newborn baby, an adult will seem like a giant.'

Miranda turned to her essay.

The Welsh Mabinogion tale How Culhwch won Olwen appears in a fourteenth century manuscript known as the White Book of Rhydderch, dating to about 1325, and in the Red Book of Hergest, dating to around 1400. The story in its final form probably dates to the very late eleventh century and portrays Arthur in his original mythological role, as shown by the earliest Welsh writings, as a protector of Britain from Otherworldly threats. Young Culhwch, who is King Arthur’s cousin and who later enlists King Arthur’s help in the pursuit of an impossible quest, sets out to find the daughter of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden with the intention of marrying her. Culhwch approaches the giant’s fortress and meets with a shepherd whose dog is larger than a nine-year-old stallion. The shepherd receives the gift of a ring from Culhwch, which does not fit the man’s finger so he takes it home to his wife.

"How did you come by this ring?” she asks.

“As I was looking for food along the seashore,” he replies. “I saw a body drifting in with the waves. It was a very handsome body and there was a ring on its finger.”

"The sea takes jewellery from the fingers of dead men. Where is the body?"

“Wife, it will not be long before you see the owner of that body. He is Culhwch son of Kilydd.”'

What purpose does this scene serve? Why does the shepherd feel the need to lie to his wife about how he came by the ring, a lie that she seems to see through at once.

In Chaucer's Canterbury tale of Sir Thopas, seemingly a lampoon of this kind of story, Chaucer has Sir Thopas gallop his horse wildly through a forest before entering the land of elves and meeting with a giant. Is it deemed necessary to enter the Otherworld in this way? In order to enter the land of giants, would Culhwch have been expected to have arrived as a body drifting in with the waves?'

Story fragment recounted from: Gantz, Jeffrey, 1976. The Mabinogion. Translated from Middle Welsh with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited. How Culhwch Won Olwen, p 134–76.

See for yourself

Mabinogion – Wikipedia

Culhwch and Olwen – Wikipedia

Culhwch and Olwen – Modern English translation by Lady Charlotte Guest, edited by Mary Jones

Geoffrey Chaucer - Wikipedia

The Canterbury Tales - Wikipedia

Sir Thopas - Wikipedia

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer - British Library, facsimiles and articles

Harvard University's Geoffrey Chaucer website - Text and translations


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