In the story I play around with two Welsh legends set in the same area:
- The birth of Taliesin, Wales’ chief druid and bard
- Cantre’r Gwaelod – the flooding of Cardigan Bay.
The mosaics that illustrate the stories below can be seen on the sea defences at Borth. They were made by the people of Borth for the millennium.
The birth of Taliesin
Taliesin, whose name means “shining brow”, is a semi-historical figure from the sixth century AD. About 11 of his poems have been handed down by posterity in The Book of Taliesin and a number of others are attributed to him but were probably written by others in more recent centuries.
Wales is famous for its bardic tradition and the prehistoric Celtic Druids that they have evolved from. There are probably more poets per head of population in Wales than anywhere else! The annual country-wide Eisteddfod festivals ensure this continues.
The legendary story of the origin of Taliesin dates from the 16th century and its bare bones are as follows:
A goddess, Ceridwen, known as the goddess of inspiration, had two children: a beautiful and an ugly son called Afagddu (or Morfran). Feeling sorry for him she decided to make a potion which would give him wisdom and knowledge, to compensate for his ugliness and make him popular.
It took her a year and a day to prepare the brew. While she was out collecting herbs to be charged a blind man called Morda to look after the fire and a boy called Gwion Bach (Little Gwion) to stir the mixture.
Tragedy struck when three drops of spilled on his thumb and he licked it. Immediately he got all the knowledge intended for Afagddu.
He ran away to escape the wrath of the boy’s mother. A magical chase (depicted in the mosaic, right, by Creu-ad in Ynyslas Nature Reserve, Ceredigion, Wales) then ensued. He turned himself successively into a hare, a fish and a bird. She followed by changing herself into something even faster in each case: a greyhound, an otter and a hawk. Finally he thought he could escape by becoming a grain of corn and hiding in a haystack. But she became a hen and gobbled everything up until she had swallowed him.
Isn’t it interesting how they proceeded through the four elements: earth, water, air and vegetable? Especially when you think it began with fire.
Swallowing the grain made Ceridwen pregnant. When she gave birth to the baby boy she was so smitten by his beauty that she couldn’t bring herself to kill him.
Instead she put him in a leather bag and laid him in the river Dyfi. He was swept downstream and along the shore where he was found by Prince Elffin, the son of the Lord of Ceredigion who was looking for salmon.
As soon as the baby was found it began to speak in poetry much to the boy’s amazement:
Taliesin, thus named, began to recite beautiful poetry, saying:
Fair Elffin, cease your lament!
….Though I am weak and small,
On the wave crest of the the surging sea,
I shall be better for you
Than three hundred shares of salmon.
He took him back to his dad’s court where he quickly became a legend and as he grew up spouted much poetry spontaneously, besting all the other bards in the land.
I began to wonder what Afagddu thought about all this. After all, he should have become Taliesin, not Gwion. In in the original story he disappears completely from the narrative. I became interested in what his feelings might be.
There is a selection of quotes on the Wikiquote website. Of particular relevance to the novel are (taken out of context from different poems):
There is a Caer of defence
Under the ocean’s wave.
Like receiving clothes without a hand,
Like sinking in a lake without swimming
The stream boldly rises tumultuously in degree.
The rock wave-surrounded, by great arrangement,
Will convey for us a defence, a protection from the enemy.
The rock of the chief proprietor, the head of tranquillity.
The land of worldly weather,
A wind will melt the trees:
There will pass away every tranquillity
When the mountains are burnt.
There will be again inhabitants
With horns before kings;
The mighty One will send them,
Sea, and land, and lake.
And the beautiful:
I have been in a multitude of shapes,
Before I assumed a consistent form.
I have been a sword, narrow, variegated,
I will believe when it is apparent.
I have been a tear in the air,
I have been the dullest of stars.
I have been a word among letters,
I have been a book in the origin.
This legend is about the flooding of part of Cardigan Bay. Many people still believe it’s true and really happened.
A long time ago, much of what is now covered by the sea was farmland with villages and fields. The sea was kept out by means of a dyke just as it is now, except that the dyke gates had to be closed in emergencies to keep the tide out. A watch man on a watchtower with a bell to warn everyone kept a lookout. The man whose job this was was called Seithenhin.
One day, the same Elffin that discovered Taliesin was getting married. Soon he would be the king of Ceredigion.
According to one version of the legend Seithenhin was jealous because he was in love with the bride. According to another version he just got drunk. Some versions blame the woman, some Seithenhin. Whatever happened a storm came and he forgot to close the gate. The sea came in and the land drowned.
Various pieces of “evidence” are offered as “proof” that the event has a historical basis.
One of them is the petrified forest that appears on Borth beach at low tide which was said to extend out far into the sea in the old days.
Another is the existence of what look like sea defences under water going out from the coast. They are “The Sarnau” (Sarn Badrig, Sarn-y-Bwch and the Cynfelyn Patches [also called Sarn Cynfelyn]). Examination has established that these are in fact remains of rocks dropped by the melting glacier that came down the Dyfi valley in the last ice age. There is more about this here on a brilliant website devoted to the Dyfi Valley.
Some even claim to hear the watchtower bell tolling its warning off the coast by Aberdyfi!
Either way, local inhabitants frequently celebrate the legend, which is recorded in a poem in “The Black Book of Carmarthen” written in 1250 AD.
In this poem, Seithenhin, the following lines occur which I use as a preface to my book. They seem to me to hold some resonance for the wasteful way we are using up our natural resources and the possible punishment for this excess that we might receive in the future. Also they are so relevant to the disaster that happens near the beginning of the book:
A cry from the roaring sea
Impels me from my resting-place this night;
Common after excess is far-extending destruction.