Taliesin’s Secret

In Weston’s theory the Grail story was covert propaganda for a pagano-Christian heresy surviving underground in Wales: The tale was carried over to the Continent by a Welsh storyteller who perfectly understood his material, and who was himself an initiate in that forbidden cult. R S Loomis eventually rejected the idea, pointing out that there was no evidence for such a cult in the mass of written testimony on heresy collected by the medieval church. But is that the only place to look?

Another scholar has reached the same conclusion as Weston, quite independent of her, and from an entirely different line of research. First published in 1948, perennially in print, Robert Graves' The White Goddess is a poet's study of the nature of poetic inspiration. Its starting-point is a medieval Welsh poem, The Battle of the Trees, from the Romance of Taliesin, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest in the nineteenth century and included in her Mabinogion. The poem, in Graves analysis, was actually a series of riddles; the riddles spelt out a secret, and that secret was a heresy.

Graves names it the Arkite heresy, after the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus, who was born in the temple of Alexander the Great at Arka. Severus considered himself a reincarnation of the Greek conqueror and developed his own syncretic cult which included the worship of Abraham, Orpheus, and Jesus Christ. In the early centuries many gentile Christians did not see that conversion to the new faith entailed the rejection of all other gods and all previous belief systems. Indeed, some have argued that the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, did not distinguish between Christ and Sol Invictus, but worshipped a composite deity. Graves argues that the first Celtic converts were of the same mind-set. They had “accepted Jesus Christ without compulsion and had reserved the right to interpret Christianity in the light of their literary tradition, without interference.”1 Thus the native Christianity of Britain was a syncretic combination of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs, Celtic gods became Christian saints, and Christ was viewed as the latest incarnation of the Sacred King who suffered and died for the good of the people. When Christian orthodoxy gained the upper hand in the British Isles, this syncretic cult was rigourously suppressed, but not obliterated. A faith which could no longer perpetuate itself openly was passed on covertly, disguised in riddles. Just such a riddle was encoded in The Battle of the Trees and, by the same poet, in the Hanes Taliesin, in which the miraculous child hero of the romance tells the wicked King Maelgwn who he really is.

The original Taliesin was a Dark Age bard who wrote poems in praise of his patrons, particularly Urien of Reged, and who was remembered as a master poet by later generations. Graves suggests the medieval poet was claiming the name just as an ambitious Greek poet might call himself Homer. The romance tells how he acquired it. He began as Gwion Bach, a boy of no account, who was set to stir the cauldron of a witch, Cerridwen, who was preparing a magical brew for her own son. The brew was supposed to take a year and a day to prepare, but just before that time was up the three magical drops which contain all the wisdom of the world flew out of the cauldron and landed on the child’s finger, which he naturally put into his mouth. Immediately he was aware of all things, including his own danger. He fled from the enraged witch, shifting his shape to that of hare, fish, bird, while she pursued relentlessly as greyhound, otter, hawk. Finally he disguised himself as one grain amongst a heap of winnowed wheat on a barn floor, where she, in the form of a black hen, picked him out and swallowed him. Returning to her own shape she found she was pregnant with him, and nine months later she gave birth. But the infant was so beautiful she could not bring herself to kill him, so she sowed him into a leather bag and threw him into the sea. It was the twenty-ninth day of April.

The bag fetched up in the weir of a nobleman named Gwyddno. Gwyddno had a son, Elphin, who was unlucky in all things. In an effort to break the run of his ill-luck, Elphin had been granted all the contents of the weir that May eve, which usually amounted to a hundred pounds worth of fish. But when Elphin came to the weir, all he found was the leather bag, and inside, the beautiful baby. Opening it, he exclaimed "Oh, what a radiant brow", and thereafter the child was called Taliesin, meaning radiant brow. Gwyddno was distraught to discover Elphin had come up with nothing but another mouth to feed, but the child sang a song of consolation, promising "on the day of trouble I shall be of more service to you than three hundred salmon" - and so it turned out.

When the child Taliesin was thirteen years old it happened that Elphin fell foul of his cousin, the mighty King Maelgwn. His offence was to admit the truth, that his wife was more beautiful than Maelgwn's, and his bard, Taliesin, more knowledgeable than any of Maelgwn's bards, and for this he was flung into prison. Having foiled a plot to disgrace Elphin's lady, Taliesin betook himself to Maelgwn's court to free his patron. He arrived during a feast, when Maelgwn's twenty-four bards were due to recite their lord's praises before the court. Taliesin so bewitched the haughty bards that all they were able to do was to play "blerwm blerwm" with their fingers on their lips, like children. A blow to the head with a broomstick brought the chief bard, Heinin, to his senses, and he was able to point to the culprit. The child was brought before the king, who asked who he was and whence he came. The boy replied in riddling poetry, boasting of his own prowess as a bard and ridiculing Maelgwn's bards for their ignorance.

The romance is set back in the sixth century, but the insult, Graves avers, was addressed to the poet’s contemporaries, the privileged caste of the court bards of which he was not a member. It was he, and not they, who was the rightful heir of Taliesin. Having drunk from the cauldron of Cerridwen, the cauldron of poetic inspiration, he had knowledge which the court bards did not possess.

There were two classes of bards in medieval Wales. The court bards held a legally privileged position. Like the Irish master poets, they were heirs to an ancient tradition, but in their case it had become ossified, a consequence of church capture of their craft, a process which the Welsh law codes show was completed by the tenth century. They were bound to a barren code which required a high degree of technical skill but a severely restricted content. Originality was disallowed. A court bard's duty was to praise God and his patron, in that order. They were pledged to avoid 'untruth', that is "the dangerous exercise of poetic imagination in myth or allegory".2 In effect, they were forbidden to tell a story.

The Grail story has its origins among the bards of Wales - but not these bards. It was the bards of the lower classes, those Graves terms ‘wandering minstrels’, who originated Arthurian Romance. The division between the two, Graves argues, is originally racial. The court bards belonged to the race of the Cymri, immigrants from northern Britain who established themselves as the ruling class of Wales in the fifth century. The minstrels, though despised by the court bards and denied their legal privileges, were not necessarily inferior poets, nor inferior scholars - the medieval Taliesin was an exceptionally gifted and knowledgeable poet, as the content of his poetry proves. Graves holds that the wandering minstrels were descended from the native Welsh master-poets who refused, or were refused, court patronage after the Cymric conquest. Their patrons were the common people of Wales. Free of interference from church or state they preserved a poetic tradition with roots in the Stone Age. And they did tell stories.

These story-telling minstrels began to be received in Welsh courts in the twelfth century. Graves credits the change to Gruffudd ap Kynan, a ruler of Gwynedd who was Irish on his mother’s side and at one time driven into exile in Ireland. On his return he established a colony of Irish scholars in Gwynedd. He made new laws for the government of bards and musicians, so it is likely it was he who first granted the minstrels access to court.

The Romance of Taliesin and its accompanying verse was, then, written by a minstrel poet, a bard of the lower orders, who was in a position to address the court bards and tease them with their inability to solve his riddling poems. His secret, concealed from them only by their ignorance, was a heresy. In The Battle of the Trees, Graves holds, he announces his intention to revive this Celtic Arkite heresy as a “pan-Celtic political weapon against the English.”3

The Battle of the Trees is recorded in the Welsh triads as one of the three frivolous battles. But ‘trees’ means letters: What is referred to, Graves argues, is an intellectual war, a conflict of ideas. The twelfth century poet claims he is renewing an ancient conflict. The original battle of the trees was fought between the gods Bran and Beli. Graves holds the myth relates to a pre-Roman invasion of Britain by Belgic tribes and their capture of the national necropolis; a religious revolution brought about by military conquest. The twelfth century battle, the renewal of the conflict, was directed against the intellectual supporters of the Anglo-Normans, the Roman Church. The poet celebrated the revival of learning outside the monasteries in the lines “The tops of the beech tree Have sprouted of late, And are changed and renewed From their withered state”,4 satirised the monkish theologians with “Room for a million angels On my knife-point, it appears. Then room for how many worlds A-top of two blunt spears?”, and contrasted their dry, doom-laden learning with his own in “But I prophesy no evil, My cassock is wholly red. ‘He knows the Nine Hundred Tales’ - Of whom but me is it said?”5

A record survives of the reaction of one of the court bards to the minstrels’ challenge. In the early thirteenth century one Phylip Brydydd of Llanbardan Fawr protests against 'vulgar rhymesters' being allowed to compete with him for the privilege of being first to present his patron, Prince Rhys Ieuanc, with a song on Christmas day. He complains that the speech of strangers (presumably Irish), the vices of women and many a foolish tale has come to Gwynedd through the songs of false bards whose grammar was bad and who had no honour. He refers to the appearance of Elffin in the contentions of Maelgwn, and declares his own song is the ancient song of Taliesin which "was itself new for nine times seven years". It is not for mere men to remove the privilege of God, he asserts, and these upstarts will surely get their come-uppance: "unless untruth shall overcome truth, or the gift of God shall cease in the end, it is they who shall be disgraced in the contention: He will remove from the vulgar bards their vain delight."6 He denounces one of these vulgar bards, a ‘perverter of poetic practice’, specifically by name: Bleiddriw, that is, Bledri.

Of course, Graves support can lend no academic credence to Weston’s theory, as Graves himself is not exactly a respected figure in the field of Celtic scholarship, to put it mildly. Yet there was a time when his analysis of the two Welsh poems would not have appeared outlandish. John Rhys in 1886 advanced the opinion that the poetry of the book of Taliesin stemmed from a semi-pagan school of bards, in dispute with the more Christian bards favoured by Maelgwn. He held there was evidence that the dispute continued into the fourteenth century, but that it could have been a thousand years old by then: "It may be supposed to date from the time when the Brythons began to accept Christianity, and to have combined itself possibly with the Pelagian controversy."7

But perhaps John Rhys is no longer a respectable authority, for who now would speak of the conversion of the Brythons to Christianity?

Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009

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1 Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p143

2 Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p18

3 Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p146

4 Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p38

5 Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p44

6 Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p78-9

7 John Rhys, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, p547