Culhwch and Olwen

Culhwch was the son of Cilydid and Goleuddydd and the cousin of the famous King Arthur. When Goleuddydd died, Cilydid took another wife. The new wife thought Culhwch would make a good husband for her own daughter. When Culhwch refused her request, she became very angry.

She laid a curse on him that the only woman he could ever marry was Olwen, daughter of the fearsome giant Yspaddaden Pencawr. Yspaddaden would not allow any man to marry his daughter because an ancient curse promised he would die on the wedding day.

Even so, Culhwch blushed at the sound of Olwen’s name. He fell in love with the very idea of her and went to his father to ask how he could win her. Cily did reminded his son that he was King Arthur’s cousin. He suggested he go to Arthur’s court and ask for Olwen as a favor.

After a long journey, Culwhwch arrived at the gates of Arthur’s palace. It was late and the gates had been closed for the night. The gatekeeper explained that it was Arthur’s custom to keep the gates locked until morning. Culhwch flatly refused this response. He demanded to be allowed in.

He swore that if he were not, he would let out a shriekso loud and so shrill that it would cause every pregnant woman in the land to miscarry her child. The gatekeeper brought this news to Arthur. Although several of his knights advised him against doing so, Arthur went against custom and allowed Culhwch to enter.

After greeting each other, Arthur offered his cousin food and drink. Culhwch explained that he was there for a much greater purpose and that he had a favor to ask. Arthur promised to grant him whatever he asked. Hearing this Culhwch replied, “Then I ask for Olwen daughter of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden, and I invoke her in the name of your warriors.”

Neither Arthur nor any of his knights had heard of Olwen, but they promised to help Culhwch find her nonetheless. Arthur ordered his most skilled warriors to accompany Culhwch on his journey. Among the men who went along were Kai, who could hold his breath for nine days and go without sleep for nine nights.

With Kai came his constant companion Bedwyr, who was as fast with a sword as he was beautiful. The party was rounded out by Gwrhyr, who could speak the language of any man or animal, Gwalchmei, who could leave no adventure unachieved, and Menw, who could make himself and his companions invisible.

The party traveled together until they saw a huge fortress on an open plain. Feeding on the plain was a seemingly endless number of sheep. They were watched over by a hulking shepherd and his huge dog. Menw put a spell on the dog so that they could approach the shepherd without harm.

The party asked the shepherd his name and whose fortress it was. He replied that he was Custennin. The fortress belonged to Yspaddaden, who Custennin and his wife hated. The evil giant had killed all but one of their twenty-four sons.

They kept the only survivor hidden in a stone chest to keep him from harm. Kai offered to take the boy under his wing and train him as a knight. In return for his generous offer, Custennin’s wife offered to secure a secret meeting between Olwen and Culhwch.

Messengers were dispatched and Olwen came down to the plain to wash her hair. According to the poets of old:

to the plain to wash her hair. According to the poets of old: Her hair was yellower than broom, her skin whiter than seafoam.... Neither the eye of a mewed hawk nor the eye of a thrice-mewed falcon was fairer than hers; her [skin was] whiter than the breast of a white swan, her cheeks were redder than the reddest foxgloves, and anyone who saw her would fall deeply in love.

Culhwch and Olwen talked together at Custennin’s home and quickly fell in love. As Olwen stood up to return home, she told Culhwch to ask her father for her hand in marriage and not to deny anything he might ask of him. In return, she promised to spend the rest of her days with him.

The next day, the party made for Yspaddaden’s castle. They killed the nine gatekeepers and made their way straight to the giant’s chambers. Culhwch announced his intention to marry Olwen. The giant glared at them.

He said he would think about the request and give them an answer the next day. As they turned to go, he grabbed a poisoned spear and threw it at them. But Bedwyr, quick as lightning, caught it and hurled it back, wounding the giant’s knee.

The next day the same thing happened. Yspaddaden told them to return and threw a second spear as they left. Menw caught the spear and this time pierced the giant’s chest. The third day they repeated the ritual once more.

This time, Culhwch caught the spear and threw it back so hard that it went through Yspaddaden’s eye and came out the other side. The giant finally agreed to sit down with Culhwch and his party to discuss his daughter’s marriage.

Yspaddaden agreed to let Culhwch marry Olwen, but only after he completed several tasks. The giant then listed thirty-nine tasks, each more impossible then the last. For example, Culhwch was to plow a vast hill in one day’s time, which could only be achieved if they captured two magic oxen to lead the plow, which could only be driven by a certain plowman, and so on.

After Yspaddaden named each feat to be completed or item to be brought back, Culhwch simply responded, “It will be easy for me to get that, though you think otherwise.”

Culhwch and his party made their way back to Arthur’s court. On the way, Kai fulfilled one of the trials by tricking a giant named Gwrnach into giving him his sword. When they arrived at court, they explained to the king what they must do.

Arthur immediately promised his help and resources. The group set out to accomplish their tasks. They realized that the most dangerous one would be obtaining the comb and shears that rested between the ears of Twrch Trwyth, a king transformed into a monstrous boar.

On their way to find the boar king, Arthur and his companions attempted to fulfill another of their tasks—to find Mabon, the son of Modron who had been kidnapped when he was only three days old.

Arthur instructed Gwyhyr to ask an ancient Blackbird if he knew of Mabon’s whereabouts. The Blackbird answered that while he had been sitting in that spot long enough to peck an anvil to the size of a nut, he had never heard anyone speak of the boy.

The bird suggested they ask a beast older than he, the Stag of Rhedenvre. The Stag could not help them, nor could an old Owl nor an ancient Eagle. Finally, though, they were directed toward the Salmon of Lake Llyw, who was said to have been the oldest living creature in the world.

The Salmon indeed knew where Mabon lived. He even offered to take Kai and Gwrhyr there on his shoulders. Together they made their way to a stone house, where they heard terrible wailing. It was Mabon, begging for his freedom. Kai and Gwyhyr released Mabon, who then helped them fulfill many of their other tasks.

After much time, Arthur decided he and his men were ready to take on Twrch. They advanced to the castle where the boar king lived with his seven young pig sons. The companions fought Twrch for three days with little results.

Finally, Arthur sent Gwrhyr in the shape of a bird to speak with Twrch. Gwrhyr begged the boar king to give up his comb and scissors in order to put an end to all the fighting. Twrch not only refused, he promised to do even more damage to the land and Arthur’s men.

Enraged, Twrch and his pigs swam across the sea into Wales. Arthur and his men followed. They made their way all over Britain chasing Twrch, encountering many adventures and even fulfilling other tasks in the process.

Over a long period of time, the pig sons were killed one by one until Twrch alone remained. Finally, they cornered the king and were able to grab the comb and scissors—but not without great effort and cost on their part. Twrch managed to escape before Arthur had a chance to kill him.

With the comb in hand, Arthur had succeeded in helping Culhwch fulfill his trials as promised. They made their way back to Yspaddaden, bringing him every treasure he had required. The gifts he had demanded turned out to be his death wish.

When Culhwch asked if Olwen was his, Yspaddaden replied, “She is. And you need not thank me, rather Arthur, who won her for you; of my own will you would have never got her. Now it is time for you to kill me.”

With that, one of Arthur’s men grabbed the giant and beheaded him. Yspaddaden’s head was placed on a pole on the wall. Arthur seized the fortress and all the treasures. Culhwch, of course, took Olwen and the couple was soon married.

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