Yes Virginia, There May Have Been a Taliesin
by Suibhne Geilt
A feller once said "There are more men of knowledge in the service of men of power than men of power in the service of men of knowledge." Sounds profound, don't it? Well, it isn't. It's a truism, and a mathematical one to boot. If Taliesin, the poet, lived - and let's say he did, he lived in the 6th century, in a place called Powys (I adjure thee, fellow folklorists, get a map. Map, hell, get an atlas.) Scholars think Powys because of a poem Taliesin wrote to the Powys lord, Cynan Garwyn.
Taliesin was indeed a man of knowledge. John Morris-Jones and 1for Williams thought that Ta1iesin's poems to the Warlord Urien were the work of a professional bard, a master of the short eulogy, or "praise poem." On the buffet table of literature, praise poetry is the Jordan Almond; it is colorful and faux. You either love it or you find it despicable.
In that magical moment of the 6tb century, Taliesin seems to have been the reigning elf who opened up more aesthetic territory than any other Celtic poet of his time. His spiritual children' have been drawing on his work, scarcely realizing it, ever since. For sheer tenacity, and enthusiasm of engagement with the great spectacle of Celtic warmongering, no one is Taliesin's equal.
On the other hand, Taliesin mightn't have been one guy. Taliesin might have been the 6th century equivalent of our own esteemed Bardic Guild. Might have been a group of grad students from L'Universite Druidsme. If he/she/it was Urien's P.R. department, they had monopoly status, right up there with the Drexel-Burnham junk bond department, or the First Boston mergers and acquisitions department. Lots of hacks were writing pretty much identical product. To distinguish him/her/ itself from the competition, Taliesin had to resort to extra market devices over and above extreme brownnosing.
As a warlord, Urien was good. He was up there with John Wayne and Dirty Harry and Rambo. Urien was no R.E.M.F. Urien led, chucked spears, and everything. How do I know? Taliesin tells me so.
"If there's an enemy of the hill
Urien will make him shudder
If there's an enemy in the hollow
Urien will pierce him through."
What if Urien Were Dead
And Taliesin is funny. To my mind, (and a lunatic mind it is) the funniest line in Taliesin is from The Battles of Gwallawg "These men can take outhouses by storm." Right. Throw a frag. Blow up an outhouse. I love it. I love it.
The work of Taliesin the eulogist was done mostly in the North; Cumberland, Westmoorland and. Galloway (get a map). These places formed the Brythonic or North Cymric kingdom of Rheged, of which Urien was king. Taliesin also penned eulogies to Owain, Urien's son, and to Gwallawg, the Lord of Elfed, near Leeds.
Whether these eulogies are actually the work of the 6th century bard has been discussed by scholars.
What was the Brythonic language like at the end of the 6th century? Had it lost its 'terminations'? Kenneth Jackson seemed to think so. If not, then the Taliesin poems would have been quite different, and they would have been emended, that is to say "corrected," to their present form at a later date. Trouble is, how could a poem survive linguistic changes without losing its form?
The well-defined structure of the Taliesin poems, with a primitive Welsh rhyming system, is proof to scholars that Brythonic did lose its "terminations" very early, and very quickly, and by the time Taliesin was writing. Cymric or Cumbric, the insular branch of the Western (Celtic) dialect of the Indo-European languages as spoken by the people of Cornwall, Wales and Brittany, (Manx, by the way, is of the Goidelic dialect) had already been born. Two poets, Taliesin and Aneirin, were among the first to compose in it. They did so with panache. Hence their enduring fame.
These are the salient points about the historical Taliesin. There is a wealth of fascinating information in Meiron Pennar's book Taliesin. Poems. Check it out.
Now ain't you glad I've made you privy to the line about the outhouses? And don't you love a good mystery? I know I do.
Wait a minute. We ain't through yet.
There's another Taliesin.
After a seven hundred year snooze, Taliesin resurfaces again. This time he's a poet with supernatural powers and a propensity for the occult akin to the Taliesin of the medieval legend entitled Chwedl Taliesin, an English translation appears in the 'Guest' translation of the Mabinogion. Personally, I'd rather flunk a Wassermann test than read the Mabinogion by Guest'.
The Book of Taliesin, a late 13th century manuscript, some of which is connected with neither the eulogist nor the legend, was done as an act of love by the last in a possible series of monks involved in the medieval cult of Taliesin. Now what was that cult all about? My wild guess is that it might have been an abortive push for sainthood.
Latin interpolations, such as Lauda, Laudate, Jesu, and several other religious poems contained in that manuscript, point to a religious involvement in the compilation of the book. Marwnad y Fil Felb is an invocation of the saints of the ages. Some of the other poems have secular titles, and appear to have had pre-Christian roots, have been reworked or recreated with a devotional Christian slant.
Even though these poems are covers from different periods and by a motley crew of secular and religious authors, what is remarkable is that there is no tampering with the poems of Taliesin the eulogist.
Of the Book of Taliesin, the poems now widely accepted on Ifor Williams' formal recommendation, are those to Urien, the elegy on his son Owain, and poems to Cynan Carwyn and to Gwallawg. There does not seem to be any need to challenge this list of the most likely poems of the historical Taliesin.
The other poems in the Book of Taliesin have attached themselves to him in some cases because other poets, as actors, have spoken as Taliesin.
The following bibliography comes with a caveat emptor. It contains a couple of interestingly garbage works about Taliesin. Moreover, some of the poems, book are very heady, bitchy stuff, but hey, we all read People magazine, don't we?
Some Taliesin trivia: 1) Frank Lloyd Wright's design studio was named 'Taliesin Design.', and 2) W.C. Quantrill's horse was not named Taliesin.
A Select Bibliography
- Bards and Heroes: Welsh Poetry From Taliesinn to Iolo Goch, Trans. By Carl Lofmark, Felnfach, Lampeter, Dyfed. LLanerch Publishers.
- Taliesin Poems. ISBN 0947992243, Meiron Pennar, Llanerch, 1988
- The Mabinogion, ed. and trans. By P.K. Ford, University of California, 1977
- The Mabinogion, ed. and trans. By Lady Charlotte Guest, Cardiff, John Jones, 1977
- The Song of Taliesin, ISBN 0855381141, John Matthews, Harper Collins, London, 1991
- Taliesin: Book One of the Pendragon Cycle, Stephen R. Lawhead, Avon, NY, 1987, ISBN 0-380-70613X
- The Mabinogion, By Jeffrey Gantz, Dorset Press, ISBN 0-88029-039-0, New York, NY