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The Lords of Annwn

5 July 2019 26 Comments

Please excuse the crude painting. It’s just an excuse to upload this song lyric! As a result of conversations with "Davies up North", I have been revising (and hopefully improving) a series of lyrics on the Mabinogion. The first draft was written ten years ago. Here is the first:

Lords of Annwn

Here begin the Mabinogi:
Tales of youth, of heroes past,
Following the strong Pryderi
From his first breath to his last.
His father Pwyll – a man to trust –
Hearken how he conquered lust!

Pwyll mounts his horse to hunt
At Glyn Cuch with his hounds.
They bay, they bark, they forge in front;
His hunter’s horn resounds
Through the woods. His grey dogs stop
And bristling, sniff the breeze.
Pwyll lifts up his riding crop;
His hounds dash through the leaves.
Through moss and fern the hounds are gone,
Gnarled oaks loom overhead.
The trees close in; Pwyll trudges on,
His horse by halter led.
The woods close in upon his way:
The distant howls of dogs.
He pushes on without delay
Stumbling over fallen logs.

At last he steps into a clearing:
Strange dogs stand on slaughtered prey,
With milk white fur, red eyes leering,
And slavering, bar Pwyll’s way.
Pwyll finds a bleeding stag,
No other huntsman to be seen.
He takes the quarry for his bag
And beats the hounds off through the green.
He baits his own hounds, blood in hands,
Running slick and wet.
A stranger in the clearing stands;
Looking up, he cries, “Well met!”

The stranger scowls, calls, “Nay indeed!”
White dogs cower at his feet
And slink about his dappled steed.
He shouts, “You steal another’s meat!
Discourteous and dull thou art
To drive my hounds away!
Fast have they pursued this hart!
You bait your own beasts with the prey!

Pwyll smites himself for shame,
“Forgive my inadvertent slight.
You shall dine tonight on game,
And for your friendship shall I fight!”

“Arawn, Annwn’s king, am I,”
The towering man replies,
“Your favour shall I test and try,
My kingdom weeps and sighs:
Evil Hafgan seeks my throne;
He covets my dominions proud.
You shall face him on your own
And lay him dead beneath a shroud.
By my arts you will be changed
Into the likeness of myself.
Take my kingdom, my face feigned;
Protect my wife, wield my wealth.
Your own fine lands shall I rule
For the passage of one year –
At that time, Hafgan cruel
Is trysted to meet me here,
But you shall meet him in my stead.
Smite him hard, with but one blow.
When Hafgan gutters, cold and dead
My affection shalt thou know!”

Pwyll comes to Arawn’s court;
All there take him for the king.
He is before a damsel brought
Wearing Arawn’s wedding ring.
No fairer woman has caroused
With any man in Wales,
The court, by beer and wine aroused,
Gold brocaded, Pwyll regales.
Yet when at last they come to bed
She lies naked, sight to see!
Faithful Pwyll turns his head,
Says not one word. No move makes he.
And so it is for all the year:
He touches not, though tested sore,
And she sheds many a secret tear:
“Arawn desires me no more.”

The year gone, Pwyll rides out
Surging forward through the mist
And Hafgan with a husky shout
Also rides to keep the tryst.
“At last, the killing-hour is here!”
Cries Hafgan in his rage.
He spurs his horse and bares his spear
Faithful Pwyll to engage.
Pwyll strikes Hafgan on the shield;
It splinters, the lance drives home;
Hafgan, writhing on the field,
Pleads for death with helpless moan.
Arawn of Annwn comes before
Pwyll, and bows on bended knee:
“You snubbed me once, but never-more!
Faithful friend! My land is free!”

Pwyll rides to his own domain
And finds his lands grown twice as rich.
Lushly grow the fields of grain;
His ladies sew with silken stitch.

Arawn comes home to his court
And calls his knights to hear his tale;
“A lesser man would come to nought
But faithful Pwyll did not fail!”
Then he goes up to his bed
And puts away his kingly gowns.
Kisses his wife upon her head;
But she recoils, glowers, frowns.
He lays his head upon her breast
But she pushes him away:
“This bed’s seen naught but silent rest
For twelve months and a day!
Has my body lost its beauty?
Have my eyes their lustre lost?
Were you so laid down with duty
That my charms enticed you not?
Have my breasts gone slack or dun?
Have you lost the ability?
Perhaps there is some other one
Who gains from your virility?”

Arawn laughs, explaining all,
Unwinds her hair, in golden braid:
“Never once did it befall
A king found such a true comrade!”

Source material: The first tale in Branch I of the Mabinogion, ‘Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed’, adapted into verse from the translation by Gwyn and Thomas Jones (1974). The Mabinogion is preserved in two Welsh manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch (scribed between 1300 and 1325) and the Red Book of Hergest (1375-1425), but the tales are evidently very much older, despite courtly and Christian accretions such as the emphasis on courtesy and chastity. The story of a human being changing places with the Lord of Annwn (the Celtic underworld) is undoubtedly of great antiquity. I have argued elsewhere that a similar story is implied in the ballad of ‘Robin Hood and the Potter’. It would be absurdly reductive to offer a dogmatic interpretation of the tale, but it is possible that on one level, Arawn’s wife is Pwyll’s ‘muse’, and Arawn is Pwyll’s weird: his doppelganger, or the dark side of his own self. By this interpretation, Hafgan too is a projection of Pwyll’s own self. In fact, the Mabinogion tells and retells this same story under different guises: it is there again, for example, in the love triangles of Pwyll, Rhiannon and Gwawl (Branch I), and Lleu, Blodeuwedd and Gronw (Branch IV). On another level, the story may be read, like ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, as a parable on the changing seasons. Ultimately, however, the narrative is spiritual in nature, and so should be read with spirit rather than with reason. The white hounds with red ears are invariably associated with Annwn, and are its chthonic messengers, quite probably sharing their genesis with the Gabriel Hounds of the Wild Hunt. Lyric by Giles Watson, 1999; revised 2009.


  • thefacthatyousucksucks said:

    Your painting is faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaantastic- incredible- more.. !

  • dennisroth20 said:

    The story is great, as usual, and no need whatsoever to apologize for the painting – it’s very expressive! I’m off to the West for two weeks – probably out of contact much of the time.

  • brown pelican said:

    Beautiful lyrics, powerful and moving. And this is your painting, yes….not crude, but quite expressive, and well done–perfect for the lyrics.

  • mikescottnz said:


  • Giles Watson's poetry and prose said:

    Thanks for the encouragement… I really must try painting more to illustrate my poems. I couldn’t really get the dogs right in this one, but I did it some time ago, so I might be able to do some better ones in future.

    Of all texts, the Mabinogion has probably influenced me the most, so it would be nice if I could do it justice…

  • cumberlandclouds said:

    My first thought on seeing the painting was "Ah, the grinning dogs!", "a Christ-like man!". I very much like it and after reading the splendid poem and footnote, like it even more. I have the Jones translation of "The Mabinogion" but, after listening to Sioned Davies’ address at last year’s Wye Festival, I bought her new translation and your work here has reminded me that I haven’t yet read it. Have you? I would be extremely interested to know your response.

  • BredaF10 said:

    I love the painting. Maybe it’s the fact that I love all dogs no matter how they look!!!!!!

    Sorry but no time to read the poem – will revisit later.

  • BeeWax1 said:

    I think the style of the painting fit the age of the story perfectly. A modern realist style would not fit half as well. I’m not familiar with "The Mabinogion" although I do know of Annwn. I enjoyed the tale very much and recognised it’s likeness to stories from many cultures. Keep up the good work Giles.

  • Giles Watson's poetry and prose said:

    Cumberlandclouds: I have encountered Sioned Davies’ translation, but have not read it – just sampled bits here and there. It does look very good – in fact, thanks for reminding me. I must have a proper read of it before I write any more

    Breda: I’m just the same with dogs. Almost every dog melts my heart…

    BeeWax: That is really encouraging, especially when I consider what a good artist you are. Do read the Mabinogion if you get chance. It has been a source of endless fascination for me for years.

  • tiikka said:

    I love the song, and the painting is cool too. Very moral tale of honesty and fidelity to friends

  • Clockwise Cat said:

    lyrics and painting are lurvely!

  • Davies up North said:

    what ever you say about your art those dogs are the work of someone who has watched dogs, that special bonkers look of the happy lurcher springs to mind.. beautiful, the song is very clever, a marvelous bit of weaving and your ideas on the origins very intriguing. Where I grew up Gwyn ap Nedd rode the winter night sky followed by the baying pack of the wild hunt. Gwyn comes also from Annwn and when we were young we sang a play ground song about death and being carried off to the river nedd. ( Neath in the south west valleys) These tales are indeed ancient and there is so much yet to be discovered. The lord of the dead and the wild hunt has a silver arm like the river nedd and children sang songs about it in the 60’s.(You probably remember Gwyn from Culwch and Olwen) So many threads.
    Wonderful work Giles. Provocative as ever.

  • brown pelican said:

    excellent rule changes!

  • swiftysandorklicious said:

    Nice self portrait. Love the hell hounds!

  • Giles Watson's poetry and prose said:

    That really is the wonderful thing about the Mabinogion, it really is so inextricably interwoven with other skeins of folklore. When I was researching some poems on birds, I discovered that the wild hunt is also associated with the flight and calls of curlews. I did a poem on this, and if ever I take (or paint) a decent enough picture of curlews, I’ll append the poem to it on Flickr. I had heard about the Gwyn association with Annwn and the wild hunt – an endless source of fascination. I wonder if you have ever read Algernon Blackwood’s story ‘The Trod’? It is a curious modern take on the same theme.

    Yes, and this is actually a sort of self portrait (or at least, the beard is!), and the dogs all originated as sketches of my own slavering beast… Ok, so he only ever slavers when Jeannie is cooking quiche (his favourite – you would know why if you tasted the pastry). I think that he would be a bit too soppy for a real hound of Annwn, though!

    And yes, again, there is a morality to the tale, and also a suggestion of chivalric codes of conduct on top of that, at least as a veneer. But I think there are other, deeper and darker layers as well.

  • cumberlandclouds said:

    Giles, I would love to read your poem involving curlews so I hope you find an appropriate image soon. Their call sets my hair on end but in the best way as it’s a sound from home, the farm. When I’m camping up north (N.T.) I can’t wait to lie in the tent at night and listen to them, the eerie cries building to crisis transport me back to the Murray as if they are calling me and I can hear Dad telling the tales about early settlers thinking they were a woman in distress. I like the idea you mention here about links with the wild hunt and am curious to know more.

  • Giles Watson's poetry and prose said:

    It might take me a considerable time to get a reasonable picture of a curlew, so here is the poem:


    Seven of us there are,
    Though one has strayed.
    We seek him in the fading grey.

    Six of us calloo for him,
    Our lost one. As we’re flying,
    Our calls foretell
    That seven men are dying.

    Six of us shall whaup,
    Tong-beaked, like goblins
    Snatching souls.

    Six shall find the seventh;
    Doom we send.
    And when we reunite
    The world shall end.

    Source material: According to Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, pp. 218-219, curlews are often but not exclusively identified as the Seven Whistlers, who are generally harbingers of doom. The notion that one of the whistlers has become lost, and that when he is found, the world shall end, originates in South Shropshire and Worcestershire. The eerie quality of the birds’ voices is enhanced by their similarity to human voices. This perhaps accounts for the folk tradition that the call of a curlew is a presage of death – a tradition upheld by Buckland, who reported a case in which seven men drowned when their boat overturned beneath a flock of passing curlews. The names “curlew” and “calloo” are derived from the birds’ calls. “Whaup” is more problematic, but the name is shared with a type of Scottish goblin with a long beak designed for carrying off evildoers in the middle of the night. See also Francesca Greenoak, British Birds: their Folklore, Names and Literature, pp. 98-99.

  • cumberlandclouds said:

    Many thanks, Giles. As I read I thought there must be a Scots element to whaup and there is a little phrase in my head, from I don’t know where, possibly Scotland, "callee-calloo", goodness knows it could be from a J. Arthur Rank film of the 30s or 40s, there’s nothing academic about it. The curlew’s old association with death is understandable and I sometimes muse on the bush sounds of the night and how they struck the early white folk in their bark huts. What image, for example, did the sound of a koala in the night evoke? I’ve leapt upright when a Barking Owl let loose above my tent in the dark. It’s fascinating and your poem has given me vivid new ideas.

  • cumberlandclouds said:

    PS What is the meaning of the symbol in your painting? Is it staring at me already?

  • Giles Watson's poetry and prose said:

    Hmmm… Just realised that there is also "calloo-callay" in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’!

    The symbol is the Celtic ogham character Fearn, associated with the Alder tree. In my original painting, barely visible in this photo, there are alder leaves and catkins pencilled in around Arawn’s head. I am making a link between Arawn and Bran, an Alder god. I have always associated Alder trees with darker, more chthonic forces, perhaps because of the trees’ liking for swampy ground, so this seems to suit a king of the underworld.

    Re strange animal noises – yes, some of those Australian sounds must have been quite alarming to early settlers. Even some English nighttime sounds can be quite disturbing if you don’t know their origin (but quite uplifting when you do): the strange backwards barks of foxes, the screeching of a barn owl, and the blood-curdling, half-human scream of a badger in particular.

  • BeeWax1 said:

    I like the poem Giles & I agree about the night noise. As cumberlandclouds mentioned, & I’m sure you remember, the Koala, for such a cuddle chap, sounds more like a disgruntled banshee. One that gets me is the staccato ‘kah kah kah kah kah’ of a group of plovers flying in to the dam at night. It sounds more like a heavy machine gun than a flock of birds

  • Giles Watson's poetry and prose said:

    I haven’t heard a koala – but plovers I am acquainted with. Over here, I always love the sound of lapwings – a daytime sound, but such a wild one…

  • cumberlandclouds said:

    Thanks again, Giles, your elaboration adds another evocative element.
    I must say, your description of the "backwards barks of foxes" is the most accurate I’ve ever heard. Listening to them from my room at night I always knew they were foxes but for strangers could never get beyond "sort of like a dog but not". Having been up at the farm for a few days, my head is filled with the nightsounds again. Up at three every morning to potter around outside, lovely! The kookaburras start at five o’clock but the willy wagtails sing all night long.

  • cumberlandclouds said:

    It’s more years than I want to admit since I read "Jabberwocky" but calloo-callay may well be my source – floating fragments ebb and flow in my memory.

  • Giles Watson's poetry and prose said:

    I think the backwards-ness of the fox makes it sound otherworldly: it is like a dog’s sound inside out, and in a way, not far from the red-eared hounds in the Mabinogion. I’m intrigued by mediaeval carvings which depict creatures upside-down – a common feature in early Romanesque carvings. I always think that these inverted creatures are otherworld animals. Visually, they have a similar impact to the cries of curlews, badgers, lapwings, barn-owls, foxes and – no doubt – koalas.

    Interesting about the night-singing willie wagtails. Robins are sometimes mistaken for nightingales here because they sing under lamp-posts, and I have heard magpies do the same in Australia.

  • cumberlandclouds said:

    Yes, our local maggies have been warbling at night most of the last couple of months ( breeding season) and the street lights are probably involved too. I have seen wildlife programmes which discuss the confusion wrought by the lights on birds, particularly, as well as other creatures, including myself! And the general raising of their volume to combat urban noise. However, eagoodlife mentioned recently that the wagtails are singing while they sit on their nests and the only light at the farm was the full moon (another great subject).
    I’m sure you are perfectly right in your interpretation of the mediaeval depictions of animals being otherworldly. I’ve long thought of them as familiars and otherworldly, wondering at the vast changes in our perspectives and society since then as well as the aforementioned tv programmes which, though I am transfixed by some of them, seem to be one of the factors in the alienation of the ordinary Joe Blow from nature. This may sound mad but I think the screen in the lounge room, while enlightening, also divorces the viewer from reality, from direct interraction and getting dirt on the hands and shoes. I noticed a neighbour yesterday thrust his broom at a Wattle Bird in our tree while he was obsessively slaving over his cement, but mustn’t rant.