Folklore Thursday: Taliesin: The Legendary Figure
A fascinating, mysterious, and compelling figure in Celtic literature and legend, Taliesin is a composite character whose story blurs the lines between history and fiction. It is believed that the historical Taliesin was a mid 6th century AD bard and poet, author of some of the earliest poems in Welsh contained in the 14th century Book of Taliesin (other poems are thought to have been written later by poets adopting the name and persona of Taliesin). Taliesin was a bard in at least two different courts spanning two generations of kings – Urien of Rheged and his son and successor Owain, and Brochwel Ysgithrog (Ysgithroh meaning “of the fanged teeth”) and his son and successor Cynan Garwyn – and, although the historical Taliesin appears to have existed slightly later than the alleged period of King Arthur’s reign, he became associated with Arthur from very early on.
There is very little information about the historical Taliesin. In the Saxon genealogies of the Historia Brittonum (ca. 828), Taliesin is mentioned as one of five poets. According to this source, he lived in the time of King Ida, the first known king of Bernicia, and at the same time as a Welsh chieftain named Eudeyrn. Many of Taliesin’s poems are eulogies to the kings of Rheged, father and son Urien and Owain, praising them in life and lamenting their deaths. Because Rheged was a kingdom in the Cumbrian region of north-west Britain, it seems likely that Taliesin, as an itinerant bard, was only a visitor to the Rheged court, since his poems are in Welsh and his home was certainly Wales. From sources gleaned in the Book of Taliesin and the Annales Cambraie, Taliesin’s first patron was Elffin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir. Gwyddno was the Lord of Ceredigion and ruler of Cantre’r Gwaleod, a legendary sunken kingdom known as “the Welsh Atlantis.” As a bard, Taliesin sang the praises of Elffin and mocked Elffin’s great rival, the powerful King Maelgwyn of Gwynnedd, but Taliesin and Elffin garnered an even closer association in the legend that arose around the figure of Taliesin.
In a further connection with Arthur, the Welsh Triads and the late 12th or early 13th century Arthurian work The Dream of Rhonabwy recount tales of Taliesin’s son, Afaon, an extraordinarily brave warrior who was one of Arthur’s main counsellors, fought alongside him at the Battle of Badon, and was killed later on by another warrior in Lothian. Taliesin himself is said to be buried in a stone grave in Dyfed, Wales, in a cairn called Bedd Taliesin. However, the cairn dates from the Bronze Age and the village nearby, Tre-Taliesin, was only established there and named after the bard in the 19th century. According to legend, anyone who sleeps on the grave of the great Welsh bard wakes up either a poet or insane.
Having looked at the historical figure of Taliesin the 6th century Welsh bard, let us now take a look at the legendary character of Taliesin. In many respects, the Taliesin of legend has become conflated with the historical poet, whose tale incorporates aspects of earlier mythic Celtic heroes and deities, and is now woven into the stories of Arthur, Merlin, and Morgan le Fay.
Taliesin’s story begins in the middle of Llyn Tegid (or Bala Lake), the largest natural lake in Wales. There, on an island, lived Cerridwen, a great and terrifying Celtic goddess who was the keeper of the sacred, magical cauldron of the Otherworld, and her husband, Tegid Voel, of whom nothing is known besides the fact that he was a god and Cerridwen’s consort. Cerridwen was feared as a witch and sorceress, the goddess of dark, prophetic powers, and, as such, was usually depicted as a haggard crone. The oldest version of her name, “Cyrridven”, means “crooked woman” and her totemic animal was a sow, symbolising the fecundity of the Otherworld.
Cerridwen and Tegid Voel had two children who were opposing forces in every respect: Crearwy (“light”), the most beautiful girl in the world, who radiated light and warmth, and Afagddu (“dark”), the ugliest boy in the world, who emanated darkness and cold. Cerridwen nonetheless loved both her children and wanted to compensate her son for his blight by bestowing upon him the gifts of knowledge and inspiration, and to make him a great seer by being able to see the past, present and future. She gathered together all the magic herbs she needed, placed them in her cauldron to brew for the necessary year and a day, and set a blind man, Morda, to stoke the fire to keep the potion heated.
Since Cerridwen could not be there all the time to keep the potion mixed, she charged her servant, Gwion Bach, a tiny young boy, to stir the cauldron from time to time, and warned him that he must never taste it. But, at the end of the year and a day, three drops of the hot potion splattered onto Gwion Bach’s thumb. The little boy instinctively sucked the drops off his thumb to alleviate the burn and at once all the knowledge, inspiration, wisdom and divination intended for Afagddu went into Gwion Bach instead. As soon as the potion worked its magic, the remainder became poisonous, the cauldron split into pieces, and the contents poisoned all the water flowing from the lake, killing anyone and anything that drank it, including the horses of Gwyddno Garanhir, the Lord of Ceredigion and ruler of Cantre’r Gwaleod.
When Cerridwen discovered what had happened, she flew into a terrible rage, but, with his new gift of divination, Gwion Bach foresaw her reaction and ran away, leaving poor blind Morda to bear the brunt of the goddess’ wrath. Cerridwen beat Morda around the head with a piece of wood until one of his eyes fell out onto his cheek. But when the goddess realised that Morda’s protestations of innocence were the truth, she set off as a monstrous hag in pursuit of Gwion Bach, rapidly catching up with him. When he saw her gaining on him, Gwion Bach used his new magical powers to transform himself into a hare to run faster, but Cerridwen changed herself into a greyhound. Gwion Bach then leapt into a river, turning himself into a fish, but Cerridwen changed herself into an otter and dived in after him. Gwion Bach then jumped out of the river, transformed himself into a small bird and flew away, but Cerridwen followed him, grimly transforming herself into a hawk. Finally, Gwion Bach saw a barn from the air, flew down to it, landed on the barn floor, and transformed himself into a single grain of wheat, thinking that he would be safe among all the other thousands of grains. But Cerridwen flew down into the barn after him, changed herself into a hen, and, pecking at the grains of wheat on the floor, eventually swallowed Gwion Bach.
However, this was not the end of the story, only the beginning. Upon her return to Llyn Tegid and resuming her human form, Cerridwen discovered that swallowing the magical grain of wheat that was Gwion Bach had made her pregnant. Nine months later she gave birth to Gwion Bach, who was reborn as a boy so beautiful that the goddess did not have the heart to kill him. Still angry at him, though, she sewed him up inside a leather bag and threw him into a river. As fate would have it, the bag caught on the fish weir of Gwyddno Garanhir, whose horses had been poisoned by the remnants of the potion Gwion Bach had drunk. The bag was found by Gwyddno Garanhir’s son, Elffin, who, upon opening the bag, was so stunned by the beautiful forehead of the baby inside that he named him “Radiant Brow” i.e. Taliesin, and adopted the boy as his own son. Thus, we see the first instance where history and legend intersect. Elffin, who in history was the first patron of Taliesin, became, in legend, his adopted father.
Thereafter, Taliesin becomes a fabled figure in Welsh legend and literature. He is among the seven survivors of the expedition to Ireland of Bran the Blessed to rescue his sister Branwen, and it is not long before he makes his first appearance in Arthurian tradition in The Spoils of Annwn (ca. 900). In this Welsh poem, Taliesin is one of Arthur’s companions in the latter’s quest to the Otherworld to attain (of all things) a magic cauldron. In Welsh tradition and in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (ca. 1150), Taliesin is a contemporary and friend of Merlin. The latter describes the two of them in conversation and has Taliesin and Merlin together taking the body of Arthur to Morgan le Fay in Avalon after the king’s final battle at Camlann.
Although Taliesin does not feature in medieval Arthurian literature (with the exception of a mention in the 11th-12th century poem Culwch and Olwen), he resumes his role as Arthur’s chief bard in John Threlwall’s The Fairy of the Lake (1801) and, briefly, in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859). He appears as a bard in Thomas Love Peacock’s novel The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829), which follows the mythological story of Elphin finding a baby boy and naming him Taliesin, and is the principal character in Richard Hovey’s Taliesin: A Masque (1900), where he assists Sir Percival in the quest for the Holy Grail. In the 20th century, Taliesin becomes the central character and narrator in Charles Williams’ unfinished Arthurian poems, Taliessin Through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944). He appears as a character in a number of later 20th century historical and fantasy novels and series, including Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, and in Stephen R. Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle as Merlin’s father.
Most interestingly, Taliesin’s connection to Morgan le Fay has become more pronounced in modern literature as well. In Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, ‘Merlin’ is simply a title, as in ‘the Merlin of Britain’, the Archdruid of Avalon, whose role is one of the chief pagan leaders. The first character in the novel to bear the ‘Merlin’ title is Taliesin, who in this version is the father of Igraine and thus the grandfather of both Morgan (Morgaine in the book) and Arthur. In Faye Sampson’s quintet of Morgan le Fay novels, Taliesin’s Telling is the fourth book and takes place during Morgan’s marriage to Urien, King of Rheged. Taliesin in this version is a young man, “the prettiest bard in Britain”, already renowned for his talent. There he becomes bewitched by the unhappy Morgan, becomes her lover, and discovers the secret of Morgan’s foster-son Mordred as Morgan tries to concile the latter with her brother Arthur before the fateful Battle of Camlann.
Taliesin has inspired a number of artists in various fields. American architect Frank Lloyd Wright named his estate and studio Taliesin, in honour of the great bard. The Wisconsin land on which the estate was built had belonged to the family of Wright’s mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, the daughter of Unitarian immigrants from Llandysul in Cardiganshire, Wales. Lloyd Wright built Taliesin on the favourite hill of his childhood, during which he had been surrounded by the Welsh language and culture from an early age.
An eclectic range of composers have created works based on the character of Taliesin. In 1968, the heavy metal rock band Deep Purple released their second studio album titled The Book of Taliesyn, a complex record with dark themes named for the Welsh poet. In 2006, English singer-songwriter Paul Roland wrote the song “Taliesin” about the character. For classical music, the Norwegian composer Martin Romberg wrote a concerto in eight parts titled “The Tale of Taliesin.” However, although Taliesin has been honoured by musicians, disappointingly, he has so far never been portrayed on screen. In the TV serial adaptation of Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, the character, as played by actor Michael Byrne, is simply listed in the cast as “Merlin” and is not referred to by his name of Taliesin. Here’s hoping that one day Taliesin will find his way onto the screen as well.
In the Fata Morgana series, Taliesin is one of the main characters and one of Morgan’s closest friends. He begins the story as a seven-year-old boy, the adopted son of Elffin the fisherman, who knows nothing about his true parentage or origins. He works as a humble page boy in Tintagel Castle until he is chosen by Grand Master Cadwellon, the leader of the Druids, to become his apprentice, a position of enormous prestige.
Taliesin appears in books 1 and 2 of the Fata Morgana series to date.