from the Mabinogion, the great book of Welsh
legend. Adapted by me from Charlotte Guest's chunky translation.
Long ago, there was a witch named Ceridwen, who gave birth
to two children. The first, her daughter, was perfectly beautiful,
clever and sweet, and a delight to all who met her. But, much to
Ceridwen's dismay, her second child turned out so ugly, stupid
and unpleasant that everyone who saw him turned away, sickened.
This was a great worry to Ceridwen. She grew concerned that he
would never amount to anything, being so hideous and so totally
without talent: the court of King Arthur would never admit him,
and no child of hers was going to be a mere commoner. She racked
her brains for a while, and then got out her cauldron, and
began to make a great spell, which would make her son a wise,
inspired bard, full of insight and imagination. Then nobody
would mind how ugly he was.
When the spell was ready, the first three drops of liquid -
and only the first three drops - from the cauldron would impart
ultimate knowledge, wisdom and inspiration to whoever drank them.
Meanwhile, the cauldron would have to be kept boiling for a year
and a day to complete the spell, while Ceridwen collected the
necessary plants and herbs, and worked out the incantations.
So she hired an old blind man named Morda to stoke the fires, and
a young boy, Gwion, to stir the cauldron. And off she went to the
hills, to search for the rare plants needed for the spell.
She wandered far and wide, walking herself into exhaustion. On
the final day she added the last plant, sat down for a rest and
fell asleep. The boy Gwion was stirring the brew when the ladle
slipped, and three drops flew out onto his thumb, burning him. He
thrust his thumb into his mouth to stop the pain and in a flash, wisdom,
inspiration and ultimate knowledge came upon him. Of course the
first thing that occurred to him was that Ceridwen would be very, very
He dropped the spoon and ran away, but it was not long before
Ceridwen woke up and discovered what had happened. The potion was
useless now, and her son would remain an idiot. In a fury she set
off after Gwion to blast him to a crisp. He used his new magical powers to
turn himself into a hare and ran like crazy, but she turned into a greyhound,
and gained ever more on him. Reaching a river he became a fish and swam like crazy, but Ceridwen became an otter, and was soon on his tail again. He leapt from the
water, and became a bird: Ceridwen
became a hawk. In desperation, Gwion looked down and saw a pile
of wheat. He dived, landed, and as it scattered he turned into a
single grain. But Ceridwen became a hen, and pecked at the grain
until she had swallowed the boy.
Soon after, Ceridwen found herself with child, although no man
had been near her. When she realised that the baby was Gwion, she
and her son - who was also furious with the boy and wanted
revenge - resolved to kill it as soon as it was born. But when the baby arrived Ceridwen found she
couldn't do it: the baby was the most beautiful child ever seen.
There wasn't much point in keeping him, though, as her son would
probably kill him if she did. So she took him and, sewing him
into a leather bag, set him adrift on the ocean.
Meanwhile, over the water in Gwynedd, there was another
parent with an unfortunate son, a lord named Gwyddno Garanhir,
whose son, Elphin, was reckoned the most unlucky man alive. There
was a weir on Gwyddno's land that always had a huge catch of
salmon in it on May Eve, so Gwyddno resolved to let Elphin have
it to help turn his luck. That May Eve, Elphin and two of his
father's men went to the weir. Net after net he pulled out, but
there were no fish.
"Why, you've turned the luck of the weir," the men
"Just wait," begged Elphin, "I haven't finished
yet. There might still be something..."
There were no fish. But just as they were about to go, Elphin
noticed something caught on a pole by the weir. He waded out and
brought it back.
"More bad luck," grumbled the men.
"There may be a treasure inside," Elphin replied as he
carefully slit open the leather bag he held. And, to his
astonishment, he saw the forehead of a baby, so white and
beautiful that it seemed to shine.
"A radiant brow!" he exclaimed. (tal iesin in
"Yes, Taliesin, that will do nicely," said the baby.
Elphin stared, rigid: he was so surprised he nearly dropped the
child. The men muttered and made the sign against evil, but
Elphin put the child in front of him on the horse, and they
headed for home. While they rode, Elphin's thoughts were gloomy,
as he realised they still had no salmon. But the baby in front of
him spoke, saying:
"Fair Elphin, cease your lament!
Swearing profits no-one.
It is not evil to hope
Nor does any man see what supports him,
Not an empty treasure is the prayer of Cynllo,
Nor does God break his promise.
No catch in Gwyddno's weir
Was ever as good as tonight's.
"Fair Elphin, dry your cheeks!
Such sorrow does not become you,
Although you consider yourself cheated
Excessive sorrow gains nothing,
Nor will doubting God's miracles.
Although I am small, I am skilful.
From the sea and the mountain,
From the river's depth
God gives His gifts to the blessed.
"Elphin of the generous spirit,
Cowardly is your purpose,
You must not grieve so heavily.
Better are good than evil omens.
though I am weak and small,
Spumed with Dylan's wave,
I shall be better for you
Than three hundred shares of salmon.
"Elphin of noble generosity,
Do not sorrow at your catch.
Though I am weak on the floor of my basket,
There are wonders on my tongue.
"While I am watching over you,
no great need will overcome you.
be mindful of the name of the Trinity
And none shall overcome you."
"How can this be - that you, a baby, can talk?"
stuttered Elphin in amazement.
Again Taliesin replied with a poem.
"Firstly I was formed in the shape of a handsome man,
in the hall of Ceridwen in order to be refined.
Although small and modest in my behaviour,
I was great in her lofty sanctuary.
"While I was held prisoner, sweet inspiration educated me
and laws were imparted to me in a speech which had no words;
but I had to flee from the angry, terrible hag
whose outcry was terrifying.
"Since then I have fled in the shape of a crow,
since then I have fled as a speedy frog,
since then I have fled with rage in my chains,
- a roe-buck in a dense thicket.
"I have fled in the shape of a raven of prophetic speech,
in the shape of a satirising fox,
in the shape of a sure swift,
in the shape of a squirrel vainly hiding.
"I have fled in the shape of a red deer,
in the shape of iron in a fierce fire,
in the shape of a sword sowing death and disaster,
in the shape of a bull, relentlessly struggling.
"I have fled in the shape of a bristly boar in a ravine,
in the shape of a grain of wheat.
I have been taken by the talons of a bird of prey
which increased until it took the size of a foal.
"Floating like a boat in its waters,
I was thrown into a dark bag,
and on an endless sea, I was set adrift.
"Just as I was suffocating, I had a happy omen,
and the master of the Heavens brought me to liberty."
By the time he finished, they had arrived at the court of
Gwyddno. Everyone crowded round to see how big the catch was.
Elphin held up Taliesin for them all to see.
"What is that? Where is the catch?" asked Gwyddno.
"Here is the catch, father, see, I have caught a baby."
Gwyddno looked at him in disgust. "What use is that? Don't
you have a good wife, who can bear you many strong sons of your
"He will get more profit from me than the weir ever gave you,"
said Taliesin, and Gwyddno nearly tripped over his robes in
"Can you speak, and you so small?" he asked.
"Indeed, I am better able to answer than you are to question
me," claimed the baby.
Then Gwyddno asked him what else he had to say, and Taliesin
replied with another poem. Everyone was delighted. So Elphin,
most pleased with his stroke of luck, gave Taliesin to his wife
to care for. She loved the baby very much. Time passed, and he
The king of the land at that time was Maelgwn, a rather vain
man who surrounded himself with toadies and fawning sycophants.
The year that Taliesin turned thirteen, Elphin received a summons
from the king, demanding his presence at the Christ Mass feast at
midwinter. Elphin would much rather have stayed home with his
wife and foster son, but as a dutiful subject , and royal
relative, there was no getting out of it.
He was bored and silent at the high table. The other men were
irritating him, trying to outdo each other in praise of Maelgwn.
Elphin couldn't see much to praise. Eventually Maelgwn noticed
his silence, and asked him why he wasn't joining in.
"Well, my lord," said Elphin, "I would say that
though I am not a king, my wife is as fair and as virtuous as any
woman in the kingdom - and my bard the is best in Gwynedd."
Maelgwn was not pleased. "Insolence!" he roared. "Throw
him in our deepest dungeon! Let him be chained there until the
falsity of his monstrous claim can be shown once and for all!"
Back at home, Taliesin was out skating. As he bent down to
take the skates off, he glanced at a patch of ice, and it became
a magic mirror, where he saw all that had befallen Elphin. When
he woke, he rushed home to tell Elphin's wife, and they cooked up
Maelgwn had a son named Rhun, a lecher so revolting that to be
seen with him would tarnish a woman's reputation beyond repair.
This son he sent to Elphin's home, to seduce his wife and show
the falsity of his claim. When Rhun came to the gate, he was
welcomed, if not warmly, then civilly, by young Taliesin.
Taliesin showed the prince into the hall, where sat a woman,
beautifully and richly dressed, with rings upon her fingers and a
golden torc. She made Rhun welcome, and they supped together.
Rhun poured cup after cup of wine for her, and foolishly she
drank it all. Soon she was giggly and silly, and she assented to
his request to withdraw with him to some place more private. Rhun
waited until she fell asleep in a drunken stupor, then tried to
remove the ring from her plump hand, to take back to Maelgwn as
proof. It would not come off, so quick as lightning he cut the
finger off, ring and all.
Laughing, he rode back to his father's house. Maelgwn was
delighted with his son's performance. He called for Elphin to be
"Well, cousin, how say you now? The prince Rhun has had your
wife with her willing cooperation. Do you persist in your stupid
claim that she is so very fair and virtuous?"
Elphin paled, and feared for his wife, for he did not really
believe that any woman, let alone she, would lie with Rhun by
"How do you know this, my king?" he asked.
"My son's word is good enough for me - and should be for you,
"I'm sorry, my king, but even the money-lenders ask for
solid proof where the prince Rhun is concerned."
The king growled, but the courtiers were, this once, murmuring in
agreement with Elphin.
"Since that's not enough for you, see here is her finger. Do
you deny that this is her ring?"
Elphin looked closely at the severed digit.
"Indeed, my lord, it is her ring, but I do deny that it's on
"How so, knave?" roared the enraged monarch.
"For three reasons, my king. First, my wife is a small woman,
and this ring sits loosely on her thumb, but it's jammed so
tightly on this finger that it won't come off. Second, ever since
I've known her, my wife has trimmed her nails every Sabbath Eve,
and this nail hasn't been trimmed this month, I'd say. Third, we
keep servants for kneading bread dough - I certainly don't
require my lady wife to do it. And yet you see under this nail
and in the creases of the finger, traces of the rye dough this
hand was lately kneading. I fear that the prince has despoiled
some innocent kitchen wench, but whoever it was, it wasn't my
The court cowered before Maelgwn's fury.
"You won't get away from it that easily!" Maelgwn
declared. "If your bard is so great, let him come and
compete with ours." He turned to the guards, furious. "Take
Hurriedly, the guards took Elphin back to the cell.
Taliesin arrived at the court two days later, and slipped
through the gates. He made his way to the throne room and sat in
the corner. When the king's bards filed in, he pouted his lips at
them and blew big loud raspberries. Magically all the bards stood
still, entranced, and blew raspberries too, making revoltingly
rude noises instead of praising Maelgwn. Maelgwn, in fury,
ordered a guard to strike Heinnin Fardd, his chief bard. This
broke the trance enough that Heinnin Fardd could explain to
Maelgwn that there was a devil, in the form of a child, who had
cast a spell on them.
Maelgwn had Taliesin brought out, and questioned him.
"I have come to salvage Elphin's honour and his freedom.
Taliesin am I, primary chief bard to Elphin.
"Primary chief poet
Am I to Elphin.
And my native country
Is the place of the Summer Stars.
"John the Divine
Called me Merlin,
But all future kings
Shall call me Taliesin.
"I was nine full months
In the womb of Ceridwen.
Before that I was Gwion,
But now I am Taliesin.
"I was with my king
In the heavens
When Lucifer fell
Into the deepest hell.
"I carried the banner
I know the names of the stars
From the North to the South.
"I was in Caer Bedion
I accompanied Heon
To the vale of Hebron.
"I was in the canon
When Absalom was slain.
I was in Llys Don
Before the birth of Gwydion.
"I was patriarch
To Elijah and Enoch.
I was there at the crucifixion
Of the merciful Mabon.
"I was the foreman
At the construction of Nimrod's Tower.
I was three times
In the prison of Arianrhod.
"I was in the ark
With Noah and Alpha
I witnessed the destruction
Of Sodom and Gomorrah.
"I was in Africa
Before the building of Rome.
I came here
To the remnant of Troy.
"I was with the Lord
In the manger of the ass.
I upheld Moses
Through the water of Jordan.
"I was at the Cross
With Mary Magdalene.
I received the muse
From Ceridwen's cauldron.
"I was a harping bard
To Deon of Lochlin.
I have gone hungry
For the Righteous One.
"I was at the White Mount
in the court of Cynfelyn.
In stocks and in fetters
For a year and a day.
"I was in the larder
In the land of the Trinity.
And no-one knows whether my body
Is flesh or fish.
"I was instructor
To the whole universe.
I shall be until the judgement
On the face of the Earth.
"I have sat in the perilous seat
Above Caer Sidi.
I shall continue to revolve
Between the three elements.
"There is a marvel in the world
Which I cannot reveal."
Taliesin bowed. Maelgwn was not impressed. "All this
makes you think you're better than my bards?" he sneered.
"My bards, who have trained for twenty years?"
"They are as nothing beside me," declared Taliesin.
Heinnin Fardd, ignored, tugged at the king's sleeve, demanding a
Taliesin was unruffled. "Why not?" he said. "Me
against all the king's bards. The contest - to compose a poem on
"Of course the king must judge," fawned Heinnin Fardd,
with a grovelling look at his monarch. "Who better?"
"All right - this contest will take place in twenty minutes'
time," Maelgwn announced, bored with the whole thing now.
"Twenty... my lord, I entreat you, I implore you, how can an
epic be composed in -" Heinnin Fardd was desperate.
"Just do it, get on with it, I'm getting sick of this."
Heinnin Fardd and the king's bards huddled in the corner,
consulting scrolls of rhymes and metaphors. Every so often, one
let out a yelp of frustration. Taliesin lounged on the floor,
eating plums, grinning smugly at their discomfiture.
When the time was up, the king's bards stood in a line before
the throne and bowed.
"O greatest of kings, hear our song.," they said in
unison: and then burst, quite helplessly, into a loud chorus of
rippingly rude raspberry noises. Taliesin laughed himself silly.
The court nobles looked at Maelgwn to see if laughter was allowed.
It obviously wasn't.
"Knaves! Fools! Miserable swine!" he thundered. "Was
it for this that I paid you in gold and precious gems?" The
court had never seen Maelgwn so angry. The bards grovelled in the
rushes. "Mighty king, it was not our fault! It's that demon
Taliesin, admittedly, was smirking most smugly.
"So it's my turn?" he asked. He stood up straight and
began his song about the wind. While he sang, a great wind arose
and buffeted the castle, shaking it to its foundations. The court
cowered, terrified. Even Maelgwn was afraid, and he called for
Elphin to be brought out.
As soon as Elphin arrived, Taliesin stopped the wind, and sang
a new song that caused Elphin's chains to fall away from his
ankles and wrists. Then he cried out to Elphin's wife to enter
the hall, and she held her hands up so that everyone could see
that she had ten fingers. Maelgwn was angrier than ever. "You
think you're so great. You're nothing! I bet my horses are better
than yours, anyway."
Taliesin smiled and whispered to Elphin, "Take him up on it
- I know how to make us win."
"I accept, my king."
"Then let there be a horse race,"said Maelgwn, and
Elphin led the other two home. On the appointed day, they
returned, leading a lame old horse. Maelgwn rubbed his hands in
glee. The horses started - Taliesin riding old Dobbin. As each
horse of the king's overtook him, he struck it on the rump with a
holly twig, then let it fall. As the king's horses got further
and further ahead, no-one could understand why Taliesin was still
smiling. He slowed down and dropped his cap - again, no-one knew
Old Dobbin reached half-way, and Taliesin stopped him for a
rest. The king's horses had long since passed them on the way
back. Dobbin started back. As the king's horses passed the
discarded holly twigs that Taliesin had struck them with, they
stopped, reared up on their hind legs, and began to dance. The
whole court was in fits of ill-concealed laughter, except Maelgwn
Taliesin and Dobbin wandered past them to the finish line.
Maelgwn saw no alternative to letting them go. On the way home,
Taliesin asked Elphin to stop where he had dropped his cap. He
had some men dig a hole at the spot, and they dug up a great
chest full of treasure.
"Truly, Taliesin, never could I regret the day I pulled you
out from the weir," said Elphin as they rode away.
(It is said that afterwards, Taliesin went to the court of
Arthur, where he was chief harper and adviser to the king.)