Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Welsh Triads and Giant Vermin 

In an earlier blog, I mentioned that the original Welsh Arthur was a lot closer to the King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail than other more stately versions of him.

The manuscript Culhwch ac Olwen isn't the only old Welsh piece that is rather Monty Python-esque. In the Triads, the "Three Fortunate Concealments of Britain" are listed. Two involve the grave sites (one of a noted warrior, the other that of Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere of later European tradition)) and the third being the burial site of two warring dragons who killed each other.

One scholar did a bit of orthography research into these two warring dragons, and discovered that the original Welsh manuscript uses the word "pryf". "Pryf" in Medieval Welsh means "vermin." Nennius, one of the first to translate the Welsh into Latin, translated "vermin" into the Latin "vermes," which in the 1100s, Arthurian writer Geoffrey of Monmouth took
to mean "worm," as in the German word for "dragon."

This led to Monmouth's version including an account of two warring dragons, instead of two warring "vermin." So this orthography scholar decided that basically it might be two really big badgers that fought and were buried...

This reminds me of the closing line of the failed Trojan Rabbit scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

posted 5:39 PM

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

More Fun With Medieval Welsh 

Despite grand tales of retrieving the Holy Grail, which come later on in Arthurian literature, the original Welsh Arthur had a different quest.

In Culhwch ac Olwen, Arthur and his men pursue a giant boar in order to retrieve the golden comb and shears from between its ears. Ah, what nobler quest could one ask for? Not only must they battle the boar, Twrch Trwyth, but they must fight its deadly piglets, as well.

Arthur sends his men to Ireland to see if the boar is there, and if it has the treasures between its ears. The text reads: "That the boar was there was certain; it had already destroyed a third of Ireland."

Later on the text reads: "Dogs attacked the boar from all directions, and the Irish battled it throughout the day until night fell; despite that, a fifth of Ireland was destroyed by it." (Somehow these fractions add up. Let's see - a third plus a fifth - is that a majority of Ireland yet?)

Arthur does not kill the boar -- it lumbers into the sea, its sides bristling with spears, to hunt another day.

posted 2:39 PM

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Fun of Translating Medieval Welsh 

Oftentimes people ask me about the translation of Middle (Medieval) Welsh, and the manuscripts I've worked with. Here's a few of the stranger and more humorous lines I've translated from Middle Welsh. The following belong to a manuscript entitled "Culhwch ac Olwen," one of the earliest manuscripts in which King Arthur appears. This is the original Arthur of Welsh tradition, before other European authors added all the bits about him being an upstanding warrior with a Round Table and all that. Let's face it. The original Arthur is just a bit silly. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is closer than we think.

Many of the funny lines involve the men of Arthur's court and their descriptions and talents:

"Penpingion, who goes around on his head in order to save his feet, not upright and not downright, but like a stone rolling on the floor of the court."

"Twyll Golau whose treachery was patent"

"Cynwas Cwryfagyl the clumsy"

"Samson Finsych the dry-lipped"

"Hyfaidd Unllen, who had but one coat"

"Gwrfan Gwallt Afwyn of the unruly hair" (Enemies beware!)

"Gilla Goeshydd stag-legs - he could leap three hundred acres in a single bound; he was the chief leaper of Ireland." (An impressive occupation, I can assure you.)

"Sol, who could stand on one leg all day" (who wouldn't want this super power?)

"Gwefyl son of Gwastad – when he was sad, his lower lip sagged down to his navel, and the other lip became a cowl for his head."

"Uchdryd Farf Draws, the beard flinger - he would fling his red, well-sprouted beard across the fifty rafters of Arthur's hall."

"Gwen Alarch, the swan daughter of Cynwal Canhwch of the hundred hogs"

Once Arthur's adventure starts, he and his warriors meet many an interesting obstacle, including:

"Dillus Farfawg, who was the greatest warrior who had ever avoided Arthur"

posted 3:29 PM


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