‘The Cloak of Kings’ Beards: Three Welsh Folktales’ was first published by the peer-reviewed New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing on 24th September 2018, DOI: 10.1080/14790726.2018.1520895, and appears in my newest collection of short stories, Pugnacious Little Trolls. The Version of Record is to be found here.
The Cloak of Kings’ Beards: Three Welsh Folktales
Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams, 1747-1826) was a stonemason by trade, a poet, an antiquarian and forger, a Unitarian and a political radical, and the founder of the Gorsedd Beirdd. These three tales from the Iolo Manuscripts, chosen for their significance to the politics of Europe in our time, are retold with changes to quicken their narratives, and to bring out their contemporary relevance.
The Road to the Lime Kilns
Talhaiarn the poet had a son named Tanwyn, and this son had been raised by his father in the love of mankind and the service of God, in every honourable attainment and every beneficial skill. This lad, arriving at man’s estate, felt a yearning to leave his father’s house, and to seek out his destiny in the world, so his father kissed him and gave him his blessing, with a few parting words of advice. ‘My son Tanwyn,’ he said, ‘my only beloved son, I have given you all knowledge and training and instruction, and I have neither land to house you nor gold to speed you on your way. Therefore, travel where you will under the guidance of God, and remember only these words of mine: never wish on another what you would not wish on yourself; never take the new road where the old road is still passable; and never pass by a place where a man of God is preaching, without stopping to listen to him.’
So Tanwyn left, and after travelling for some days, he came to a long and even strand, and remembering his father’s advice, he wrote these words in the sand with his staff: He who wishes ill on another, on him may the same ill fall. As he was doing so, the lord of that country came by with his retinue, saw the clarity and beauty of his writing, and reined in his horse to speak to him.
‘Is it you who wrote in the sand,’ he asked, ‘and where are you travelling to?’
‘It was I,’ replied Tanwyn, ‘and I am going into the world to earn my livelihood, wherever fate leads me, and however I can.’
‘Then you are the man for me,’ said the lord. ‘Will you come and be the steward of my household and my estate, and receive whatever wage you ask?’
‘I will,’ said Tanwyn, ‘but as for my wage, I will accept whatever my peers judge is my worth when my labour is done.’ So Tanwyn became the lord’s steward, yet so prudently did he manage his household, and so wisely did he govern his lands, that over time the master came to feel less honoured than the man, and the seeds of bitterness and envy took root within him.
At that time the lord was laying a new road through his estate, and since lime kilns had been built where the earth was being dug, he set out one day to visit the lime burners. ‘There is a traitor living among us,’ he told them. ‘He is plotting with foreign powers to invade our country, to depose its rulers and plunder its wealth, and if he has his way, then so many foreigners will swarm over our land that you will not even have room to grow food.’ The lime burners swore their enmity to this traitor, vowing that if ever they should learn who he was, they would not hesitate to kill him. Then the lord warned them that this traitor was coming to see them, bringing gold and mead as the price of their treachery, and once he had extracted their oath to grasp him and hurl him into the burning kiln, he left them.
The lord returned to his court, and summoned Tanwyn before him. ‘I have hired lime burners to help laying down a new road,’ he said, ‘and it is time to give them their pay. Start at once along the new road, without stopping to speak or listen to anyone, and pay them in gold for the work they have done, with ale and mead as gratuity.’ Tanwyn took mead and ale from his master’s cellars, and gold from his treasury, but as he set out, he remembered his father’s parting words, and set out towards the lime kilns along the old road, not the new. On his way, he passed a house where an old man was preaching, and remembering again his father’s injunctions, he stopped to listen to him.
He stayed so long that the lord concluded he must be dead, and resolved to hear the lime burners’ report and pay them for their silence. He took a bag of gold, and set out along the new road, but because the shift had changed, and the lime burners on duty had never seen him before, they set upon him as the traitor their companions had warned them of, and threw him into the burning kiln, where he died in the flames. Not long afterwards, Tanwyn came into view, bearing gold and silver and gifts of mead.
A Cage of Trees and a Prison of Bones
The survivor of a routed army came before their emperor in Rome, to complain of Caradoc, the son of Brân, and his warriors in the forests of Siluria between the Severn and the Towy. ‘Their settlements lie deep in the woods,’ he said, ‘like the lairs of beasts: they hide, and come upon us unawares, and the trees surround us like the bars of a cage to trap us when we retreat.’ And when he heard how many of his legions had been slaughtered in this way, the emperor ordered an army to Wales to burn the forests of Siluria, so that there would no place for Caradoc and his warriors to hide in.
Caradoc and his men heard of the order he had given, and with one voice they said this: ‘It would be ignoble for us to defend our country except with fire and blood, so let us burn the forests ourselves, from the Severn as far as the river Towy, so that there is not even a sprig left where we could hang a flea. Then we shall challenge the Romans to come, and we shall meet them on open ground, and still we shall defeat them.’ Thus they set fire to the woods, and through the length and breadth of Caradoc’s realm the smoke and dust rose from the scorched earth, and even the smallest gnat could not find shade.
Then once again the Emperor of Rome received messengers from Wales. ‘We are sent by King Caradoc, the son of Brân, the son of Llŷr,’ they said. ‘We would sooner have peace and tranquillity than war, sooner feed our cattle and sheep than our war-horses, sooner meet our brothers for feasting than your legionaries for their slaughter: the war between your race and ours was not begun by us. We have met your armies in the forest, and you know how we have destroyed them, but we now have burnt our forests to the ground, and all our land is stripped bare. Come, and we will meet your armies on open ground, two Romans for every Welshman, and then we will see if you can win back the honour you have lost. Mark our words well, for it is Caradoc himself who summons you.’
The ambassadors returned to their king, although the emperor itched to kill them, and the Roman armies marched upon Wales, a great foreign rabble blown by the winds from every corner of Europe. Caradoc and his men fought them fiercely, as easily in the open as they had in the woods, and left the carcasses of their dead in great piles for the ravens and wolves to feed on.
Because they had burnt the forests, there was no wood to build houses, so instead the people built roundhouses of stone roofed with thatch. They learned how to make lime, and to surround their villages with palisades and earthworks now that the forests could no longer protect them, and they posted guards on the Severn and the Towy, to question such travellers as entered or left. The bones of the Romans still covered the land, so Manawyddan the brother of the king gathered them together, and built them into a prison of bone, where soldiers captured in war could be held, along with rebels and recidivists, malcontents and moaners, foreigners, traitors and spies. Over time the prison decayed, and the very bones turned to dust. The dust and lime were ploughed into the soil, and when they saw the grass growing tall and thick, the people planted barley and wheat in the place where it had once stood.
The Cloak of Kings’ Beards
There were once two kings on the Island of Britain whose names were Nynniaw and Peibiaw. One bright, star-lit night these kings went walking in the fields, and Nynniaw said, ‘See what a fair and ample field is mine.’
‘What field is that?’ asked Peibiaw, and Nynniaw replied: ‘The night sky.’
‘Then see,’ said Peibiaw, ‘the flocks and herds grazing the night sky, for all of them are mine.’
‘What flocks and herds are these?’ asked Nynniaw, and Peibiaw replied:
‘All the stars you see: a blazing fire, each one; and the moon standing guard over them is their shepherd.’
Nynniaw said, ‘They shall have no pasture in any field of mine.’
‘They shall graze their fill,’ said Peibiaw.
‘They shall not graze at all,’ said Nynniaw. Thus each king contradicted the other, until there was a blazing row between them, and the row grew into a deadly war, and the hosts and realms of each were all but laid waste in the fighting.
Rhitta the Giant, King of Wales, heard about the carnage wrought by those foolish kings, and resolved to mount an expedition against them. So with the support of his army and the consent of his people, he arose and marched against those kings in their pride and rage and pillage, vanquished them, and broke their swords. But when the twenty-eight remaining kings of Britain heard what he had done, they mustered their armies to avenge the disgrace that Nynniaw and Peibiaw had suffered. They advanced, attacking Rhitta the Giant and his men, but although they fought bravely, Rhitta and his army took the field. ‘This is my fair and ample field,’ said Rhitta, and he and his men cut off the beards of Nynniaw and Peibiaw and all those other kings.
The kings of France and Spain and Ireland heard what he had done, and they also took arms to avenge the humiliation of the British kings. Again there was fierce combat, but Rhitta and his men won the field unscathed, and shaved the beards of these kings also. ‘These are the livestock that grazed my field,’ said Rhitta, ‘and I have driven them all away: they shall have no pasture here.’
Then, with the beards of the kings he had shaved, Rhitta made himself a cloak which covered him from head to toe, and he was twice the size of the largest man ever seen. And by his victory, law and order, wisdom and righteousness were established between princes and their rivals, peoples and their neighbours, throughout the British Isles and even the whole of Europe. So may this peace endure over rulers like those foolish kings, lest they wage war again without need or cause; and may it always be so.