Once upon a time there was a man with the improbable name of Kilydd son of Kelyddon, who married one of King Arthur’s aunts, a woman with the even more improbable name of Goleuddydd. According to my pronunciation guide, Goleuddydd spelled phonetically is something close to Goy-LIE-thith, which doesn’t sound much like what I would think of as a name but I suppose it isn’t that dissimilar to Gwyneth. Sir Thomas Malory was very unspecific as to Arthur’s family tree in Le Morte d’Arthur (Arthur Dies at the End), and never mentioned any Goleuddydd, but of course Malory hated identifying women by name (Arthur’s aunt is known only as the Duchess of Brittany, though her husband Howl is the king of Brittany, and I don’t know how that’s meant to work either).
I should preface this by stating explicitly that while “Culhwch and Olwen” and le Morte d’Arthur were written in different languages, centuries apart, and by authors who had no access to one another’s primary sources, I’m going to pretend that they’re tightly related works, and that this is a Mabinogion/Arthur Dies at the End crossover special.
Anyway. When Goleuddydd was pregnant with Culhwch (pronounced kehl-hoock, maybe?) Kilydd suffered a bout of madness, like you do, and made his wife give birth in a pigsty.
Shortly afterwards Goleuddydd died of a mysterious disease that the Mabinogion doesn’t state outright was septic infection on account of having given birth in a pigsty (but we can read between the lines). As she lay dying, she called Kilydd to her side.
“Husband,” she said, “it’s good that you’re lucid again, because I have a few things to tell you before I pass. First, I realize that you’re going to want to remarry, and you shouldn’t feel bad about that. It’s the way of the world; I don’t expect you to remain bound by our marriage vows indefinitely. Second, your new wife is probably going to pressure you to disinherit our son Culhwch in favor of her child, but I ask that you remember he is your firstborn. Third, I know I just said that you should remarry, but before you seek a new wife, wait for my all-clear from beyond the grave. It will take the form of a two-headed thorn growing out of my grave.”
“Form of a two-headed, check.” Kilydd looked down sadly at his dying wife.
She sent him away and called for her priest. She confessed her sins to him, which was the style at the time, and he gave her last rites (the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, for you sacrament aficionados out there). Afterwards, Goleuddydd made one last request.
“Every year, go to my grave all quiet-like and trim back the weeds, so that nothing grows there. I am not as cool as I just tried to convince my husband I was, in re his remarrying. So promise!”
The priest promised, and Goleuddydd died, and then seven years went by without anything interesting happening. Eventually, though, the priest decided that enough was enough and he no longer needed to do gardening just to satisfy some dead lady. That spring Kilydd visited his wife’s grave (the Mabinogion suggests that maybe this was the first time in several years that Kilydd bothered to visit the grave) and of course he finds a thornbush growing there.
“A thorn! That’s close enough to a two-headed thorn for me. Frankly I’m not sure what a two-headed thorn would even look like.”
So Kilydd rushed off to marry the best available woman. Unfortunately, the best available woman was already married, to a lord named Doged. This was more unfortunate for Doged than for Kilydd, as Kilydd murdered him and claimed his wife (and their daughter) as his murder-prize. Also he took Doged’s land.
Shortly afterwards this woman (the Mabinogion doesn’t name her, which is only fitting inasmuch as this is a story that crosses over with le Morte d’Arthur) was out walking, like you do, and she encountered a witch, like you do. She and the witch had a short conversation in which she learned the following:
As far as the witch knew, Kilydd had no children.
He was, however, magically destined to have a son.
So presumably his new wife would be the mother of that son.
Except that whoopsy, the witch forgot, he totally does have a son.
Confused by the witch’s doubletalk, Doged’s widow went to her new husband. “Do you have a son?”
“Son?” Kilydd feigned confusion. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“A child with your first wife!”
“Ah, yes, now I see.” He nodded sagely. “But let me answer your question with a question: have you ever seen me with a son?”
“Have I ever talked about a son?”
“Well, there you are.”
“Not so fast.” Doged’s widow might not have a proper name, but she wasn’t an idiot. “You haven’t actually answered the question. Do you have a son?”
Kilydd laughed, nervously. “Well, you’ve seen through my little joke. Of course I have a son.”
“And you’ve been hiding him from me? Why?”
Kilydd shrugged. “I definitely haven’t been waiting for you to bear me a son so I can disinherit him, that’s for sure.”
So Doged’s widow summoned Culhwch, her stepson, to court. “Hello, Culhwch,” she said to him. “I know that we haven’t gotten off on the best foot, what with your father not telling me you existed, but there’s no reason we can’t get along.”
“Sure, whatever,” grumbled Culhwch. Culhwch, like all Welsh heroes, was extremely precocious and had become a sullen teenager already even though he was, like, eight.
“I’ve been thinking about this whole ‘bear a son,’ ‘destined to have exactly one son’ ‘disinherit’ thing,” Doged’s widow continued. “And it seems to me there’s a very simple way to resolve the whole question to everybody’s satisfaction. You just have to marry my daughter, the one I had with Doged and whom your father stole at the same time he stole me and my late husband’s estate.”
“Ugh!” Culhwch made a disgusted face. “That’s like, incest! Gross!”
“It’s not incest,” Doged’s widow insisted. “It’s not! There’s absolutely no blood relation between the two of you.”
“Don’t care. Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh, and so, you’re my mother. And that makes her my sister. So, gross.”
“Listen here, young man, gross or not…”
“Also, I’m like eight years old, jeez, I’m way too young to get married anyway!”
“Don’t interrupt your elders!” Doged’s widow sat up straight, all affronted. “If you won’t marry my daughter then I’ll just have to geas you! How’d you like that!” She waved her arms and did a little magic! “You get zero ladies from now until you have won the heart of Olwen, the daughter of the chief of the hill giants! Yeah, that’s right! I said hill giants!”
The geasa coursed into Culwhch and he felt an unnatural love for Olwen (whom he had never met) wrap around his heart. Sullen teen that he was, he immediately ran to his room and locked the door and played sad country music on his record player.
A while later Kilydd came to check on him. “Son?” he asked, knocking on the door. “Are you all right? Your stepmother told me what happened.”
“You wouldn’t understand! It’s not fair!” Culhwch shouted through the door.
“Now, now, I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that.”
“I’ve got to marry Olwen and I don’t know her and why would she even want me and it’s just completely unfair!”
“Oh, is that all?” Kilydd was relieved. “Son, you’re King Arthur’s first cousin.”
“So! Do you know what terrible jackassery Sir Gawaine gets up to? And it’s all forgiven because he’s Arthur’s nephew. Sir Kay, Arthur’s adoptive brother, same deal. And don’t get me started about Sir Mordred! Just go to Arthur and explain your situation, and I’m sure he’ll set you right up.”
Culhwch opened the door a crack. “You think?”
“I do. And even if it doesn’t work, it’ll get you out of the house.”
So Culhwch went to Camelot! Kilydd set him up with a full set of gear: a horse with good teeth, a golden bridle and saddle. He had two silver spears and two axes, one big heavy one and one little sharp one. He had a sword and a shield, both chromed out with gold trim, and the shield had ivory inlays. He had two greyhounds, carefully groomed and extremely well-trained, with big golden collars. He had a rich purple cloak with golden buttons and boots that cost as much as three hundred cows.
When Culhwch arrived in Camelot, he had to deal with a bit of comical business involving the officious and stuffy gatekeeper, a man named Glewlwyd (Gleoo-lew-id?) who insisted that there was a party going on in Camelot and Culhwch would have to come back in the morning. Glewlwyd then went on at length about how well Culhwch would be appointed, if he would deign to stay overnight in Arthur’s guest house: food for his dogs and his horses and himself, plenty of drink, a complementary prostitute, et cetera.
Culhwch was disinterested in the delights of Arthur’s guest-house, however, and threatened to do magic at Camelot if he wasn’t admitted: he would shout, and all women who heard that shout would miscarry or be rendered barren, as appropriate. “Plus my magic shout will carry several hundred miles, so, do you really want that on your conscience?” he asked.
Glewlwyd sighed, because he did not want that on his conscience, and went to consult Arthur.
“You look like a man with gate-related problem,” Arthur said as he saw Glewlyd approach. “Lay it on me.”
“Well, sire, it’s like this.” Glewlyd cleared his throat and Arthur settled in for a long monologue. “I’m over forty, and you’re over forty, and we’ve both seen a lot of crazy things over the years. I’ve been with you in Big India and Little India, in East and West, in Totally-Made-Upsberg and in that one valley, you remember, that guy lived there. I was there when we fought those guys and those other guys and those guys from Norway.”
Arthur drummed his fingers on the table, then made the wrap-up signal.
“I stood with you when you fought the armies of Sir River, son of Duke Ocean,” Glewlyd continued. “For you I’ve jousted Sir Table, and Sir Goblet, and Sir Guinevere’s Throne, and…”
“Okay, now you’re just naming random objects,” Arthur interrupted. “Cut to the chase.”
“There’s this guy at the gate who is pretty clearly a main character and a protagonist, and he wants to come in.”
“Did you tell him about the guest house and the complementary prostitute?”
“No dice, he says.”
Sir Kay, sitting at Arthur’s right hand, snorted. “Well, screw this guy, then. It’s a Camelot rule: no one admitted during dinner, excepting Nimue and foreign kings.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Arthur shrugged. “It’s not that important a rule. Guy wants to come in, we should feel flattered. Hospitality demands we not leave him on the stoop all night.”
So Glewlyd returned to the gate and admitted Culhwch, who went immediately to Arthur’s hall.
“Why are you still mounted?” asked Arthur.
“Dramatic effect!” cried Culhwch.
“Okay, whatever.” Arthur was feeling pretty easygoing on this particular occasion, I guess. “Well, dismount, and find a seat, and enjoy yourself with the food and the drink and so on. In a bit we’ll be passing around door prizes and gift baskets; I’ll make sure you get one of each.”
“No thank you!” cried Culhwch. “I came not for food and drink and merriment, but to make a special request!”
“You don’t have to shout,” Arthur said mildly. “But all right, I’ve indulged you so far. Let’s hear this request. I’ll grant it, assuming it’s not something crazy like you want Excalibur or one of my other named weapons or the throne.”
Sir Launcelot, sitting at Arthur’s left, leaned over and whispered something into his ear.
“Or Guinevere!” Arthur waggled his finger at Culhwch. “No sneaky claiming my wife, all right?”
“In God’s truth!” cried Culhwch.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“My request is for a haircut!”
Arthur sighed heavily, but in for a penny, in for a pound. He took up a comb and scissors and gave Culhwch a haircut. I’m guessing Culhwch dismounted for this part, but the Mabinogion is coy on the topic.
While barbering, Arthur realized that Culhwch had to be related to him. “Your hair is so soft and silky! Are you one of my nephews or something? Everyone in my family has great hair.”
“Nay, sire! I am Culhwch, son of Kilydd, and Goleuddydd daughter of the ruler of Amlawdd is my mother!”
“Oho,” said Arthur, as he snipped away. “Then we are first cousins zero times removed!”
“…and… finished!” Arthur lay down his scissors and comb and offered Culhwch a mirror. “What do you think?”
“That’s not important! I have another request! I want to marry Olwen the daughter of Ysbaddaden the hill giant king!”
At this point the Mabinogion lets loose a list of all of the knights present at Arthur’s dinner party. It’s unclear whether these are all meant to be members of the Round Table or not, but it might be instructive to compare this list to the list of knights in Le Mort d’Arthur (Book XIX, chapters 11 and 12 ish).
1) Sir Kay, Arthur’s brother
2) Sir Bedivere, who will later throw Excalibur back into the water as Arthur dies
3) Sir Griedawl, the Enemy Subduer
4) Sir Gwythyr, Greidawl’s son, about whom more later
5) Sir Gried ap Eri, the obstinate jerk
6) Sir Kynddilig, the 9th-level ranger
7) Sir Tathal the Honest aka Sir Tathal the Deceitful
8) Sir Pig son of Sir Boar
9) Sir Conchobar the Irish folk hero
10) Sir Cubert (aka Cu Roi) the other Irish folk hero
11) Sir Fergus the third Irish folk hero
12) Sir Gwynn #1
13) Sir Gwynn #2
14) Sir Gwynn ap Nudd, the super-houndsman’s-assistant, whose father was Nodens the Elder God and within whom the Abrahamic God had imprisoned an infinite army of demons (Gwynn ap Nudd had a lot going on!)
15) Sir Edern, whose father was also Nodens
16) Sir Cadwy ap Gereint, who appears in Le Morte d’Arthur Book V as Sir Launcelot’s war-with-Romans buddy
17) Fflewddur Fflam, son of Godo, the self-styled bard from the Black Cauldron
18) Sir Romanus the Radiant, allegory for civilization
19) Sir Moren the Noble
20) Sir Bradwen the Ignoble, Sir Moren’s no-account son
21) Sir Dallav
22) Alan’s son, who is the best dog-releaser in the business. You know, Alan from Dyved?
23) Sadie’s son
24) Gwryon’s son
25) Sir Uckdred
26) Sir Kienoos
27 Sir Large Cow
28) Sir Cat Claws
29) Sir Murderer
30 through 32) Sirs Dewack, Brathack, and Nethack, the sons of a hunchback or a demon or something
33) Sir Kilydd Hundred Castles, who had a hundred castles
34) Sir Even More Castles Than Tat
35) Sir Cors No Castles but Lots of Cats
36) Sir Hill Behind the House of Gulhwch the Weaver, You Know the One I Mean
37) Sir Iron Fist
38) Sir Strong Grip
39) Lug, another Irish folk hero on loan
40) Sir Anwas the Swift
41) Sir Sinnock, son of Sir Seven
42) Sir Sinnock’s brother Sir Wadu
43) Sir Sinnock’s other brother Sir Nine, who was Nine of Seven
44) Sir Gwenwynwyn whose name looks hard to pronounce
45) Sir Bedyw
46) Achilles, the Greek hero, for some reason
47) Achilles’s son
48) Sir Mael
49) Sir Dadweir the Blind
50 and 51) Sir Gawyli and his father Bent Gwyddawg
52) Sir Glutton
53) Sir Mnew ap Teirwaedd, mystic and sixth-level magic-user, guest-starring from an allegory about druidism
54) Sir Plenty son of Sir Famine
55) Sir Solomon but not the one from the Bible, this one was the son of Sir Cynan
56) Sir Quaff son of Sir Rebuke
57) Sir Mighty son of Sir Strong
58) Sir Fierce Silence
59) Sir Boar son of Sir Hound
60) Sir Teregud ap Iaen, the brother-haver
61) Sir Sulyen, Sir Teregud’s first brother
62) Sir Bradwen, Sir Teregud’s second brother, not to be confused with #19 above
63) Sir Moren, Sir Teregud’s third brother, not to be confused with #20 above
64) Sir Siawn, Sir Teregud’s fourth brother
65) Sir Caradawg, Sir Teregud’s fifth brother
66 to 85) the many sons of Caw, another of Arthur’s relatives and therefore his cousins: Contempt and Holly and Honor and Stalk and Path and Red and Saint and Attack and Somebody and lots of other words too. Sir Gildas. Sir Caldas. It doesn’t matter. We’re just listing words, here.
86) Samson Dry Lip
87) Taliesin, who stars in another story in the Mabinogion
88) Manawydan son of Llyr, who stars in another story in the Mabinogion also
89) Sir Llary ap Casnar, side note, ap Casnar is a not-super-uncommon Welsh surname I think?
90) Sir Ysberin, son of lord Alan Fyrgan the Duke of Burgundy circa AD 1100 who kindly donated to the production of this edition of the Mabinogion and who asked that his son’s name be included somewhere, maybe in the middle of a very long list, so no one would notice
91) Sir Garanhon son of Sir Glythvyr, both of whom are really dull
92) Sir Acreage son of Sir Land
93) Sir Anynnawg, son of Mnew the Mystic (#53 above)
95 and 96) Sir Pale and Sir Fire, the sons of Sir Heavens
97 to 102) the five sons of Erbin the Sheep-herder: Sir Geraint (who has his own epic poem) and his brothers Sirs Ermid, Dywel, Gwynn #3, and Kyndrwyn.
103) Sir Heveydd One-Cloak
104) Sir Eiddon the Generous
105) Sir Rheidwn the Uncouth
106) Gormant ap Rica, the son of Arthur’s mother Igraine and her first husband Gorlois; Gormant is also known as Sir Cador (!) (Cador was a real enigma in le Morte d’Arthur)
107) Sir Llawvrodedd with the long beard
108) Sir Nodawl with the short beard
109) Sir Berth pa Cadwy
110) Sir Rhun the Tall, actual historic Welsh king (circa 547-586)
111) Sir Ysgonan the Generous
112) Sir Ysgawyn ap Panon
113) Sir Morvran the son of the Roman general Tacitus, who was so ugly no one would ever fight him in battle, which worked out great inasmuch as he never got wounded
114) Sir Sanddev Angel Face, Morvran’s friend who as you might guess was super good-looking and so no one would fight him in battle either
115) Saint Cynwyl who was totally there when Arthur died, forget Lucan and Bedivere in Arthur Dies at the End, it was definitely Cynwyl
116 to 121) the five sons of Erim: Uchdryd, Eus, Hen Was, Hen Beddestyr, and Sgilti. Hen Beddestyr regularly won marathons even against mounted opponents, Hen Was could sprint faster than any animal, and Sgilti wasn’t the fastest but he could run along treetops and reeds and clouds and suchlike.
122) Tiethi the Old, whose kingdom later fell into the sea and whose knives all broke and who sickened and died, all as part of a complex curse
123) Sir Carnedyr
124) Sir Gwenwynwyn again, I know he was #44 but he bears repeating, did you know he was Arthur’s best fighter? Way better than Launcelot! Don’t quote me on that.
125) Sir Red-eyed Stallion
126) Sir Gwrvodd the Old, Arthur’s uncle
127) Sir Awl
128) Llenlleawg the Irishman
129) Sir Dubnoulalos the Bald
130) Dyvynarth who claimed to be a king somewhere
131) Teirnon Twrvlaint
132) Sir Tegvan the Lame
133) Sir Tegyr who always has a cup handy
134) Gwrddywal ap Evrei, whose name looks like it ought to mean something cool
135) SIr Morgant the Wealthy, aka Morgan, CEO of Morgan Industries, leader of the Morganite faction
136 to 139) the three sons of Sir Nwython: Hostage, Tall, and Llwydeu.
140) Llwydeu’s son Gwydre who shows up in a different Welsh story about Arthur, as a murder victim
141) Sir Vision son of Sir Observer
142) Eiddoel ap Ner
143) Gwlyddyn, the contractor who built Camelot
144) Sir Ector, Kay’s father and Arthur’s adoptive father
145) Old Face
146) Old Guy
147) Other Old Guy
148) Another knight named Sir Gallgoig, did we mention a different Sir Gallgoig? This Sir Gallgoig was a terrible panhandler.
149) Berwyn, son of his father
150) Paris, whose father was the king of France and who got the city of Paris named in his honor
151) Sir Osla Big Knife, whose knife was so big one time Arthur used it as an ersatz bridge across the Irish Sea
152) Sir Gwyddawg ap Menestyr, who later killed Sir Kay and was in turn slain by Arthur
153) Sir Garanwin, Kay’s son
154) Sir Amren ap Bedwyr
155) Eli, just Eli
156) Myr, just Myr
157) Sir Rheu Easy-Hard
158) Sir Rhun, but a different one, this one was a redhead
159) Eli, did I mention Eli? This Eli was one of Arthur’s huntsmen
160) Trachmyr, another huntsman
161) Sir Llwyd ap Kil Coed
162) Sir Huabwy ap Gwryon
163) Sir Gwyn Godyvron
164) Sir Gweir who fed birds a lot
165) Sir Gweir whose father had white hair
166) Sir Gweir the Brave and Wicked
167) Sir Gweir who carried a spear. All the Sir Gweirs were brothers, and in fact they were all Arthur’s uncles on his mother’s side, if you’ll buy that.
168) one of Lug’s (that Irish import, #39) sons, also named Lug
169) Sir Kas ap Seidi
170) Sir Gwrvan who needed a haircut
171) Paris’s father King Gwilenhin of France
172) Sir Ogdar of the noble Dwarvish house Aeducan, and by Dwarvish I mean Irish, that was a Dragon Age joke, he’s the prince of Ireland
173) Garselid, Odgar’s master of hounds
174) Sir Panawr the Leader
175) Fflewdwr, I know, you think, didn’t we already mention him? But this was a different guy, same name.
176) Sir Gwyn Hyvar who later sided with Mordred against Arthur
177) Sir Kelli
178) Sir Cruel
179) Sir Gilla who could leap upwards of a half-mile
180) Sir Sol who could stand on one foot all day
181) Sir Gwadyn Osol who could flatten terrain by walking on it
182) Sir Gwadyn Oddeith whose footsteps kicked up bright hot sparks. Gwadyn Oddeith was the one of the four whose skill was particularly useful in battle, and Arthur kept him close for that reason.
183) Erwm, a giant
184) Atrwm, another giant
185) Hungry the Ravenous, who tried to eat Arthur into poverty
186) Sir Gwarae the natural blond
187 and 188) two actual dogs for some reason, Aned and Aethelm, celebrity freelance hunting dogs
189) Sir Gwyddrud
190) Sir Gwydden the Difficult to Deal With
191) Sir Suction son of Sir Pump, who could drink the sea dry via special drinking-magic
192) Cacamwri, Arthur’s servant who was great at knocking barns down
193) Sir Llwng
194) Sir Dygvlwng and I promise I didn’t just type letters at random there, that’s his name
195) Sir Anoeth the Bold
196) Eiddyl, a giant
197) Amren, a giant
198) Sir Lip, son of Sir Level, who could use his lips as a hood, gross
199) Sir Uchdryd Cross-Beard, who could throw his magic detachable beard like it was a discus
200) Sir Elidyr, who was a 7th-level ranger
201) Ysgyrdav, Guinevere’s messenger
202) Ysgudydd, Guinevere’s other messenger
203) Sir Speedy, who was Scottish
204) Gwendolyn the oddly-named little person (by which I mean a guy with dwarfism)
205 to 207) the three sons of Cleddyv Divwlch who each have a spear and a dog and a wife and a daughter and a grandson and a mistress, all of whom have punny names
208 to 213) three of Guinevere’s ladies-in-waiting: Eheubryd, Big Boned, and Cymbeline
214) Kidoug the court jester
215) Brown. That’s his name, Brown.
216) Sir Eliadar
217) Sir Kennedy, another super dog-handler
218) Sawyl High-Head
220) Galackmay’s brother Galahad (not the famous one)
221) Gwrhyr the Linguist
222) Sir Kethrwm the Priest (an ironic nickname?)
223) Sir Ear son of Sir Hearing, who had super-hearing obviously
224) Sir Aim son of Sir Sniper, who had super-aiming powers
225) Sir Gwiawn the impossibly dextrous surgeon
226) Sir Track son of Sir Tracking, who was such a great tracker he could find things that had been lost for years
227) Bidwini, the bishop (who had magic powers, like all bishops do)
And a bunch of ladies (never mind that there are a couple of ladies in the list above)!
228) Guinevere, the Queen
229) Her sister Guinevach (I can’t imagine why Malory never mentioned Guinevach)
230) Their maids Rathtyen
232) Sir Kay’s daughter Kelemon
233) Tangwen whose father is #164 above
234) White Swan
235) Eurneid who was something of a celebrity in her hometown of Edinburgh
236) Enuig, daughter of Sir Bedivere
238) Guineledir (no relation to Guinevere or Guinevach) whose father was a hunchback
240) Teleri (who came to Valinor on a swan boat maybe?)
241) Indeg who was tall
242) Morveth, the daughter of Arthur’s brother-in-law King Uriens (you might remember him from Arthur Dies at the End) and Arthur’s sister Morgan le Fay
243) Gwen Lliant, who was ideal girlfriend material, just the best, every guy who knew her had a secret or not-so-secret crush on her, but they were all terrified of actually asking her out.
244) Kyndrwyn (pronounced Cree-thil-ahd), a goddess, whose father was the Irish god Nudd Silver Hand and whom all the Irish folk heroes and gods perpetually fight over
247) Isolde. See Arthur Dies at the End: Sir Tristram is Just Awful for more information on the various Isoldes.
And that’s everybody! Whew, that sure was worth the trouble, right? We now return to the story, already in progress.
“So Olwen, you say,” said Arthur, stroking his chin. “I don’t know many women with names, and most of them are Isolde or Elaine. Definitely I don’t know any Olwen… but don’t worry,” he assured Culhwch. “We’ll find her.”
And then a year went by! Like, super fast in the space of one sentence a year went by. During that year Arthur sent knights out to quest for Olwen and discover her whereabouts, but they all came back empty-handed.
“I can’t help but notice that even though I asked you for Olwen, I still don’t have her,” Culhwch announced one day. “Sir Kay asked you to pass the potatoes just now, and you handed them over. Am I less important to you than Sir Kay? Should I just go? Should I leave and wander the land, telling people about how you suck? Is that what you want?”
Sir Kay did not care for Culhwch’s attitude. “Listen here, junior, when Arthur says a thing will happen, that thing will happen. I’ll see to it myself, if I have to! Let’s you and me go together, and we’ll search for Olwen, and you can show me just how easy it is to find her.” He rose to his feet, then did a double-take. “Oh, also I have super powers now.”
Sir Kay did indeed have super powers! By virtue of being a mythological hero in a Welsh folktale, Kay possessed super-breath-holding, super-wound-infecting (wounds he inflicted, not wounds he suffered), super tallness (he could swell up to like thirty feet high if he felt like it), and super keeping tinder dry so he never had trouble starting a fire, even during a rainstorm.
That is quite the portfolio of super powers, Kay!
“If you’re going to do this, do it right,” said Arthur, and called up more knights to join Kay’s party.
Sir Bedivere, the super-handsome and super-quick with his blade! He’ll cut you nine times while you parry him two, three times tops!
Sir Kynnddilig the super guide! He could guide people through a country he’d never been before just as easily as he could guide them through his own back yard!
Sir Gwyhyr the Linguist! He could speak French, Irish, and Norwegian!
Sir Gwachmei, the best walker! He never stumbled I guess?
Menw the Mystic, because every adventuring party needs someone who can cast spells and Nimue wasn’t available!
The seven adventurers traveled in a random direction, like you do, and soon they came to a big empty wasteland. In the distance they could see a fortress, out on the waste. They made for it, but after a day of travel they were no closer to it than they’d been.
“I don’t like this,” said Sir Kay. He looked around, and spotted an infinitely large herd of sheep. That is, it expanded off infinitely into the distance. The shepherd looked like a guy who knew stuff — he had several sentences of description, and no way that would be the case with a total throwaway ancillary character.
“You see that guy in the sheepskin coat with the sheepdog that’s as big as a horse, and he has the power of super-herding, such that he never loses a sheep ever? And also his dog can breathe fire?” Kay asked Sir Gwrhyr.
“…Yeah,” Gwrhyr said slowly.
“Go talk to him, why don’t you? Maybe he knows something helpful. I mean, he breathes fire, that suggests he knows a thing or two about a thing or two.”
“You’re the super-linguist. Maybe this guy doesn’t speak Welsh. Maybe he speaks some weird moon-language that only you can understand.”
“Well, okay. But I only promised Arthur I’d travel wherever you went, not that I’d range out in advance and get fire breathed on me. So you have to come with.”
“I can cast charm person or animal on the dog,” offered Menw.
“Oh, yeah, do that,” said Kay. “Then we’ll all seven of us go talk to him.”
Menw cast his spell, and the adventurers approached the shepherd. The dog looked at them, but didn’t breathe fire and burn them up. (The dog’s fire breath, apropos of nothing, was the reason the barren wasteland was so barren; it had burned everything up already.)
“Ahoy, shepherd,” called Kay, or maybe Culhwch, or possibly Gwrhyr. Doesn’t matter. “You’re looking well.”
“Hopefully you’ll never look better than I do,” said the shepherd, which was not the friendliest of greetings.
“Right,” whichever knight was the spokesman said diplomatically. “Because you’re the boss, right?”
“Excepting my wife, sure, I’m master of all these infinite sheep. Or at least I look after them for their owner.”
“Okay, so, now that we’ve got the pleasantries out of the way, can you fill us in on whose wasteland, sheep, and fortress this stuff all is?”
The shepherd scoffed. “Everybody knows that. It’s all the property of Ysbaddaden, the chief of the hill giants. My name is Constantine, incidentally, and I used to be somewhat higher in station, but because he envied my wife Ysbaddaden took that all away from me. Why are you asking such simple questions?”
The knights exchanged glances. “We’re here from Camelot,” one of them admitted. “We’ve come to ask for Olwen.”
“His daughter?” Constantine cackled. “Good luck! Seriously, though, don’t try it. Everyone who tries to get intimate with Olwen ends up a shepherd, or worse!”
Constantine rose to leave, and Culhwch tipped him with a golden ring. As Constantine returned home, he tried the ring on, but it was much too small for him, so when he got home he gave it to his wife.
“Thanks babe, that’s sweet,” said the wife. “Where’d you find a gold ring?”
Constantine looked shifty for a moment. “It was on a body. I found it by the ocean. Must have washed ashore.”
“A body?” she repeated, skeptical. “Mostly when a corpse is washed ashore all its jewelry has fallen off. Can I see this corpse you’re talking about?”
He sighed. “I didn’t want to have to tell you this, but your nephew Culhwch gave it to me. He’s come for Olwen. Don’t ask me how I know that he was Olwen, since he didn’t identify himself by name, and don’t ask me how I know that you and his mother were sisters. But nevertheless there it is.”
“I feel ambivalent,” announced his wife. “On the one hand, I look forward to seeing my nephew. On the other, if he tries to convince Ysbaddaden to give up Olwen he’s going to die.”
The knights followed Constantine home, for no particular reason.
“Hello nephew! Let’s hug!” said Culhwch’s aunt.
“Careful, she’s super strong!” cried Kay.
The aunt crushed a log. “Whoops! Anyway, meet your cousin. He had twenty-three brothers but they all died.”
Then: dinner. “So what’s up?”
“She comes here to wash, but I can’t betray her — I don’t want any trouble.”
“It’ll be okay, I promise.”
Olwen came. She looked great.
“Hello I love you! It’s nice to meet you I love you!”
“…okay. But you have to talk to my father or he’ll kill you.”
“Sure! I love you!”
“He’s cursed to die when I’m married, so, that’s why he acts so crazy. But get him to promise to let us wed if you do a task for him, then do the task, and then boom, I’m moving out of my parents’ house finally.”
The knights fought their way into the steading of the hill giant king, in an exciting stealth/action sequence! They slipped through nine gates, took out nine gate-guards and snuck past nine guard-dogs, all without raising alarm. Behind the ninth gate they found the great chamber of the giant chieftain himself, Ysbaddaden: a massive hall lined with spears and full of low braziers casting uneven light across the haggard faces of Ysbaddaden’s many courtiers.
“Hello!” Culhwch said brightly, as a hundred pairs of eyes fell upon him. “I’ve come to marry your daughter!”
“Whose daughter? My daughter?” Ysbaddaden was taken aback. “Who’s speaking? How’d he get in here? Eugh, it’s enough to just make a man want to lie down for a while. I’m going to nap; come back later.”
The crowd of Ysbaddaden’s followers murmured anxiously over their lord’s response.
Ysbaddaden yawned. “Fine, fine, if it’s so important to everybody. But I can barely keep my eyes open! Servants! Bring forth the royal eye-props!”
Ysbaddaden snapped his fingers and four lithe men appeared, armed with long pitchforks. They approached their lord in two teams, one handling his left eye and one his right; with their pitchforks they hoisted up his sagging eyelids.
“Ew,” muttered Sir Kay.
“That’s better, that’s better,” Ysbaddaden said, yawning again. “Now step forward and let me get a look at you, o potential son-in-law.”
Prodded by Kay and Bedivere, Culhwch stumbled forward.
Ysbaddaden sniffed. “Unimpressive. Mmm, well, court hours are just now ending, so you will have to come back tomorrow.”
“I’m afraid I must insist.”
“Fine, have it your way. We’ll be back bright and early, though!” Culhwch signaled to his companions, and they started to leave. There was some grousing.
But then! Ysbaddaden waited until Culhwch’s back was turned, and then he ripped a spear off the wall and hurled it straight at Culhwch’s head! Is this the untimely end of Culhwch?
No! Because Sir Bedivere, whom you’ll recall had super-reflexes in this story, saw the spear flying! He caught it, easily, and wasted no time in throwing it back at Ysbaddaden. The heavy stone-tipped spear leaped across the hall and bit deep into the giant-king’s leg, just below the knee.
Ysbaddaden howled in pain and anger. “Dang it! What’d you do that for? Now I’m poisoned! Walking is going to be a pain!”
“Hm?” Culhwch’s back had been turned and he was not blessed with super-observational powers.
“Ugh, well, I suppose fair’s fair. Come back tomorrow, as I said, and I won’t try to kill you again, I promise.”
“Okay sure,” said Culhwch. “By the way, you’ve got a spear in your knee,” he added as he noticed it.
The next morning, same deal: smoky hill giant hall, fearful courtiers, spears on the walls. Culhwch and Ysbaddaden negotiated a reasonable price for Olwen: the standard Welsh marriage fee for a hill giant princess, plus a bonus on account of Olwen was a virgin.
“Are we sure she’s a virgin?” asked Sir Kay, but no one was listening.
“So we’re agreed on the proposed price, yes?” Culhwch asked Ysbaddaden.
“I haven’t agreed on anything,” protested Ysbaddaden. “But if I were going to seriously entertain an offer, that’s certainly an offer I’d entertain.”
“Before I can agree to anything, I need to consult with my parents, and with Olwen’s maternal grandparents, and… whoops!” Ysbaddaden made as though he were stumbling, and stepped over to the rack of spears hanging on the hall’s rear wall. “Oh, I’d better steady myself…” He picked up one of the spears. “Gosh, I’m just so off-balance, I hope I don’t… oh no! I’m throwing a spear at your head! How’d that happen?”
This second stone-tipped spear indeed flew straight at Culhwch’s head. Our hero stood there with a not-so-bright expression on his face, because Culhwch had pretty terrible reflexes.
Fortunately for him, Manwe the Mystic was on the case. “Reflect normal missiles!” the magic-user chanted, very quickly because the spear was already in midair. But Manwe got his spell off, and protected Culhwch such that the spear bounced directly off of him, and went flying back straight at Ysbaddaden.
The hill giant king groaned as he stared down at the spear in his chest. “Dang it. This one was poisoned, too, you know. Now I’m going to suffer shortness of breath, occasional chest pains, and frequent loss of appetite!”
That’s actually not an interpolation on my part, by the way. Check out this sentence from an 1877 translation of the Mabinogion: “Henceforth, whenever I go up a hill, I shall have a scant in my breath, and a pain in my chest, and I shall often loathe my food.”
“Well, we’re going to go ahead and go, then,” said Culhwch. “You can go, talk to your people, and we’ll be back tomorrow to finalize the deal. See you then!”
The next morning, Culhwch and his companions once again entered the steading of the hill giant king, and sat down to discuss the marriage of Culhwch and Olwen.
“Before we start,” said Culhwch, “Kay suggested we lay a few ground rules for today.”
“Sounds reasonable,” grumbled Ysbaddaden.
“Rule one: no more spear-throwing! Every time you try to kill me, it just causes problems for everybody and it sets back out negotiations, and, c’mon, guy.”
“Of course,” said Ysbaddaden, but he wasn’t listening. You could tell he wasn’t listening, because his next move was to throw a third spear at Culhwch. “Ha ha!”
Culwhch, finally on his guard after a long lecture from Sir Kay the night before, saw the spear coming this time. He caught it and threw it back at Ysbaddaden in a single smooth motion.
“Ye Gods! The spear is growing huge!” cried Ysbaddaden, but in fact it was merely flying towards his eyeballs. The spear dug into one of the giant’s eyes, blinding him temporarily.
“Dang it,” groaned Ysbaddaden. “I am just super unlucky. Now I’ve got to contend with poor vision, and watering eyes, and I’ll get migraines every new moon.”
“Can we just start over?”
“Fine.” Ysbaddaden sighed. “You know what? Fine. This has just been a big cock-up. Which one of you is the one who wants to marry my daughter, again?”
Kay elbowed Culhwch until he raised his hand.
“Great. I have a list of demands.”
“Finally! Olwen told me you’d have a list of demands.”
“I mean, not Olwen. I’ve never met Olwen. She’s totally a secret and a virgin and you have successfully guarded her so no way could she ever sneak away.”
“That’s good. Now, demands.”
Ysbaddaden then rattled off his list of demands, as follows:
1) Tear up the brambles behind Ysbaddaden’s house, plough it, plant seeds and grow crops and harvest them, all in one day, so that we’ll have a nice fresh harvest for the wedding feast.
2) But only Amathanon, the super-farmer, is allowed to do the labor, and he hates everybody and would never agree to help. Plus Culhwch isn’t allowed to coerce him.
3) And only Govannon his brother can assist, because Govannon has magic super-assisting powers. He too hates everyone and would never agree to help, plus Culhwch isn’t allowed to coerce him.
4) And only Gwlwlwyd, the super-oxcart-driver, can lead the oxen, and at this point I think we can just assume that “and he hates everybody and would never agree to help and you can’t make him by force of arms because that’s cheating” is a rider appended to every single guy mentioned on this list.
5) The Yellow Pale White Ox and the Spotted Ox must be yoked together as well.
6) And the demon oxen (really wicked oxen cursed by God) Nynnyaw and Peibyaw.
7) Additionally, next to the bramble patch there’s a nine-hectare plot of farmland. It’s where Ysbaddaden first met Olwen’s late mother. Since Olwen was born it’s lay fallow; reseed it with linseed and grow the linseed and harvest the crop and make linen so that Olwen will have a linen veil for her wedding, one that has a nice story attached to it.
8) Also, honey. Magic honey! Honey nine times as sweet as normal honey, for mead.
9) Get the magic drinking-cup of Llwyr, for the mead. Do I need to describe how Llwyr feels about other people borrowing his cup? I do not think I do.
10) Get the magic drinking-horn of Gwlgawd, to pour the mead out of.
11) Get the magic never-empty food basket of Gwyddno, to complete the set.
12) Get the magic self-playing harp of Teirtu, because you’ve got to have a harp at a wedding.
13) While he’re listing off magical artifacts, Ysbaddaden wants Culhwch to obtain both the Birds of Rhiannon, the song of which can wake the dead or lull the living for up to eighty-seven years at a time!
14) And the Black Cauldron too why not?
15) This next set of demands are all in aid of Ysbaddaden looking nice for the wedding. He’ll be father of the bride, so he’ll need to be well-groomed. First, he needs the tusk of Ysgithrwyn the King of All Boars, to use as a razor.
16) But if anyone who isn’t Prince Odgar Aeducan, the heir to the throne of Orzammar and/or Ireland cuts the tusk from Ysgithrwyn’s body, it’ll be ruined. It’s a shame that Odgar is a treacherous thug! (This has been another Dragon Age joke.)
17) And if anyone tries to carry it to me besides Caw of Scotland, the notorious misanthrope and recluse, again, everything will be ruined.
18) To brush out his beard Ysbaddaden will need the blood of the Black Hag (daughter of the White Hag) to use as beard oil.
19) But the blood has to be kept warm in the magic dewar flask of Gwyndolyn the Ambiguously-Gendered Dwarf!
20) And also Ysbaddaden needs the magic milk-preserving milk-bottles of Rhynnon Stiff Beard, the super-milker. Ysbaddaden doesn’t try to justify this one at all.
21) The piece de resistance for Ysbaddaden’s shaving kit is the comb set in the hair of the Boar Prince, who is a way tougher customer than the King of All Boars mentioned above.
22) To catch the Boar Prince, Culhwch will need a magic tracking dog, specifically Drudwyn whose owner Greid ap Eri is a real sweetheart of a guy. Just kidding! He’s an obstinate jerk!
23) Drudwyn will require a magic leash belonging to Cors No Castles But Lots of Cats.
24) And a magic collar for that magic leash, specifically the one owned by Canhastyr Hundred Hands.
25) And the chain connecting the collar and the leash? A totally separate piece, and it’s vital that it too be a particular magical chain, which is hidden in one of the hundred castles of Sir Kilydd Hundred Castles.
26) Drudwyn the magic dog can only be handled by Mabon, the super-houndsman, who has been missing since three days after his own birth, so, good luck with that one.
27) Assuming you find Mabon and get him the dog, he’ll need a particular magic horse, Gwynn Dun Mane. Gwynn Dun Mane is the pride and joy of Sir Gweddw the Unpleasant.
28) And to find Mabon of course you’ll have to start with Mabon’s only known relation, the yeoman Eiddoel, who is himself missing.
29) Even if Culhwch gets all of these things, he still can’t capture the Boar Prince without written permission from Sir Garselid, the royal roundsman of Ireland.
30) As well as two more magic dogs, Aned and Aethlem, who have a three-year waiting list they’re in such demand.
31) For the two other magic dogs Culhwch will need another magic leash. This one is good for both of the additional dogs without a separate collar or chain, but it has to be made from the beard of a particular enchanted knight. Sir Dillus the Beard-Haver, the knight in question, has a beard that will shrivel up and be useless, if it’s shaved off him posthumously. And of course he’d never let Culhwch shave him, he’s called the Beard-Haver.
32) Regardless, to handle these extra magic dogs Aned and Aethlem, he’ll need another super-houndsman, Sir Kennedy the son of Sir Hetwn the Leper.
33) Sir Kennedy can only be assisted by a super-houdsman’s-assistant. Yes, that is a super power apparently. The hero in question, Gwynn ap Nudd, has been cursed by God to be the living prison of an infinite army of demons so good luck with that.
34) Sir Kennedy and Gwynn can share one magic horse, but Culhwch will need to get them Du Moro, the black stallion, whose current owner is known simply as Sir Moro’s Owner.
35) Just to be on the safe side, Culhwch will need to recruit the King of France into his hunting party. To do otherwise would be just rude!
36) As well as a whole nother set of magic dogs. They belong to Alan’s son, do you know Alan? No? Well, you need to recruit him, too. Sir son-of-Alan. Ysbaddaden thinks he might live in Dyved.
37) And heck, while Ysbaddaden is at it, Culhwch will have to recruit King Arthur himself to help out. Which is an impossible task because Arthur is terrified of Ysbaddaden and would never dare act against him. Ysbaddaden is totally confident on this one.
38) And remember the three brothers with the three swords and granddaughters and stuff, knights numbers 205, 206, and 207 on the list above? Them too!
39) And lastly, the magical sword of Enoch, a giant that Ysbaddaden knows who is a real jackass but who has a nice magic sword. Whenever Ysbaddaden goes to a giant party, Enoch is there bragging about his magic sword, and how he’s magicked it so that it’s the only thing that can hurt him, so he’s basically invulnerable.
For each and every one of these thirty-nine requirements, Culhwch thought back to the extremely long list of knights in Arthur’s service, and determined that in almost every case the knight was bound to obey Arthur and would have to give up his magic horn or help with handling the magic dogs or whatever. There were a few holes; Culhwch had no idea where to find Mabon, for instance. But nevertheless, every time Ysbaddaden had another demand, Culhwch just smiled and said he was sure he could handle it.
Eventually Ysbaddaden exhausted his imagination and couldn’t come up with anything else to demand. “Well, good,” he aid gruffly. “You go and fetch all that, and I’ll get Olwen ready for the wedding. Put her in a dress, give her some lunch, that kind of thing.”
Culhwch and his companions had no real sense of where to begin their complex and super-lengthy quest, so they just rode off in a random direction from Ysbaddaden’s steading. In the next valley over they found a mysterious castle.
“That looks inviting,” mused Culhwch.
“Pshaw.” Sir Kay shook his head. “What are the odds that castle contains one of the objects of our quest? We should head back to Camelot and assemble the full posse. Getting all those knights to help out will complete about half of the quest right there.”
Culhwch ignored him. “Hey, peasant!” he shouted at a passing peasant. “Whose castle is that?”
“Are you dumb?” the peasant shouted back. “It’s the castle of Enoch, the Enchanted Giant!”
“Oh, come on,” said Kay as Culhwch beamed. He scowled. “It might not be the same Enoch…”
“Is Enoch a friendly giant?” Culwhch shouted at the peasant.
“What? No! That’s a stupid question! He’ll kill you with his magic sword that he’s all the time bragging about!”
“Fine, fine, I’ll handle it,” grumbled Kay. He rode down the path to the fortress, and its large and very closed gate.
Kay whistled until a gatekeeper stuck his head out, not unlike the entrance to the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz (1939). But when Kay tried to talk to the gatekeeper, he heard only babbling in response.
“Sounds like a job for Gwrhyr the Linguist!” cried Sir Gwrhyr. “I speak Giant.” In Giant, he asked the gatekeeper “there’s a gatekeeper here and he’s you, right?”
“Right,” said the gatekeeper. “And for asking that, maybe your head will get chopped off. I can’t say with certainty that it won’t.”
“Great. Open the gate, then!”
“What? No! There’s a party going on, I can’t let anyone in excepting tradesmen.”
“Tell him I’m a tradesman,” Kay said, once Gwrhyr had translated. “Tell him I’m a sword-polisher, the best in the business.”
“All right, all right, I’ll go check.”
Inside, there was a big hall full of people eating, and Enoch the giant towering over them. This is like the third great hall scene in this story, so by now you should know what we’re talking about.
“You look like a man with gate-related problem,” Enoch said as he saw his gatekeeper approach. “Lay it on me.”
“Well, sire, it’s like this.” The gatekeeper cleared his throat. “I’m over forty, and you’re over forty, and we’ve both seen a lot of crazy things over the years…”
“Okay, fine, whatever. Just cut to the end,” snapped Enoch.
“There’s a sword-polisher at the gate. Says he’s the best in the business.”
Enoch perked up. “Seriously? Someone who can polish my sword? Let him in!”
And so Sir Kay was admitted into the castle. Culhwch and his other companions tried to follow him in, but the gatekeeper just glared at them and slammed the door shut in their faces.
Inside, Kay pulled a chair up next to Enoch and took out a set of whetstones and rags and polish (as a well-equipped professional knight, Kay always traveled with a full kit of sword-polishing implements).
“All right, let’s see it,” he said, and Enoch eagerly passed him the magic sword. “Oh, this is a real beauty…” Kay made a show of examining the sword. “Shame about all this tarnish. I can get this polished right up.”
“Then do so immediately! I demand it!” cried Enoch.
“Hold your horses, buddy,” Kay said amiably. “Art takes time.” He carefully polished one side of the sword until it shone, Enoch staring intently at him the whole time.
Polishing the sword took several minutes, during which time Kay tried to make small talk, but Enoch would have none of it. At last he was done, with one side at least: it practically glowed, it was so well polished.
“Here, tell me what you think of this before I do the other side,” he said, passing the sword back to Enoch.
“Oh, it’s all shiny! Why doesn’t the whole thing look all shiny! Fix it! Fix it now!” shouted Enoch, throwing at tantrum like a little baby.
“Sure, sure,” said Kay, taking the sword back. He began polishing the other side, going very very slowly up and down the hilt and blade.
“Do it faster!” cried Enoch. “Don’t you have an assistant or something to speed this up?”
“No, no. Well, yes. Bedivere. He’s my companion, but he’s not a sword-polisher himself. He possesses a very particular set of skills, including ‘watching my back’ and ‘making distractions.’”
“Will he make you polish faster?”
So Enoch called for the gatekeeper, and Sir Bedivere was admitted into the hall.
(Side note: Constantine’s surviving son, the only one of twenty-four, had come along with Culhwch’s party on this adventure. When the gate opened a second time he snuck in with an indeterminate number of soldiers who origins were likewise uncertain, and let this strike force on a commando raid of Enoch’s castle’s barracks, attacking Enoch’s soldiers secretly and quietly while they slept. For this deed he became known as ‘the best man,’ or simply Besty.)
Bedivere soon sat next to Kay, eyeing Enoch as his friend polished the sword. The two exchanged no words or looks; these were professional Knights of the Round Table, and they knew their business.
“Done!” Kay said suddenly, and indeed now both sides of the magic sword were shining and bright. He passed the blade back to Enoch. “What do you think?”
“Oh, this is wonderful!” cried Enoch. “I can’t wait to brag about this to all the other giants! Ysbaddaden will be so jealous!” He tried sheathing and drawing his sword a few times.
“You know, the problem is your scabbard,” Kay told him. “A sword like this, you need a particular kind of scabbard. I can adjust yours for you, if you like.”
“Excellent, excellent, yes, do that!” Enoch rose and removed his scabbard from his belt, then handed it to Kay with the sword still inside it.
Kay drew the magic sword, and that was Bedivere’s cue.
“Hey, what’s that?” he cried, and pointing in no particular direction.
“What?” asked Enoch and craned his neck to see.
‘What?’ turned out to be Enoch’s last words, because as soon as he exposed his neck, Sir Kay flipped the magic sword up and sliced Enoch’s head off. Sir Kay had decapitated giants before; in Book V of Arthur Dies at the End, for instance. (Tasks complete: 1/39!)
“Okay, I’m in charge now,” announced Kay to the shouting crowd in the castle. “Someone open up the main gate, and someone else bring me some wine!”
And then a year went by, during which Kay and the other knights enjoyed the fruits of their conquest of Enoch’s castle. Eventually Culhwch got them to return to the main quest, however, and so they rode back to Camelot.
“Brother!” cried Arthur, as he met them at the station. “How has the quest gone? What news do you bring?”
“It’s been a lot of fun looting and plundering a giant’s castle for an entire year. Reading large-print books, wearing oversized sweaters, indulging with Enoch’s harem of concubines (all of whom became and remained concubines of their own will, not due to physical or economic coercion)…”
“Sounds great. It’s been very quiet here, this past year. Nothing worth describing at all. So, how far through the quest are you?”
“One thirty-ninth of the way!” Kay beamed with pride. “I know, that doesn’t sound like much, but I’m going to do a trick. Summon all of your knights together — all of them, would you? Everybody from Aned the magic dog to Sir Gwlwlwyd the super-teamster to Sir Rhynnon the super-milker.”
A short while later Arthur stood on a small stage in front of about three hundred knights, most of whom had some specific super-power and/or magical item. “Everybody listen up,” Arthur told them. “Kay here has a substantial quest he’s doing for my cousin Culhwch — don’t laugh, boy can’t help being named Culhwch — and he needs some assistance. So y’all all need to listen to Kay and assist him as needed. This is me, Arthur, telling you to do this. I know you don’t all get along or enjoy helping people… looking at you, Sir Gweddw the Unpleasant… but c’mon. Let’s work together on this one.”
The assembled knights, magical yeomen, and talking animals all agreed, because Arthur was their king.
“Thanks Arthur!” Kay took center stage. “All right, I have a list of stuff here, I’m going to read it off and if your name is called, come down to the front because you’re part of the thirty-nine tasks. Aethelm, magical dog… Alan’s son, from Dyved… Amathon, super-farmer… “ and so on down to Teirtu, owner of a magic harp. As their names were called, each knight/yeoman/animal solemnly raised a hand and marched down to the front of the stage.
“Great, everybody’s here,” Kay said, once he’d finished. “Twenty-five of the thirty-nine tasks involve recruiting you guys. So right there, that puts us at 26/39ths of the way through! Although…” He studied his notes. “By my count we should be 27/39th there. Who’s missing?” He went over his list, checking names. “Sir Dillus! Where’s Sir Dillus? Sir Dillus the Beard-Haver?”
“He’s not here,” someone said. “He never swore fealty to Arthur on account of he’s such an obstinate jerk. And that’s coming from me, Sir Gwynn the Obstinate Jerk!”
“We’ll have to go shave him by force, then,” decided Arthur. “That’s our next move.”
“Hold on,” said Kay. “One guy we need, pretty badly, and haven’t got is Mabon the Huntsman, who was abducted when he was just three days old and has been missing ever since.”
Arthur nodded. “Ah, yes. In those three days, he proved himself to be a better huntsman than anyone else in these islands. One amazing baby.”
“So first we need to find and rescue one Eiddoel, Mabon’s cousin, who is instrumental in some way.”
“You heard the man!” Arthur told the pack of knights (and yeomen and magic animals). “Eiddoel! We’ll break up into small groups and scour the countryside. Buddy up and then let’s go!” He turned to Culhwch, who had been sitting quietly reading a magazine this whole time. “Coming, cousin?”
Culhwch looked up. “Huh? Oh, sure. Okay.”
With surprising speed the Knights of the Round Table spread out across the land, hunting for Eiddoel. They didn’t know what he looked like or anything about him besides his name, but that turned out to be not much of a hindrance!
“Pardon me,” Kay said to literally the first peasant he met. “Yonder I see a small private prison, built a short ways back from the road.”
The peasant grunted in agreement.
“Do you happen to know if a man named Eiddoel is imprisoned there?”
“He is, yeah,” the peasant said.
“Great, thanks.” Kay tipped the peasant, then went over to the prison door and knocked. “Excuse me? Hello?”
The prison warden, a man named Glini, opened the door. He glared at Kay, like you do when a solicitor knocks on your front door to try to sell you on his raking the leaves in your yard and when you decline (not rudely) he observes that he’s going to be raking the leaves in some of your neighbors’ yards and maybe he’ll rake your leaves anyway and you don’t grasp how that’s a threat until later when you leave your house and you discover that someone has piled up leaves from up and down the street in your yard. “What do you want?”
“You’re holding a man named Eiddoel for reasons that probably seem like good ones, but I don’t care what they are,” Kay told him.
“What of it?”
“I need him for a magic quest I’m on. Well, technically Culhwch over there is on it, but it’s basically me.”
“What? No! Screw you!” Glini slammed the door in Kay’s face.
Kay knocked again. “Did I mention I’m one of the Knights of the Round Table?” he asked the warden, when Glini eventually opened the door again.
“Don’t care!” Glini slammed the door again.
“Let me try,” said Arthur. He tapped on the prison door. “Hello? Glini? It’s me, Arthur, King of the Britons.”
“Arthur?” Glini repeated nervously, as he opened the door a crack. “How do you know my name?”
“Ah, you’ve heard of me. And you’re wearing a name tag. Now, I couldn’t help but notice you treating my adoptive brother Kay here with some disrespect.”
Glini’s voice quavered. “Well, sire, it’s just…”
“I’d hate to have to lead an army against you. I mean, I conquered Rome, and Wales, and Cornwall, and France, and Ireland. Basically I’m an unstoppable superhero. It’d just be a massacre.”
“So that was Eiddoel you wanted then? Just give me a moment to gather up his personal effects, sire!”
And with that, Eiddoel was released into Kay’s custody. (Tasks complete: 27 of 39!) Afterwards Arthur decided he’d had enough strange adventure for one day and went back to Camelot, while Kay and his small army of companions (plus Culhwch) continued to spread across the countryside.
Cue a montage of task completion! Imagine this as a series of quick cuts!
Eiddoel suggests that Sir Gwrhyr the Linguist consults a magic bird, because he can speak the tongue of the birds.
The magic bird doesn’t know where Mabon is, but refers Gwrhyr to a magic stag because stags are smart.
The magic stag doesn’t know where Mabon is either, but refers Gwrhyr to a magic eagle because eagles see a lot.
The magic eagle doesn’t know where Mabon is either, but refers Gwrhyr to a magic salmon because while most salmons are dumb, this one is ancient, twelve feet long, and wise in the ways of the world.
The magic salmon knows exactly where Mabon is, and is happy to escort Gwrhyr to him!
Gwrhyr and Kay ride the salmon to Gloucester (the location of Mabon’s prison), but the warden there refuses to relinquish him.
Kay returns to Camelot to enlist Arthur’s help once more.
Arthur leads a brigade to Gloucester, where he entreats the local lord to surrender Mabon.
The local lord refuses.
The local lord discovers that Gloucester, in pretty short order, no longer exists.
During the carnage of Arthur’s demolition of Gloucester, Sir Kay uses his super-strength (that the Mabinogion said he had back when he was introduced, go check if you don’t believe me) to knock down the walls of Mabon’s prison and rescue him!
But that’s not all! There’s Sir Gwrhyr finding a magic anthill, and talking the magic ants (because he speaks the language of ants) into planting nine hectares of linseed! Various magical horses and dogs are recruited! Kay and Bedivere team up to track down Sir Dellus Beard-Haver! They stuff him full of sausages until he falls asleep, then shave him! There’s the hunt for the King of All Boars! There’s an invasion of Ireland, too. It’s where the Black Cauldron was, and though getting the cauldron turns out to be easy, there’s still the Boar Prince to contend with. The Boar Prince: he of task #21 and the ultimate object of tasks 22 through 38! He was in Ireland.
This magic pig monster — Twrch Trwyth — turned out to be a much tougher customer than anyone had expected. We all assumed that Ysbaddaden was just blowing smoke when he told Culhwch that only a coalition including the crown prince of Ireland, the King of France, and Arthur himself (plus a lot of magic knights of various kinds) could defeat him. It was a good thing that Arthur et cetera had come, too: the Boar Prince and his seven sons, pigs all, had just fought the entire Irish nation to a standstill. Fully twenty percent of Ireland was under control of a half-dozen demonic pigs. Ireland often comes out pretty badly in these Welsh stories.
“Hold on, hold on.” Sir Kay raised a hand. “I hate to interrupt the narrative, but I have to ask. Why a pig, specifically? I mean, I get that we have to get the comb out of his hair, so your cousin can marry the princess of the hill giants, but why is he a pig instead of a giant or an evil knight or something?”
“He used to be a king,” Arthur told him. “But then God cursed Twrch Trwyth for his wickedness, and turned him and all his sons into pigs.” I want to call out this exchange as totally happening within the Mabinogion text, too; this isn’t my interpolation.
A battle raged for nine days and nine nights, during which Arthur’s forces were able to slay only one of the Boar Prince’s seven devil-swine sons. Eventually everyone was exhausted and the protracted conflict petered out so both sides could regroup.
During this intermission, Arthur sent Sir Gwrhyr the Linguist to negotiate with the Boar Price, because of course Gwrhyr spoke the language of devil-pigs. Sir Gwrhyr the Linguist is a regular Jean-Luc Picard, I tell you what. Gwrhyr approached Twrch Trwyth’s cave, shapechanged into a bird for the occasion.
“Ho, pigs!” he cried. “Come out and entreat with me! In the name of the Lord come forth!”
One of the devil-swine, Grygyn Silver Bristle, emerged after some delay.
“In the name of the Lord go away!” he bellowed. “It’s bad enough God cursed us and turned us into pigs! Why do you have to come and bother us? All we want is to raze Ireland!”
“Okay, that’s fine,” shouted Gwrhyr from a safe distance. “Ireland is on the table! Arthur really just wants the comb stuck in Twrch Trwyth’s matted hair!”
“Never! That comb is my father-pig’s greatest treasure! Just asking for it is an incredible offense! Forget Ireland — we’re going to go to Wales and really mess up Arthur’s shit!”
Grygyn Silver Bristle bleated or howled or whatever pigs do when they’re sounding a warcry! Twrch Trwyth and his five other surviving sons galloped forth from the cave, baying and mooing and I don’t know what sound they made. Gwrhyr watched in horror as they ran down to the shore and began swimming across the Irish Sea to Wales.
“Arthur’s not going to like this,” he muttered.
Two days later Arthur and his army landed in Wales, near St David’s. They were behind the pigs, who had already moved inland, pillaging and murdering as they went. In Presseleu Arthur’s army met the six devil-pigs. In two skirmishes there Arthur’s soldiers managed only to wound Twrch Trwyth, and that at terrible price: the death of eight of Arthur’s knights, including Arthur’s son Gwyrdre.
Then the next day Twrch Trwyth killed three of the four servants of Gwlewlwyd Strong Grip, leaving only the useless one Llaesgymyn alive, and another seven knights. These losses included the King of France, which really annoyed Arthur because he only had the one King of France. Plus the pigs had melted into the countryside and couldn’t be found.
At this point the order of battle was as follows.
Trwch Trwyth (wounded)
Grugyn Silver Bristle
Llwydawg the Killer
The Knights of the Round Table
Most of Wales
Lots of magic dogs
Finally things began to turn around for Arthur. First one of his scouting parties was almost wiped out in an ambush by Grugyn Silver Bristle and Llwydawg the Killer. This might not sound like a good ting, but the lone scout who escaped warned Arthur of the devil swines’ location. Soon troops converged on the two isolated pigs, and Arthur unleashed the hounds. Or probably he had Sir Kennedy do it, as Sir Kennedy’s superpower was super-hound-unleashing.
Surrounded and panicked, Grugyn and Llwydawg cried out for their father, who trotted in with the rest of his sons. Battle raged, but the momentum was with the humans: soon Twrch Llawin, the smallest of the devil-pigs, was slain. Then he was slain again in an apparent continuity error, alongside Gwys. Trwch Trwyth tried to disengage and save his remaining sons by fleeing to Dyved to regroup, but Arthur pursued. In Dyved Banw and Benwig went down, just before Trwch Trwyth ate Achilles. If you ever wondered what happened to Achilles? Eaten by a devil pig in Wales.
Grugyn Silver Bristle became separated from his father and brother, and Arthur’s men surrounded and slew him, but not until he’d killed a bunch of guys. Llwydawg, too, became isolated, and in Brittany (how they got to Brittany is unclear) he went down fighting a bunch of Brittany knights and princes, including several of Arthur’s relatives. No mention of Howel, Isoud the White, or Sir Kehydius, though, if you were wondering whether Sir Tristan’s supporting cast from Brittany would put in an appearance.
At the edge of Cornwall Trwch Trwyth, all alone, made his final stand. Long story short: a lot of knights died, including poor Osla Big Knife, who slipped into the Severn river and drowned chasing the pig. If his scabbard hadn’t been so huge, it wouldn’t have been so heavy when filled with water, and he might have survived. Those big Final Fantasy swords are dangerous.
Finally Twrch Tryth was defeated! In the process close to thirty of the knights listed in the big list above were specifically identified as having been slain, so, this was a big deal.
“Whew,” said Arthur, surveying the carnage. “Times like this, a man could use a Coke. Coke!”
Someone handed Arthur a Coke.
“Oh, excellent,” he said, and drank the Coke.
While he drank, Sir Kay approached him. “That’s almost all the tasks done, brother. 38 of 39. We did some when you weren’t looking, like, we fetched the Birds of Rhiannon and made Ysbaddaden’s field grow a harvest in one night, and stuff.”
“So what’s left?”
“We still need the blood of the Black Hag.”
And so Arthur and Kay and a small cadre of knights went to the Black Hag’s cave. First Arthur sent in a couple of his servants, to talk to the Hag all peaceful-like and see if she’d offer up her blood willingly.
The servants were quickly thrown out of the cave, battered and bruised. They weren’t dead, but their walking days were over, at least for a while. Arthur wanted to go in himself and deal with the Hag after that. His knights talked him out of that, though, as he was far too valuable to risk.
Two knights went into the cave for Arthur: Sir Amren and Sir Eiddyl, both known as the Tall Knight because they were both well over six feet. However despite their greater reach, the Hag threw them out of her cave in even worse shape than the servants had been. Perhaps their high center of gravity was their undoing.
“Enough’s enough!” cried Arthur. Brooking no dissent, he strode angrily into the cave and threw a knife at the Hag. His knife cut her neatly into two pieces, with plenty of blood available. Arthur cursed himself for not just doing that straightaway, and gathered up some blood. He ended up with more than he needed, so he gave the excess to Sir Caw the Misanthropic Scotsman.
Tasks complete: 39/39!
A little while later, in Ysbaddaden’s steading, Caw of Scotland stood ready to shave the giant king with all the implements Ysbaddaden had demanded. There was music from the magic birds, drink from the magic cups, lots of magic dogs still milling around even though their part in the story was complete, et cetera.
“Dang,” said Ysbaddaden when Arthur, Kay, and about forty other knights strolled into his hall. “I did not foresee this eventuality.”
“So,” said Culhwch. “Have I completed all your tasks? Yes, I have.”
“Actually you did almost nothing,” Ysbaddaden pointed out. “It was mostly Sir Kay and King Arthur.”
“Well, they got done. That’s the important thing. Now I get to marry Olwen, right?”
Ysbaddaden sighed. “Yeah, whatever. You know I’m under a curse to die when she weds. You know that and you don’t even care.”
“Is Olwen here, by the way?” Off Ysbaddaden’s blank shrug, Culhwch continued. “Your daughter? The princess of the hill giants? Whom my stepmother geased me into loving and seeking to wed?”
Ysbaddaden scoffed. “I’m sure she’s somewhere. But this business between us doesn’t concern her.”
“It kind of does, actually,” muttered Sir Kay.
Ysbaddaden rose to his feet. “And now you and I shall fight! For you must kill me to wed her — and I will not go gently!”
Culhwch made a face. “Jeez, guy, do I have to?”
Luckily for Culhwch, no, he didn’t. This was the moment of Besty, the oddly-named son of Constantine, the servant who helped Culhwch identify Ysbaddaden’s steading!
“This is for my twenty-three brothers you murdered!” he shouted, and ran up to Ysbaddaden, and cut his head off. He later mounted it on a pike outside the steading gates.
Then Culhwch married Olwen or something, who cares? All the other knights went home, and Culhwch got to keep the steading of the hill giant chief to live in.
Oh, and King Arthur heard about how Sir Kay got Sir Dellus the Beard-Haver’s beard via stuffing him full of sausages and shaving him in his sleep. Arthur teased Kay about this, which really irritated Kay. Kay asked him to stop, but Arthur didn’t realize how much the teasing bothered Kay, and didn’t stop. Eventually this led to a major falling out between the two. Kay moved away from Camelot, which is why he isn’t around in the last few books of Le Morte d’Arthur why not.