Journey to the Sea

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Welsh Mythological Underpinnings of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Cycle

Posted by Jason Fisher • Oct 15th, 2009

Lloyd Alexander is justly one of the most beloved (and prolific) writers of fantasy literature for young people — young people of all ages, Alexander was inclined to add. Among his more than forty books, perhaps the most beloved are his five-volume Prydain Cycle (1964–1968), of which the concluding novel, The High King, was awarded the John Newbery Medal. Prydain is a fantasy world inspired by Welsh mythology, but (cautions Alexander) “this background is not drawn with a mapmaker’s accuracy. My hope, instead, is to create the feeling, not the fact, of the land of Wales and its legends” (Author’s Note, The Castle of Llyr). Why not the fact? Because Alexander’s Prydain was his “attempt to make a landwhi of fantasy relevant to a world of reality” (Author’s Note, The High King). Had Alexander merely retold a series of Welsh myths and legends wholesale, the results would have been more historical than fantastic, more remote than accessible.

Having said that, Alexander’s five Prydain novels — along with a subsequent collection of short stories, The Foundling and Other Tales from Prydain, published later — contain a veritable treasure trove of references (both large and small) to the mythology of Wales, particularly to that group of medieval stories first published in English under the title of the Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest. These include people — for example, the Dynasties of Don and Llyr, lifted wholesale from the Mabinogion and dropped into the background of Alexander’s fictive world; Medwyn, Prydain’s stand-in for Nevydd Nav Neivion, a figure in Celtic mythology similar to the biblical Noah; and Arawn Death-Lord, the Welsh Master of the Underworld, set up as Prydain’s arch-villain. Alexander’s mythological sources also include places — fortresses and kingdoms such as Caer Dathyl, Cantrev Mawr, and Spiral Castle. (Robert Graves discusses the Spiral Castle and other aspects of Welsh mythology in his book The White Goddess, many which Alexander used.) He also borrowed (but rearranged) features of the landscape, such as the rivers Ystrad and Alaw. And Alexander even included things of Welsh mythology — artifacts and weapons such as the sword Dyrnwyn: in the Welsh sources, this is “the sword of Rhydderch Hael, […] one of the thirteen precious things of the Island of Britain” (Tunnell 73); in Prydain, this becomes the magical flaming sword of Lord Gwydion, Prince of Don.

Among Alexander’s wide and allusive borrowings from the Mabinogion, and from Celtic mythology more generally, I would like to single out for a closer examination the shadowy origins of Dallben connected to the witches Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch. Dallben is a central figure to the entire Cycle, playing a role in all five novels, and he represents many things: the caretaker of Caer Dallben, keeper of the prophetic Book of Three, guardian of the oracular pig Hen Wen, advisor to Lord Gwydion and the Sons of Don, and (perhaps most importantly) the teacher and protector of the Cycle’s principal protagonist Taran. He is based largely on a small character in the Welsh Tale of Kilhwch and Olwen (Tunnell 57-8, 62). The tale itself says very little about Dallben; however, Lady Guest’s notes following the tale reveal a bit more. Dadweir Dallpen, as the original character is named, is said to have indeed possessed a famous pig, Henwen, and to have employed as his swineherd Coll ab Collfrewi, one of the three most renowned swineherds in all Britain. (Readers of Alexander will, of course, also recognize both Hen Wen and Coll as fellow residents of Alexander’s village of Caer Dallben.)

Over the course of the Prydain Cycle, Dallben remains a somewhat mysterious character, but readers learn more about his shadowy origins in “The Foundling”, a story Alexander wrote some years afterwards. He is found alone, floating in a wicker basket by the three witches, Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, in their home, the Marshes of Morva. Unsure what else to do, they take him in (showing uncharacteristic kindness). One day, the witches ask Dallben to continue stirring a bubbling witches’ brew while they’re out of the house, cautioning him against tasting any of it. He obeys, but the potion comes to a boil and some of it splashes out of the cauldron. Dallben pops his scalded fingers into his mouth without thinking, tastes the potion, and instantly acquires all the knowledge, wisdom, and magical abilities of the three witches. After that, they have to send him away, because “[y]ou can’t have that many people knowing that much all under the same roof” (Black Cauldron 105). They offer him a choice from several enchanted gifts to take with him, of which he chooses The Book of Three, a tome of great weight and prophecy. So great, in fact, that the burden of the knowledge ages him overnight into an old man — the bent and wizened figure Taran and his companions (and readers along with them) come to know and love.

The witches, Alexander tells us, “have appeared in other guises […]: the Three Norns, the Moirae, the Triple Goddess, and very likely some other transformations they decline to admit” (Author’s Note, Taran Wanderer). Though there are three of them, they have the disconcerting tendency to shift their shapes, and even shift their consciousnesses between each body. It is suggested that they “take turns being” Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch. Most of the time, they appear as decrepit old hags: Orwen recognized by a necklace of milky-white stones, Orgoch by the deep cowl hiding her face, and Orwen (the usual spokesperson for the three) by the absence of any of these distinguishing features. But some of the time, they appear as beautiful enchantresses — particularly when they believe no one is looking. It is in this guise that they appear to Taran at the conclusion of the Cycle, offering him a fateful choice.

Speaking of Fate, this indeed seems to be the role of the three witches in Prydain. Like the Greek Moirae, Alexander’s three witches are a weaver, a spinner, and a cutter of the threads of men’s lives. But their names, like so many others in the Cycle, are drawn from Celtic mythology. Orddu and her mother Orwen are mentioned in the Mabinogion, specifically (again) in the Tale of Kilhwch and Olwen. It has been suggested that the description and disturbingly omnivorous tastes of the third witch, Orgoch, reveal a connection to the Irish Morrigu, who is herself sometimes portrayed as a triple goddess (Lane 27).

It would be possible to fill many pages with a detailed exegesis of the sources for all of Alexander’s careful borrowings (and indeed, this is partly what Michael Tunnell’s book The Prydain Companion attempts), but in the interests of brevity, I will leave further explorations for the reader. Instead, I will conclude by looking at Alexander’s own words for the effect this borrowing creates: “ancient source materials became transformed into a world whose mythological roots are recognizable yet elaborated into something highly personal and qualitatively different” (Foreword, The Prydain Companion). His meticulously thought-out adaptation of mythological elements allows Alexander to frame a story for young people (of all ages). Even though young readers may not fully appreciate the depth of Alexander’s research, his personal attachment to Wales, or the larger currents of mythology running through the Cycle, this is rather beside the point. All of these things work together to provide a vivid and compelling backdrop to more effectively convey his own stories with their many lessons in morality, loyalty, sacrifice, and love. And this, in part, explains their enduring popularity.


References

  • Alexander, Lloyd. The Chronicles of Prydain: The Book of Three (1964), The Black Cauldron (1965), The Castle of Llyr (1966), Taran Wanderer (1967), The High King (1968). New York: Henry Holt and Co.
  • Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Noon Day Press, 1966.
  • Lane, Elizabeth. “Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and Welsh Tradition.” Orcrist 7 (1973): 25-9.
  • Tunnell, Michael O. The Prydain Companion: A Reference Guide to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. 1989. New York: Henry Hold and Co., 2003.

6 Responses »

  1. Whicker? OK for horses. ‘Wicker’ of course. Or perhaps, Dallben was found by the three witches in a ‘wicca’ basket?.. :))

    But seriously, a BIG thank you for ‘Journey to the Sea’. It is the only web magazine I subscribe to that I read thoroughly – every Issue, every article. I am genuinely impressed with your writers’ erudition, breadth of interest and ability to make the realms of Mythos/Logos so easily accessible at the same time. Please keep up the good work. Your site is a rare gem, a hidden pearl. And a damn good magazine as well!

    Joseph

  2. @Joseph – Thank you so much for the positive feedback. It’s such a learning experience for me writing and editing the articles, and it’s great to know that readers are getting just as much out of the site.

    Good catch on whicker/wicker. I updated the article itself with “wicker.”

  3. Thanks for the correction, Joesph. And I should, of course, be rapped on the knuckles for making it in the first place. :)

  4. Informative article! I’ll be visiting “Journey to the Sea” regularly, I suspect.

    On a separate note, a few small excerpts to edit:

    “attempt to make a landwhi of fantasy relevant to a world of reality”

    (Robert Graves discusses the Spiral Castle and other aspects of Welsh mythology in his book The White Goddess, many which Alexander used.)

    Thanks again for the article, and please pardon my conventional neuroticism.

    ~Pat

  5. How did he mix up the landscape of the Rivers Ystrad?

    Dallben if course it Taliesin..

  6. that was meant to say.. Dallben is of course Taliesin.