Preiddeu Annwfn or Preiddeu Annwn (English: The Spoils of Annwfn) is a cryptic poem of sixty lines found in Middle Welsh in the Book of Taliesin. The text recounts an expedition with King Arthur to Annwfn or Annwn, probably a British otherworld. A number of scholars have pointed out analogues in other medieval Welsh literature: some suggest that it represents a tradition that evolved into the grail of Arthurian literature.
Manuscript and date
The poem is uniquely preserved in the Book of Taliesin (Aberystwyth, NLW, MS Peniarth 2), which has been dated to the first quarter of the 14th century. The text of the poem itself has proved immensely difficult to date. Estimates range from the time of the bard Taliesin in the late 6th century to the completion of the manuscript. On the basis of linguistic criteria, Norris J. Lacy suggests that the poem took its present form around AD 900. Marged Haycock notes that the poem shares a formal peculiarity with a number of pre-Gogynfeirdd poems found in the Book of Taliesin, that is, the caesura usually divides the lines into a longer and shorter section. She contends, however, that there is no firm linguistic evidence that the poem predates the time of the Gogynfeirdd.
Preiddeu Annwfn has been translated into English several times but its obscurity at some points requires individual interpretation on the part of its translators. The narrator is possibly intended to be Taliesin himself. One line can be interpreted as implying that he received his gift of poetry or speech from a magic cauldron, as Taliesin does in other texts, and Taliesin's name is connected to a similar story in another work. The speaker relates how he journeyed with Arthur and three boatloads of men into Annwfn, but only seven returned. Annwfn is apparently referred to by several names, including "Mound Fortress," "Four-Peaked Fortress," and "Glass Fortress", though it is possible the poet intended these to be distinct places. Within the Mound Fort's walls Gweir, one of the "Three Exalted Prisoners of Britain" known from the Welsh Triads, is imprisoned in chains. The narrator then describes the cauldron of the Chief of Annwn; it is finished with pearl and will not boil a coward's food. Whatever tragedy ultimately killed all but seven of them is not clearly explained. The poem continues with an excoriation of "little men" and monks, who lack in various forms of knowledge possessed by the poet.
Analogues in other works
Two works in particular feature narrative elements that are frequently cited as probable literary relatives. These are the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and Culhwch and Olwen. The former is the mythological tale of the giant Bran the Blessed and his sister Branwen, the latter is an Arthurian romance also associated with the Mabinogion. In the Second Branch, Bran gives his magic life-restoring cauldron to his new brother-in-law Matholwch of Ireland after he and Branwen marry. Matholwch mistreats his new wife, however, and Bran and his forces must cross the Irish Sea to rescue her. Part of this attack involves the destruction of the cauldron, which Matholwch had used to resuscitate his soldiers; in the end only seven of Bran's men are left alive, including Taliesin.
In Culhwch and Olwen Arthur's retinue sail to Ireland (aboard his ship Prydwen, the ship used in Preiddeu) to obtain the cauldron of a certain Diwrnach, who treats them to a feast but refuses to give up his prize. Arthur's warrior Llenlleawc the Irishman grabs Caladvwch (Excalibur) and swings it around, killing Diwrnach's entire retinue. Further parallels between this episode and Preiddeu Annwfn may be found in a difficult passage from the latter, which is usually understood to say that a "flashing sword", described either as "bright" or else "of Lleawch", was raised to the cauldron, leaving it in the hands of "Lleminawc". Some scholars have opted to identify either or both Lleawch and Lleminawc with Culhwch's Llenlleawc, citing a confusion or evolution of names in the manuscript tradition, but evidence for this point is not conclusive.
Roger Sherman Loomis also pointed out the similarities between Preiddeu's description of the "Glass Fortress" and a story from Irish mythology recorded in both the Book of Invasions and the 9th-century Historia Britonum. In Preiddeu, the Glass Fortress is defended by 6,000 men, and Arthur's crew finds it difficult to speak with their sentinel. In the Irish tale, the Milesians, the ancestors to the Irish people, encounter a glass tower in the middle of the ocean whose inhabitants do not speak with them. The Milesians attack, and like Arthur's expedition, lose most of their force. The one surviving ship sails on to Ireland and further adventure. Loomis further suggests that this story is connected to the Abduction of Guinevere episode common in later literature. Sarah Higley suggests a common story that influenced these various Welsh and Irish accounts.
A Grail connection?
Early translators suggested a link between Preiddeu Annwfn (taken together with the Bran story) and the later Grail narratives, with varying degrees of success. Similarities are sometimes peripheral, such as that both Bran the Blessed and the Grail keeper the Fisher King receive wounds in their legs and both dwell in a castle of delights where no time seems to pass. The graal portrayed in Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, the Story of the Grail is taken to be reminiscent of Bran's cauldron, and, as in Preiddeu, the Grail romances always result in initial tragedy and frequently in huge loss of life.
Earlier scholars were quicker to read Celtic origins in the Holy Grail stories than their modern counterparts. Whereas early 20th-century Celtic enthusiast Jessie Weston unequivocally declared that an earlier form of the Grail narrative could be found in Preiddeu Annwfn, modern researcher Richard Barber denies Celtic myth had much influence on the legend's development at all. R. S. Loomis, however, argued that it was more logical to search for recurrent themes and imagery found in both the Grail stories and Celtic material rather than exact ancestors; many or most modern scholars share this opinion.
- Haycock, Preiddeu Annwn, p. 52.
- Lacy, Norris J. (1991). "The Spoils of Annwfn (Preiddeu Annwfn)." In Lacy, Norris J., The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, p. 428. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
- Haycock, Preiddeu Annwn, pp. 52-3.
- Haycock, Preiddeu Annwn, p. 57.
- Higley, note to Preiddeu Annwn, Stanza II, line 13.
- Triad 52. Rachel Bromwich associates the Gwair of this triad with the Gweir of Preiddeu, see Trioedd Ynys Prydein pp. 146–147 and 373–374.
- Barber, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief.
- Barber, Richard (2004). The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-01390-2. 
- Bromwich, Rachel (2006). Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. Cardiff: University of Wales. ISBN 0-7083-1386-8.
- Gantz, Jeffrey (translator) (1987). The Mabinogion. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044322-3.
- Haycock, Marged (1983-4). "Preiddeu Annwn and the Figure of Taliesin." Studia Celtica 18-9. pp. 52–78.
- Higley, Sarah (translator). "Preiddeu Annwfn: 'The Spoils of Annwn'". The Camelot Project.
- Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.) (1991). The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
- Loomis, Roger Sherman (1991). The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol. Princeton. ISBN 978-0-691-02075-4.