Culhwch and Olwen

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Culhwch ac Olwen
"Culhwch and Olwen"
LanguageMiddle Welsh
Dateca. 11-12th century
Manuscript(s)White Book of Rhydderch, Red Book of Hergest

Culhwch and Olwen (Welsh: Culhwch ac Olwen) is a Welsh tale that survives in only two manuscripts about a hero connected with Arthur and his warriors: a complete version in the Red Book of Hergest, c. 1400, and a fragmented version in the White Book of Rhydderch, ca. 1325. It is the longest of the surviving Welsh prose tales. The prevailing view among scholars was that the present version of the text was composed by the 11th century, making it perhaps the earliest Arthurian tale and one of Wales' earliest extant prose texts,[1] but a 2005 reassessment by linguist Simon Rodway dates it to the latter half of the 12th century.[2] The title is a later invention and does not occur in early manuscripts.[3]

Lady Charlotte Guest included this tale among those she collected under the title The Mabinogion. Besides the quality of its storytelling it contains several remarkable passages: the description of Culhwch riding on his horse is frequently mentioned for its vividness (a passage reused to similar effect in the 16th-century prose "parody" Araith Wgon, as well as in 17th-century poetic adaptations of that work), the fight against the terrible boar Twrch Trwyth certainly has antecedents in Celtic tradition, and the list of King Arthur's retainers recited by the hero is a rhetorical flourish that preserves snippets of Welsh tradition that otherwise would be lost.


Culhwch's father, King Cilydd son of Celyddon, loses his wife Goleuddydd after a difficult childbirth. When he remarries, the young Culhwch rejects his stepmother's attempt to pair him with his new stepsister. Offended, the new queen puts a curse on him so that he can marry no one besides the beautiful Olwen, daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden Pencawr. Though he has never seen her, Culhwch becomes infatuated with her, but his father warns him that he will never find her without the aid of his famous cousin Arthur. The young man immediately sets off to seek his kinsman. He finds him at his court in Celliwig in Cornwall; this is one of the earliest instances in literature or oral tradition of Arthur's court being assigned a specific location and a valuable source of comparison with the court of Camelot or Caerleon as depicted in later Welsh, English and continental Arthurian legends.[4]

Culhwch at Ysbaddaden's court. An illustration by E. Wallcousins in Celtic Myth & Legend, Charles Squire, 1920 "Horses shall I have, and chivalry; and my Lord and kinsman Arthur will obtain for me all these things. And I shall gain thy daughter, and thou shalt lose thy life." "Go forward...and when thou hast compassed all these marvels, thou shalt have my daughter for thy wife."

Arthur agrees to help, and sends six of his finest warriors (Cai, Bedwyr, Gwalchmei, Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd, Menw son of Tairgwaedd and Cynddylig Gyfarwydd) to join Culhwch in his search for Olwen. The group meets some relatives of Culhwch's that know Olwen and agree to arrange a meeting. Olwen is receptive to Culhwch's attraction, but she cannot marry him unless her father agrees, and he, unable to survive past his daughter's wedding, will not consent until Culhwch completes a series of about forty impossible-sounding tasks. The completion of only a few of these tasks is recorded and the giant is killed, leaving Olwen free to marry her lover.

The story is on one level a typical folktale, in which a young hero sets out to wed a giant's daughter, and many of the accompanying motifs reinforce this (the strange birth, the jealous stepmother, the hero falling in love with a stranger after hearing only her name, etc.). However, for most of the narrative the title characters go unmentioned, their story serving as a frame for other events. Culhwch and Olwen is much more than a simple folktale.

In fact, the majority of the writing is taken up by two long lists and the adventures of King Arthur and his men. The first of these occurs when Arthur welcomes his young kinsman to his court and offers to give him whatever he wishes. Culhwch, of course, asks that Arthur help him get Olwen, and invokes some two hundred of the greatest men, women, dogs, horses and swords in Arthur's kingdom to underscore his request. Included in the list are names taken from Irish legend, hagiography, and sometimes actual history.

Cultural influence[edit]

Writers and Tolkien scholars, Tom Shippey and David Day have pointed out the similarities between The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, one of the main cycles of J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium, and Culhwch and Olwen.[5][6]


  • The British painter/poet David Jones (1895–1974) wrote a poem called "The Hunt" based on the tale of Culwhch ac Olwen. A fragment of a larger work, "The Hunt" takes place during the pursuit of the boar Twrch Trwyth by Arthur and the various war-bands of Celtic Britain and France.
  • In 1988 Gwyn Thomas released a retelling of the story, Culhwch ac Olwen, which was illustrated by Margaret Jones. Culhwch ac Olwen won the annual Tir na n-Og Award for Welsh language nonfiction in 1989.[7]
  • A shadow play adaptation of Culhwch and Olwen toured schools in Ceredigion during 2003. The show was created by Jim Williams and was supported by Theatr Felinfach.
  • The tale of Culhwch and Olwen was adapted by Derek Webb in Welsh and English as a dramatic recreation for the reopening of Narberth Castle in Pembrokeshire in 2005.
  • The Ballad of Sir Dinadan, the fifth book of Gerold Morris's The Squire's Tales series, features an adaptation of Culhwch's quest.


  1. ^ The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation, ed. James J. Wilhelm. 1994. 25.
  2. ^ Rodway, Simon, “The date and authorship of Culhwch ac Olwen: a reassessment”, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 49 (Summer, 2005), pp. 21–44
  3. ^ Davies, Sioned (2004). "Performing Culhwch ac Olwen". Arthurian Literature. 21: 31. Retrieved 20 December 2015.
  4. ^ Patrick K. Ford (trans. and ed.) The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977), 119–121.
  5. ^ Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth, pp. 193–194: "The hunting of the great wolf recalls the chase of the boar Twrch Trwyth in the Welsh Mabinogion, while the motif of 'the hand in the wolf's mouth' is one of the most famous parts of the Prose Edda, told of Fenris Wolf and the god Tyr; Huan recalls several faithful hounds of legend, Garm, Gelert, Cafall."
  6. ^ David Day in Tolkien's Ring, page 82: "In the Celtic tradition, when these radiant beings—these 'ladies in white'—take on mortal heroes as lovers, there are always obstacles to overcome. These obstacles usually take the form of an almost impossible quest. This is most clearly comparable to Tolkien in the Welsh legend of the wooing of Olwyn. Olwyn was the most beautiful woman of her age; her eyes shone with light, and her skin was white as snow. Olwyn's name means 'she of the white track', so bestowed because four white trefoils sprang up with her every step on the forest floor, and the winning of her hand required the near-impossible gathering of the 'Treasures of Britain'"; "In Tolkien, we have two almost identical 'ladies in white': Lúthien in The Silmarillion, and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings".
  7. ^ "Tir na n-Og awards Past Winners". Welsh Book Council. Archived from the original on 10 March 2012. Retrieved 8 July 2012.


  • Bromwich. Rachel and Evans, D. Simon Culhwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale University of Wales Press, 1992. ISBN 0-7083-1127-X.
  • Patrick K. Ford (translator and editor), Culhwch and Olwen, from The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. ISBN 0-520-03414-7
  • Idris Llewelyn Foster, "Culhwch and Olwen and Rhonabwy's Dream" in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, Roger S. Loomis (editor). Clarendon Press: Oxford University, 1959. ISBN 0-19-811588-1
  • Jeffrey Gantz (translator), Culhwch and Olwen, from The Mabinogion, Penguin, November 18, 1976. ISBN 0-14-044322-3

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