Session 75: Ystafell 3
Medieval Welsh poetry

Chair: Jenny Rowland

‘Penn a borthaf…’: cephalophore by proxy

Lauran Toorians

Why? Why did Llywarch Hen (or whoever the speaker in the poem is) take Urien’s head and feel at once obliged to do so, sorry and deeply painful about this act? Every (modern) reader senses the various emotions embedded in the wording of the ‘Penn a borthaf…’ englynion. The poem (or cycle) is well known, but not very well understood. Interpretations of what the speaker describes and explanations for his emotions vary widely, but the consensus is that the main question remains: Why?

In this paper I will try add an explanation to those already given and explore the possibilities of a religious motivation for this act of decapitation. I will argue that these englynion are essentially Christian, are concerned with proper burial and look forward to the day of Resurrection.

Genderbending bards and the political patriarchy in medieval Welsh literature

Kit Kapphahn

Representations of poets in Welsh literature and history reflect an expectation that bards alone are both able and expected to traverse the boundaries of gender: while their bodies are most often (but not exclusively) male, they are found as both fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, in both martial and domestic spheres. This hybrid model incorporates aspects of warrior masculinity, accompanying his lord on battles and journeys; a clerical masculinity based on mastery of knowledge which leads to competition between poets and clergy; and feminine attributes such as speechcraft and a responsibility for the transmission of societal codes and ethics. This creates a figure with significant literary and semiotic potential who can migrate between texts performing polyvalent functions. By looking at three examples in medieval Welsh literature – Taliesin, Gwydion and Heledd – this paper will examine the way medieval redactors construct and use this model to question, uphold or subvert the dominant ethical system of the texts in which they appear.

Dark topographies of the mind: night and landscape in Canu Heledd

Daniel Redding-Brielmaier
University of Toronto

The group of poems collected by modern scholars under the name Canu Heledd are remarkable for, among many qualities, the pathos of the poems' speaker (or perhaps speakers). The speaker is, of course, a fictive construct, and the affectiveness of her speech can be attributed to many of the poems' elements, among them their carefully chosen imagery presented persistently through the incremental repetition that is characteristic of the saga englynion. This paper focuses on two particular visual elements, the darkness of night and the surrounding landscape. 

In medieval North Atlantic verse, darkness is often a setting in which the self and its subjectivity are represented as being in crisis. In dark spaces, the speaking-subject confronts, contemplates, and negotiates radical changes in their subject-position. Heledd is such a speaker, wrestling heno, tonight, with the great changes that the destruction of her community have wrought upon her status and identity; once an aristocrat at the centre of society, now she is a fugitive and exile, with no status at all, mourning the death of her family.  In this paper, I argue that a key element in the successful rendering of Heledd’s struggle (and failure) to reconcile herself to her new subject-position is the nighttime landscape. With Heledd’s perception significantly altered by her traumatic experience, the landscape makes its presence felt not through sight, but through sound, memory, and imagination, augmented in an echo chamber of sorts by the poets' relentless exploitation of incremental repetition.