Monday, 8 June 2015

Mythical Creatures: Giants of Wales - Part Two

Today we are going to finish learning about the Giants of Wales, their stories and defeats, starting with the giant, Benlli Gawr, who appears in Bernard Bolingbroke Woodward’s History of Wales.  He is said to have been defeated by heavenly intervention when Saint Germain was denied entry to his stronghold.

Saint Germain l'Auxerrois statue
Saint Germain and Benlli Gawr

At the time of this mission, there lived in Powys a wicked and tyrannical king, named Benlli; - Benlli Gawr, the giant, he was more frequently called.  The saint found himself one evening at the gate of this giant’s city, and sent a mild and respectful message to him, hoping to carry on his good work where it was so greatly needed.  But the churl sent word back, that if he stayed at the gate a twelvemonth, he should not enter the city.  The saint was distressed at this, for it was becoming dark, and he knew not where to get a night’s lodging; when the keeper of the gate, who had been the unwilling bearer of his lord’s reply, courteously invited him to his own humble abode; and thither St. Germain joyfully went.  Next day he took his place at the gate again, hoping for admission.  Whilst occupied in prayer, a man covered with sweat hastily came out, and prostrated himself before the saint.  ‘Dost thou believe in the Holy Trinity?’ asks St. Germain.  ‘I do,’ replied the man.  Whereupon the saint baptized him, and told him that within an hour he should die; and so it happened; for Benlli above all things abominated want of punctuality in the men he employed, and this man coming to his work after sun-rising, was straightway beheaded.
No entrance could the saint gain; so at night he bade his host call all his friends out of the wicked city; and when he had so done, he told them to watch and pray, and whatever might happen to the tyrant’s stronghold, by no means even to look towards it.  Thus they did, and early in the night fire
Gold Cape, found 1833, Bryn yr Ellyllon, around 1900-1600BC
fell from heaven, and burned up both tyrant and stronghold, and city and people, so that not one escaped.  It was thus that, in the eighth century, our Lord’s command to the apostles to shake off the dust of their feet as a testimony against a city that refused to receive them, had become perverted.  We have mentioned this legend, however, for the purpose of calling our readers’ attention to a curious ornament of gold, somewhat resembling a corslet, which was discovered near Mold in Flintshire, under a carnedd, long known as the Bryn yr Ellyllon, or Elfin’s hill, and is now in the British Museum.  The bones of a large-sized skeleton were found with it; and it seems to have been ornamented with amber beads, as well as with chasing.  Dr. Owen Pughe conjectured that this was the burial-place of Benlli Gawr, whose stronghold was on Moel Benlli near it; the mode of sepulture being such as would prevail in the fifth century.

Our next tale comes from the folklore of Shropshire and concerns the Giant of Wales, who bore a grudge against the Mayor and people of Shrewsbury and sought to drown them all.

The Wrekin Giant - artist unknown
The Origin of the Wrekin

Once upon a time there was a wicked old giant in Wales who, for some reason or other, had a very great spite against the Mayor of Shrewsbury and all his people, and he made up his mind to dam up the Severn, and by that means cause such a flood that the town would be drowned.
So off he set, carrying a spadeful of earth, and tramped along mile after mile trying to find the way to Shrewsbury.  And how he missed it I cannot tell, but he must have gone wrong somewhere, for at last he got close to Wellington, and by that time he was puffing and blowing under his heavy load, and wishing he was at the end of his journey.  By-and-by there came a cobbler along the road with a sack of old boots and shoes on his back, for he lived at Wellington, and went once a fortnight to Shrewsbury to collect his customers old boots and shoes, and take them home with him to mend.  And the giant called out to him.  ‘I say,’ he said, ‘how far is it to Shrewsbury?’  ‘Shrewsbury,’ said the cobbler, ‘what do you want at Shrewsbury?’  ‘Why,’ said the giant, ‘to fill up the Severn with this lump of earth I’ve got here.  I’ve an old grudge against the Mayor and the folks at Shrewsbury, and now I mean to drown
The Wrekin, Telford
them out, and get rid of them all at once.’  ‘My Word!’ thought the cobbler, ‘this’ll never do!  I can’t afford to lose my customers!’ and he spoke up again, ‘Eh!’ he said, ‘you’ll never get to Shrewsbury – not today, nor tomorrow.  Why, look at me!  I’m just come from Shrewsbury, and I’ve had time to wear out all these old boots and shoes on the road since I started.’  And he showed him his sack.  ‘Oh!’ said the giant, with a great groan, ‘then it’s no use!  I’m fairly tired out already, and I can’t carry this load of mine any farther.  I shall just drop it here and go back home.’  So he dropped the earth on the ground just where he stood, and scraped his boots on the spade, and off he went home again to Wales, and nobody ever heard anything of him in Shropshire after.  But where he put down his load there stands the Wrekin to this day: and even the earth he scraped off his boots was such a pile that it made the little Ercall by the Wrekin’s side.

The Slender Man - artist unknown
Finally, before we finish looking at Welsh giants, we have the black giants of Wales.  These range from the giant black ghosts of Welsh folklore to the black giants of the Mabinogion.  The following tale tells of Edward Frank who one night saw a giant ghost on his journey home.

Of gigantic ghosts there are many examples which are very grotesque indeed.  Such an apparition which met Edward Frank, a young man who lived in the parish of Llantarnam.  As he was coming home one night he heard something walking towards him, but at first could see nothing.  Suddenly his way was barred by a tall dismal object which stood in the path before him.  It was the ghost of a marvellous thin man, whose head was so high above the observer’s line of vision that he nearly fell over backward in his efforts to gaze at it.  His knees knocked together and his heart sank.  With great difficulty he gasped forth, ‘In the name of God what is here?  Turn out of my way or I will strike thee!’  The giant ghost then disappeared, and the frightened Edward, seeing a cow not far off, went towards her to lean on her, which the cow stood still and permitted him to do.  The naiveté of this conclusion is convincing.

Another folktale tells of a giant black man who terrified Anne Jenkins, the daughter of the Reverend Mr. Herbert Jenkins.

Anne, the daughter of Mr. Herbert Jenkins, a young woman, well disposed to what is good, gave me the following relation:-
That as she was going one evening to milk the Cows by Rhiw-neweth to seek them, she saw something like a black man, standing by a holly-tree.  She had a Bitch with her which saw it also, and ran towards him to bark at him, upon which it stretched out its black tongue, and the Bitch was frightened and ran back to the young woman turning about her feet for fear; upon which the young woman was so terrified that she could scarcely speak: she found the Cows and brought them back to their own field, from whence they had strayed.  And passing by the holly-tree back again, feared to look at it, lest she should see the same sight again; but being past it, saw it again, very big in the middle and narrow at both ends, going before, treading very heavily, so that the ground seemed to tremble under it.  It went towards a spring in that field which is under it.  It went towards a spring in that field which is under Rhiw-newith, called Ffynnon yr Yspryd – (the Fountain of the Spirit); because of an Apparition formerly seen by it.  About which it fetched a turn, and went over the stile from that field into the Rhiw-newith, the common way so called, and there he whistled so exceedingly strong, that the narrow Valley echoed it back, and then departed; she then felt herself well.

The Mabinogion is ‘full of black men, usually giants, always terrible to encounter.’  One of these appears in ‘Peredur the Son of Evrawc’.
Peredur Illustration by Alan Lee
Excerpt from Peredur the Son of Evrawc

Arthur was in Caerllion upon Usk; and he went to hunt, and Peredur went with him.  And Peredur let loose his dog upon a hart, and the dog killed the hart in a desert place.  And a short space from him he saw signs of a dwelling, and towards the dwelling he went, and he beheld a hall, and at the door of the hall he found bald swarthy youths playing at chess.  And when he entered, he beheld three maidens sitting on a bench, and they were all clothed alike, as became persons of high rank.  And he came, and sat by them upon the bench; and one of the maidens looked steadfastly upon Peredur, and wept.  And Peredur asked her wherefore she was weeping.  ‘Through grief, that I should see so fair a youth as thou art, slain.’  ‘Who will slay me?’ inquired Peredur.  ‘If thou art so daring as to remain here tonight, I will tell thee.’  ‘How great soever my danger may be from remaining here, I will listen unto thee.’  ‘This Palace is owned by him who is my father,’ said the maiden, ‘and he slays everyone who comes hither without his leave.’  ‘What sort of man is thy father, that he is able to slay everyone thus?’  ‘A man who does violence and wrong unto his neighbours, and who renders justice unto none.’  And hereupon he saw the youths arise and clear the chessmen from the board.  And he heard a great tumult; and after the tumult there came in a huge black one-eyed man, and the maidens arose to meet him.  And they disarrayed him, and he went and sat down; and after he had rested and pondered awhile, he looked
Peredur Illustration by Alan Lee
at Peredur, and asked who the knight was.  ‘Lord,’ said one of the maidens, ‘he is the fairest and gentlest youth that ever thou didst see.  And for the sake of Heaven, and of thine own dignity, have patience with him.’  ‘For thy sake I will have patience, and I will grant him his life this night.’  Then Peredur came towards them to the fire, and partook of food and liquor, and entered into discourse with the ladies.  And being elated with the liquor, he said to the black man, ‘It is a marvel to me, so mighty as thou sayest thou art, who could have put out thine eye.’  ‘It is one of my habits,’ said the black man, ‘that whosoever puts me to question which thou hast asked, shall not escape with his life, either as a free gift or for a price.’  ‘Lord,’ said the maiden, ‘whatsoever he may say to thee in jest, and through the excitement of liquor, make good that which thou saidst and didst promise me just now.’  ‘I will do so, gladly, for thy sake,’ said he.  ‘Willingly will I grant him his life this night.’  And that night thus they remained.
And the next day the black man got up, and put on his armour, and said to Peredur, "Arise, man, and suffer death." And Peredur said unto him, "Do one of two things, black man; if thou wilt fight with me, either throw off thy own armour, or give arms to me, that I may encounter thee." "Ha, man," said he, "couldst thou fight, if thou hadst arms? Take, then, what arms thou dost choose." And thereupon the maiden came to Peredur with such arms as pleased him; and he fought with the black man, and forced him to crave his mercy. "Black man, thou shalt have mercy, provided thou tell me who thou
Peredur Illustration by Alan Lee
art, and who put out thine eye." "Lord, I will tell thee; I lost it in fighting with the Black Serpent of the Carn. There is a mound, which is called the Mound of Mourning; and on the mound there is a carn, and in the carn there is a serpent, and on the tail of the serpent there is a stone, and the virtues of the stone are such, that whosoever should hold it in one hand, in the other he will have as much gold as he may desire. And in fighting with this
serpent was it that I lost my eye. And the Black Oppressor am I called. And for this reason I am called the Black Oppressor, that there is not a single man around me whom I have not oppressed, and justice have I done unto none." "Tell me," said Peredur, "how far is it hence?" "The same day that thou settest forth, thou wilt come to the Palace of the Sons of the King of the Tortures." "Wherefore are they called thus?" "The Addanc of the Lake slays them once every day. When thou goest thence, thou wilt come to the Court of the Countess of the Achievements." "What achievements are there?" asked Peredur. "Three hundred men there are in her household, and unto every stranger that comes to the Court, the achievements of her household are related. And this is the manner of it,--the three hundred men of the household sit next unto the Lady; and that not through disrespect unto the guests, but that they may relate the achievements of the household. And the day that thou goest thence, thou wilt reach the Mound of Mourning, and round about the mound there are the owners of three hundred tents guarding the serpent." "Since thou hast, indeed, been an oppressor so long," said Peredur, "I will cause that thou continue so no longer." So he slew him.

The last giant black man of the Mabinogion I want to cover here appears in ‘The Lady of the Fountain’ in a tale related by Kai to some of the Knights of the Round Table.

Excerpt from The Lady of the Fountain

Then Arthur spoke, "If I thought you would not disparage me," said he, "I would sleep while I wait for my repast; and you can entertain one another with relating tales, and can obtain a flagon of mead and some meat from Kai." And the King went to sleep. And Kynon the son of Clydno asked Kai for that which Arthur had promised them. "I, too, will have the good tale which he promised to me," said Kai. "Nay," answered Kynon, "fairer will it be for thee to fulfill Arthur's behest, in the first place, and then we will tell thee the best tale that we know." So Kai went to the kitchen and to the mead-cellar, and returned bearing a flagon of mead and a golden goblet, and a handful of skewers, upon which were broiled collops of meat. Then they ate the collops and began to drink the mead. "Now," said Kai, "it is time for you to give me my story." "Kynon," said Owain, "do thou pay to Kai the tale that is his due." "Truly," said Kynon, "thou are older, and art a better teller of tales, and hast seen more marvellous things than I; do thou therefore pay Kai his tale." "Begin thyself," quoth Owain, "with the best that thou knowest." "I will do so," answered Kynon.

The Lady of the Fountain Illustration by Alan Lee
"I was the only son of my mother and father, and I was exceedingly aspiring, and my daring was very great. I thought there was no enterprise in the world too mighty for me, and after I had achieved all the adventures that were in my own country, I equipped myself, and set forth to journey through deserts and distant regions. And at length it chanced that I came to the fairest valley in the world, wherein were trees of equal growth; and a river ran through the valley, and a path was by the side of the river. And I followed the path until mid-day, and continued my journey along the remainder of the valley until the evening; and at the extremity of a plain I came to a large and lustrous Castle, at the foot of which was a torrent. And I approached the Castle, and there I beheld two youths with yellow curling hair, each with a frontlet of gold upon his head, and clad in a garment of yellow satin, and they had gold clasps upon their insteps. In the hand of each of them was an ivory bow, strung with the sinews of the stag; and their arrows had shafts of the bone of the whale, and were winged with peacock's feathers; the shafts also had golden heads. And they had daggers with blades of gold, and with hilts of the bone of the whale. And they were shooting their daggers.

"And a little way from them I saw a man in the prime of life, with his beard newly shorn, clad in a robe and a mantle of yellow satin; and round the top of his mantle was a band of gold lace. On his feet were shoes of variegated leather, fastened by two bosses of gold. When I saw him, I went towards him and saluted him, and such was his courtesy that he no sooner received my greeting than he returned it. And he went with me towards the Castle. Now there were no dwellers in the Castle except those who were in one hall. And there I saw four-and-twenty damsels, embroidering satin at a window. And this I tell thee, Kai, that the least fair of them was fairer than the fairest maid thou hast ever beheld in the Island of Britain, and the least lovely of them was more lovely than Gwenhwyvar, the wife of Arthur, when she has appeared loveliest at the Offering, on the day of the Nativity, or at the feast of Easter. They rose up at my coming, and six of them took my horse, and divested me of my armour; and six others took my arms, and washed them in a vessel until they were perfectly bright. And the third six spread cloths upon the tables and prepared meat. And the fourth six took off my soiled garments, and placed others upon me; namely, an under-vest and a doublet of fine linen, and a robe, and a surcoat, and a mantle of yellow satin with a broad gold band upon the mantle. And they placed cushions both beneath and around me, with coverings of red linen; and I sat down. Now the six maidens who had taken my horse, unharnessed him, as well as if they had been the best squires in the Island of Britain. Then, behold, they brought bowls of silver wherein was water to wash, and towels of linen, some green and some white; and I washed. And in a little while the man sat down to the table. And I sat next to him, and below me sat all the maidens, except those who waited on us. And the table was of silver, and the cloths upon the table were of linen; and no vessel was served upon the table that was not either of gold or of silver, or of buffalo-horn. And our meat was brought to us. And verily, Kai, I saw there every sort of meat and every sort of liquor that I have ever seen elsewhere; but the meat and the liquor were better served there than I have ever seen them in any other place.
"Until the repast was half over, neither the man nor any one of the damsels spoke a single word to me; but when the man perceived that it would be more agreeable to me to converse than to eat any more, he began to inquire of me who I was. I said I was glad to find that there was some one who would discourse with me, and that it was not considered so great a crime at that Court for people to hold converse together. 'Chieftain,' said the man, 'we would have talked to thee sooner, but we feared to disturb thee during thy repast; now, however, we will discourse.' Then I told the man who I was, and what was the cause of my journey; and said that I was seeking whether any one was superior to me, or whether I could gain the mastery over all. The man looked upon me, and he smiled and said, 'If I did not fear to distress thee too much, I would show thee that which thou seekest.' Upon this I became anxious and sorrowful, and when the man perceived it, he said, 'If thou wouldest rather that I should show thee thy disadvantage than thine advantage, I will do so. Sleep here to-night, and in the morning arise early, and take the road upwards through the valley until thou reachest the wood through which thou camest hither. A little way within the wood thou wilt meet with a road branching off to the right, by which thou must proceed, until thou comest to a large sheltered glade with a mound in the centre. And thou wilt see a black man of great stature on the top of the mound. He is not smaller in size than two of the men of this world. He has but one foot; and one eye in the middle of his forehead.  And he has a club of iron, and it is certain that there are no two men in the world who would not find their burden in that club. And he is not a comely man, but on the contrary he is exceedingly ill-favoured; and he is the woodward of that wood. And thou wilt see a thousand wild animals grazing around him. Inquire of him the way out of the glade, and he will reply to thee briefly, and will point out the road by which thou shalt find that which thou art in quest of.'
"And long seemed that night to me. And the next morning I arose and equipped myself, and mounted my horse, and proceeded straight through the valley to the wood; and I followed the cross-road which the man had pointed out to me, till at length I arrived at the glade. And there was I three times more astonished at the number of wild animals that I beheld, than the man had said I should be. And the black man was there, sitting upon the top of the mound. Huge of stature as the man had told me that he was, I found him to exceed by far the description he had given me of him. As for the iron club which the man had told me was a burden for two men, I am certain, Kai, that it would be a heavy weight for four warriors to lift; and this was in the black man's hand. And he only spoke to me in answer to my questions. Then I asked him what power he held over those animals. 'I will show thee, little man,' said he. And he took his club in his hand, and with it he struck a stag a great blow so that he brayed vehemently, and at his braying the animals came together, as numerous as the stars in the sky, so that it was difficult for me to find room in the glade to stand among them. There were serpents, and dragons, and divers sorts of animals. And he looked at them, and bade them go and feed; and they bowed their heads, and did him homage as vassals to their lord.

The Lady of the Fountain Illustration by Alan Lee
"Then the black man said to me, 'Seest thou now, little man, what power I hold over these animals?' Then I inquired of him the way, and he became very rough in his manner to me; however, he asked me whither I would go? And when I told him who I was and what I sought, he directed me. 'Take,' said he, 'that path that leads towards the head of the glade, and ascend the wooded steep until thou comest to its summit; and there thou wilt find an open space like to a large valley, and in the midst of it a tall tree, whose branches are greener than the greenest pine-trees. Under this tree is a fountain, and by the side of the fountain a marble slab, and on the marble slab a silver bowl, attached by a chain of silver, so that it may not be carried away. Take the bowl and throw a bowlful of water upon the slab, and thou wilt hear a mighty peal of thunder, so that thou wilt think that heaven and earth are trembling with its fury. With the thunder there will come a shower so severe that it will be scarce possible for thee to endure it and live. And the shower will be of hailstones; and after the shower, the weather will become fair, but every leaf that was upon the tree will have been carried away by the shower. Then a flight of birds will come and alight upon the tree; and in thine own country thou didst never hear a strain so sweet as that which they will sing. And at the moment thou art most delighted with the song of the birds, thou wilt hear a murmuring and complaining coming towards thee along the valley. And thou wilt see a knight upon a coal-black horse, clothed in black velvet, and with a pennon of black linen upon his lance; and he will ride unto thee to encounter thee with the utmost speed. If thou fleest from him he will overtake thee, and if thou abidest there, as sure as thou art a mounted knight, he will leave thee on foot. And if thou dost not find trouble in that adventure, thou needest not seek it during the rest of thy life.'
"So I journeyed on, until I reached the summit of the steep, and there I found everything as the black man had described it to me. And I went up to the tree, and beneath it I saw the fountain, and by its side the marble slab, and the silver bowl fastened by the chain. Then I took the bowl, and cast a bowlful of water upon the slab; and thereupon, behold, the thunder came, much more violent than the black man had led me to expect; and after the thunder came the shower; and of a truth I tell thee, Kai, that there is neither man nor beast that can endure that shower and live. For not one of those hailstones would be stopped, either by the flesh or by the skin, until it had reached the bone. I turned my horse's flank towards the shower, and placed the beak of my shield over his head and neck, while I held the upper part of it over my own head. And thus I withstood the shower. When I looked on the tree there was not a single leaf upon it, and then the sky became clear, and with that, behold the birds lighted upon the tree, and sang. And truly, Kai, I never heard any melody equal to that, either before or since. And when I was most charmed with listening to the birds, lo, a murmuring voice was heard through the valley, approaching me and saying, 'Oh, Knight, what has brought thee hither? What evil have I done to thee, that thou shouldst act towards me and my possessions as thou hast this day? Dost thou not know that the shower to-day has left in my dominions neither man nor beast alive that was exposed to it?' And thereupon, behold, a Knight on a black horse appeared, clothed in jet-black velvet, and with a tabard of black linen about him. And we charged each other, and, as the onset was furious, it was not long before I was overthrown. Then the Knight passed the shaft of his lance through the bridle rein of my horse, and rode off with the two horses, leaving me where I was. And he did not even bestow so much notice upon me as to imprison me, nor did he despoil me of my arms. So I returned along the road by which I had come. And when I reached the glade where the black man was, I confess to thee, Kai, it is a marvel that I did not melt down into a liquid pool, through the shame that I felt at the black man's derision. And that night I came to the same castle where I had spent the night preceding. And I was more agreeably entertained that night than I had been the night before; and I was better feasted, and I conversed freely with the inmates of the castle, and none of them alluded to my expedition to the fountain, neither did I mention it to any; and I remained there that night. When I arose on the morrow, I found, ready saddled, a dark bay palfrey, with nostrils as red as scarlet; and after putting on my armour, and leaving there my blessing, I returned to my own Court. And that horse I still possess, and he is in the stable yonder. And I declare that I would not part with him for the best palfrey in the Island of Britain.

And that concludes the Giants of Wales.  Next time we will look at the giants of Scandinavia.

Useful Resources

English Fairy and Folktales by Edwin Sidney Hartland
A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the County of Monmouth and the Principality ofWales by Edmund Jones
The Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest

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