John Matthews’s The Song of Taliesin: Tales from King Arthur’s Bard

cover, The Song of Taliesin: Tales from King Arthur's Bard Lisa Spangenberg wrote this review.

The Song of Taliesin: Tales from King Arthur’s Bard is a collection of retellings, loosely based on medieval Welsh and Irish texts, that John Matthews sees as related to the myth of Taliesin. Green Man Review has published several reviews of Matthews’ works, most recently, my review of the closely related book Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman. Matthews states in his Introduction:

The stories gathered here should not, then, be seen either as wholly fictional or as truly mythological, though they partake of both. Each is firmly based on existing material from medieval and earlier times, and full notes and sources will be found at the end of the book for those wishing to retrace the genesis of the stories and their relationship to each other. The poems that accompany the stories are my own, though written in the style and reflecting the content of those composed by Taliesin himself.

Matthews employs a “frame story” by having his narrator be a “little monk” who met Taliesin and attempted to record his stories in the form we read now; we are privy to the monkish scribe’s opinions, as well as his own story, via the monk’s “asides” between Taliesin’s tales. The device reminds me of J. E. Caerwyn Williams’ English “Introduction” to his edition of the “historical” Taliesin poems, The Poems of Taliesin (based on the scholarly Welsh edition by Sir Ifor Williams). Williams often writes speculatively about the scribe of the Llyfr Taliesin manuscript. His comments regarding the unknown scribe, presumably a monk, range from affectionate amusement at his literary taste (unlike Williams, the scribe seems to prefer the “legendary” Taliesin to the historical) to frustration at what Williams sees as scribal clumsiness. Matthews enlivens his “little monk” and even gives him his own tale to tell.

But what about the stories, you ask?

There are twenty, each with a companion poem, all loosely coupled around the figure of Taliesin, although Matthews sometimes conflates Taliesin with Merlin and other similar figures, or uses artistic license to insert Taliesin in traditional materials where he is absent. Some, like “The Scribe’s Story,” (Matthew’s own “little monk” tale), “The Cauldron-Born,” “The Journey to Deganwy,” “Iskander and the Show-Stone” and “The Battle of the Trees,” are derived from the Taliesin legend. Others, like “The Entertainment of the Noble Head,” “Culhwch’s Day” and “The Contention of Llud and Llevelys” are derived from the Mabinogi. The remainder take their inspiration from the Welsh myth and triads, Irish legend and early Welsh poetry.

In many cases Matthews has substantially fleshed out, altered or “improved” his sources where they might, in the frequently poor translations he relies on, have appeared obscure or corrupt. In some cases, in a desire to fit very different traditions into a coherent philosophical system, Matthews depends too much on more modern assumptions from Wicca (typified by frequent generic references to “the goddess”) and New Age esoteric mysticism — more than I, for one, am comfortable with in a Celtic context; I do note that none other than Charles de Lint highly praises Matthews’ retellings.

The tales that fare less well are those like “Ogma: The Search for the Letters,” that draw least upon traditional materials and most upon nineteenth century romantic Celticism such as that of Robert Graves, which owes more to ceremonial magic than it does to Celtic tradition. I am less than happy at the homogenization of Irish and Welsh into a neatly encapsulated “Celtic” whole, when, for instance, Matthews accretes the myth of Welsh über bard Taliesin with the late medieval Irish tales of Finn. Though the etymological and thematic connections between the two is a strong one, still, they are separate traditions. Matthews has a tendency to lump Irish and Welsh together, thus enabling him to make assertions like “Arianhrod is considered among the Celts to be the goddess of the starry heavens.” Arianhrod is Welsh, and is not referred to as a goddess in any medieval Welsh text. Her association with stars is because the Aurora Borealis is called “Caer Arianhrod,” though again, not in early texts. Matthews’ comments about monastic homosexuality and Maelgwyn Gwynedd in “The Journey to Deganwy” are odd, somewhat ahistoric, and possibly homophobic. Certainly they do nothing to improve his story.

In the case of “The Entertainment of the Noble Head” Matthews departs from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen uab Llyr, to create a different ending, and a neater cosmology, making Ceridwen and Tegid Voel (more properly Tegid Foel) the owners of the cauldron that gives speechless life to the dead, rather than Llassar Llaes Gyfnewid and his wife Cymidei Cymeinfoll, as the medieval Welsh tale has it. Matthews uses the names from the Hanes Taliesin, the mythological tale of Taliesin’s transformation from Gwion Bach to Taliesin, rather than the ones in the Mabinogi itself for artistic and philosophical reasons. He also departs from tradition in having the Welsh journey to Ireland, where he has Bran steal the cauldron from Irish king Matholwch, rather than Matholwch sail to Ireland to seek an alliance with Bran, in the Welsh version. In the Welsh version, Bran gives the cauldron to Matholwch as compensation for injuries to the Irish king’s horses and consequently shameful insult to Matholwch. Matthews also changes the ending so that Bran reassembles the destroyed cauldron, so that the tale will better fit Matthews’ cosmology.

The book is carefully designed, with ornamental typefaces and twelve black and white illustrations by Stuart Littlejohn, and a list of “Sources” and “Notes.” The publisher, Quest, is affiliated with the Theosophical Society. If you like Celtic inspired tales in a Neo Pagan spiritual context, you could do worse than The Song of Taliesin. The prose is less than inspired, and the poems are closer to paraphrase than truly original works, but the intent is sincere, and the Neo-Pagan approach will appeal to many.

If you’re interested in the original tales of Taliesin themselves, you might take a look at Patrick Ford’s The Celtic Poets: Songs and Tales from Early Ireland and Wales (Ford and Baillie, 1999) for translations of the Taliesin and Finn materials. If you’re interested in retellings based on traditional Welsh material regarding bards and Arthurian legend, you should try Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy. If you’re interested in the Welsh Mabinogi in the original and in retellings, read our reviews of Ford’s The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales and Evangeline Walton’s retelling of the Mabinogi, as well as Lloyd Alexander’s Welsh-inspired Prydain Chronicles.

(Quest Books, 2001)

Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

More Posts