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The Bret Glascurion and the Chaucer's 'House of Fame.'

LINES 1203-8 of Chaucer's House of Fame describe an ensemble of harpers, playing 'bothe wel and sharpe':

Orpheus ful craftely, And on his syde, faste by, Sat the harper Orion, And Eacides Chiron, And other harpers many oon, And the Bret Glascurion.(1)

'Glascurion' is a crux. The received opinion on it remains that of F. N. Robinson, who describes Glascurion as a British bard, 'probably the same as the Glasgerion of a well-known ballad',(2) whose name may go back to that of 'the Blue Bard Keraint' supposed to have lived in the tenth century. On this identification, 'received favorably by most commentators both on Chaucer and on the ballad', Robinson cites the work of Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826), W. O. Pughe (1759-1835), and Thomas Price (1787-1848). According to them, Glascurion, brother of King Morgan Hen of Glamorgan, was a collector of poetry who wrote the earliest Welsh grammar and other pieces of prose and verse (some of them published at London in 1807). He also went to London with other bards to become court-poet to King Alfred, thus bringing about 'an improvement in learning and knowledge among the Saxons'.(3)

Robinson's note has now been considered serious scholarship for several decades. However, as far as early Welsh literature is concerned, it is a fantasy. Its author must be the last major scholar to be taken in by the notorious Welsh literary forger Edward Williams (alias Iolo Morganwg). Robinson's very mention of Iolo Morganwg would ring alarm bells for any Celticist. As concocter of literary shams resembling those of Macpherson, Chatterton, and Ireland, Iolo caused immense confusion amongst Welsh scholars up to the 1920s, when he was unmasked by the researches of G. J. Williams. Unfortunately, the results of this did not get through to Robinson, who never realized that the 'Blue Bard Keraint' was just one of Iolo's many bogus creations. Robinson's authority has here misled his successors, and its results will no doubt be with us for some time yet.(4)

There is no historical evidence whatever for the existence of the 'blue bard' Geraint Fardd Glas.(5) Even if there were, the 'Blue Bard' could not be Chaucer's poet, since Curion and Geraint are quite different names, as philological analysis shows.(6) It is possible that Iolo actually invented the Blue Bard on the basis of Glasgerion in the ballad, and went on to provide him with a spurious 'biography' and samples of his 'work'. This would be quite typical of Iolo's techniques as forger. In short, The Riverside Chaucer is the victim of forgeries some two centuries old. Iolo's coup in deluding generations of Anglicists would seem to place him in the league of van Meegeren and the Piltdown Man hoaxers, though Iolo has managed to deceive scholars for far longer than they ever did.

Robinson's identification of Glascurion as a tenth-century Glamorgan bard must, then, be scrapped. The real identity of the master-harpist Glascurion seems to the present writer to be found in Gwydion son of Don, the famous otherworld magician, craftsman, story-teller, and bard of the Welsh: a Celtic Orpheus and more. The tale Math son of Mathonwy in the eleventh-century Four Branches of the Mabinogi speaks of Gwydion's powers as narrator. At his court in Rhuddlan Teifi, between Cardigan and Lampeter, Pryderi asks Gwydion for a tale. 'Lord,' said Gwydion, 'it is a custom with us that the first night after one comes to a great man, the chief bard shall have the say. I will tell a tale gladly.' Gwydion was the best teller of tales in the world. And that night he entertained the court with pleasant tales and story-telling till he was praised by every one in the court, and it was pleasure for Pryderi to converse with him.(7)

Gwydion's other skills include making horses and hounds out of toadstools, shoes out of seaweed, a woman out of flowers, and a sea filled with hostile vessels out of nothing. References to him in Math son of Mathonwy and early Welsh poetry reveal him as wizard and entertainer par excellence, as well as hinting at his ancestry as son of Don, the Celtic goddess whose children in Irish tradition are called the Tuatha De Danann, 'the Tribes of the Goddess Danu'.(8) Even the late ballad 'Glasgerion' mentioned by Robinson and found in Child would seem to reflect Gwydion's supernatural power over nature:

He'd harpit a fish out o' saut water Or water out o' a stane.(9)

Commenting on lines 1203-8 of The House of Fame, J. A. W. Bennett noted that Chaucer's Orpheus and Arion, here providing a bridge from versifiers to musicians proper, were both poets and harpers. Since Welsh evidence shows Gwydion was also a poet, his presence with Greek poet-musicians was more appropriate than Bennett knew. But Bennett is wrong to call Glascurion a 'Breton'. His links are with Snowdonia, as we shall see.(10)

The great Welsh scholar Sir Ifor Williams (1881-1965) thought there was evidence to suggest Gwydion was also known as Gwrion. He based his argument on three references in early Welsh literature, the most important being the place-name Creuwryon (now Cororion, near Tre-garth, outside Bangor), explained in Math son of Mathonwy by folk-etymology as 'Gwydion's pigsty' (where he concealed a herd of stolen swine).(11) If Gwydion were known as Gwrion, his identification with Chaucer's Glascurion would be easier. But it is difficult to explain Gwrion as a variant of Gwydion. Gwydion is never known in Welsh literature or folklore as Gwrion, and there are phonological objections to such a development. The three cases where Ifor Williams saw Gwrion as a form of Gwydion thus deserve scrutiny. First, the association with Gwydion of the place-name Creuwryon in Math son of Mathonwy has little authority, for the following reasons. A dialogue poem (ninth century? eleventh century?) in the Black Book of Carmarthen (c. 1250) associates Gwydion with places in Anglesey and Snowdonia.(12) His reputation as otherworld pig-rustler is implied in the Book of Taliesin (before c. 1336) by a semi-mythological poem, perhaps of the ninth century, which also mentions Gwynedd place-names (Bardsey, Anglesey, and Degannwy, near Conway).(13) Gwydion's links with Gwynedd, and his fame in Celtic mythology as thief of magic swine from the Underworld, would thus make it easy for folk-etymology to link him with a Gwynedd place named from a sty.

Second, Ifor Williams found the form Gwrion in the Book of Taliesin poem noted above, in the lines,

O pen ren wleth hyt luch reon kymry yn vn vryt gwrhyt wryon.(14)

The first line refers to unidentified place-names ('From the headland of Gwleth to Loch Reon'), perhaps in Scotland.(15) But the second line has been read not as a reference to 'Gwrion', but to 'great ones' (w|o~ryon), and may be translated, 'The Welsh people are one in intent, men of great prowess'.(16) This leaves one piece of evidence for Gwrion as a variant of Gwydion, in a sixth-century poem bristling with cruxes, in which Taliesin, lamenting the degenerate condition of Rheged (the British kingdom with its capital at Carlisle) before Ulph and Urien restored its glory, mentions a Gwrion in the context of Gwydion's mother, Don:

gochawn marchawc mwth molut gwryon. o dreic dylaw adaw doethaw don.

An excellent horseman of swift, ready praise is Gwrion; Will there come a wise son of Don from a bungling leader?(17)

However, in the absence of other evidence, so obscure and allusive a passage as this hardly proves the identity of Gwydion and Gwrion.

Ifor Williams's tentative identification of Gwydion and Gwrion must, then, be discarded. Unfortunately, other forms of Gwydion and Gwrion shed little light on the problem. Gwydion has a Cornish parallel in St Guidian (honoured in Brittany as St Guedian), who gives his name to the village of Gwithian, near Hayle in west Cornwall.(18) The name Gwron 'manly, hero' occurs in Breton and Welsh. One Gwron was a son of Cunedda, traditional founder of the kingdoms of North Wales in the late fourth century; Guoron figures in the twelfth-century Book of Llandaf; and there is a Breton form Maenuuoron.(19) A Gwryawn was grandson of Cadell, supposed founder of the kingdom of Powys in the fifth century.(20) But not a shred of evidence indicates that any of these individuals enjoyed musical gifts. In identifying Gwydion fab Don with Chaucer's 'Glascurion', the Welsh form Gwrion is a red herring. The clue to real identification lies elsewhere. Commentators have noted that in Gwynedd dialect by at least the fifteenth century, Gwydion|is greater than~Gwdion, still the current form, as at Bryn Gwdion, in the parish of Llanllyfni six miles south-south-west of Caernarfon.(21) The love-poet Ieuan Dyfi (fl. 1482-1500), of Aberdyfi on the Merioneth coast, writes

Mal Gwdion aml a gedwynt Ymhen gwaith am Huan gynt.(22)

'Like Gwdion, many times did they keep him, finishing his work for Huan long ago.'

The text of Bonedd y Saint gives the form Gwdion,(23) as does Bonedd yr Arwyr.(24) Both manuscripts are linked with North Wales. It is likely that earlier instances of the form Gwdion await discovery.

Now, the development Gwydion|is greater than~-curion is difficult to explain in terms of Welsh; but it is relatively easy to explain in terms of English, where substitution of intervocalic r by d and vice versa both exist, as noted by the OED. The first change can be seen in modern English paddock 'small field, enclosure' (first attested 1547), apparently from parrock (Old English pearroc) 'fence; paddock', now surviving only in dialect. The second occurs in modern English porridge and porringer (attested c. 1532 and 1522 respectively) from the now dialectal poddish and poddinger (1528 and 1483), themselves from pottage and pottinger.

The alternation of medial d and r was thus a feature of English at the close of the Middle Ages, if not earlier. Since Gwydion entering English as Gwdion would present an unfamiliar sound sequence, the forms *Gurion and (with unvoicing of g after an unvoiced fricative) Glascurion would thus naturally result by sound-substitution, the termination -urion having reached English from Latin and French in such words as centurion. A development Gwydion|is greater than~Gwdion|is greater than~*Gurion|is greater than~-curion would confirm what we might suspect, that Chaucer used an oral source for knowledge of Glascurion, and that his source came from the heartland of Gwydion lore in North Wales, since the form Gwydion remained standard in South Wales even after 1500.(25) There remains the triple problem of the epithet Glas: of its meaning, its position, and its origin. Glas has varied senses, including 'blue, green, grey' (cf. Gaulish glastum 'woad') and 'pallid; fresh, young'. Perhaps 'green' would be apt for a benevolent immortal like Gwydion. It is a pity that glas seems unknown as an epithet in Welsh, though it occurs in Irish texts like the eighth-century Fled Bricrend.(26)

As regards word-order, although *Gwydion Glas or *Gwydion Las would be normal in Welsh, glas is well-attested in the initial position in place-names (Glasgow, from the Cumbric for 'green hollow') and adjectival compounds.(27) If glas is otherwise unattested as the first element of personal names, Gwyn-, Gwen-, 'white', is: in Gwynasedd, a warrior mentioned by Aneirin; Gwenddoleu, the patron of Merlin; and Gwenhwyfar, or Queen Guinevere herself.(28) Finally, Gwydion's acquisition of the epithet glas might be due to the Welsh hero, Gwyddien the abstruse, of whom we know little, but whose name, found in the tenth-century saga Culhwch and Olwen, is given as Gwydion and even Gwdion in late manuscripts of Bonedd yr Arwyr.(29) In the later Middle Ages Gwydion lab Don may have been called glas to distinguish him from Gwydion astrus. If identification of Glascurion with Gwydion is accepted, we might suggest how Chaucer heard of him. The part of Wales linked above all with Gwydion was Snowdonia. A Book of Taliesin poem calls it the 'land of Gwydion', while a Black Book of Carmarthen poem names the promontory fort of Dinas Dinlle, six miles south-west of Caernarfon, after Gwydion and his fellow-enchanter Lleu.(30) Math son of Mathonwy and medieval Welsh poetry provide ample evidence for Gwydion's links with North Wales, particularly the Caernarfon region. He also left his mark elsewhere. Caer Gwydion 'Gwydion's fortress' is a name for the Milky Way in poems by Gruffudd Gryg (fl. 1340-80) and Lewys Glyn Cothi (fl. 1447-86), as well as in William Salesbury's Dictionary in Englyshe and Welshe (London, 1547).(31) There is no shortage of material on Gwydion in the folklore of medieval Gwynedd; and Chaucer might thus know of him from centres of royal administration there, especially Caernarfon, perhaps in a narrative based on North Welsh sources. If the present note is correct in identifying 'Glascurion' as the poet-magician Gwydion, it provides two lessons. First, it reveals evidence for a lost tale of Gwydion known to Chaucer and his audience. Second, the survival of Robinson's note on Glascurion shows how, even for a writer as intensively studied as Chaucer, eighteenth-century forgeries can lurk for decades under the facade of learning.

1 The Riverside Chaucer, ed. L. D. Benson, based on the edn. of F. N. Robinson, 3rd edn. (Oxford, 1988), 362. I wish to thank sincerely Mr Nicolas Jacobs of Jesus College, Oxford, for his most perceptive comments on a first draft of this paper.

2 Here Robinson cites F. J. Child (ed.), The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Boston, 1882-98), iii. 136 (no. 67), though the ballad is in fact in vol. ii.

3 Riverside Chaucer, 986.

4 T. Parry (ed.), The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse (Oxford, 1962), 557. Cf. P. Morgan, Writers of Wales: Iolo Morganwg (Cardiff, 1975), and M. Stephens (ed.), The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales (Oxford, 1986).

5 G. J. Williams, Traddodiad Llenyddol Morgannwg (Caerdydd, 1948), 1, 5; C. W. Lewis, 'The Literary Tradition of Morgannwg', Glamorgan County History, iii, ed. T. B. Pugh (Cardiff, 1971), 449-554, at 454.

6 See K. H. Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain (Edinburgh, 1953), 601 n. 1.

7 The Mabinogion, trans. G. Jones and T. Jones (London, 1949), 56-7.

8 T. F. O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology (Dublin, 1946), 526; P. C. Bartrum (ed.), Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts (Cardiff, 1966), 90; P. Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology (London, 1970), 75-6; Trioedd Ynys Prydein, ed. R. Bromwich, 2nd edn. (Cardiff, 1978), 400-2.

9 English and Scottish Ballads, ii. 136.

10 J. A. W. Bennett, Chaucer's Book of Fame: An Exposition of 'The House of Fame' (Oxford, 1968), 122.

11 Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi, ed. I. Williams (Caerdydd, 1930), 260, and his Enwau Lleoedd (Lerpwl |i.e. Liverpool~, 1945), 57; The Mabinogion, trans. Jones and Jones, 58.

12 Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin, ed. A. O. H. Jarman (Caerdydd, 1982), p. lxv; J. Rowland (ed.), Early Welsh Saga Poetry (Cambridge, 1990), 389, 508.

13 The Book of Taliesin, ed. J. G. Evans (Llanbedrog, 1910), 33-4; The Mabinogion, trans. Jones and Jones, p. xiii; Trioedd Ynys Prydein, ed. Bromwich, 207-8, 540.

14 Book of Taliesin, ed. Evans, 34.

15 J. Lloyd-Jones, Geirfa Barddoniaeth Gynnar Gymraeg (Caerdydd, 1931-63), 692. 16 Ibid. 711, 722.

17 The Poems of Taliesin, ed. I. Williams (Dublin, 1968), pp. li-lii, 7, 82-3.

18 Trioedd Ynys Prydein, ed. Bromwich, 402; O. J. Padel, Cornish Place-Names (Penzance, 1988), 93.

19 Lloyd-Jones, Geirfa, 712; Bartrum, Genealogical Tracts, 92; Trioedd Ynys Prydein, ed. Bromwich, 390.

20 Bartrum, Genealogical Tracts, 119.

21 W. J. Gruffydd, Math vab Mathonwy (Cardiff, 1928), 56 n. 10.

22 Gwaith Huw Cae Llwyd ac Eraill, ed. L. Harries (Caerdydd, 1953), 128, 158; Trioedd Ynys Prydein, ed. Bromwich, 402.

23 Bonedd y Saint ('The Descent of the Saints') in Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 27 (c.1475-1500); Bartrum, Genealogical Tracts, 53, 58. 24 Bonedd yr Arwyr ('The Descent of the Heroes') in NLW, MS Peniarth 131 (c.1475); Bartrum, Genealogical Tracts, 78, 90.

25 Contrast the Gwynedd form egwdion in Gwaith Lewys Mon, ed. E. I. Rowlands (Caerdydd, 1975), 9, and Glamorgan form Gwydion in Gwaith Iorwerth Fynglwyd, ed. H. Ll. Jones and E. I. Rowlands (Caerdydd, 1975), 91.

26 Dictionary of the Irish Language (Dublin, 1913-76), s.v. glas; Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (Caerdydd, 1950- ), 1401-2.

27 Lloyd-Jones, Geirfa, 530-2; W. F. H. Nicolaisen (ed.), The Names of Towns and Cities in Britain (London, 1970), 98.

28 K. H. Jackson, The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish Poem (Edinburgh, 1969), 155; Trioedd Ynys Prydein, ed. Bromwich, 379, 380, 553.

29 The Mabinogion, trans. Jones and Jones, 105; Lloyd-Jones, Geirfa, 735; Bartrum, Genealogical Tracts, 89.

30 Trioedd Ynys Prydein, ed. Bromwich, 402.
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Author:Breeze, Andrew
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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