Britain today remains a place where encounters with the wild are, if not plentiful, then certainly likely. Herons and otters, deer, doormice, owls and eagles are all visible, if you know where to look. When you look into the pages of the early Welsh literature, however, its clear that their natural world was far more present then than it is now.
Gerald of Wales, for example, spends a great deal of time in his work elaborating the behaviour and appearance of beavers. Some aspects of his description are immediately recognisable, but have a mediaeval inflection, like his remark that “beavers build castle-like lodges in the middle of rivers….” The sensible observations of a naturalist quickly fade into fable when Gerald goes on to describe how beavers use each other as “waggons” to transport logs and castrate themselves when pursued by hunters. His keen awareness of animals–and his affection for them–is clear when he compares the underwater breathing of beavers to that of “toads and hairy seals, which last creatures mark the ebb and flow of the tide by the alternate smoothness and roughness of their fur.”
Although tending towards flights of fancy, Gerald’s descriptions generally demonstrate a profound familiarity with inhabitants of the natural world. In other texts, though, these animals have a more symbolic meaning.
In the Life of Saint Cadog, for example, the saint founds the buildings of his first monastery on sites pointed out to him by a wild boar. The boar, white with red ears, is here sent as a representative of God’s will, but his colouring alludes to Otherworldly animals from pre-Christian belief. Some of these animals seem to have an almost totemic significance, especially those known as the Oldest Animals in the Welsh tales.
In the prose tale How Culhwch won Olwen, for example, Arthur’s men must seek out Mabon son of Modron before they can slay the giant Ysbaddaden and marry the giant’s daughter Olwen to Culhwch, the tale’s young hero. To find him, they seek help from the Blackbird of Cilgwri, the Stag of Rhedynfre, the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, and the Eagle of Gwernabwy, each animal claiming to be older than the one before. When the men come to the Eagle, “the oldest animal in this world, and the one who has wandered most,” it tells them that it came to Wales “a long time ago, and when I first came here I had a rock, and from its top I would peck at the stars every evening. Now it’s not a hand-breadth in height.”
Despite his immense age, however, the Eagle cannot help them, and sends them instead to the Salmon of Llyn Lliw, who bears the heros on his back in order to take them to their quarry.
This story, the oldest such tale to survive from mediaeval Wales, demonstrates the deep significance of animals in the literate world-view. They were not only curiosities, but also potential helpers, knowledgeable guides connected with the unseen features of the world whose presence lent a hint of the Otherworldly even to devoutly Christian texts.
Gerald of Wales’ works can be found in The Journey through Wales and the Description of Wales, trans. Lewis Thorpe, (London, 1978).
For How Culhwch won Olwen, see The Mabinogion, ed. and trans. Sioned Davies, (Oxford, 2007).