Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of medieval manuscripts, especially a lot of Welsh tales and poetry, mostly translated in the 19th century. (In part it’s to escape the dreary prospects of this sorry election season. You’ll find no heroes in that tale!) Some of the verses from the Red Book of Hergest/Hergist speak of a man, Llywarch Hen (Llywarch the old) who lived probably in the fifth or sixth century. Llywarch was (supposedly) both a bard and a warrior. Normally I’m not a big fan of poetry but some of these verses are so elegantly spare, immediate and illuminating that they carry you across the centuries and reveal the subject with such clarity that it seems almost contemporaneous. In the following verses Llywarch Hen is mourning the death of one of his 24 sons, Pyll .
Note; In verse LII the reference to Pyll gracefully placing his thigh over the saddle is speaking of one of the requirements for a man to become a knight. One of the benchmarks for a knight in training required that he be able to leap into the saddle of his warhorse, unassisted, in full armor. (Yikes!)
REFERRING TO WAR BETWEEN THE SONS OF LLYWARCH HEN AND
MWG MAWR DREFYDD from the Red Book of Hergist, translation by William Forbes Skene
“VI. The best three men under heaven
To defend their homes,—
Pyll, and Selyv, and Sandev.”…
… XLIX When Pyll was slain, gashing was the wound;
And the blood on the hair seemed horrible;
And on both banks of the Ffraw there was violence.
L. A room might be formed for the wings of shields,
Which would hold one standing upright,
That were broken in the grasp of Pyll.
LI. The chosen man amongst my sons,
When each assaulted the foe,
Was fair Pyll, impetuous as a fire through a chimney.
LII. Gracefully he placed his thigh over the saddle.
Of his horse, on the near and far side—
Pyll, impetuous as the fire through a chimney.
LIII. He was gentle, with a hand eager for battle;
He was second to no treasure;
He was a bulwark on the course–
Fair Pyll! fearful is his covering of separation.
LIV. When he stood at the door of his tent,
On the dark-gray steed,
At the sight, the wife of Pyll would recognise a hero
LV. There was fractured before Pyll a strong skull;
Seldom would the silent coward be concealed from him;
The weak is satisfied without anything
LVI. Fair Pyll, widely spread his fame:
Am I not invigorated since thou hast existed
As my son, and joyful to have known thee?
LVII. The best three men under heaven
That guarded their habitation,—
Pyll, and Selyv, and Sandev.
LVIII. A shield I gave to Pyll;
Before he slept was it not perforated?
To promise it carelessly was to depreciate it.
LIX. Should Cymry come, and the predatory host of Lloegr,
And many from distant parts,
Pyll would show them conduct.
LX. Nor Pyll nor Madawg would be long lived,
If they preserved the custom.
Would they surrender? they would not surrender! they would never ask for truce!
LXI. Behold here the grave of a faultless one and warlike;
With the Bards his fame went, where would not have gone,
Pyll, if longer he had continued?
Yeah. Pyll, “impetuous as a fire through a chimney”. Seven words reveal a glimpse of the spirit of a man gone from this earth more than a thousand years. I can almost see him on his dark grey warhorse, in front of his tent, his wife looking on, knowing him for a hero and probably dreading where that would inevitably end. Unyielding in battle (the ferocious Welsh warriors tended to be like that) he would never seek terms. And so, he died young.
Fair Pyll. Impetuous as a fire through a chimney. So glad to have made your acquaintance, sir.