Taliesin or Taliessin (c. 534–c.599) is the earliest poet of the Welsh language whose work has survived. His name is associated with the Book of Taliesin, a book of poems that was written down in the Middle Ages (John Gwenogvryn Evans dated it to around 1275). Most of the poems are quite late in date (around 10th to 12th century), but a few are earlier, and eleven of them, according to Ifor Williams, date from the 6th century. He is believed to have been a bard in the courts of at least three British kings of that era. In legend he attained the status “Chief Bard of Britain” and as such would have been responsible for judging poetry competitions among all the royal bards of Britain. A few of the marks awarded for poems are extant in the margins of manuscripts. Taliesin’s life was later the subject of 16th century mythological work by Elis Gruffydd, who may have relied on existing oral tradition about him.
Little, beyond what he writes in his own poems, is known about his life. One manuscript says he was the son of Saint Henwg of Llanhennock, 5km north-east of Newport (near Caerleon). He is mentioned with Talhaearn Tad Awen (“Father of the Muse”), Aneirin, Blwchbardd, and Cian Gwenith Gwawd (“Wheat of Song”) as one of the five British poets of renown in the “Hen Ogledd (Old Northern) History” section (ch. 62) of the Historia Britonum traditionally attributed to Nennius.
The poems ascribed to him indicate that he later became court bard to King Brochwel Ysgithrog of Powys around 555, then to his successor Cynan Garwyn, and lastly to King Urien of Rheged and his son Owain mab Urien. The idea that he was bard to King Arthur dates back at least to Culhwch and Olwen, perhaps a product of the 11th century, and was elaborated upon in modern poetry, such as Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Charles Williams’s Taliessin Through Logres. In any case the historical Taliesin’s career can be shown to have fallen in the last half of the 6th century, while historians who argue for Arthur’s existence date his victory at Mons Badonicus in the years to either side of AD 500; the Annales Cambriae offers the date of 532 for his death or disappearance in the Battle of Camlann, only a few years earlier than the date of 542 found in the Historia Regum Britanniae.
According to tradition first recorded in the 16th century, Taliesin was the foster-son of Elphin, who gave him the name Taliesin, meaning “radiant brow”, and who later became a king in Ceredigion. The tradition states that he was then raised at his court in Aberdyfi and that at the age of 13, he visited King Maelgwn, Elphin’s uncle, and correctly prophesied the manner and imminence of Maelgwn’s death. Bedd Taliesin, a hilltop grave near Ceredigion is the traditional site of his burial; the village of Tre-Taliesin, located at the foot of the hill, was named after the bard in the 19th century.
Book of Taliesin
The work most associated with him is The Book of Taliesin, which scholars consider to have been written in 10th century Welsh. Since all poetry was transmitted orally in Taliesin’s day, a plausible hypothesis is that his poems were first written down four centuries later using the contemporary spellings of that day. Sir Ifor Williams published the text with notes in Canu Taliesin (1960), and later published in an English version The Poems of Taliesin (1968).
Of the poems in The Book of Taliesin, twelve are addressed to known historical kings such as Cynan Garwyn, king of Powys, and Gwallog of Elmet. Eight of the poems, however, are addressed to Urien Rheged, whose kingdom was centered in the region of the Solway Firth on the borders of present-day England and Scotland and stretched east to Catraeth (now Catterick in North Yorkshire) and west to Galloway. One poem, a “marwnad” or death lament, was addressed to Owain, son of Urien. The rest of the book comprises poems addressing mythological, religious or shamanistic topics, as well as a few works such as ‘Armes Prydein Vawr’, the content of which implies that they were by later authors, perhaps contemporary to the 10th century scribe who compiled the Book of Taliesin. The presumption that all of the poems in the Book of Taliesin are the work of the true, historical Taliesin, is nonsense; many are more likely to be the work of later poets. Many poems lack the characteristics, metre and ‘poetic tag’ associated with the work of the historical Taliesin. Apart from the twelve poems considered to be the work of Taliesin, bard of Urien Rheged, the material in Llyfr Taliesin is associated with the mythical Taliesin.
Some of the events to which the poems refer, such as the Battle of Arfderydd (c. 583) are known from other sources. These references lead some historians to consider the poems addressed to Urien Rheged to date from that time period.
Gruffydd’s account of his life
In the mid 16th century, Elis Gruffydd wrote a mythological account of Taliesin which drew from Celtic folklore. Some scholars believe that Gruffydd recorded a tradition that existed before his time.
According to the mythologized version of Taliesin’s birth, he began life as boy named Gwion Bach, a servant to the old crone Ceridwen. Ceridwen had a beautiful daughter and an ugly son named Morfran (also called Avagddu), whose appearance no magic could cure, so she sought to give him the gift of wisdom as compensation. Using a magical cauldron, Ceridwen cooked a potion granting wisdom, which had to be cooked for a year and a day. A blind man named Morda tended the fire beneath the cauldron, while Gwion Bach stirred the concoction. The first three drops of liquid from this cauldron gave wisdom; the rest was a fatal poison. Three hot drops spilled onto Gwion’s hand as he stirred, burning him. He instinctively put his hand in his mouth, and instantly gained great wisdom and knowledge. The first thought that occurred to him was that Ceridwen would be very angry at him for doing this. Scared, he ran away, but all too soon he heard her fury and the sound of her pursuit.
As Ceridwen chased Gwion, he turned himself into a rabbit. In return, she became a dog. He then became a fish and jumped into a river, and in response, she then turned into an otter. He turned into a bird, and in response she became a hawk. Finally, he turned into a single grain of corn. She became a hen and ate him, and became pregnant. She resolved to kill the child, knowing it was Gwion, but after he was born, he was so beautiful that she couldn’t go through with the deed. Instead, she threw him in the ocean inside a leather bag. The story of Gwion and the wisdom potion bears a strong resemblance to the Irish tale of Fionn mac Cumhail and the salmon of wisdom, indicating that both stories may have a common source.
Discovery by Elphin
The baby was found by Elphin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir, ‘Lord of Ceredigion’, who found the child while fishing for salmon. He was very surprised at the whiteness of the boy’s brow, he exclaimed “Tal iesin”, meaning “radiant brow.” Taliesin replied, “Yes, that will do well enough.” While Elphin carried the baby back to his father in a basket, thinking of what his father would say when he learned that Elphin had caught a baby, but no salmon, the baby began to recite beautiful poetry, saying:
Fair Elphin, cease your lament!
Swearing profits no-one.
It is not evil to hope
Nor does any man see what supports him,
Not an empty treasure is the prayer of Cynllo,
Nor does God break his promise.
No catch in Gwyddno’s weir
Was ever as good as tonight’s.
“Fair Elphin, dry your cheeks!
Such sorrow does not become you,
Although you consider yourself cheated
Excessive sorrow gains nothing,
Nor will doubting God’s miracles.
Although I am small, I am skilful.
From the sea and the mountain,
From the river’s depth
God gives His gifts to the blessed.
“Elphin of the generous spirit,
Cowardly is your purpose,
You must not grieve so heavily.
Better are good than evil omens.
though I am weak and small,
Spumed with Dylan’s wave,
I shall be better for you
Than three hundred shares of salmon.
“Elphin of noble generosity,
Do not sorrow at your catch.
Though I am weak on the floor of my basket,
There are wonders on my tongue.
“While I am watching over you,
no great need will overcome you.
be mindful of the name of the Trinity
And none shall overcome you.”
Amazed, Elphin asked how a baby could talk. Again Taliesin replied with poetry, recounting the transformation chase between himself and Ceridwen. Finishing, he said:
“Floating like a boat in its waters,
I was thrown into a dark bag,
and on an endless sea, I was set adrift.
Just as I was suffocating, I had a happy omen,
and the master of the Heavens brought me to liberty.”
At the court of Maelgwn
A few years later, when Taliesin turned thirteen, Elphin was at the court of King Maelgwn, who demanded that Elphin praise him and his court. Elphin refused, claiming Taliesin was a better bard and that his wife a prettier woman than anyone the king had in his court. Although he was not present, Taliesin knew what was happening, because he was a seer, and told Elphin’s wife. Maelgwn’s son Rhun went to Elphin’s house to seduce his wife and prove Elphin’s claims weren’t true. Rhun got her drunk, and when she passed out, Rhun tried to take off her wedding ring to prove her unfaithfulness. When the ring wouldn’t come off, he cut off her finger instead. When King Maelgwn attempted to show the finger to Elphin, he pointed out that his wife cut her fingernails more often than the owner of the finger. Moreover, the fingernails had bread dough under them, but his wife always had servants knead the dough. Moreover, his wife’s ring was loose on her finger, but this one was tight.
Maelgwn then demanded Taliesin come to his court to prove wrong the claim that Taliesin was a better bard than the ones in his court. Taliesin responded with a challenge in which both he and the king’s bards were to compose an epic in only twenty minutes. The royal bards failed at the task, but when it came time for Taliesin to recite his, he caused a massive wind to rattle the castle. Frightened, Maelgwn sent for Elphin. Taliein’s next song caused Elphin’s chains to detach. Maelgwn challenged the pair to a horse race. Taliesin arrived the next day with an old, weak horse. As each of the king’s horses passed him at the very start of the race, Taliesin touched its rump with a twig of holly. When they had all passed, he dropped his hat to the ground, and the king’s horses turned back right before crossing the finish line, stopping at the holly twigs Taliesin had laid there, and began to dance. Taliesin’s old horse strolled to the finish line and won the race.
Commentary on the traditions
The traditions that Taliesin was the foster-son of Prince Elphin (later King of Ceredigion) and that he was raised at his court in Aberdyfi and that Taliesin visited King Maelgwn do not have any historical substantiation, but also do not conflict with what little history is currently known about those people and that region and period. The birth myth of Ceridwen chasing Gwion through various forms is sometimes interpreted mystically and allegorically.
Taliesin is one of the main characters in Just Like A Fairy Tale, by Sophia Babai. Of all the works of fiction written on Taliesin, Just Like A Fairy Tale is one of the most accurate to the Taliesin myth as written in the Mabinogion in that it doesn’t remove aspects of the original. There is quite a bit of embellishment, however, as the story takes place in present times. Taliesin’s character is immortal.
Taliesin, Elphin, and Gwyddno Garanhir appear in Taliesin, the first book of Stephen R. Lawhead’s epic Arthurian “historical fantasy” series, The Pendragon Cycle. The bard and prophet Taliesin marries Charis, a princess of Atlantis whose people have escaped its destruction. Charis becomes the Lady of the Lake, and their son is none other than Merlin. However, current interpretation is that the real Taliesin lived after the theorized time of Arthur.
In Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, Taliesin is the Merlin, Merlin being a title of the chief bard (and/or druid) of Britain and Taliesin his name. This commonly leads to the conclusion that Merlin and Taliesin are synonymous, although this is not the case. In Bradley’s account, following Taliesin’s death, well before that of Arthur, he is succeeded as Merlin by his understudy Kevin, who was severely disfigured by fire as a child. It is Kevin whom Nimue seduces, leading him to his death and burial in a sacred oak tree.
Taliesin plays a small role in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series as the Chief Bard of Prydain.
Taliesin also appears as a major character in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart. The woman who meets him, Sara, is very much acquainted with his legend in the Gruffydd tradition, most of which he denies. In this story, the conflict at Maelgwyn’s court led to his being betrayed, placed in a coracle, and pushed off to sea. (Leading to his arrival in sixth-century Canada, where the story nominally takes place.) The slighted druid who arranged the exile was turned into stone in retribution. In this story Taliesin is also affiliated with an unnamed horned hunt-god, apparently his grandfather. None of this appears to have any historical or mythological basis.
The Book of Taliesin is quoted at the start of every chapter in Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge. Taliesin is a major character, although he mainly uses the name Vetch. He descends into the Celtic Underworld Annwn.
Taliesin is a major character in The Ancient Future Trilogy by Traci Harding. He makes appearances throughout the entire trilogy and is in possession of the thirteen treasures of Britain.
Taliesin/Gwion appears in the book Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper (the last part of The Dark is Rising sequence), where he helps the main characters to acquire sword Eirias in the Lost Land, near Aberdyfi.
Taliesin appears in The Coming of the King, written by Nikolai Tolstoy (a relation of Leo Tolstoy) – the first of a yet unfinished trilogy about Merlin. Taliesin is bard to Maelgun Gwynedd.
In the cyberpunk science fiction novel “The Adventures of Redman Red” by Nathaniel Haynes the central character, Red, undergoes a ‘vision quest’ in which he becomes a salmon and enters the faery realm in order to confront the malevolent King of the Faeries, who identifies him as Taliesin.
Taliesin is a past identity of a character in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry. Taliesin is referred to as being King Arthur’s harper, and is currently Flidais ‘of the andain, a power of Pendaran’s Wood.