Cad Goddeu (English: The Battle of the Trees) is a sixth century Welsh poem from the Book of Taliesin. It is set during a battle fought between Gwydion and Arawn, the god of the underworld, Annwn, in which Gwydion animates the trees of the forest to fight for him. According to a summary of the story preserved in Peniarth MS 98B, the fight breaks out after the divine plowman Amaethon, Gwydion's teacher, steals dog, a lapwing, and a roebuck from Arawn, and Gwydion ultimately triumphs by guessing the name of one of Arawn's men, Bran (possibly Bran the Blessed).
Interpretation of Robert Graves
Robert Graves, who speculated that Arawn and Bran were names for the same underworld god, wrote that the battle was probably not meant as a physical one but rather a struggle of wits and scholarship. Gwydion's forces can only be defeated if the name of his companion, Lady Achren, was guessed (her name meant "Trees"), and Arawn's host can only be defeated if Bran's name is guessed (which Gwydion did). By Graves' interpretation, the trees who fight in the battle correspond to characters in the Druidic alphabet known as Ogham, where each sound is represented by a pattern of notches and a particular tree. Each tree had a meaning and significance of its own, which is how Gwydion is able to win the battle: he guesses Bran's name by the alder branch Bran carries, the alder being one of Bran's prime symbols.
Graves's overall argument is that the original poet had written the long piece in a different form and had reconstructed it to conceal druidic secrets about an older matriarchal Celtic religion, for fear of censure from Christian authorities. Noticing the poem's disparate elements, Graves reconstructed the poem into several different pieces to show its supposed truths. Out of the poem come two new ones, Hanes Taliesin (The History of Taliesin) and Hanes Blodeuwedd (The History of Blodeuwedd). In his commentary (from The White Goddess (1948), he fancifully adds that 'The Battle of the Trees' also alludes to ancient mushroom cults because of the imagery of illumination, the "hundred clawed toad wearing a precious jewel in the head".
Graves's interpretation of this tale and other Welsh mythologies has been separately contested by Welsh scholars Marged Haycock and Mary Ann Constantine. Both subscribe to the idea that Cad Goddeu does not encode heresies about ancient pagan religions as Graves believed, but that the poem is a burlesque, a grand parody of bardic language. Francesco Bennozo argues that the poem represents ancient fears of the forest and its magical powers. While such arguments are far more measured than Graves's theories, they may represent a simplification of the difficult and bewildering poem.
John Williams used a version of Cad Goddeu translated into Sanskrit for the score to the film Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. He also directly based the second movement of his 2004 Horn Concerto off the "Battle of the Trees." The motif of an army of trees was possibly well known in British folklore; it appears in William Shakespeare's Macbeth (which itself was an inspiration for Tolkien's Ents in The Lord of the Rings as well as C.S. Lewis' Prince Caspian.