Preiddeu Annwfn (English: The Spoils of Annwfn) is a short, enigmatic poem found in the Welsh Book of Taliesin. Scholars suggest it took its present form around AD 900 based on linguistic evidence, though other estimates range from the time of the bard Taliesin in the late 6th century to the completion of the manuscript in about 1275. The obscure text recounts an expedition by King Arthur to Annwfn or Annwn, the Welsh otherworld. This quest has analogues in other Medieval Welsh literature, and a number of scholars have suggested the poem represents the tradition that evolved into the Holy Grail theme of later Arthurian literature.
Preiddeu Annwfn has been translated into English several times, but its obscure nature requires individual interpretation on the part of its translators. The author clearly implies he is Taliesin, mentioning that he received his gift of song from a magical cauldron. He claims he journeyed with Arthur and three boatloads of men into Annwfn, but only seven returned. Annwfn is referred to with several names, including "Mound Fortress", "Four-Peaked Fortress", and "Glass Fortress". It is generally accepted that these various titles are metaphors for the same fortress, but it is possible the poet intended different places. Within the Mound Fort's walls waits Gweir, one of the "Three Exalted Prisoners of Britain" known from the Welsh Triads. The narrator then describes the cauldron of the King of Annwn (presumably different from the one previously mentioned); it is studded with pearls, and it will not boil a coward's food. In Annwn the narrator is praised for his talents and his company is treated to the pleasures of the otherworld. Whatever tragedy ultimately killed all but seven of them is not clearly explained. The poem ends with an excoriation of monks, who lack in various forms of knowledge.
Analogues in other works
Preiddeu Annwfn has analogues in other Welsh literature, and two works in particular feature material that stands out as probable literary relatives. These are the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and Culhwch and Olwen. The first is the mythological tale of the giant Bran the Blessed and his sister Branwen, the latter is an Arthurian romance also associated with the Mabinogion. In the Second Branch, Bran gives his magic life-restoring cauldron to his new brother-in-law Matholwch of Ireland after he and Branwen marry. Matholwch mistreats his new wife, however, and Bran and his forces must cross the Irish Sea to rescue her. Part of this attack involves the destruction of the cauldron, which Matholwch had used to resuscitate his soldiers; in the end only seven of Bran's men are left alive.
In Culhwch and Olwen Arthur's retinue sail to Ireland (aboard his ship Prydwen, the ship used in Preiddeu) to obtain the cauldron of a certain Diwrnach, who treats them to a feast but refuses to give up his prize. Arthur's warrior Llenlleawc the Irishman grabs Caladvwch (Excalibur) and swings it around, killing Diwrnach's entire retinue. Further parallels between this episode and Preiddeu Annwfn may be found in a muddled passage from the latter, which contends that the "flashing sword of Lleawch" was raised to the cauldron, leaving it in the hands of "Lleminawc". Some scholars have opted to identify either or both Lleawch and Lleminawc with Culhwch's Llenlleawc, citing a confusion or evolution of names in the manuscript tradition, but evidence for this point is not conclusive.
Roger Sherman Loomis also pointed out the similarities between Preiddeu's description of the "Glass Fortress" and a story from Irish mythology recorded in both the Book of Invasions and the 9th century Historia Britonum. In Preiddeu, the Glass Fortress is defended by 6,000 men, and Arthur's crew finds it difficult to speak with their sentinel. In the Irish tale, the Milesians, the ancestors to the Irish people, encounter a glass tower in the middle of the ocean whose inhabitants do not speak with them. The Milesians attack, and like Arthur's expedition, lose most of their force. The one surviving ship sails on to Ireland and further adventure. Loomis further suggests that this story is connected to the Abduction of Guinevere episode common in later literature, and scholar Sarah Higley suggests a common story that influenced these various Welsh and Irish accounts.
A Grail connection?
Speculators have suggested a link between Preiddeu Annwfn and the Celtic material and the later Grail narratives, with varying degrees of success. These similarities are sometimes peripheral, such as that both Bran the Blessed and the Grail keeper the Fisher King receive wounds in their legs, and both dwell in a castle of delights where no time seems to pass. The life-preserving graal as portrayed in Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval is certainly reminiscent of Bran's cauldron, and, as in Preiddeu, the quest for the desired object in the Grail romances always results in initial tragedy and frequently in huge loss of life.
Earlier scholars were quicker to read Celtic origins in the Holy Grail stories than their modern counterparts. Whereas early 20th century Celtic enthusiast Jessie Weston unequivocally declared that an earlier form of the Grail narrative could be found in Preiddeu Annwfn, modern researcher Richard Barber denies Celtic myth had much influence on the legend's development at all. R. S. Loomis, however, argued that it was more logical to search for recurrent themes and imagery found in both the Grail stories and Celtic material rather than exact ancestors; many or most modern scholars share this opinion.