Yr Hen Iaith part nine: Do you remember Maxen? Dream Visions of Welsh History
Continuing our series of articles to accompany the podcast series Yr Hen Iaith. This is episode nine.
Given the last few years of Welsh football history, Dafydd Iwan’s song ‘Yma o Hyd’ needs no introduction nor explanation. Less known than this popular contemporary anthem is the medieval tale lurking behind the song’s first line, ‘Wyt ti’n cofio Macsen?’ (‘Do you remember Maxen?’).
The text in question is Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig, ‘The Dream of Maxen the Ruler’, and, like the modern song, this medieval narrative offers a view of ancient history which is extremely significant in terms of Welsh identity.
On one level, this is a fanciful story about love at first sight and a kingdom-binding marriage. Maxen is described as ‘amherawdyr yn Ruuein’ (‘emperor in Rome’), and he has personal qualities to match his status and power: ‘a theccaf gwr oed, a doethaf’ (‘and he was the most handsome man, and the wisest’).
While out hunting, he rests, sleeps and dreams. By means of his dream vision Maxen travels, crossing recognizable landscape features as he journeys from the outskirts of Rome to the Island of Britain.
He finally reaches a caer (‘castle’ or ‘fortress’) in Arfon – Caernarfon – where he meets a ‘maiden’ (‘morwyn’) whose beauty is blinding in a near-literal sense; looking upon her is like looking at the sun (‘haul’) when it is brightest. Just when he is starting to embrace her, Maxen wakes from his dream, brought back by the earthy sounds of his horses and hunting dogs.
The way in which he is consumed utterly by this new-found passion is described memorably:
A phan ddeffroes, hoedel, nac einyoes, na bywyt nyt oed idaw am y vorwyn ry welsei trwy y hun. Kygwn vn ascwrn yndaw, na mynnwes vn ewin ynghwaethach lle a vei vwy no hwnnw hyt oed ny bei gyflawn o garyat y uorwyn.
‘And when he awoke, neither life nor energy nor vitality was in him because of the maiden he had seen in his sleep. There was not the joint of one bone in him, nor the middle of a single nail, let alone a part of him which might be bigger than that, that was not full of love for the maiden.’
Maxen must find this woman, and so he sends messengers to retrace his dream journey. They find the Welsh princess – whose name is Elen, we later learn – in that same caer in Arfon, and tell her of the emperor’s love.
Like Rhiannon in the First Branch of the Mabinogi, Elen is characterized as a quick-witted woman capable of putting men in their place with a bitingly witty comment.
In flowing Middle Welsh she says that Maxen, if he does really love her, should come and tell her himself: ‘amheu yr hynn a dywedwch chwi nys gwnaf i, na’e gredu heuyt yn ormod, namyn os miui a gar yr amherawdyr, deuhet hyt yman y’m ol’ (‘I do not doubt what you say, nor do I believe it too much, but if it is me whom the emperor loves, let him come here to get me.’)
So the journey is repeated for a third time, with Maxen finally going himself, and the two are wed.
Despite the fanciful conceit of the dream vision, this tale offers a very serious look at some of the historical interactions and processes which made the Welsh what they are. And rather than seeing the Romans as oppressive foreign invaders, the connection with Rome is presented as a source of pride.
While the tale doesn’t mention these aspects explicitly, it was this Roman influence which ensured that the early Welsh were literate and Christian (and thus different and ‘more civilized’ than the Anglo-Saxon invaders).
What this narrative does describe explicitly is an elaborate construction project, as the Roman emperor’s attachment to Wales becomes the basis for creating a great deal of new national infrastructure.
However, this occurs not through simple Roman kindness but because of the Welsh heroine’s agency.
Following medieval Welsh law, Elen is due her ‘agweddi’ (‘bride price’ or ‘maiden price’) once the marriage is consummated, and she asks her new husband to give all of Britain to her father (emphasizing that Roman Britain was still British – or Welsh).
She also has Maxen build teir prif gaer (‘three main fortresses’) for her in specific strategic locations – Caer(y)narfon, Caerllion (Caerleon) and Caerfyrddin (Carmarthen). Anything but a passive empress, Elen then leads her own construction project:
Odyna y medylwys Elen gwneuthur prif ffyrdd o bob kaer kyt y gilyd ar traws ynys Prydein, ac y gwnaethpwyt y ffyrd. Ac o achaws hynny y gelwir wynt Ffyrd Elen Luydawc, wrth y hanuot hi o ynys Prydein, ac na wnaei y lluydeu mawr hynny y neb namyn iddi hi.
‘Afterwards Elen thought to make main roads from each fortress to another across the island of Britain, and the roads were made. And because of that they are called Ffyrdd Elen Luyddawg )‘The Roads of Elen of the Hosts’), because she was from the island of Britain, and those great hosts would not do that for anybody except for her.’
Evincing that fondness for explaining names found in other traditional Welsh narratives, this medieval tale thus explains why Roman roads came to be associated with Elen (or Helen). Indeed, even today some Welsh speakers still refer to these landscape features as ffyrdd Helen or sarnau Helen.
Apparently in love with Wales as well as with Elen, Maxen stays for seven years, and a new emperor takes his place back in Rome. This man sends him a terse Llythyr bygwth or ‘threatening letter’, which only reads ‘O deuy di, ac o deuy di byth i Ruuein . . .’ (‘If you come, and if you come to Rome . . .’).
Not one to be daunted, Maxen replies with his own short letter: ‘Ot af ynheu y Ruuein, ac ot af’ (‘And if I go to Rome, and if I go’). The war for the empire is on. However, Maxen’s forces cannot retake Rome by themselves, and it is only after Elen’s brothers, Cynan and Gadeon, scale the city walls with their host and spend three days and three nights subduing the enemy that victory is achieved.
After retaking Rome for their brother-in-law, Elen’s brothers set out to conquer a land for themselves. This final part of the tale forgoes any possible moral considerations, instead indulging in that love of explaining names and a desire to tease out historical connections between peoples.
After killing all of the men in the conquered land, they ‘cut out the women’s tongues, lest their language be corrupted’ (‘lladd tauodeu y gwraged rac llygr eu hieith’), and ‘because of the silencing of the women and their language’ (‘o achaws tewi o’r gwraged ac eu hieith’), the place came to be called Llydaw, analysing the Welsh name for ‘Brittany’ as meaning lled (‘partially’) + taw[el] (‘silent’).
If the first and longer part of the tale centres on political and cultural connections between Rome and Wales/Britain, the Dream of Maxen Wledig ends by explaining the linguistic connection between the Welsh and Breton languages.
Romantic dreaming and rampant violence aside, this medieval tale is first and foremost a story about connections between Wales and other parts of Europe.
Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (translators), The Mabinogion (revised edition, London, 1993)
You can catch up with the previous episodes here
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