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Yr Hen Iaith part nineteen: How a Tale Happens to be Told

23 Jul 2023 6 minute read
King Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler (1903)

Continuing our series of articles to accompany the podcast series Yr Hen Iaith. This is episode nineteen.

Jerry Hunter

One challenge facing folklorists studying oral narrative involves the social contexts in which stories are told. Sometimes, in some cultures, there is a formal or semi-formal context in which an experienced storyteller ‘performs’ to those who gather to listen.

But more often than not stories are told in less formal situations, arising unpredictably during the ebb-and-flow of conversation rather than as part of a pre-arranged performance.

One of the wonderful things about the tale Iarlles y Ffynnon, ‘The Lady of the Fountain’, is that it begins with a medieval Welsh writer’s description of how a tale happens to be told.


The ‘emperor’ (amherawdyr) Arthur is in Caerleon (Caer Llion ar Wysg) and not much seems to be happening at court. Gwenhwyfar and her ‘handmaidens’ (llawforynion) are sitting by a window, passing the time by sewing. Several of the most famous Arthurian heroes are there, including Owain, Cynon and Cai.

‘And in the middle of the room’s floor (Ac ym mherfedd llawr yr ystafell) Arthur himself relaxes, ‘sitting on a mound of fresh rushes’ (yn eistedd ar deml o irfrwyn) made more comfortable by ‘a sheet of yellow-red brocaded silk’ (llen o bali melyngoch) and ‘a pillow with a cover of red brocaded silk’ (gobennydd a’i duded o bali coch).

The scene is certainly regal, but the emphasis is on domesticity and comfort, not arms, warfare and adventure. The anonymous author is perhaps suggesting that Arthur is getting on in age, for the great emperor says that he would like to sleep before they eat (if those sitting nearby promise not to make fun of him while he naps!).

He suggest  that they can entertain themselves with ymddiddan, ‘conversation’ in the meantime, and he asks Cai to fetch chops from the kitchen and mead from the cellar for them as well.

Consistent with his characterization in other tales, Cai is stubborn and hot-headed and the others have to argue with him a little before he fulfils Arthur’s command, but he does bring the food and drink eventually and they settle down to pass the time.

Wondrous things

Cynon entertains them with a story about the time when he was young, ‘high-spirited’ (drythyll), full of ‘arrogance’ (rhyfyg), and certain that there was nobody in the world who could best him in anything.

He went out adventuring, and after encountering many wondrous things he is eventually directed to a place which will hold the ultimate challenge for him.

And so Cynon comes to the magical fountain which is the entrance – as we later learn – to the kingdom of the ‘Lady of the Fountain.’

It is guarded by a knight dressed in black on a black horse and during the ensuing combat the confident young man finally meets his match.

The tale finished, conversation resumes and Owain suggests that they go and seek that place. Artful dialogue allows us to witness the complex interplay of personalities as Cai, true to his surly nature, chides Owain, telling him that he is ‘all talk and no action’: Mynych y dywedi di ar dy dafod yr hynny peth nas gwnelud ar dy weithred (‘Often you speak with your tongue that which you would not do with your action’).

Gwenhwyfar intervenes at this point, policing the men’s behaviour and enforcing the courtly standards she expects in her presence.

She tells Cai that it would be better for him to be killed ‘than utter speech as shameful as that to a man such as Owain’ (na dywedyd ymadrodd mor warthaedig â hwnnw wrth ŵr fel Owain). Cai apologizes, Arthur wakes up and they all go to eat.


The next morning, Owain, still stinging from Cai’s harsh words, arms himself and goes off on his horse, following the path described by Cynon.

The adventure related in Cynon’s story-within-a-story now takes place in real time. Owain reaches the fountain and, after a long and fierce combat, he wounds the black knight mortally and pursues him to a castle.

He is trapped in the gate (during a graphically-described scene in which his horse his cut in two by the falling portcullis), but saved by Luned.

We learn that this woman serves ‘The Lady of the Fountain’, and she is a quite an operator. Here is court intrigue at its best, with social status and concern for the good of the realm intermeshed and at times clashing. Two well-drawn, strong female characters conflict, but Luned – despite her lower place in the court’s pecking order – eventually convinces the Lady to marry the man who has just killed her husband.

Owain becomes the new black knight, entrusted with guarding the fountain.

All nighter

There has been a tendency (among some scholars as well as in general) to lump this tale along with the other two medieval Welsh Arthurian ‘romances’ and refer to them – using the names of the central male characters – as ‘Geraint’, ‘Peredur’ and ‘Owain’.

However, the version of this text found in the Red Book of Hergest (the version in the White Book of Rhydderch is incomplete) ends with words instructing us as to its proper title: a’r chwedl hwn a elwir chwedl Iarlles y Ffynnawn, ‘and this tale is called the tale of the Lady of the Fountain’.

Indeed, if a series of husbands serve as black knight and guard the entrance to her realm, she is the one who seems to actually govern there.

Arthur, saddened by Owain’s long absence, decides to set out with a large retinue and find him, repeating each step of the journey for the third time in the tale.

After reaching her realm and learning that his friend is now serving as the black knight, the great emperor must send messengers to the Lady of the Fountain to ask her permission before taking Owain back home with him.

It is agreed that Owain will stay with Arthur for three months, but he ends up staying for three years (the medieval narrative equivalent of the erring man who asks his wife if he can go to the pub for an hour and ends up staying out all night).

Owain is eventually shamed for this by Luned, who once again proves to be an extremely proactive and savvy woman serving the best interests of her Lady and their realm.

Further Reading:
Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (translators), The Mabinogion (revised edition, London, 1993)
Sioned Davies (translator), The Mabinogion (Oxford: OUP, 2008)
Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan a Erich Poppe (goln.), Arthur in the Celtic Languages (Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 2019)

Catch up on the previous episodes here.

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