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The Taliesin Sourcebook

by Frank Olding
Green Magic, 2024
224 pages, Paperback, £12.99
Index

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I love this book! Had it existed 50 years ago, it would have saved me decades of rooting around in second-hand book shops and having friends search university libraries. It is the first book to bring together clear English translations of all the existing early material by or about Taliesin, the semi-mythical 6th century poet known as the primary chief bard of Britain. The 54 poems attributed to him are all here, including such well-known, mysterious and much-debated gems as Kat Godeu, ‘The Battle of the Trees,’ and Preideu Annwfyn, ‘The Spoils of Annwn.’

As well as the author’s superb new translations of these poems, verses by other hands referring to the bard are included. Plus there are four by the late 12th-early 13th century poet, Lywarch ap Llewellyn, also known (for reasons unknown) as ‘The Poet of the Pigs,’ who is the prime candidate to be the author of several of the ‘legendary’ poems attributed to Taliesin. Not only that but we also have translations of the earliest literary reference to Taliesin, from the 9th century ‘History of the Britons’; relevant sections from two medieval prose tales, ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ and ‘Branwen, daughter of Llyr’; and four different 16th and 17th century versions of the Story of Taliesin that detail his involvement with the witch-like, shape-shifting ‘ruler of bards,’ Ceridwen, brewer of the magical cauldron of inspiration, imbibing three drops from which gives Taliesin the gifts of poetry, seership and shape-shifting.

On top of all this, the author’s introduction is among the best concise introductions to medieval Welsh verse in general, and the history and legend of Taliesin in particular, that I’ve come across, conveying in 15 pages more than most writers manage in 50 or more. His introductions to the individual poems and prose pieces are equally informative, setting out briefly and clearly what is known of their authorship, historical background, characters and geographical locations referenced in them, and their overall significance. Particularly for some of the lesser-known historical poems, these introductions are invaluable. For those wishing to pursue further, the author provides footnotes linked to a very thorough, 7-page bibliography.

Frank Olding is a scholar by training, an archaeologist by profession and a poet by inclination. The last of these shines through in his wonderfully clear translations. Translating poetry is always difficult, doubly so when the originals were composed centuries ago in verse forms that rely heavily on alliteration, repetition, internal rhyme, strict syllable length and multiple meanings. Given these problems, the author’s achievement here is all the more remarkable. Here’s a small sample, from Buarth Beird, ‘The Meeting-place of Bards’:

I’m a craftsman; I’m a singer fine and clear;
I am steel, I am a Druid, seer, craftsman;
I’m a viper, I am lust, I gorge myself on learning;
I am no dumbfounded poet, I do not stammer:
when the singers sing their songs by rote,
they weave no wonder greater than myself.

Beautiful, fluent, and with no sacrifice of accuracy.

Whether your interests are in poetry, the development of verse forms, Welsh literature, British history, mythology and folklore, the bardic tradition or contemporary Druidry, you’ll find a world of wonder in these pages. As the great bard himself says:

I am Taliesin, the ardent one,
I endow the world with song:
praise-songs to the abundant wonders of the world.

Published on Categories Poetry, Reviews, StorytellingTags , ,
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About Greywolf

I'm Greywolf (aka Philip Shallcrass). My main claim to fame (such as it is) is that I'm chief of the British Druid Order (BDO). I discovered Druidry in 1974, seeing it as a native British 'shamanic' spirituality. An Alexandrian Wiccan coven I joined in 1978 transformed into the Grove of the Badger as Druidry increasingly replaced Wicca in its rites. The end result was the BDO. Emma Restall Orr was joint chief of the Order with me from 1995 to 2002. I live in rural Wiltshire, not far from my spiritual heartland, the area in and around the Avebury henge. I'm a writer, musician, artist, drum-maker, roundhouse-builder and thatcher. I have three sons who share my obsession with music, books and film. Personal obsessions include the work of Britain's greatest bard, Robin Williamson, the comic books of Jack 'King' Kirby (1907-1994) and the speed-freak rock'n'roll of The Screaming Blue Messiahs.

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