Spoils of Annwfn, The

Spoils of Annwfn, The
(Preiddeu Annwfn)
(ca. 900)
   The Spoils of Annwfn is a brief but puzzling poem in Welsh, preserved in the 13th-century book of TALIESIN. Though structurally similar to other poems in that manuscript, it was certainly not written by the sixth-century bard Taliesin. Most likely the poem was composed between the eighth and 12th centuries, probably around the year 900. The Spoils of Annwfn is interesting chiefly as an early text dealing with the legend of King ARTHUR. In the poem Arthur (not yet called king) leads his men in a raid on Annwfn, the mythic dwelling place of the Celtic deities. Annwfn is depicted here as both an underworld city and an island in the sea to which Arthur and his host must travel in his ship Prydwen (“Fairface”). Arthur’s goal is to obtain a magic cauldron in the possession of the lord of Annwfn. The cauldron is guarded by nine maidens, and it has the property of measuring the courage of warriors: A coward could not cook with it. The expedition proves to be dangerous and costly for Arthur—only seven men return alive, including the poem’s narrator, who uses that fact as a kind of refrain after each section of the poem, repeating “apart from seven, none came back.”With each refrain, the narrator also calls Annwfn by another name: “Faerie,” for example, or “Fortress of Revelry.” These various epithets have led to some confusion in the poem, since some readers have taken them to refer to different destinations, and suggested that the poem is about several different journeys, from each of which only seven warriors returned. This seems less likely than the poet’s using various epithets for the underworld. But the difference in interpretation does illustrate the difficulty of understanding or translating this poem. Other difficulties arise from the many allusions to traditional Celtic legend that are incomprehensible to modern readers.
   Scholars have recognized similarities between this poem and another Welsh text, the tale of Branwen in the second branch of the MABINOGION. Though that text does not involve Arthur and describes a voyage to Ireland rather than the underworld, it does concern a magic cauldron that can raise the dead. It is possible that these magic Celtic vessels are early versions of what was to become the legend of the HOLY GRAIL in later texts.
   ■ Breeze, Andrew. Medieval Welsh Literature. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997.
   ■ Loomis, Roger Sherman. The Development of Arthurian Romance. New York: Norton, 1963.
   ■ Williams, Gwyn. An Introduction to Welsh Poetry. 1954. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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