Gwyn ap Nudd and the Burning Tree

tree

There’s a tale about Gwyn ap Nudd and the Christian Saint, Collen, which appeared in Lady Guest’s original translation of the Mabinogion, but isn’t in today’s editions.

Collen was a former soldier of the Roman Empire, who had turned to Christianity. He became an Abbot in the still-pagan territory around Glastonbury. Finding that he disliked the everyday responsibilities of the job, he resigned to become a hermit, preaching to the local people – without, the tale tells us, much success.

One day, he heard some local men talking outside his austere home, referring to Gwyn ap Nudd as the lord of the Fair People: the Tylwyth Teg. Furious, Collen rushed outside to chastise them, angrily telling them that Gwyn and his folk were devils. The men were unimpressed, and warned Collen in turn that Gwyn would hear of his words.

And, indeed, the next morning there came a knock on Collen’s door. When he refused to open it, the unseen messenger called to him, informing him that he was summoned to meet Gwyn at noon, at Gwyn’s court on the summit of Glastonbury Tor. Collen did not go, but remained hiding in his cell.

The next day, the same thing happened. The messenger delivered his summons, but Collen remained hiding in his cell.

On the third day, the messenger came once more, and delivered his summons one more time – but, this time, he added “If you do not answer this summons, you will regret it”.

So this time, Collen did go, to the top of Glastonbury Tor, and there he found Gwyn ap Nudd with his court of finely-clad servants and warriors and attendants, and their hounds and horses, and the womenfolk of the court, and a great feast laid out. And every member of the court was youthful and graceful and fair to the eye, and there were bards playing and singing the fairest of music. And all in the court were dressed in clothing that was half red and half forest-green.

And Gwyn ap Nudd, lord of this court, invited Collen to sit, and to partake of the best of food and the best of drink and the best of entertainment that could be imagined, and all that was fitting for a man of his rank and wisdom.

But Collen cried out, “I will not eat of the leaves of the tree”. He produced a flask, which he had secretly carried in, and scattered holy water around, and Gwyn and all of his court disappeared, leaving Collen alone on a bare hill-top.

According to the Guest translation he says something odd as drew out his flask, in reference to the colours of the Fair Folks’ clothes: “The red on the one part signifies burning, and the blue on the other signifies coldness”.

The Christian church of the late mediaeval period, when this tale was written down, recorded this as a victory of a holy saint over the devils of Annwn.

Other sources, however, record that Collen left Glastonbury the very next day, and never returned. He moved to North Wales, far from Glastonbury, to the lands formerly ruled by Brân the Blessed, and settled down for the rest of his life in the place which became known as Llangollen: “Collen’s enclosure”.

It doesn’t sound as though he had much confidence at all in his banishment of the court of Annwn! Frankly, it sounds very much as if he knew he had made a powerful enemy with his rudeness, and had no desire to face the music. Since we know that humans can only see the Fair Folk when the latter choose, it is more likely that they simply became invisible than that he successfully banished them!

Now, if you’ve read the tale of Collen before, you may notice a difference between that telling and mine.

Lady Guest’s translation, the best-known, records that Gwyn’s retainers and warriors were dressed in red and blue, not red and green. This is incorrect, I believe.

In the original, the words used are “coch a glas”. ‘Coch’ translates fairly accurately to the English word ‘red’; that’s not a problem. ‘Glas’ is these days used to convey the meaning of the English word ‘blue’, but that is only a partial match. As I wrote in a recent post, in Welsh, as in Irish, and many other languages, ‘glas’ covers a broad spectrum. As I wrote there, ‘glas‘ means landscape colours, usually with a shine of some kind, and in pre-modern times it was used most frequently to describe the colour of foliage: not the bright green of a new shoot, but the the darker, more complex mosaic of greens as seen in a field, or the leaves of the forest.

So rather than a Victorian aristocrat’s vision of clothes of red and vibrant blue, when we picture Gwyn ap Nudd’s court we should see a more archaic vision of red and dark green: a green connected with the forest, and with a warm, nature-infused Otherworld.

Collen’s words about the colours are therefore historically significant. As I noted in my previous post, the Christian era seems to have been accompanied by a shift in colour-perception: the Christians associated ‘glas‘ with evil, and seem to have focused more on the colder aspects of the colour. Thus, even though the scribes who recorded the story didn’t realise it, their tale marks a point in human history which not only saw a change in the way humans described colour, they also quite literally changed the way they mentally processed the signals sent by their eyes, actually seeing the world differently. We will return to this in another post.

For Druids, there is important meaning concealed here. We know that well into the middle ages, Welsh tradition associated Gwyn with the forest, and travellers would ask for the protection of his beloved before they ventured into the wildwood. Forest-green is the colour of his domain in our world, while red is the colour of fire: the colour of inspiration, of awen, of the ‘Holy Fire’ illuminating our mind. The colour of the Tylwyth Teg.

This is reinforced elsewhere in the Mabinogion, in the tale of Peredur son of Efrawg.

Peredur, about to enter the valley of the Lord of the Beasts, encounters a tall tree. One side of the tree is covered in green leaves from its roots to its tip; the other side is burning brightly, and yet is not consumed.

What clearer sign could there be that from here onwards, Peredur is entering Annwn, the Otherworld, the land of poetic inspiration?

Why do Gwyn ap Nudd’s courtiers wear red and green? Collen’s words show that he understood: like the burning tree that Peredur encounters, these are the colours of their lord’s domains.

As I wrote recently Gwyn’s people are the Tylwyth Teg, the Fair Folk, the Shining People. They are the Coraniaid: a magical people, the people of the otherworld, unfriendly to humans, but now forbidden to oppress humans by the rule of Lludd’s son, Gwyn. The red is for them, and for Gwyn’s realm in Annwn. It is for the flames of inspiration, which shine brightly but do not destroy that which fuels them. It is for one aspect of the world that we cannot see – though, in times past, perhaps we could.

The green represents the untamed forest; the wildwood. Here, too, Gwyn rules. Collen’s remark about leaves shows that he understood that perfectly well. We’ll talk about that more in another post.

Image credits: Burn by Tim Franklin Photography on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

5 comments

  1. I wasn’t aware of the shifting meaning of ‘glas’ and the possibility Gwyn’s courtiers wear red and green. The link you make with the half-burning tree is interesting and seems to related to the scene in Owain and the Lady of the Fountain where the well and bowl stand beside a tree that is in full leaf then loses all its leaves to the hail when Owain throws water on the slab.

    Like

    • Hi Lorna, thanks for leaving a reply 🙂 I really enjoy reading your blog; you’ve got a lot of good insights. I look forward to comparing notes about Gwyn ap Nudd – but I want to get everything I’ve got bouncing around in my head written down first, so that it’s all recorded.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s