Llywarch Hen and Heledd

Detail of a medieval painting of horses in battle

Last updated: 20 October 2009

The saga poetry associated with Llywarch Hen and Heledd is thought to date from as early as the ninth century.

Canu Llywarch Hen - The Poetry of Llywarch the Old

Llywarch Hen is believed to have been an historical sixth century prince in the Old Northern Celtic kingdom of Rheged (an area of south-western Scotland today). He was the cousin of King Urien of Rheged, to whom Taliesin is thought to have been a court poet.

The core of the poetry is judged to have been written in the ninth or 10th century. It was previously believed that the poetry was written by Llywarch, but it is more likely that he is just the protagonist in the poems written about him by an unknown poet or poets of the Cynfeirdd.

Canu Llywarch Hen takes the form of a cycle of englynion, the oldest recorded Welsh metrical form that dates from as early as the ninth century. Most of the Llywarch Hen poetry exists in the Red Book of Hergest.

In the poem Dym kywardyat unhwch, The Death of Urien, Llywarch is noted as having been present at Urien of Rheged's death, and was responsible for reclaiming the head from his body after his assassination.

Another part of the poetry presents Llywarch as a petulant old man, whose demands on his 24 warrior sons subsequently lead to their deaths on the battlefield. It is only after the death of his last remaining son, Gwên, that he realises how selfishly he has treated his offspring and how his pride, arrogance and pursuit for renown were wrong. In this instance, the poetry of Llywarch Hen is almost anti-heroic when compared to the heroic nature of Aneirin's Y Gododdin.

Canu Heledd - The Song of Heledd

Again dating from around the ninth or 10th century, The Song of Heledd is a cycle of saga englynion that is narrated by the main character, Heledd. Most of the Heledd stanzas of poetry are, like the Llywarch poems, found in the Red Book of Hergest.

Heledd is believed to be the sole remaining member of the royal House of Powys, following the advance of the English and the many battles that ensued. In the poetry she mourns the loss of her home and her family, including her brothers - one of whom was the king Cynddylan, who ruled in the seventh century.

She laments the death of Cynddylan and the court, her brother's hall that was attacked and destroyed, and also mourns the death of her sister Ffreuer in a monologue of poetry.

The poem Marwnad Cynddylan is also included in the Heledd cycle, which makes one of the earliest references to Arthur.

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