thumb|203px|link=Culhwch and Olwen (Welsh: Culhwch ac Olwen) is the earliest extant complete Arthurian narrative, dated to around 1100. A complete version of the text survives in the much later manuscript, The Red Book of Hergest.
King Cilydd (Cylidd Wledig), the son of Celyddon, marries Goleuddydd. Goleuddydd loses her sanity while pregnant with their son, Culhwch, and gives birth to him in a swine-run, dying during the delivery. Culhwch is raised in secret by a swine-herd until he comes of age and is brought to the court of his father. In the meantime, Cilydd has killed King Doged and taken his wife, daughter, and lands. This new wife is distraught to learn of Culhwch’s existence, as he will inherit over her daughter, so she suggests the two step-siblings marry. When Culhwch refuses, his step mother curses him, so that he may marry no one except for Olwen, the daughter of Ysbaddaden Pencawr, the king of giants.
Upon hearing of her beauty, Culhwch falls in love with Olwen. At the recommendation of his father, Culhwch seeks the aid of his cousin Arthur, who rules at Celliwig in Cornwall, in order to obtain his bride. Arthur agrees to help and sends six members of his warrior band to Culhwch’s aid, each characterized by supernatural abilities: Kay (Cai), who can hold his breath underwater for nine days and nine nights, and who can go a similar amount of time without food, and who can become as tall as the tallest tree in the forest; Bedwyr, whose lance can wound as well as nine others, and who never fails when he sets out with Kay; Gawain (Gwalchmei), his nephew, who never returns home from adventure without success; Kynddelig the Guide, who can find his way in unknown lands as well as in his own; Gwrhyr Gwalstawt Ieithoedd, who knows all languages; and, finally, Menw, the son of Teirgwaedd, who can turn his companions invisible, take on the shape of a bird, and put dogs to sleep with a glance.
The group takes shelter with a shepherd whose wife is Culhwch’s aunt. This aunt warns the band that all men who seek Olwen are never heard from again. When they refuse her warning, the aunt discloses that every Saturday Olwen comes to her house to wash her hair. At the appointed time, she arrives, white flowers springing from her footprints. Culhwch is even more deeply smitten. Olwen is receptive, but reveals that her father is fated to die the day she marries, thus he will set a number of impossible tasks before any possible husband. Culhwch is undeterred and follows Olwen to her home. There, Ysbaddaden lists forty or so tasks, only a few of which are narrated. They include combing the giant's hair and shaving his beard, both of which require fantastic implements to be obtained.
The first task is to slay the giant Wrnach, in order to obtain his sword, which can slay the boar Twrch Trwyth. Kay tricks the giant by convincing him that his sword needs sharpening; when Wrnach hands over the sword, Kay beheads him. Next, the band searches for Mabon ap Modron, the greatest huntsman of all time, who has been imprisoned since the beginning of time. Only Mabon may handle Drudwyn the hound, without whom Twrch Trwyth cannot be caught. Finding Mabon’s location requires that Kay and Bedwyr seek out the oldest animals in the land, until finally, the oldest salmon carries them on its back to Mabon’s prison. Arthur’s armies besiege the prison and Mabon is freed.
The band then hunts down Ysgithrwyn, the wildest boar in all of Britain, whose tusk is the sharpest item in Britain. They then follow Twrch Trwyth to Ireland, and then back across the sea to Preseli in Northern Wales. Finally, the boar is caught on the banks of the Severn river. They take an enchanted shaving set consisting of scissors, comb, and razors from between his ears and then drive him into the river, where he drowns. The whole ordeal results in the death of many of Arthur’s men.
One last task is then undertaken. Arthur kills the Black Witch in order to use her blood to soften Ysbaddaden’s beard so that it may be cut. Culhwch is then able to cut Ysbaddadden’s hair and shaves his beard all the way down to the bone. Ysbaddaden dies, and Culhwch and Olwen are wed.
Editions of the TextEdit
Culhwch and Olwen was first made popular as a part of Charlotte Guest’s Mabinogion. The Welsh text has been edited and extensively annotated by Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon D. Evans, published as Culhwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992).
- Thomas, Peter Wynn; Smith, D. Mark and Luft, Diana. (Eds.) (2007). Jesus 111 (Llyfr Coch Hergest) page 200v [Red Book version in Welsh]. Welsh Prose 1350-1425.
- Thomas, Peter Wynn; Smith, D. Mark and Luft, Diana. (Eds.) (2007). Peniarth 4 (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch) page 79v [White Book version in Welsh]. Welsh Prose 1350-1425.