Gwalchmei (Gawain)

A Cymric Arthurian Hero: Hawk of the Plain

Gwalchmei is a Cymric (Welsh) hero known from the Welsh Traids, the Black Book of Carmarthen and the Mabinogi of Culhwch ac Olwen. He is portrayed as the most fearless and the most courteous of the men of Britain and is probably the archetype for Gawain in the later Arthurian romances.

Gwalchmei mab Gwyar is known from the Trioedd Ynys Prydain, Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin, the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen and the Ystoria Trystan. Triad 4 paints Gwalchmei as one of the three wealthiest men of the Island of Britain. According to triad 91 he was one of the ‘Three most fearless men of the Island of Britain’. Gwalchmei is also described in triad 75 as one of the ‘Three men of the Island of Britain who were most courteous to Guests and Strangers’. Again, in appendix IV of the triads he is noted as one of the ‘Three Golden-tongued Knights of Arthur’s Court’; though his parentage here is given as Gwalchmei mab Llew mab Cynfarch.

The nature of Gwalchmei as being amongst the most courteous and golden-tongued of the men of Britain must have been an ancient tradition as it is preserved in the figure of Gawain in the Arthurian romances (for whom Gwalchmei was probably the antecedent). It is also preserved in native tales such as Drystan ac Esyllt, the relevant passage from which is given here:

Drystan is in love with his uncle March mab Meirchion’s wife, Esyllt and after many adventures they eventually escape to the forest of Celyddon.

Meanwhile, Drystan mab Tallwch and Esyllt, wife of March ab Merichion fled into the depths of the Celyddon woods along with Golwg Hafddydd and Bach Bychan who brought wine and pastries for them and within the depths of the woods a bower of leaves was made for the lovers. March mab Meirchiawn went to complain to Arthur or his treatment at Drystan’s hand, to entreat Arthur to avenge him for the insult offered to him; for he was nearer kin to Arthur than Drystan. March mab Meirchion being a first cousing to Arthur whereas Drystan was his cyfyrdar; the nephew-son of a first cousin.

‘I shall go,’ said Arthur, ‘myself and my teulu; to seek either restitution or retribution by the shedding of blood.’ Then they surrounded the woods of Celyddon.

Drystan’s cynneddf was that whoever drew blood upon him died, and whoever Drystan drew blood upon also died. So that when Esyllt heard the voices of men surrounding them she trembled against Drystan who enquired of her why she trembled so. She responded that it was becuase of fear for him and Drystan sang this englyn:

Esyllt, fair, be not afraid:
Whilst I protect thee,
Three-hundred knights cannot abduct thee.
Nor thrice a hundred men at arms.

With this Drystan rose and taking his sword in hand he cut through the first batallion as if they were cords of wood until he reached March mab Meirchion. Now March knew full well of Drystan’s abilities and said to his men: ‘I must kill myself in order to kill him.’ His men all responded with: ‘Shame be upon us if we interfere with him.’ Thus Drystan was able to advance through three batallions entirely unopposed.

Meanwhile Cei Hir (the tall), who was in love with Golwg Hafddydd, advanced on Esyllt’s bower and reaching her he sang this triad:

Blessed Essyllt, loving gull,
As we converse, I say
Drystan had escaped

Esyllt responded with:

Blessed Cei, if thou speakest truth,
As thou converse with me
Thou shall attain a gilded mistress


I seek not a mistress, gold
As thou dost know
Golwg Hafddydd do I seek


If this tale be true
That came from out thy lips
Golwg Hafddydd shall be thine

March mab Meirchion went a second time to Arthur for he had received nether satisfaction nor the payment of blood for the insult to his wife. At this Arthur said: ‘I know no counsel to give thee, [for no man can approach Drystan] save to sent musicians to play to him from afar and thereafter to send bards to sing him englynion of praise.’ March took Arthur’s counsel and this they did. Drystan called the various artisans to him and gave them handfuls of gold and silver for their songs. After them a man was sent to sue for peace, this being silver-tongued Gwalchmei. Upon reaching Drystan Gwalchmei sang this poem:

Tumult is the nature of the wave
When the sea is at flood
Who then art thou, fair warrior

Drystan responded with:

Tumultuous are the waves and thunder, both
In their bursting forth let them in tumoil be
At the day of conflict Drystan am I


Drystan, with bright qualities endowed
Whose spear has oft been cast in toil of war
I am Gwalchmei, nephew to Arthur


Gwalchmei, there swifter than Myrddin,
Shouldst though in danger be
Blodd shall I spill until it reached our knees


Drystan, for thy sake now I wouldst strive
Until my wrist in battle failed
For thee would I my utmost do


In defiance do I ask
I ask it not through fear —
Who are these men of war before me now?


Drystan, of distinguished fame
Are these men not known to thee?
For the Llys of Arthur comes


Arthur I cannot shun,
To thrice three-hundred combats would I him dare —
For if I am slain, so I shall also slay


Drystan, friend of maids,
Lest thou commence this work of strife
Best of all is peace


Let me but have my sword upon my leg
My strong right hand to guard me
I shall be more stut than any foe


Drystan of aspiring mind
The rainfall wets a hundred oaks
Come parley with thy kinsman.


Gwalchmei of persuasive tongue
The shower may a hundred furrows soak
I shall follow thee

Drystan followed Gwalchmei to where Arthur camped, whereupon Gwalchmei sang this:

Arthur of courteous reply,
The shower wets a hundred heads,
Be of good cheer, for Drystan is here

Then Arthur sang:

Gwalchmei, thou of faultless response,
The shower wets a hundred homes
Be welcome Drystan, nephew mine

Drystan remained silent and Arthur sanga second triad:

Worthy Drystan, chief of hosts
Love thy race, recall thy past
Am I not the leader of hosts?

Still Drystan remained silent and Arthur sang:

Drystan, leader of attacks
Be equal with the best
But leave the rule to me.

Yet again Drystan said nothing and Arthur sang a final song:

Drystan, wise and mighty chief
Love thy kin, none shall harm thee
No coldness can be ‘tween friend and friend

Finally Drystan responded, singing this verse to Arthur, his uncle:

Arthur, to thee will I attend,
To thy comumand must I submit
What thou doth wish will I now do

Thus was peace made between Drystan and March mab Meirchion and Arthur conversed with both in turn to seek a resoultion. But neither was willing to live without Esyllt. Thus Arthur judged that she should dwell with one man whilst there were leaves on the trees and would dwell with the other when the trees were bare of leaves; with her rightful husband to have the choice. March chose the season when the leaves were not on the wood, for the nights were longer during that year-half. Arthur announced this to Esyllt and she rejoiced saying: ‘Blessed be this judgemet and he who gave it.’ Then she sang this song:

Three treees are in their nature good:
The holly, the ivy and the yew,
These keep their leaves throughout their lives
Thus I am Drystan as long as he lives!

By this means did March mab Meirchion lose his wife forever as Drystan gained his true love. Thus ends this tale.

In the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen Gwalchmei rides his steed, Ceingalad whilst accompanying Culhwch on his quest. The Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin version of triad also gives the name of Gwalchmei’s steed as Ceingaled (hard-backed) though triad 46a gives his steed as Meingaled (slender-hard) though these references may be too the same steed (note the caled (hard) component of the name).

The etymology of Gwalchmei’s name has been the source of considerable debate. However, the old tranlation of ‘Hawk of May’ now seems unlikely. What is not in doubt is that the first syllable of the name Gwalch means ‘hawk’. It is the origin of the second syllable that remains troubling. Some (see Rachel Bromwich’s Trioedd Ynys Prydain have suggested that Gwalchmei is derived from the Brython *Ualcos Magesos (hawk of the plains) with the mei component of the name representing the genitive plural of the word ma (plain).

Gwalchmei also appears to be Arthur’s nephew, as described in Culhwch ac Olwen: ‘Arthur called upon Gwalchmei mab Gwyar, as he never returned home without completing the quest he had sought. He was the best of walkers and the best of riders. He was Arthur’s nephew, his sister’s son, and his first cousin.’ Now whether Gwyar represents the patronymic or matronymic remains in doubt as the name could represent either. Thus Gwyar could be Gwalchmei’s father or it could be Arthur’s sister and Gwalchmei’s mother. However, the relationship between a man and his sister’s son was a special one in Brythonic society thus it is no surprise that Gwalchmei was counted amongst Arthur’s most prominent warriors. Indeed, the tale of Ystoria Trystan alludes to both Gwalchmei and Drystan being at the forefront of a battle, though the tale of this clash against foemen is lost to us.

Gwalchmei also appears in the Mabinogion of Owein (also known as Iarlles y Ffynnawn ‘The Countess of the Spring’). Owein, having journeyed to meet the black knight, the greatest knight anyone knows of, in battle, and having defeated him has married his wife and tarried there for three years, is believed lost by Arthur and as Arthur and Gwalchmei ride out one day, Gwalchmei asks of Arthur why he is sad.

Hearing that Arthur is sad for the possible loss of Owein, Gwalchmei is determined to find the whereabouts of his lost kinsman and with their retinues Gwalchmei and Arthur ride out to seek Owein. Cynon son of Clydno acts as their guide and brings them to the sacred spring where they pour the spring’s water onto the nearby stone so that they can challenge the black knight. Unbeknownst to them Owein has defeated the black knight and assumed his role. So that the knight they all meet in battle, and who defeats them one by one is none other than the man they are seeking, Owein himself. Eventually only Gwalchmei is left and he rides forwards to challenge the black knight. Neither recognize one another as Owein is in the guise of the black knight and Gwalchmei has donned new raiment. Only when Gwalchmei’s helm is split by a sword blow does Owein recognize him and their epic confilct ends. Thus is Owein re-united with his kinsmen Gwalchmei and Arthur.