Geraint and the Three Knots
The first Eisteddfod of which we have record was held by the Lord Rhys in south Wales in 1169. This is not the story of that Eisteddfod. But it might have been.
There was once a young man called Geraint who was apprenticed to an old bard in North Wales. As he was nearing the end of his apprenticeship, word came from the South that the Lord Rhys was holding a great competition for bards and singers at Christmas. Geraint’s master urged him to go and enter this contest. “For, “ he said, “I am an old man, and have had many students in my life, but you, I think, will be the best of them. Go you therefore to this Eisteddfod in Deuheubarth, and show them what a bard of Gwynedd can do.” So Geraint took his harp and his cloak and his carry-sack, and made ready to be on his way. He set off in good time, to allow for delays of the roads or the weather. And as he went he whistled and sang merrily, for his heart was high.
When he had been walking for a while and a while, he came upon a fair young woman, wrapped in a blue mantle, and sitting on the bank by the side of the road. And she had a child in her arms, and a great sack beside her, and she was weeping. “Woman,” said Geraint, “why do you weep on such a fine day?”. “I weep,” she said, “because my man is dead, and I am going back to my father’s kin, with my child and all I can carry, but I have far to go, and no one to help me, and I am weary.” ”I will go with you and help you,” said Geraint. “Where is your kinship?” “In Nant Melangell,” she said, “on the far side of Berwyn. And if you go with me and help me, I will bless you.”
Now this reply gave Geraint pause, for Berwyn is a high mountain, and it was right out of his way. But he said to himself that he had time and to spare, and he took up the young woman’s burden along with his own, and they set out. All day they climbed the mountain, through sun and mist and snow, and that night they slept in a hafodty, a shepherd’s summer hut, with one cloak over the two of them, and the child between them to keep him from the cold. And the next day at dusk they came down into the fair green valley of St. Melangell, and the first house they came to took them in. These folk were of the woman’s kinship, and they were glad of her coming, and promised to see her safely to her father’s home on the morrow. And Geraint had all the best that was in their house that night.
Next morning Geraint rose up, and took his harp and his cloak and his carry-sack, and made ready to be on his way. And as he was taking his leave of them, the fair young woman said, “Geraint, come with me now to my father’s house, and he will reward you. For you gave me help when there was none to help me, and I am grateful.” “Lady,” said Geraint, with some regret, for she was indeed fair to look upon, “gladly would I come with you, but I cannot. I am on my way to the Eisteddfod in Deuheubarth, at my master’s bidding, and I cannot stay.” ‘Well,” said the young woman, “if you will not come, then you will not. But I lay a fate on you. If you had come home with me now, you would have slept soft and warm tonight, and had sweet dreams. But when you come to the Eisteddfod, your bed will be hard and cold, and you will get no rest in it.” “Well,” said Geraint, for this seemed unfriendly to him, “if it must be, then let it be so.” And he went on his way.
When he had been walking for three days, or it might have been more, he came upon a horse, bridled and saddled, and straying at graze beside a steep slope. And as he was looking at the horse – which was a fine chestnut mare, with rich gear all of worked leather – he thought he heard a voice, faint and distant, crying for help. Looking down the hillside, he saw something red, which might have been a cloak, caught in the bare branches of a tree. Geraint climbed down carefully through the rocks and the thorns, and the slick, icy patches beyond the reach of the sun, and he found a man, barely alive, caught by his clothes in a tree and hanging over a steep drop. Geraint took off his belt and tied it to a branch, and wrapping it around his left hand, he leaned out over the drop, and caught the man’s belt, and pulled him back out of the tree, and onto safe ground. Then taking the man on his shoulders, he climbed back up the hillside, through the rocks and the thorns that tore at his skin and his clothing, and over the steep, icy places where he went on his hands and knees for fear of the drop behind him. And all the time the injured man on his back moaned and clung to him, and seemed to grow heavier and heavier with every step, until Geraint must pause again and again for breath. His heart drummed in his ears, and the cold air burned in his throat, and still he climbed.
At last he reached the path. He tore strips from his own cloak, and bound up the man’s wounds as best he might, and gave him to drink from a flask of wine he found hanging on the mare’s saddle. “Man,” he said then, “where is your home? For I will see you safe there.” “I live on the far side of Penlimon, in Nant Ystwyth,” said the man. “And if you will go with me and help me, my gratitude to you will be twice what it is now. And God be praised for your coming.”
Now this reply gave Geraint pause, for Penlimon is a high mountain, and it was right out of his way. But he said to himself that he had yet time and to spare for his journey, and he could not leave a wounded man to make his way alone. So he helped the man into the saddle, where he clung weakly, and he himself took the mare’s bridle, to lead her over Penlimon. They spent that night in a hafodty in the mountains, and the next day at dusk came down into the broad green valley of the River Ystwyth, and the first house they came to took them in. Now the injured man was lord of this valley, and the people in the house were glad indeed to see him, and set to work to tend his hurts and make him welcome. And Geraint had all the best that was in that house that night.
So the next morning Geraint rose up, and took his harp and his cloak and his carry-sack, and made ready to be on his way. And as he was taking his leave of them, the injured man said to him, “Geraint, come with me now to my manor, that I may repay you. For I was a night and a day in that tree, and I would have died there, had it not been for you.” “Lord,” said Geraint with some regret, for his purse was empty, “gladly would I come with you, but I am on my way to the Eisteddfod in Deuheubarth, and I may not stay.” “Well,” said the man, “if you will not stay, then you will not. But I lay a fate on you. If you had come home with me now, you would have had all the best from my table, and mead and wine a-plenty. But when you come to the Eisteddfod, your mouth will be dry as the dust, and your belly will be empty.” “Well,” said Geraint, “if it must be, then let it be so.” And he went on his way.
When he had been walking for three days, or it might have been more, he came to a house at twilight, meaning to ask lodging there for the night. But when he came into the yard, he saw the place was in confusion, and all the women weeping. He might have gone away again, but a young man coming out of the doorway, seeing him a stranger, spoke to him and bade him enter. Then seeing the small harp that Geraint carried, he asked him if he was a bard. “I am,” said Geraint. “Then come with me now,” said the young man, “for my father, who is lord of this place, is dying, and he is asking for music and song to ease his end, and we have no bard here now to aid him.” Then Geraint went with the young man, who led him into a chamber, and in it a bed, and an old man on it, who lay twisting in pain. “Father,” said the young man, “God in his mercy has sent us a bard, to give you ease.” And Geraint sat down by the bed, and took out his harp from its case, and began to play and to sing. And as he played, the old man grew quieter, and lay listening in peace. But if Geraint ceased to play, the pain came upon him again. And Geraint could not bear to see him so, and so he sat, playing and singing, all that night, and the next day, and the night that followed, until his arms and shoulders ached with the playing, and his fingers were raw from the touch of the strings, and his voice was a whisper. And that night, just before dawn, the old man died.
Then Geraint would gladly have rested, for he was weary, but he knew that he had now little time to complete his journey; and so he rose up, and took his harp and his cloak and his carry-sack, and made ready to be on his way. And as he was taking his leave of them, the young lord said, “Geraint, much do I owe you for the great gift that you made to my father, to ease his dying. Stay here with me now, and be my bard, and you shall have your seat in my hall, and my harp in your hand, as long as we both do live.” “Lord,” said Geraint, “gladly would I bide with you, and gladly be your bard, but I am on my way to the Eisteddfod in Deuheubarth, and I may not stay.” “Well,” said the young lord, “if you will not stay, then you will not. But I lay a fate on you. If you had stayed here with me now, you would have lived among friends, and had joy and mirth every day. But when you come to the Eisteddfod, you will weep, and all who see it will smile, and none will give you comfort.” “Well,” said Geraint, “if it must be, then let it be so.” And he went on his way.
Geraint walked now from the first grey light of dawn, until night came down upon him, for the days were short and dark, and the winter feast was at hand. And at last one evening at twilight he came to the Lord Rhys’ castle at Carreg Cennin: and this was on Christmas Eve. And when he came into the hall, he found the place full of bards and harpers, and he heard then that the competition was to be held the next day, and that it was to be, not for some old song – of which he knew full many – but for a new song upon a set topic. And the topic set was cwlwm, which means, a knot. And all the other bards had been there for some days, making and polishing their songs. But Geraint had only the one night in which to prepare, and he was weary.
When the evening’s feasting was over, they went to their beds, and Geraint, being of no account, lay down in the rushes in the lord’s hall, with many another poor man. And hard and cold though that bed was, he would have slept, but that his mind was wakeful. He thought of the time he had lost, by turning aside on his journey, and the thought was bitter to him. Then he thought of cwlwm, the knot, and the things that bind men and women together. And lastly he thought of the people he had met on his journey, and the things he had done and seen. And he knew then what his song was to be; and all night long he lay awake, making and polishing the song; and in the morning, he was ready.
When the time for the competition arrived, Geraint’s belly was empty, for though there was food and drink in plenty that morning, he was too nervous to eat, and his mouth was dry as dust with the fear that was on him. But he stood up boldly enough when his turn came, and struck a note upon his harp, and he began to sing. He sang of the knot of love between the young mother and her child, carried on her shoulders over the mountain; and he sang of the knot of trust, stronger than a leather belt, that holds men in peril together. And lastly he sang of the knot of blood, of shared experience and language, which binds a land or a kinship into one. And no voice but his spoke in the hall until he was done.
Then he sat down, and ate and drank, and listened to the other bards singing. And he learned where he could, and he gave praise where he might, and he took pleasure in all he heard. Great and wonderful was that singing, and he smiled a little wryly to himself, thinking how foolish he had been to come and compete against such masters, and he no more than an apprentice. But for all that, he was glad he had come.
In the evening the winner of the competition was announced – and it was Geraint. The Lord Rhys gave him a seat at his own high table, and mead to drink from his great golden cup, and he praised him. And as Geraint sat there smiling, his heart overflowed, and he wept with joy. And all who saw it smiled back at him; and he needed no comfort.
(Copyright 2010 by G. R. Grove.)