Storyteller: Chapter 3 - The Power of Names

What power lies in a name? Gwernin Kyuarwyd am I, Gwernin Storyteller. So have I said before. And yet I practice all the bardic arts, so far as I am able—poetry and song and harping, as well as storytelling and the recitation of lore. So why do I call myself Gwernin Kyuarwyd, Gwernin Storyteller, and not Gwernin Fardd, Gwernin the Bard?

Modesty, perhaps. Or a stronger regard for the truth than some display. But mostly for another reason, of which I intend to tell you now.

The feasting at Dinas Powys was behind us, and we were on the road again. Fine indeed had it been while it lasted, for though the Lord Dafydd’s hall was smaller than some I have since seen, his table was bountiful—roast meat in plenty, both cow’s and pig’s flesh; made dishes in the old Roman style; flat wheaten loaves from the bake-stones; barrels of red Gallic wine; and great pitchers of the clear honey-sweet mead with its faintly bitter aftertaste, which seems to light all the world like a golden lantern while it lasts.

Half a dozen bards had performed, all eager to fill the empty chair of the household bard at this wealthy court, and all the other performers got a turn as well, and a gift of silver afterwards for their pains, myself included. Mine was a bracelet in the Saxon style, and not the least by any means of the presents given. I got, too, a word of praise and encouragement from Kyan Goch, which I valued above the silver; he it was who won the bards’ contention, and stayed on as the new household bard to the Lord Dafydd. I was glad for his good luck, but sorry to lose the chance of his company on the road, for he seemed more friendly and less full of self-pride than some of the bards there—more friendly, at least, to me…

All and all, then, I was thinking very well of myself by the time Ieuan and I set out on our travels again. Westward the two of us were going, toward Dyfed, following the Romans’ old paved road which runs straight as a arrow from Caer Dydd to Maridunum, or Caer Myrddin as it is sometimes called nowadays. As one often does, we fell in with a number of other folk who were also following that road on their way home from the festival. What with the bright spring morning, and my recent moments of triumph, I was in high spirits, and kept the company entertained as we went with jokes and riddles and tales. I mind there was one little fair-haired girl in particular who seemed very taken with me, or at least with my stories. She walked close beside me to hear them, and I was not sorry, for her bright eyes made me feel taller and stronger and wiser, maybe, than I was, or was ever like to be. Ah, well, we were young, and it did no one any harm.

As the day went on, most of the folk dropped away from us, turning off to north or south toward their homes, until at last, when afternoon was fading into evening, there was none left but myself, and Ieuan, and one gray old man. I had not talked much with him earlier, being taken up with my own brilliance, but now I turned my attention to him for lack of any other audience (Ieuan being a silent type on the road, and not likely to be impressed with me anyway).

“And where are you bound, sir?” I asked him as we drew near to the village of Y Bont Faen, where the Roman’s stone bridge spans the little river Thaw, and where we were hoping to get lodging for the night.

“To Maridunum, near which I live.” His speech was that of an educated man, despite his shabby tunic and faded brown cloak, and I looked at him with more interest.
“We also are bound that way,” I said, and smiled. “Perhaps we can travel together and keep each other company on the road.”

“Perhaps.” I thought he looked a little amused. “What is your name, lad?”

“Gwernin Fardd am I,” said I, feeling very splendid, “and I come from fair Pengwern in Powys, where Cynan Garwyn has his court on the banks of Severn River.”

“Oh,” he said, “it is a bard you are, is it? You look full young for such distinction.”

“Why—why, perhaps I am.” I was rather taken aback by this challenge, which I had not expected. “But I will grow older.”

“And wiser?” The glint of amusement in his dark eyes was very marked now. “Discourse to me, then, O bard, of your wisdom. Why is stone hard, and why is a thorn sharp? What is as hard as a stone, and as salty as salt?”

“Why—I do not know,” I had to admit, for the riddles were unfamiliar to me. “That is–”

“Yes?” Then, when I made no further reply, “What is as sweet as honey? What rides on the gale? Why is the nose ridged? Why is a wheel round?”

Deeply troubled, I said, “I do not know.”

His smile had reached his mouth, and glinted through his gray beard—and yet I think it was of triumph without malice. “Until you know the names of the verse-forms,” he said very softly, “the name of rimiad, the name of ramiad, until you can name the nine elements by the aid of your seven senses, then I think, Gwernin, that you should keep silent, for whatever else you may be, you are not a bard.”

“No, master, you are right,” I sighed. “I am plain Gwernin Storyteller, and nothing more.”

“That is honestly said, at any rate.” Then, when I continued down-cast and silent, he added, “Do not be so discouraged, youngster. By admitting what you do not know, you have made a first step toward wisdom.”

I smiled despite myself. “A first step on a very long road! Master, if we should travel together, might you be so generous as to share a little, a very little of your knowledge with me?”

“So. A second step already. Yes, Gwernin, I will.” I thanked him earnestly, and he nodded. “But I think that must wait until tomorrow, for look, here we are at the bridge, and the sun is setting.” And it was so.

Several days we traveled together, and I learned much from the stranger, who called himself Emrys. We parted at last by the bridge outside Maridunum, we going on into the town to seek our fortune, and he off up the valley toward his homestead. I never saw him again, but I heard tales, long afterwards, and guessed who he was. I will not say his name now, for naming calls, and I would not trouble his rest; it was well-earned, and in times and places which have now passed away. But I remembered his lessons, and began, as I walked, to make and polish—with such clumsy labor and pain, but such pride!—my first songs. This is a craft which cannot be learned too young—or rather, cannot be learned at all. No true bard that I have known ever feels he has got to the end of it, however far he has gone—no, not the greatest of us all. And his name I will say: for he was called Taliesin, which means Shining Brow; and his rest I cannot disturb, for he is with me still.

But that, O my children, is a story for another day.

(Chapter 3 from Storyteller, Copyright 2007 by G. R. Grove.)

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