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The Welsh Say: To Win Your Love, Ask a Salmon
The tale of Kilhwch and Olwen illustrates the legendary intelligence of our finny friend… 02/11/2021 by Temma Ehrenfeld

Love isn’t easy.  That’s why poor Kilhwch (click here to hear how to pronounce this name) needed the help of a band of warriors with magical powers to win his true love, Olwen.

According to Welsh legend, Kilhwch and his band also required the aid of the old, wise animals in the world - a stag, an owl, and an eagle, who at last led them to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, the oldest and wisest of all.

As we’ve related in tales of Ireland and the Pacific Northwest, salmon, intelligence, and physical strength have long been linked in folklore – possibly because those who eat the fish regularly acquire an unmistakable edge in brain and body power.

So the next time you’re stumped by a challenge, you might talk to a salmon or at least have a salmon dinner - or so suggest the ancient Celtics.

The queen knows the future

This particular tale begins when Kilhwch’s stepmother, a queen, revealed to him that he was meant to marry a girl named Olwen, the daughter of Yspaddaden Penkawr, the powerful and ruthless “chief of the giants.” Hearing this, the youth blushed, and the love of the maiden diffused through his body, although he had never seen her.

No one knew the location of Yspaddaden Penkawr’s castle, so the King told Kilhwch to ask a cousin, King Arthur. Kilhwch rode away on a horse with a dappled gray head and a bridle and saddle of gold. He carried two silver spears sharp enough to wound the wind more swiftly than a dewdrop falls from the grass to the earth in June.

Oh yes, he also had a gold sword and an ivory horn. Before him ran two brindled white-breasted greyhounds, wearing collars of rubies. His shoes and his stirrups were made of gold. Yet despite all this weight, his horse rode so lightly its feet didn’t bend the grass.

Kilhwch travels with his band of warriors with magical powers

Culhwch entering King Arthur's court
Kilhwch entering King Arthur's court, by Alfred Fredericks and published as an illustration in The Boy's Mabinogion

King Arthur, understandably impressed with the young man, assembled his finest men to join Kilhwch on the search for Olwen. Dear reader, they included a warrior who could breathe for nine nights and days underwater, remain dry in a rainstorm and produce fire from his body; a guide who could lead the band in any land, even one he had never seen; an interpreter who knew all languages; and Menw, the “enchanted knight” who could cast a charm on strangers so the band became invisible to them.

They journeyed until they came to an open plain where they saw a castle, the fairest of all the world’s castles, where they encountered a herdsman with his flock.

"We are an embassy from Arthur, come to seek Olwen, the daughter of Yspaddaden Penkawr," they explained.

"Oh men! The mercy of Heaven be upon you. None who ever came hither on this quest has returned alive," the herdsman replied.

The herdsman’s wife was more helpful, explaining that Olwen came to her home every Saturday to wash her hair.

Kilhwch sees Olwen for the first time

Olwen arrived in a robe of flame-colored silk, wearing a necklace of gold studded with emeralds and rubies. She was surpassingly beautiful, with hands and her fingers more delicate and graceful than wood anemone blossoms. She had a glance as bright as a falcon’s and cheeks redder than the reddest roses.  Wherever she walked, four white flowers sprung up, and all who beheld her were struck with love.

Kilhwch begged her to leave with him. But she couldn’t go without her father’s permission, she told him. Kilhwch’s only hope was to speak to her father and do whatever he asked.

Olwen’s father presents his impossible demands

Culhwch at Ysbaddaden's court
Kilhwch at Ysbaddaden's court. An illustration by Earnest Wallcousins in Celtic Myth & Legend

The band followed Olwen to her father’s castle, where Yspaddaden Penkawr began by telling Kilhwch to plow and sow a hill in one day and make the grain ripen that same day in order to feed the guests at his wedding to Olwen. The reluctant father-in-law also demanded that Kilhwch obtain several marvelous objects. To each request, Kilhwch replied, oh sure, that’s easy!

Buried in all these challenges was the greatest, finding and freeing the long-lost Mabon, who was stolen when he was three days old. He may be a deity—it’s complicated. But he is probably why, centuries later, a Lady Charlotte Guest titled her version of a collection of ancient Celtic tales, Mabinogian.  

Kilhwch meets the Salmon of Lyn Llyw

After many adventures, the band realized that the ultimate helper in their quest would be the famed, huge, all-knowing Salmon, who could take them to Mabon.

This was one smart salmon – and highly verbal: “With every tide I go along the river upwards, until I come near to the walls of Gloucester, and there have I found such wrong as I never found elsewhere,” it said.

Two of the men rode on the shoulders of the great Salmon, who brought them to the wall of a prison, deep underwater in the lake, Llyw, and at last to Mabon, whom they freed.

Even more battles and adventures followed (think “Game of Thrones”), and Kilhwch obtained the marvelous objects. Olwen became Kilhwch's bride, and she continued to be his wife as long as she lived.

And none of it would have been possible, the Welsh say, without the wisdom and strength of the formidable Salmon of Lyn Llyw.

So let us take the Welsh wisdom to heart. For your personal romantic saga, I suggest you light two candles, pour the wine, and as you enjoy your rich pink salmon feast together, consider that you might just boost your mutual intelligence and strength, and find true love.  

Sources:

This version of the tale is adapted from Lady Charlotte Guest's Mabinogion, originally published in 1842, available in full online at https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/guest-kilwch-and-olwen.  

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