The Drowning of the Bottom Hundred
In honor of Hurricane Lili hitting New Orleans, I offer this Welsh tale of similiar proportions...
IN the days of King Arthur, Gwyddno Garanhir was King of Ceredigion. The most valuable portion of his dominions was the great plain of the Bottom Hundred, a vast tract of level land, stretching along that part of the sea coast which now belongs to the counties of Merioneth and Cardigan. This district was populous and fertile. It contained sixteen fortified towns, superior to all the towns and cities of the Cymry excepting Caer Lleon upon Usk. It contained also one of the three privileged ports of the Isle of Britain which was called the Port of Gwyddno, and had been known to the Phoenicians and Carthaginians when they visited the island for metal in the dim dawn of history. This lowland country was below the level of the sea, and the people of the Bottom Hundred had in very early times built an embankment of massy stone to protect it from the encroachment of that hungry element. This stony rampart had withstood the shock of the waves for centuries when Gwyddno began his reign. Watch-towers were erected along the embankment, and watchmen were appointed to guard against the first approaches of damage or decay. The whole of these towers and their companies of guards were ruled by a central castle, which commanded the seaport already mentioned, and wherein dwelt Prince Seithenyn, the son of Seithyn Saidi, who held the office of Lord High Commissioner of the Royal Embankment. Now, Seithenyn was one of the three immortal drunkards of the Isle of Britain. He left the embankment to his deputies, who left it to their assistants, who left it to itself.
One only was there who did his duty. He was Teithrin, the son of Tathral, who had the charge of a watch-tower where the embankment ended at the point of Mochras, in the high land of Ardudwy. Teithrin kept his portion of the embankment in good condition, and paced with daily care the limits of his charge. One day he happened to stray beyond them, and observed signs of neglect that filled him with dismay. This induced him to proceed till his wanderings brought him to the embankment’s southern end, in the high land of Ceredigion. He met with abundant hospitality at the towers of his colleagues and at the castle of Seithenyn : he was supposed to be walking for his amusement. He was asked no questions, and he carefully abstained from asking any. He examined and observed in silence, and when he had completed his observations he hastened to Gwyddno’s palace. It had been built of choice slate stone on the rocky banks of the Mawddach, just above the point where it entered the plain of the Bottom Hundred, and in it, among green woods and sparkling waters, Garanhir lived in festal munificence. On his arrival, he was informed by the porter that the knife was in the meat, and the drink in the horn; there was revelry in the great hail, and none might enter therein but the son of a king of a privileged country or a craftsman bringing his craft. The feast was to last so many days that Teithrin despaired of delivering his message, and went in search of the King’s son, Elphin.
The young Prince was fishing in the Mawddach at a spot where the river, having quitted its native mountains and not yet entered the plain, ran in alternate streams and pools sparkling through a pastoral valley. He sat under an ancient ash, enjoying the calm brightness of an autumnal noon and the melody and beauty of the flying stream on which the shifting sunbeams fell chequering through the leaves. The monotonous music of the river and the profound stillness of the air had all but sent Elphin to sleep. He was startled into attention by a sudden rush of the wind through the trees, and he heard, or seemed to hear, in the gust that, hurried by him the words, "Beware of the oppression of Gwenhudiw!" The gust was momentary: the leaves ceased to rustle and the deep silence of nature returned.
Now, Gwenhudiw is the mermaid Shepherdess of Ocean: the. waves are her sheep, and each ninth wave, which is always greater than the rest, is called her ram.
It was not the first time that the kingly house of Ceredigion had been warned against her oppression. Gwyddno had often heard the same mysterious words borne on the breeze. They had so haunted his memory and imagination that he had ceased to go down to the sea in ships, and dwelt inland, avoiding as far as he might the sight of the great waters. Elphin, too, had heard the prophecy before, but it had formed no part of his recent meditation. He could not, however, persuade himself that the words had not been actually spoken near him. He emerged from the shade of the trees that fringed the river, and looked round him from the rocky bank.
At this moment Teithrin discovered and approached him. Elphin knew him not and inquired his name.
"I am called," he answered, "Teithrin, the son of Tathral."
"And what seek you here?" said Elphin.
"I seek," answered Teithrin, "the, Prince of the Bottom Hundred, Elphin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir."
"You spoke," said Elphin, "as you approached?"
"Nay," said Teithrin, "I spoke never a word."
"Assuredly you did," said Elphin, "you repeated the words, ‘Beware of the oppression of Gwenhudiw!’ "
Teithrin again denied having spoken the words; but their mysterious impression made Elphin listen readily to his information about the decay of the royal embankment: and after their talk the Prince determined to accompany Teithrin on a visit of remonstrance to the Lord High Commissioner.
They crossed the centre of the enclosed country to the privileged Port of Gwyddno, near which stood the castle of Seithenyn. They walked towards the castle along a portion of the embankment, and Teithrin pointed out to the Prince its decayed condition.
The sea shone with the glory of the setting sun: the air was calm: and the white surf, tinged with the crimson of sunset, broke lightly on the sands below. Elphin turned his eyes from the dazzling splendour of the ocean to the green meadows of the plain: the trees that in the distance thickened into woods: the wreaths of smoke rising from among them, marking the solitary cottages or the populous towns: the massy barrier of mountains beyond, with the forest rising from their base: the precipices frowning over the forest: and the clouds resting on their summits reddened with the reflection of the west. Elphin gazed earnestly on the peopled plain, reposing in the calm of evening between the mountains and the sea, and thought with deep feelings of secret pain, how much of life and human happiness was entrusted to the ruinous mound on which he stood..
The sun had sunk beneath the waves when they reached the castle of Seithenyn. The sound of the harp and the song saluted them as they approached it. As they entered the great hail, which was already blazing with torchlight, they found the whole household roaring the praises of the blue ox horn:
Fill high the blue horn, the blue ox born:
Fill high the long silver-rimmed ox horn:
While the roof of the hail by our chorus is torn,
Fill, fill to the brim the deep silver-rimmed horn.
Elphin and Teithrin stood some time on the floor of the hall before they attracted the attention of Seithenyn, who during the chorus was tossing and flourishing his golden goblet. The chorus had scarcely ended when he noticed them, and immediately shouted aloud, "You are welcome all four."
Elphin answered, "We thank you, we are but two."
"Two or four," said Seithenyn, "all is one. You are welcome all. When a stranger enters, the custom in other places is to begin by washing his feet. My custom is to begin by washing his throat. Seithenyn, the son of Seithyn Saidi, bids you welcome."
Elphin answered, "Elphin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir, thanks you."
Seithenyn started up when he realised that he was in the presence of the son of the King, and with a bow intended to be gracious, invited the Prince to take his seat on his right hand. Teithrin remained at the end of the hall, on which Seithenyn shouted to him, "Come on, man, come on, sit and drink," and motioned him to seat himself next to Elphin.
"Prince Seithenyn," said Elphin, "I have visited you on a subject of deep moment. Reports have been brought to me that the embankment which has so long been entrusted to your care is in a state of dangerous decay."
"Decay," said Seithenyn, "is one thing and danger is another. Everything that is old must decay. That the embankment is old, I am free to confess; that it is somewhat rotten in parts, I will not altogether deny; that it is any the worse for that, I do most sturdily gainsay. It does its business well: it keeps out the water from the land. Cupbearer, fill."
"The stonework," said Teithrin, "is sapped and mined: the piles are rotten, broken and out of their places: the floodgates and sluices are leaky and creaky."
"Our ancestors were wiser than we," said Seithenyn; "they built the embankment in their wisdom: and if we should be so rash as to try to mend it, we should only mar it. This immortal work has stood for centuries and will stand for centuries more, if we let it alone. It is well: it works well: let well alone. Cupbearer, fill.’,
Elphin and Teithrin tried to reason with him, but all their words were met with the assurance that all was well with the embankment, and as every speech of the Lord High Commissioner ended with the command, "Cupbearer, fill," it was not long before he fell on sleep. The members of his household had been imitating the example of their chief, and the words of host and visitors had been punctuated by the heavy falls from their benches of men sent to sleep by the yellow mead. By the time their chief fell all except the cupbearers were lying flat on the floor.
Elphin and Teithrin were gazing in disgust upon this scene of drunken disorder, when a side door, at the upper end of the hail, to the left of Seithenyn’s chair, opened, and a beautiful young girl entered the hall with her domestic bard and her attendant maidens.
It was Angharad, the daughter of Seithenyn. She gracefully saluted Prince Elphin, and he looked with delight at the beautiful lady, whose gentle and serious loveliness contrasted so strikingly with the fallen heroes of revelry that lay scattered at her feet.
"Stranger," she said, "this seems an unfitting place for you: let me conduct you where you will be more agreeably lodged."
"Still less should I deem it fitting for you, fair maiden," said Elphin.
She answered, "The pleasure of her father is the duty of Angharad."
Elphin paused to think what he should say in ‘reply to this, and Angharad stood still, expecting that he would follow. In this interval of silence, there came a loud gust of wind blustering through the holes of the walls. "It bids fair to be a stormy night," said Elphin.
"We are used to storms," answered Angharad. "We are far from the mountains, between the lowlands and the sea, and the winds blow round us from all quarters."
There was another pause of deep silence; then there came another gust of wind, pealing like thunder through the holes. Amidst the fallen and sleeping revellers, the confused and littered hall, the low and wavering torches, Angharad, lovely always, shone with single and surpassing loveliness. The gust died away in murmurs and swelled again into thunder and died away in murmurs again: and, as it died away, mixed with the murmurs of ocean, a voice, that seemed one of the many voices of the wind, pronounced the ominous words, "Beware of the oppression of Gwenhudiw!"
They looked at each other, as if questioning whether all had heard alike.
"Did you not hear a voice?" said Angharad, after a pause.
"The same," said Elphin, "which has before seemed to say to me, ‘Beware of the oppression of Gwenhudiw!’ "
Teithrin hurried forth on the rampart: Angharad turned pale and leaned against a pillar of the hall. Elphin was amazed and awed, absorbed as his feelings were in her. The sleepers on the floor made an uneasy movement and uttered a cry.
Teithrin returned. "What saw you?" said Elphin. Teithrin answered, "A tempest is coming from the west. The moon has waned three days, and is half hidden in clouds, just visible above the mountains: the bank of clouds is black in the west: the scud is flying before them: and the white waves are rolling to the shore."
"This is the highest of the spring tides," said Angharad, "and they are very terrible in the storms from the west when the spray flies over the embankment and the breakers shake the tower which has its foot in the surf."
"Whence was the voice," said Elphin, "which we heard erewhile? Was it the cry of a sleeper in his drink, or an error of the fancy, or a warning voice from’ the elements?"
"It was surely nothing earthly," said Angharad, "nor was it an error of the fancy, for we all heard the words, ‘Beware of the oppression of Gwenhudiw!’ Often and often in the storms of the spring tides have I feared to see her roll her power over the fields of the Bottom Hundred."
"Pray Heaven she do not to-night," said Teithrin.
"Can there be such a danger?" said Elphin.
"I think," said Teithrin, "of the decay I have seen, and I fear the voice I have heard."
A long pause of deep silence ensued, during which they heard the peals of the wind, and the increasing sound of the rising sea, swelling eve into wilder and more menacing tumult, till, with one terrific impulse, the whole violence of the tempest seemed to burst upon the shore. Before long there came a tremendous crash. The tower, which had its foot in the sea, had long been sapped by the waves: and the storm hurled it into the surf, carrying with it a portion of the wail of the main building, and revealing through the chasm the white raging of the breakers beneath the blackness of the midnight storm. The wind rushed into the hail, putting out the torches within the line of its course, tossing the grey locks and loose mantle of the bard and the light white drapery and long black tresses of Angharad. With the crash of the failing tower, and the shrieks of the women the sleepers started from the floor, staring with drunken amazement, and Seithenyn rose staggering from his chair.
The Lord High Commissioner of the Royal Embankment leaned against a pillar and stared at the sea through the rifted wall with wild and vacant surprise. Then he looked at Elphin and Teithrin, at his daughter and at the members of his household, but the longer he looked, the less clearly he saw: and the longer he pondered, the less he understood. He felt the rush of the wind: he saw the white foam of the sea: his ears were dizzy with their mingled roar. He remained at length motionless, leaning against the pillar, and gazing on the breakers with fixed and glaring vacancy.
"The sleepers of the Bottom Hundred," said Elphin, "they who sleep in peace and security, trusting to the vigilance of Seithenyn, what will become of them?"
"Warn them with the beacon fire," said Teithrin, "if there be fuel on the summit of the landward tower."
"That, of course, has been neglected too," said Elphin. "Not so," said Angharad, "that has been my charge." Teithrin seized a torch and ascended the eastern tower, and in a few minutes the party in the hall beheld the breakers reddening with the reflected fire, and deeper and yet deeper crimson tinging the whirling foam and sheeting the massy darkness of the bursting waves.
An unusual tumult mingled with the roar of the waves. Teithrin rushed into the hall, exclaiming, "All is over! The mound is broken and the spring tide is rolling through the breach."
Another portion of the castle wall fell into the mining waves, and by the dim and thickly-clouded moonlight, and the red blaze of the beacon fire, they beheld a torrent pouring in from the sea upon the plain and rushing immediately beneath the castle walls, which, as well as the points of the embankment that formed the sides of the breach, continued to crumble away into the waters.
"Who has done this?" shouted Seithenyn. "Show me the enemy."
"There is no enemy but the sea,", said Elphin, "to which you, in your drunken madness, have abandoned the land. Think, if you can think, of what is passing in the plain. The storm drowns the cries of your victims, but the curses of the perishing are upon you."
"Show me the enemy," shouted Seithenyn, drawing his, sword furiously and flourishing it over his head.
"There is no ‘enemy but the sea," said Elphin, "against which your sword avails not."
"Who dares to say so?" said Seithenyn. "Who dares to say that there is an enemy on earth against whom the sword of Seithenyn is unavailing? Thus, thus I prove the falsehood." And springing suddenly forward, he leaped into the torrent, flourishing his sword as he descended.
"Oh, my unhappy father!" sobbed Angharad, veiling her face with her arm on the shoulder of one of her female attendants.
"We must quit the castle," said Teithrin, "or we shall be buried in its ruins. We have but one path of safety, along the summit of the embankment, if there be not another breach between us and the high land, and if we can keep our footing in this storm. But let us go: the walls are melting away like snow."
Angharad, recovering from the first shock of Seithenyn’s catastrophe, became awake to the imminent danger. The spirit of the Cymric female, vigilant and energetic in peril, disposed her and her attendant maidens to use their best exertions for their own preservation. Following the advice and example of Elphin and Teithrin, they armed themselves with spears, which they took down from the walls.
Teithrin led the way, striking the point of his spear firmly into the earth and leaning from it on the wind. Angharad followed in the same manner: Elphin followed Angharad; the attendant maidens followed Elphin: and the bard followed the female train. Behind them went the cupbearers, and behind them reeled those who were able and willing to move.
In front of them, as they marched, was the volumed blackness of the storm: the breakers burst white in the faint and scarcely perceptible moonlight: within the mound the waters rushed and rose: the red light of the beacon fire fell on them from behind: the surf rolled up the side of the embankment and broke almost at their feet: the spray flew above their heads, and it was only by thrusting their spears into the stony ground that they bore themselves up against the wind.
They had not proceeded far when the tide began to recede, the wind to abate somewhat of its violence, and the moon to look on them at intervals through the rifted clouds, disclosing the desolation of the flooded plain, silvering the angry surf, gleaming on the distant mountains and revealing a lengthened prospect of their solitary path that lay in its irregular line like a ribbon on the deep. Morning dawned before they reached safety; daylight showed fully how dreadful was the destruction. The foaming waves were covering the fertile plains which had been the habitation and support of a flourishing population. Of the inhabitants, only the party led by Teithrin from Seithenyn’s castle and a few who saw the beacon fire in time to run to the high lands of Ardudwy and Eryri escaped destruction.
The nearest town to the submerged realm of Gwyddno is Aberdovey. If you stand on the beach there, you will sometimes hear in the long twilight evening chimes and peals of bells, sometimes near, sometimes distant, sounding low and sweet like a call to prayer, or as rejoicing for a victory. The sounds come from the bells of one of Gwyddno’s drowned churches, and these are "The Bells of Aberdovey" that the song speaks about.
This is a well-known legend about the lost land of Gwyddno Garanhir, lord of Ceredigion. Gwyddno's son Elphin is the same Elphin who rescued the infant Taliesin in the Hanes Taliesin, and to whom Taliesin often alludes. The poem "Seithennin" is about this event, which of course is one of the many drowning myths of the world.
Susan Cooper's book The Silver on the Tree has Will Stanton--one of the Old Ones (i.e. a sidhe)--and Bran Davies (the son of King Arthur) go to the drowned land and retrieve the crystal sword. While there, then encounter Taliesin/Gwion Bach, and Gwyddno.
This version of the legend comes from The Welsh Fairy Book. Of course, the difference between a romance and a fairy tale is all a question of perspective...