The Morlo

Sleek warrior of that hunting tribe  –
he sallied downward,
deep, and dived through captive seas
that boomed and moaned
in sable-throated caves.
But the sea-born creature rose again
with a green and salted song:
of the kingdom lost beneath
the sea; drowned bells that ring
eternally; a sundered wall
in the western deep, a fluted
chalice brimmed with sand –
the fated, crusted
cup, capsized – escaped
from drunk Seithenyn’s hand
when the deluge thundered through;
vast fathomed fields of kelp, asway
where Gwyddno’s royal forests lay
beneath the indolence of waves …
beneath the indifferent sea.

He bobbed just once, and then was gone.
I was left alone with the Morlo’s song 
and the grey, forgetful sea.

From ‘Welsh Past and Present’

Note: The principal narrator in this poem is of the animal kingdom, in Welsh morlo, ‘seacalf’ – a seal. He relates to a human onlooker a tale that is well-known to him from his intimate knowledge of these waters – the story of Cantre’r Gwaelod. It is a legend which will be known in some form or other by most Welsh folk; to others, perhaps, totally unknown. In outline, the popular version as it stands today is set out in the paragraph immediately below:

Cantre’r Gwaelod (‘The Lowland Hundred’) is in Welsh legend a sunken kingdom lying to the west of Wales in the waters of Cardigan Bay – an area of comparatively shallow waters sweeping from the Lleyn Peninsula in the north to the north-Pembrokeshire coast in the south. The submerged region has been, since about the 16th/17th centuries, associated with a Gwyddno Garanhir as its ruler, although an identification is uncertain; the 6th century ruler of Meirionydd, Gwyddno ap Clydno, has been favoured. According to the popularly accepted version of the story this extensive, low-lying fertile tract of land was protected by a great dyke furnished with sluice-gates which at low tide would be opened to drain the land. Responsible for the sea-defences was one Seithenyn, who is said to have one night neglected his duties due to his drunkenness, thus allowing the sea to inundate Gwyddno’s kingdom.

The earliest account of the story is found in the Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin, (‘The Black Book of Carmarthen’) dated to the early/mid 13th century, but with a language and content which suggest a much earlier, 9th or 10th century, original compilation.

Here, in the Englynion y Beddau (‘The Stanzas of the Graves’), a collection of 73 triplets describing the burial locations of Welsh heroes, not usually of firm history, but of saga and folklore, Englyn vi  mentions the grave of Seithenyn and intimates a coastal location. Here is Englyn vi, from Thomas Jones’ 1967 critical text and translation:

Bet Seithennin sinhuir vann                     The grave of high-minded Seithennin
y rug Kaer Kenedir a glann                       is between Caer Cenedr and the shore
mor, mauridic a kinran.                            of the sea, a majestic leader.

Elsewhere in the Black Book, in the poem Boddi Maes Gwyddno (‘The Drowning of the Plain of Gwyddno’) which features what appears to be an exonerated Seithenyn, the blame for the deluge is placed on the maiden Meredid, who in two separate stanzas is supposed to have released the sea’s fury after (i) a feast and (ii) a battle [in this I follow the modernised Welsh 2015 text and translation of John K. Bollard]. In another source, The Welsh Triads – a mnemonic aid to the conservation of earlier tradition where individuals are grouped in threes – Seithenyn is portrayed as one of the ‘Three Immortal Drunkards of the Island of Britain’ [but whether this Triad is among Iolo Morgannwg’s suspect Third Series, and related to the popular stories of his drunkenness which had previously appeared, I don’t know; Rachel Bromwich’s Trioedd Ynys Prydain would no doubt provide the answer, but I don’t have my copy here]. So – was Seithenyn the great carouser of the more modern and accepted tale, or was he the ‘high-minded ruler’ of the earlier Black Book versions, and the blame fall on the maid Meredid? For my poem, I have gone along with the popularly accepted, if less antique, version.

There are many inundation myths. The closest parallels to Cantre’r Gwaelod  are the Breton tale of Ker-Ys (rendered beautifully by the Breton harpist Alan Stivell), and the Arthurian legend of Lyonesse, notably in the famous Tristan and Iseult,  and said to lie beneath the waves near Cornwall. Then there is the Welsh folk-song, Clychau Aberdyfi (The Bells of Aberdovey) which has it, in agreement with the later Welsh story, that bells can on certain occasions be heard tolling beneath the nearby sea. (This song became popular in the 18th century, so it seems that the later versions of Cantre’r Gwaelod faulting Seithenyn had at this time taken hold of the popular imagination.

Physically, the appearance of petrified forests which become visible at equinoctical  tides has played its part in furthering belief in the one time existence of Gwyddno Garanhir’s drowned kingdom, as have parallel ridges of loose stones projecting into the sea toward the north of Cardigan Bay which have been dubbed ‘Caer Wyddno’  (‘Gwyddno’s Fort’) or ‘Sarn Badrig’  (Patrick’s Causeway’), and taken to be remnants of Gwyddno’s sea-defences. Geologically, these appear to be moraines deposited by the action of Ice Age glaciers. (Damn geologists!)

6 thoughts on “The Morlo

  1. I love this one. It’s really magical. “…boomed and moaned in sable-throated caves” reminds me of going into the caves around Ramsey in a small boat. Many a seal we have seen there, bobbing just once, and then gone. Next time I will wonder if they are carrying legends of sunken kingdoms 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Cicymru. Yes, Ramsey Island – ‘Ragfn’s Ey’ (Raven’s Island). It’s a wonder that all those islands around St. Bride’s Bay, even the very small ones which are no more than bare rocks thrusting out of the sea, like Graenscar and Grassholm, retained their Norse names. It was in a large cave on the seaward side of Ramsey which was accessible (barely!) by land that I saw my very first seal. The floor of the cave was piled with large pebbles, and near the water’s edge we came across a mother seal and her very small pup. The mother scrambled into the sea, kicking up pebbles; the pup stayed there, hissing at us. We backed off, of course, not wanting to seem threatening. The mother remained close by in the sea, watching us and her pup. If any living thing knows the truth about Cantre’r Gwaelod, it will be the seals!

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  2. I love this one, too, especially ‘sable -throated caves’. It’s a wonderful ‘take’ on the Cantre’r Gwaelod story. Like Cicymru, I saw many a seal off the rocky Pembrokeshire shore in my long-ago youth!

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    1. Thank you, Jacydo. Yes, it occurred to me, on wondering how to approach the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod, that the ancient tribe of seals could tell the tale well!

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  3. Like Ceri, this poem really reminded me of going into the caves around Ramsey Island. The feeling of darkness and stillness then coming back out and seeing those seals. Loved this one! Reminded me so much of Wales!

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