Mystical Apple Trees in the Black Book of Carmarthen

Photograph of crab apple tree (Malus sylvestris)

Photograph of crab apple tree (Malus sylvestris) by Katy Wrathall licensed under CC-BY-SA-ND.

 Species Mentioned: A series of crab apple trees (Malus sylvestris).

Source: ‘Yr Afallenau’, a series of  Old Welsh prophetic verses found in the Black Book of Carmarthen and Peniarth 3.

Date: Pre-1138. Suggested earliest form c.800-899 A.D., but little evidence for this.

Highlights: Myrddin the Mad is the literary inspiration for THE Merlin you’ve heard about. He goes to live in the woods and gives prophecies to a series of apple trees. He believes some of these are magic and they hide him from “his enemies” (possibly just friends trying to get him to come down from that tree and put some clothes on.)

CONTEXT
‘Yr Afallenau’ (‘The Apple-trees) is an Old Welsh text found in the Black Book of Carmarthen (c.1250 A.D.) and Peniarth 3 (c.1300 A.D.). It is peculiar in that we can’t be sure what we have represents a single coherent text at all. Quite often scholars describe ‘Yr Afallenau’ as ‘the apple tree stanzas’ and to some extent that is safer, although a less memorable name.

Much of the material contained in this manuscript is related to Carmarthen, and with the strange figure of Myrddin Wyllt (Pennar, 1989, p.9). This is the character who became ‘Merlin the Sorcerer’ in later medieval tales, but in his early incarnations he is just described as a mad prophet, sitting alone (and naked) in the woods, after the style of Suibhne Geillt and Lailoken. ‘Yr Afallenau’ is no exception to this rule, and the text contains a series of awdlau which all start ‘Afallen…’ (‘Oh apple tree, …’)

The text itself may be the earliest Myrddin Wyllt material still surviving. There are other similar texts in the Black Book, most notably the ‘Yr Oianau’, the piglet stanzas, immediately following in the manuscripts, but these were probably inspired by ‘Yr Afallenau’. The expert on these texts is Jarman who in 1981 (pp.107-10) suggested that the earliest of these stanzas took their form in the ninth century. However our text may be considerably later. Most recently (1991) Jarman more conservatively argued only the text is pre-Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1138), and that parts of it may be centuries older than the manuscript it is found in.

WHAT APPLE TREE?
Scholars looking at ‘Yr Afallenau’ have usually been so focused on the prophesies and the story behind what is happening in the poems that they haven‘t looked at the apple trees themselves.

Each stanza in the poem is addressed to a single (crab) apple tree (Malus sylvestris). But looking at these trees it is apparent that if Myrddin is talking to only one tree, the scribes are very confused about it. Here is the start of each of the ten stanzas in the Black Book of Carmarthen. There are five more in Peniarth 3 which I have not looked at. If you have/know where I can find a copy of these please let me know (lee.raye@gmx.co.uk):

1.Sweet apple-tree / with branches sweet. / Fruit bearing / Much valued / Famed / My very own

2.Sweet apple-tree. / Luxuriant / Green / With laden branches / And fine base

3.Sweet apple-tree / you golden bough / that grows on the edge

4. Sweet apple-tree / that grows beyond the Rhun… / I had fought / for a maiden’s bliss with shield on shoulder / and sword on hip / at its base {lines reversed}. / And I myself slept / in the forest of Celyddon

5.Sweet apple-tree / that in Llanerch grows. / Its mystique / will hide it / from Rhydderch the king / Lands all around it / {lines reversed here} bustle at its foot

6.Sweet apple-tree / with splendid flowers / that grows in a nook in Argoedydd.

7.Sweet apple-tree / that grows on the river bank. / Because of the current / no steward can make it / to its glistening fruit. / When I was in my right mind / I was to be found at its foot / with a fair, playful maid, / a slender lemmun.

8.Sweet apple-tree / with splendid flowers, / that grows / in grounds / with an assortment of trees.

9.and 10. Sweet apple-tree / with flowers foxglove pink / that grows in secret / in the forest of Celyddon. / And even though / you look for it / it is all in vain / because of its peculiarity / until Cadwaladr comes.. (Pennar, 1989 trans. Pp.67-76)

The only thing linking some of these trees is that they are sweet. Numbers #4, #5, #6, #9 and #10 are each situated in different places. #9 and #10 may be situated in the mythological (Rackham, 2006, p.300ff) Great Forest of Caledonia, #5 may be situated in Strathclyde based on the reference to Rhydderch Hael and #4 and #6 may be elsewhere entirely. Trees #6, #7. #9 and #10 seem to be in secret, isolated places whereas trees #1 and #8 appear to be famous. Trees #7, #9 and #10 are suitable for hiding under or in. Trees #5, #9 and #10 have magical properties to hide a person. Tree #7 grows on a river bank, and #3 may do too. However tree #4 had a canopy high and maintained enough for fighting underneath and tree #8 might even be in an orchard. Myrddin is clearly talking to the trees in different seasons too. Apple blossom becomes fruit after pollination later in the year so that trees #6, #8, #9 and #10 were clearly earlier in the year than #1, #2 and #3.

crab apple tree blossom

Photograph of crab apple tree in blossom by Ray Beer, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0.

The best explanation of these discrepancies is Jarman’s theory that three of the verses (#4, #5 and #6) are original and the others were just added in the same style. These are the three verses with the best place names attached to them. If these three places could be pinpointed to the same general area it is possible that the three original verses all described the same tree. That tree is in bloom and simultaneously has room to fight underneath, but also enough foliage to hide someone in (unless that is due to the tree’s magic).

Despite the discrepancies, there is some indication that the authors of the text knew apple trees well. Crab apple trees are native to Britain and grow naturally in woodlands (Milner, 2011, pp.63-67). Although they are very rare in northern Scotland, they grow throughout the rest of Britain, which allows plenty of space for the legend of Myrddin. They tend to grow individually, not in groups so that each area of woodland is only likely to have one tree (p.63; could this be the meaning of #8?). They normally do produce golden-yellow fruit, so that heavily laden trees can appear to have ‘golden boughs’(p.64). The blossoms preceding the fruit are indeed pink (p.64; see photo above), although note the word used in Welsh is only ‘ffion’ (foxglove) meaning that the original wasn’t as explicit as Pennar’s translation. Finally, although commercial apple trees today rarely grow higher than 4-5 metres, to permit fruit-pickers to easily gather all the fruit, crab-apple trees in the wild grow up to 17m (56ft) high (p.63). A tree this size would easily permit climbing, fighting or meeting underneath and almost any other kind of tree-based activity.

There is still something about the medieval apple tree which is not yet understood. What made Myrddin choose to talk to an apple tree? Is there some connection between apples and madness? Why should an apple tree have the magical power to make someone sheltering in or near it invisible? Some answers might come from ‘Buile Shuibhne’ (the Frenzy of Suibhne), an Irish analogue text. Trees and plants play a very important part in ‘Suibhne’, especially watercress. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) appears to be central to bringing the prophetic madness to Suibhne. Madmen fight each other to acquire it. Could crab apples have a similar function for Myrddin?

The only answer I could tentatively suggest would be the significance of apples as producers of cider. Domestic apples are best eaten, but crab apples are fine to use in cider. We know that mead was highly considered in Welsh society and the drink of warriors. The famous wassailing traditions of the Westcountry involved drunk participants addressing poetry directly to apple trees, much like Myrddin does. I do not believe the wassailing traditions have any connection with old British prophecy texts and Myrddin Wyllt, but perhaps they were inspired by the same idea of apple trees as producers of cider. Future researchers could test this hypothesis by comparing Myrddin’s style of poetry with other early poetry which references honey (used to make mead) or barley (used to make ale).

wassailing people around apple tree

Woodcut picture of people wassailing an apple tree with hot cider from Illustrated London News, January 12th, 1831, p.36.

 

CONCLUSIONS
We have shown that the depictions of apple trees in ‘Yr Afallenau’ are not consistent. The verses show apple trees at different times of year, in different places around Britain and growing in different landscapes. This supports Jarman’s (1981) theory of a long textual tradition with authors adding additional verses. Nevertheless, each of the authors does seem to be familiar with their subject. The trees can be identified as crab apple (M. sylvestris) not domestic apple trees (M. pumila). They are described realistically, and an understanding of crab apple trees can help illuminate the text. Unfortunately, if there ever was a special cultural significance connecting crab apple trees to mad prophets, this has been lost to history. Future writers might try looking for similar poetry addressed to honey or barley.

 

If you liked this blog post why not contact me on Twitter @NaturalHistoryL, or follow me on Facebook to get the highlights without any of the boring bits.
REFERENCES
Jarman AOH (1981) The Cynfeirdd: Early Welsh Poets and Poetry. University of Wales Press, Cardiff.
—- (1991) The Merlin Legend and the Welsh tradition of Prophecy. pp.117-145 in: Bromwich R, Jarman AOH & Roberts B (eds. 2008) The Arthur of the Welsh. University of Wales Press, Cardiff.

Milner E (2011) Trees of Britain and Ireland. Natural History Museum, London

Pennar M (trans. 1989) The Black Book of Carmarthen. Llanerch, Lampeter.

Rackham O (2006) Woodlands. 2010 ed. Collins, London.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s