Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Song of Heledd - Judith Arnopp

In a matter of months my next novel, The Song of Heledd will be published so it’s time for me to start spreading the word. Those of you who have read Peaceweaver and The Forest Dwellers will know that I write historical fiction, usually from a female perspective.
The Song of Heledd (pronounced Hell eth) is set in seventh century Powys at the hall of King Cynddylan of Pengwern. The princesses, Heledd and Ffreur (Freya) attend a celebratory feast where fifteen-year-old Heledd develops an infatuation for a travelling singer. The illicit liaison triggers a chain of events that will destroy two kingdoms and bring down a dynasty.
Set against the backdrop of the pagan-Christian conflict between kings Penda and Oswiu The Song of Heledd sweeps the reader from the ancient kingdom of Pengwern to the lofty summits of Gwynedd where Heledd battles to control both her own destiny and that of those around her, until, by degrees, she is gradually bereft of everything she holds dear.
This particular novel was inspired by fragments of Welsh poetry known as Canu Heledd and Marwnad Cynddylan which can be found in the Red Book of Hergest. This book dates from the 14-15th centuries although the poems themselves (set in the 7th century) are believed to have been composed in the 9th century. Canu Heledd is part of an older oral tradition, recorded and transcribed in the medieval period.
Heledd is the narrator of the poem, and this is the thing that sets it apart from others in the saga tradition in which very few female dialogues exist. Jenny Rowlands in her book Early Welsh Saga Poetry says, ‘women do not speak or appear, and even allusions to their existence is rare.[1]
So Heledd’s voice, even if it is a fictional one, provides us with real insight into the society in which she lived and, more importantly, into a woman’s role within that society. Although sole survivors of disaster are not uncommon in this genre, female survivors are and so Heledd’s story may perhaps be a historical event that has passed down through the oral tradition to become legend.
In the poem Heledd is the sole surviving member of the royal house of Pengwern in Powys, which at that time stretched into English midlands. Her dynasty and family have been destroyed and her brother, King Cynddylan’s (Cun- dylan) hall lies in ruins. Her lament for him and the destruction of the royal seat remains powerfully emotive but for me, the most poignant things is Heledd’s sense of culpability. She believes that her own actions have brought about the downfall of the dynasty and she is unable to forgive herself.
The poem itself cannot be relied on historically, it was written for entertainment not to enter the historical record, but the document when combined with the historical record, make enlightening reading.
Historically we know nothing about Heledd herself but her brother, Cynddylan is believed to have united with Cadafael of Gwynedd (Cad a vile of Gwinith) and Penda of Mercia against Northumbrian forces in the battles of Maes Cogwy, Chester, Lichfield and Winwaed, where Penda was slain.
Shortly after the Battle of Winwaed in 655AD Oswiu of Northumbria invaded Mercia and Powys, launching an attack upon the royal llys at Pengwern and practically obliterating the dynasty in one night. The Canu Heledd is set immediately after this event.
It has been suggested that, in order to cement the alliance between Powys and Gwynedd, the princess Heledd was married to Cadafael, the King of Gwynedd. But, for reasons we will never know, on the eve of the battle at Winwaed, Cadafael suddenly withdrew his troops and rode back to Gwynedd, abandoning Powys and Mercia to their fate. This act earned him the ignoble title of Cadafael Cadomedd, (Cad a vile Cad o meth) which translates as ‘battleshirker.’ There is no record or even a hint as to his motivation but the act did his reputation little good and shortly afterward, although the circumstances remain sketchy, the rule of Gwynedd passed back to Cadwaladr.(Cad wal adder)
The historical detail of 7th century Powys and Gwynedd is very sparse. We can never know what really became of Heledd and her family but there are enough references to know they existed. The Canu Heledd illustrates that the family bond was strong, that Heledd was the sort of woman whose actions impacted upon the world around her.
The poem provides rich descriptions of the llys and the people who lived there, Cynddylan in his purple cloak, the richly carved mead halls, the merging tradition of Celtic and Christian religion. And the mention of Ffreur, a sister she once mourned but mourned no longer. Canu Heledd raises many questions but this one is the most intriguing of all; Heledd no longer mourns her sister, Ffreur? Why?
I spent many months sifting through the smoke-ruined embers of Cynddylan’s royal hall to piece together a story for Heledd and Ffreur, a fiction of what might have been.
Below is an excerpt. I hope you enjoy it.

The eagle of Eli, loud his cry:
He has swallowed fresh drink,
Heart-blood of Cynddylan fair!
I dreamed of the eagles long before they came swooping down from their cloudy crags. They blackened the sky, the wind from their wings lifting my hair as they circled, talons extended, before settling on the field of death to tear at the corpses of my brothers.
Too torn for tears, I waded through slaughtered kin while pain ripped my heart like a dagger and then my step faltered, for I saw Cynddylan’s limp standard, his torso twisted, his neck broke, his mouth gaping, and the world turned dark around me.
I knelt in his blood and tried to close the yawning wound upon his chest but I was too late, he was gone. What had I done? All of my kindred were lost and the Kingdom of Pengwern was shattered. I was left, alone. I threw back my head, unprotected beneath the vast, empty sky and screamed a protest to the vengeful gods.
When I woke in the morning and found myself safe in my furs, I flung back the covers to run outside. My playmates tumbled as usual beneath a kindly summer sky while the women spun yarn in the shade of the alder trees. My brother’s hounds came bounding to meet me, leaping up, trying to lick my face but I pushed them away.
And then I saw him. My brother, Cynddylan, King of Pengwern, striding across the enclosure with an arm about his companion and I ran to tell him of my terrible dream but he was intent on the affairs of men and, waving me away, he would not listen.
I was just nine summers old then and, as I grew to womanhood, the dream faded and I forgot it. It was many years later, when I heard the first clash of battle and the far off cry of the wheeling eagles, that I remembered my dream and knew what was to come.
Part One
Osian’s Song
Cynddylan of Powys purple gallant is he!
The strangers’ refuge, their life’s anchor,
October 644 AD
It all began on the day that my sister Ffreur and I first saw the singer of songs. He came in after supper and filled my brother’s hall with his sweet music. The company were entranced, King and commoner alike, and even the dogs ceased worrying their fleas to listen as his voice flowed smooth, like nectar, drowning us all in his honeyed lies.
He was a golden man, his hair burnished by the leaping torches and a beard, the colour of bees wax, curling thick upon his chin. I was just a girl, my heart as yet untouched by the beauty of men but the words of his song filtered deep into my soul, kindling something warm and dangerous in the depths of my belly.
When his song ceased we were all so lost in his art that it took a little time for the murmur of applause to grow and then my brother, Cynwraith, rose from the bench, clapped him on the back and led him to the high table. The handsome poet sat with my kin, flushed and laughing while they piled his platter with food and filled his mead cup to the brim. The minstrel had found favour with the great King of Pengwern and secured his future.
Beside me Ffreur clasped her hands across her stomach, her eyes as bright as the torches, missing nothing. She nudged me sharply in the ribs and laughed at me but I tossed back my hair and ignored her.
‘Heledd,’ she hissed. ‘Stop it; your mouth is open. You are almost drooling.’
I closed my lips and wriggled in my seat, the heat of the fire suddenly too great. I longed for him to notice me and as I picked up a piece of mutton and glanced at him through my lashes , I wondered what he was called.
When his appetite was sated Cynddylan requested another song and the stranger took his place before the top table again. I sat up straight, with my chin on my hands and prepared to be enchanted. The hall fell silent and even the children ceased their noisy games to listen.
He picked up his harp and ran his fingers across the strings before his voice engulfed us, ebbing and flowing like clear water over pebbles, turning my skin to gooseflesh.
In one year
One that provides
Wine and bounty and mead,
And manliness without enmity,
And a musician excelling,
With a swarm of spears about him.
With ribbands at their heads,
And their fair appearances.
Every one went from his presence,
They came into the conflict,
And his horse under him.
It was The Song of Urien Rheged. I had heard it a thousand times but never before had it sounded so good. The lyrics had never made my blood run so thick that my heart pumped long and slow. It was quite painful to listen to him, almost as if his harp were strung with my heartstrings. I sank my chin in my palm and closed my eyes, blocking the tears as I let his voice caress me and take me where it pleased.
By the time he noticed me I was familiar with every contour of his face, the way his hair curled into his neck, the strength of his jaw, the sensuous curve of his mouth and the softness of his smile. Then, quite astonishingly, his eyes fell upon me and I felt my heart leap a little. For a moment, he stilled, held fast in my gaze before he continued his song. His fine features mesmerised me, so that the crowd in the hall seemed to drift away leaving the minstrel and I alone in the firelight, his words and his music exclusively mine. And when the magic ended, he bowed his head ever so slightly and, as I bent my own head in return, I was sure that I saw him close one eye.
As the eldest princess of Pengwern I had been prepared since birth for a political marriage and I knew that my heart was not my own. But on that night, while the autumn winds howled about the hall, blowing small yellow leaves in beneath the lofty door, I forgot who I was. I dismissed my family and my royal obligation and gave my heart to a singer of songs.

[1] Rowlands Jenny, Early Welsh Saga Poetry, p.141