The hunt for Twrch Trwyth

October 18, 2019 3 Comments

The other day I walked down to Mumbles to get my hair cut (a no. 8 shave all over, in case you’re interested).  In my normal barber’s there was one customer in the only chair, and four others waiting.   The cutting pace there is slow, so I moved down to another, newish shop I’d never been to before.  It was empty, so I went in and sat down.  The barber was a man from Kurdistan (while snipping he watched a Kurdish television station).  The day before, President Trump had let loose the Turkish dogs of war on the Iraqi Kurds, and the barber was despondent.  We talked about the long oppression of the Kurdish people and the barbarity of US foreign policy, as the barber’s shaver swept and his razor brushed.

I left still thinking about the Kurds, and about the complexities of the barber’s craft.  And when I got home I took down Sioned Davies’s translation of the Mabinogion from the shelf, and re-read the story of Culhwch and Olwen, a key text on the art of barbering.

‘Culhwch and Olwen’ appears in two manuscripts, the Red Book of Hergest, in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the White Book of Rhydderch in the National Library of Wales.  They date from the fourteenth century, but the story is a patchwork of different elements, some of which are much older and reflect an oral tradition of Welsh storytelling.


The plot of Culhwch and Olwen is simple enough.  Culhwch’s stepmother decides that he should marry, and places a curse on him: that he can marry only Olwen, the beautiful daughter of a fierce giant, Ysbaddaden.  His father advises Culhwch to visit his cousin Arthur in Cornwall, ‘to have your hair trimmed’ and to help him in the search for Olwen.  Arthur receives him kindly, takes his golden comb and ‘shears with hoops of silver’, and combs Culhwch’s hair.  Then begins the search for Olwen.  Eventually they track her down, but she insists they ask her father for permission to marry.  Ysbaddaden is far from friendly but agrees that Culhwch can marry his daughter, as long as he can complete a series of apparently impossible tasks – forty of them in total, each explained in turn. 

The most daunting of Ysbaddaden’s tasks concern the supernatural wild boar, Twrch Trwyth.  Culhwch and Arthur must hunt him down and take the comb and shears (and razor) that sit between his ears, so that the giant can have his beard cut and combed.  Twrch Trwyth is an ancient character.  He’d already appeared in an earlier Welsh text, the ninth century Historia Brittonum, and had an Irish equivalent, Torc Triath.  According to our story he was originally a prince, the son of Taredd Wledig, transmuted by God into an animal because of his (unspecified) sins.  Now Arthur and his men set out to hunt him and his seven little pigs. 


This is no ordinary hunt.  For one thing, it ranges over an astonishing geographical range.  Arthur and his troop trace the boar to Ireland, but he defeats them and lays waste to a fifth of the island.  Arthur sends a specialist linguist, Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd, to reason with the beast in his own tongue.  But one of Trwch’s pigs, Grugyn Gwrych Eraint, with ‘bristles like wings of silver’, gives him short shrift: ‘God has done us enough harm by shaping us in this image, without you too coming to fight against us’.  And with that Twrch Trwyth and his sons set off across the Irish Sea for Wales – long-distance swimming is no problem for them – to create more havoc.

St Clears

Twrch lands at Porth Clais, near St Davids, and careers across Pembrokeshire via Milford Haven and the Preselis.  A pattern of confrontation emerges: Arthur and his men and dogs corner the boar, but he rounds on them and slaughters a number of them.  This happens again and again, as Twrch Trwyth gallops across Carmarthenshire, the Llwchwr and Amman valleys, ‘Llwch Ewin’, and ‘Llwch Tawy’ (Llyn y Fan Fawr).  After a diversion into Ceredigion (more deaths among Arthur’s men) he heads for south Wales, moving from the Swansea valley to the Vale of Ewyas.  Arthur, peeved by the loss of so many soldiers, determines to stop Twrch reaching Cornwall, grabs him by his feet and drives him into the Severn sea.  The razor and scissors are seized, but the comb remains, and Twrch makes a safe landfall in Cornwall: ‘whatever trouble he had caused them before was mere play compared to what they then suffered in seeking the comb.’  Finally the comb is rescued and Twrch driven out of Cornwall into the sea.  The narrative hints that this may not have been the end: ‘from then on it was not known where he and Aned and Aethlem [two hounds] went’.

Arthur completes the tasks to his satisfaction – in fact, we’re not treated to accounts of the solution of all forty – and Culhwch returns to Ysbaddaden to claim his daughter.  One of Arthur’s surviving men comes with him ‘to shave off Ysbaddaden’s beard, flesh and skin to the bone, and both ears completely’ (a more comprehensive service than the giant had ordered). 

And Culhwch said, ‘Have you been shaved, man?’
‘I have,’ he replied.
‘And is your daughter now mine?’
‘Yours,’ he replied.

At the giant’s own request (‘it is high time to take away my life’), another in the party promptly cuts off the giant’s head, Culhwch gets to sleep with Olwen, and the story comes to an abrupt end.

Combing and shaving, then, play an important part in ‘Culhwch and Olwen’.  They have a role in the passage to adulthood and confirming kin and friend relationships (Arthur’s gift of a haircut), in transfers of ownership (Twrch’s barbering kit) and in signalling the transition from life to death (Ysbaddaden’s close shave).  But the star of the show is certainly Twrch Trwyth.  No other character in the story comes close to matching him.  Culhwch is a colourless cipher.  We’re treated to a short hymn to Olwen’s beauty, but otherwise she has little to do.  Arthur is a Trump-like leader, macho in speech but ineffective in boar-hunting.  Ysbaddaden looks like a cartoon ogre with nasty habits, like shooting spears at the backs of his departing guests – although you have to admire his grace in defeat. 

No, the real hero is the anti-hero, Twrch Trwyth.  From the beginning we know he’ll be trouble.  Once God exacts a terrible punishment for his crime the prince-boar could be forgiven for turning against the world.  You feel the narrator relishes Twrch’s stubborn resistance, his readiness to fight back, and to refuse to give up his precious shaving equipment.  His stamina, on land and sea, can only be admired, and his journey, across three countries and three seas, is Odyssean in scale.  It’s only right that Twrch is not killed at the end of the hunt, but is last seen making out across the sea.  Perhaps one day he will return to reprise his role as the lord of misrule.

Here in Wales we have no memorials to Culhwch and Olwen, but several to the great wild boar, including sculptures in St Davids, St Clears, Llanelli, Ammanford and Cwm Carn.  In Ammanford, which is specially proud of its connections, the local comprehensive school has adopted Twrch as its logo, as has Coaltown, the town’s excellent coffee roastery and shop.

Afon Twrch

I like to think of the boar rampaging over the Black Mountain, along the desolate river that bears (part of) his name, Afon Twrch.  Twrch Trwyth, as a minor fallen angel, might also have attracted the admiration of the writers of rebellion, like John Milton, William Blake and, in our own day, Philip Pullman, for his reluctance to bow down to the wielders of power.  I’ve not found much in Welsh literature that celebrates our bristly friend.  David Jones knew about him.  In his Western Front book In parenthesis he salutes his dead comrade Aneirin Lewis: ‘more shaved he is to the bare bone than | Yspaddadan Penkawr. | Properly organised chemists can let make more riving power than ever Twrch Trwyth’.  And Jones included in his book The sleeping lord a fragmentary and over-dense list-poem, ‘The hunt’, based on the Twrch Trwyth story, where the Arthur figure is blended with that of Christ, and the ‘hog’ is a mere target.  Gwenallt wrote a short early poem ‘Y Twrch Trwyth’, which takes an equally disappointingly (conventional Protestant) view of the boar – more fiend than friend:

Creadur gwrychlyd, cyfrwys, call,
A’r ellyn ar ei ael,
Fe’i lluniwyd ef o’r nwydau dall
Ym mhridd ein natur wael

Bristly creature, craftily cunning,
The razor between his brows
He was made out of blind desire
In the soil of our human penury

More recently Fflur Dafydd dressed the tale in a modern setting, including a boar hunt, in her The white trail (2011).

If Twrch Trwyth is yet to make much of a mark in the literary world, perhaps there’s still room for his image to decorate the premises of Welsh barbers, in his role as their mythological patron?

Comments (3)

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  1. Diolch! I enjoyed reading your article about Twrch Trwyth. I am sending this message from my sleepy Oxford, Massachusetts communications center, a/k/a my living room. You write well.


  2. Ashley says:

    Thanks great article.

    My local barber in StClears has adopted the twrch trwyth as it’s logo


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