I have set Taliesin’s Battle Of The Trees within two other pieces, firstly Tacitus’ report of the Roman invasion of the Druid island of Angelsey, followed by another poem from those by Taliesin which had been mixed in with The Battle of The Trees in a method of concealment to hide the poems meaning from those without understanding.
The Battle Of The Trees / Cad Goddeu ;
The tops of the beech tree have sprouted of late,
are changed and renewed from their withered state.
When the beech prospers, through spells and litanies,
the oak tops entangle, there is hope for the trees.
I have plundered the fern, through all secrets I spy.
Old Math ap Mathonwy knew no more than I.
For with nine sorts of faculty God has gifted me,
I am fruit of fruits gathered from nine sorts of tree–
Plum, quince, whortle, mulberry, raspberry, pear,
Black cherry and white, with the sorb in me share.
From my seat at Caer Fefynedd (Kire Fev-Un-eThh), a city that is strong,
I watched the trees and green things hastening along.
Retreating from happiness they would fein be set
In forms of the chief letters of the alphabet.
Wayfarers wander, warriors are dismayed,
at the renewal of conflicts such as Gwydion made.
Under the root of the tongue, a fight most dread,
and another raging, behind, in the head.
The alders in the front line began the affray.
Will and rowan tree were tardy in array.
The holly, dark green, made a resolute stand;
He is armed with many spear points wounding the hand.
With foot beat of the swift oak heaven and earth rung;
“Stout Guardian of the Door”, his name in every tongue.
Great was the gorse in battle, and the ivy at his prime;
The hazel was arbiter at this charmed time.
Uncouth and savage was the fir, cruel the ash tree–
Turns not aside a foot breadth, straight at the heart runs he.
The birch, though very noble, armed himself but late;
A sign not of cowardice but of high estate.
The heath gave consolation to the tail spent folk
The long enduring poplars in battle much broke.
Some of them were cast away on the field of fright
Because of holes torn in them by the enemy’s might.
Very wrathful was the vine whose henchmen are the elms;
I exalt him mightily to rulers of realms.
Strong chieftains were the blackthorn with his ill fruit,
The unbeloved whitethorn who wears the same suit.
The swift pursuing reed, the broom with his broad,
And the furse but ill-behaved until he is subdued.
The dower scattering yew stood glum at the fight’s fringe,
With the elder slow to burn amid fires that singe.
And the blessed wild apple laughing in pride
And the Borchan of Maeldrew, by the rock slide.
In shelter linger privet and woodbine,
Inexperienced in warfare, and the courtly pine.
But I, although slighted because I was not big,
Fought, trees, in your array on the field of Goddeu Brig.
translation from Robert Graves book The White Goddess;
The Book of Taliesin dates from the 14th C. and collected 56 of the oldest poems in Welsh, those attributed to the 6th C. poet Taliesin would have been composed in the Cumbric dialect of the north. The manuscript preserves a few hymns, a small collection of elegies and also enigmatic poems such as The Battle of Trees and The Spoils of Annwfn, in which the poet claims to have sailed to another world with King Arthur and his warriors.
The Battle of the Trees poem itself, whilst currently “pied” with approximately four other poems, is set during a war between Arawn King of Annwfn or the Underworld, and Amaethon a ploughman. This war is prompted by the latter’s theft of three magical creatures from the underworld, a dog who was the guardian of the secret, a white roebuck who hides the secret, and a lapwing who disguises the secret.
Regarding the secret powers possessed by these otherwordly creatures, it is said in the Triads:
there are three primary essentials of genius;
an eye that can see nature, a heart that can feel nature, and a boldness that dares follow it.
Druids taught in Triads or groups of three, which embodied the traditional Laws, Customs, and Wisdoms, of the ancient Celtic people, such as “Truth in heart, strength in arm, honesty in speech.” or “Three things not easily restrained, the flow of a torrent, the flight of an arrow, and the tongue of a fool.”
The poem famously details the legendary Gwydion‘s account of the trees of the forest which he enchanted to fight as his army against Arawan.
Within the ranks of Arawn’s forces were a number of mighty warriors, and one of these was invincible as long as his name remained a secret.
Gwydion the enchanter rightly guessed the secret name and won the battle saying these words:
Sure-hoofed my spurred horse,
On your shield Alder sprigs,
Bran is your name, Bran of the branches.
Sure-hoofed my horse of war,
On your hand are sprigs of Alder,
Bran you are, by the branch you bear.
However as Robert Graves explores in his book ‘The White Goddess’ the poem is particularly notable for its striking and enigmatic symbolism and the wide variety of interpretations this has occasioned.
Graves suggests that the trees in this poem correspond to the ancient Ogham alphabet, in which each alphabetic character represents a specific musical note, seasonal cycle, mythological tale and deity.
This method of association was a teaching aid in the letters and the trees associated with each, and its use in this poem was a poetic plea for the continuance of the use and teaching of this alphabet;
”This alphabet utilized thirteen consantants and five vowels. The consantants form the thirteen months of the annual cycle, while the vowels set forth the five year cycle of this Celtic calender. The letters/trees within the poem are not set in their proper order, I believe, in a further attempt to “encode” the information given in the poem so that only a person versed in this alphabet could utilize it.” Robert Graves.
Each tree had a meaning and significance of its own, and Gwydion guessed Bran’s name by the Alder branch Bran carried, the Alder being one of Bran’s prime symbols.
Graves thus argued that the original poet had concealed Druidic secrets about an older matriarchal Celtic religion for fear of censure from Christian authorities, that Arawn and Bran were names for the same underworld god and that the battle was probably not physical but rather a struggle of wits and scholarship: Gwydion’s forces could only be defeated if the name of his companion, Lady Achren (“Trees”), was guessed, and Arawn’s host only if Bran’s name was guessed.