The Glass Castle

A poetic retelling of the meeting between Saint Collen, a 7th century warrior monk, and Gwyn ap Nudd, Celtic god of the Otherworld, leader of the Wild Hunt and guardian of the dead.

Glossary

Cymru – (Come – ree) the original Welsh name for the country of Wales.

Saint Collen – (Coth – lenn) A 7th century warrior monk, who later went on to become an Abbot. Collen didn’t take to abbey life, and so he spent much of his time travelling from place to place, and preaching the Gospel to the people he met. For a time, he became a hermit and lived at the foot of Glastonbury Tor, and that is where this poetic retelling finds him.

Gwyn ap Nudd – (Gwin – ap – Neeth) Celtic god of the Otherworld, leader of the Wild Hunt and guardian of the dead. Gwyn also features in Arthurian legend, and at various points throughout the Mabinogion (a collection of the earliest prose stories native to Britain).  

Tylwyth Teg – (Tell – uth – teyg) Welsh fairies.

Annwfn – (Ann – oo – ven) The Otherworld, which is said to be located deep beneath Glastonbury Tor. The Tor is also thought to be the location of Avalon, as described in Arthurian legend.   

Caer Wydyr – (Cayr – wid – er) One of the entrances to Annwfn and the ‘Glass Castle’, after which this poetic retelling is named. It is said to reside on the very top of Glastonbury Tor.

There once came a man to Glastonbury Tor, Collen of Cymru was his name.
His cross well shined, though his robes were poor, and a hermitage he claimed.
Neath his vestments beat a soldier’s heart, though he’d cast his sword aside;
in pursuit of a higher calling, ‘neath God’s grace, he’d e’er reside.
But in new-found devotion, he soon forgot, that while his God claimed the skies,
there are ancient beings who walk the earth, and their dominion there abides.
In time, there came to Collen’s ears a conversation strange,
in which two men spoke of Gwyn ap Nudd, and praised his noble reign.
They claimed him ‘Lord of the Wild Hunt’, ‘King of the Tylwyth Teg,’
‘Ruler of the Otherworld’, and ‘Guardian of the Dead.’
“What madness is this? Be still thy tongues”, Collen did decry,
“Tis surely demons of which you talk, your souls they seek to pry.”
“Hush now, Father,” the first man said, “For Annwfn’s reach is long.”
“From Caer Wydyr, it’s Lord sees all, and he’ll not acquit a wrong.”
The men departed, and sure enough, that night, there came a knock.
“Gwyn ap Nudd commands thee meet, at noon atop the rock.”
But noon, it came and went again, Collen stayed within his cell;
he wouldn’t risk his mortal soul, for these minions of Hell.
On the second morn, came another rap, and again, the messenger’s call.
“At the peak of the sun, be atop the Tor. Please heed my Master’s call.”
But Collen wouldn’t venture out, beneath the midday sun,
to meet this ‘Warden of the damned’, his faith was too hard won.
Day three dawned bright, but sure enough, the messenger returned.
“Go ye not today, Collen, His ire you will have earned.”
With each day’s passing, a fear had grown, within fair Collen’s breast,
it seemed that no amount of prayer would spare him from this test.
Collen took up his sacred flask, and with holy water did fill,
then placed it safe upon his belt, and left to do God’s will.
When he arrived atop the Tor, Collen’s eyes went wide,
for there he found a castle fair, not barren countryside.
It was the most enchanting place, but his trepidation grew,
as he passed the gleaming Honour Guard, all decked in red and blue.
At last, he saw a courteous man, atop the castle gate,
who bid that Collen come inside, lest his Master have to wait.
He passed by hordes of minstrels, all making a merry tune;
comely youths on shining steeds, maidens – fairer than the moon.
Finally, he reached a chamber – at its centre, a gilded throne,
upon the throne sat Gwyn ap Nudd, who bid him feel at home.
Not seeing any other course, Collen took a seat,
and was promptly offered the richest fare that he could ever eat.
Gwyn told him that, as honoured guest, luxury was his due,
that his wisdom earned him their respect, and every courtesy too.
“I will not eat leaves off the trees, as I know your tricks fair well.”
“I will not sup on fairy food, lest I damn my soul to hell.”
Gwyn just smiled politely, and sent the serving girls away,
“How about my Honour Guard? What think you then of they?”
“Their uniforms are good enough… for creatures such as that.”
Collen replied and reached his hand to where his flask was at.
“Good Sir,” Gwyn asked, “I beg your leave, to ask what you might mean?”
“What possible offence give they, that I have left unseen?”
“The choice of colours!” Collen said, “did you think I wouldn’t know?”
“Red for burning and blue for death, your demon natures show!”
With that, he leapt up to his feet, brandishing his flask,
and shook the contents all about, so ardent in his task.
The next he knew, King Gwyn was gone, as was his royal court;
feast and castle, maids and knights, no sign left to report.
To this day some still swear, that Collen banished Gwyn;
that holy might and pure of heart combined to vanquish him.
Others know a different truth, that King Gwyn still abides,
within his halls beneath the Tor, where departed souls reside.
They say that Gwyn had noble aims, inviting Collen in;
that his intent was to explain, and try to learn from him.
How sad it is that such a truce could well have been in reach;
that a little understanding could have helped to mend the breach.
The lesson that I take from this, is when in foreign lands,
it’s best to wait, to show respect, and offer up your hand.

Afterword

The name ‘Gwyn’ is traditionally translated as ‘White’, ‘Fair’, ‘Holy’ or ‘Blessed.’ Within the Celtic tradition, things/beings which are seen as intrinsically good, or spiritually enlightened, are often associated with the colour white, or more literally with emitting such a light or shining in some way. Someone with this trait would be seen as possessing a divine inner light or radiance.

Gwyn ap Nudd tended to be given the raw end of the deal, as many early Christians often associated his realm as being synonymous with Hell. This was far from the truth of it. Annwfn (or the Otherworld) is considered to be a light and blessed place, more in tune with the Elysian Fields of ancient Greek legend. It is a place inhabited by gods, immortals (such as the Tylwyth Teg – welsh fairies, and the Gwragedd Annwfn – a race of female water spirits connected to rivers and lakes), and truly good or noble souls from amongst the human ranks.

Gwyn is also said to have assisted King Arthur in the hunt for the great boar, Twrch Trwyth, an impossible feat without his assistance, as well as several other tests. In some texts, Arthur and Guinevere are even rumoured to have taken their rightful place at their ally’s side in Annwfn upon their deaths.

Long and short, being the person responsible for the gathering of human souls is not an easy thing to live down – even if you are also the one bearing them, at their predetermined time, to a place of beauty, rest and protection… just ask the Grim Reaper! It’s a hard job. It takes someone with great purity of heart and strength of will to do it well; and in Celtic myth that someone is Gwyn ap Nudd.    

The events which take place in this poetic retelling, are taken from Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the 16th century Welsh ecclesiastical manuscript, ‘Buchedd Collen.’

This tale is usually told as if St. Collen successfully banished the fair folk from Glastonbury Tor, but continued analysis of the original text has found little to actually evidence this claim. Rather, it seems to suggest that it was, in fact, Collen himself who was banished from the fairy court for his disrespectful behaviour in the face of Gwyn’s hospitality, and not the other way around. Indeed, there are accounts of Collen, despite his alleged victory, becoming deeply dismayed by the whole exchange, to the extent that he prayed to God to guide him to a new place where he could live out the rest of his life in peace and seclusion.  

As with many of these old tales, they have been re-written several times, and so there are several, very different perspectives at work here; this poem merely conveys one of them.

Also, as a point of interest, the colours which Collen seems to find so much issue with, likely have a far more benign interpretation. Red has, for as long as memory, been considered the colour most associated with the Fair Folk. It is associated with both magic and ‘otherness’ – no demonic ‘burning’ in sight. 

As to the blue, which Collen saw as representing the coldness of death, Glastonbury itself has a close connection with this colour. The word ‘Glas’ in Welsh means blue/grey, and there is evidence that the people who inhabited the lakeside village back in the Iron Age were known for producing a high-quality blue coloured cloth.

Danu Forest, in her book on the subject (Pagan Portals – Gwyn ap Nudd: Wild God of Faery, Guardian of Annwfn) – which served as much of the inspiration for this poetic retelling – suggests that, rather than being demonic and evil, these two colours simply represented the court’s proud ties to both fairy and to their mortal, Glastonbury-born ancestors.

Sadly, Saint Collen did not have access to all of this information back in the day; perhaps if he had, things would have turned out very differently indeed.

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