The Dream of Rhonabwy

Arthur and Owein in Rhonabwy's Dream

There’s an interesting article by Catherine McKenna in the current issue of Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies. She has in the past written suggestively about Rhiannon and Manawydan, so I read this piece on The Dream of Rhonabwy eagerly. The tale is not one that would normally attract the seeker of remnant myths. Its view backwards to the Arthurian world of Culhwch and Olwen, if to be taken seriously at all, is best represented by the words of Arthur himself who expresses his sadness on learning the nature of the men who keep the Island of Britain in the time of Rhonabwy compared to those who kept it in his own day. But the chief purpose of the tale as a whole is generally taken to be satirical or at least parodic of the material which it contains.

If something is the object of parody, then it must exist independently of that parody. McKenna’s discussion focuses on the dream that takes up most of the tale, setting it in the context of the literature of medieval dream interpretation. She also points out the possible joke in the scene where the dreamer moves from a flea-ridden bed to what he thinks might be a more comfortable place to sleep: under a yellow ox-hide on a dais. This is an  out of the frying pan into the fire’ joke because sleeping under such skins was known to bring prophetic visions and so he would still not get a good night’s sleep. And so it is. This part of the essay is not new knowledge but McKenna cites several other scholars and so usefully brings together a consensus of opinion on this matter. So Sioned Davies writes that “Rhonabwy falls asleep on a yellow ox-skin and is granted a vision, reflecting the ritual of the Irish poet-seers who were said to lie on the hides of bulls to acquire hidden knowledge”, and Angela Carson that “his sleeping on an ox-skin opened to Rhonabwy the possibility of receiving wisdom from the otherworld”. Further critics are cited to underline the parodic nature of the vision in Rhonabwy’s dream. But McKenna also cites a reference in Geoffrey of Monmouth as a possible source, where the prophecy that Brutus and his band of Trojans should come to Britain is given as “he lay down on the skin of a hind”. She also refers to the scene in Book VII of Virgil’s Aeneid where Latinus “lay ensconced at rest on fleecy hides when a sudden voice broke from the grove’s depth.

McKenna concludes that “For the learned reader of that period Breudwyt Ronabwy was surely a reminder that while we must try to read the signs offered to us by prophecy, the stars, the weather, our dreams, and our bodies, and to find meaning in both story and history, interpretation is at every level a process as perilous as it is vital.” What dreams and visions might mean was surely a problem for medieval Christians who would worry that they were not being led astray by the agents of Satan. Or it might be, as it certainly would have been in the ancient world, simply a matter of getting it right (or even just ‘getting it’!).

But the last word should be from the tale itself. McKenna’s reference to the learned reader refers back to the need for ‘book learning’, at least for the medieval audience of the tale, in knowing what needed to be known. As the tale’s concluding paragraph puts it, after Rhonabwy awoke having slept three night and days, “here is the reason why no-one, neither bard not story-teller, knows the Dream without a book – by reason of the number of colours that were on the horses, and all that variety of rare colours both on the arms and their trappings, and on the precious mantles, and their magic stones.”

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