The Dream of Maxen Wledig
The Dream of Maxen Wledig is one of the Medieval Welsh tales translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, which were published collectively as the Mabinogion in 1849. The story is rooted in a mythic interpretation of the twilight of Roman era in Britain.
Maxen Wledig is really Magnus Maximus, a Roman general serving in Britain who was proclaimed emperor by his legionaries in 383AD. He went on to challenge and kill the Western Emperor Gratian, but was executed by Theodosius in Italy in 388AD. He was certainly one of the key figures in the latter years of Roman Britain. Probably becoming the subject of Welsh myth due to the fact that he was proclaimed emperor in Britain not long before the decay of the Roman Empire. This was a time of great upheaval, which also spawned the enduring legend of Arthur.
Helen, the subject of his dream and his eventual wife, is based on Helen of the True Cross – the mother of Emperor Constantine – who lived a few generations before Maximus. Her presence in the tale is probably due to her great popularity during the Middle Ages – the tale dates from the 14th century – when she was supplanted as the wife of Maximus. There is a possibility that Helen became woven into the image of a localised tutelary goddess of roadways, as her name is associated with a few of the existing Roman roads in Britain. She is also known as Ellen of the Legions, and Ellen of the Hosts.
The Dream of Maxen Wledig (Translation: Lady Charlotte Guest c.1849)
Maxen Wledig was emperor of Rome, and he was a comelier man, and a better and a wiser than any emperor that had been before him. And one day he held a council of kings, and he said to his friends, “I desire to go tomorrow to hunt.” And the next day in the morning he set forth with his retinue, and came to the valley of the river that flowed towards Rome. And he hunted through the valley until midday. And with him also were two-and-thirty crowned kings that were his vassals; not for the delight of hunting went the emperor with them, but to put himself on equal terms with those kings.
And the sun was high in the sky over their heads, and the heat was great, and sleep came upon Maxen Wledig. And his attendants stood and set up their shields around him upon the shafts of their spears to protect him from the sun, and they placed a gold enamelled shield under his head; and so Maxen slept.
And he saw a dream. And this is the dream that he saw. He was journeying along the valley of the river towards its source; and he came to the highest mountain in the world. And he thought that the mountain was as high as the sky; and when he came over the mountain, it seemed to him that he went through the fairest and most level regions that man ever yet beheld, on the other side of the mountain. And he saw large and mighty rivers descending from the mountain to the sea, and towards the mouths of the rivers he proceeded. And as he journeyed thus, he came to the mouth of the largest river ever seen. And he beheld a great city at the entrance of the river, and a vast castle in the city, and he saw many high towers of various colours in the castle. And he saw a fleet at the mouth of the river, the largest ever seen. And he saw one ship among the fleet; larger was it by far, and fairer than all the others. Of such part of the ship as he could see above the water, one plank was gilded and the other silvered over. He saw a bridge of the bone of the whale from the ship to the land, and he thought that he went along the bridge, and came into the ship. And a sail was hoisted on the ship, and along the sea and the ocean was it borne.
Then it seemed that he came to the fairest island in the whole world, and he traversed the island from sea to sea, even to the furthest shore of the island. Valleys he saw, and steeps and rocks of wondrous height, and rugged precipices. Never yet saw he the like. And thence he beheld an island in the sea, facing this rugged land. And between him and this island was a country of which the plain was as large as the sea, the mountain as vast as the wood. And from the mountain he saw a river that flowed through the land and fell into the sea. And at the mouth of the river he beheld a castle, the fairest that man ever saw, and the gate of the castle was open, and he went into the castle. And in the castle he saw a fair hall, of which the roof seemed to be all gold, the walls of the hall seemed to be entirely of glittering precious gems, the doors all seemed to be of gold. Golden seats he saw in the hall, and silver tables. And on a seat opposite to him, he beheld two auburn-haired youths playing at chess. He saw a silver board for the chess, and golden pieces thereon. The garments of the youths were of jet black satin, and chaplets of ruddy gold bound their hair, whereon were sparkling jewels of great price, rubies, and gems, alternately with imperial stones. Buskins of new cordovan leather were on their feet, fastened by slides of red gold.
And beside a pillar in the hall, he saw a hoary-headed man, in a chair of ivory, with the figures of two eagles of ruddy gold thereon. Bracelets of gold were upon his arms, and many rings were on his hands, and a golden torque about his neck; and his hair was bound with a golden diadem. He was of powerful aspect. A chessboard of gold was before him, and a rod of gold, and a steel file in his hand. And he was carving out chessmen.
And he saw a maiden sitting before him in a chair of ruddy gold. Not more easy than to gaze upon the sun when brightest, was it to look upon her by reason of her beauty. A vest of white silk was upon the maiden, with clasps of red gold at the breast; and a surcoat of gold tissue upon her, and a frontlet of red gold upon her head, and rubies and gems were in the frontlet, alternating with pearls and imperial stones. And a girdle of ruddy gold was around her. She was the fairest sight that man ever beheld.
The maiden arose from her chair before him, and he threw his arms about the neck of the maiden, and they two sat down together in the chair of gold: and the chair was not less roomy for them both, than for the maiden alone. And as he had his arms about the maiden’s neck, and his cheek by her cheek, behold, through the chafing of the dogs at their leashing, and the clashing of the shields as they struck against each other, and the beating together of the shafts of the spears, and the neighing of the horses and their prancing, the emperor awoke.
And when he awoke, nor spirit nor existence was left him, because of the maiden whom he had seen in his sleep, for the love of the maiden pervaded his whole frame. Then his household spoke unto him. “Lord,” said they, “is it not past the time for thee to take thy food?” Thereupon the emperor mounted his palfrey, the saddest man that mortal ever saw, and went forth towards Rome.
And thus he was during the space of a week. When they of the household went to drink wine and mead out of golden vessels, he went not with any of them. When they went to listen to songs and tales, he went not with them there; neither could he be persuaded to do any thing but sleep. And as often as he slept, he beheld in his dreams the maiden he loved best; but except when he slept he saw nothing of her, for he knew not where in the world she was.
One day the page of the chamber spoke unto him; now, although he was page of the chamber, he was king of the Romans. “Lord,” said he, “all the people revile thee.” “Wherefore do they revile me?” asked the emperor. “Because they can get neither message nor answer from thee as men should have from their lord. This is the cause why thou art spoken evil of.” “Youth,” said the emperor, “do thou bring unto me the wise men of Rome, and I will tell them wherefore I am sorrowful.”
Then the wise men of Rome were brought to the emperor, and he spoke to them. “Sages of Rome,” said he, “I have seen a dream. And in the dream I beheld a maiden, and because of the maiden is there neither life, nor spirit, nor existence within me.” “Lord,” they answered, “since thou judgest us worthy to counsel thee, we will give thee counsel. And this is our counsel; that thou send messengers for three years to the three parts of the world, to seek for thy dream. And as thou knowest not what day or what night good news may come to thee, the hope thereof will support thee.”
So the messengers journeyed for the space of a year, wandering about the world, and seeking tidings concerning his dream. But when they came back at the end of the year, they knew not one word more than they did the day they set forth. And then was the emperor exceedingly sorrowful, for he thought that he should never have tidings of her whom best he loved. Then spoke the king of the Romans unto the emperor. “Lord,” said he, “go forth to hunt by the way thou didst seem to go, whether it were to the east, or to the west.” So the emperor went forth to the hunt, and he came to the bank of the river. “Behold,” said he, “this is where I was when I saw the dream, and I went towards the source of the river westward.”
And thereupon thirteen messengers of the emperor’s set forth, and before them they saw a high mountain, which seemed to them to touch the sky. Now this was the guise in which the messengers journeyed; one sleeve was on the cap of each of them in front, as a sign that they were messengers, in order that through what hostile land so ever they might pass no harm might be done them. And when they were come over this mountain, they beheld vast plains, and large rivers flowing there through. “Behold,” said they, “the land which our master saw.”
And they went along the mouths of the rivers, until they came to the mighty river, which they saw flowing to the sea, and the vast city, and the many coloured high towers in the castle. They saw the largest fleet in the world, in the harbour of the river, and one ship that was larger than any of the others. “Behold again,” said they, “the dream that our master saw.” And in the great ship they crossed the sea, and came to the Island of Britain. And they traversed the island until they came to Snowdon. “Behold,” said they, “the rugged land that our master saw.” And they went forward until they saw Anglesey before them, and until they saw Arvon likewise. “Behold,” said they, “the land our master saw in his sleep.” And they saw Aber Sain, and a castle at the mouth of the river. The portal of the castle saw they open, and into the castle they went, and they saw a hall in the castle. Then said they, “Behold, the hall which he saw in his sleep.” They went into the hall, and they beheld two youths playing at chess on the golden bench. And they beheld the hoary-headed man beside the pillar, in the ivory chair, carving chessmen. And they beheld the maiden sitting on a chair of ruddy gold.
The messengers bent down upon their knees. “Empress of Rome, all hail! Ha, gentles,” said the maiden, “ye bear the seeming of honourable men, and the badge of envoys, what mockery is this ye do to me?” “We mock thee not, lady; but the Emperor of Rome hath seen thee in his sleep, and he has neither life nor spirit left because of thee. Thou shalt have of us therefore the choice, lady, whether thou wilt go with us and be made empress of Rome, or that the emperor come hither and take thee for his wife?” “Ha, lords,” said the maiden, “I will not deny what ye say, neither will I believe it too well. If the emperor love me, let him come here to seek me.”
And by day and night the messengers carried them back. And when their horses failed, they bought other fresh ones. And when they came to Rome, they saluted the Emperor, and asked their boon, which was given to them according as they named it. “We will be thy guides, lord,” said they, “over sea and over land. to the place where is the woman whom best thou lovest, for we know her name, and her kindred, and her race.
And immediately the emperor set forth with his army. And these men were his guides. Towards the island of Britain they went over the sea and the deep. And he conquered the island from Beli the son of Manogan, and his sons, and drove them to the sea, and went forward even unto Arvon. And the emperor knew the land when he saw it. And when he beheld the castle of Aber Sain, “Look yonder,” said he, “there is the castle wherein I saw the damsel whom I best love.” And he went forward into the castle and into the hall, and there he saw Kynan the son of Eudav, and Adeon the son of Eudav, playing at chess. And he saw Eudav the son of Caradawc, sitting on a chair of ivory carving chessmen. And the maiden whom he had beheld in his sleep, he saw sitting on a chair of gold. “Empress of Rome,” said he, “all hail!” And the emperor threw his arms about her neck; and that night she became his bride.
And the next day in the morning, the damsel asked her maiden portion. And he told her to name what she would. And she asked to have the Island of Britain for her father, from the Channel to the Irish Sea, together with the three adjacent Islands, to hold under the empress of Rome; and to have three chief castles made for her, in whatever places she might choose in the Island of Britain. And she chose to have the highest castle made at Arvon. And they brought thither earth from Rome that it might be more healthful for the emperor to sleep, and sit, and walk upon. After that the two other castles were made for her, which were Caerlleon and Carmarthen.
And one day the emperor went to hunt at Carmarthen, and he came so far as the top of Brevi Vawr, and there the emperor pitched his tent. And that encamping place is called Cadeir Maxen, even to this day. And because that he built the castle with a myriad of men, he called it Caervyrddin. Then Helen bethought her to make high roads from one castle to another throughout the Island of Britain. And the roads were made. And for this cause are they called the roads of Helen Luyddawc, that she was sprung from a native of this island, and the men of the Island of Britain would not have made these great roads for any save for her.
Seven years did the emperor tarry in this island. Now, at that time, the men of Rome had a custom, that whatsoever emperor should remain in other lands more than seven years, should remain to his own overthrow, and should never return to Rome again.
So they made a new emperor. And this one wrote a letter of threat to Maxen. There was nought in the letter but only this. “If thou comest, and if thou ever comest to Rome.” And even unto Caerlleon came this letter to Maxen, and these tidings. Then sent he a letter to the man who styled himself emperor in Rome. There was nought in that letter also but only this. “If I come to Rome, and if I come.” And thereupon Maxen set forth towards Rome with his army, and vanquished France and Burgundy, and every land on the way, and sat down before the city of Rome.
A year was the emperor before the city, and he was no nearer taking it than the first day. And after him there came the brothers of Helen Luyddawc from the Island of Britain, and a small host with them, and better warriors were in that small host than twice as many Romans. And the emperor was told that a host was seen, halting close to his army and encamping, and no man ever saw a fairer or better-appointed host for its size, nor more handsome standards. And Helen went to see the hosts, and she knew the standards of her brothers. Then came Kynan the son of Eudav, and Adeon the son of Eudav, to meet the emperor. And the emperor was glad because of them, and embraced them.
Then they looked at the Romans as they attacked the city. Said Kynan to his brother, “We will try to attack the city more expertly than this.” So they measured by night the height of the wall, and they sent their carpenters to the wood, and a ladder was made for every four men of their number. Now when these were ready, every day at midday the emperors went to meat, and they ceased to fight on both sides till all had finished eating. And in the morning the men of Britain took their food, and they drank until they were invigorated. And while the two emperors were at meat, the Britons came to the city, and placed their ladders against it, and forthwith they came in through the city.
The new emperor had no time to arm himself when they fell upon him, and slew him, and many others with him. And three nights and three days were they subduing the men that were in the city and taking the castle. And others of them kept the city, lest any of the host of Maxen should come therein, until they had subjected all to their will. Then spoke Maxen to Helen Luyddawc. “I marvel, lady,” said he, “that thy brothers have not conquered this city for me.” “Lord, emperor,” she answered, “the wisest youths in the world are my brothers. Go thou thither and ask the city of them, and if it be in their possession thou shalt have it gladly.” So the emperor and Helen went and demanded the city. And they told the emperor that none had taken the city, and that none could give it him, but the men of the island of Britain. Then the gates of the city of Rome were opened, and the emperor sat on the throne, and all the men of Rome submitted themselves unto him. The emperor then said unto Kynan and Adeon, “Lords,” said he, “I have now had possession of the whole of my empire. This host give I unto you to vanquish whatever region ye may desire in the world.”
So they set forth and conquered lands, and castles, and cities. And they slew all the men, but the women they kept alive. And thus they continued until the young men that had come with them were grown grey-beaded, from the length of time they were upon this conquest.
Then spoke Kynan unto Adeon his brother, “Whether wilt thou rather,” said he, “tarry in this land, or go back into the land whence thou didst come forth?” Now he chose to go back to his own land, and many with him. But Kynan tarried there with the other part and dwelt there.
And they took counsel and cut out the tongues of the women, lest they should corrupt their speech. And because of the silence of the women from their own speech, the men of Armorica are called Britons. From that time there came frequently, and still comes, that language from the Island of Britain.
And this dream is called the Dream of Maxen Wledig, emperor of Rome. And here it ends.