Welsh Gothic Tropes IV: The Cŵn Annwn


The Cŵn Annwn, or hounds of Annwn, also (arguably inaccurately) known as Hellhounds, are another key aspect of Welsh Gothic fiction. I haven’t played with these yet in the Paghamverse, but my Fae concept is based on Welsh folklore, so I think it’s only a matter of time. Hell hounds/Fairy hounds are one of the myths around werewolf origins in-verse, though.

This post will link to actual folkore surrounding these creatures, and then look at the fiction discussed by Aaron in Welsh Gothic Chapter 5.

Cŵn Annwn in Welsh Folklore

Firstly, although sometimes known as the hounds of Hell, they are also classed as fairies or fairy hounds. Annwn, the name for the Welsh underworld, was ruled by Arawn, who was at some point usurped as King of the Hunt by another mythological figure, Gwyn ap Nudd.

In the First Branch of the Mabinogion, Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, meets Arawn, king of Annwfn or Annwn, on a hunt. The hounds that bring down Pwyll’s own target, a stag, are white with red ears, not the black dogs with red eyes that mark out hounds of hell in other folklore. These are fairy hounds, and Pwyll wins Arawn’s friendship by defeating his mortal enemy, Hafgan, in combat on Arawn’s behalf.

According to the Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, in-keeping with the Mabinogion‘s description, in some parts of Wales the hounds are described as being white as snow with ears that are rose-coloured inside, and eyes bright as moonbeams. In other parts, they were small and “liver-coloured”, spotted or spangled with red and white, or entirely “flame-coloured”.

A more sinister kind was “black and very ugly with huge red spots”, or “red in body with large black patches, like splashes of ink”. The worst one was blood-red in colour and dripping with gore, with eyes like “balls of liquid fire”. However, the folklore took on a separate life to the original mythological tales, which were only written down in the Middle Ages and Christianised in the process.

The Hunt, as we have seen in the vampire lore post, had some interesting quirks, not least the fact that men doomed to ride with them came back to earth to suck the blood of corpses as well as the living. If anyone tries to join the procession out of curiosity, accident or design, “blood falls in showers like rain, human bodies are torn to pieces, and death soon follows the victim of the nocturnal expedition.” (Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, p. 48)

The hounds themselves were associated with death and the supernatural, being both white and red, but also as avengers of wrongs – Arawn was said to hunt down wrongdoers, not the innocent. Their appearance can be another omen of death, and while they sometimes travel in a pack alone, they are more usually seen with their master, or mistress, as Mallt-y-Nos is also said to hunt with these hounds.

They show up in Gothic literature of the earlier period, mainly as avengers.

The Gothic Texts

Aaron takes up most of this section with examples from the 1780s-1850s, with only a few examples from the 1900s-1970s, with one paragraph at the end dedicated to modern incarnations in World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons.

The examples she uses begin with The Doom of Colyn Dolphyn (1837), by Taliesin Williams (1787-1847). Taliesin was the son of Iolo Morgannwg, and was born in debtors’ prison. The long narrative poem centres on the life and death of Colyn Dolphyn, a fifteenth-century pirate who kidnaps Sir Henry Stradling at sea, demands a ransom, is shipwrecked, and finally captured. The final canto relates his execution, where, on the scaffold, Colyn makes one last plea to ‘the Sire of Sin’ who ruled his life and fierce thunder rolls. He snaps the bonds on his wrists and tries to undo the noose around his neck as the cart rolls away from under him, but a quick-thinking guard chops his hand off and he is hanged.

Enter the hellish hounds accompanied by Mallt-y-Nos, on the hunt for Colyn’s soul, howling audibly and harrying him ‘To regions hopeless, – where alone | Essential Anguish holds her throne.’

‘Cwn Annwn’, a short story that appears in James Motley’s Tales of the Cymry (1848), is another Gothic Hist Fic set in the Middle Ages. This is the tale mentioned in the Cambria Gothica post with an anachronistic Druid, Idris, and is set at a time of Welsh rebellion against the Normans. It opens with a Welsh maidservant running from a pack of hounds set on her by a Norman lord, and ends with said Norman lord being chased by the supernatural Hounds to his death. These hounds are of the blood-red, dripping with gore variety, and chase their victims into Christian hell.

We have to jump all the way to the mid-twentieth century to find Aaron’s next example, a short story in Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes’s anthology, Welsh Tales of Terror (1973). Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes (1919-2001), an English author born in Middlesex, is best known for his ghost stories, and he edited collections of Scottish, Irish and Welsh tales of terror.

In his tale, ‘Lord Dunwilliam and the Cwn Annwn’, another historical tale but this time set in the early nineteenth century, Dunwilliam falls in love with the painfully beautiful Silah Evans, but finds he has a ghostly rival in the form of Annwn, the Otherworldly huntsman. Silah has chosen Arawn over Dunwilliam, who is savagely mauled and killed by the hounds when he tries to take Silah back by force. At the sight of Arawn’s ‘dark, awful, evil, beautiful’ face, he surrenders to ‘a wave of fawning, self-effacing love’, and rises, reanimated as a blood-soaked hound, to join the pack.

That, apart from the references to D&D/WoW, is it for Aaron. I think there is probably more to uncover here, particularly in werewolf fiction and modern folklore-inspired dark fantasy, another guise of the Gothic.

One such modern example is American fantasy, To Carry the Horn, by author Karen Myers. Is it a Gothic fantasy? Well, you can be the judge of that, but the series looks pretty good!

1 thought on “Welsh Gothic Tropes IV: The Cŵn Annwn”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s