By Sarah Sheehan
Arthuriana, Vol. 15:3 (2005)
Introduction: Recent criticism of Culhwch ac Olwen has drawn attention to a peculiar theme that runs through this earliest of Arthurian narratives. This theme concerns hair and beards, and their cutting, plucking, and shaving by the heroes of the tale. Stephen Knight terms it the ‘“grooming” motif,’ but it is perhaps Joan Radner who names the theme most aptly when she discusses the comic effect of the tale’s interest in ‘barbering.’ The term ‘barbering’ conveys an important element of the theme: the hair and beards being cut, plucked, or shaved throughout the tale belong to male characters, and it is other male characters who perform these tonsorial acts. Clearly Culhwch ac Olwen’s barbering theme is bound up with medieval Welsh ideas of masculinity; yet critics who have noted the theme have not examined its role in the representation of gender in the tale, nor its deployment through the course of the narrative. The theme of barbering provides a degree of unity to this episodic story, from Culhwch’s oft-discussed hair-trimming, through the sequence of quests demanded by the giant Ysbaddaden for his own grooming, to the degradation inflicted on the father of Culhwch’s bride at the tale’s conclusion. Culhwch ac Olwen’s preoccupation with barbering, and thus with masculinity, also plays a major role in the tale’s humor, and much of this humor relies on the audience’s perception of the interchangeability and vulnerability of signs of masculinity. To complicate matters further, heroic gigantism, bodily peculiarities, and other odd qualities in the members of Arthur’s war-band also blur the distinction between heroes and their non-human opponents in ways which preclude an unambiguous view of heroic masculinity in the text. Close attention to the barbering theme as it unfolds through the story reveals shifts in tone which suggest that medieval Welsh attitudes toward masculinity were complex and ambivalent.