Preiddeu Annwn (or Preiddeu Annwfn, “The Spoils of Annwfn“), is one of the most famous gnomic / philosophical poems to be found in the Middle Welsh Book of Taliesin. In just eight irregularly versed stanzas, it records a journey the poet (possibly intended to be the 6th Century poet Taliesin, although the poem itself dates from around the 14th Century), made with King Arthur to the Otherworld (the Annwfn of the title) – a place of eternal youth and delights, which is common to Welsh mythology (appearing in, for example, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi).
It is also now the subject of an immersive environment itself entitled Preiddeu Annwn, designed by Hypatia Pickens, a professor of English at the University of Rochester, New York, and her students. It’s function is to provide an interactive means by which the poem and its themes can be explored and better understood, both within itself and with regards to broader medieval Welsh mythology and medieval literature. It is also an extraordinary piece of scholarly art.
The arrival point offers a series of notes to visitors, including how to best experience the environment. It is more that worth the time to read these in order to make sure you enjoy the installation fully. Once you have done so, keep the instruction “follow the white dogs to where the boats are going [and] sit when you are asked to sit”, and then touch the teleport disc.
This delivers you to ground level, where waters ebb and flow over the eight stanzas of the poem beneath a beautiful sky, representing the start of Arthur’s expedition, and far on the horizon stand his three ships, white dogs pointing the way to them. In turn, the ships stand over the entrance to the Otherworld, on which your are to sit.
Doing so will deliver you to the Otherworld, in which the stanzas of the poem are presented through words and vignettes as an endless cycle, requiring considered exploration (the order in which you do so is yours to choose). As well as the poem, broader aspects of Welsh mythology are touched upon, such as the aforementioned Mabinogi. Do make sure you have media enabled (again, via the movie camera icon, top right of the viewer) to enjoy a reading of the poem by Blake Harriman, set to music and vocals by Hypatia herself.
Eventually, however, you must make your way to Yyns Wair (“Gwair’s Island”, referred to in the poem as Cair Sidi – the Glass Fortress / “Fortress of Four-Peaks” encountered by Arthur and his men -, and believed to be modern-day Lundy in the Bristol Channel), in order to free Gwair / Gwier. This involves passing through the Door of Hell to explore the tower of Gwair’s imprisonment. which in turn gives you the opportunity to collect the poem, hear it recited in the original Middle Welsh by Hypathia herself, and read the thoughts of her students about the use of virtual environments in study.
Preiddeu Annwn has been made possible through the support of the Russell Hope Robbins Library at the University of Rochester. A medieval studies library containing holding in all aspects of medieval literature, history, art and theology, the Library is also represented in Second Life, and can be visited directly, or by “following the waves” once you have reached Yyns Wair within the Preiddeu Annwn installation.
All told, this is an extraordinary demonstration of the power of virtual spaces as a tool for education and the exploration of art, history, mythology and language, with the virtual Russell Hope Robbins Library equally so. I spent in excess of four hours in exploration and contemplation of both; anyone with any interest in medieval literature, Arthurian mythology, Middle Welsh or medieval history in general cannot help but be enthralled by both.