Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature

Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature

by O. J. Padel

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Although the legends of Arthur have been popular throughout Europe from the Middle Ages on, the earliest references to Arthur are actually found in Welsh literature, beginning with the Welsh-Latin Historia Brittonum, which dates from the ninth century. In Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature, O. J. Padel provides a survey of medieval Welsh literary references to Arthur and emphasizes their importance to Arthurian studies as a whole. Padel considers texts from different genres alongside one another, from the folk legends associated with magic and animals to those portraying Arthur as literary hero, soldier, and defender of country and faith. Other figures associated with Arthur, such as Cai, Bedwyr, and Gwenhwyfar, are also discussed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780708326251
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 08/15/2013
Series: University of Wales Press - Writers of Wales Series
Edition description: New Updated Edition
Pages: 166
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

O. J. Padel is an honorary research fellow in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at the University of Cambridge.

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Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature

Writers of Wales

By O. J. Padel

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2013 O. J. Padel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2625-1



This book is about Arthur as a literary figure in medieval Wales. It is not about the Arthur of history, if there was such a person. It is widely assumed that the legendary figure was derived from a historical one, but it is equally possible that the seemingly historical Arthur was created by the historicization of a figure of legend. The legendary figure of Arthur was remarkably consistent in local British folklore for over a thousand years, from its first appearance in the ninth century to folklore current in the nineteenth; but learned authors, the intermediaries through whom we have received our knowledge of early Welsh traditions, sometimes gave their own interpretations of the character — either for their own reasons or because they knew of Arthur's wider literary reputation — rather than giving a close portrayal of the traditional figure. For this reason it is essential, when studying the portrayal of Arthur in a particular text, to try to understand the nature and purpose of that text; yet the understanding of individual texts is naturally a subjective matter. The nature of the literary works therefore receives particular attention in the pages which follow, even though space here cannot allow for all the different interpretations that have been offered of some of the better-known texts.

Wales has no monopoly of the Arthurian legend. Although the earliest mentions of Arthur are found in the ninth-century Welsh-Latin HISTORIA Brittonum ('The History of the Britons'), he also occurs in similar contexts in Cornwall, southern Scotland and Brittany, as soon as there are records of a kind liable to show the local folklore which was his particular domain. For our purpose the important point is not whether he was based on a historical person (for no records survive capable of answering that question), but the fact that in the early Middle Ages, by the twelfth century at the latest, he was renowned in local storytelling wherever Welsh and its sister languages were spoken.


The Earliest Texts

The earliest datable text mentioning Arthur is in Latin, the Historia Brittonum formerly attributed to Nennius. This was probably compiled in north Wales in the years 829–30. It is worth recalling, in passing, the notable absence of Arthur from an earlier Latin work, Gildas's De Excidio Britanniae ('On the Ruin of Britain'), composed in the sixth century. Gildas gave a historical summary of the English takeover of Britain, and if Arthur had played a major part in the British resistance we might well have expected Gildas to name him, as he does Ambrosius Aurelianus. Likewise, Arthur is absent from Bede's Ecclesiastical History Of The English People, written about a century before the Historia Brittonum, though in Bede's case other reasons for his silence might be envisaged.

Given that the Historia Brittonum, dating from the ninth century, is the earliest Arthurian text, its most striking feature is that it contains two different, seemingly contradictory, portrayals of Arthur. One is the often-quoted 'List of Arthur's battles against the English', where Arthur is depicted as the great military leader (dux bellorum) who led the British kings against the second generation of English settlers. (The context seems to imply that Arthur was not regarded as a king himself.) Twelve battles are specified, at nine sites (four at a single site). The identification of place-names in early documents is dependent upon the context, and this list supplies so little context that safe identification is impossible for the most part; this has made the list a rich quarry for those wishing to locate Arthur in their own particular areas, wherever those may be.

The final battle, Mount Badon, probably in southern England, is no doubt the one named by Gildas — who, by implication, attributes the victory instead to Ambrosius Aurelianus. A few other battle sites are also recognizable from Welsh legend: that at the 'River Bassas' recalls Baschurch in the Welsh Marches, named in the englyn poetry concerning Heledd; that at the 'city of the Legion' sounds like the seventh-century battle of Chester where thousands of monks of Bangor were said to have been slaughtered. The only sites also named elsewhere as battles involving Arthur are Badon (also in the Welsh Annals, see p. 8) and the River Tryfrwyd (Tribruit): Arthur's opponent there, we learn from the poem 'Pa wr yw'r porthor?' (see p. 22), was the legendary Gwrgi Garwlwyd ('Man-hound Rough-grey'), who used to slay a corpse of the Welsh every day, and two on Saturdays so as not to kill on a Sunday, according to the Triads; he was eventually killed, though not by Arthur, in one of the 'Three Fortunate Assassinations.

For most of the battles no detail is given, only the names, which may have been all that the author of the Historia knew of them. The more interesting battles are those where further information is given, and at these points the account begins to acquire a legendary, rather than historical, tinge: at the battle of the 'fort of Gwynnion' Arthur carried the image of the Virgin Mary on his shoulders, put the pagan English to flight and achieved a great slaughter of them through the assistance of Christ and Mary. At Badon he personally killed 960 men in a single onslaught. The author hints at darker days to come, saying that Arthur was victorious in all his battles (he carefully avoids mention of the final battle at Camlan), and that his successes prompted the English to seek further support from their kinsmen on the Continent: the implication, not stated, was that after Arthur's day the English again extended their dominion.

The whole passage thus has a legendary quality to it, and the suggestion that it is based upon a Welsh poem, with rhymes appearing in the names of some battles, has found widespread acceptance. However, Charles-Edwards has pointed out that earlier in the Historia a similar list of four battles against the English (only three named), attributed to Vortimer (Gwrthefyr), son of Vortigern' shows no sign of any rhyme-scheme, although it too has a legendary context. If the Arthurian battles were taken from a lost poem, we should expect to find comparable poems in surviving Welsh literature: according to preference, we could envisage it as similar either to that attributed to Taliesin in praise of Cyan Garwyn, the sixth-century king of Powys, listing his successful battles throughout Wales and in Cornwall, or to the legendary Arthurian poem 'Pa wr yw'r porthor?', to be discussed below (pp. 20–5), listing the achievements of Arthur and his warriors. Evidently between the time of Gildas in the sixth century and the writing of the Historia in the ninth, Arthur had become a leading figure of the British resistance in Welsh legend. This makes it odd that he was not named in the earliest prophetic poetry as a leader who would return to fight the English (see pp. 47–8).

The List of Battles provides the context for another early reference to Arthur, which may well be the earliest Welsh text naming him: the line in the Gododdin which praises one hero, Gwawrddur, for his achievement in providing food for black crows or ravens on the wall of a fortress, though he was not Arthur (gochore brein du ar uur caer, ceni bei ef Arthur). The date of this line cannot be ascertained with assurance, since both the date of the Gododdin poetry generally and the date of individual lines within the corpus are open to debate. It can with some safety be assumed that the line goes back to the eleventh or tenth century, perhaps earlier; so it need not necessarily antedate the references in the Historia Brittonum, though it could be of around the same period.

This line of praise is to be understood as an example of the grim understatement which the Gododdin often uses as a poetic device for praising its heroes; a few lines earlier a son of Golystan (mab Golistan) is praised for his valour in attack, though he was not leader (cen nei bei guledic), recalling Arthur's description as military leader in the List of Battles. The author of the praise of Gwawrddur, in making the comparison with Arthur, may have been thinking of Arthur's legendary single-handed slaughter of hundreds of Englishmen. The comparison, therefore, has no bearing on the question of Arthur's historical existence. Most heroes named in the Gododdin are treated in a sober and factual manner; but this mention, more of a non-mention, is of a different kind, closer in mood to the refrain which recurs in the Gododdin, Out of three hundred only one (or three) returned, with its similarly legendary quality. (Compare also the refrain, Three ship-loads we went; only seven men returned, in the poem 'Preiddiau Annwn'; see p. 26.) This allusion to Arthur in the Gododdin accords with the more legendary dimensions of the battle-list in the Historia Brittonum.

The other reference to Arthur in the Historia is at first sight of a different kind from the battle-list. As an appendix the Historia contains a list of the Wonders of Britain — wonders such as the hot springs of Bath, an altar of St Illtud suspended in mid-air with no visible support, and the sixty islands, each with an eagle's nest, in Loch Lomond. Two of these wonders were associated with Arthur. One of them was a stone bearing the footprint of Arthur's hound'Cafall, which left its imprint on it when hunting the pig Troyt. The stone was located on top of a cairn, on a hilltop (now Corn Gafallt) near Rhaeadr. If the stone were removed from the hilltop it would find its own way back to the cairn. The other wonder was a tomb in Ergyng, again in the Welsh Marches, located beside a spring called Licat Amr(Llygad Amr, 'the eye or spring of Amr': llygad ('eye') also means 'source of a stream'). In this legend, the name Amr was supposed to refer to a man, though actually it is probably a river, the one now called Gamber in Herefordshire. Amr was said to be the son of Arthur, who had been killed by Arthur himself and was buried in the tomb — hence the local name. The tomb was of variable length, never twice the same, and I myself have tested it, the author tells us.

In these wonders the text recounts local legends, linked with place-names. The fact that both are located in the mid-Welsh Marches need not be significant: this could be due to the author's sources of information, and we may legitimately envisage similar legends elsewhere in Wales, and further afield too. Such legends are common at later dates, as we shall see. Of Arthur's killing of his own son, presumably without recognizing him as in stories from other cultures, nothing more is known. But the earlier wonder is of significance since it shows that the hunting of the magical boar Twrch Trwyth, the climax of the Arthurian story 'How Culhwch won Olwen', was already known, and located in the Welsh Marches, in the earlier ninth century. In the later tale the location of the hunt is different; but it is to be expected that such stories were relocated at different sites, according to whatever suited different storytellers. (For the name of the Twrch Trwyth, later poetry used the form Trwyd, in keeping with the form Troit found here, rather than Trwyth: see p. 45. It seems that the form Trwyth found in Culhwch is aberrant; but it is now established by frequent modern usage.) The other significant feature of the wonder is the name of Arthur's dog, Cafall ('horse'). This name recurs in Culhwch, both for Arthur's dog and for a horse (not Arthur's), and again for his dog in the romance of Geraint; the implication of the name, that the dog was of enormous size, conforms with later hints that Arthur himself was a giant.

Although these two wonders seem to belong in a very different world from the military campaign of Arthur's twelve battles, that is so only if we try to read the battle-list as a historical record. If we observe instead the legendary dimensions of that list, then the two passages have more in common. However, the continuing Arthurian tradition, in Welsh and other literatures, was itself often split between trying to fit him into known history and acknowledging the magical and legendary quality of his world; so we may view this duality in the earliest Arthurian text as establishing the pattern for all later Arthurian literature. During the main period of Arthur's literary fame (twelfth to fifteenth centuries) the Historia itself was not widely read, but it had an extensive indirect influence through the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who drew upon it in writing his own History of the Kings of Britain, completed in about 1138. It is reasonable, therefore, to consider that the twofold image in which we view the figure of Arthur, both historical and legendary, has been perpetuated from the ninth-century Historia through to the later Middle Ages, and thence down to the present day.

It is possible that there is a third, indirect, allusion to Arthur in the Historia. Within the story of St Germanus and his work converting Britain to Christianity, there is an episode in which the saint visited a wicked tyrant in Powys'Benlli (Benli), known elsewhere as Benlli Gawr ('Berilli the Giant'). This sinful ruler refused hospitality to the saint, who accordingly destroyed Benlli and his fortress in a night-time incendiary display. A reference by the thirteenth-century poet Bleddyn Fardd to his patron as being gwaewddur ual Arthur wrth Gaer Menili ('spear-harsh' like Arthur against Benlli's Fortress') suggests that Arthur had played a part in an attack against this same tyrant. However, there is no certainty that Arthur's involvement in the attack on Benlli was claimed as early as the ninth century.

In the Gorchan ('additional or long song'?) of Cynfelyn, a longer hero's lament transmitted alongside the Gododdin poetry, the phrase torch trychdrwyt occurs, apparently as a comparison for the hero Cynfelyn. Although obscure, this phrase may contain a reference to the Twrch Trwyth (properly Trwyd, as noted above); if so, it presents another legendary character in this body of poetry, to place alongside the comparison made with Arthur in the Gododdin itself. This further allusion to the Arthurian story, if such it is, might be of about the ninth or tenth century.

One last text belongs in this same group of the earliest allusions to Arthur. It is again one written (mainly) in Latin, though by a Welshman who was not averse to using his own language for occasional phrases or literary allusions. The Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae) were probably compiled in south Wales in the tenth century, though the earliest manuscript is of about 1100 and has received additions made in the intervening two centuries. Since this earliest text of the Annals appears in a manuscript alongside the earliest surviving text of the Historia Brittonum (as well as Welsh genealogies), the two may have cross-fertilized each other.

The Annals contain two references to Arthur. Under the year 516 the battle of Badon is named, in which Arthur carried the cross of Christ for three days and nights on his shoulders, and the Britons were victors. A few entries later, in 537, occurs the earliest reference to Gueith Camlann, the battle of Camlan, in which Arthur and Medrawd died. The earlier entry is obviously connected in some manner with the similar legend in the earlier List of Battles of Arthur carrying the image of the Virgin Mary on his shoulders at the battle of Gwynnion; yet neither can be derived from the other, since the discrepancies between them are too great (Gwynnion instead of Badon; the image of the Virgin instead of the cross of Christ — is the latter supposed to be an image or replica?). It would seem that both texts were drawing upon a legend which had already assumed variant forms; but they agree in ascribing the victory at Badon (apparently incorrectly) to Arthur. It has been suggested that Arthur's carrying the two religious burdens on his shoulders is an error for on his shield, through written confusion between ysgwyd ('shield') and ysgwydd ('shoulder'), words often associated in early poetry (iscuit and iscuid in Old Welsh spelling). However, it seems unlikely that the same error would have been made twice by Welsh-speakers in transmitting a known legend; nor do we have other mentions of pictorial representations on shields from early Welsh culture. It is possible that 'shoulders' was always intended.

The second Annal entry is of interest for presenting the battle later famed as Arthur's last, and the character of Medrawd (Mordred in later medieval literature), Arthur's nephew and betrayer; however, it is not made clear here that Arthur and Medrawd were on opposing sides. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the 1130s, located this battle in Cornwall; but he seems to have had his own reasons for associating Arthur very closely with Cornwall, and he was alluding to the name of the River Camel, which actually has a different derivation. Again, because of the lack of context in the Annals, there is no way of telling whether this battle was thought to be located in Wales (where there are at least two known places called Camlan), or further north, like some other locations mentioned in the Annals, or indeed elsewhere.


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Table of Contents

Preface to the new edition



The Earliest Texts

Arthur’s World: Culhwch and ‘Pa ŵr yw’r porthor?’

Other Texts of the Central Middle Ages

Three Dialogue Poems

The Matter of Britain

The Continuing Tradition

Some Arthurian Characters

Was There an Arthur of the Welsh?

Select Bibliography

Supplementary Bibliography (2013)



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