Longsword by David Pilling

Monday, 30 June 2014

The Arthur of the Welsh

Following up on recent posts focused on Ambrosius Aurelianus, the 'last of the Romans', I want to write something about his far more famous successor, and the figure who has largely replaced him in our collective memory as the hero of native resistance after Rome abandoned Britain to her fate: Arthur.

Arthur playing 'gwyddbywll' in The Dream of Rhonawby
Arthur barely needs any introduction. The Once and Future King is virtually inescapable, having endured and flourished over the centuries, and if anything become even more popular in recent years, starring in dozens of novels and films and plays. He has been portrayed as an atypical medieval king, sitting inside a fairy tale castle surrounded by his knights, a Bronze Age chieftain, a Dark Age warlord, a resurrected Victorian gentleman 'of the stateliest port' (Tennyson), and even a sort of green space alien thingy. The character is extremely malleable, and can be re-shaped according to the desires and perceptions of individual writers. Like Robin Hood, he has come to stand for rather basic notions of justice and virtue, and can be turned into just about anything.

My favourite Arthur is the one who storms through the early medieval Welsh texts, hunting magical boars, slaying giants and fighting witches. This Arthur seems to have got lost, hidden behind the shadow of his far more famous counterpart - the one expressed by Chr├ętien de Troyes and Malory, of Camelot and Lancelot and Guinevere, Round Tables and Holy Grails (and killer rabbits) and all the rest of it. I have no problem with the Arthur of later romance - he informed possibly my favourite Arthurian novel, TH White's The Once and Future King - but there is something altogether more vital and intriguing about his Welsh twin.

The earliest reference to the 'Welsh Arthur' - and Arthur in general - is generally accepted to be a passing reference dating from the 7th century in a stanza from Y Gododdin, an ancient Welsh poem containing a series of elegies to the northern Brittonic kingdom of Gododdin. The stanza reads:

"He glutted black ravens on the rampart of the fort,
Though he was no Arthur,
Among the powerful ones in battle,
In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade."

The stanza is actually written in praise of the exploits of Gwawrddur, but no matter how many ravens he feeds with the blood of his enemies, he is 'no Arthur' i.e. Gwawrddur might be a bit tasty in a fight, but Arthur was even tastier.

Further references to this shadowy Arthur, a hard-edged warrior rather than the urbane monarch of later legend, appear scattered throughout the writings of Nennius and the Historia Brittonum. From these we learn that Arthur was thought to have fought twelve battles against the enemies of Sub-Roman Britain, culminating in the Siege of Mount Badon, where he wore the image of the Virgin Mary on his shield and personally slaughtered 960 enemy warriors. He met his end at the 'the strife of Camlann', where Medraut also died (the chronicle is unclear if Medraut, later turned into Arthur's deadly foe Mordred, was fighting on Arthur's side or not), a mysterious battle accompanied by plague in Britain and Ireland.

No Welsh medieval writer appears to have tried to emulate Geoffrey of Monmouth or Malory, and write an epic narrative spanning the character's life from his birth to Camlann. Possibly the character was already well-known to his audience from earlier stories, now lost, and no such explanation was needed. Instead he tends to appear as a supporting character in tales such as Culhwch and Olwen and The Dream of Rhonawby, both preserved in the 19th century compilation of medieval Welsh poetry and legend known as The Mabinogion.

Arthur's court
The Arthur of Culhwch resides in a court or llys with a company of over two hundred warriors, every one of whom is named by the writer(s). Many of them possess bizzare attributes, such as Henbeddestyr son of Erim, who never found any man who could keep up with him, on horseback or on foot; or Penpingion, who goes about on his head to save his feet, neither looking to heaven nor the ground, but like a rolling stone on a court floor; or Arthur's close friend Cei (the formidable ancestor of the buffoonish Sir Kay of romance), who can withstand fire and water better than any man, and project heat from his hands, a sort of Dark Age superhero.

Like the knights of romance, Arthur and his men embark on quests, but they are strange affairs, full of dark magic and weird imagery. Cei and the one-handed warrior, Bedwyr (later turned into Sir Bedivere) accompany Culhwch on his mission to win a bride from her father, the coarse giant Ysbaddaden. They perform all sorts of feats, such as riding a salmon in order to free a prisoner from an underwater prison, hunting a gigantic magical boar named the Twrch Trwyth and her seven piglets - much harder than it sounds, since the lethal swine destroy most of Ireland and slaughter many of Arthur's warriors - and slay Dillus Farfog, the 'greatest warrior to ever flee from Arthur.'

Cei slays Dillus through treachery, as a result of which Arthur mocks him in verse:

"A leash was made by Cei,
From the beard of Dillus son of Efrai,
Were he alive, he would kill you."

In response to Arthur's mockery Cei goes into a massive sulk and leaves court. Thereafter he refuses to help Arthur, even when the latter's men are being killed, and no peace can be made between the two men. This may reflect some ancient memory of internal tensions in Arthur's war-band, eventually leading to it breaking up and the disaster of Camlann. Shortly after Cei leaves, Arthur is required to go north to heal a feud between warring princes. Before he can get there one of the princes, Gwyn son of Nudd, has murdered a captive, cut out his heart and forced another captive to eat it. Again, the savagery of this episode might reflect some grim Dark Age reality underlying the tale.

The giant shepherd in Culhwch and Olwen
Surreal, offbeat imagery permeates the earlier Welsh tales of Arthur, conjuring up a very different atmosphere to the courtly environment of Malory. There is something wild and untamed about Arthur's men, who appear more supernatural than human, capable of extraordinary feats of strength. In The Dream of Rhonawby, a furious Arthur crushes a set of golden playing pieces to powder in his hands, and laughs in contempt at the 'scum' and 'little men' who are left to defend Wales after he has gone. A giant-slayer, he is himself a giant, the matchless Amheradwyr or Emperor, whom no other Welsh/British hero can measure up against.

And then there is ultimate surrealism of the Cauldron of Annwn, but that shall be for another post....


Sunday, 22 June 2014

Leader of Battles

Following on from my last post, I'd like to announce the release of my latest novel - Leader of Battles (I): Ambrosius. 

The Leader of Battles series is my take on the grim Dark Age reality behind Arthurian legend, and Book One focuses on the career of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the 'Last of the Romans', whose life and career I described recently. Book Two will concentrate on his successor, Artorius  - who barely needs any introduction as the 'historical' Arthur!

Leader of Battles (I) is currently available on Kindle and will also be available as a paperback very soon.

"My father was a warrior. He bade me fight..."
Britain, 427 AD. Rome has abandoned the province, leaving it exposed to waves of barbarian invasions. To the west, savage pirates from Hibernia ravage the coastline. In the north, the crumbling defences of the Wall cannot contain marauding bands of Picts as they sweep down from the highlands. Worst of all are the Saxons, the dreaded sea-wolves. Under their chiefs, Hengist and Horsa, they wish to drive out the native Britons and claim the entire island for their own.    

Attacked from all sides, the Britons find a champion in the form of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the last of the Romans. A modest man, riddled with doubts and fears, Ambrosius reluctantly takes on the mantle of Dux Bellorum, Leader of Battles. Placed in command of Britain's only standing army, he fights to preserve the dwindling light of civilisation while the treacherous High King, Vortigern, plots his destruction.

Set before the coming of Arthur, the first book of the Leader of Battles trilogy charts the rise and fall of post-Roman Britain's first great hero, and his desperate struggle to hold back the shadows threatening to engulf his country.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The last of the Romans

 I'm delving back into Roman/Arthurian history today, with a look at a shadowy figure who might have been the inspiration for 'King Arthur'. 

Ambrosius as he may appeared
The figure in question was one Ambrosius Aurelianus, described as 'the last of the Romans' i.e. the last of the Romans to hold any sort of power in Britain after the departure of the legions in the early 5th century. He is an obscure figure, remembered only in a few garbled tales in which he gets hopelessly mixed up with Merlin the magician, and his deeds and existence have been largely crushed under the weight of The Once and Future King. Unlike Arthur, however, we can be reasonably certain that Ambrosius existed, and played a major role in the Romano-British resistance against the Saxons.

The Dark Ages are suitably named. A blank curtain lies over British history from c.400-600 AD, between the departure of the Roman legions and the rise of the Saxon kingdoms. Modern archaeology is helping us to discover more about the period, but the sheer lack of written sources remains a crippling problem in trying to piece together events.

One of the very few surviving sources is De Excidio de Conquestu Britanniae, or ‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’, written by a somewhat mysterious and irritating British cleric named Gildas. Probably written in the first quarter of the sixth century, it is intended as a sermon in three parts rather than a history. Gildas doesn’t mince his words, and uses the history of Britain from the coming of the Romans as a stick to beat the British rulers of his own day, condemning them as lazy, sinful and incompetent. 

The red dragon and the white fight over Britain
In fact, Gildas doesn’t have a good word to say about almost anyone. One of the few to escape his censure is Ambrosius, who he describes as ‘the last of the Romans’ and the man who ignited the British resistance against the marauding Saxons in the mid-5th century. 

Gildas has this to say about Ambrosius and his times:

"The poor remnants of our nation, being strengthened by God, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils. Under him, our people provoked to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtained the victory. 

After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might in this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Mount Badon, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity."

The reference to Ambrosius' parents wearing the purple may indicate they enjoyed some kind of senatorial or government rank, or alternatively that they were effectively martyred during the Saxon revolt: 'clothed in scarlet' is another suggested interpretation of the phrase used to describe them, meaning their bodies were covered in blood. 

According to Gildas, following the initial shock of the Saxon revolt, the Britons fled to Ambrosius ‘as eagerly as bees to a beehive when a storm threatens’. Under his leadership, they regained their strength, and challenged the Saxons to battle. The war raged on for an uncertain length of time – Gildas is frustratingly vague on dates – with victories and defeats on either side, until the year of the ‘siege of Mons Badonicus’, where the Britons finally scored a major victory that stopped the invaders in their tracks for a generation. 

Mons Badonicus, or Mount Badon, is traditionally the career-defining victory won by Arthur, perhaps Britain’s most famous legendary hero. Strangely (or tellingly?) Gildas makes no mention of Arthur. The only British hero he names in connection with the fight against the Saxons is Ambrosius, but he stops short of also naming him the victor of Badon. The earliest feasible dating for Badon is c.482, which makes it a little late for Ambrosius, since the Saxon revolt started some thirty years earlier.

It is possible to reconcile these issues. Possibly 'Arthur' was an officer serving under Ambrosius, his Magister Equitum or similar, and assumed command of the British forces after Ambrosius died or retired. Piecing together a coherent narrative of Ambrosius' career is impossible, since the evidence is so fragmentary, but he pops up in various disparate sources. The Historia Brittonum, written by Nennius in the ninth century, talks of the High King of the Britons, Vortigern, ruling in dread of Ambrosius, and of a battle at Guoloph (Nether Wallop in Hampshire) fought between the forces of Ambrosius and one Vitalinus. 

A depiction of Merlin
The Historia also relates the tale of Ambrosius being discovered as a child by Vortigern while the latter was trying to build a fort in North Wales. The fort kept on collapsing, and the king's advisors told him the only solution was to sprinkle the foundations with the blood of a child born without a father. Ambrosius was said to be such a child, but when brought before the king, he revealed the real reason for the problem: below the foundations was a lake containing two dragons. The dragons, one red and one white, fought a battle representing the struggle between the Britons (red) and the Saxons (white), and the shockwaves of their battle was causing the fort to collapse. One day, Ambrosius prophesied, the red dragon would triumph over the white, and cast it back into the sea. 

Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, written c.1136, took this tale and altered it, giving Ambrosius the name 'Merlin Ambrosius' and conflating him with tales of a 6th century bard named Myrddin Wyllt, who was said to have run mad after witnessing the horrors of battle. Thus the figure of 'Merlin' as we know him today was partially derived from the historical Ambrosius. 

Arthurian novelists have generally been keen to skim over Ambrosius in order to get to the main event, or even omit him altogether. He has a cameo in Marion Zimmer Bradlay's The Mists of Avalon, where he limps on for a few pages before quietly expiring offstage, and doesn't appear at all in Bernard Cornwell's Warlord trilogy. Rosemary Sutcliffe and Mary Stewart did him justice, allowing Ambrosius a share of the limelight before he makes way for Arthur, but he is still a supporting character.  This seems slightly unfair on one of the few definite historical personages we know anything about from this period, and one who initiated the fight-back against his country’s enemies.