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....


1 comment:

  1. The more ancient the source the better, to my mind. I haven't read them all, though I've read about them. Of course I read "The Once and Future King," can't escape that. I also read Mallory, and "The Mabinogion," and am familiar with the mention in Y Gododdin.

    The thing about the Arthur story that I like so much is that it comes from a place so deep in time that we can't reach it. It's a dark, dark age ago.