Reiver by David Pilling

Friday, 14 November 2014

Leader of Battles (III) - Gwenhwyfar

"Arthur said, 'Though you do not reside here, chieftain, you shall have the gift your mouth and tongue shall name, as far as the wind dries, as far as the rain soaks, as far as the sun reaches, as far as the sea stretches, as far as the earth extends, except my ship and my mantle, and Caledfwlch my sword, and Rhongymiad my spear, and Wynebgwrthucher my spear, and Carnwennan my dagger, and Gwenhwyfar my wife..."

So said Arthur to Culhwch in the medieval Welsh tale Culhwch ac Olwen. His passing reference to Gwenhwyfar (who he appears to rank below his weapons in terms of value) is reckoned to be the earliest known reference to his wife, better-known from later stories as Guinevere, his adulterous queen who brings about the ruin of Camelot through her affair with Sir Lancelot. 

Guinevere should be familiar to most from any number of recent films and novels. Depictions of her vary wildly, from Kiera Knightley's, erm, interesting turn as a Pictish warrior princess with a Sloane accent and a leather fetish costume in 2004's King Arthur, to Angel Coulby's more decorous Gwen in the BBC Series Merlin: Coulby was also the first black actress to play the role. 
Howard Pyle illustration of Arthur and Guinevere

Gwenhwyfar - with the original Welsh spelling intact - is the central character of Part III of my Leader of Battles series. Parts I and II were dominated by male figures, Ambrosius and Artorius, and I wanted to do something different with the third book.  I also wanted to try something different with the character of Gwenhwyfar, drawing on the older Welsh tales of her background and upbringing rather than the well-known medieval French/Anglo traditions. 

This was easier said than done, since the Welsh traditions (as usual) are both fragmentary and contradictory. In one of the Welsh Triads concerning Arthur, there are no less than three separate Gwenhwyfars, all of them married to Arthur. Two other Triads deal with only one Gwenhwyfar, but mention a sister, Gwenhwyfach. The sisters argue, and their dispute causes the fateful Battle of Camlann, where Arthur and his war-band perish: Triad 53 talks of Gwenhwyfach slapping Gwenhwyfar, and this being one of the 'Three Harmful Blows of the Island of Britain', since it leads to Camlann. Triad 54, on the other hand, talks of the villain Medraut (the original Mordred) breaking into Arthur's court at Celliwig and dragging Gwenhwyfar from her chair. This insult to Arthur's wife and dignity leads to the strife of Camlann. 

Angel Coulby as Gwen in Merlin
Keira Knightly as Xena...I mean Guinevere






















On the face of it, all these tales would appear to stem from entirely different traditions. None of them mention Lancelot, a character invented and dumped into the story by later French romancers. However, even in these early tales there is a suggestion that Gwenhwyfar was unfaithful to her husband. Caradoc of Llancafarn writes of her being abducted by (or eloping with) Melwas, a prince of the mysterious Summer Country. Arthur has to give chase with his army and storm Melwas' fort to get her back.  

I decided to mix and match some of these elements, and throw in some others to come up with an original - or as original as I can make it - take on the character of Gwenhwyfar. In Part III of the series (still a work in progress) I portray her as the eldest daughter of Ogyrfan Gawr, the King of Powys, the lord of a mighty fortress called Caer Ogyrfan. The remains of this fort can still be seen today at Old Oswestry in Powys, a massive hilltop stronghold covering some forty acres of land. Gwenhwyfar is just sixteen at the beginning of the story, and has a younger sister who she doesn't get on with - shades of Gwenhwyfach, though I've changed her sister's name to Heledd to avoid any name confusion!

Aerial view of Caer Ogyrfan today
The Gwenhwyfar of the Welsh tales is a somewhat mysterious figure, very much in the background, though perhaps not as passive as she was to later become. Apart from her violent row with her sister in the Triads, an old Welsh folk rhyme casts her in an intriguingly negative light:

"Gwenhwyfar ferch Ogrfan Gawr,
Drwg yn fechan, gwaeth yn fawr."

"Gwenhwyfar, daughter of Ogrfan Gawr,
Bad when little, worse when great."

Part III of Leader of Battles begins in the year 481, just two years after Artorius' signal victory over the Saxons at Mount Badon, and two years into his reign as High King over what remains of free Britannia. How Artorius and Gwenhwyfar meet, and their trials as man and wife - well, I'm still working on that...


4 comments:

  1. Hmmm. But isn't the problem with Gwenhwyfar - as with almost every "name" that we know from early-ish Welsh poetry is, in fact, a symbolic title rather than a name at all? So the reason there are so many Gwenhwyfars is that the word(s) simply mean White Enchantress or variations thereof. So Gwenhwyfawr is Great White Enchantress, and Gwenhwyfach is Lesser White Enchantress, etc, etc. We gather from Gildas that 6th century warlords frequently set aside one wife in favour of new ones and the logic, I guess, is that each of them would be bad-mouthed by the errant husband and therefore deemed to be a "witch" or similar.

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    Replies
    1. Possibly - the character's origins may lie in Irish legend, or all the way back to biblical tales. Still makes for a good story, though :)

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  2. I like a good story, too. It's impossible to see back into those deep, Dark Ages. But I like straining my eyes to see as far as I can.

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