With the recent opening of yet another movie adaptation of The Matter of Britain, this time in the form of Guy Richie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword , I thought it was a good time to share an overview of the earliest extant sources for the legend of Arthur. It is my hope that this multi-part series may shed some light on the origins of this enigmatic king and his surrounding lore. Part 2 to follow.
The Earliest Sources and Their Characterization of Arthur
The earliest prose sources which mention Arthur, the Historia Brittonum dating to 829 -30 and the Annales Cambriae, the earliest recension of which may date back to 954, both Latin texts from Welsh sources, present a him in a pseudo-historical light as a soldier and winner of victories against the Saxons. Between these two works, we have several pieces of information which already represent the existence of a canon of tradition surrounding Arthur, including a list of his twelve great battles, featuring this famous Battle of Mount Badon, and the tradition that Arthur and Medraut die at each other’s hands at Arthur’s last battle at Camlan. These details endure to be included in later Arthurian tales and writings; the Battle of Camlan, for example, is referenced in no less than five Triads in the later version of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein. It is worth noting that in the Historia Brittonum, Arthur is not called a king, but rather it states that he fought against the Saxons “with the kings of the Britons, for he was the leader of battles.”
One of the first direct mentions of Arthur in Welsh poetry is in Y Gododdin from the Book of Aneirin. The poem, tentatively dated back as far as the 9th century, describes an historical Northern battle believed to have occurred in 600 CE. Because early Welsh praise-poetry only references historical characters when making elegies, some scholars believe the poem’s allusion to Arthur as a model of courage places him solidly in the realm of historicity.
He truck before the three hundred bravest,
He would slay both middle and flank
He was suited to the forefront of a most generous host,
He would give gifts from a herd of horses in winter,
He would feed black ravens on the wall
of a fortress, though he were not Arthur.
?[Among the strong ones in battle,]
In the van, an alder-palisade was Gwawrddur.
– Y Gododdin
In several early Welsh poems, including Pa Gur? (“What man is the porter?”) from the 11th century and found the Black Book of Carmarthen, and Preiddeu Annwn (“Spoils of Annwn”) from the Book of Taliesin (NLW Peniarth 2), believed to date somewhere between the 9th and early 12th centuries, we begin to see the heroic traditions of Arthur mixed with early legends and folklore. In this shift away from historical accounting, Arthur is seen fighting Otherworldly foes and fantastic creatures, rather than battling real-world enemies of the realm such as the Saxons as in writings past.
Culhwch ac Olwen is the earliest existent Arthurian prose narrative; preserved in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, it has been dated to c. 1080 – 1100, although it is generally accepted that the tale originated in an older, oral tradition. The story’s importance to the study of Arthur is that it appears to function as a receptacle for many of the traditional folk legends which had come to be associated with Arthur by the time of the tale’s redaction, and as such, it represents a critical point in the development of Arthurian legend. Perhaps based upon oral tradition, but certainly a literary work in its final form, Culhwch ac Olwen straddles first pseudo-historical mentions of Arthur the warrior in works such as Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae, and the later romances which, owing so much to the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, depict Arthur as a detached, imperial figure.
Here, in this intermediary stage, Arthur is a folk hero — a leader of kings and the head of a band of adventurers who embark upon epic quests and fight against supernatural foes. This characterization is reflected in early Welsh poems which also feature Arthur, and so it seems the author of Culhwch ac Olwen may have drawn upon an established tradition of tales associated with Arthur, and wove them together to form an overarching narrative. However, some of the wordplay and satirization of established contemporary literary forms present in Culhwch ac Olwen require that we cross check the Arthurian content with other sources to determine what aspects are properly part of an established tradition, and what are creative fancies of the author.
In Culhwch ac Olwen, the Arthur we see is one who is fully engaged in heroic pursuits, having about him a band of companions with whom he works, both collectively and apart, to fulfill quests and engage in adventures for the good of the people. Arthur is shown as a welcoming and gracious host, observing all of the courtly niceties, and extending good hospitality. The hero Culhwch addresses Arthur as Penn Teyrned yr Ynys honn – “chief of the lords of this island”, a title also given to him in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein which names him as Pen Teyrned or Chief Prince of three Tribal Thrones – those at Mynyw (St. David’s in Wales), Celliwig in Cornwall, and Pen Rhionydd in the North. This contrasts with his title of dux bellorum or “war duke” as found in Historia Brittonum). The depiction of Arthur, therefore, as a king is purely a convention of the legends which had come to surround him, as it has no foundation of precedent in any of the references to him in the Welsh chronicles.
Whereas in the later Arthurian romances, Arthur’s status is elevated to that of an uninvolved emperor, these early Welsh poems and tales depict him rather as a skilled warrior who is first among equals. Indeed, the Arthur of Culhwch ac Olwen has been compared, especially when taken along with his men, to Fionn and his Fianna of Irish legend , and to later stories of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Unlike the Arthur of later tradition who takes a more passive role and allows his men to serve as his proxy on their various quests and adventures, this Arthur is right in midst of the action, knowing both when to send his men in his stead fully aware of their individual abilities, and when to engage the foe and meet the challenge on his own.
Invariably, the challenges before Arthur have some supernatural component, and we see him and his men battling fantastic beasts, dangerous giants, and evil witches. It is these characters that place Arthur in the realm of folktale, and in Culhwch ac Olwen we see several international folkloric motifs in play. In the vast catalog of Arthur’s almost supernaturally gifted men, we can discern the international motif of the Extraordinary Companions (F601), and the whole of the work seems to evoke Six Go Through the Whole World (AT 513A), which depicts the hero and his companions undergoing fantastic challenges set before them by the father of the princess whose hand he seeks to obtain in marriage. Indeed, the ambiguous location of Arthur’s chief court Celliwig (“the forest grove”) in Cornwall, named both in the Triads and Culhwch ac Olwen, has been suggested as being “perhaps a literary phrase conveying the idea that Arthur and his men lived outside of normal society, where ordinary men did not live.”
King, campaigner, and gracious host he may have been, but Arthur’s characterization in early Welsh tradition also featured a darker side of the legendary figure. Although he is depicted as a great defender of his land and people, even as he battles across the countryside in pursuit of the great boar Twrch Trwyth, he nevertheless causes great destruction in his wake which impacts the landscape for seven years. In many Welsh hagiographies, Arthur appears as a foil of sorts, often exhibiting a rash or tyrannical nature in need of correction at the hand of a saint, as in the Life of Padarn, dating from the 12th or 13th century. The author of Culhwch ac Olwen occasionally depicts Arthur in an irreverent light, and we see an egotistical Arthur in Trioedd Ynys Prydein, digging up the protective head of Bran from the White Hill in London because he believed that the responsibility for keeping the land secure from foreign invaders should rest with he, Arthur, alone.
The Celtic Sources for the Arthurian Legend, Jon B. Coe and Simon Young (Felinfach: Llanerch Publishers, 1995).
The Mabinogion, translated by Sioned Davies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, Rachel Bromwich, ed. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006).
Bromwich, Rachel, Jarman, A.O.H., Roberts, Brynley F., eds., The Arthur of the Welsh (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991.)
Jones, Thomas, “The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur”, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 8: (1964), 3 – 21.
Padel, O.J., Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000).
Radner, Joan N., “Interpreting Irony in Medieval Celtic Narrative: The Case of Culhwch ac Olwen”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 16: (1988).
Roberts, Brynley “Culhwch ac Olwen, the Triads, Saints’ Lives in R. Bromwich, A.O.H. Jarman, and B.F. Roberts,eds., The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991).
Sims-Williams, Patrick, “ The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems”, in R. Bromwich, A.O.H. Jarman, and B.F. Roberts,eds., The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991).