Here is Part Two of my three part series on the Welsh Origins of King Arthur. Part One can be found here.
The Body of Tradition
Although it may be impossible to plot a direct evolutionary line in the development of the Arthurian legend from his earliest appearance as a semi-historical solider figure, to the imperial presence found in the later romances, there are certainly stages of tradition which can be identified. One of the watershed works that defines the tradition of Arthur during the folkloric stage is Culhwch ac Olwen. There is a sort of loose consistency in several of the early Welsh Arthurian poems, where we can observe repetitions of themes, multiple allusions to common events, and the presence of a canon of characters — some of whom display a developed personality, while in other cases we can discern more fluidity in the roles they play.
The importance of Culhwch ac Olwen in the study of early Welsh sources for Arthurian legend as well as an exploration of the genre cannot be overstated, yet it is the complexity of the piece which lends itself to both areas of exploration which also limits its overall usefulness as an independent source, especially where Arthur is concerned. Radner said it best when observing that the authority of Culhwch ac Olwen as a representative Arthurian resource can be trusted “no further… than we can find corroboration in other sources.” (Radner, pg. 51) The primary reason for this is the author’s use of irony and satire in the composition of work.
While some critics of Culhwch ac Olwen complain that it is sloppily constructed and uneven in its presentation, Radner asserts that such a reading does the author a great injustice. Instead, she and other scholars perceive in the work a self-conscious editorialization of contemporary literary forms and conventions, perhaps as a reflection of the cultural shifts in Wales at the time Culhwch ac Olwen was written. An increased appreciation of native traditions accompanied the rise of Welsh nationalism in the face of their becoming a conquered people; simultaneously, the Welsh were being moved, as a society, into a more global community. This interweaving of native tales, satirization of traditional bardic forms, and inclusion of international folk motifs may therefore have been a deliberate attempt on the part of the author to appeal to broad, multifaceted audience.
While there is much to be learned from an examination of the structure, tone, and form of the work, from the perspective of an Arthurian scholar, Culhwch ac Olwen is problematic. It is difficult to ascertain what aspects of the story are included for effect – ironic or otherwise – and which are part of the traditional Arthurian story cycle as it had been developed by the 12th century. It is for this reason that a comparative approach with at least semi-contemporary works can prove to be the most illuminating when it comes to determining what is properly Arthurian, what is has been added to the story cycle by virtue of Arthur’s magnetism, and what is literary license on the part of the author.
By the time Culhwch ac Olwen had been written down, the story of Arthur appears to have taken on a life of its own, growing in popularity and evolving to the point that many disparate legends and folktales had found themselves attached to him, making it difficult to discern whether certain elements of the Arthurian tales were native to the story cycle or if Arthur had simply usurped the role of the tale’s original central character. Jones writes, “When the evidence of the early poetry, the Triads and the Mirabilia is combined, we can see fairly clearly the process of connecting with Arthur folk-stories and heroic sagas which had once been independent of him.” (Jones, pg. 19) Whether or not these stories were native to Arthurian tradition or had become attached to him by virtue of his popularity is uncertain; it is difficult to say how much is part of a whole well-defined body of tradition, or if we are seeing a continuous accretion of a vast body of folklore, unrelated to Arthur, but which ultimately comes to be associated with him.
An instructive illustration of this point is found in Culhwch ac Olwen. While it has been suggested that the entire tale was intentionally written to act as a framework within which to gather disparate tales of Arthur and his men together in one place, it appears the current consensus among scholars favors a gradual association of Arthur with previously unrelated tales which see his charisma and popularity overshadow the original hero of the tale. Indeed, once Culhwch, the ostensible central character of Culhwch ac Olwen, arrives at Arthur’s court, he fades into the background of the tale even as the grand quests described therein are directly undertaken for his sake.
However, allusions to Arthurian tales and quests in Culhwch ac Olwen and early Welsh poems like Pa Gur? also suggest that a robust body of Arthurian materials existed, and that the medieval audiences would fully understand the references which today serve to vex and tantalize the modern reader lacking their contemporary context. Whereas in earlier works, allusions to Arthur reference famous battles and personal attributes, in Culhwch ac Olwen, Pa Gur? and Preiddeu Annwn, whole tales are being referenced concerning Arthur himself as well as members of his court.
As elusive and incomplete as some of these references are, they are balanced by some concrete and well-defined attributes as well, arguing that whether or not Arthur is an intrusive element in unrelated folktales or has attracted other tales to become part of his literary canon, an Arthurian context has, regardless, been developed. Arthur has a wife in Gwenhwyfar and an established court, Celli Wig, which we see in both Culhwch ac Olwen and The Triads. In spite of a large and varied war band, whose members appear to change from work to work, Arthur has a core of close companions, most especially Cai and Bedwyr, who not only appear in Arthurian tales with consistency, but who themselves have well-developed characteristics and a body of lore associated with them.
As befitting a folk hero, Arthur possesses an array of marvelous items, which are enumerated in great detail. Arthur lists many of them in Culhwch ac Olwen as exceptions to the boon he will grant to Culhwch:
“… except for my ship and my mantle, and Caledfwlch [Hard-Cleft] my sword, and Rhongomyniad b[Spear-Slayer] my spear, and Wyned Gwrthurcher [Evening-Face] my shield, and Carnwennan [Little White-Hilt] my knife, and Gwenhwyfar my wife.”
Making a case for a collective canon associated with Arthur based on the overlap of information from disparate sources, we learn from Preiddeu Annwn that Arthur’s ship is named Prydwen and note that Arthur’s mantle is included in the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, a listing associated with the triadic tradition of Trioedd Ynys Prydein:
13) The mantle of Arthur in Cornwall: Whoever was under it could not be seen, and he could see everyone.
While the content of Culhwch ac Olwen is often questioned concerning its accuracy in reflecting what was truly a part of Arthurian mythos, it is worth noting that details and motifs featured in the tale are found in other works as well — including the Mirabilia of the Historia Brittonum, the Trioedd Ynys Prydein, and early poems such as Preiddeu Annwn – and are found associated with Arthur and as part of a separate tradition. This underscores the nature of Arthurian material at this time; that is, it was both a mythic cycle featuring completely native elements, as well as a focal point to which other legends had become affixed.
An important resource for Arthurian lore is Trioedd Ynys Prydein, an 11th or 12th century compilation of triadic groupings of related characters or events which are believed to have been used as mnemonic aids for the recitation of Welsh lore and tradition. There are two existent versions of these Triads: the Early Version found in MS Peniarth 16 dating to the mid 13th century, and the Later Version found in the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch. The Triads are a trove of Arthurian lore, the body of which, Rachel Bromwich asserts, developed independently from Culhwch ac Olwen, although there is contextual overlap between the two works.
The variations between the Early and Late Versions of Trioedd Ynys Prydein give a great deal of insight into the growth and development of the legends of Arthur over time. While the Early Version does make reference to Arthur and his court, thereby suggesting an already-established canon of tradition, it is in the Later Version where we see Arthur overlay, and in some cases overtake, tales which in he was not involved in the earlier redaction. This is illustrated in Triad 26 where, in the Later Version, Arthur has taken the over the role as hunter of the sow Henwen from Coll son of Collfrewy, the one who does the hunting in the Early Version of Trioedd Ynys Prydein.
As ostensible mnemonic devices, most of the triads are short and spare of detail. However, many of the Triads which feature Arthur, especially in the Later Version, are quite detailed, referencing what appears to be an accepted body of legend. Further, Arthur is sometimes appended to a triad as an additional fourth point which serves to define and underscore the moral of the collection, often seeming to be a late addition to the traditional triad. Triad 53, the “Three Exalted Prisoners” is a notable example of this, and one which we will explore more fully.
Read part three here.
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).