The Welsh Origins of King Arthur – Part 3

Here is the final segment of my three part series on the Welsh Origins of King Arthur. Part One can be found here

Recurring Themes

“King Arthur had hardly spoken, before a white hart ran into the hall.” Arthur Rackham, 1910

Although it is difficult to ascertain the degree to which early Welsh poetry directly influenced the writing of Culhwch ac Olwen, or to determine whether the similarities of theme and content of these works are a result of their respective authors drawing upon a collective body of lore concerning Arthur, an examination of some of these recurring motifs underscores the existence of an established, albeit continuously growing, catalog of Arthurian legend. Further, the formal repertoire of literary devices and constructions typical of Welsh literature places it squarely in line as an inheritor of an established tradition of storytelling and bard craft.

Pa Gur? possesses many similarities with Culhwch ac Olwen, both in content and in form; notably, both works are vehicles which present a tone for the Arthurian world by means of suggestive allusions to tales, rather than supplying specific details about them. A challenge of the porter occurs in both works — and indeed it is used twice in Culhwch ac Olwen, once when Culhwch first seeks an audience with Arthur, and later when Cai desires entrance to the court of Wrnach the Giant — and both use this device to illustrate what may be a common literary theme: the need to overcome the challenge of the gatekeeper in order to meet with their lord.

In Pa Gur?, Arthur’s challenge by the gatekeeper Glewlwyd presents him with an opportunity to recite a list of the men at his court, to extol their battle prowess, and reminisce about their past adventures. A similar, albeit more comprehensive, court list appears in Culhwch ac Olwen, and both lists have many characters in common as well as allusions to a body of legend which may well have been understood by their contemporary audiences, leaving the modern reader with just a glimpse into a larger, native Arthurian world. It has been suggested that the longer court list present in Culhwch ac Olwen may not necessarily indicate a broader connection to an established Arthurian canon, however; the extensive word play and rhyme in use may instead be included to permit the author to display both his dexterity with the use of language as well has his ability to satirize the very medium in which he is working.

One of the most striking episodes in Culhwch ac Olwen is Arthur’s pursuit of the boar Twrch Trwyth. Unlike some of the more scanty and suggestive references to the quests performed by Arthur in his men in this and other stories, the boar hunt is rife with detail, and placed concretely in the British landscape; indeed, the tale serves a striking onomastic purpose in several of its iterations. Whereas it can be argued that some of the tales that came to be associated with Arthur during this period did so because of the growing popularity of his character, many scholars believe the boar hunt is a native, and essential, feature of Arthurian legend . It is first referenced in the 9th century Mirabilia of the Historia Brittonum, and in the Later Version of Trioedd Ynys Prydein, Triad 26 Three Powerful Swineherds, Arthur has completely taken over the hunt of the great sow Henwen by the hero Coll son of Collfrewy in the EV. Indeed, it may well be that Arthur’s association with the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen is based upon the connection which both heroes share with pigs; in fact, the author of  Culhwch ac Olwen takes great pains to provide the etymology of Culhwch’s name: hwch means ‘pig’ and cul means ‘run’, although the latter may hold the older meaning of the word ‘slender or lean.’ Culhwch’s birth is described thus:

And from the hour she became pregnant she went mad, and did not go near any dwelling. When her time came, her sense returned to her. This happened in a place where a swineherd was tending a herd of pigs. And out of fear of the pigs the queen gave birth. And she swineherd took the boy until he came to court. And the boy was baptized, and was name Culhwch because he was found in a pig-run.

Another common theme found in early Arthurian legends is that of the release of a famous captive. In Culhwch ac Olwen, one of the feats accomplished by Arthur and his men is the release of Mabon son of Modron, a figure associated with Arthur’s court in other works as well, including Pa Gur? The freeing of Mabon is a key event which would allow Culhwch to marry Olwen, and the sequence of the Oldest Animals feels very much like an older, independent story which the author of Culhwch ac Olwen incorporated in his tale.  

“It is Mabon son of Modron who is imprisoned here, and no one has been so painfully incarcerated in a prison as I, neither the prison of Lludd Llaw Eraint nor the prison of Graid son of Eri.”

This episode also appears in Triad 52 of Trioedd Ynys Prydein:

Three Exalted (Supreme) Prisoners of the Island of Britain:

Llyr Half-Speech, who was imprisoned by Euroswydd

And the second Mabon son of Modron

And third, Gwair son of Gweirioedd

And one (Prisoner) was more exalted than the three of them, he was three nights in prison in Caer Oath and Anoeth , and three nights imprisoned  by Gwen Pendragon, and three nights in an enchanted prison under the Rock of Echeifyeint. This Exalted Prisoner was Arthur. And the same lad released him from each of these three prisons: (that lad was) Goreu, son of Custennin, his cousin.”

Interestingly, the imprisonment of Gwair features in yet another of Arthur’s quests, in the poem Preiddeu Annwn.

Perfect was Gwair’s prison in the Otherworld Fort

According to the tale of Pwyll and Pryderi

In her gloss of Triad 52, Rachel Bromwich notes the variation of detail about the prisoners between the triad and Culhwch ac Olwen, and because of this, suggests “it remains surprising that the redactor of Culhwch ac Olwen had apparently not heard of the imprisonment of Gweir,” an argument that underscores her contention that the two works arose independently of each other, yet drawing – however inaccurately at times – upon a common tradition.

Preiddeu Annwn features another strong commonality with Culhwch ac Olwen with its motif of the quest for the Otherworldly cauldron.

“I am of honorable fame, [my] song is heard

In the Four-Cornered Fort – four its sides;

My first word – from the cauldron in was spoken.

From the breast of nine maidens it was kindled up.

The Chief of Annwn’s cauldron, what of its liberality?

Blue about its edge with pearl,

It boils not a coward’s food, that has not been destined.

The description of this cauldron is very similar to one enumerated as one of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain, a listing of fantastic items associated with text of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein.

7) The Cauldron of Dyrnwych the Giant; if meat for a coward were put in it to boil, it would never boil; but if meat for a brave man were put in it, it would boil quickly (and thus the brave could be distinguished from the cowardly).

One of the quests in Culhwch ac Olwen was to acquire the cauldron of Diwrnach the Irishman, and to obtain it, Arthur sets forth in Prydwen, the same ship he takes to the Otherworld in Preiddeu Annwn:

Arthur set off with a small force and sailed in his ship Prydwen, and came to Ireland, and they made for the house of Diwrnach Wyddel. Odgard’s retinue took note of their size, and when they had eaten and drunk their fill, Arthur asked for the cauldron. Diwrnach said that if he were to  give it to anyone, he would have given it at the request of Odgar king of Ireland.

Clearly, the quest for a cauldron is a popular legendary motif, and one that appears even outside of an Arthurian context. The Second Branch of the Mabinogi also features a magical cauldron from Ireland, the quest for which, in an echo of the refrain of the Preiddeu Annwn, results in only seven returning from the resulting war and destruction. It is interesting to note that while characters and events from the Four Branches appear in Arthurian lore, Arthur himself does not feature in the Mabinogi proper; perhaps this is another example of the way in which Arthur has drawn older tales to himself.

In addition to core Arthurian characters like Cai and Bedwyr, whose characterizations and attendant legends are consistent across works through to this time, other characters are included in the court lists who are not originally a part of the Arthurian legend, yet who play important roles in other traditional Welsh story cycles. We have already discussed Mabon and Gwair, who appear in several Arthurian works in addition to Culhwch ac Olwen, although their stories sometime vary, or are elaborated on, from tale to tale; while Mabon, for example, is one of the Three Exalted Prisoners in both the Triads and Culhwch ac Olwen, he is named in Pa Gur? as a servant of Arthur’s father Uthr.

Another early Welsh poem, Englynion y Beddau , the “Stanzas of the Graves”, contains allusions to other famous characters who appear alongside Arthur in Culhwch ac Olwen.

Stanza 44 – A grave for March, a grave for Gwythr

A grave for Gwgawn red sword

The world’s wonder (aenoth) [is] a grave for Arthur

Coe and Young write that since these characters are well-known in the Triads and elsewhere, it might be suspected that this englyn is relatively late; yet the word aneoth is archaic and rare, occurring in prose only in Culhwch ac Olwen where it refers to the impossible tasks undertaken by Arthur’s warriors. Gwythwr figures alongside Arthur in Culhwch ac Olwen, Kanu y Meirch (the “Poem of the Horses”) and the Gododdin, while Gwgwan Red Sword is associated with Arthur in the Dream of Rhonabwy, a later Arthurian romance.

Ultimately, the overlap of literary themes, uniformity of characterizations, and multiple references to legendary events across works support the idea of an Arthurian tradition which, as Roberts writes “has some fixed points, even at early period, which permit us to conceive of a cycle.”

Conclusion

There appears to be a strong case for the existence of, if not an Arthurian tradition cut whole cloth from a single story cycle, then a growing body of stories which have their origins in native Welsh legends and have come to be associated with Arthur. In the case of Culhwch ac Olwen, the author seems to have made a conscious effort to gather these tales in one place, while utilizing international folklore motifs as literary devices to bestow a sort of unity to the variety of tales which had come to rally around Arthur’s charismatic figure. Comparing the earliest written mentions of Arthur, where he is depicted in historic terms as a real-world soldier battling to keep Britain free of Saxon invaders, to the Arthur of folklore who battles supernatural beasts and undertakes great quests, we can determine a consistency of characterization, repetition of major literary motifs, and a loose canon of events and supporting characters in Culhwch ac Olwen and early Welsh verse such as Pa Gur?, Preiddeu Annwn, and Trioedd Ynys Prydein. Taken together with the inclusion of allusions to other, unelaborated, Arthurian adventures in these works – the details of which would, ostensibly, be apparent to the respective contemporary audiences of these pieces — we come away with the sense that by the 12th century, an established tradition of lore had indeed built itself around Arthur, the fragments of which have survived into the present day.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

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).

 

Secondary Sources

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).

About the Author

Jhenah Telyndru has always felt called to dance with joy in that liminal space which straddles the realms of history and myth, of individuality and collectivity, of the seen and the unseen. A creative mystic who loves science and values fact, Jhenah embraces the conscious co-creation of the future, while immersing herself in an impassioned study of the past. The path between, she believes, is where the mysteries are revealed and where true magic happens. Jhenah holds an MA in Celtic Studies from the University of Wales, Trinity St. David, as well as a BA in archaeology. She is the founder of the Sisterhood of Avalon and serves as Academic Dean and lead instructor of the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary. Jhenah teaches four day retreat experiences around North America and the UK, and facilitates pilgrimages to sacred sites in the British Isles and Ireland through Mythic Seeker Tours. She is a frequent presenter and guest speaker at academic conferences, religious symposia, Women’s Spirituality gatherings, and Pagan festivals. A priestess in the Avalonian Tradition, Jhenah has been dedicated to the work of Avalon for over 25 years, and has been active in the Goddess Spirituality movement since 1986. In addition to her formal studies, Jhenah has delved into hermetic science, qabalistic philosophy, transpersonal astrology, archetypal tarot, and depth psychology in an ongoing quest to further her understanding of the Universe as it manifests within and without. She facilitates rites of passage, builds labyrinths, weaves community, makes music, is in service as a healer, and honors the sacred landscape both around and within us.

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