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XII. The Arthurian Legend

§ 2. Nennius and Gildas

The Historia Brittonum, commonly ascribed to Nennius, is a curious compilation, which was put into its present form not later than the first half of the ninth century. About the year 800 a Welshman named Nennius—or, to use the native form, Nynniaw—who calls himself a disciple of Elfod, bishop of Bangor in North Wales, copied and freely edited a collection of brief notes, gathered from various sources, on early British history and geography. Nennius claims, in his preface, after the manner of his kind, to be an original compiler. “I have,” he says, “gathered together all I could find not only in the Roman annals, but also in the chronicles of holy fathers,… and in the annals of the Irish and English, and in our native traditions.” Elsewhere he avows himself a mere copyist, and tells us that he wrote “the ‘Cities’ and the ‘Marvels’ of Britain as other scribes had done before him.” Arthur appears in both the quasi-historical and the purely legendary parts of Nennius’s compilation. In what purports to be the strictly historical part of his narrative Nennius relates how, some time after the death of Hengist, Arthur fought against the English along with the kings of the Britons and “was himself their war-leader” —ipse dux erat bellorum— in twelve battles. In the eighth of these encounters, at the castle of Guinnion, “Arthur bore the image of the holy Virgin Mary on his shoulders, and the pagans were put to flight with great slaughter.” The ninth battle was fought at the City of Legions; the twelfth, and last, on Mount Badon, where “nine hundred and sixty men fell before Arthur’s single onset—de uno impetu Arthur.” The prominence given, even in these brief notices, to Arthur’s individual prowess shows that legend was already busy with his name. The Marvels of Britain gives us nothing but legend; here Arthur is translated altogether into the realm of myth. In the Welsh district of Buelt, we are told, there is a mound of stones, on the top of which rests a stone bearing the print of a dog’s foot. “It was when he was hunting the boar Troit that Cabal, the dog of Arthur the warrior, left this mark upon the stone; and Arthur afterwards gathered together the heap of stones under that which bore his dog’s footprint, and called it Carn Cabal.” Here we discover an early association of Arthurian fable with the topography of Britain. Another “Marvel” tells us of a certain stream called “the source of the Amir,” which was so named after “Amir the son of Arthur the warrior,” who was buried near it. The allusion to the hunting of the boar links Nennius’ narrative with what is probably the most primitive of all the Welsh Arthurian tales, the story of Kulhwch and Olwen. In that fantastic fairy-tale the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth, which is Nennius’s porcus Troit, forms one of the chief incidents, and the hound Cabal there appears under his Welsh name of Cavall.

The Welsh monk and historian Gildas mentions the battle of Mount Badon in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. That battle, according to Gildas, was signalised by “the last, almost, though not the least, slaughter of our cruel foes, and that was (I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity.” But Gildas makes no allusion at all to Arthur’s feats in the battle. Neither does he once mention his name in connection with the general struggle which he describes as being carried on, with varying fortune, against the English. The only leader of the British in that warfare whom Gildas deems worthy of notice is Ambrosius Aurelianus, the last of the Romans, “a modest man, who alone of all his race chanced to survive the shock of so great a storm” as then broke over Britain. The silence of Gildas, who was, presumably, a contemporary of the historical Arthur, would be significant, were it not that he is equally reticent about the achievements of every other native British cheiftain. Gildas belonged to the Roman party in the Britain of his time, and to exalt the prowess of any British prince would ill assort with his pious lamentations over the absolute degeneracy of his race.

The battle of Mount Badon, together with another which was destined to overshadow it completely in the later developments of Arthurian story, is recorded, and dated, in Annales Cambriae— the oldest extant MS. of which was compiled, probably, in the second half of the tenth century. There, under the year 516, we read: “Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders, and the Britons were victors.” The reference to the carrying of the cross is, of course, an obvious echo of the tradition recorded by Nennius about the image of the Virgin Mary—either, or both, being doubtless the device borne by Arthur on his shield. Of greater interest is the second entry in the Annals. In the year 537 was fought “the battle of Camlan, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.” Medraut is the Modred, or Mordred, of romance. The Annals tell nothing more about him; but in this bare record lies the germ of the first of the tragic motives of subsequent Arthurian story. Camlan is “the dim, weird battle of the west,” where Arthur met “the traitor of his house,” and

  • at one blow,
  • Striking the last stroke with Excalibur,
  • Slew him, and, all but slain himself, he fell.