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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XII. The Arthurian Legend

§ 3. Early Welsh Poetry

From these meagre notices of the early Latin annalists of Wales we pass to such Arthurian traditions as are found embodied in the songs of the oldest Welsh bards. This, indeed, is a perilous quest, for it is beset with difficult problems of historical and textual criticism upon which scholarship is still far from saying its last word. It may, however, be premised with some confidence that there lived in Wales, in the sixth and seventh centuries, several bards of note, of whom the best known by name are Llywarch Hên, Taliesin and Aneirin. The compositions attributed to these, and other bards of this early period, are found in MSS. the dates of which range from the twelfth to the end of the fourteenth centuries. The oldest of all the MSS. is that known as The Black Book of Carmarthen, compiled during the latter part of the twelfth century, the period to which also belongs the oldest known MS. of Welsh prose, that of the Venedotian code of the laws of Wales. The Book of Aneirin, which contains the famous Gododin, is the next oldest MS., and is probably to be assigned to the thirteenth century. To the thirteenth century, also, belongs The Book of Taliesin, while another famous MS., The Red Book of Hergest, dates from the end of the fourteenth century. These “four ancient books” constitute, together, our chief available repertory of the early poetry of the Kymry.

Amid much that is undeniably late and spurious, these collections of Welsh poetry contain a good deal that is, in substance, of obviously archaic origin. In many of these poems there is, in words applied by Matthew Arnold to the prose Mabinogion, “a detritus, as the geologists would say, of something far older”; and their secret is not to be “truly reached until this detritus, instead of being called recent because it is found in contact with what is recent, is disengaged, and is made to tell its own story.” Nowhere, however, is this detritus more difficult to disengage than in the few poems in which Arthur’s name appears. The most celebrated of these early Welsh bards know nothing of Arthur. Llywarch Hên and Taliesin never mention him; to them Urien, lord of Rheged, is by far the most imposing figure among all the native warriors who fought against the English. It is Urien with whom “all the bards of the world find favour,” and to whom “they ever sing after his desire.” Neither is Arthur known to Aneirin, who sang in his Gododin the elegy of the Kymric chieftains who met their doom at Cattraeth. “There are only five poems,” writes Skene, “which mention Arthur at all, and then it is the historical Arthur, the Gwledig, to whom the defence of the wall is entrusted, and who fights the twelve battles in the north and finally perishes at Camlan.” This is not a quite accurate summary of the facts; for these poems, while pointing to the existence of a historical Arthur, embody also a detritus of pure myth.

The most significant, perhaps, of all these references to Arthur in early Welsh poetry is that already quoted from the Stanzas of the Graves in The Black Book of Carmarthen. The mystery surrounding his grave at once suggests the existence of a belief in his return, and William of Malmesbury, as we have seen, knew, early in the twelfth century, of “ancient songs” which kept this belief alive. The currency of such a tradition, not only in Wales, but in Cornwall and Brittany, at the very beginning of the twelfth century is proved by an account given by certain monks of Loan of a tumult caused at Bodmin in the year 1113 by the refusal of one of their number to admit that Arthur still lived. Another of the Stanzas of the Graves is significant, as containing an allusion both to the battle of Camlan and to “the latest-left of all” Arthur’s knights, Bedwyr, or Bedivere, who shares with Kai, or Kay, the preminence among Arthur’s followers in the primitive Welsh fragments of Arthurian fable:

  • The grave of the son of Osvran is at Camlan,
  • After many a slaughter;
  • The grave of Bedwyr is on the hill of Tryvan.
  • Bedwyr and Kai appear together in Kulhwch and Olwen; they are there once met with, for example, on the top of Plynlimmon “in the greatest wind that ever was in the world.” “Bedwyr,” the same story tells us, “never shrank from any enterprise upon which Kai was bound.” The pair were united even in their death, for, in Geoffrey’s History, they perish together in the first great battle with the Romans. Another of Arthur’s knights figures as the hero of an entire poem in The Black Book—Gereint, the son of Erbin. In this poem Arthur is represented as the leader of a number of warriors, of whom Gereint is the most valiant, fighting at a place called Llongborth:
  • At Llongborth saw I of Arthur’s
  • Brave men hewing with steel,
  • (Men of the) emperor, director of toil.
  • At Llongborth there fell of Gereint’s
  • Brave men from the borders of Devon,
  • And, ere they were slain, they slew.
  • Here we find Arthur in much the same rôle as that of the dux bellorum of Nennius, or the comes Britanniae, who held “the place of the imperator himself, when Britain ceased to be part of the dominions of Rome.”

    Arthur, however, appears in a distinctly different character in yet another poem included in The Black Book. In Kulhwch and Olwen, one of Arthur’s chief porters answers to the fearsome name of Glewlwyd Gavaelvawr, or Glewlwyd of the Mighty Grasp. The Black Book poem is cast in the form of a dialogue between him and Arthur. Glewlwyd would seem, in the poem, to have a castle of his own, from the gates of which he questions Arthur about himself and his followers. The description given of them by Arthur is noteworthy as pointing to the existence of an early tradition which made him the head of a sort of military court, and foreshadows, in a rude way, the fellowship of the Round Table. Several of the names found in it connect this curious poem with Kulhwch and Olwen. The first, and the doughtiest, of Arthur’s champions is “the worthy Kei” (Kai). “Vain were it to boast against Kei in battle,” sings the bard; “when from a horn he drank, he drank as much as four men; when he came into battle, he slew as would a hundred; unless it were God’s doing, Kei’s death would be unachieved.”

    Arthur recedes still further into the twilight of myth in the only other old Welsh poem where any extended allusion is made to him. The poem in question in found in The Book of Taliesin, and is called Preideu Annwvn, or the Harrowings of Hell. This is just one of those weird mythological poems which are very difficult to interpret, and where, again to quote Matthew Arnold, the author “is pillaging an antiquity of which he does not fully possess the secret.” Here Arthur sets out upon various expeditions over perilous seas in his ship Pridwen; one of them had as its object the rape of a mysterious cauldron belonging to the king of Hades. “Three freights of Pridwen,” says the bard, “were they who went out with Arthur; seven alone were they who returned” from Caer Sidi, Caer Rigor and the other wholly unidentified places whither they fared. It is in this poem that the closest parallels of all are found with incidents described in the story of Kulhwch and Olwen, and, as a whole, it “evidently deals with expeditions conducted by Arthur by sea to the realms of twilight and darkness.” But here the British king is much further removed than in Kulhwch from any known country, and appears as a purely mythical hero with supernatural attributes.

    The most remarkable fragment— for the tale as we have it is an obvious torso— of all the early Welsh literature about Arthur that has come down to us is the prose romance of Kulhwch and Olwen. The oldest extant text of it is that of the early fourteenth century MS. known as The White Book of Rhyderch, where we find many remarkable archaisms which have been modernised in the version of The Red Book of Hergest; but the original form of the story is assigned, by the most competent authorities, to the tenth century. It is included in Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion; and, as that translation largely contributed to the fashioning of the most popular presentment of Arthurian romance in modern English poetry, a brief account of the entire series of these Welsh tales may here be appropriately given. All the tales translated by Lady Guest are taken from The Red Book of Hergest, with the exception of The History of Taliesin. Taliesin, in the form we have it, is a compilation of obviously late medieval origin, and it is not found in any MS. of an earlier date than the end of the sixteenth century. The name Mabinogion belongs, strictly speaking, to only four of the twelve stories included in Lady Guest’s book. Each of these four tales is called in Welsh “ceinc y Mabinogi,” which means “a branch of the Mabinogi”; and the correct title for the group should be “the four branches of the Mabinogi,” The term mabinogi signifies “a tale of youth,” or “a tale for the young.” The “four branches” are the tales known as Pwyll, prince of Dyved; Branwen, daughter of Llŷr; Manawydan, son of Llŷr; and Math, son of Mathonwy. They contain what is probably the most archaic body of Welsh tradition in existence, are largely, if not entirely, mythological in character and suggest many points of analogy with the mythic tales of Ireland. They deal, mainly, with the fortunes of three great families, the children of Dˆn, the children of Llŷr and the family of Pwyll. In these stories, the Mabinogion, proper, Arthur does not appear at all.

    Of the other tales, two—The Dream of Maxen Wledig and Llud and Llevelys—are brief romantic excursions into the domain of British ancient history, later in date, probably, than Geoffrey’s Historia. Arthur does not figure in either. The remaining five tales, however, are all Arthurian, but form two distinct groups. In Kulhwch and Olwen and The Dream of Rhonabwy we have to Arthurian stories of apparently pure British origin, in which Arthur is presented in a milieu altogether unaffected by the French romances. The second and better known group, consisting of the three tales entitled The Lady of the Fountain, Geraint, son of Erbin, and Peredur, son of Evrawc, are romances palpably based upon French originals. They correspond, respectively, in their main features, to Chrétien de Troyes’s Le chevalier au lion Erec and Le conte del Graal.