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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

§ 5. Kulhwch and Olwen

Kulhwch and Olwen, however, is the only one of these tales that need detain us here, embodying, as it does, in common with the Welsh poems already quoted, Arthurian traditions far transcending in age the appearance of the Arthur of chivalry. Here, as Matthew Arnold has said in an oft-quoted passage, the story-teller, “is like a peasant building his hut on the site of Halicarnassus or Ephesus; he builds, but what he builds is full of materials of which he knows not the history, or knows by a glimmering tradition merely—stones ‘not of this building,’ but of an older architecture, greater, cunninger, more majestical.” The main theme of the story is the wooing of Olwen, the daughter of Yspadaden Pen Kawr, by Kulhwch, the son of Kilyd, and the long series of labours imposed upon the suitor in order to gain her hand. Olwen appears to have been well worth the arduous quest, for “her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and her fingers than the blossoms of the wood anemone amidst the spray of the meadow fountain,” and “four white trefoils sprung up wherever she trod.” Arthur appears, here, not as the ideal British warrior, nor as the hope and future restorer of his race, but as a fairy king, overcoming uncouth and monstrous enemies by his own and his followers’ magic. All the same, he is the lord of what is to the story-teller, in many places, a very determinate realm; for one of the most remarkable features of Kulhwch and Olwen, as compared with the later Arthurian tales, is the precision of its topography. The route of the boar-hunt, for example— or the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth— may be traced without much difficulty, on our maps.

Even more remarkable, however, than the topographical detail of the story is the congeries of fabulous and fantastic names grouped in it around the central figure of Arthur. This feature, suggesting as it does the Arthurian court of the age of chivalry, might be taken as evidence of the late redaction of the tale as we have it, were it not that the story-teller gives details about most of these strange characters which are evidently drawn from the remnants of some lost saga. Arthur himself is introduced to us in his palace, or hall, called Ehangwen, and thither Kulhwch comes to crave his help to obtain Olwen; “and this boon I likewise seek,” says Kulhwch, “at the hands of thy warriors.” These warriors Kulhwch then proceeds to name in seemingly interminable succession. First in the long and weird list come Kai and Bedwyr; others well known to early Welsh tradition include Gwynn and Edern, the sons of Nud, Geraint, the son of Erbin, Taliesin, the chief of bards, Manawydan, the son of Llŷr. But, among the company, there also appear several grotesque figures of whom nothing is known save what the story-teller himself, giving rein, as it would seem, to a deliberately mischievous humour, briefly records. Thus we have, for example, one Sol, who “could stand all day upon one foot”; Gwevyl, the son of Gwestad, who “on the day he was sad, would let one of his lips drop below his waist, while he turned up the other like a cap upon his head”; Clust, the son of Clustveinad, who, “though he were buried seven cubits beneath the earth, would hear the ant fifty miles off rise from her nest in the morning.” Even familiar Arthurian heroes, like Kai, are dowered with superhuman powers. “Kai had this peculiarity, that his breath lasted nine nights and days under water, and he could exist nine nights and nine days without sleep.” “Very subtle was Kai; when it pleased him he could make himself as tall as the highest tree in the forest.” We are remote, indeed, in such company as this, from the Knights of the Round Table, but we are not so remote from the fairy world depicted in the “Four Branches of the Mabinogi.” The conclusion to which Kulhwch and Olwen, and the few poems which mention Arthur, clearly point is that the British king was far better known to early Welsh tradition as a mythic hero than as the champion of the Britons in their wars with the English. There may have been a historical Arthur who was a comes Britanniae, or a dux bellorum, of the sixth century, and his name, “re-echoed by the topography of the country once under his protection,” may have “gathered round it legends of heroes and divinities of a past of indefinite extent.” What we do, however, know, is that the Arthur who emerges out of the mists of Celtic tradition at the beginning of the twelfth century is an entirely imaginary being, a king of fairy-land, undertaking hazardous quests, slaying monsters, visiting the realms of the dead, and having at his call a number of knightly henchmen, notably Kay and Bedivere, who are all but his equals in wizardry and martial prowess. This mythical Arthur—the creation of a primitive imagination altogether unaffected by the sophisticated conceptions of chivalry and of conscious dealers in romantic literary wares—belongs to early Welsh literature alone.

The transformation of the Welsh, or British, Arthur into a romantic hero of European renown was the result of the contact of Norman culture and, as it would seem, Norman diplomacy, with the Celtic races of the west. It was doubtless from Brittany, rather than from Wales, that the Normans derived their first knowledge of the Arthurian stories. Indeed, it is probable that the nameless story-tellers of Brittany fastened upon, and expanded, a number of popular traditions which prefigured the Arthur of romance much more clearly than anything told or written in Wales. The Armorican “Bretons” are probably those whom Wace mentions as “telling many a fable of the Table Round.” In Brittany, also, a belief in Arthur’s return must long have been current, for Alanus de Insulis records that a denial of it in the second half of the twelfth century would be likely to cost a man his life in the country districts of Brittany. By the middle of the eleventh century the relations between the duchy of Normandy and the Bretons had become particularly close, and the duke of Brittany was one of William the Conqueror’s staunchest allies at the time of the invasion of Britain.

It is not, however, to Brittany that the great Latin exploitation of the legend of Arthur, under Norman auspices, belongs, but to a section of Great Britain where the Norman conquerors had, very rapidly, succeeded in establishing intimate relations with the Welsh. By the beginning of the twelfth century the Normans had effected a firm settlement in South Wales. Now, it happens that it was a writer associated, at least by name, with the South Wales border, and claiming the patronage of a princely Norman who held that part of the country in fee, who, most of all, is entitled to be called the literary father of Arthurian romance. Robert, earl of Gloucester, and a natural son of Henry I—or there is no evidence in support of the tradition that his mother was the beautiful Nest, the daughter of the Welsh prince Rhys ap Tewdwr—acquired, early in the twelfth century, the lordship of Glamorgan by marriage with Mabel, daughter of Robert Fitz-hamon, conqueror of Glamorgan. Robert, like his father, was a liberal and a diplomatic patron of letters. It was to him that William of Malmesbury, the greatest historian of his time, dedicated his History. To him was due the foundation of the abbey of Margam, whose chronicle is a valuable early authority for the history of Wales. On his estates at Torigni was born Robert de Monte, abbot of Mont St. Michel, a chronicler of renown, and a lover and student of Breton legends. Above all, it was under his immediate patronage that Geoffrey of Monmouth compiled his romantic History of the Kings of Britain.