Part 3: Arthuriana

he Norman Conquest of Wales brought about a literary renaissance that encompassed a wide area, including not only writings on history, but also on law, medicine and healing, geography, the lives of the saints and theology. Few of these were original, most being direct translations from either French or English. The lives of St. Beuno and St. David, the Book of the Anchorite, and some mystical works have all survived. By far the greatest contribution of Norman Wales to world literature, however, is the body of works known as the Arthuriana.

Very few early Welsh traditions concerning Arthur have survived. In Annales Cambriae (written about l100 but containing material from 445 to 954), the battle of Mount Badon is recorded as having taken place in 5l6, and Arthur is praised as having defeated the Saxons "after bearing the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and nights." Perhaps the most authentic of the early Arthurian references is the entry for 537 that briefly refers to the battle of Camlan in which Arthur and Medrawd were killed. Nennius, in his Historia Brittonum in the early ninth century described Arthur as "a leader of battles, who defeated the Saxons twelve times, the final battle being Mount Badon." In two very early poems, Y Gododdin and Marwnad Cynddylan, Arthur is given praise as a ruler of valour and ferocity, and by the mid-thirteenth century, the Black Book of Carmarthen and The Book of Taliesin both show him as a folk hero and figure of legend.

The earliest account of Arthur in prose, and the earliest Arthurian tale in any language is that appearing in Culhwch and Olwen from the latter half of the eleventh century. Arthur's court is set at Celli-wig in Cornwall, a place of magic and enchantment (and where the Celtic language was spoken until the late l8th C.). Arthur and his followers assist Culhwch in his search for Olwen, daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden, whom he is fated to marry. The story raches its stirring climax in the hunting of the giant boar Twrch Trwyth.

Another prose tale concerning Arthur is Breuddwyd Rhonabwy (The Dream of Rhonabwy), an enigmatic, satirical work difficult to interpret. Sleeping upon a yellow ox skin, Rhonabwy has a dream vision set in a legendary past. Arthur, again associated with Cornwall, plays a board game against Owain ab Urien while his men fight Owain's ravens. The whole tale seems to parody many meaningless narratives of Arthurian romance; there is nothing heroic about Arthur or his court. Neither is there anything particularly heroic about the Arthur depicted in the Lives of the Saints of the Celtic Church, particularly those of Cadog, Padarn, Carannog and Gildas. In them, the king is depicted as being proud and foolish, not the benevolent, all compassionate ruler we might expect, but a local tyrant as well as an oppressor of the saints. He is eventually brought to repentance through divine intervention and extends his patronage to the Church.

By far the most well-known of all the Norman Welsh authors of the period is Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.l090-ll55) whose Historia Regum Britanniae became the basis for a whole new and impressive European literature of Arthurian romance. Geoffrey was born around the year l090 probably in the vicinity of the town of Monmouth. In ll52 he became Bishop of St. Asaph (Llan Elwy) in Denbighshire, though he probably never went near the place, spending most of his life at Oxford. HIs most important work is Historia Regum Britanniae, containing a chapter on the prophecies of Merlin.In the Historia, Geoffrey gives an account of his sources:

Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, a man of great eloquence and learned in foreign histories, offered me a very ancient history in the British tongue which, in a continuous regular story and elegant style related the actions of all of them, from Brutus, the first king of the Britons, down to Cadwaladr, son of Cadwallon.

Using this history (never identified), Geoffrey is responsible for the belief that the Welsh came to these islands from Troy, under their leader Brutus:

Brutus then called the island Britain from his own name, and his companions he called Britons. A little later the language of the people, which had up to then been known as Trojan or Crooked Greek, was called British for the same reason.

It is to the pseudo-historian Geoffrey that a strange idea was circulated concerning the origin of the word Welsh:

As the foreign element around them became more and more powerful, they were given the name Welsh instead of Britons. This word derives from their leader Gualo, or from their queen Galaes, or else from their being so barbarous

Of vital importance to a sense of national identity, Geoffrey's historical writings not only gave the Welsh people an account of their classical origin from Brutus of Troy, but it also provided them with their claim to the sovereignty of the whole island of Britain. A full national history came into being that originated from his works. This was a collection of various Welsh texts known as Brut y Brenhinedd (the Chronicle of the KIngs), the story of the British golden age. The history was continued up to the end of the thirteenth century in the annals of the Welsh princes, Brut y Tywysogion, considered the major achievement of historiography in independent Wales.

Other Welsh tales are found in the works of Geoffrey. One of these concerns the brothers Lludd and Llefelys who lived in Britain shorty before the Roman invasions led by Julius Caesar. Lludd is king of Britain and needs the help of Llefelys, king of France, to fight off three supernatural powers. Another story is that of Macsen Wledig's Dream, in which the hero is Magnus Maximus (Macsen), Roman commander in Britain who was proclaimed emperor by his soldiers in 383 and who takes his army to Rome to dispossess the incumbent Gratian. As emperor, Macsen visits Wales to find a beautiful girl he has seen in a dream, the legendary Elen of the Hosts. In his absence, his throne has been usurped, and Macsen has to return to Rome with an army, but he is eventually defeated and killed by Theodosius. More interesting, however, is the belief, kept alive even today in folk tales and songs (including Yma o Hyd by Dafydd Iwan) that Macsen is responsible for the Welsh settling Brittany, earlier known as Armorica, for he is said to have granted lands there to Elen's brother Cynan. This might certainly account for the old Welsh legends getting a foothold in France where they were transformed by Chretien de Troyes and others.

Arthuriana was given a totally new European dimension by the publication of the works of the twelfth-century French poet Chretien de Troyes. Of the Welsh, Chretien wrote: "{they] are all, by nature wilder than the beasts of the field." (Le Roman de Perceval) yet he was indebted to Welsh sources; it seems probable that he relied heavily upon the same earlier material as the three Welsh Arthurian romances: Owain, (or Iarlles y Ffynnon: the Lady of the Fountain), Historia Peredur, and Geraint ab Erbin. These correspond respectively to Yvain, the Perceval, and the Erec tales of Chretien. It is interesting to note that many of the French tales have retained Welsh names for some of the characters which the Welsh ones have lost.

It is entirely possible that many tales of Arthur accompanied the migrations of British people to the area of France now known as Brittany during the time of the Saxon invasions of their homelands. In any case, Chretien's stories or the tales upon which his verses were based were certainly Celtic in origin. Chretien de Troyes gave polish and sophistication to a large body of works that certainly originated in the British Isles; they quickly spread throughout France, Germany and England. What was not known outside Wales for many centuries, however, was the body of magical literature that is now known as The Mabinogion. In the meantime, in Wales itself, another Norman-Welsh author had created quite a name for himself.


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