Last month I promised to start a new monthly feature on the origins and development of the Arthurian legends (Would the real King Arthur please stand up?, 2nd July 2012). My Masters dissertation has kept me busy these past few weeks, but it is finally my pleasure to welcome you to the first instalment of The Arthurian Tradition! In this first post I discuss the mysterious Welsh poem containing what might be the first recorded reference to Arthur…
Was there a real King Arthur?
If so, who was he?
Was he a sixth-century dux bellorum (leader of battles)?
Where do all the other parts of the legend come in – Guenevere, Lancelot, Camelot, Excalibur and all the rest?
If he really did live and die, then where is he buried?
And so on.
The debate about whether the literary character of King Arthur has any basis in an actual historical figure has raged for centuries.
The only thing that we’re really sure of is our continuing uncertainty – we just don’t have the historical evidence to conclusively prove or disprove his existence as a real person. If he was a sixth-century warrior or leader of some kind, then he conveniently lived during a time in Britain when people didn’t write all that much down. And we can’t fully trust the assertions of later medieval historians because a) they weren’t around at the time and b) the medieval concept of historical writing differed in many ways to our modern notions of the discipline. To put it one way.
There have been various claims since the later Middle Ages of discoveries of material evidence proving that Arthur once existed, but most of these are probably false. Take the monks of Glastonbury abbey for instance…
In 1191 they claimed they’d found the bodies of Arthur and Guenevere buried in their abbey grounds. This was just a few years after their church – which had famous links to the Biblical figure of Joseph of Arimathea – was destroyed by fire, thereby wiping out one of their main sources of income in the form of visiting pilgrims. Happily, the discovery of the bodies caused a new wave of pilgrims and other interested parties to pay a visit to the monks, which also had the fortunate side effect of filling the coffers again. ‘Hoax!’ I hear the cynics out there cry, and you’re probably right. But you’ve got to admire the gumption of those monks.
What we can be completely certain of is that the Arthurian legends have made their way to us through many centuries, passing through different places, authors and historical contexts en route, each adding its own flavour, characters and plot twists that have been influenced by contemporary tastes, concerns and agendas. This process is still happening today. Take, for instance, the swathe of feminism-inspired modern Arthurian literature produced in the 1980s, as exemplified by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon (1983).
The very essence that has ensured the endurance of these legends for over a millenium is the uncertain nature of their origins. They are an enigma, a realm of possibility, a tantalisingly fluid beast. Writers and other artists have been free to experiment with the legends in a way that would not be possible if there was concrete historical evidence to strictly designate how things ‘really’ happened. Arthur has become a hero for every age, not fettered to the historical past, remade afresh with each successive generation. The possible grain of truth at the core of it all has made the legends even more seductive, and has had the effect of making Arthur a figure of British national heritage. He has been claimed by the English, the Welsh, the Scottish and the Cornish as one of their own.
Where does Y Gododdin come into all this?
The earliest surviving reference to an Arthur who may be the basis for the later literary Arthur might be in the Welsh poem Y Gododdin (the italics should give away the fact that no one’s really sure about this!). I’ve never read the poem, so I was intrigued to find out more…
Surviving in just one thirteenth-century manuscript, Cardiff MS 2.81 – commonly called the Book of Aneirin (Welsh: Llyfr Aneirin) – Y Gododdin is generally believed to originate from a much earlier date (I’m classing it as the earliest Arthurian reference, but this blog post could just as happily sit with the other 13thC material that will come later on in this series). Parts of the poem are in Old Welsh, others in Middle Welsh. The poem could have circulated orally (think bards) before being written down sometime in the ninth century. Or the Middle Welsh parts could be more recent interpolations. Maybe a bit of both. Scholars think that the poet Aneirin was himself a bard, and that he may have even been present at the battle that the poem commemorates in an official bardic capacity – sort of like a sports commentator today, if their commentary was in poetic verse. Now there’s a thought.
The Gododdin people memorialised by the poem were from a geographical location roughly equivalent to modern-day Edinburgh. The poem eulogises them and their defeat in a battle against the Angles in Catraeth (probably Catterick in Yorkshire) which took place around the year 600. Apparently before other parts were interpolated into the poem each stanza seems to have been written about a different individual from this warband – one stanza for each member of the group. However, the poem’s theme reflects the wider struggles of the Brythonic (Celtic) peoples in a Britain that had been finally abandoned by the Roman empire around the year 408-9.
In 410 Britain was denied the military support of Rome: the imperial city was having a few problems of its own – being invaded by the Visigoths and, you know, other minor issues like that. Rome told Britain in no uncertain terms to fend for itself. The Britons in the north and west of the island already had quite a lot on their plates even before this time, as Roman military rule was never really established with any great clout in these areas, so they were attacked by the Irish, the Picts and others, more so than the peoples in the south and east of the island. After Rome fell, however, the whole of Britain became easy prey to anyone who fancied having a go. Which, as it turns out, was pretty much everyone. The Picts, the Irish, the Anglo-Saxons, the Danes… They all wanted a piece of poor old Britannia.
In this modern era that has seen Britain at the head of a huge empire, it is perhaps difficult to picture her as a vulnerable little island at the edge of the world, surrounded by threatening forces, circling like vultures around carrion, closing in gradually, hurtling towards the inevitable outcome of all-out invasion. Luckily, other authors have imagined it already, so if your mental energies are feeling somewhat daunted by this task, pop to the library and treat yourself to one of the many novels that envisage this time. Immerse yourself, and you’ll get some idea of the world in which the Y Gododdin poet Aneirin was writing. Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King, the first novel in a trilogy about King Arthur called the Warlord Chronicles, makes Arthur a dux bellorum in a post-Roman Britain, desperately trying to keep the many disparate tribes of Britons together to form a united front against the invaders.
This takes us nicely back to Y Gododdin and what on earth it has to do with Arthur….
As I’ve already mentioned, the poem depicts the struggle of one group of Britons against some Angle invaders in the so-called Dark Ages following the departure of Roman forces from the island of Britain. The stanza mentioning Arthur goes as follows:
Ef guant tratrigant echassaf
ef ladhei auet ac eithaf
oid guiu e mlaen llu llarahaf
godolei o heit meirch e gayaf
gochore brein du ar uur
caer ceni bei ef arthur
rug ciuin uerthi ig disur
ig kynnor guernor guaurdur.
And in English (for those of you whose Welsh, like mine, is not all that it could be!):
He pierced three hundred, most bold,
He cut down the centre and wing.
He was worthy before the noblest host,
He gave from his herd horses in winter.
He fed black ravens on the wall
Of the fortress, although he was not Arthur.
Among those powerful in feats
In the front rank, a pallisade, Gwawrddur.
(Taken from: http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/sechard/492godo.htm)
And that’s it.
I can almost hear your confused outcry. That’s it?! How on earth can we reconcile the Arthur who ruled from his court in Camelot, was betrayed by Guenevere and Lancelot, and eventually killed by Mordred, with the one mention of an Arthur in this single line of fairly obscure poetry?
Well, one inference that has been made is that this stanza implies there was a warrior called Arthur whose feats were so marvellous, so incredible, that they became famous amongst contemporary Britons. This warrior was so amazing that he became the yardstick against which all other subsequent warriors and their feats of arms were compared. This would explain why, in the stanza above, despite killing three hundred men singlehandedly, feeding the ravens with the dead bodies of his enemies and being generally a top bloke, this warrior Gwawrddur still falls short of Arthur’s prowess – he was good, but he was no Arthur. Arthur’s name is shorthand for unparalleled martial greatness.
Ok, so perhaps this sounds a bit like the Arthur that we’re familiar with, who is often lauded as the ultimate king, unsurpassable by anyone, but whether or not this provides any proof for the historicity of King Arthur is debatable. Especially if the poem wasn’t written down until the ninth or tenth century. Any number of changes could have taken place between which time and the date of original oral composition if it really was in the early seventh century – including the insertion of Arthur.
There was also a tradition of converting legendary figures into historical fact in the Middle Ages, which may have meant that a character from earlier legend could have been represented as a real person in later literature by a gradual process:
‘Some examples of this that will probably particularly interest readers of this article are Hengest and Horsa, who were Kentish totemic horse-gods historicised by the eighth century with an important role in the fifth-century Anglo-Saxon conquest of eastern Britain (see Turville-Petre, 1953-7; Ward, 1969; Brooks, 1989; Yorke, 1993); Merlin (Welsh Myrddin), who was an eponymous founder-figure derived from the place-name Caer-fyrddin and historicised with the deeds of one Lailoken (see Jarman, 1991); and the Norse demigod Sigurd/Siegfried who was historicised by being associated with a famous historical battle between the Huns and the Burgundians dated A.D. 437, in the Nibelungenlied (Thomas, 1995: 390).’
(Taken from Thomas Green: http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/historicity/arthur.htm)
However, one historian has highlighted the sudden popularity of Arthur as a boys’ name in early sixth century in the indigenous Britons of Scotland, Wales and the Pennines. Could all these boys have been named after a real hero; a man who stemmed the tide of Anglo-Saxon invasion – temporarily at least – at the Battle of Mount Badon?
Unless some fresh evidence presents itself, whether in terms of archaeology or literature, we will never know…
I’ll leave you with that tantalising cliffhanger for now (apologies!). September’s instalment of The Arthurian Tradition discusses the next surviving mention of Arthur – and the Battle of Mount Badon – in Nennius’ early ninth century Historia Britonum.
Do you have any other interesting information, ideas, or any suggestions for further reading about anything mentioned in this post? If so, please leave a comment below!
A full version of both the Welsh original and an English translation of Y Gododdin are freely available on the Project Gutenberg website (from the 1852 William Rees edition by David Price).
A. O. H. Jarman, Aneirin: Y Gododdin: Britain’s Oldest Heroic Poem (1988)
John T. Koch., The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain (1997)
Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish Poem (1969)
Thomas Green, ‘The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur’ (1998) (found online here: http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/historicity/arthur.htm)