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King Arthur – the British Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhail)?

15 May

This is actually an updated version of part of the blog ‘King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both – Part Seven, but I thought it deserved its own blog.

Finn McCool comes to the aid of the Fianna

First a quote:

“In the Scotorum Historia, “History of the Scots,” compiled by Hector Boece (1527) and translated later into Older Scots by John Bellenden as the Chronicles of Scotland, the Irish hero Finn MacCool is depicted as a giant, and the narratives attached to him are compared to tales of Arthur. Boece and his translators contrast the “gestes [deeds] of Arthur” favorably with the “vulgar” traditions about Finn MacCool. It is easy to over-interpret such references, but Finn and Arthur as leaders of warrior bands have much in common, and both are endowed with gigantic stature (Nagy 1985). A series of Welsh tales gathered in the early seventeenth century with the specific purpose of defending Geoffrey’s history against the attacks of men like Hector Boece also characterized Arthur as a giant or a trickster/giant-slayer.” (Juliette Wood, A Companion to Arthurian Literature, Helen Fulton, 2009, p.107)

There have been similarities shown between Fionn mac Cumhail (Finn McCool), the Irish mythical hunter-warrior-poet, and Arthur. (Fionn (Fair) was his nickname, his actual name was Deimne)Could a mythological Arthur (or one of the elements that made him up) have been the British equivalent of Finn? Did his argued British counterpart originally have a similar name, like other British/Irish gods, which then was changed to Arthur? Perhaps, if Arthur’s name didn’t derive from the Greco-Roman character and stella body, Arcturus. (‘Guardian of the Bear’).

Cognate with Finn would be Gwyn (‘Fair’) or Gwen (‘White’). There is, of course, Gwyn(n) ap Nudd (son of Nudd), and Finn’s grandfather’s name was Nuada, so was he actually Finn’s British counterpart? There is one reference to this Gwyn as a “magic warrior huntsman” – which he is in the hunt for the Twrch Trwyth, – but, in general, they are two different characters and he is also unlike the Arthur persona. There is a character called Gwen Pendragon (Wen Pendragon) – the only other early pendragon we know of – who supposedly held Arthur prisoner for three days, but we no nothing more about him.

This is a long shot, but there are five other gwen/gwyn (‘white’/‘fair’) association with Arthur: his wife Gwenhwyfar (‘White Phantom’); his ship Predwyn (‘Fair Form’); his magical cloak Gwenn (‘White’); the name of his feasting hall is Ehangwen (‘Broad-fair [white?]’); and his dagger Carnwennan (‘White-hilted One’).  This shouldn’t be surprising since  gwen/gwyn did have magical connotations. Coincidences with the names Gwen/Gwyn most likely, but they still give pause for thought.

''Åsgårdsreien (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo, d...

”Åsgårdsreien (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo, depicting the Wild Hunt of European folklore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If Arthur was a version of Gwyn ap Nudd, his story, even pre-Galfridian, had changed somewhat since their divergence, but this would be expected. As mentioned above, Gwyn ap Nudd appears with Arthur in the boar hunt in Culhwch ac Olwen.. It could be argued that both Gwyn ap Nudd and Mabon were the ones originally attached to the story, which is thought to have been in existence since at least the 7th century, and Arthur was later made the hero; but I somehow doubt very much if Arthur and Gwyn ap Nudd were one and the same. Even though he may have been described as “the hope of armies” and the “hero of hosts”, Gwyn ap Nudd is a gatherer of the souls of fallen warriors in the Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, found in the Black Book of Carmarthen.

It would be interesting if Arthur did replace Finn in Cambro-Irish southwest Wales, as he doesn’t seem to have done so in western Scotland, which could be an indication of just how much more British those of Demetia (modern day Dyfed and Ceredigion) where in comparison to those of the Western Isles. But just how like Finn is Arthur of the early tradition?

No, honest, it’s true!

I have often read how like Finn the character of Arthur is in the early stories, but I thought I ought to look at this myself, and see just how similar they are. I’ll do this through a list:

  1. Outcast or outside of society: Finn is said to be, but I don’t see this in the stories. In history a fianna (warband) could be an outcast bunch of youths, but that’s not what Finn’s warband were. Arthur isn’t an outcast in the early stories. This doesn’t seem to happen until the saints’ Lives.
  2. Not a king: Finn isn’t a ‘king’ but Arthur is ‘Sovereign Lord of Britain’ (pen tyrned).
  3. Hunter: Finn seems to mainly hunt dear, and is involved in the hunt for Green Boar of Beinn Gulbain. Arthur hunts the Twrch Trwyth.
  4. Poet: Finn yes and Arthur composes one englyn that satirises Cai.
  5. Has a magical dog: Finn has two dogs and both are also part human. Arthur’s dog is a dog but folk legend made it into a giant one.
  6. Encounter the Otherworld, sidhe/siddi (Faerie): Finn yes, Arthur yes.
  7. Fights known historical foes or other peoples of his own island: Finn yes. (The Norse and other Irish). Arthur no, except in one later Cornish tale.
  8. Death of one of his wives: Finn yes (Saba), Arthur no.
  9. Names his weapons: Arthur yes, Finn no. But Finn is given a magical spear.
  10. Requires his men to know poetry, be warriors and kind to woman; any member of his warband has to pass the three tests and learn the Twelve Books of Poetry: Finn yes. Arthur, no.
  11. Consorts with other mythical and historical characters from other times: Arthur yes, Finn no.
  12. Courts in three parts of the realm: Arthur yes, Finn, no.
  13. Fights giants: Finn yes, Arthur yes.
  14. Called a giant: Finn yes, Arthur no.
  15. Kills witches: Arthur yes, Finn no.
  16. Uses his men to do some of the dirty work: Arthur yes, Finn, no.
  17. Has warriors from abroad in his warband: Arthur yes, Finn no.
  18. Gets great wisdom from eating the Salmon of Knowledge and Nuts of Knowledge’: Finn yes, Arthur no, but Cai and Gwyrhr encounter a salmon of wisdom in the River Severn (Afon Hafren).
  19. Dispenses his wise words on the code of the warband: Finn yes. Arthur no.
  20. Captain of the High King’s warband: Finn yes. Arthur no. Arthur is the overall leader of his warband and a ‘Sovereign Lord’ himself. In fact, no pen teulu (the Welsh equivalent of the Irish ri fianna) is mentioned.
  21. Is given a mythical lineage: Finn yes. Arthur is only linked to Brân and his father Llŷr In the Mostyn MS 117 Genealogies, known as the Bonedd yr Arwyr (‘Descent of the Heroes’), but not in the stories.
  22. Relates to druids: Finn yes, Arthur no.
  23. Learn of his childhood: Finn yes, Arthur no.
  24. Hear of him as an old man: Finn yes, Arthur no.
  25. Christian references: Arthur yes, Finn no.
  26. Fights abroad: Arthur yes, Finn no.

So, out of twenty-six comparisons, there are four or five similarities. That’s hardly similar at all. There would, of course, be divergence from a common source but this looks more like the similarities and just some basic folkloric commonalities. This has been a very interesting and worthwhile exercise.

The quote above mentions …

[...] both are endowed with gigantic stature [...]

I have dealt with this issue in depth in the blog King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Three and concluded that, whilst he may have been portrayed in the topographical and onomastic sites as being ‘larger than life’ or having superhuman qualities, he is no where  actually called a giant (gawr) by the Welsh. Even the story relating to Finn as a giant fighting at the Giants’ Causeway in Ulster didn’t lead to his name being given to the site in Gaelic, where it is known as Clochán na bhFórmorach: ‘stepping stones of the Fomorians’.

If Arthur did have another name, we may never know what it was, unless Gwen (Wen) Pendragon was it, but, if the above is anything to go with, I don’t think that name was Finn. Could he have been in response to Finn? Yes, he could.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to your comments, thoughts and corrections,

Mak

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8 responses to “King Arthur – the British Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhail)?

  1. Dane Pestano

    May 16, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Well,I agree with you whole heartedly. Finn is about as close to being King Arthur as I am lol…

    Regards
    Dane

     
  2. Simon Stirling

    May 18, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    That’s a very interesting post, Mak. Investigating the historical Artuir mac Aedain, I kept stumbling across references to Fionn and his fianna warriors in odd places. I do believe that there was a degree of overlap, with some Arthurian traditions being grafted onto the Irish Fionn while others were transported away to southern Britain to become the legendary King Arthur. One thing, though: I tend to feel that the Welsh “cawr” translates better as “hero” or “champion”. The Gaelic equivalent is “curaidh” – Early Irish “caur”; compare “cura”, a “guardian” or “protector”. The term “giant” can be a little misleading, and has led many to imagine either that these heroes were fantastically tall or that they were purely mythical, when really they were champions.

     
    • badonicus

      May 20, 2012 at 4:01 pm

      Thans for your thoughts Simone especially those on gawr/cawr. I wonder if it would be more to do with what those at the time thought as gawr/cawr meaning. Some of these characters may indeed have been ‘heroes’ or ‘protectors’, but since Arthur became known as a ‘giant slayer’ in Cornish/Welsh folklore I think they themselves meant ‘giant’.

      I’m currently massively updating my the bog I did on Artúr mac Áedán for the ebook version of these blogs. Whilst I may not agree with the theory that says Artúr mac Áedán became the bases for the legends I’m also open minded and look forward to your book.

       
  3. arranqhenderson

    July 15, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    Very good piece, and a very interesting, and methodical, comparison between Finn and Arthur. Really enjoyed this.

     
  4. lornasmithers

    June 16, 2014 at 8:31 am

    Interesting article. I’ve heard Gwyn linked to Arthur O’Bower in Scotland but also doubt they are the same. I believe that Gwyn is a deity who was originally worshipped in Gaul and most likely Britain as Vindonnus (white, clear light) or Vindos, and perhaps gave his name to Vindolanda.

    In the Mabinogion I see him as working against Arthur- he doesn’t tell him where Twrch Trywth can be found, and he and Gwythyr trick him and his men when they fight against the hag of Pennant Gofid. Also, Arthur places a dihenydd on Gwyn and Gwythyr to fight for Creiddylad until judgement day. I’d argue that they’re rivals, and possibly quite bitter ones.

    There’s lots of hints about Arthur slaying creatures such as giants and the Cath Palug who may have been ancient spirits of place. To me Arthur’s very much a Christian champion wiping out paganism, trying to master and control the forces of Annwn. That’s probably why Gwyn thwarts and deceives him… And I’m not too certain how ‘true’ the accounts of Arthur’s triumph over the forces of Annwn actually are…

     
    • badonicus

      June 16, 2014 at 9:44 am

      I think that is a good assessment of Arthur and Gwyn’s relationship … at least at a certain point in history. I think we also have to remember that Culhwch ac Olwen is thought to be a literary work and not oral, based on many, many stories that have mutated through time, and added to by the current author c.1100. Arthur appears to be shoehorned into some of them. We can have no idea as to when all this happened. There is one theory that Arcturus and his British cosmological story (or stories) could have become the bases for the mythical Arthur.

       

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