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

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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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Ten

To be or not to be?

No one argues that the 6th and 7th century Hiberno-Britannians with the name Arthur didn’t exist, and this is because they either have genealogies (Arthur ap Pedr) or are attested to in trusted historical documents (Artúr mac Áedán, Artúr mac Coaning, Arthur ap Bicoir). Yet Arthur of Badon is attested to in two historical documents (and some dubious genealogies), but we are told these cannot be given as evidence, because they are not contemporary (Dumville) or the Arthur they contain isn’t historical (Higham et al). Adomnán‘s Vita Columba (Life of Columbac.690), which mentions Artúr mac Áedán, isn’t contemporary either, having been written sixty or so years after Artúr mac Áedán’s death. The difference is in the time between their lives and when they were written about, with Arthur of Badon being 300 years after the (possible) events and the others being much nearer in time; not to mention all the mythical stories and sites that are argued to belong to this same ‘Arthur of Badon’.

Yet those who have concluded Arthur of Badon didn’t exist do not relate the fantastical stories and the onomastic and topographical sites to these other historical Arthurs as proof that they also didn’t exist. Why not? Because they are not in the H.B.? Because they don’t claim to have killed 960/940 men? Because they didn’t have legends written about them (although some argue Artúr mac Áedán (Barber) or even Arthur ap Pedr (Dark) are the bases for all the above)? Because they don’t have onomastic and topographical sites named after them … as far as we know? Or is it because they didn’t have Triads written about them (even though some of the triads mention Arthur but not Badon, and many are later additions)?

Well, in Artúr mac Áedán’s case it’s because of a ‘reliable’ source and Arthur ap Pedr two sources, (Arthur ap Bicoir is still open for debate – see THIS blog), and it’s mainly down to lack of reliable genealogy and all the other ‘stuff’ attached to him in Arthur of Badon’s case.

What if we didn’t have Arthur ap Pedr’s genealogies (British and Irish) or other historical sources telling us of these other Arthurs? What if they too had been lost? Would they too then be deemed mythical or folkloric, because Arthur of the fantastical stories was? Would they be seen as mere insertions into stories of the same mythical Arthur? Or would it have the opposite affect and Arthur of the H.B. and A.C. would be looked on in a more favourable light? It’s hard to answer of course.

If the theories that Arthur of Badon didn’t exist were correct, then how does this affect these other Arthurs, historical and mythical? Well, it doesn’t, because if he didn’t exist they are all still there … obviously. What changes with regards to these others if Arthur of Badon did exist? If he were then inserted into history? In theory nothing. If the other historical Arthurs can exist without affecting the fantastical stories one jot, which is what is suggested, and they were named after the mythical/folkloric figure, then saying Arthur of Badon existed would have no affect either, if you take out of the equation that it was he who spawned the early folkloric material or that these others were named after the Badon man.

Of course, if those other historical Arthurs were named after Arthur of Badon and he didn’t exist, then neither would they … or not with those names. Or if the early Welsh stories came from him, they would cease to exist also, (unless the hero was originally another name). But if the early Welsh stories aren’t about a historical Arthur of Badon, as Padel, Higham and Green argue, just as they’re not about Arthur ap Pedr or Artúr mac Áedán as far as we know, but only use or have the same name, then, if Arthur of Badon was named by the same process, why couldn’t he also exist?

Not a striking resemblance!

Merlin reads his prohecies to King Vortigern. ...

Even Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work doesn’t bear much resemblance to the Welsh fantastical Arthur, and he seems to only use some associated names, such as Gwenhwyfar, Cai and Bedwyr and others from other eras that the Welsh tales attached to Arthur willy-nilly, as well as Badon and Camlann (Camblan). If he used anything else that he says came from a “very ancient book” from Britannia, and Britannia was Wales (as opposed to the argument that it was Brittany), then it’s been lost. (As a side note, Britannia could indeed be Wales as there are a few medieval document that call it such – see Blake and Lloyd, 2003). Did this ‘ancient book’ show a more historical figure? We’ll never know, but it should be noted that Geoffrey specifically refers to this ‘ancient book’ when he gets to the conflict between Mordred and Arthur in Winchester and the Battle of Camblan. (History of the Kings of Britain, Book XI, Ch.1, Ch.2). This could have been his only use of it? We also have no indication of just how ancient it might have been. However, if this was the use of it, it means his ‘ancient’ source showed Arthur fighting in civil war, not against the Anglo-Saxons.

The Welsh tales only relate to Arthur being at Badon in one instance, created after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work. Apart from this story (The Dream of Rhonabwy – Late-12th/Early-13th centuries) he has nothing to do with Saxons in the pre-Galfridian tradition. In fact, he bears no resemblance to any historical Arthur that we know of, including the soldier in the H.B.. It means, if he is mythological, or by the 9th century an historicized mythical figure, Nennius inserted him without making any reference or giving any similarities to the known Arthur figure of the stories and did it in a bardic, battle poetry way. A style he uses no where else. If this is the case, he was a) being extremely clever b) his sources had already made this figure into a ‘real’ person with accompanying poetry c) he had more realistic folkloric stories we no longer posses d) it’s about a real Arthur of Badon, e) it’s about some other Arthur replaced in time. f) it’s a mixture of some of the above.

Weight of evidence v popular evidence

There is the argument that the weight of the evidence is in favour of a mythical or folkloric Arthur. It is, and if the Y Gododdin, H.B. and A.C. are discounted as evidence, then the scales tip completely that way, and there isn’t really anything left for an Arthur of Badon.  But it depends on what weight ‘popular’ belief has against actual evidence (evidence that is interpreted differently by different people), if these three documents are not discounted. Is amount of evidence equal to its ‘weight’? This could be like saying that a pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold, because there’s a lot more of it. Perhaps a better analogy might be a pound of gold foil wrapped feathers, and, as we know, all that glitters isn’t gold. Once you have concluded (or believe) that the H.B. Arthurian section to be either made-up or that Nennius (and his audience) believed the Arthur in question was historical when he wasn’t, and that the A.C. simply followed in the steps of the H.B.; or that Nennius took another Arthur and deliberately (or accidentally) placed him earlier than he was, then that is that for Arthur being at Badon … unless there was a third battle of Badon no one’s aware of. (Complicated, ain’t it!?)

On the point of the mention of Arthur in Y Gododdin, there isn’t agreement on its dating, which is why I’ve been reluctant to include it  here. John Koch’s (The Gododdin of Aneirin, 1997), gives a 6th/7th century date – which would make it the first mention of an Arthur – but not all scholars agree.  Some believe it could be a later interpolation (Charles-Edwards et al) possibly not being attached until the 8th or 9th centuries with Graham Isaac going for the 10th century. Thomas Green sees the killing of a vast amount of men as described in the H.B. battle list as proof of Arthur’s mythical status and why he was named in it. Taken out of context, it does seem like that. Within the H.B. it is one of the least fantastical things. Even if Koch is wrong and it is a later interpolation, this only works if you believe the H.B. to be about a mythical figure. It’s a circular argument. If the H.B. is about a real person, and the comparison in Y Gododdin refers to this, then it is, in the interpolator’s mind, still comparing Gwawrddur to a real figure. What it does mean is that what Koch sees as a near contemporary source mentioning him, isn’t. (For more on this see THIS blog).

THOSE OTHER ARTHURS

I find that the 6th and 7th century Arthurs’ name giving to Gael descended people and not Britons is explained away too readily, by both camps. By elements of the ‘historical Arthur’ camp it is a name the British wouldn’t use out of awe or respect for Arthur of Badon, but the Gaels would use the name because they didn’t have the same reverence for it. This ‘historic’ argument doesn’t make much sense, to me at least, because Artúr mac Áedán supposedly came from the union of a Gael and Briton, which, most likely was for political reasons; would he name a son Arthur knowing it wouldn’t go down well with the wife or her family? Maybe, I suppose. But in Demetia (Dyfed), Arthur ap Pedr may have been more Briton than Gael, for all we know, living in a Gaelic dominated (or cultural) area (as could have Arthur ap Bicoir if he’s a historical figure) and still the name was given. (Besides, the Britons would name their sons after famous military leaders as demonstrated earlier). But no Briton or even later Welshman would use the name for their princes and the first to give his son it would be an English king with a Welsh family name, Henry (Tudor) VII in the 15th century. The Welsh said Henry was  the ‘Son of Prophesy’, so perhaps he thought naming his son Arthur would help that prophesy along? It didn’t, and Arthur died young.

For the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp these Arthurs were named after a mythical or folkloric figure, and the British wouldn’t do this for the same reasons of awe and respect (Batram).  This could make sense, to some degree, except the British would use mythical names if Bran is anything to go by, as well as Belin (Apollo Belinus), Mabon (Apollo Maponos), Conmail (Apollo Cunomaglus), Mael (Deus Maglus), and Nudd (Mars Nodens). (My thanks to Chris Gwinn who pointed these out). But, as I’ve already said, if they were named after some mythical or folkloric figure (maybe one that covered both cultures?), then why couldn’t an earlier Arthur (of Badon fame) be named for the same reason, with him also been of Gael descent and having nothing to do with his mythical/folkloric counterpart apart from his name? The argument doesn’t follow for the name giving.

There is another point here: if it is thought a mythical/folkloric Arthur by the Early-9th century had become historicized, then the Britons weren’t naming their sons Arthur because he was mythical or folkloric by this stage. Either way – be he historical or mythical/folkloric – he was, to them, a real man. They liked naming their sons after famous leaders, and, as shown above, they had no problem naming their sons after mythical figures. So what was the problem with Arthur or his name?

Etymologically speaking …

Most etymologists would argue that the Gaels would have to get the name Artúr via the Britons using the Insular Latin Arturius (from Classical Latin Artorius), as it wouldn’t be a name they would use directly because it was Latin. However, Arthur of Demetia’s father was called Pedr (Peter), from Latin PETRVS, so they would use Latin names, it’s just that Artorius/Arturius doesn’t appear to be a common name in Britain … but neither does Pedr. If it wasn’t via Latin, the problem, as it is with Brittonic, is creating this name from two Goidelic words that would produce Artúr. Whilst there are many ‘Art’ names in Irish, there are none, apart from Artúr, ending with ‘úr’.  Old Irishúr’, can mean ‘noble’:- (c) of persons (a) noble, generous, (b) fair, active. It can also mean `evil’. However, there are no attested names anywhere that use úr as the second element, so it would have to be unique. That’s not out of the question, but it makes it harder to argue.

You see many websites putting forward ‘Arth+gwr’ – Brittonic *arto+guiros (‘Bear Man’) as the meaning of the name, but that should produce Arthwr. You also see ‘Arth+rix’ – Brittonic *arto+rigos (‘Bear King’) but that should make *Arthir/*Erthir or *Arthric. At present, until Chris Gwinn shows us his new theory, the name is more likely to be derived from Arturius, with Arturus (from the star Arcturus) being another possibility. (More later).

In another blog I explored the possibility that the Britons didn’t use the name because it was seen as an Hiberno-British (not Irish) name, but even this isn’t satisfactory. Whatever the reasons for the Brittonic speaking Britons not using the name, it may have been for different reasons at different points in history. Could it initially have been because it was seen as a name used by Goidelic speakers, then it gained a superstition around it? I’ve recently wondered if it could be because it seemed like a hybrid name to the British that didn’t make total sense to them? To the Gaels it could have made some kind of sense even if they wouldn’t normally use úr as the second part of a name. To the Britons (and later Welsh) it might have sounded like ‘Bear-ur’. (That letter u is a long vowel in Brittonic and Old Welsh. In Middle and Modern Welsh the u becomes similar to a long vowel e, which is why Cymru (Wales) is pronounced something like Kumry). It would need further investigation by someone who knows a lot more than I (Chris Gwinn?) as to whether there were other compound names coming from either Insular Latin or older Brittonic that, as they mutated, didn’t make total sense, so were only used once. Names that mutated completely to make no sense may not have been a problem?

In the penultimate part of this blog I will look at one other piece of evidence I have not seen explored (but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been!) that could be used by both the historical and mythical/folkloric camps.

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

Mak

 

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A Different Look At An Arthurian Battle Poem – Part Two

Transmitting Arthur

(It seems to have turned into a three part blog)

Click HERE for Part One

Before getting to my feeble poetic attempts in Part Three I’d like to go deeper into what might have been transmitted and how this transmission may have come down to even the 9th century, long before Geoffrey of Monmouth got his hands on it, and have been corrupted.

Praise the lord!

The one thing we know about early bardic poetry, from the limited evidence we have, is that the only things they celebrated were the deeds of warriors or kings, their greatness, their generosity, how they died and, sometimes, their descendants.  What we will never hear is a story.  These don’t seem to appear to begin until the 9th and 10th centuries in written form, but they must have existed in oral form for centuries before this.  If the more ‘accurate’ transmission of events was through the bards – and accurate would be a relative term – how could any reliable detailed information about Arthur have come down to even those in the 9th century, such as the names of sons, his horse, his dog, his weapons, his wife or wives … and mistresses?  These would have to have come down through the storyteller, the Cyfarwydd, if they hadn’t simply been made up in the 300 years since his demise.  This folk telling of his exploits is one source but is it possible that some clerics wrote of him in Latin?  This might seem the case if Cat Coit Celidon was first known as silua Celidonis.  I’ll explore this further below.

Whilst the bards were supposed to recite old poems verbatim, we don’t know how strict the storytelling tradition was.  It is obvious from what early stories we do have that contemporary elements have been added to them, so if there was a strict learning of a tale, it went out of the Early Medieval window at some point.

It’s worth looking more closely at what exactly a bard (Irish), or bardd (Welsh), was in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries.

He’s an old poet, and he knows it!

Known as Y Cynfeirdd (‘The earliest poets’), or their work as Yr Hengerdd (‘The old poetry’), their rôle, after training for nine years – if it is the same as those depicted by earlier Romans in Gaul – was more than just a poet.  Part of the triad of Druids, Vates and Bards, he was a poet, musician and satirist.  (Their verses were accompanied with the lyre or harp).  But they were not poets in the sense we imagine.  They were very powerful men (although it’s possible there were woman) who could make a king, or curse him through his satires if he wasn’t treated well, or even make political statements against them. (‘The Welsh King & His Court‘, 2000, p.172). One of the later Welsh bards, or Y Gogynfeirdd (‘The Less Early Poets’), called Cynddelw – the bard of Rhys ap Gruffudd (mid 12th century) – told his master that “without me, no speech would be yours” (Koch, ‘Celtic culture: a historical encyclopedia, Volume 1’- p.170). But, it was a symbiotic relationship, and that line just quoted is followed by: “And I,[likewise,] would be unable to utter without you“.

The one thing they were not, is historians.  In the case of the bardd teulu, their job was to make their boss famous, tell a good story or to encourage those about to go into battle as well as recite the lord’s lineage.  This Fame had a name: clod (in Welsh), cliù (in Scottish Gaelic) and clù (in Irish).  This must have led to not only exaggeration but down right lies.  Maybe not just by the original bard, but those that followed him as they attempted to give their court an even greater past.  History for them was not passing down accurate records of event, but making sense of the past through the present.  To quote John Koch:

“ [...] our early Celtic literary texts are to be understood as serving the political needs of specific power elites who were the patrons of the literary classes.” (Koch, 1993)

To quote the great Nora Chadwick:

“In the early British courts, essentially heroic, individualistic and aristocratic, it is believed that the bard’s most important function was that of custodian of the genealogies. In countries with no written laws, or charters, or wills, genealogies were the only guarantee of the right to a share in land, and of the right to inherit. The chiefs depended largely on the bards for their prestige and reputation. Where there were no newspapers or leading articles, all political and personal propaganda was in the hands of the court poets, and the closest personal tie existed between the poet and his patron. It is not surprising that traditions have come down to us of bards who have killed themselves on the death of their lord. We have seen, for example, that British poetical tradition represents the poet Myrddin as losing his wits after the death of his lord Gwenddoleu in the battle of Arthuret.” (Celtic Britain, 1963)

‘Nennius’ in the Historia Brittonum tells us about the bards of the 6th and 7th centuries …

“At that time, Talhaiarn Tataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin [Aneirin], and Taliesin, and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.”

There are only two of these bards whose work has come down to us -Taliesin and Aneirin – and we know that both of their works were added to at later dates.  Luckily for us we have experts who can tell us this.  Those of the 9th century may not have known, or cared, as long as it forwarded their cause or was a good yarn.  However, it could be that changes didn’t start to be made to their works until after these oral verses were first written down.

If we look at the poems of Taliesin (bard to Urien Rheged) and Aneirin (thought the composer of the earlier section of the early 7th century epic British poem Y Gododdin (The Gododdin) – both from Northern Britain – we see two different kinds of praise poetry: one praising mostly a king and one praising a king but also the deeds of many warriors and warbands besides those of the host.  This may indeed be showing the two kinds of bards we know existed in 10th century Wales through the Laws of Hywel Dda.  There were the itinerant bards, the pencerdd (‘chief of song’ or ‘master poet’) and the household bard: bardd teulu (‘bard of the household/‘bard of the retinue’). They were different in as much the bardd teulu was attached to the court and the pencerdd was ‘free moving’ to a certain extent within a kingdom, but sometimes one could become the other. Each had a different job to do. My two poems (in Part Three) are in the pencerdd style; although the 10th century pencerdd had to also sing a song in praise of God first and the bardd teulu could be asked by the queen to sing three (quiet) songs in her chamber if she wished. But if the pencerdd was present at court, he had superiority. (‘The Welsh King & His Court‘, 2000, p.170)

It is through a pencerdd where we might get multiple names occurring, not being attached to a specific court and free to praise other kings, and, if they weren’t simply later additions to the Arthurian tradition, or visa versa, this is where Cai and Bedwyr – amongst others – could have appeared.  However, they are most likely later, although very early, additions.

In Taliesin’s household bard (bardd teulu) style, it’s mainly his king, prince or chieftain that would be praised; their patrons.  They are going to be given the credit for winning battles.  Y Gododdin, praises a range of warriors, but never focuses for long on one figure.  That could either be because they were killed; because it is about a specific campaign fought by an alliance, or because there are elements of Y Gododdin missing … or all of the above.  We also don’t know the status of those praised. (It would be interesting to know what form it might have taken had the British won).

Aneirin and Y Gododdin may be the better candidate than most of Taliesin’s work if the campaigns Arthur fought in/led were all alliances or he himself wasn’t attached to a specific court but had some military command.  This may have given rise to multiple praising, so to speak, of both kings and lords (including Arthur) alike, by various pencerdd and bardd teulu.  Could Arthur, the “leader of battle”, have begun to stand out because of the frequency in which his name and deeds appeared?  These deeds might have been compiled by some later pencerdd bard or bards into a more coherent poem or poems. However, it still should be kept in mind that any victory in battle is going to go to the dominant king.

Or, Arthur could have been mainly attached to one dominant royal court?  If he went from war leader to political leader in later life, he could have had his own bard.  There are several options open to us and not knowing his status (or, indeed, if he ever existed) makes it impossible to know which it might have been.  For example, if, as put forward by Gidlow, he was a latter day British Magister Militum he’s not likely to have a bard, unless he had his own court also, and could only be remembered by other’s household bards or travelling pencerdd. But Gidlow also points out that if the battles were numbered in an original work, it would be very unusual indeed in the bardic style and may point to some other kind of work.

Clerical error?

Just to digress for a moment.  On the point of why the ‘Battle of the Wood of Celidon’ was called silua Celidonis and had to be glossed in British as Cat Coit Celidon, we are going away from the bards and to the clerics. Unless Alex Woolf is right :

Gildas describes, in unflattering terms, poets at the court of Maglocunus, and it has always been assumed that these poets sang the king’s praises in British. In the light of the foregoing discussion of Insular Romance it is perfectly possible, however, that they recited Latin panegyrics. Indeed Patrick Sims-Williams has demonstrated the influence of Latin panegyric diction and form on early Welsh and, less certainly, on early Irish praise poetry, a phenomenon which almost certainly requires composition and recitation ofLatin poetry to have taken place in sixth-century Britain (THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE ROMAN WORLD – Renga and Gentes, 2003, p375

The fact that no poetry about the very powerful king Maglocunus survived could possibly be down to having be composed in Latin.

However, generally it was the clerics who were the ones going to be writing in Latin.  What was a cleric doing listing a single Arthurian battle … if it is, and he did?  One possibility is that there was more than one battle listed but the others mentioned matched those in a poem.  This doesn’t answer ‘why?’ Was there a British Sidonius, attached to a provincial ‘government’ who listed this?  If there was, he listed an event that happened outside of what is known to have been the Roman diocese of Britannia, well to the north of the old provinces of Britannia Secunda and (probably) Valentia.  (Unless you believe Valentia to have been between the Walls, which I don’t – See THIS blog).

What we don’t know is if the northern borders had been extended through conquest or these battles were simply offensive ones in other regions.  Either way, this battle probably happened in the Selgovian territory near to Caddon on the Tweed and not in what we think of today as the Caledonian Forrest in northern Scotland.  Caddon was recorded in 1175 as ‘Keledenlee’ and ‘Kaledene’ in 1296 (‘Welsh Origins of Scottish Place-names’ by William Oxenham, 2005) – my thanks to Phil over at Tim Clarkson’s Senchus blog for that information.   This is the area where local tradition has Myrddin going to after going mad.  It really looks as though either Kelidon (Celidon) or Kaledon (Caledon) got Anglisized to Keleden, Kaledene and that, possibly, this led to Ca(le)ddon. This is odd in itself as it seems to have gone back to ‘Welsh’.

Of course, they would mean different things in each language: Kaledene=Kaled (OW=hard, rough) + dene (OE=valley) or for Keledenlee either=Kelli/Keli (OW=grove/heaven) + den (OE=den) + lee (OE=pasture/meadow) or Kele could be Céle (OE=a cold thing, coldness) … or a mixture thereof.  The use of the letter ‘K’ instead of ‘C’ points to its ancient British origin.

There is another point made by Chris Gwinn on Arthurnet, and that is that, had Coit Celidon originally been in Latin it should have been Caledonius saltus/Caledonia silua. ‘silua Celidonis’  appears to be a direct Latinization of Coit Celidon. So we may be seeing something that started as Brittonic, being Latinized, then retranslated in the H.B.

Mind your language

Those who have looked at the language used in Y Gododdin (Koch, Jackson, Isaacs) have noted the various transmission and additions through the change of language.  Koch in particular identifies no less that six different strands, if you include the original oral (O) version.  Any Arthurian poetry could have gone through just as many, if not one more, depending on its date of composition and when it may have been first written down.  Y Gododdin is argued by Koch to have been written down in the early 7th century, in its original language, not Latin, and this may have worked against its transmission.  Oral versions, however, may have remained less corrupt for longer; but we can’t be certain of that either.

There is actually a very good example of how the same poem, or information, can get changed. In the supposedly 7th century Gaelic poem that mentions Arthur son of Bicoir the Briton, there are three different version in three different manuscripts. To read about him and these versions, click HERE to read that blog.

I want to tell you a story

If there were existing tales about Arthur in the 9th century, and there must have been, then it is interesting that ‘Nennius’ chose not to have drawn from them in the main body of the H.B. (The Mirabilia (Miracles) are believed to have been added later).  He only focuses on the 12 battles, and makes no mention of the Battle of Camlan where Arthur was supposed to have died … although that’s not surprising.  He also makes no mention of Arthur being a king or prince, and so most scholars believe that he wasn’t and this was a later invention.  But I hope to show that this could have purely been because of the way in which the information was passed down.

Arthur’s deeds must have been passed down through storytellers not attached to a royal court. This doesn’t answer the battle list but it might answer other details, accurate or otherwise, that ‘Nennius’ augmented the battle poem with or that the likes of the story of Culhwch & Olwen drew from.  There must have been stories  about those miraculous Arthurian sites for the folktales to exist.  But there appear to be three different strand of the Arthurian legend at work by the 9th century.  The one ‘Nennius’ refers to.  An Otherworld attacking, giant killing, witch skewering superhero, and, as attested to by the topographical and onomastic Arthurian sites of Britain, an Arthur viewed to be a giant, who could hurl massive stones.

To quote Nora Chadwick again:

The Four Branches are also a contrast to the poems in another important aspect. While the poems relate, or purport to relate, to contemporary people and events, especially in the North, the stories of the Mabinogion relate to traditional themes of the far past. The poems are realistic and direct for the most part, even when, as in the vaticinatory poems of Myrddin, they are often very obscure. This sense of reality is heightened by the use of direct speech, monologue or dialogue. The scene is laid for the most part in Wales, never in the ‘North’ and the stories are essentially Welsh. On the other hand the prose is hardly ever realistic, and a sense of illusion is achieved by the simple and almost imperceptible transitions of the story from the world of reality to the world of the supernatural.”

It’s these supernatural Arthurs that drew the likes of Dumville, Padel, Higham and Green to the conclusion that Arthur is an historicized mythical figure, and that the H.B. battle list is either made up by ‘Nennius’ or cannot be used as proof of a 5th/6th century war leader.    It’s Thomas Green’s argument I would like to pick up on first.

One of primary argument against Arthur being historical are the onomastic and topographic Arthurian sites.  These onomastic sites, he points out, show Arthur to have been seen as a giant.  Well, that’s not quite true, and I’ll explain why below.  What is questionable is whether or not a figure had to have been mythical to have his name attached to the landscape.  I would argue not.  All that needs to happen is the following:

“Arthur was a giant of a man”

“Arthur was a giant”

“I think Arthur the giant may have put those stone there”

“Arthur the giant put those stones there”

This is folk history at its simplest. There is also the simple fact that any great ancient hero could not be simply seen as human, but they were either larger than life or had superhuman qualities. What may have heightened the spread of Arthur’s name in the landscape, especially in Wales and Cornwall, could have been the ever present threat of the Anglo-Saxons and later Vikings and Normans.  You’d want a giant or superhuman on your side to try and scare the enemy!

There’s one important point to make about the giants of Wales, and that is they are nearly always named ‘gawr’, meaning, funnily enough, ‘giant’. Here are some (in no particular order): Gogyrfan Gawr (Gwenhwyfar’s da), Idris Gawr, Itta Gawr, Rica/Rhitta Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Cribwr Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed and the place was renamed as Cribarth),  Oyle Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Cedwyn Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Ceimiad Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Ophrom Gawr, Ysbryn Gawr, Iwni Gawr, Gwedros Gawr, Howel Gawr, Llyphan Gawr, Pyscoc Gawr, Hedoc Gawr, Diddanel Gawr … and there are many more. Yet there is not one instance of Arthur Gawr, only an Arthur seen as a giant slayer. So, did they think of him as a giant at all, or mainly superhuman?

Him being a giant killer could have been in response to the later Arthurian stories, yet, even after Arthur the soldier took root still onomastic sites were been named after him. Padel notes that site were being given his name in the 19th century following the ‘giant’ or superhuman Arthur lines. This is very interesting, considering that the later stories had gone away from this portrayal.

As mentioned above, it’s also obvious that there were several strands to the Arthurian folk figure.  The topographic and onomastic (mostly) points to a giant.  The stories, such as Culhwch and Olwen, shows a human sized figure but with supernatural powers who fights witches and the Otherworld … or his men do.  Then there’s the figure of the Historia Britanom who is plainly an Earthly warrior.  In fact, he’s made even more Earthly than the figure of Ambrosius.

Higham comes to the conclusion that Arthur of the H.B. is simply a Biblical Joshua-figure to match St. Patrick’s Moses.  He certainly looks that way, alongside the prophetic use of the 12 battles, but this could be a complete coincidence, and had someone else been the victor of 12 battle, ‘Nennius’ would have used them.  Higham also argue that Joshua was a “dux belli”, which is why Arthur is called a “dux erat bellorum” (‘leader of battles’), but surely for this to work he has to assume his Welsh, Cornish, English and Breton audiences know their Bible!

Whatever came down to ‘Nennius’, it doesn’t seem to amount to much, certainly not in comparison with what stories he had on Vortigern or Ambrosius.  If the likes of Culhwch & Olwen, or other poems and triads were around, then he chose not to draw from them.  If Arthur was such a Welsh  ‘national’ hero, ‘Nennius’ either didn’t have the material saying so or he decided not to make that much of it, comparatively speaking.  Why might that be?  Because Arthur was no such thing? because he knew his audience was already well informed about Arthur? or because he had no direct connection with north or eastern Wales, so he didn’t expand on him because he didn’t serve a direct political purpose?  It’s interesting that Maximus and Ambrosius are both given connections to Gwynedd – Dinas Emrys (City/Fortress of Ambrosius) and Segontium (Caernarfon) – so, perhaps Arthur did have some connection … real or imagined.  Depending on whether his lineage had been put together by this time, he was supposed to be the great-grandson of Cunedda the founder of Gwynedd (early 5th century) and this might have been a good enough reason.  (For other comments on the Historia Brittonum, see “dux erat bellorum” blog).

Wherefore art thou Arthur?

There is another thing to consider, of course, and that is the supposed twenty-one years between the Battle of Badon and the Battle of Camlan.  Did Arthur suddenly go into obscurity in this period?  What was happening in the intervening years?  It’s not inconceivable that Arthur spent the time blowing his own trumpet and exaggerating his own exploits.  It also not inconceivable that some of the battles on the list happened after Badon … if he ever fought there.   After all, a poem would be putting battles in an order that rhymed and suites the poem not chronologically.  There’s also the possibility he became a ruler of some kind, or went to fight on the Continent.  There’s also the possibility an Arthur of Badon never existed!  But these questions are for another blog me thinks.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to you thoughts, comments and corrections (see comments below).

Until Part Three,

Mak

Click HERE for Part Three

 

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