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

Before I get to the final part and the conclusion to all of this, I’d like to first look at one piece of evidence, which, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been discussed before (but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been!).

Bran’s good for you!

Español: Obra del escultor Ivor Roberts-Jones,...

Bran statue at Harlech Castle.

It is interesting that Artúr mac Áedán had a brother called Bran – Welsh Brân - earlier also *Vran and *Uran – (‘Raven’ or ‘Crow’). There is an argument to be had by those who see Arthur as an historicized mythical figure that the fact his brother was named Bran (also the name of an ancient giant and king of British and Irish mythology – Brân fab Llŷr (son of Llŷr) or Bendigeidfran (‘Bran the Blessed’) – with the Irish equivalent Bran mac Febail), might indicate that both siblings were named after mythical figures. (Not to mention that one of Finn’s magical dogs was called Bran).

Source: Village of Llangollen in North Wales/U...

Dinas Brân

Branodonum (Photo by Nigel Stickells)

However, Bran Hen (the Old) was the name of a king of Bryneich (now Northumbria), and the supposed name of the father of Caractacus (Caradoc or Caradawg), the British famous enemy of Rome. (Although the latter may have been made up in the 18th century!). Ireland had Bran Becc mac Murchado (died 738) and Bran Ardchenn mac Muiredaig (died 795), both kings of Leinster, as well as a Lough Bran in County Leitrim. Wales has Dinas Brân in Denbighshire, Aber-Brân in Powys, Llyn (Lake) Brân in Denbighshire and Cwmbrân in Gwent. Scotland has a River Bran in the Highlands and a Loch Bran. John Koch wonders if there is an association between this character and the Roman fort of Brancaster (Branodunum) in Norfolk, England. (Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium Vol. 9, (1989), pp. 1-10 – article available at JSTOR). Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the King’s of Britain included an Arthurian Brennius (Book III, Ch.1). This may be Brân in another name, although this name could also be from the 3rd and 4th century BC Brennus. In the Mostyn MS 117 Genealogies, known as the Bonedd yr Arwyr (Decent of the Heroes), Brân map Llŷr (son of Llŷr) is made an ancestor of Arthur, in true royal genealogical style. It’s hard to know why Arthur was given descent from Brân but it could have been through association with the stories that circulated. Having said that, Triad 37 tells of Arthur digging up the head of Brân, which was supposedly protecting Britain, from where the Tower of London now stands, saying he was the only one who could do so. That’s not a way to treat your supposed ancestor! Could it be that this was a different tradition to the Bonedd yr Arwyr?

All these historical or topographical Brans/Brâns could have been named after the mythical figure; or, it was also simply a name the British (and Irish) liked to use. Sound familiar? For all we know, a 5th century Arthur, if he existed, could also have had a brother (or father?) named Brân, hence why Áedán named his sons thusly. The duel British/Irish nature of Bran can be used both for the mythical argument and for a historical name being given to princes from these cultural or ethnic unions (as with Áedán supposedly marrying a British woman), and this might have been the case with the name Arthur/Artúr. The difference between them is that Brân/Bran is a well attested ‘Celtic’ name, and Artúr /Arturius/Arthur isn’t.

Confused?

If all these historical Arthurs, or the first one (whoever he was), was/were named after a figure of ancient legend or folklore and both stories of a historical and a mythical superhuman/giant/Messianic hero came down in parallel, then were later merged, were later badly separated, then just took on a life of their own … then it’s no wonder we’re all confused! Perhaps both camps (not all members of them I admit) are trying to make each very different figure fit something that only the name ‘Arthur’ itself matches? So people try to find the historical Arthur in the stories, poems and Triads of the Welsh, Cornish and Scots and the onomastic and topographic sites of Britain, when a historical Arthur could (initially) have had nothing to do with them, just as it is argued these 6th to 8th century Arthurs didn’t. Thomas Green finds this explanation “too complicated” (as does Christopher Gidlow), but sometimes history is. I’m not saying this was the case, but it can’t be ruled out just because we don’t like its complexity. Occam’s Razor can get blunted over the centuries.

Politically motivated

There’s also the political aspect of Arthur, which cannot be overstressed. Since Geoffrey of Monmouth (and I would say even before) claiming Arthur (as a king) was from your territory was claiming descent from who they thought were the first Britons, the Trojans, and therefore suzerainty over the whole of Britain, especially if he ruled from London. The more you could point to where he was from, or had been, the better your case. So onomastic and topographical sites could have been named for more than just folkloric reasons.

In the final part of this blog we’ll see if any conclusions can be drawn form all this and whether or not we can give any answers to the question posed in Part One.

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

Mak

 

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