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

ARTHUR THE GIANT OR ‘GIANT KILLER’ (Part Two)

English: "Jack the Giant-Killer" by ...

A giant step for mankind?

So, Arthur was seen as having a giant son and a giant dog by the 9th/10th centuries, but just how many of these sites existed before the this time we may never know. (If there had have been more in the northern half of Wales one would think they too would have been included in the Mirabilia). These two, and other later mentioned sites, certainly fit the superhuman or ‘giant’ of folk legend and not Arthur the soldier, apart from, perhaps the hillfort Moel Arthur (‘bare hill of Arthur’), but this Bronze Age hillfort’s Arthurian naming date is unknown. It was recorded before the 17th century as Moel Arthur so it wasn’t made up by the Victorians. (A record of the antiquities of Wales and its marches (vol 1)’, Cambrian Archaeological Assoc., 1850 pp.181-2). However, it also gets no mention in the H.B., so it’s likely to be after the 12th century.

What I have not seen expressed by Padel et al, is, as I explored in Part One, that the amount of sites named after this ‘giant’/superhuman Arthur are unique even for giants. Giants are very often a local character giving their names to local features. There were certainly plenty of giants in Wales. A look at The Giants of Wales and Their Dwellings by Sion Dafydd Rhys (c. 1600) can show you just how many. (Read it at the Mary Jones’ website: http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/giants_wales.html ).

The one important point to make about the giants of Wales, as can be seen by the above mentioned work, is that 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. (What we don’t know about these is if they had always been mythical or if some of them they were based on ancient figures of history). 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 a larger-than-life superhuman?

Him being seen in the landscape as a folkloric giant-killer could have been in response to the later Arthurian stories, or visa versa; yet, even after Arthur the soldier and king took root, post Geoffrey of Monmouth, still onomastic sites were been named in honour of this superhuman Arthur. Padel notes that sites were still being given his name in the 18th century following the ‘giant’ or superhuman Arthur lines (Padel, 2000, p.106). This is very interesting, considering that the later stories had gone away from this more mythical portrayal; he was now an all too human king … even if he did still fight giants. It seems it had simply become a tradition’ or was a separate tradition. Is this what happened very early on? Were there, even in the 7th and 8th centuries, two (or more) very different Arthurs in circulation?

If in doubt, blame the English!

Peoples of Britain circa 600

We also must not forget that the 7th to 10th centuries were a time when the kingdoms that were developing into Wales and Scotland were threatened (and in some areas dominated) by the ‘English’, notably the kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria.  Were the common folk (as opposed to the warriors) of the British areas of the period no different to a modern audience in times of crisis? Did they too like a good ‘fantasy’ (not that they saw it as a fantasy in the way we do) to take their minds off things, not a story about an all-too-mortal-human-sized soldier? (The oldest Arthurian Welsh stories that have survived make no mention of the ‘Saxons’, another reason given for Arthur not being historical). Was it a time when you’d want a supernatural or giant slaying hero on your side? A slayer of the ‘giant’ English? Make him Messianic and you even got a giant slaying hero who can come back and slay the Anglo-Saxons again … maybe.

These Arthurian sites (and local stories) could be argued to be as much in response to the threats from Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, and later Anglo-Normans, as well as later Welsh nationalism, than just because they were a good yarn about a possible ancient mythical or folkloric figure who was everywhere in Britain right from the get-go. The uncertain times could have spawned the amount of them in the areas once inhabited by the Britons, across the Isles. Once Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History was out and grew into the Arthurian Romances, so too the number of sites grew. Just because he was seen as being in all these places later in history, doesn’t necessarily mean he was in all these places in the 6th and 7th centuries, whether he was mythical or not.

What’s in a name?

If Arthur was mythical or folkloric we still have to account for a British figure being given what seems to be a none British name, as most etymologist agree that Artorius is the best candidate with no British or Irish etymology working (so far) to make ‘Arthur’. (See THIS blog). In fact, not only a none-British name but not even a Romanized version of a British name, which is what was given to the known British deities. (Unless Higham is right about it being a decknamen). If, for example, he was named *Arto(s) (Bear), he should become something like Mars Artos to the Romano-British or the Roman soldiers who adopted him. The other possibility is from the star and Greek mythical figure, who was called Arcturus in Latin. However, we’d still be looking at the British taking a Latin named mythical figure for one of their own. But this is a subject all of its own and we’ll look in more depth at these later.

I’ll finish this part with a quote from Juliette Wood in the book A Companion to Arthurian Literature:

“The use of folklore in works such as chronicles reveals a great deal about cultural attitudes and about the interpretations writers wish to convey (Wood 1998). Insofar as it is possible to talk about an original Arthur, he seems to have been a hero of legend without a clear genealogy or location (Padel 1994; Green 2007). One of the many contentious aspects of sources such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work or the Arthurian romances is the degree to which popular beliefs and oral tradition about a legendary hero contributed to the creation of a symbol of medieval kingship and courtly virtue. Geoffrey seems to have favored elements that allowed him to present Arthur as historical and realistic. He did, however, incorporate traditions about giants, such as the giant of Mont-Saint-Michel, whom Arthur has to defeat. Encounters between heroes and giants are frequently localized at unusual landscape features, and heroes themselves are often depicted as gigantic, larger than life figures (Padel 1991; Grooms 1993: 79–110). The location of the narratives and the confrontations between giant and hero follow a traditional legendary pattern, but the relation between traditional and learned lore is never simple.”

In Part Five I want to look at Arthur the soldier and explore the various arguments as to whether he was a historical or mythical soldier.

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

Mak

 

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