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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 Three

ARTHUR THE GIANT OR ‘GIANT KILLER’? (Part One)

"King Arthur and the Giant", Book I,...

All the topographical and onomastic sites around Britain point to Arthur being seen as either a giant or someone larger than life with superhuman strength. These are either names given to megalithic monuments in order to explain them, natural features or, in the past, Roman buildings (‘Arthur’s Oven‘ for example). Giants were, at times, invented to explain these Roman building, and even the Dane Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150-1220) for example, argued that giants had to exist to explain them.

It’s interesting that in mythology giants are usually (but not always) the bad guys, or stupid, so how did Arthur become to be seen as a giant (if that is, indeed, how he was seen), if he wasn’t mythological?

In answer to the first point, there is another famous ‘good’ giant, and that’s Brân fab Llŷr (son of Llŷr) or Bendigeidfran (‘Bran the Blessed or ‘Blessed Raven’) – with the Irish equivalent Bran mac Febail). It was said he couldn’t fit into a house so a tent had to be arrange for him to meet King Matholwch of Ireland. Arthur has a couple of associations with Brân, which I’ll explore in later parts.

The answer to the second question could be because some topographical and onomastic sites were named by it being passed down that Arthur was a ‘giant of a man’, just as it was with William Wallace. (If the bones that were found at the alleged ‘grave of Arthur’ at Glastonbury Abbey in the 12th century are anything to go by, then he was, indeed, a giant! This is seen as a complete hoax of course … but not by all). Could this have mutated to him being seen as a giant? Or, could it have been the mention in the battle list in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (H.B) of him single handedly – with the aide of God – killing 960/940 Saxons at the battle of Mount Badon? (The number varies in recensions). “No ordinary human could have done that!” they may have thought. If this is something that had been added to his legend at an early stage, then what better way for them to make sense of it? However, it seems more likely – if he wasn’t mythological or folkloric – that it is because many of these great men in the Britons’ (and other cultures’) distant past couldn’t just be men, but had to have some fantastical element to them that gave them their greatness, or be larger than life-size – as attested to in the H.B. - and the people of the time would have believed it too! (Just as they thought ordinary men couldn’t have built Stonehenge, it had to have been giants or superhumans). This is a time when the supernatural and natural were psychologically interwoven. After its initial relating of Arthur being a giant or superhuman it would take on a life of its own down the centuries. (More later).

The peasants?

Who was doing the naming of these sites that made Arthur out to be a giant, or, if not a giant, then superhuman? Bards? storytellers? or the local peasantry? I wonder if it was the latter. Did they have their own stories of Arthur, stories that were different to those of the storyteller’s superhero?  After all, the superhero Arthur either has to get two of his men – Cai and Bedwyr – to fight a giant, or go to Ireland to kill one himself (and many others in Wales!), but there’s no mention in the stories that Arthur was one, unlike his Irish ‘cousin’ Finn. 

Even the 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae, from whence the Romantic Arthurian tales sprang, tells us in its origin myth that Albion (Britain) was inhabited “by a few giants” when Brutus and his Trojans set foot on these shores. (The Britons weren’t the only ones to think they were descendants of Trojans, the Franks did too). It goes on to say that Corineus was given Cornwall, where there were more giants than in any other province. Among these giants was the famous Gogmagog. If Arthur was mythological or folkloric was he one of these originally?

It’s a miracle!

The Arthurian sites that have received the most scrutiny are those found in the Mirabilia (‘Miracles’ or ‘Marvels’) section of the Historia Brittonum  – dated to later than the main body of work, probably to the 10th century (Jackson) – which tell us of two miraculous, giant related sites; one, of Arthur’s giant dog, Cabal’s (‘Horse’s’) paw print, created whilst on a hunt for the giant boar Twrch Trwyth (a tale told within Culhwch ac Olwen). The other is of the giant, size-changing grave of his son Amr, whom Arthur is said to have killed.

There is another wonder in the region called Buelt. There is a heap of stones, and one stone laid on the heap having upon it the footmark of a dog. When he hunted boar Troynt (Trwyth and Latinised as Troit) across Wales. Cabal, which was a dog of the warrior Arthur, impressed the stone with the print of his foot, and Arthur afterwards collected a heap of stones beneath the stone in which was the print of his dog’s foot, and it is called Carn Cabal. And people come and take away the stone in their hands for the space of a day and a night, and on the next day it is found on its heap.” (H.B.)

For more information on Carn Cabal, go to the Clas Merdin webiste: http://clasmerdin.blogspot.com/2012/01/carn-cabal.html

There’s discussion about the ‘borrowing’ of Irish legends and the changing of them to British (Welsh) themes and heroes, and, if this did happen, it must have especially been the case in the west of Britannia. (In fact, areas of the west were Hibernian (Irish) inhabited or descended). After the fall of the empire this may have been increased along with the contacts with Ireland. The tale of the Twrch Trwyth mention earlier may have been a borrowing from the Irish. (The tale starts in Ireland and then moves to an Hibernian part of Britain – Demetia/Dyfed). In Ireland they had the boar Orc Triath, owned by the goddess Brigit. Killing of this boar could have been seen as the killing of paganism.

As mentioned above, Ireland is where the Arthurian hunt begins. If it was indeed a tale originally from Hibernia/Scotia, then it was given a British hero in the form of Arthur. The question would be, when did it arrive and when was the character (or the name) Arthur attached to it and why? Was he a folkloric or mythical Arthur or Arthur of Badon … or another Arthur entirely?

As mentioned earlier, this nasty swine is also spoken of elsewhere in poetry and legend, and much earlier in one case. The dating of the poem Gwarchan Cynvelyn that was attached to the corpus of Y Gododdin is put to the 7th century by Jarman – or rather the gwarchan are in general. The dating of this particular gwearchan could be doubted because it claims Gwynedd fought at the Battle of Catraeth (the subject of Y Gododdin) and some doubt that they did. It would also mean the battle would have to be later than John Koch thinks for Cynvelyn to have been there. This poem Thomas Green (and others) use as strong evidence that the mythical Arthur was around even in the mid 7th century, arguing that a historical figure couldn’t have been attached to this in the hundred or so years since his supposed death. This may indeed be the case.

(What can be a little confusing about all the above is, on the one hand, the argument that the whole Gwynedd/Gododdin connection (via Cunedda) is just an origin myth and that they weren’t present at Catraeth, with all the references to them being at the battle later additions to the poems, yet this gwearchan is argued to be 7th century, which lays claim to a Gwynedd warrior at Catraeth!)

The first thing that went through my mind when seeing this evidence for an early mythical Arthurian mention (and remember I saw this when I was also concluding that Arthur was mythical at the time) was that it no where actually mentions Arthur in reference to the Twrch Trwyth. In fact, you might wonder why it didn’t mention Arthur if he was present. This particular part of the gwarchan says …

Were I to praise,
Were I to sing,
The Gwarchan would cause high shoots to spring,
Stalks like the collar of Twrch Trwyth,
Monstrously savage, bursting and thrusting through,
When he was attacked in the river
Before his precious things.  (Skene translation)

It’s comparing Cynvelyn (Cynfelyn) with a ravaging boar (as opposed to a raging bore!), just as many warriors were compared with wild beasts. It could have compared Cynvelyn to Arthur too if he was there, but, if he was, the bard chose not to. A mythical Arthur could indeed have been present in the 7th century, but this cannot be seen from this poem, it is only inferred that Arthur was present in the earlier version because he is in a later work. A court of law could not take this as damning evidence, and nor should we. We should see it as a possibility. Arthur himself could have later been made the hero of the boar hunt.

There is something else to consider here, and that is the question if there’s any relationship between this famous tale and Arthur ap Pedr of Demetia? The hunt is supposed to have continued from Ireland to his region, and one also has to wonder if the route the swine took reflects the spread of the tale from Demetia, what is now southwest Wales, firstly east through Wales and then to Cornwall (another Irish inhabited area)? Then we have to ask if this prince was named because of the location of the tale and its mythical pursuer, or after an Arthur of Badon. If it wasn’t for the one (and possibly two) other Arthurs being named around the same time it might be a straight forward answer that it was to do with the boar hunt, but these other Arthur’s throw a Dark Age spanner in the works. Of course, the alternative is that the tale had Arthur ap Pedr made as the hero.

In the next part we’ll look more at giants and why, if Arthur was seen as one, he wasn’t called one before moving on to Part Four and our first look at Arthur the Soldier and the arguments for his historical existence.

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

Mak

See the interesting comments by David Hillman below

 

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