Literature: Celtic literature

To a degree, all of the countries that produced Arthurian literature in the Middle Ages were once occupied by the Celts. Celtic tribes and their kingdoms were dominant from the Iberian peninsula to the Balkans, from Cisalpine Gaul to the British Isles. The Romans changed much of that, however, and by the beginning of the Christian era Celtic strengths lay chiefly in the British Isles. By the end of the Dark Ages, the Celtic regions had further shrunk to western and northern Britain, Ireland, and northwestern France (Brittany). To scholars, the term "Celtic" is essentially a linguistic one, though that implies a cultural unity as well. The two main branches of Celtic (a sister language group to Germanic, Italic, Indo-Iranian, etc, in the Indo-European family) are Goidelic and Brythonic. The former includes in its modern descendants Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx Gaelic; the latter, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. The traditions about King Arthur arose among the Brythonic Celts, and it is therefore in that context that we speak of Celtic Arthuriana. Where then do we find Arthur in the early Celtic sources, and what is his nature?

The problem that faces the scholar here is that of dating. The earliest manuscripts written in the veracular and mentioning Arthur are not much earlier than the middle of the thirteenth century, although in some instances (e.g., the tale of Culhwch and Olwen) it can be demonstrated on linguistic grounds that the material belongs to a considerably earlier period. Some of the material, such as the "Dialogue of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar", is found only in late manuscripts. Perhaps the oldest reference to Arthur in our Celtic sources is a line in the Gododdin to the effect that a particular hero fought bravely, "though he was no Arthur". Tradition ascribes this poem to the late sixth century, though it exists in a manuscript of the late thirteenth century, in a language that cannot be older than the ninth to tenth century. But if it is authentic and if tradition is true, then this would surely be the earliest reference to Arthur, portrayed here as a paragon of heroic vritues.

The Welsh Triads contribute an important source of early information about the native Arthur. Their editor has demonstrated that the manuscript transmission of the Triads goes back to the early twelfth century, but it is clear that this body of traditional lore in triadic form has its roots in much earlier oral tradition. It is also clear that some of the Triads are late and owe their existence to such literary texts as Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae. In all, there are some two dozen mentions of Arthur and his court in the Triads, plus another eigh Triads that form a text known as the "Twenty-four Knights of Arthur's Court". Taken together, they constitute an important body of tantalizing references to the Arthur of native Celtic tradition.

Arthur figures prominently in one poem and is mentioned in several others in the mid-thirteenth-century manuscrips known as the Black Book of Carmarthen. In "The Stanzas of the Graves", a poem about the burial places of a number of heroes, it is said that the grave of Arthur is an eternal wonder - that is, no one knows where it is. Another series of stanzas speak of the hero Geraint, and one of the stanzas claims that Arthur was present with Geraint at a battle in a placed called Llongborth (site unknown). The most important poem in the Black Book of Carmarthen is in the form of a dialogue between Arthur and Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr ("Glewlwyd of the mighty grasp"). In Culhwch and Olwen, Glewlwyd is Arthur's own porter; here, he is porter of a fortress to which Arthur and his men seek admission. In the ninety surviving lines of this poem, Arthur identifies his retinue for the porter, naming Cei and Bedwyr (Kay and Bedivere), Mabon son of Modron, Manawydan son of Llyr (Lear), and other characters known from various texts that reflect Celtic mythological tradition. The poem also celebrates adventures with witches, lions, a fierce cat, dog-headed warriors, and the like.

The Book of Taliesin, a manuscript of about 1275, contains several arcane poems that mention Arthur, treating him as an eminent figure, the object of the adulation of certain sages. For example, Arthur is named toward the end of the poem known as Cad Goddeu ("The Battle of the Trees"), a poem in which Gwydion and Math from the fourth branch of the Mabinogi are named as prominent magicians. Much of this poetry is obscure, though it is clear at times that the setting is the Celtic otherworld and that some of the characters named in them belong to inherited myth. One of these poems, clearer than the others, has attracted considerable attention and has been edited and translated several times; it is known as The Spoils of Annwfn (Annwfn being the name for the otherworld in Welsh). This remarkable poem tells of a raid by Arthur and his men on Annwfn to acquire its spoils ro treasures. Several things deserve notice here: Annwfn is depicted as a place located at sea or across water, for Arthur and his men travel there in his ship Prydwen (the name given to Arthur's shield in Geoffrey's Historia!). Annwfn is variously called in this poem "the fairy fort", "the fort of intoxication", and "the glassy fort". In it is the well-outfitted pirson of a certain Gweir. Among its treasures is a beautifully decorated cauldron from which emanates poetic inspiration and which contains a special sword; the cauldron, it is stated, will not boil the food of a coward. Three boatloads of men went with Arthur. The fort was guarded by 600 men, and from the expidition only seven returned.

The Spoils of Annwfn is set squarely in the mainstream of Celtic tradition in Wales, and it has clear analogues in Welsh literature. It makes reference to the tale of Pwyll, the central figure of the first branch of the Mabinogi, and his son, Pryderi, who is also mentioned in the second, third, and fourth branches. In the second branch, Branwen, we hear of a raid by Bendigeidfran ("Bran the Blessed") on Ireland, nominally to avenge his sister's churlish treatment at the hands of her husband, Matholwch the Irishman. Branwen's son, Gwern, is there, too, and a pivotal role is played by a cauldron, one into which dead warriors are cast and from which they are taken revivified. When the treacherous Efnisien is thrown back into it, he breaks it. The forces of Bendigeidfran defeat the Irish in a dire battle, and from it only seven escape. In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, one of the tasks set by the giant is to acquire the cauldron of Di-wrnach the Irishman and the sword of Wrnach, names that would appear to be doublets. Arthur and his men set out for Ireland and finish by taking the cauldron - full of Irish treasures - by force, thanks to the magical use of another sword. The parallels between the three texts are obvious, and it has been suggested that in Branwen and Culhwch and Olwen we have a euhemerized version of the raid on the otherworld - that is, that Ireland has been substituted in those tales for the Annwfn of the Book of Taliesin poem.

The reference to the otherworld as "the glassy fortress" is significant. Giraldus Cambrensis, in his De Principis Instructione (1195), states that Glastonbury was the site of the legendary Avalon. In the British tongue, he wrote, it was called the glassy isle, and that is why the Saxons called it afterward Glæstingabyrig ('the fort of glass'). According to Welsh tradition, Merlin was imprisoned by his lover in a glass house, where he was also custodian of the thirteenth treasures of the Isle of Britain - treasures, perhaps, like those that Arthur sought from "the glassy fort".

Surely, the most important text that belongs to Celtic Arthuriana is the tale of Culhwch and Olwen. Though it is found in manuscripts of the fourteentch century, scholars generally agree on linguistic grounds that it belongs at least to the early eleventh century in its present form. The tale is remarkable in several ways. At one level, it has been recognized as a tale type of the Giant's Daughter. A destiny is sworn upon the hero that he will wed the giant's daughter; her father imposes a series of "impossible" tasks, hoping thereby to destroy the unwanted suitor; but with supernatural assistance the hero accomplishes the task, the giant is slain, and the bride is won. In this instance, the supernatural aid comes from Arthur and his men, and Culhwch and his bride-to-be are forgotten for much of the story. In fact, the largest single episode in the tale is the pursuit of the giant boar Twrch Trwyth. Traditions of this boar, which date back to Nennius's Historia Brittonum (ca. 800), are evocative of other supernatural pigs in Celtic tradition, including some from Gaul and Ireland. The boar's human characteristics are "explained" in the story by the statement that the beast had been a king, but God turned him into a boar because of his sins. In other exploits on Culhwch's behalf, Arthur frees Mabon son of Modron (who had been imprisoned in a stronghold located in a body of water), destroyes a powerful witch, and in general participates in a world very much like that of the dialogue poem with the porter and the otherwordly Annwfn. His companions include Cei and Bedwyr and a catalogue of other heroes capable of supernatural feats. His court is located at Celliwig (site unknown) in Cornwall, and though it is well provisioned it is much more primitive than the resplendent courts of later English and continental romance.

The Dream of Rhonabwy is a literary composition that belongs to the early thirteenth century. It is unique in that its geographical and historical background is indicated clearly. Also, it employs a dream-vision form not at all common in traditional Welsh literature. The story within the story, Rhonabwy's dream, is a surrealistic presentation of Arthur and his field court just before the battle of Mount Badon; the battle of Camlann has already taken place, and in that respect the story indulges in an anachronism. The strange events that transpire invite an allegorical interpretation, and a colophon confirms the fact that the story is the creation of an individual author whose penchant was for richly descriptive detail.

The poem known as the "Dialogue of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar" is probably in reality a dialogue between Gwenhwyfar and her abductor Melwas, reflecting an episode known from Caradoc's Vita Gildae and Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot. The "Dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle", in which the Eagle identifies himself as a grandson of Uther Pendragon, is essentially a religious poem. Both poems exist in manuscript only from the sixteenth century, though both are surely older.

Celtic traditions concerning Merlin existed independent of Arthurian connections, though that character was eventually drawn into the Arthurian orbit. The earlier Merlin is a prophet and madman, mad in the sense of frenzied or possessed. This is a state associated with the practice of divinely inspired poetry and supernatural wisdom and is one well documented in Celtic tradition. Most of the poetry attributed to this Merlin is vaticinatory and supports political themes for the most part. In Welsh tradition, Taliesin and Merlin were presumed to be the same person (archetypal poet) alive or living among men at different periods. Both are said to have lived during the time of Arthur, and to both are ascribed political prophecies.

It can be seen from this brief summary that Arthur's appearances in early Welsh literature place him firmly in the mythological traditions of the Celts. He operates largely in the supernatural community, abetted by a retinue of supernaturally gifted heroes. His opponents are giants, witches, princes of the otherworld, and men-turned-beasts. Like the Arthur of romance, his origins were obsure and his end a mystery. By the twelfth century, the Bretons wer eagerly awaiting Arthur's return, and among the Welsh poets of the twelfth to fourteenth century Arthur was held up as a paragon of heroic and courtly virtues.

Finally, it should be pointed out that, while Arthur's origins are to be found among the British Celts, his name itself may not be Celtic. It is assumed that the name is one of several in the post-Roman period (after, say, AD 410) that derive from Latin - in this case, from Artorius; Patricius is another noteworthy example. Still, it must be rememebered that the Welsh form of the name, "Arthur", is evocative of the Welsh word for "bear", arth, and that in Celtic tradition gods were often assimilated to certain animals - that is, they had a zoomorphic aspect. The bear was one of these, and in Gaul there were ¨divinities with such names as Dea Artio 'bear goddess', Andarta 'powerful bear', Artgenos 'bear's son', and Artaios 'bearlike'. In this connection, it is perhaps significant that our Arthur has no patronymic prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth's work and that there is no mention of Arthur at all in the early Welsh genealogies.