"In spite of his discourtesy, downright rudeness, and eventual treachery, there is the underlying knowledge that he has a special importance for Arthur, who almost always remains fond of him, and shows a tolerance of him that is at times remarkable."2
One Who Wears a Crown
Cei and Bedwyr are the most important of Arthur’s companions in the Welsh stories. They appear in the earliest stratum of the Arthurian legend along with other native British heroes such as Gwalchmei (Gawain). Cei and Bedwyr accompany Arthur on his earliest adventures such as the Welsh tale How Culhwch won Olwen, and the poem Pa Gur yv y Porthaur? (Who is the gatekeeper?) fighting supernatural monsters, giants and witches in a world of magic. Here Arthur is not a king but a leader of a band of men possessing fantastic abilities, seemingly living beyond a normal existence. These early adventures are set in a world far removed from the later tales of Arthurian Romance, chivalry and courtly love.
In these marvellous adventures it is Cei who is the most heroic of the warriors in Arthur's Court with Bedwyr typically adopting a supporting role. Whereas Arthur's character is rarely developed in these tales, Cei slowly falls from favour with Continental writers, perhaps detecting traces of a discord with Arthur that was apparent from the very beginning.
An early Triad that records Cei's early prowess refers to him as one of the 'foremost fighters'. In Trioedd Ynys Prydein, the Triads of the Island of Britain, Cei, son of Cenyr of the Fair Beard, is listed as one of the Three Battle-Diademed Men of the Island of Britain:
Trystan son of Tallwch,
And Hueil son of Caw,
And Cei the son of Cynyr Ceinfarfog,
And one that was diademed above the three of them
That was Bedwyr the son of Bedrawc.3
'Battle-Diademed' in this respect is translated from the Welsh 'taleithyawc' meaning 'one who wears a crown', which according to Rachel Bromwich was a mark of distinction worn on the head of the foremost champions in battle. Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last king of Wales, prior to the conquest by Edward I of England, wore a coronet (in Welsh, Talaith Llywelyn) said to be the Crown of Arthur.
Cei the Fair
The name 'Cei' may derive from the Latin Ceius or Gaius, possibly a genuine Romano-British chieftain who occupied the site of the Roman fort at Caer Gai, by Bala, Wales, in Post Roman Britain. Inscriptions have been found at the site suggestive of a relationship to Cei of Arthurian legend but their interpretation has been debated by scholars without satisfactory resolution.
|Sir Kay showeth the mystic sword unto Sir Ector,|
(Howard Pyle from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights. 1903)
The name also compares favourably with the Irish law-giver Cei Ceinbrethach, 'Cei of Fair Judgement'. Significantly, throughout the early Welsh poem Pa Gur yv y Porthaur? (Who is the gatekeeper?) he is referred to as 'Fair Cei':
76 Fair Cei and Llacheu
77 They made battles
78 Preceding the suffering of blue lances
79 On the summit of Ysta-Wyngun
80 Fair Cei slew nine witches
81 Fair Cei went to Mon [Anglesey]
82 to destroy lions5
In Malory's tale of King Arthur, as Sir Kay, Cei was one of the first and foremost Knights of the Round Table; in some accounts he is Arthur's seneschal and foster brother. As Sir Bedivere, Bedwyr survived to the end as Arthur's loyal companion; Malory (following the Vulgate Mort Artu), has him throw the king's sword Excalibur into the hand of the Lady of the Lake before the mortally wounded Arthur can depart on the barge for Avalon, never to be seen again.
In How Culhwch won Olwen, Cei is noted for drinking as much as four men, his sharp tongue and quick temper apparent in these early native tales are further developed in later Arthurian Romance in which he is known for his 'boorish' behaviour. However, Cei is certainly not the first British hero to fall from grace with the continental writers; Gawain, who as Gwalchmei was the best of knights who always accomplished his task in early Arthurian tales, suffered a similar fate.
In Chrétien de Troyes unfinished tale Perceval, or the Story of the Grail (Perceval, le Conte du Graal) Gawain is described as Arthur's nephew and best knight. About half way through the story Gawain takes up the quest from Perceval, but Chrétien fails to bring the tale to a conclusion. In the First Continuation of Chrétien's story Gawain fails in the Grail quest and his significance is thereon greatly diminished in later tales and he clearly falls from favour with continental writers.
The French invented their own hero in Lancelot, infamous for his love affair with Arthur's Queen Guinevere. Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to write of Guinevere's infidelity, but in Geoffrey's account it was Mordred, betrayer of Arthur, who took her as his queen, seizing the king's wife and his realm while Arthur was leading an invasion on the Continent.
The negative characterisation of Cei appears to be fully developed in Chretien de Troyes earlier tale 'Yvain' in which he is described as being “...slanderous, mean, cutting and insolent.” The French concept of the unheroic presentation of Cei finds its way in to the Welsh tales of Peredur, son of Efrawg, Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain, and in Gereint and Enid.6 However, the seed that may have fuelled the decline of Cei (Kay) in the Romances can be detected in the apparent feud between Arthur and Cei in early Welsh literature.
The Early Welsh Texts
Cei first appears in two highly imaginative pieces of literature; the poem Pa Gur yv y Porthaur? from the Black Book of Carmarthen, and the closely related earliest Arthurian prose tale How Culhwch won Olwen, found (in part) in the White Book of Rhydderch and (complete) in the Red Book of Hergest.
Culhwch is the most archaic text included in Lady Charlotte Guest's Mabinogion collection and one of the most important texts in the study of the Arthurian cycle preserving the older Arthurian tradition of the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth which certainly has antecedents in earlier Celtic tradition. The early tales feature an Arthur far removed from the emperor of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the knights of later Continental Romance. Here Arthur and his retinue adventure in the realm of the supernatural in combat against giants, witches and enchanted boars.
Cei in Culhwch and Olwen
In the tale of How Culhwch won Olwen, Cei appears to possess superhuman properties as prophesied by Cynyr, (claimed to be his father); “If there be anything of me in thy son, maiden, his heart will always be cold, and there will be no warmth in his hands”. He can also go without sleep and hold his breath under water for nine days and nine nights, has the ability to deliver unhealable wounds and when he desired he could be as tall as the tallest tree.
At Nant Gwynant on the road west from Capel Curig toward Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia, North Wales, Cei's name is commemorated at Gwyrd Cei ('Cei's Span' or 'Stretch'). The word 'gwryd' is a measurement of the distance between a man's finger tips when his arms are outstretched on both side of his body; a fathom, six foot, literally a man's span. If the gap between the mountains in Nant Gwynant was named from Cei's stretched finger tips he must have been of gigantic stature. Indeed in Welsh tales Cei has the persistent epithet of “The Tall” (Cei Hir) indicative that he was a giant, as tall as a tree.7
How Culhwch won Olwen begins with the gatekeeper Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr (Mighty-Grasp) denying the young Culhwch entry into Arthur's hall until Arthur requests to see him. Cei objects to Culhwch's admission. Once Arthur recognises him as his cousin, Culhwch demands a boon and invokes his help and all the warriors of the court in his quest to win the hand of Olwen, the giant's daughter, in marriage. Ysbaddaden chief-giant presents Culhwch with forty impossible tasks, or anoethau, to complete before he can marry his daughter.
In this tale Cei is the most adept of Arthur's warriors, helping to release Mabon from Caerloyw, and slaying Wrnach the Giant. The animosity between Cei and Arthur begins when Cei and Bedywr kill Dillus the Bearded. Ysbaddaden has charged them with plucking the beard of Dillus, whilst he is still alive, to make a leash to hold Drudwyn the whelp of Greid son of Eri.
"When Cei was certain Dillus was asleep he dug a pit under his feet, the biggest in the world, and he struck him a mighty blow and pressed him down in the pit until they had entirely twitched out his beard with wooden tweezers; and after that they slew him outright."
Cei and Bedwr went to Celli Wig in Cornwall, and presented Arthur with the leash made from the beard of Dillus the Bearded. Arthur sang this englyn:
Cei made a leash
From Dillus' beard, son of Eurei.
Were he alive, thy death he'd be.
The implication of Arthur's verse is that if Dillus had not been caught at a disadvantage by Cei, i.e. asleep, it is Cei that would be dead and not the giant.
“And because of this Cei grew angry, so that it was with difficulty the warriors of this Island made
peace between Cei and Arthur. But nevertheless, neither for Arthur's lack of help, nor for the slaying of his men, did Cei have aught to do with him in his hour of need from that time forward.”8
From this point on Cei disappears from the tale completely and is not heard of again.9 This rift between Arthur and Cei seems to have influenced later negative romance depictions of Kay.
Pa Gur yv y Porthaur? (What man is the Porter?)
Pa Gur is an obscure poem which refers to other tales that it assumes the reader will know, for example, Bedywr on the shores of Tryfrwyd fighting with Rough-Grey (lines 47-49) may well be a reference to Arthur's tenth battle as listed in the so-called battle-list of Chapter 56 in the Historia Brittonum. Rough-Grey is known from the Triads as Gwrgi Garwlwyd (= man-dog rough-grey) who made a corpse of the Cymri every day, and two on Saturday so as not to have to kill on a Sunday. That this is evidently the same conflict is demonstrated by the reference to Rough-Grey in Pa Gur immediately following the conflict with dog-heads on Din Eidyn (lines 43-44).
The poem ends abruptly after 90 lines but its content is sufficient to portray an Arthurian adventure very similar to that detailed in How Culhwch won Olwen, indeed the poem contains many of the same characters invoked in Culhwch's list and many have argued that Culhwch derives from Pa Gur.
But in Pa Gur, in stark contrast to Culhwch, Arthur seems to be down on his luck, looking back at happier days in a past tense, as shown by the lines “I used to have servants, it was better when they were alive” (lines 62-63). Earlier in the poem he names these servants as Manawydan son of Llyr, Mabon son of Mellt, Anwas the Winged and Llwch Windyhand, who defended Din Eidyn (lines 17-29).
Arthur tells the gatekeeper he is with Cei the Fair and the best men in the world, but he only names three, wizards all of them: Mabon son of Mydron, Uthr Pendragon's servant; Cystaint son of Banon; and Gwyn Goddyfrion (lines 1-16). The gatekeeper episode is relatively common in Celtic literature, even Lugh is refused entry to the court in The Battle of Mag Tuired, from the Ulster cycle, and must individually name his many skills to gain entry. Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr is again the gatekeeper in Pa Gur, as he is in most Arthurian tales, but in this poem he refuses Arthur and his band of men entry into the court, forcing Arthur to recall a list of his companions and their exploits. Here, it would appear Arthur is being denied access to the court. But who's court is this?
The poem refers to an attack on 'Celli', presumably Arthur's court at Celli Wig in Cornwall is meant. The attacker seems to be Cei who struck them down three at a time (lines 31-36). As this follows directly on from the list of Arthur's servants (lines 17-29) this may be the episode in which Arthur lost them (lines 62-63). The poem continues, calling Cei the 'Prince of plunder', unrelenting as an enemy. (line 67: the literal meaning here is that 'he was a warrior long/tall as an enemy', possibly a pun on Cei's epithet 'hir' = 'the tall'.)10
Rachel Bromwich gives the following translation:
64 Before the kings of Emreis
65 I saw Cai hurrying.
66 He carried away booty.
67 the ‘long man’ [i.e. Cai] was hostile(?).
68 Heavy was his vengeance,
69 fierce was his anger.11
|Sir Kay breaketh his sword at ye Tournament. |
(Howard Pyle from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, 1903)
The early 13th century Old French Romance Perlesvaus, or The High History of the Holy Grail, tells us that at Pentecost a maiden came to Arthur's court with a jewelled box. The maiden claimed the box contained the head of a knight, which could only be opened by the man who had killed him. Arthur tried first, followed by Gawain, then Lancelot, but they all failed. But when Kay tried, the box opened.
A letter inside explained that the head in the box was that of Loholt (Welsh Llachau), the son of Arthur and Guinevere. Loholt had killed the giant Logrin then fell asleep on top of him, as his custom was to sleep on any man he killed. Sir Kay found Loholt and cut off his head while he slept, he then took the head of the giant to King Arthur's court claiming he had killed him.
Guinevere recognised the head in the box as her son Loholt by a scar on his face, which he had carried from childhood, and then died from grief.12 Pa Gur makes reference to Cei and Llacheu fighting battles (lines 76-77), but provides no further information; as to whether they were allies or opponents, we are left to ponder.
A little later, the 13th century poem The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhyfer is suggestive of Cei having an affair with Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar in Welsh).13 Caradoc of Llancarfan first tells of Guinevere's abduction by Melwas in The Life of Gildas (c.1120) but makes no suggestion of a love affair between Cei and Guinevere.
The French poet Chrétien de Troyes is the first to allude to Sir Kay (Cei) being Guinevere's lover in the 12th century poem Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart. Chretien writes that when Guinevere was abducted by Meliagaunce (Melwas?) they are pursued by Lancelot in a cart to his castle. Lancelot has to cross a sword bridge to reach the castle and then fight Meliagaunce to win Guinevere's release. Guinevere intervenes to stop Lancelot killing Meliagaunce. But the fighting between the two men breaks out again after Meliagaunce claimed that Sir Kay is Guinevere's lover.
What inspired Chretien to include this love affair in his story – is there a lost tale of Cei and Gwenhyfar as lovers?
Mordred is known throughout Arthurian tradition as the notorious traitor who brought down King Arthur at the Battle of Camlann. The account is first found in the entry for the year 537 in the 10th century Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae):
“The strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”
From this simple chronicle entry it is impossible to be certain if Arthur and Medraut (Old Welsh for Mordred) are opponents or fighting on the same side. But from that one line Mordred has been portrayed as the betrayer of Arthur and the man responsible for his downfall.14
In the 12th century Geoffrey of Monmouth first portrayed Mordred as Arthur's nemesis. Geoffrey has Mordred seize the King's wife and realm while Arthur is on campaign in Europe, perhaps adopting the role of Melwas. Arthur returns to Britain to meet with Mordred on Salisbury Plain for the final, fatal battle.
Tales of Mordred's treachery are entirely absent from earlier Welsh accounts. Indeed, the earliest account of the discovery of Arthur's grave at Glastonbury c.1191 claim Mordred was found in the grave alongside Arthur and Guinevere, which seems very unlikely if he was the treacherous villain responsible for the King's downfall.15
From the above, there is ample evidence, the feud with Arthur (Culhwch), the attack on Celli Wig (Pa Gur),the murder of Arthur's son (Perlesvaus), the love affair with Guinevere (Chrétien), to suggest that it was Cei, not Mordred, who brought down the King.
Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson
Notes & References
1. Gwynn Jones and Thomas Jones, The Mabinogion, Everyman, 1974 (revised edition, 1991).
2. Linda Gowans, Cei and the Arthurian Legend, D.S.Brewer, 1988, p.6.
3. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, Third Edition, UWP, 2006.
5. John T. Koch, ed. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2006.
6. Bromwich, op.cit., p.309.
7. Chris Grooms, The Giants of Wales: Cewri Cymru, Edwin Mellen Press, 1993.
8. Jones and Jones, op.cit.
9. R Bromwich & D S Evans, Culhwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale, UWP, 1992.
10. Patrick Sims-Williams, The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems, pp.33-72 (cf.pp.38-46), in R Bromwich, AOH Jarman and B F Roberts, editors, The Arthur of the Welsh, UWP, 1991 (reprinted 1999).
11. Rachel Bromwich, trans., in The Figure of Arthur by Richard Barber, 1972, pp.69-71.
12. Nigel Bryant, trans. The High Book of the Grail, DS Brewer, 1978, pp.173-175.
13. Mary Williams, An Early Ritual Poem in Welsh, Speculum vol. 13 no. 1. January 1938. pp 38-51. on Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective: Version 1 ; Version 2
14. Rachel Bromwich, Triads, pp.445-6.
15. Richard Barber, Was Mordred Buried at Glastonbury, Arthurian Literature 4, 1985.
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