Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Isle of Glass

The Abduction of Guinevere Part V
Throughout Arthurian Romance  Guinevere is commonly portrayed with two weaknesses; her love affairs with Arthur's best knight, and very susceptible to being abducted.

Tales from the Otherworld
In Part I: The Abduction of Guinevere we saw how Chrétien de Troyes introduced Lancelot to the world of Arthurian Romance as both Guinevere's lover and rescuer in the late 12th century tale Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart, (Lancelot, ou Le Chevalier à la Charrette).

Lancelot receives nothing more than a passing mention in Chrétien's earlier and first Arthurian work Erec et Enide in which he appears as Lancelot of the Lake, third in a list of the knights of the Round Table. It is also in Erec et Enide that we first encounter Guinevere's abductor from the Otherworld where we find the figure appearing briefly as“Maheloas, a great baron, lord of the Isle de Voirre. In this island no thunder is heard, no lighting strikes, nor tempests rage, nor do toads or serpents exist there, nor is it ever too hot or too cold.[1]
Lancelot crossing the Sword Bridge
In Lancelot Chrétien expands on the persona of Maheloas, Lord of the Isle of Voirre (glass) and we  encounter the figure of Meleagant, referred to as a huge and mighty knight, evil son of Bademagu the king of the land of Gorre, who has carried Guinevere off into the kingdom from which no one returns. The knights are told that it is only possible to enter this land by two extremely perilous ways; the Underwater Bridge or the Sword Bridge. They chose the latter. On arriving at the Sword Bridge they found it crossed treacherous, black water, roaring, swift and swirling, as horrifying and frightening as if it were the Devil's own stream. The bridge was unlike any other, it was as sharp as a gleaming sword, as long as two lances. On either side the sword was fixed to tree stumps and the knights were convinced that two lions or leopards were tethered to a large rock at the other end of the bridge. On crossing he immediately encountered king Bademagu in his tower. [2]

Chrétien seems to have pulled heavily from Celtic sources, and Meleagant, or Maheloas, is no less than later versions of the prototype Melwas as he appears in the first account of Gwenhwyfar's abduction in the early 12th century Life of Gildas (Vita Gildae c.1120) said to have been penned by Caradoc of Llancarvan (Caradog Llancarfan). Llancarfan is a small rural village near Cowbridge in the Vale of Glamorgan, south Wales, and the site of Saint Cadoc's 6th century Abbey, whose foundation it usually assigned to with Dubricius, (St. Dubric) and the time of St. Germanus's visit to Britain in the mid-5th  century. On Dubricius' elevation to bishop, Cattwg (St Cadoc) succeeded as Abbot. The Abbey became a Celtic 'Clas' a college and monastery where many Welsh holy men studied. [3]

A few miles further along the Vale of Glamorgan is Llantwit Major and the site of “the oldest university in the world", Cor Tewdws, the divinity school.  Cor Tewdws, or Bangor Tewdws (College of Theodosius) was burnt down in the mid-5th century but was refounded by St Illtyd (Illtud) some sixty years later. Ss. Patrick, David, Gildas, Tudwal, Samson, and Maelgwn (later king of Gwynedd), amongst a host of others, including the heretic Pelagius, founder of the doctrine known as Pelagianism, are said to have studied at here.

Vale of Glamorgan
This veritable hotbed of religious schooling in the Vale of Glamorgan was responsible for producing many of the 'Saint's Lives' which contain some of the earliest reference to Arthur. He appears in the Lives of Padarn, Carannog, Illtud, Gildas, Cadog, Goueznou and Euflamm. [4]

Typically, in these Saint's tales Arthur is depicted as somewhat of a tyrant, usually at odds with the church. In this earliest stratum of the legend Arthur is portrayed as:

“....a defender of his country against every kind of danger, both internal and external: a slayer of giants and witches, a hunter of monstrous animals ........ giant boars, a savage cat monster, a winged serpent (or dragon) ….... and also, as it appears from Culhwch and Preiddeu Annwn, a releaser of prisoners. This concept is substantiated from all the early sources: the poems Pa Gur and Prieddeu Annwn, the Triads, the Saint's Lives, and the Miribilia attached to the Historia Brittonum...” [5]

Clearly, in the earliest Arthurian literature we are dealing with mythology rather than history. However, it is the Vita Gildae of Caradoc of Llancarfan, written in the first quarter of the 12th century, that concerns us here. In this tale we find a version of the early Welsh tale of the rescue of Gwenhwyfar from an Otherworld Isle of Glass of Melwas. This account may provide the background to Ymddiddan Melwas ac Gwenhwyfar (The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhyfer), dated on linguistic evidence to the 12th century, or both may independently refer to a common exemplar.

Caradoc recounts how Gwenhwyfar was kidnapped by Melwas, king of the "Summer Country" (Aestiva Regio), generally agreed as meaning Somerset, but this is based on an incorrect understanding of the term. Whereas we can agree that the Latin 'aestiva' means 'summer', 'regione'  is plural for 'regio' in a geographical sense meaning 'district, region', or 'lands'. Therefore a preferable etymology of 'aestiva regione' would be 'summer lands' or more correctly 'land of summer'. The Celtic Otherworld is often described as being a land of paradise, happiness, and eternal summer and this is exactly how Chrétien describes his Isle de Voirre in Eric et Enide.

Isles of the Dead
This Otherworld was thought to be similar to the Elysium of Greek mythology and believed to be located on an island in the Western Sea in the area of the setting sun. A place where there was no sickness, old age or death, a place of eternal happiness and in Irish mythology variously called Tír na mBeo ("Land of the Living"), Mag Mell ("Delightful Plain"), and Tír na nÓg ("Land of Youth").

Isles of the Blessed
We noted above in Chrétien de Troyes' Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart, that on immediately crossing the Sword Bridge to the Land of Gorre, the knight immediately encountered king Bademagu in his tower. In the Isle Of Glass this can be no less than the Tower of Glass. One of the earliest literary references we have to a glass tower in the ocean appears in the 9th century Historia Brittonum:

“Long after this, the Scots arrived in Ireland from Spain. The first that came was Partholomus, with a thousand men and women, these increased to four thousand; but a mortality coming suddenly upon them, they all perished in one week. The second was Nimech, the son of …..who, according to report, after having his ships shattered, arrived at a port in Ireland, and continuing there several years, returned at length with his followers to Spain. After these came three sons of a Spanish soldier with thirty ships, each of which contained thirty wives; and having remained there during the space of a year, there appeared to them, in the middle of the sea, a tower of glass, the summit of which seemed covered with men, to whom they often spoke, but received no answer. At length they determined to besiege the tower; and after a year's preparation, advanced towards it, with the whole number of their ships, and all the women, one ship only excepted, which had been wrecked, and in which were thirty men, and as many women; but when all had disembarked on the shore which surrounded the tower, the sea opened and swallowed them up.”

This episode immediately brings to mind the classic Celtic story of a raid on the Otherworld to retrieve the magic cauldron. Remnants of this tale appear in Preiddeu Annfwn (Spoils of Annwn), the  Second Branch of the Mabinogi and Cuwlwch and Olwen. The cauldron is wrested by the deity Bran, the Blessed, in The Second Branch, the Mabinogi of Branwen, substituting Arthur from Preiddeu Annfwn. But there is also a wrested Irish cauldron in Culhwch and Olwen. In the latter of these two accounts of the raid on the Otherworld has became on a raid on Ireland showing its similarity to the story of the glass tower from the Historia Brittonum passage on the peopling of Ireland.

It is possible that Ireland may have been perceived as a kind of "Otherworld" in Welsh lore, an island to the west, which would explain the Irish name given to the first mention of the fortress, Caer Siddi, in the Spoils of Annwn. Indeed, this Arthurian poem shares the episode of the of the difficulty of conversing with three score watchmen on the wall in the Historia Brittonum. These are clearly the souls of the dead; in Celtic mythology the supernatural cauldron has the power to bring the dead back to life but without the power of speech. The indications here seem quite clear; a raid on the Otherworld by Arthur and his retinue to retrieve a supernatural cauldron; the Celtic cauldron of plenty was never empty and supplied great quantities of food and the cauldron of rebirth brought slain warriors to life again. As we in Part IV: White Phantom, many of Arthur's possessions, including his wife Gwenhwyfar, came from the Otherworld.

The Historia Brittonum passage also states that only one ship survived; Spoils of Annwn recalls that none, save seven returned from three full shiploads of Arthur's ship Prydwen and the Mabinogi of Branwen reveals that only seven men survived with Bran. The abduction epsiode in Caradoc's Vita Gildae has the same Otherworldly adventure feel about it; a journey to the Isle of Glass. Indeed, in the Vita Gildae, Saint Gildas has come down to the Land of Summer from the Orcades in the North. Orcades is usually referred to as the Orkney Isles but Orcus is yet another name for the Otherworld.

Ancient geographers on the journey to Thule referred to passing by 'Orc Island,' or 'Innis Orc' to use the old Gaelic name. However, this name may have originated from the tales of superstitious mariners referring to Islands of the Dead at the far ends of the ocean rather than a physical place. Consider the account of the 6th century historian Procopius of Caesarea who recorded that many people had told him that the inhabitants of an island off the coast of Brittia was where the souls of the dead are ferried. Brittia is interpreted by many historians to mean Britain.

It is seemingly not of Celtic origin as 'Orca' is the Latin name for a sea creature, nowadays applied to the killer whale. The Latin  word 'Orc' has the literal meaning of 'the dead, death,' or the 'underworld.' In Roman mythology we find Orcus was a god of the underworld, punisher of broken oaths. The Romans sometimes conflated Orcus with other gods such as Pluto, Hades, and Dis Pater, all deities of the land of the dead. Therefore, Orcus can mean both 'the underworld' or 'the god of the underworld.' Thus, Orcades may refer to the island abode of Orcus, god of the dead.

In some mythologies it is common to find the Otherworld is located in the north. Remnants of this belief seem to have perpetuated into Celtic mythology; in Cuhwhch and Olwen, Arthur went to the North to resolve the issue with Gwyn and Gwrythr; later in Cuhwhch Arthur travels to Uffern, in the north, to obtain the blood of the Very Black Witch. Gwyn is there also. Uffern is used as another name for the Otherworld in Spoils of Annwn.

“Said Arthur, "Is there any one of the marvels yet unobtained?" Said one of his men, "There is--the blood of the witch Orddu, the daughter of the witch Orwen, of Pen Nant Govid, on the confines of Hell." Arthur set forth towards the North, and came to the place where was the witch's cave. And Gwyn ab Nudd, and Gwythyr the son of Greidawl, counselled him to send Kacmwri, and Hygwyd his brother, to fight with the witch”. [6]

Gwyn ap Nudd's association with the Otherworld is beyond doubt. In Part III: White, The Winter King we saw that in abducting Creiddylad, Gwyn takes the place of Hades in the Greek Persephone myth. In the medieval tales this role has been passed on to Melwas, or his later namesakes.

In the poem The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir from the Black Book of Carmarthen, Gwyn is described as “the hope of armies” and boasts how he has been where the soldiers of Britain were slain. This would appear to be  a reference to his role as psychopomp, escort of the souls of the dead. The poem also recalls how he witnessed a conflict before Caer Vandwy, yet another Otherworldy fortress named in the Spoils of Annwn.



1. Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, Erec and Enide, trans. Carleton W Carroll, Penguin Books, 1991, pp.37-122.
2. Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot), trans. William W Kibler, Penguin Books, 1991, pp.215-246.
3. Constantius' Life of St. Germanus, written about fifty years after the death of the saint, makes no mention of any school founded by him or indeed his presence in Wales. As ever with these early Saints tales we must exercise caution in considering their historical value.
4. For translations see: John B. Coe and Simon Young (ed. and trans.), The Celtic Sources for the Arthurian Legend, Llanerch, 1995. For discussion of the Saints’ Lives see B.F. Roberts, ‘Culhwch ac Olwen, the Triads, Saints’ Lives’, in R. Bromwich et al, The Arthur of the Welsh, Welsh University Press 1991, and Oliver J Padel, Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature, University of Wales Press, 2000.
5. R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, editors, Culhwch and Olwen. An edition and study of the oldest Arthurian tale, Welsh University Press, 1992, pp. Xxviii-xxix.
6. Ibid.

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