Sunday, 3 February 2019

Prophetic Visions of the Past

Plotting Camlann: Letters from the Dead

Part IV

Arthur's Prophetic Dreams
In the 12th-century native Welsh tale The Dream of Rhonabwy Madog son of Maredudd, Prince of Powys, has sent out a hundred men in every three commots to search for his rebellious brother Iorwerth who has been raiding into England.

Rhonabwy, one of Madog’s retainers on the quest, along with Cynwig Frychgoch of Mawddwy and Cadwgan Fras from Moelfre in Cynllaith came to the house of Heilyn Goch whilst seeking somewhere to stay for the night. Rhonabwy and his two companions are put up in a blackhouse, a building shared with cattle in which the floor is covered in dung. Cynwig and Cadwgan sleep on a blanket spread across flea-infested straw and twigs. Rhonabwy settled down on a yellow ox-skin on a dias. As soon as Rhonabwy fell asleep he was granted a vision.

Rhonabwy dreamt he was journeying with his companions across the plain of Argyngroeg and his intent was towards Rhyd y Groes on the Severn. As they travelled they came across a rider who said he was Iddawc the son of Mynyo but better known through his nickname Iddog Cordd Prydain (Agitator of Britain). Iddawc transports them back in time to Arthur mustering his troops before the battle of Badon.

The yellow ox-hide appears to the trigger into the dream. In his Historia Regum Britanniae, c.1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth records a dream triggered by sleeping on an animal skin.

The goddess Artemis (Diana)
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain, landed at the island of Leogecia, and came to a Temple of Diana in a desolate city. That night he drank from a consecrated vessel filled with wine and the blood of a white hart, then spoke to the statue of Diana asking for guidance, he then laid down on a hart's skin before the altar at the Temple of Diana. During the night the goddess appeared to him and told him to go to an island in the western sea.

It is certainly possible that the author of Rhonabwy's Dream was influenced by Geoffrey. The storyteller refers to Medrawd as Arthur’s nephew, a relationship not mentioned in pre-Geoffrey Welsh tradition. Also in Rhonabwy’s Dream, Arthur is referred to as ‘Emperor’, again a term used by Geoffrey to describe the man who conquered most of Europe in his story.

However, it is significant that the storyteller of Rhonabwy used an ox-hide as it reflects the ritual of the Irish seers who would wrap themselves in an animal skin, preferably an ox-hide, alongside a waterfall or pool of water, in order to receive prophetic dreams and hidden knowledge.

It would appear that that medieval writers commonly made use of dreams for the delivery of predictions. As we have seen Geoffrey was fond of using a dream sequence to introduce prophetic visions into his story and feed his fascination with prophesy. For example, Arthur's dream of the ‘dragon and bear’ in Geoffrey's Historia recurs in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.

Malory’s Morte d’Arthur continued the use of dreams to introduce predictions in to his story some 400 years after Geoffrey’s Historia. In Morte d'Arthur there are four dreams; the first two are prophetic dreams in which King Arthur foresees his own end. In the first, Arthur is given a prophetic dream from Gawain. Arthur's army has pushed Mordred's army back to Salisbury Plain, where the two forces agree to meet in battle on the Monday following Trinity Sunday. The night before the battle, Arthur dreams that he's tied to a wheel that plunges into black water full of serpents and beasts. Gawain appears to Arthur and tells him that he will die the next day if he engages in battle with Mordred:

“God given me leave, for to warn you of your death; for an ye fight as to-morn with Sir Mordred, as ye both have assigned, doubt ye not ye must be slain, and the most part of your people on both parties."

Arthur’s second dream in Malory concerns the Questing Beast. The first accounts of this peculiar creature appear in the Perlesvaus and the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin. Malory followed the Post-Vulgate's account in his book in which the Questing Beast appears to King Arthur drinking from a pool shortly after he experienced a perturbing dream that foretells Mordred's destruction of the kingdom.

Other dreams in Malory also concern portends of death; Lancelot dreamed about the death of Queen Guinevere thrice in one night, and the fourth and final dream in Malory is by a bishop who sees the gates of heaven open for Lancelot following his death.

However, Rhonabwy’s Dream stands apart from all these Arthurian accounts, which are all essentially prophetic visions, in providing a glimpse in to the past; and while Irish seers used the ox-hide to gain visions of the future, Rhonabwy uses it, unwittingly, to receive a vision of a bygone time.

Early in the story Rhonabwy meets Iddawc, a messenger at the battle of Camlann, who spent seven years doing penance at Y Llech Las in Prydain (The Grey Rock in North Britain) for causing strife between Arthur and Medrawd by twisting their messages.

In the dream it is now at least seven years since Camlann, as Iddawc has completed his penance. He leads Rhonabwy to Rhyd y Groes where he meets Arthur preparing for the battle of Badon. The Historia Brittonum records twelve successful battles for Arthur, culminating in his greatest victory at Badon resulting in peace for a generation. In the Arthurian canon the battle of Camlann, Arthur’s final battle in which he is mortally wounded, occurs some twenty-one years after Badon. Such is the use of dreams in literature where the storyteller can break through boundaries and reverse the known chronology.

Who then is this Otherworldly guide who caused Arthur’s death and can transport Rhonabwy back to a time when Arthur is still alive?

Next >> Iddog, Agitator of Britain

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