Friday 31 March 2023

Dating Culhwch: Manuscripts and Monarchs

The Date and Authorship of Culhwch and Olwen -Part II

"When one turns to observe the Welsh situation one is struck by the very different profile presented by the vernacular literature before approximately the end of the twelfth century. On the one hand there is a relatively substantial series of verse texts, assigned more or less securely to certain historical and chronological settings and beginning with the north-British compositions attributed to the sixth-century poets Aneirin and Taliesin; on the other hand, there is a total absence of narrative prose before the tales of Culhwch ac Olwen and the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, which are preserved in later manuscripts but are generally dated - very approximately it should be said - to the early and late eleventh century respectively." 1

Manuscript Dates

In the previous article Culhwch’s World: Giant Boars, Gatekeepers and Werewolves it was noted that the composition of the Medieval Welsh prose tale ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ consists of several archaic episodes brought together as an extended narrative in the well-known folklore theme of ‘The Giant’s Daughter’. Culhwch and Olwen is the longest and the earliest of the surviving native prose tales written in medieval Welsh preserved within the Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest) and the White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch). The closeness of the texts indicates that these variants represent a single recension.


The Red Book manuscript (Oxford, Jesus College, MS 111) was copied in the last quarter of the 14th century and contains a complete version of Culhwch and Olwen with a modernised text. The White Book manuscript was copied in the mid-14th century and contains a compendium of Welsh prose texts, now divided into two volumes, Peniarth MS 4 and Peniarth MS 5. The first volume contains the earliest copies of Middle Welsh tales collectively known as the Mabinogion in modern usage, consisting of 'The Four Branches’, 'The Dream of Macsen Wledig', 'Lludd and Llefelys', 'Peredur',  ‘Owain, or The Lady of the Fountain', 'Geraint and Enid' and an incomplete version of Culhwch and Olwen (here-on referred to as ‘CaO’).

Brynley Roberts argued that these stories are generally assumed to derive from traditional oral narratives recited by professional story-tellers to audiences in courts and aristocratic houses. However, he added that in their manuscript versions “none can be regarded simply as written, almost verbatim, copies of an orally performed text, and in every case, though to different degrees, they are literary compositions based on antecedent traditional narratives and reflecting some of their conventions”.2

Although the dating of these manuscripts is relatively secure within a margin, the dating of any work of literature can be problematic. The work may have been updated by copyists when the manuscript was rewritten, errors produced during copying are often evidence of this; accordingly, the work rarely shares the same date as the manuscript. But we must apply caution as some later poets have been known to use archaic language to purposefully mimic an ancient period or tone. 

As Proinsias Mac Cana states, "The criteria for dating these Middle Welsh tales are far from being clear-cut or decisive, and inevitably one must have regard to their relative as well as their absolute dating. In view of its older linguistic usage and vocabulary it is generally accepted that Culhwch ac Olwen was composed - in its extant form, as the provisio goes - some time before the Four Branches. Ifor William concluded that the latter were written c. 1060, but .... many scholars would prefer a less precise date, such as ‘the second half of the eleventh century’.....[one] assigns Culhwch to c. 1100. However, even if there is less than unanimity concerning the dating of the individual tales, there is, I think, universal agreement that Culhwch is the earliest of them in the form in which we have them."3

The French historian and Celtic linguist Joseph Loth argued for a composition date for CaO of the later 11th or early 12th century. In The Legendary History of Britain2 John (JSP) Tatlock claimed that Loth’s case was based on a weak argument, stating that on linguistic matters Loth rejected "several ancient-looking forms as without significance" and mentioned others such as the "archaizing of Welsh poetry in the 12th century" and offered only a single example which Tatlock considered convincingly of very early date.4

In their magisterial work Culhwch and Olwen: The Oldest Arthurian Tale5 Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans assert that all the evidence points to the last decades of the 11th century as the most likely date for the redaction of CaO in a form approaching that in which we now have it. Following Idris Foster they reaffirm the significance of the landing of Gruffydd ap Cynan at Porth Clais in the late 11th century in the dating of the prose tale.

Cantref of Cemais

A revival of interest in the countries past witnessed the cultivation of a new genre of prose which seemed to influence a cultural renaissance in Wales during the 9h -11th centuries. Bromwich and Evans claim this is reflected in CaO which shares a similar tone with more than one of the Lives of the Saints indicating a similar date, arguing that the language of CaO is archaic and belongs to the end of the Old Welsh (OW) period, showing a similar language to early poetry.6

Conceding that the text of CaO cannot be dated precisely, a composition date of c.1100 is certainly possible although it must be accepted that the tale has certainly received minor alterations and additions by later copyists since that date; as stated above, the version in the Red Book manuscript has been somewhat modernised in relative terms. There are even arguments for an earlier date, mid-11th century or even 10th century.7

This date of c.1100 has been accepted for the last hundred years or so without being seriously questioned. Recently this dating has been challenged and the early composition questioned, with the suggestion that these texts reached their current form in the late-12th or early-13th centuries, with revisions occurring up to the early-14th century.8

Simon Rodway of Aberystwyth University argues that the approximate date of 1100 has achieved “almost canonical status” perhaps, he adds, because it was the conclusion of Welsh and Celtic scholar Idris Foster of Oxford University who spent much of his professional life working on the text.9 Foster’s work forms the basis of the standard edition by Bromwich and Evans.10

St David's Cathedral

King William’s Visit to Wales
Rodway continues, claiming that the early date seems to have been influenced by historical events in Pembrokeshire in the second-half of the 11th century; it was Foster who initially suggested that two deliberate points in the text of CaO refer to events in 1081. In that year Gruffydd ap Cynan landed at Porth Clais and William the Conqueror made a well known pilgrimage to St David’s, an event that probably influenced the inclusion “Gwilenhin, king of France” in the text.

There are three kings of France listed in CaO: Iona king of France (otherwise unknown); Paris king of France, (whom the author claims ‘Caer Paris’ is named); and Gwilhenin king of France. The Breton Duke Alan Fyrgant (or Fergant) who both Loth and Tatlock identify as the 11th - 12th century Duke of Brittany Alan Fyrgant also appears in CaO as ‘Ysperni son of Fflergant, king of Armorica’.

Tatlock argues that there is every reason why Alan Fyrgant should have been known in Britain as his was son-in-law of William the Conqueror (Gwilhenin king of France) and ally of Henry I in 1106. The close association of the two seems to confirm that in CaO Gwilhenin is meant to represent William I. As Tatlock asserted, while some of the personal names used in CaO are merely traditional and some invented others are clearly historical.

Evidently Alan Fyrgant was well-known in Welsh tradition and is named in the Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) in the Three Faithless / Disloyal War-Bands of the Island of Britain. This Triad records how the war band of Fyrgant deserted him during the night and left him to fight with only his servants at Camlan where he died. This may be an allusion to the so-claimed Breton retreat at the battle of Hastings. Significantly, neither Arthur or Modred, who both fell at Camlan according to the 10th century Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae), appear in this Triad from the earliest series found in the Peniarth 16 manuscript.

The reference to Alan Fyrgant may be significant in dating of the composition of the Triad and although this could post date Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia, the absence of Modred certainly suggests it is free of Galfridian influence; the tangle of Modred, Gwenhyfar and Camlan is completely absent from pre-Galfridian sources.11

This supports Simon Rodway’s argument that a text that post dates Geoffrey can be free of his influence. However, Loth offered only one French word in CaO believing that the absence of French customs and manners indicated a date of no later than the beginning of the 12th century. Tatlock suggested to Loth’s single occurrence we could add the French names of France, Iona and Gwilenhin (Jehan, or Johan, and Guillaume). He also argued for the content and spirit of the text being relatively modern and less archaic than in the Four Branches, which Loth dates later.12

In CaO one of the tasks stipulated by the chief giant is that Culhwch must obtain the aid of Gwilenhin to hunt the boar Twrch Trwyth. Gwilenhin does indeed join the hunt but was killed by the boar at Aber Tywi. Who knows, perhaps the inclusion of an allusion to King William just to have him killed by the giant boar shows the author’s disdain for the Normans who were encroaching into Wales around this time.

In the same year that William visited St David’s, Gruffudd ap Cynan's returned from exile in Ireland landing at Porth Clais on his way to victory at the battle of Mynydd Carn. This is the exact same landing place as the giant boar Twrch Trwyth made on his arrival in Wales from Ireland in CaO.

Gruffudd ap Cynan was a descendant of the rulers of Gwynedd and seeing himself as the rightful heir had previously made an attempt to take the kingdom but was defeated by Trahaearn ap Caradog in 1075 and went into exile in Ireland. Gruffudd assembled an invasion force of Danes and Irishmen and sailed from Waterford in Ireland in 1081. He landed at Porth Clais and joined forces with Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of Deheubarth at St David’s making a pact to regain his territories.

The exact location of the battle of Mynydd Carn is unknown but is said to have taken place about a day's march north of St David's. Gruffydd and Rhys won the battle with Gruffudd taking control of Gwynedd and Rhys regained Deheubarth securing his position as the dominant Welsh ruler in South and West Wales. Gruffydd and Rhys would later take an active role in Welsh resistance to the Normans. King William acknowledged Rhys as ruler of Deheubarth, but he was required to pay the Norman monarch an annual tribute. Gruffudd was captured by Hugh the Fat of Chester and imprisoned for 12 years, but eventually escaped and reigned until 1137 becoming one of the most successful rulers of Gwynedd. 

Mynydd Carningli

Bromwich and Evans consider the route of the Trwch Twyrth through south Wales similar to that of Gruffudd after he landed at Porth Clais; after landing at Porth Clais the Twrch Trwyth made for the Preseli Hills, which is "about a day's march north of St David's".

However, as stated above, the site of the battlefield of Mynydd Carn remains undetermined, although all the sources appear to agree that the battlefield was located on high ground marked by a prominent cairn. The battlefields inventory states that “the location of the battle somewhere in northern Pembrokeshire within the Cantref of Cemais (possibly in the vicinity of the range of hills between the north Pembrokeshire coast and the Afon Gwaun represented by Mynydd Carningli, Mynydd Llanllawer and Mynydd Dinas).”13

Archaic Language
Gruffudd ap Cynan’s landing at Porth Clais in and the route to Mynydd Carn does seem remarkably similar to the route of the Twrch Trwyth, and may well have provided inspiration for the author of CaO, but this does not necessarily confirm a composition date around the end of the 11th century. Commentators have also noted archaic-looking features in the language of the text. Bromwich and Evans claim that the language of CaO belongs to the end of the Old Welsh period - considered to extend to the mid-12th century.

Brynley Roberts argues for the White Book version containing many linguistic and syntactic archaisms, which sits well with Welsh saga englynion and early court poetry suggesting that the final written version of the CaO does indeed belong to the same period as this poetry, that is around 1100. Roberts adds that “crudity of tone and archaic social and legal customs may be further evidence of an early date as none of the other mabinogion stories lacks so completely conventional signs of civilized relationships.”14

The orthography of the White Book version has certain ‘quirks’ as Rodway calls them, (largely removed from the Red Book version) but, he argues, there are very few Old Welsh orthographical features or errors as such that would suggest a misreading of an Old Welsh exemplar. However, Rodway concedes that the language of the text is certainly archaic when compared to other prose tales which postdate it. He continues, that when the language of the tale is compared to datable poetry it is apparent that it could have been composed as late as the second-half of the 12th century. 

Rodway reminds us that the orthographical revolution which marked the transition from Old Welsh to Middle Welsh was at least partly triggered by contact with the Old French orthography of the Norman-sponsored Cistercian abbeys such as Tintern (1131) and Whitland (1140) that were quickly adopted by the native princes.

Rodway contends that there is nothing in the language of the text of CaO which demands its date to be determined as the turn of the 11-12th centuries, indeed, he sees nothing in the language which would push it back conclusively to the 11th century and argues there are "convincing orthographical arguments" for pushing its date forward by some fifty years at least. Rodway believes that there is convincing orthographical evidence for a date in the second half of the 12th-century. If Rodway is correct and the tale was composed as late as the mid-12th century it would of course postdate Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. However, even with an uncertain date it is significant that most scholars are in agreement that the text of CaO is free of Galfridian influence.15

The Historia Regum Britanniae, a work that traced the descent of the Britons back to Brutus the Trojan and changed Arthurian literature across Europe, was published around 1138 and immediately became what we would term today as “a bestseller”. Its influence on subsequent Arthurian literature in Wales and further afield was so prevalent that, as Rodway argues, there has been a reluctance to accept that an Arthurian text composed in the post-Galfridian period, that is after 1138, would be free of its influence.

Geoffrey’s work was immensely influential in Wales with adaptations of his Historia, known as Brut y Brenhinedd (Chronicle of the Kings), produced from the mid-13th century. The Brut was so popular that over sixty versions survive. However, these were not straight forward translations of Geoffrey’s work into Welsh; they largely followed the original Latin but contained additional information by way of marginal glosses and extra commentary, name and geographic corrections.

Although Foster came to the conclusion that CaO was composed c.1100, he argued that there is no perceptible influence from Geoffrey of Monmouth in the portrayal of Arthur and his court. And there has been very little dissension since.

Tatlock, considered an authority on Geoffrey’s Historia, cites several themes in CaO that may have derived from influence of Geoffrey.16 Bromwich and Evans have applied a more cautious approach but concede that Geoffrey’s influence may be detectable through the Welsh Brut.17 Although these versions first appeared in Wales around a hundred years after Geoffrey’s Historia, the earliest versions of the Brut are dated about a hundred years prior to the White or Red Book versions of Culhwch and Olwen.

Dating potential for Galfridian influence on Culhwch and Olwen

c.1100 - composition of Culhwch and Olwen (Foster, Bromwich and Evans)
c.1138 – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae
1150 – composition of Culhwch and Olwen (Rodway)
1250 - Earliest Brut composed
1350-80 – composition of White and Red Book manuscripts respectively.

Notes and References:
1. Proinsias Mac Cana, On the early development of written narrative prose in Irish and Welsh, Etudes Celtiques, vol. 29, 1992, pp. 51-67.
2. Brynley F. Roberts, Culhwch Ac Olwen, The Triads, Saints’ Lives, in The Arthur Of The Wel Sh: The Arthurian Legend In Medieval Welsh Literature, Edited By Rachel Bromwich, A.O.H. Jarman, Brynley F. Roberts, University of Wales Press, 1991, pp.73.
3. Proinsias Mac Cana, On the early development of written narrative prose in Irish and Welsh
4. JSP Tatlock The Legendary History of Britain, University of California Press, 1950.
5. Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen: The Oldest Arthurian Tale, University of Wales Press, 1992.
6. Bromwich & Evans, CaO, UWP, 1992, Introduction pp.lxxxi-lxxxii.
7.  D Edel, The Arthur of 'Culhwch and Olwen' as a figure of epic-heroic tradition. Reading Medieval Studies IX, 1983.
8. Simon Rodway, The Date and Authorship of Culhwch and Owen: A Reassessment, CMCS 49, Summer 2005, pp.21-44.
9. Rodway Ibid.
10. Bromwich & Evans, Culhwch & Olwen, UWP, 1992.
11. Rebecca Shercliff, Arthur in Trioedd Ynys Prydain  in Arthur in the Celtic Languages: The Arthurian Legend in Celtic Literatures and Traditions, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan & Erich Poppe (editors), UWP, 2019, pp.175-76.
12. Tatlock, Legendary History.
13.  RCAHMW, Battlefields Inventory, Jan 2017.
14. Brynley F. Roberts, Culhwch Ac Olwen, The Triads, Saints’ Lives, in The Arthur Of The Welsh: The Arthurian Legend In Medieval Welsh Literature, Edited By Rachel Bromwich, A.O.H. Jarman, Brynley F. Roberts, University of Wales Press, 1991, pp.73-74.
15. Simon Rodway, Culhwch ac Olwen, in Arthur in the Celtic Languages: The Arthurian Legend in Celtic Literatures and Traditions, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan & Erich Poppe (editors), UWP, 2019, pp.67-79.
16. Tatlock, Legendary History.
17. Bromwich & Evans, Culhwch & Olwen, UWP, 1992.

Edited 01/04/23

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Wednesday 8 March 2023

Culhwch’s World: Giant Boars, Gatekeepers and Werewolves

“The Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen is the oldest Arthurian tale that has been preserved in the manuscripts. The extant redaction has been dated to the second half of the eleventh century but its orthography, vocabulary, syntax, and, moreover, certain stylistic and narrative features, suggest that a written version of parts of it may have existed a century earlier.” 1

The Date and Authorship of Culhwch and Olwen -Part I
The Twrch Trwyth refused to give up the comb, razor and shears lodged between his ears requested by Arthur and pledged to go to Arthur's country and cause as much evil as he could. On the next day the gigantic boar left Ireland and landed at Porth Clais in Dyfed, south-west Wales. A cove at the mouth of the River Alun in St Bride’s Bay just south of St Davids still bears this name today.

Many years ago Celtic scholar John Rhŷs suggested that the hunt for the Twrch Trwyth across South Wales resembled an extended dindsenchas following a trail of swine-related place-names through the landscape. In Irish literature the dindsenchas, meaning "lore of places”, are onomastic texts recounting the origins of place-names and traditions, concerning events and often mythic and legendary figures associated with them. Perhaps an influence from Irish place-name stories should not be surprising as Porth Clais and St David's were places of passage between these two Celtic lands.

Hunting the great boar Twrch Trwyth, one of the tasks set by the chief giant Ysbaddaden for Culhwch to achieve if he were to marry his daughter Olwen, is without doubt the climax of the tale of Culhwch and Olwen. The scene of the hunt presents a detailed geography across South Wales from Pembrokeshire to the Severn estuary, revealing an author who must have possessed extensive knowledge of the area if not a local themself. Indeed, it has been noted that the language of the tale portrays a southern bias, however, this may be expected as the text is preserved only in southern manuscripts.

Hunting the Twrch Trwyth (Alan Lee)

The Path of the Boar
The tale of Culhwch and Olwen (here-on referred to as ‘CaO’) is preserved in two medieval manuscripts; an incomplete version in the White Book of Rhydderch, mid-14th century, where about a third of the final text is missing, and a complete version in the late-14th century Red Book of Hergest. The two versions seem to descend independently from a lost exemplar with neither manuscript ascribed to an author. Comparing the first two thirds of the two texts there is very little material difference but the language of the Red Book version has been consistently modernised; accordingly some of the linguistic features may reflect the language of the copyist rather than the author. Neither manuscript provides a title for the tale but a colophon included in the Red Book version states "and that is how Culhwch won Olwen daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr".

Both White and Red book manuscripts were compiled for patrons from south Wales, Ceredigion and Gower respectively. In both manuscripts CaO is grouped with other native tales that we know under the modern label 'Mabinogion' yet the tale of Culhwch displays the most archaic language of the collection.

Rachel Bromwich & D. Simon Evans argue that linguistic evidence points to an important monastic centre such as St David's, Carmarthen or Llandeilo Fawr in south-west Wales as the place of the authorship of CaO. They claim that comparisons can be made with the language spoken today in certain areas of south Wales, notably Pembroke, West Glamorgan and north Carmarthenshire and see the setting of CaO against the background of the language spoken in this area, relating it to a local scriptorium where such Old Welsh documents were written.2

This line of reasoning suggests that CaO was produced at a monastic centre which lay close to the route taken by the Twrch Trwyth. Seeing correspondence between the language of CaO and the further contents of the mid-13th century Black Book of Carmarthen, particularly the poem Pa Gur yw y Porthaur (What Man is the Gatekeeper?), (here-on referred to as ‘Pa Gur’) Bromwich and Evans see the priory at Carmarthen as the most likely place where the tale was inscribed and argue that CaO, like the Black Book, belongs to Carmarthen.3

The dialogue poem Pa Gur is the most substantial Arthurian work in the Black Book but is incomplete owing to some missing pages from the manuscript. It may be the remnant of a long Arthurian saga consisting of a catalogue of pre-existing folkloric tales but unfortunately many of these episodes are now lost to us. Pa Gur is then perhaps best seen as a summary of many earlier mythical Arthurian tales that have been assembled together to construct one poem and can consequently be taken as indicative of the nature of the Arthurian world in Welsh literature in the 9th-10th centuries’.4

It is apparent from the surviving part of the poem that Bedwyr and Cai, particularly the latter who is heavily featured in Pa Gur, are Arthur’s main accomplices. Throughout the early stratum of the Arthurian legend we find Bedwyr and Cai as Arthur’s constant companions; we see this in CaO, in the Welsh Triads and the Vita Sancti Cadoci. As Patrick Sims-Williams states the saint’s life is useful for dating purposes as it was composed by Lifris of Llancarfan c.1100, adding that a similar date and south-eastern provenance would suit Pa Gur.5

Sims-Williams has suggested that Pa Gur may have been written near the south-east Welsh border, the very area where the core of the Mirabilia are concentrated. He sees the inclusion of “the vultures of Ely and all three of them wizards" in the poem as key to identifying the location of its composition. The Afon Eléï (River Ely) rises at Tonyrefail and flows through the five valleys of the Rhondda Fawr, Rhondda Fach, Cynon, Taf and Ely of south-east Wales.6

If Sims-Williams is correct in locating the author of Pa Gur here it confirms a body of Arthurian lore was extant in this region from an early date, almost certainly circulating in oral form prior to the composition of the Arthurian battle list in Historian Brittonum. Indeed, if Pa Gur is the earlier text, which is probable, it is almost certain that the author of CaO knew of it.

The Battle of the Werewolves
There are similar allusions in both CaO and Pa Gur to a body of Arthurian episodes that are now lost to us but evidently the audience of the time were assumed to be familiar with.7 Furthermore we find that Pa Gur contains some overlap with CaO, both tales clearly reflecting an early mythological Arthur, fighting witches and supernatural monsters, a character of a similar vein to the Arthur of the Mirabilia.

The Mirabilia displays an Arthur in a supernatural world which appears to be at odds with the military exploits of the Arthur in the battles of the Historia Brittonum contained in the same manuscript. Here the dux bellorum is heralded as a historical figure who was the victorious leader of the Britons in twelve battles fighting back against the Saxon advance. But this two-fold Arthur of the Historia Brittonum and the Mirabilia is precisely the same as we find in CaO and Pa Gur.

In CaO the gatekeeper boasts of military exploits in which he has accompanied Arthur in various battles at such faraway places as Scandinavia, India, Africa, Greece and so on, and yet in the same text Arthur is fighting supernatural monsters such as giants, magical boar and witches. This is exactly what we find in the primary (pre-Galfridian) Arthurian traditions, which depict the great Arthur and his band of men as the mighty defenders of the land against every kind of danger.8

Significantly, in Pa Gur we find Arthur fighting at the battle of ‘traethev Trywruid’ (the shores of the Tryfrwyd) mentioned as Arthur’s 10th battle on the bank of a river called Tribruit in the Historia Brittonum.9 This the only battle from the Historia attributed to Arthur in a Welsh non-Galfridian early source and here it is recorded as a traditional Arthurian battle against werewolves.10 In an earlier passage in Pa Gur Arthur and his men are fighting against an army of ‘cinbin’ (dogheads) at the mountains of Eidin which is followed by the conflict at the river Tribruit where his adversary is called Garwlwyd (Rough-Grey).

In the Welsh Triads we find a character called Gwrgi Garwlwyd (Man-Dog Rough-Grey). He killed one of the Cymry everyday and two on Saturday to avoid killing on Sunday. This is clearly the same character as that of Pa Gur who here again features as a werewolf. As Thomas (Caitlin) Green suggests, this casts doubt on the value of the Historia and the authenticity of the Arthurian battle list therein as a historical source.11 As can be demonstrated with other battles in the list, here the battle at the river Tribruit appears to have been lifted from an earlier source (Pa Gur) and used in the creation of a catalogue of Arthurian victories (Historia Brittonum).

The Black Book of Carmarthen
(National Library of Wales)

The Grip of the Gatekeeper
Both Pa Gur and CaO contain an episode with a gatekeeper setting certain conditions before he admits one to the Court. In both accounts the gatekeeper is named as Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr (Bold Grey Mighty-Grasp). In CaO the guest (Culhwch) must convince the gatekeeper of his right to enter Arthur’s court, but in Pa Gur the role is reversed and it is Arthur who must get past the gatekeeper and gain entry, presumably to his own court? Cai meets a similar recalcitrant gatekeeper in CaO when he attempts to gain entry to the fortress of the giant Wrnach Gawr. Bromwich questions if Glewlwyd had originally been the gatekeeper at the court of the giant Wrnach Gawr?12

Arthur’s recital of his warriors in Pa Gur in order to gain entry to the court is reminiscent of the so-called ‘Court List’ in CaO. The relationship between Pa Gur and CaO proves to be problematic; besides Glewlwyd the gatekeeper, Arthur, Cai, and Bedwyr, a number of characters reappear in CaO, such as Mabon son of Modron and Mabon son of Mellt (perhaps the same person with matronymic and patronymic?), the sea-god Manawydan son of Llŷr and Lluch Llauynnauc/Llwch Llawwynnyawc, who is generally accepted as being the god Lugus (Irish Lugh, Welsh Lleu).

There is clearly further overlap here with the early poem Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn) from the 14th century Llyfr Taliesin (Book of Taliesin), in which Arthur and his retinue journey to the Otherworld in the ship Prydwen to steal the cauldron of the Chief of Annwn. Here we find the character Lluch Lleawc which may be a variant of Llwch Llawwynnawc (as above) from CaO. An 8th century date has been suggested for the poem but anywhere between the 9th and 12th century is probable.13

Considering the length of CaO and its inventories, around 250 characters appear in the ‘Court List’, a degree of overlap is perhaps not surprising. However, many characters and places in Pa Gur are not recalled in CaO and some prominent Arthurian characters are notably absent from the Court List.14

Amr, Arthur’s son as noted in the Mirabilia and appended to the 9th century Historia Brittonum, is not listed in the Court List; the nearest we get is an Amren son of Bedwyr. He may be identical with Hir Amren who appears in the episode of the Black Witch, but is not Arthur’s son. In CaO Arthur’s son is named as Gwydre who is killed by Twrch Trwyth at the battle of Cwm Cerwyn in the Preselis. After this fleeting mention in CaO Gwydre is unheard of again and unknown elsewhere.

Llachau, as with Cai and Bedwyr, belongs to the earliest stratum of Arthurian tradition in Wales, appearing as one of The Three Well-Endowed Men of the Island of Britain in the earliest series of Triads (Trioedd Ynys Prydein, Peniarth 16), in Pa Gur fighting alongside, or possibly against, Cai, and in the 13th century Black Book poem The Conversation between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, where he is mentioned as Arthur’s son, yet he is entirely absent from CaO. Llachau later appears as Loholt of Arthurian Romance.

Medrawd first appears in the 10th century Welsh Annals where he is recorded as falling at Camlann along with Arthur. From this simple chronicle entry it is impossible to know if he was fighting against or alongside Arthur. It is only in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Britain, and later texts influenced by that work, that he becomes Arthur’s arch-nemesis.

The absence of Medrawd and Arthur’s two sons Amr and Llachau from CaO supports the probability that this tale is older than the introduction of these characters in to the Arthurian legend.

As we have seen the tale of the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth, evidenced by the place-name story of Carn Gaffalt included in the 9th century Mirabilia, confirms the boar hunt was in existence before CaO was composed in its current form probably in the late 11th century.

The World of Culhwch

Clearly then, as a literary composition, CaO includes a number of earlier oral legendary Arthurian tales assembled together under the umbrella of the folklore tale-type known as the ‘giant’s daughter’ to create the tale as we know it. The most obvious examples of such pre-existing Arthurian tales incorporated into CaO are:
  • the tale of the boar hunt has been in existence since at least the 7th century as witnesses by an obscure reference to fighting the Twrch Trwyth in a river included in Y Goddodin; the original tale alluded to here may have involved Arthur and his men fighting with the boar in the river Severn as recorded in CaO,

  • the story of the hunting of the giant boar Twrch Trwyth has been associated with Arthur from at least as early as the 9th century on the evidence of the Mirabilia (appended to the Historia Brittonum) but must have existed as an oral tale many years before being written down probably in the previous century,
  • the concept of a mythical boar has its origins in pagan Celtic religious beliefs (note similar tales in Irish mythology),

  • In CaO Arthur travels to Ireland his ship Prydwen to seize the cauldron of Diwrnach Wyddel: "Caledfwlch was seized by Llenlleog Wyddel who swung it in a circle, killing Diwrnach Wyddel and his retinue entirely".
  • An identical scene is described in the 9th century (or earlier poem) Preiddeu Annwn when Arthur travels to the Otherworld in his ship Prydwen to seize the cauldron of the chief of Annwfyn:
    "The flashing sword of Lleawch, has been lifted to it.And in the hand of Lleminawc, it was left".
  • In Preiddeu Annwn Arthur journeys to the Otherworld to release the prisoner Gweir. 
    In CaO Arthur must release the prisoner Mabon son of Modron to hunt the Twrch Trwyth.
    Mabon tells us that "never has anyone been as imprisoned in an imprisonment as mournful as mine: neither the imprisonment of Llud Llaw Ereint, nor the imprisonment of Graid son of Eri."
    This is an allusion to a variant of Triad 52, The Three Exalted Prisoners, in which Mabon uab Modron is named as one of three famous prisoners along with Llŷy Llediaith and Gweir ap Geirioed.15

  • In these early tales Arthur’s companions are drawn from the pantheon of ancient gods: Mabon ap Modron (the Romano-British god Maponos and Modron is in all probability related to the Gaulish goddess Dea Matrona), who in CaO is clearly related to the Mabon ap Mellt from Pa Gur. In the same poem we have references to the sea-god Manawydan son of Llŷr and the god Lugus (Irish Lugh, Welsh Lleu).

As with the hunt for the Twrch Trwyth, the raid on the Otherworld features in several pieces of Arthurian literature. The repetition of these tales in early sources strongly suggests we are scratching the surface of the provenance of the Arthurian legend.

Notes & References:
1. D Edel, The Arthur of 'Culhwch and Olwen' as a figure of epic-heroic tradition. Reading Medieval Studies IX, 1983, pp. 3-15.
2. Culhwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale, introduction and notes by Rachel 'Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, University of Wales Press, (English edition) 1992.
Bromwich and Evans, who as editors of the preparatory material for an edition of this tale, which was left unfinished by the late Sir Idris Foster at his death, acknowledge their use of the work of Sir Idris including his unpublished MA dissertation ‘Astudiaeth o Chwcdl Culhwch ac Olwen’. completed in 1935.
3. Bromwich & Evans, Ibid., p.lxxxii-lxxxiii.
4. Brynley F Roberts, Culhwch ac Olwen, The Triads, Saints’ Lives, in Arthur of the Welsh, University of Wales Press, 2007, pp.73-96.
5. Patrick Sims-Williams, The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems, in Arthur of the Welsh, University of Wales Press, 2007, pp.33-72.
6. Ibid.pp.39-40.
7. Oliver Padel, Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature, University of Wales Press, (new edition) 2013, pp.11-25.
8. See: Thomas Green, Chapter 3: The Nature of Arthur: ‘a mighty defender’? in Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007, pp.93-130.
9. Padel, Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature, p.22
10. Thomas Green, Concepts, p.33
11. Ibid.
12. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, University of Wales Press, (Third Edition) 2006, p.362.
13. Sarah Higley (translator), Preiddeu Annwn: The Spoils of Annwn, from: The Camelot Project 2007, 
14. Patrick Sims-Williams, The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems.
15. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein.

Edited 09/03/23

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