Tuesday 11 April 2023

Geoffrey of Monmouth influence on the Arthurian Legend

“Culhwch and Olwen is an important tale in many respects. It is one of our earliest sources for information about the native Arthur, a repository of lore about characters from Celtic tradition, many of whom are otherwise unknown, and a mine of legal idioms of Celtic provenance. It is part myth, part folklore, and its language ranges from simple lists and catalogs to exuberant and alliterative passages in a high rhetorical style.”1

The date of the composition of Culhwch and Olwen has been accepted as the late 11th century for many years. Recently this dating has been challenged with a suggested date of the mid-12th century. Why does the date matter? The significance of these two dates means the text could have been composed either before (c.1100) Geoffrey of Monmouth produced his History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae), c.1138, or shortly after (c.1150).

The impact that Geoffrey’s work had on the development of the Arthurian legend cannot be overstated, presenting a watershed moment. Texts produced before Geoffrey, and therefore considered free of his influence, are known as pre-Galfridian (from the Latin, Galfridus Monemutensis). The Arthur presented in later medieval texts, after Geoffrey, the knight in shining armour that the world is most familiar with, is a far cry and a world away from the man of earlier works before publication of the Historia Regum Britanniae (HRB).

However, at the time not everyone was convinced of Geoffrey’s claimed history of the kings of Britain; several contemporary historians accused him of making it all up and telling lies. It is difficult to substantiate many of Geoffrey’s claims; much of his work can be found in no other source which does indeed suggest that he used his creative talents to the full for much of his Arthurian story. However, there are still those today who use the HRB to reconstruct fanciful Arthurian histories and believe Geoffrey had in his possession a lost book

Before publication of Geoffrey’s Historia, Arthur was recorded as a soldier in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (aka Nennius), our earliest securely datable text in the argument for his historical existence, the battle leader (dux bellorum) of the armies of the kings of Britain, considered by most to be fighting Saxons in twelve victorious battles. However, around the same time Arthur was associated with supernatural marvels such as hunting the  giant boar Twrch Trwyth (or ‘porcum Troynt’ in the Historia Brittonum) and the ever-changing size of the grave of his son, Amr.

Arthur the soldier, rather than the boar hunter, is clearly the man that Geoffrey developed to become king and emperor, an international warlord and conqueror of much of northern Europe, even defeating the mighty Roman war machine in Gaul. After Geoffrey, the Arthurian legend was developed further in the Matter of Britain, Arthur largely relegated to the sidelines with his knights taking centre stage in stories including the Grail, The Lady of the Lake, Merlin, The Round Table, The Sword in the Stone and so on in a cycle of legends to become virtually unrecognisable from the soldier of the Historia Brittonum. As Thomas Green states:

“Geoffrey’s work, although titled a history and certainly a masterpiece by any standard, is highly inventive and cannot be considered to be in any way a reliable source of evidence for the history of the periods it describes or the existence of its subjects, as is now usually acknowledged. It is too late, too legendary, too untrustworthy and too full of evidence for it having been constructed and written with a strong and guiding authorial viewpoint, to have any value in these regards.”2

Significantly, it is the pre-Galfridian texts, those sources which were written before the Historia Regum Britanniae, that modern historians accept as reliable and useful in searching for the original Arthur. Green continues, “Allowing all this, there are, in fact, only four pieces of evidence which are generally agreed to possibly contain information of real historical value: the Annales Cambriae; the Historia Brittonum; the collection of heroic death-songs known as Y Gododdin; and the four or five occurrences of the name Arthur in sixth- and seventh-century contexts.”3

Clearly, these two branches of literature describe two very different Arthur’s; Geoffrey’s version, and the Arthur of native Welsh tradition. Geoffrey’s Arthur, he claimed, was based on historical material but thereafter developed into a figure of literature, whereas the earlier Arthur of Welsh tradition exhibited traits that had more in common with mythology than history.

From the 7th to 10th centuries, in Welsh tradition as portrayed in poetry and prose tales, Arthur is remembered as the great defender of the country, fighting witches, giants, magical boars, raiding the Otherworld. He is also a figure of immeasurable valour who great warriors are compared to in the early poems Y Goddodin (7th century), Marwnad Cynddylan (7th century) Geraint fab Erbin (9th century).4

In other early poems, ‘Pa gur yv y porthaur?’ (What man is the gatekeeper?) (10th century) and Preiddeu Annwn (9th century or earlier) Arthur is accompanied by gods from the Celtic pantheon, such as Gwynn ap Nudd, Lugh (Llwch Windy(?) Hand), Manawydan son of Llŷr, Mabon son of Mydron (listed in Pa gur as ‘Uthr Pendragon’s servant’). To this we can add the long list of heroes recalled by Culhwch (the so-called ‘Court List’) to invoke his boon which provides a valuable record of the nature of the early Arthurian context.5

Cei, Arthur’s constant companion from the very earliest accounts, is portrayed in Culhwch and Olwen as a semi-divine figure possessing superhuman abilities: “he could hold his breath under water for nine days and nine nights; a wound from Cei no doctor could heal; he could be as tall as the tallest tree in the forest when he wanted; whenever it was raining whatever he held in his hand would be dry; and when his companions were coldest he would be fuel to kindle their fire”. Clearly, these are not the abilities of a mere mortal.

As Patrick Ford reminds us, we should remember that despite its title, the tale of Culhwch and Olwen is essentially Arthurian and a collection of anecdotes about various heroes associated with Arthur’s court at Celliwig in Cornwall. This is a primitive court (Celliwig = ‘forest grove’) nothing like the grandiose setting we find in later Arthurian Romance of English, Continental and even Welsh tradition.6 It is worth noting is that although Geoffrey of Monmouth has Arthur’s conception and final battle, in which he is mortally wounded, both in Cornwall (perhaps he was familiar with a strand of the legend from south-west Britain?), he located Arthur’s court at Caerleon in south Wales. 

The HRB had huge influence on literature and oral tradition on Arthur in Wales, as elsewhere in Europe; the earliest Welsh versions of Geoffrey’s Historia, known as the Brut (collectively known as Brut y Brenhinedd = 'Chronicle of the Kings'), date from about the mid-13th century - hence, there is no evidence that Geoffrey’s history of the kings of Britain was translated into the vernacular until almost a century after its composition c.1138.

In accepting the later date proposed for the composition of Culhwch and Olwen by Rodway, i.e. c.1150, we find it is still earlier than the native Welsh tales The Dream of Rhonabwy and The Three Romances, also from the Mabinogion collection, which are all generally accepted as later than Geoffrey in date of composition (13th century) and all clearly display Galfridian influence.

If Idris Foster’s earlier date (c.1100) is accepted for the composition date of Culhwch and Olwen it can securely be considered free of Geoffrey’s influence but conversely, if Rodway’s later date is accepted we must consider the possibility of his influence on the text. Several points have been raised as portraying possible influence by Geoffrey. However, many commentators see the “crudity of tone” as representing the primitive pre-Galfridian concept of Arthur and his court. 

If the prose tale Culhwch and Olwen cannot be proven to predate the Historia Regum Britanniae is it possible to have a text post-dating it that is free of its influence? The tale is certainly independent of Galfridian influence in terms of content and represents Arthurian tradition before the great developments which are seen in Geoffrey’s work and in continental Arthurian literature.7

The editors of Culhwch and Olwen8 Bromwich and Evans have applied caution in seeing the tale as entirely free of Geoffrey’s influence and suspect several influences to have crept in to the text through the Brut, which as we have seen above, were written a hundred years before the Red and White book versions of the tale were composed.

JSP Tatlock, considered an authority on Geoffrey’s legendary history, argued for a post-Galfridian dating for Culhwch and Olwen and saw several elements of the tale deriving from it,9 such as: 

    • Arthur's weapons: sword, dagger, shield, lance and ship.

    • Arthur's wife: Gewnhyfwar 

    • The Gatekeepers recital: Arthur's invasion of Ireland / Conquest of Europe

    • The Three Realms of Ynys Prydein

In addition to to the above other possible influences have been mentioned:

    • Collecting Beards of Giants: Dillus Farfawg (CaO) = Ritho (HRB)

    • Appeal of the Irish Saints (CaO) = Appeal of Scottish bishops (HRB)

    • Arthur chases Modred to Cornwall (HRB) = Arthur chases Twrch Twyrth to Cornwall (CaO)

In the following posts we will examine each of these points in turn.

Notes & References:
1.  Patrick K Ford, translator and editor, Culhwch and Olwen, in The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales,  University of California Press, 1977 (30th Anniversary Edition, 2008), pp.119-157.
2. Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007, p.10.
3. Green, Concepts, p.12.
4. Patrick Sims-Williams, The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems, in Rachel Bromwich, A.O.H. Jarman, Brynley F. Roberts (editors) Arthur of the Welsh, University of Wales Press, Second Edition, 2008, pp.33-72, states that the “difficulty of dating the Arthurian poems is still as severe as Jackson described it in 1959. …… secular and religious poems in Welsh were being written down at least as early as the first half of the tenth century, but the earliest extant poetic codex, the Black Book of Carmarthen, is no older than the thirteenth century…… contemporary manuscript evidence for early Irish and Welsh texts consists almost exclusively of glosses and short prose notes;……  Consequently early Welsh poems preserved in later poetic codices have to be dated partly by linguistic comparison with the Old Welsh glosses — a perilous exercise in view of the difference in genre and transmission — and partly on the basis of internal evidence of content and authorship.”(p.35)
5. Ford, The Mabinogion, p.121.
6. Ibid.
7. D Edel, The Arthur of 'Culhwch and Olwen' as a figure of epic-heroic tradition. Reading Medieval Studies IX, 1983.
8. Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen: The Oldest Arthurian Tale, University of Wales Press, 1992.
9. JSP Tatlock The Legendary History of Britain, University of California Press, 1950.

* * *