Sunday 10 September 2023

Peredur: Mimicry and Denial

Part VI – Manuscript Muddles

In attempting to unravel the complex relationship between the Welsh tale of Peredur son of Efrog and Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, or Conte du Graal we must consider that in addition to the ‘standard’ version as found in the White Book of Rhydderch (c.1350) and the Red Book of Hergest (between 1382 and c.1400)  there is also two versions that are designated as incomplete ‘fragments’, deficient of some of the ‘standard’ text.1 One is found in MS Peniarth 14, which breaks off mid-sentence during Peredur's visit to his second uncle, and an earlier version found in MS Peniarth 7, which is deficient of the opening section and ends with Peredur ruling with the empress of Constantinople.

The Red Book version has been seen as a copy of the slightly older version from the White Book, however, others are of the opinion that they both derive from a common source. Traces of an earlier orthography have been identified in the Red Book which do not occur in the White Book making a common source possible but with the Red Book not being updated.2

The Grail Castle

Peniarth 14
A fragment of the text of Peredur son of Efrog is found in the manuscript Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth 14, typically dated to the first half of the 14th century. The Peniarth 14 version breaks off mid-sentence after Peredur’s visit to his first uncle with the remainder of the story missing from the manuscript. Peniarth 14 has often been assumed to be an intermediate version of the tale, evidence of a fluid text with development of the tale traceable between versions with scribes adding to the original text between manuscripts.

In truth, we will never know where Peniarth 14 ended and what is deficient from the manuscript or whether this version agrees with later manuscripts or whether it follows the shorter version found in Peniarth 7. However, it is recognised that the orthography of Peniarth 7 is the more archaic of the tale, with the latter manuscript versions somewhat modernised respectively.3

Peniarth 7
The earliest known version of the tale of Peredur is preserved in Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth 7 (hereafter Peniarth 7), usually dated c.1300. As we will see later, scholars rarely agree on the date of composition, a critical detail in determining whether the Welsh text is the chicken or the egg. This version has been considered a fragmented version deficient of some of the tale as there are leaves missing from the manuscript; it begins with Peredur’s meeting with the maiden at the pavilion on his way to Arthur’s court and ends with Peredur’s union with the empress of Constantinople, lacking the final adventures with the black, curly haired maiden leading to the Fortress of Wonders.

It is evident that the version of the tale in Peniarth 7 differs from that found in the White Book and Red Book, the ‘standard’ version. However, Peniarth 7 should not be considered a ‘short redaction’ of the standard version. Manuscript evidence indicates that Peniarth 7 was a complete version in its own right as it was at the time of composition.

The story ends after Peredur’s union with the Empress of Constantinople (Mary Williams and Brynley Roberts’ Part B as discussed in Part V: Peredur: Flower of Warriors, Candle of Knights with the scribe of Peniarth 7 indicating that his story ends here: 

“And thus ends the development of Peredur son of Efrawg”

This final statement is similar to that used in each of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi (“And so ends this branch of the Mabinogi”). Thus, it is a reasoned argument that the original text of Peniarth 7 was actually considered complete to this point. The fact that all other sections up to this point start and finish at Arthur’s court at Caerllion confirms this. See: Part III: Peredur: From Caerllion to Constantinople.

That Peniarth 7 represents a complete version (at its time of composition) is also in agreement with the argument presented by Mary Williams and Brynley Roberts that the first two sections of the tale (Parts A & B) may have been the original version. The final section (Part C - The Fortress of Wonders) as found in the two later manuscripts (Red Book and White Book), being a later addition by a different scribe, to align the first part of the text, i.e. the procession of bleeding spear and severed head (Part A), with Chrétien de Troyes’ Grail procession in the castle of the Fisher King. 

In support of this, consider the following scenario: that on reading the original story of Peredur as found in Peniarth 7, the procession of the spear that bleeds and the severed head at the uncle’s castle, among other details, was recognised as being very similar to the procession of the grail and bleeding lance in the French text. But finishing at Constantinople the redactor must have felt the ending was missing and the procession needed to be explained. Thus he inserted the adventures with the ugly damsel (black, curly-haired maiden in Peredur), taking much from the French grail romances, which led to the final revelation at the Fortress of Wonders in an attempt to explain the procession.

The French Connection
Over the years scholars have argued that Part A and Part C display clear influence from French Grail romances yet concede that Part B is based on Welsh tradition and free from Chrétien’s authority. We should now reconsider the three sections of the tale of Peredur that are said to have evidence of Chrétien’s influence:

Part A - Peredur's upbringing in the forest, maiden at the pavilion, arrival at Arthur's court, the insult to Gwenhwyfar, series of adventures, return to Arthur's court after avenging Cai’s insult to dwarfs; displays some similarities to Chrétien’s Conte del Graal and later Grail Romances.

Part B -  Angharad Law Eurog to the Empress of Constantinople has no parallel in Chrétien and must be considered free of French influence.

Part C – from the arrival of black, curly-haired maiden at Arthur's court, culminating with killing the witches of Caerlloyw; displays strong similarities to Chrétien’s Conte del Graal and later Grail Romances.

It is clear from the manuscript evidence that the story of Peredur has evolved over the years (centuries) with further episodes added to the text by later scribes. Although the earliest manuscript authority Peniarth 7 shows Part A and Part B as a ‘complete’ text ending with Peredur’s union with the empress of Constantinople, Part A may have existed as the original stand alone tale. Part B which is totally unrelated to Part A may have been added later as the tale evolved. This is certainly possible as the tale is divided by episodes at Arthur’s court; Part A ends at Caerllion and Part B commences at Caerllion forming a continuation from the original tale.

In Part A after leaving his mother in the woods to become a knight he first comes to a maiden in a pavilion who gives him food and a ring. He then arrives at his first uncle’s castle where he receives training and develops part of his weapon-craft; his uncle tells him he will be the best swordsman in this Island. At the second uncle’s castle he strikes a sword against an iron column, it breaks and he can only mend it twice as he has gained two thirds of his skills; his second uncle tells him he is the best swordsman in the kingdom. 

Immediately after leaving the castle of his second uncle Peredur meets his foster-sister who tells him the dwarf and she-dwarf that he saw in Arthur’s court was the dwarf of his father and mother and that Peredur is the cause of his mother’s death.

The owner of the pavillion, the Proud One of the Clearing, where he met the maiden on his initial journey to Arthur’s court, finally catches up with Peredur, believing he violated the maiden at the pavilion. Peredur defeats him but shows mercy as the girl was innocent.

Peredur then stays with the witches of Caerloyw for three weeks who teach him how to ride a horse and handle weapons; training completed he has now achieved all of his weapon skills. After leaving the witches he came to a valley where there was a hermit’s cell and the next day he saw the blood drops in the snow. He then fights Cai breaking his arm.

Part A ends as Peredur has avenged the insult to the dwarfs; Arthur says as much as if to conclude the tale;  “it was foretold by the dwarf and the she-dwarf, whom Cai harmed, and whom you have now avenged.” Part A ends, the tale complete, and they returned to Caerllion.

Dead Men Tell No Tales
Notably, at no point in the original version of the tale of Peredur, as found in Peniarth 7, is there any suggestion, not even the slightest hint, that Peredur should have questioned the procession at his uncle’s castle, indeed the foster-sister he meets immediately after does not reproach him for not questioning the procession, in fact she makes no reference to it at all. We have noted previously at this point in Chrétien’s version the maiden rebukes Perceval for not asking questions of the procession.

Indeed, as per the instructions of Peredur’s first uncle, the implication in Part A is that blame can only be attached to asking inappropriate questions; not to silence. Thus, the situation is the reverse of that of Chrétien’s text and the longer versions of Peredur (Red Book and White Book versions) that contain Part C. Natalia Petrovskaia refers to two legal triads which note three dishonourings that may be inflicted on a corpse through asking inappropriate questions; ‘who killed this one?’, ‘whose is this bier?’, and asking ‘whose is this fresh grave?’. The implication is that a kinsman would be aware of the circumstances of the death.4

Petrovskaia stresses the importance of galanas in medieval Welsh law, a payment made by means of compensation by a killer to the kinsmen of the victim and, the expectation of vengeance if this were not duly paid. Surely Petrovskaia is correct in adding that this situation fits Peredur perfectly, as the hero arrives at his uncle’s castle where he witnesses a procession that features a severed head.5

Part B, seemingly unrelated to Part A, continues with a series of adventures probably from Welsh tradition with no French parallel, taking Peredur from Caerllion where he initially meets Angharad Law Eurog (Golden-Hand), through the Round Valley,  a serpent that lay on a golden ring, then after a long period of wandering he eventually runs into Arthur’s men. A further, unrelated, altercation with Cai who did not recognise him, struck him with a spear through his thigh because he would not speak, hence, he was called the Mute Knight and then reunited with Angharad Law Eurog at Arthur’s court. 

Part B continues with a further series of adventures in all probability taken from Welsh tradition;  the Mound of Mourning, Sons of the King of Suffering, and the Knight of the Mill which ends the part with his union with the empress of Constantinople with whom he stays with for 14 years. 

As stated previously, there appears to be a clear division between the two sections in Part B of Angharad Law Eurog (B1) and the empress of Constantinople (B2). It is quite conceivable that part B1 was added to the first section (Part A) prior to the later addition of Part B2, with episodes beginning and ending at Arthur’s court, indicating the tale was initially designed for oral delivery. The whole tale ended at Constantinople, with  “And thus ends the development of Peredur son of Efrawg”, as stated above. The two parts then committed to writing in the first manuscript, Peniarth 7. 

On reading the final part (Part C) as found in the standard version found in The Mabinogion (Red Book) it is immediately obvious that it is at odds with the earlier part of the tale.

In what appears to be an attempt to link back to the earlier parts of the tale, Part C opens some years later with Arthur at Caerllion with his retinue including Peredur and Gwalchmai; however, no explanation is given for Peredur leaving Constantinople where he stayed with the empress for fourteen years. A black, curly-haired maiden suddenly arrives at Arthur’s court but refuses to greet Peredur because he failed to ask questions about the bleeding lance that he witnessed at the castle of the lame king. He embarks on a series of adventures to learn the meaning of the procession.

Arthur and Owain play Gwyddbwyll in the Dream of Rhonabwy (Alan Lee)

When Peredur arrives at a fortress he watches a gwyddbwyll6 match as the two sides magically play each other but when the side he supports looses he throws the board into the lake and is accused by the black, curly-haired maiden of making the empress lose her board, which he would not wish for her empire, presumably a reference to the empress of Constantinople of Part B. To get the board back he must go to the Fortress of Ysbidinongyl and kill a black-haired man who is destroying much of the empress’s land. Finally Peredur, with Arthur and his men, kill the witches of Caerloyw, who completed his training back in Part A, and are apparently responsible for the severed head, which is his cousin, and making his uncle lame.

Concurring with Williams, Roberts agrees that Part C, the Fortress of Wonders, should be seen as a separate narrative that has been added to the narrative of Parts A and B at a later date by a different scribe. There is certainly a lack of coherence between Parts B and C which has led Roberts to propose that Part C may have originally been a narrative of its own. But this seems unlikely as Part C has been added to the tale to explain events in Part A, namely the procession, but as we have seen in Part IV – The Procession there are internal inconsistencies between the earlier text and the final section of ‘Peredur’ at the Fortress of Wonders which reaffirms that the final episode was bolted on to the original storyline at a later date to align the Welsh text with Chrétien’s French tale. 

Denying Peredur
As we have seen, the debate, termed Mabinogionfrage, has raged on since the 19th century when Lady Charlotte Guest first published her translations of Welsh narratives from the Red Book of Hergest that formed her collection known as The Mabinogion. When the three Welsh romances first came under scrutiny they were initially considered incompetent translations of the French romances.

Yet, when it is argued that it is unlikely that the Welsh stories were taken directly from Chrétien owing to significant differences between the Welsh and French texts there is a general reluctance among scholars to accept that Peredur in its earliest form as we have it (Parts A and B as represented by Peniarth7), could have originated as a solely Welsh tale. Subsequently, a popular view has been that both versions derive independently from a common source, defined as French tales used by the poet.7

One ingenious suggestion proposed that the Welsh texts were taken to France and forgotten in Wales. Some years later they returned to Wales barely recognisable in their new French clothes.8

Today, owing to this reluctance to acknowledge the remotest possibility that the Peniarth 7 text of Peredur could be an entirely Welsh text, scholars generally accept that the three corresponding romances by Chrétien de Troyes were the main sources for the three Welsh romances, which should not be considered simple translations of their French counterparts.

In their determination to prove this French influence on the Welsh tale of Peredur, the latter has been subject to continuous in-depth analysis against its Continental counterparts with any similar episodes pulled out seemingly from any corresponding manuscript to prove sections of the Welsh text are paralleled in the Grail romances as evidence of borrowing from the French.

However, its not as a simple as identifying a suitable French counterpart to determine the amount of borrowing, as many of the Gallic sources survive in various versions, some pulling on sources older than Chrétien, some with very limited extant manuscripts which may or may not have been known in Wales during this period. Two factors often overlooked which are critical in determining the direction of influence; the Welsh scribes access to the French material, and; the earliest dating for the respective tales. And we don’t have solid evidence for either.

Notes and References
1. The texts of Peredur son of Efrog are preserved in four manuscripts:
i) Peniarth 7, (c.1300)
ii) Peniarth 14 (c.1300–50)
iii) Peniarth 4–5 (White Book of Rhydderch, c. 1350)
iv) Oxford, Jesus College, MS 111 (Red Book of Hergest, c. 1382×1400).
The four manuscripts are seen as representing different stages in the development of the tale which display a gradual accretion of material. Manuscript dating varies between scholars.
English translations of the 'standard' text of 'Peredur' (Red Book, White Book) are widely available in editions of the Mabinogion; I recommend the Oxford University edition 2007 by Sioned Davies.
The only English translations of Peredur vab Efrawc MSS Peniarth 7 and 14 currently available are by Anthony Vitt, Master's Thesis-MPhil, Aberystwyth University.
2. Glenys Goetinck, Peredur: Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, University of Wales Press, 1975.
3. Ibid.
4.  Natalia Petrovskaia, Peredur and the Problem of Inappropriate Questions, The Journal of the International Arthurian Society, 2021, Volume 9 Issue 1, pp.3–23.
5. Ibid.
6. The gwyddbwyll in Peredur is closely paralleled in The Gwyddbwyll of Gwenddolau in the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain: “The Gwyddbwyll of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio: if the pieces were set, they would play by themselves. The board was of gold, and the men of silver.”
See: Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, Fourth Edition, University of Wales Press, 2014, Appendix III, pp.258-264.
7. Brynley Roberts, Tales and Romances, pp.203-243, in A Guide to Welsh Literature Volume 1, AOH Jarman and Gwilym Rees Hughes (eds.), Christopher Davies (Swansea), 1976, p.222.
8. Ibid.

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