Thursday 16 November 2023

Lancelot in Wales?

Peredur - Part VII 

“OWAIN (or The Lady of the Fountain), probably dating to the thirteenth century, is one of three Middle Welsh prose tales commonly referred to as "the three romances," the others being Geraint and Enid and Peredur. All three have some as-yet-undefined relationship with romances by Chrétien’ de Troyes-Yvain, Erec et Enide, and Perceval.”1

“Whether the three Middle Welsh prose tales, Geraint ab Erbin, Owain and Peredur, all probably dating from the first half of the thirteenth century or even the end of the twelfth, should be included in a chapter on adaptions and translations of Chrétien’, is a thorny question. Their relationship with Erec et Enide, Yvain and the Conte, respectively, has not yet been (and may never be) satisfactorily defined. Were they derived from Chrétien’’s romances? Did they use an Old French source that Chrétien’ had known too? If so, was this French source drawing from Welsh and Breton oral tales?”2

An Assumption Confirmed?
It cannot be denied that the three Welsh tales ((Welsh: Y Tair Rhamant) in their extant form display similarities to three Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes, however, it must be conceded that they each also differ in the degree of their resemblance to the French works, and each should be considered individually. This series of articles has concentrated on examining the Welsh Peredur son of Efrog against Chrétien’s Perceval, or the Story of the Grail. By now it will have become clear that this is an immensely complex subject and definition of the relationship of these texts, as stated above, has never been satisfactorily accomplished. The Celticists have largely fallen from favour with modern scholars who prefer a continental origin with transmission from France to Wales. 

Today the debate has quietened somewhat with current wisdom tending to favour a common source, a lost French text perhaps intermediate between Peredur and Perceval; although the relationship between these parallel stories, the so-called ‘mabinogionfrage’ has never really been satisfactorily resolved. 

The late Claude Luttrell was an active participant in the mabinogionfrage and firmly denied Celtic origins to Chrétien’s Arthurian romances.3 He responded to Brynley Roberts’ entry in the Arthurian Encyclopaedia in which he observed that their relationship to Chrétien's romances has not yet been defined (above).  Writing a few years later Michelle Szkilnik suggested that they may never be satisfactorily defined (also above). Szkilnik is probably correct in her assumption that the issue may never be resolved.

Luttrell had been particularly vocal in arguing against a Celtic origin and accordingly responded to the challenge of definition by demonstrating the manner in which material from Le Conte del Graal has been incorporated in Historia Peredur (notice the direction of travel in Luttrell’s opinion). The dependence of the Welsh tale on the romance by Chrétien, and not vice-versa, Luttrell argues, is evident from at least the fact that the Welsh tale also makes use of other French sources, namely the Bliocadran, The Second Continuation, and even claims that Peredur’s amorous adventures derive from the non-cyclic version of the Prose Lancelot.4

The Knight of the Cart

Peredur’s Ladies
It is the beginning of Peredur, where his mother has taken him away from chivalric socity to live in the forest that Luttrell sees echoes of the Bliocadran prologue, a later addition to Chretien's tale.
In the Welsh version, when Peredur left his mother to go to Arthur's court to become a knight she advised him (among other things); "If you see a beautiful lady, make love to her even though she does not want you––it will make you a better and braver man than before."

Peredur's first encounter is with the maiden of the pavilion, a beautiful, auburn-haired maiden sitting in a chair with a frontlet of gold and sparkling stones on her forehead, and a thick gold ring on her hand. She gave him food and drink. Peredur took her ring then he went down on his knee and kissed the maiden. And he took his horse and set off. Note, this is the only kiss in the whole Mabinogion collection.

In Chretien's version the maiden in the pavilion resists Perceval but he forcibly “kissed her repeatedly, twenty times as the story says, regardless of whether she liked it or not...” until he saw a ring set with a shining emerald on her finger. ‘My mother also told me,’ he said, ‘to take the ring from your finger, but not to do anything more.’ She refused to give him the ring but he forcibly straightened out her finger, removed the ring from it.5

Returning to the Welsh tale; After leaving his uncle's castle where he witnessed the procession of the bleeding lance and severed head, Peredur meets a beautiful auburn-haired woman and a saddled horse standing beside her, a man’s corpse between the woman’s hands. She is his foster-sister.

Peredur arrives at a great, ivy-covered fortress where there were five maidens, he was sure that he had never seen such a beautiful sight as the principal maiden; 'her flesh was whiter than the flowers of the whitest crystal; her hair and her eyebrows were blacker than jet; with two tiny red spots on her cheeks, redder than the reddest thing'. She goes to his chamber and offers herself to him but Peredur does not take advantage of her. He defeats the earl and all his men who threaten her kingdom. And so for three weeks Peredur arranged tribute and submission from the earl to the maiden. And when he had settled and secured her in her realm, he went on his way.

Then he met by a lady rider on a lean, sweaty horse. She was the wife of the Proud One of the Clearing, the owner of the pavilion where he had taken the ring, who was convinced Peredur had his way with the maiden. Peredur said ‘I am the one you are after, and by my faith, the maiden is innocent on my account.’

Then he came to a castle on a mountain, where there was a large, handsome woman sitting in a chair and numerous handmaidens. She tells Peredur that there are nine witches here, the witches of Caerloyw. He went to the witches’ court where he stayed for three successive weeks and trained him in horse and weapons. 

The centre section (Part B) commences with Peredur’s romantic liaisons with Angharad Golden-Hand and then moves on to the Empress of Constantinople with whom he stayed for fourteen years.. It is generally accepted that this section of Peredur son of Efrog does not display any evidence of influence from Chrétien’s romance. In the final section (Part C), the Castle of Wonders, Peredur deals with the hideously ugly black maiden and the lady with the lapdog, who he never actually meets. It is this final section of the Welsh tale that Luttrell argues mirrors the stag hunt in The Second Continuation, we will return to this later.

It is difficult to see the comparison with Lancleot’s adultery with the Queen, the dire consequence of which leading to the downfall of the Round Table. Furthermore, it is doubtful that Lancelot was known in Wales at the time of the composition of Peredur son of Efrog as we will see later. However, we will return to Claude Luttrell later, at this point it is a worthwhile digression to consider the origin’s of Lancelot in Chrétien’s romance.

He little reaps who little sows 
Chrétien was the first to mention Camelot, and the first to write of the mysterious procession at the castle of the Fisher King, leading to the quest for the Grail. Similarities with the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde have been detected in Chrétien’s works leading to suspicions that he may have been one of the first poets to recite the tale. He was also the first to write of Queen Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot of the Lake. Yet we know virtually nothing about the author of the five earliest Arthurian  romances: Erec and Enide, Cligés, The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot), The Knight with the Lion (Yvain), and The Story of the Grail (Perceval).6

Chrétien de Troyes is credited with introducing 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 third in a list of the knights of the Round Table. As with Perceval, or the Story of the Grail, Chrétien abandoned his romance of Lancelot leaving its completion to the clerk Godefroy de Lagny. With Perceval the time Chrétien stopped writing corresponds with the death of his patron on Crusade in 1191, but with Lancelot it is generally accepted that Chrétien disproved of the subject matter, Lancelot’s adultery with the King’s wife, a theme which seems to have been placed on him by the patron of that work Marie de Champagne.

In pre-Galfridian Arthurian literature, we hear little of Arthur’s wife Gwenhwyfar, receiving no more than a brief mention in the 11th century tale Culhwch and Olwen. Her abduction does not appear in a literary context until an early 12th century Saint’s Life (Vitae Gildae). She appears in several late Triads always associated with Camlan, however these seem to have been influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth who was the first to introduce her affair with Modred, a liaison that eventually led to the downfall of Arthur and the end of the fellowship of the Round Table. In later romance the male in this relationship was transposed to Lancelot.

The First Abduction
The cathedral at Modena, Italy, is famous for the Arthurian sculpture on the archivolt of the north portal. Work is said to have commenced toward the end of the 11th century by a group of sculptors under the direction of the master mason Lanfranco and the sculptor Wiligelmus (Guglielmo). The sculpture is generally agreed to date to the early 12th century, the knights seem to be a representation of the attire of the Crusader knights. The usual explanation for this sculpture is that it represents a tale told by a Breton conteur to a group of Crusader knights gathered at Bari in 1096 while waiting to embark for the First Crusade.

The Modena Archivolt

The scene on the Modena archivolt depicts a castle at the centre surrounded by water. Inside the castle is a woman named Winlogee and a man, Mardoc. Two barbicans defend entrances at opposite ends of the castle, at the left entrance is the churl named Burmaltus with a pick-like weapon. Three knights face the churl, Artus de Bretania, Isdernus, and an unnamed knight. From the other barbican rides a fourth knight named Carado striking with his lance the first of three attacking knights Galvaginus, Galvarium and Che.

The resemblance between the Arthurian scene on the Modena sculpture and the story of Carado of the Dolorous Tower in the later Vulgate Lancelot in which Gawain (Galvaginus) was carried off by a gigantic knight named Carado was first noted in the late 19th century.7 However, when it was realised that the name Winlogee had been substituted by Breton conteurs for the Welsh Gwenhwyfar it became clear that the scene was a depiction of the abduction of Guinevere. In Chrétien’s version in Chevalier de la Charette and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur it is Lancelot who is her rescuer. Perhaps he is the unnamed knight on the Modena sculpture?

However, other versions of the Queen’s abduction, such as Hartmann von Aue’s Iwein, Heinrich von dem Turlin and Livre d’Artus, consistently show her releaser as Gawain. It is likely that Chrétien granted the role to Lancelot (under the direction of Marie de Champagne) and Malory devotedly followed him. Yet, regardless of the identity of the rescuer, we can be certain that Chrétien did not invent the abduction tale as the Arthurian scene at Modena predates his Knight of the Cart, 1171-1181.

Indeed, the Arthurian sculpture on the archivolt at Modena cathedral appears independently of any known literary source. More likely the tale of Guinevere's abduction originates from a meeting of east and west; the tales of Arthur and his knights taken to Italy by the Breton contingent of the First Crusade, becoming entwined with the Greek mythology of the abduction of Persephone, the archetype of the abducted flower maiden, by the Breton story tellers stopping off in southern Italy. In turn this abduction story, presented with an Arthurian twist, spread back across Europe along the pilgrim routes to Brittany and finally to Britain and the quill of Caradoc of Llancarfan who adapted the tale for the monks of Glastonbury.

Caradoc produced the first written account of the abduction of Gwenhwyfar in the Vita Gildae (The Life of Gildas) in the first quarter of the 12th century, to justify lands owned by Glastonbury Abbey, here presented by King Arthur to the abbey after Gildas brokered peace between the king and Melwas, her abductor. It should be noted that the Vita Gildae is more or less contemporary with the sculpture on the Modena Archivolt; the direction of transmission is therefore uncertain, but that the tale must have existed in oral form before either of these documentations is fairly certain. 

In Caradoc’s account Arthur’s Queen is carried away by Melwas (honey-youth), King of the summer country, to the “city of glass”.8 Similarities between the two tales indicates that this, or an oral version of it, is likely to be the source behind Chrétien’s abduction tale.

The Knight of the Cart
It is in Chrétien’s earlier Arthurian romance Erec et Enide, c.1170, 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 (Isle of Glass). 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.” This is clearly a reference to the Celtic Elysium.9

In the Knight of the Cart we find Chrétien has slightly modified these names in his first mention of the land of Gorre and Guinevere’s abduction when we are told that, “Meleagant, a huge and mighty knight and the son of the king of Gorre, has carried her off into the kingdom from which no foreigner returns.” Gauvain and an anonymous knight follow her. In order to learn of the queen's whereabouts, the anonymous knight rides in a cart, a mode of transport usually reserved for disgraced criminals; subsequently the unnamed knight is called the Knight of the Cart

Lancelot crossing the Sword Bridge

There were two extremely perilous ways to access the land of Gorre, one being the Underwater Bridge and the other crossing by the Sword Bridge. Gauvain went by way of the Underwater Bridge, his adventures are not recorded, yet the Knight of the Cart crosses to the land of Gorre by the more dangerous Sword Bridge. Numerous adventures mark the knight's progress before he comes to the castle where Guinevere and Kay are being held.

Meleagant has Lancelot walled up in a tower with no door or opening, save only a small window from which he could be fed scraps.  He is eventually released by the same girl who who had asked a favour of him as he were going to the Sword Bridge.10

During the ensuing combat between the Knight of the Cart and Meleagant, Guinevere reveals the knight's true name: Lancelot.

Notes & References
1. Brynley F Roberts, in The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, edited by Norris J. Lacy, Garland Publishing, 1996, p.348.
2.  Michelle Szkilnik, Medieval Translations and Adaptions of Chrétien’’s Works, pp.202-213, in A Companion to Chrétien’ de Troyes, Norris J Lacey and Joan Tasker Grimbert (eds.), DS Brewer, 2005, pp.207.
3. Claude Luttrell, The Creation of the First Arthurian Romance, Edward Arnold, 1974.
4. Claude Luttrell, Le Conte del Graal et d'autres sources françaises de l'Historia Peredur, Neophilologus volume 87, 2003, pp.11–28.
5. Chrétien De Troyes Arthurian Romances, Translated with an Introduction and Notes By William W. Kibler, Penguin Books, 1991, The Story of the Grail (Perceval), pp.389-90.
6. Lancelot, or The Knight of the Cart, contains the earliest known mention of Arthur’s famous castle of Camelot, in the region near Caerleon, and the only allusion to it in Chrétien’s works. Following Chrétien it became an essential element of the Arthurian cannon but never existed in the earliest layer of the legend, where Arthur’s court is named as Kelliwig. We have no idea where Chrétien derived his Camelot, but it was not from Celtic tradition.
7. W Foerster, Ein neues Artusdokument (A new Arthurian document), in Zeitschrift fur Romanische Philologie, XXII, 1898.
8. New Arthurian Encyclopedia, NJ Lacey (ed), Garland, 1996.
9.  Patrick Sims-Wiliams, The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems, in The Arthur of the Welsh, UWP, p.59.
10. It is quite likely that here Gorre refers to the Celtic underworld, sometimes termed the Isle de Voirre (‘Isle of Glass’). A false etymology has identified this with Glastonbury, Somerset. In Chrétien’s poem it is the land into which Meleagant will take the queen and where he will hold her captive along with many others. Its capital is Bade (Bath).

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