Archive for October, 2020

I’m not going to call them knights, because in the Dark Ages that concept—at least as we think of it—didn’t exist. There may have been a round table for all I know. They certainly could have made a round table if they wanted to. But these warriors did not wear plate armor from head to toe and they probably did not fight from horseback—certainly not with lances—because the stirrup had not reached Europe yet.

The ones that seem to have some basis in the older traditions are Bedivere (Bedwyr), Kay (Cei), Gawain (Gwalchmai), King Uriens and his son Owain, and Illtud. (I know, Illtud doesn’t show up in most of the versions of the Arthur legend, but he’s interesting, so I may include him.)

Bedwyr of the Perfect Sinew was a one-handed warrior. And, in Culhwch and Olwen, he wielded a magic lance. He and Cei were close friends. Being one-handed makes him interesting to work with.

Cei was not Arthur’s foster brother or the son of Ector in the older traditions. He was supposed to be exceptionally stubborn. He was also credited with several supernatural abilities—to be able to withstand fire or water better than anyone else, to go nine days without sleeping or breathing (?!), to grow as tall as the tallest tree, and to be able to radiate heat from his hands. A wound from Cei’s sword could not be healed. He was nevertheless killed and Arthur avenged his death.

Gawain was Arthur’s nephew, son of Arthur’s sister or half-sister Morgause and King Lot of Orkney and Lothian. Orkney and Lothian are both very far north. In some versions, though, his mother was Gwyar, who might have been one of Igraine’s sisters—making Gawain Arthur’s cousin rather than his nephew. Sometimes, Gawain has brothers listed as Agravain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Mordred. But these, other than Mordred, seem to be late additions.

Gawain also has a magic sword, given to him by the Lady of the Lake. His sword, Galatine, is nearly as potent a weapon as Excalibur.

Formidable, courteous, compassionate and loyal are the descriptors used of Gawain. He’s a mentor to young warriors and a defender of the poor and of women.

King Uriens of Rheged and his son Yvain (or Owain) are somewhat problematic for me. Rheged, which had been the western (and less Romanized) half of the territory of the Brigantes, would have been a very new kingdom. Since Arthur was not, could not have been, high king, it’s hard to picture the king of another tribal domain following him. Though, if Arthur was a war leader—not a king—he might have operated in Rheged at some point. And on way to look at Arthur is as the leader of a possibly small, but highly mobile strike force. That could be interesting.

Illtud (also known as St. Illtud) was Arthur’s cousin once removed. Igraine’s mother and Illtud’s were sisters. He was one of Arthur’s warriors and, later, followed a Welsh king until a religious . . . event. He then left his wife to become first a hermit and then a monk. He may have founded a monastery at Llanilltud Fawr (translated: Illtud’s Great Church), which became one of the great monastic schools in Wales. (The monastery was real, but it may have been older than Illtud.) His students supposedly include Saint Patrick, Saint David, Taliesin, and . . . Gildas. The very same Gildas who failed to even mention Arthur. Hmm. . . .

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Now Mordred (Medraut in Welsh) is interesting. Unless he had multiple personality disorder or was bi-polar, the accounts of him seem to be describing two different people. The Welsh texts describe him as good-natured, moderate, and courteous. (Though, really, the best villains could be charming and disarming—for their own purposes.) Other accounts have him out of control, almost berserk.

In the earliest accounts, even as late as Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th Century, Mordred was not an illegitimate son of Arthur nor the result of incest. He was Arthur’s nephew, son of Arthur’s sister or half-sister Morgause and her husband King Lot. Sometimes, he was also Arthur’s foster son. And the earliest mentions of the Battle of Camlann merely state that Arthur and Mordred both died there—not whether they were fighting side by side or against each other.

In some stories, Mordred was married to Guinevere’s younger sister, Gwenyhwyach, and the rivalry between the two Gwen’s was the cause of discord between Arthur and Mordred. . Other stories have him marrying Cwywyllog (yeah, I have no idea how to pronounce that, either), daughter of Caw and having two sons, the elder possibly named Melehan. These sons rose in rebellion against Arthur’s successor—Constantine of Dumnonia. They were defeated and, separately, went into hiding—one hid in a church, the other in a friary. Constantine hunted them down and killed them before the altars of their hiding places. Which matches very closely to the accusations Gildas levels against the real ruler of his day.

Personally, I think Constantine makes a better villain than Mordred. Although, nothing says there can be only one.

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For the central character of the legend, Arthur is the most nebulous of all. Gildas never mentions him—though, as opinionated as Gildas seems, there might be more than one reason for that.

About the only early evidence for Arthur is a 7th Century poem, Y Goddodin, which commemorates a battle fought in the area of Southeast Scotland and Northeast England. It’s not about Arthur at all. There’s just one line, in a stanza which praises the awesomeness of one of the British warriors, that says he did all these incredible things “though he was not Arthur”. Which indicates that already in the early 7th Century and at the other end of England, the poet still expected his audience to know about Arthur and that he was an even more awesome warrior. The only surviving copy of Y Goddodin dates to the 13th Century, but older forms of some words may indicate that this stanza is part of the original.

Then there are some mentions in the Welsh Triads. Again, the only existing versions were probably written down in the 13th Century, so it’s hard to know what may be older and potentially closer to the truth, and what may represent later additions. Also, they’re annoyingly vague, since their purpose was likely to act as a memory aid for oral story tellers, not to actually tell the stories.

Still, the Welsh traditions do give Arthur sons—none of whom survive him or have sons of their own. Amr or Amhar, was apparently killed by Arthur. No indication of why. Gwydre who was killed by the Boar Twrch Trwyth in the Arthur adjacent story of Culhwch and Olwen. Lacheu was apparently important and heroic in the early stories, but was also killed in some unspecified way. (Although, much later traditions do mention another son, Loholt, who is either killed by Cei, so that Cei can take credit for one of his deeds, or else dies of illness after Lancelot rescues him from imprisonment.) Duran was killed in the battle of Camlann. And another son, Kyduan, specifically not by Guinevere (though it’s not certain the others are Guinevere’s sons, either).

Then nothing much else until the History of the Britons in the 9th Century. The History mostly recounts 12 battles, in locations all over Britain, all supposedly fought by Arthur. Given the divisions among the small, tribal British kingdoms, it’s hard to imagine that any one war leader was responsible for all of them. In the History, Arthur is described as a dux bellorum, or war leader, not a king. A general, not even a ruler of whatever tribal territory he called home. The History also recounts a couple of wonders pertaining to Arthur, which generally tend to undermine it reliability.

But it was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th Century History of the Kings of Britain, which really got the Arthur legend rolling. Geoffrey adds—and I mean that literally–Merlin and the story of Arthur’s birth. But he popularized the story and then others added to it, too. Including Chretien de Troyes, who adds both Lancelot and Percival and the Grail Quest.

Other than Merlin, I won’t be using anything from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version or Chretien de Troyes.

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Uther is possibly not an historical character, even though he does appear—briefly—in a few Welsh texts. These texts, though mostly recounting old tales, were first written down much later. The story of him being magically disguised by Merlin so that he could get into Tintagel to rape Igraine doesn’t appear until Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th Century. (I stand by what I wrote in an earlier post. No one asked Igraine whether she wanted to participate, which makes it rape. It will not be in my version. Also, having recently written a couple of novels loosely inspired by the Hercules legend, I can’t help but notice that this story exactly mirrors the story of Hercules’s birth, which only makes it more suspect in my opinion.)

But Uther will play a very minor part as Igraine’s (consensual, though adulterous) lover in my version.

Now, what’s interesting to me about Uther is his family connections. According to tradition, he may descend from a very historical character known to history as Constantine III. Constantine was possibly British, but at least a Roman general in Britannia. And, with the support of a British ruler, probably of Dumnonia (Cornwall), Gerontius (or Geraint in Welsh), Constantine made himself Emperor of the Western Roman Empire for a short time in the early fifth century. His son was Constans (Custenin in Welsh), who was put to death by Gerontius, when Gerontius rebelled against Constantine.

Now that bit of history has nothing whatever to do with Arthurian legend. Except that legend also includes a King Constantine (this time the brother of a ruler in Brittany), who has three sons—Constans, Ambrosius, and Uther. And, in the legend, each of these sons becomes King of Britain in turn. Except, of course, there wasn’t any such thing as a King of Britain in the Dark Ages. The British tribes were much too busy fighting each other to have allowed any such thing.

But, there is a 6th Century ruler of Dumnonia mentioned by Gildas named . . . Constantine. In fact, there is more than one Constantine in the history of Dumnonia.

What’s interesting about this (to me, at least) is that it gives Uther a connection to Cornwall—and, potentially, Tintagel. A connection Igraine does not have. Her family is all connected to Wales.

Oh, and Arthur’s successor was traditionally . . . Constantine, possibly the one Gildas mentioned.

I do believe I can find a way to make use of this.

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