Posts Tagged ‘characters’

Nimuë is one of the women identified as the Lady of the Lake, who give Arthur the sword Excalibur. And also give Gawain the sword Galatine. She is also one of the women who come to the battlefield of Camlann to take Arthur to Avalon.

Sometimes, in later stories, she is depicted as Merlin’s apprentice with whom he is hopelessly in love. Often, she is the one who enchants Merlin, sealing him up in a cave or a tree, whereupon she takes his place as advisor to Arthur.

I’ve already written the first scenes with my version of Nimuë.

Morgana is also an enchantress, though generally a benevolent one, acting as a magical protector to Arthur. Usually, she is the youngest daughter of Igraine and Gorlois, making her Arthur’s half-sister.

She is especially associated with Avalon (or the Isle of Apples) where her chief role is as a healer. Avalon was associated with mystical practices early on. One possible location for Avalon is Glastonbury Tor—a conical hill rising a bit over 500 feet above the Someset levels. It would have been surrounded by a marsh, making it sort of an island. It is also the location in which Excalibur was said to have been forged.

Morgana is one of the women who come to take Arthur from Camlann to Avalon, where he will be healed, perhaps to return.

Possibly because of her association with Avalon, she is also sometimes considered a Lady of the Lake.

In some versions, she is also the reluctant wife of King Urien of Rheged, and therefore the mother of Owain (Yvain) and a daughter Morfydd, who was Owain’s twin sister.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version, she is a shapeshifter who can fly on strange wings and uses her powers only for good. Hmm, I just might make use of that.

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No version of the Arthur story would be complete without Guinevere. She was Arthur’s wife, of course. In fact, the Welsh triads actually give Arthur three wives, all named Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar in Welsh).

  • Gwenhwyfar daughter of Cywryd
  • Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr ap Greidiol
  • Gwenhwyfar daughter of Ogrfan Gawr

Though, Gwenhwyfar means something like “White Enchantress”, so there could be other ways to interpret their roles.

Later traditions make her the daughter of King Leodegrance (a fairly obviously French name, not Welsh), who was possibly a king of Cornwall or of a part of Brittany with a very similar sounding name, Cornouaille.

Guinevere’s first appearance otherwise comes with Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th Century and it’s Chretien de Troyes who created the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle.

There are a few mentions of a younger sister (or half-sister) with a similar name. Sometimes this sister was married to Mordred and the enmity between the sisters was the root cause of the Battle of Camlann in which both Arthur and Mordred are killed. Or the sister was a false Guinevere, who temporarily displaced the true Guinevere through trickery.

There’s another legend concerning Mordred and Guinevere, in which they entered an adulterous relationship with each other while Arthur was across the channel in Gaul or Rome. But that one seems to me to confuse Arthur with the historical figure, Riothamus, who actually did lead troops from Britain across to Gaul in support of one of the late Western Roman Emperors. An expedition from which he never returned, because the Emperor failed to do his part. Of course, there are people who argue that Riothamus was the true Arthur. For myself, since there manifestly still were Saxons (and Angles and Jutes) in Britain, as well as contentious tribal rulers, I just can’t picture an actual Arthur taking his warriors away to fight in Gaul. And, anyway, the ending of that story about Mordred and Guinevere is barbaric and not something I intend to use.

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And now for the ladies. There aren’t as many of them, and there’s generally not as much to say about them. Hmm, I may have to do something about that in my story. I’m going to start with his birth family.

Igraine (Eigyr in Welsh), of course, is Arthur’s mother. She is the daughter of Amlawdd Wledig and Gwenwyr (Gwen ferch Cunedda).

Amlawdd was the king of Ergyng, a smallish subkingdom, probably at least partly within the area ruled by Vortigern. Most of it lay in what is now western Herefordshire between the River Monnow and the River Wye—and east of the Wye to the Roman town of Ariconium (Ergyng in Welsh) and perhaps farther. Or, in other words, just about where the word Dobunni is on the map below.

Igraine’s maternal grandfather, Cunedda was likely an historical person, probably a chieftain of the Votadini in the north near Hadrian’s wall. His grandfather, Padarn Beisrudd, seems to have gained some official Roman military rank. (Beisrudd means “Red Cloak”, like the cloaks worn by Roman officers.) Padarn, his son Edern, and then Edern’s son Cunedda seem to have been in charge of protecting against encroachments by the Picts and Scotti. Then, possibly invited by Vortigern, Cunedda and his Votadini relocated to northern Wales, in the area that would become the center of Gwynedd. Possibly this move was to protect against Irish raids in Wales.  

With either Gorlois (who doesn’t seem to have any references earlier than Geoffrey of Monmouth) or Uther, she had several children besides Arthur. Morgause and Morgana are her daughters. And another son, Madog ap Uther. Madog also had a son, Eliwlod.


Morgause was Arthur’s sister, daughter of Uther and Igraine. She was married to King Lot of Orkney and Lothian, and the mother of Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Mordred.

In later versions, she is beheaded by her son Gaheris when he finds her in an adulterous relationship.


Of course, Arthur had another sister or half-sister, Morgana. I’m going to cover her in a different post, though, because she’s important as more than just his sister.

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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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Ambrosius Aurelianus was almost certainly an historical character. He is the only historical figure names by Gildas, who praises him for turning back the encroaching Saxons. Gildas also calls him the last of the Romans and of something akin to royal birth. And, quite likely, he was a Christian—or Gildas (a monk) might not have praised him so highly.

The Atrebates, and the allied domains of the Regni and the Belgae were early adopters of Roman culture and, unlike some British tribes, remained Romanized and in contact with still-Roman Gaul after Britannia was no longer a province of the Roman Empire. The civitas of the Belgae is possibly the most likely location for Ambrosius.

There seems to have been ongoing tension between Ambrosius and Vortigern. There’s a long defensive structure—a ditch and embankment—called Wansdyke roughly along what may have been the border between the two. Ambrosius is said to have defeated Vortigern at the Battle of Wallop, probably in the neighborhood of what is now called Danebury Hill Fort around 440—or approximately five to ten years before the arrival of Hengist. This would most likely have been in the territory of the Belgae.

Roger of Wendover claims that Ambrosius killed Vortigern in battle. The History of the Britons says that Vortigern’s son, Pascent, ruled in Builth and Gwerthegirnaim (in mid Wales) by Ambrosius’s consent. This would have been a greatly decreased area from that ruled by Vortigern and also suggests that Ambrosius’s influence had extended into Dobunni territory, at least temporarily.

If, somewhere in there, Ambrosius also fought against Saxons, it could have been against Hengest. Or, as mentioned before, the Catuvelauni had likely settled Saxon troops in Surrey, which could also be the Saxons Ambrosius fought.

Interestingly, in about 470, the Regni would be taken over by Aelle to eventually become Sussex (the Kingdom of the South Saxons). The civitas of the Belgae appears to have become Saxon through intermarriage. Cerdic is a nominally Saxon king with a British name. The Belgae would become Wessex (the Kingdom of the West Saxons) and eventually the dynasty that united most of England under Alfred the Great.

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Hengist is in many ways the other half of Vortigern’s story, especially as it intersects with Arthurian legend.

But that’s not all there is to Hengist—maybe. There’s a Hengest mentioned in something called the Finnsburg Fragment and also in Beowulf, in which a scop (bard) tells the story of the Battle of Finnsburg. Though, even in Beowulf, the tale is abbreviated, as if it was an allusion to a story the audience would be expected to know.

Between the two, they describe Hnaef (a Danish prince) visiting his sister’s husband Finn (a Frisian or Jute) for the winter. Some dispute occurred, resulting in a night attack on Hnaef and his men. Hnaef and Finn’s son were both killed in the battle. Hengest took over Hnaef’s war band and negotiated a deal with Finn. But that deal was breached in some way and in revenge Hengest attacked and killed Finn and his men.

Now, it’s far from certain that this Hengest of legend is the same Hengist hired by Vortigern. But it certainly presents some interesting dramatic possibilities. Neither one appears to be someone who took broken promises lightly. And that’s what seems to have gone wrong between Hengist and Vortigern, according to tradition.

The History of the Britons, written in the 9th Century, has it that three ships of exiled Germanic warriors arrived in Kent. That they might have been exiled is interesting given the story about Hengest killing his host, above. This would have been sometime between 445 and 450. The History doesn’t mention Vortigern inviting them, but it does say that he welcomed them and gave them the island of Thanet (the eastern tip of Kent), on which they had landed. (Thanet would have been an island then, though it isn’t now.) Vortigern then agreed to supply them with clothing and food in exchange for their military help against his enemies. So far, a fairly standard foederati agreement. But it was difficult for Vortigern to keep that agreement.

Check the map. If true, Vortigern would be trying to send supplies through enemy territory. The Belgae and Attrebates held the territory to the south of the Thames while the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes held the area to the north of the river and may have had a foothold to the south of London as well (Surrey). Vortigern wasn’t on good terms with any of them. In fact, they’re the best candidates for the enemies he wanted Hengist and his men to fight for him.

In any case, when Vortigern failed to deliver the promised supplies, Hengist rebelled. The first battle, at Aylesford in Kent seems to have been against Vortigern around 455. The next battle in about 457 was at Crayford possibly against Vortigern’s son, Vortimer. At any rate, Hengist seems to have been the undisputed ruler of Kent from this point.

His two later battles, in about 465 and 473, are more difficult to place and the opposing British forces are not named. It could have been Vortigern or Vortimer. Or against tribes neighboring Kent—the Catuvelauni or the Regni. The gap makes me think that it’s possibly a separate campaign, either against other Britons trying to oust Hengist or a war of expansion on Hengist’s part. If at least one of those battles was against the Regni, it would potentially be consistent with Gildas’s claim that Ambrosius turned back the Saxon advance.

In about 488, Oisc succeeds Hengist as king of Kent. Oisc is sometimes said to be Hengist’s son, but it is equally likely that he was the leader of a band of recently-arrived Jutes.

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Vortigern, Part 2

I was going to write about Hengist, but it turned out most of what I had to say to start was really at least as much about Vortigern. So, I guess this is Vortigern Part 2.

Supposedly, Vortigern invited Hengist and his men into Britain. This isn’t actually as crazy as it sounds. The Romans had made extensive use of federated troops. This often meant groups of “barbarian” mercenaries who were permitted to settle within the empire in return for military service. After Rome had hired such foederati as the Vandals and the Visigoths, bringing a few Saxons, Angles, or Jutes into Britain may not have seemed like such a stretch.

However, the traditional idea that Vortigern brought them in to protect against the Picts . . . I have a lot of trouble with that notion. Even if Vortigern were in fact High King—which he wasn’t because the Romano-Celtic Britons could never have agreed to that—it still wouldn’t make sense. See, the Picts were all the way up in the northern and eastern portions of what is now Scotland. And Kent, the territory of the Canti, where Hengist landed . . . well that’s all the way down in the southeastern corner of what is now England. (See the map below.)

Now, I’m no military strategist, but it just makes better sense to me to put the defense closer to the potential enemy. The Romans left a very well-maintained wall (roughly indicated on the map) with forts and towers for just that purpose. Of course, Hadrian’s wall is well beyond Vortigern’s territory. Still, siting his defenses along his northern border, not the place farthest away from the threat, would seem more logical to me. That is, if the Pict’s were the threat.

However, as I mentioned last week, archaeology suggests that other British tribes had already started hiring Germanic troops and settling them along their tribal borders. In fact, the Catuvellauni might have done so first—a tribe with a history of expansionism that was a potential threat to Vortigern. Plus the Catuvellauni had tried to take Kent before the Romans came and they may be responsible for a string of Saxon settlements south of the Thames in what is now Surrey.

If the “northern threat” he was defending against was his neighbors, the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes . . . well, that makes some sense. Though, his eastern border would have made more. Clearly, I’m going to have to come up with some reason for Vortigern to even be paying attention to Kent, let alone hiring mercenaries to settle there. I have a couple of ideas to play with.

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