Friday, 31 January 2014

Arthur, the Historic Hero

Stephen Knight

This paper was initially written for the early 2013 medieval section of the Australasian Universities Literature and Languages conference, and then revised, and somewhat more Celticised, for the mid 2013 Celtic Studies conference at the University of Sydney. I had long felt, through teaching his text, that Geoffrey of Monmouth was not read sufficiently in terms of popular native traditions, and felt that a formal comparison with early heroic literature would be of value. It turns out in fact to emphasise the originality of Geoffrey’s approach and his intellectual modernity in his period, while also showing he did have earlier connections, positive as well as negative. The other surprise was how many of these major early texts appear to be contemporary. in the form in which we have them, with Geoffrey. Not only he, it seems, was re-realising the past at that time. There appears to have been a form of medievalism with which medieval literature started.


We have a fair amount of material surviving from the six hundred years or so between the period of post-Roman decay and the c.1100 re-establishment of a post-conquest Europe-facing world in Britain, but the historic material tends to have specifically focussed interests and the secular heroic material appears quite unconnected with it. It seems the two traditions, historic and heroic are inherently separate, until they are finally condensed in the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth and in the person of Arthur, and I will argue that it is this generic condensation that provides a major dynamic driving the medieval myth of Arthur and is a major reason for both the cultural weight –historic –and the cultural appeal – heroic – of the Arthur myth..

There is very little genuinely comparative analysis both across the genres of history and heroic literature and more strikingly across the languages -- Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and Welsh and Irish. However, we can definitely rule out of such criticism Nora Chadwick, the great Cambridge-based early British and Irish scholar. She has a tangible presence in my thoughts today because it was after Sydney University’s Fisher library bought the bulk of her library in 1971 that we were able to extend our teaching and research seriously in the early British period, especially its Celtic aspects. In saying we I refer especially to my friend and outstanding Sydney colleague the late Professor Bernard Martin.

The richness and also the separation of the genres of history and heroic is often strong. It is well-known that the riches of early Irish culture quite outrank those of parallel European traditions, and so it is hardly surprising that in both heroic and historic literature it has major instances, and here I will mention the prose epic with verse inserts, the Tain Bo Cuailgne, `The Cattle Raid of Cooley’, and the  massive and very rich Lebor Gabala Erenn, `The Book of the Taking of Ireland’. Copied down by Christian monks, and with some traces of Christian commentary now and then, The Tain relates to ancient events. Connaught attacks Ulster at a time when, for explained reasons, the warriors of Ulster are as weak as women in childbirth, so it is fortunate that their great hero Cuchulainn is not in fact an Ulsterman and can defend the province single-handed – though at one stage his father Lugh, often in the past called the Celtic Apollo, stands in for him to provide a rest. The heroic element can be startling. When Cuchulainn winds up for battle he undergoes his heroic distortions: a pillar of blood rises from the middle of his head; one eye grows as large as a dinner plate; the other eye is so small a crane could not pluck it from his head.

Yet this amazing hero story is not entirely without some historical aspects. It tells overall a stark account of how Connaught and Ulster almost destroy each other  in their exercise of heroic values; there is also a full gathering of the names of heroes, their genealogy, the meanings of place names, and a linking-in of earlier stories like `The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu’, the tragic story of Queen Deirdriu: the effect is powerful quasi-history. Some scholars have even suggested that as the cattle-raid is caused by the powerful desires of the regnant Queen Medb of Connaught, the story’s full meaning is to validate the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy in the Irish past. The heroic can approach the historic, even when generically very different.

But it is clear that a different sort of historical account is behind the various stories, many in verse, that are gathered together in the Lebor Gabala Erenn, which is a good deal more than a mere account of the `Taking ‘ of Ireland by the Irish. Appearing to stem in this full version from the later eleventh century, it is both a history of Ireland and also a  powerfully Christian text, with the first volume in the classic edition dealing with the Old Testament period of the movement of peoples. There is some overlap of names, mostly kings, with secular traditions (but almost none with the Tain), and there is still a good deal of detailed scholarship still to be done: the processes of assembly of the text are still far from understood – which do not only involve Ireland. One of the surprises is that the earliest appearance of Lebor Gabala Erenn material is in fact in a text written in Latin in Wales by the year 800, in a context which I will come to later. But in general it is possible to see the Tain and the Lebor as representing the genres of heroic and historic which have usually been taken separately and thought to be basically antithetical, but may well approach each other more than has been recognised.

This seems the case in early Britain as well, at least at first. and indeed there seems a separation into sub-genres of history, Christian and secular. Firmly in the first category is Gildas’s De Excidio Britanniae (`Concerning the Ruin of Britain’), written by the mid sixth century -- c. 540 is the usual date, though the late fifth century has been suggested -- and surviving in a manuscript from the later eleventh century. Gildas’s mission is not simple history: it is very strongly Christian history. Hanning calls it `a historical imagination used for moral purposes’ (45-6). The first twenty-seven fairly short chapters tell a broad historical story of how the sins of the Britons have led to their downfall – and there is little value given to Celtic British resistance to the Romans, who are seen as Christian colonisers. Boudicca herself is called `a treacherous lioness’ (18) and in general the British are `cowardly in war and faithless in peace’ (18). Though the Christian Britons do have moments of value – they are enabled to cross the Thames like Israelites negotiating the Red Sea – this book is in the tradition of the much-followed Eusebius, whose third century Ecclesiastical History saw sin and punishment as the basis for historical disaster.

Very few figures are named who are not also lambasted for villainy: Gildas speaks of five contemporary Welsh leaders of his own day as  anti-church, violent and sinful, like Maelgwn Gwynedd, much honoured in other Welsh tradition. There is however one recent positive memory. At what is for him some length, Gildas speaks of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a leader of clear Roman origin, as conducting a successful defence against the invading Germanic tribes which climaxed at the battle of `Mons Badonicus’ and lasted for some half a century. This was about forty-three years ago and things have turned very bad again, a justified providential response to the sins of the British.

This battle of `Mons Badonicus’, or Baddon, is of course the battle at which Gildas does not mention Arthur whereas in a couple of hundred years another text will link them. A reason often given is that Gildas mentions few names, especially not favourably-seen ones. However, a recent  argument is that if the chapter divisions are not present – as they are not in the earliest manuscript -- Baddon, as `the last defeat of the villains’ (Gildas, p. 28) may well simply have been the last of Aurelius’s victories. So this is a brief, if high impact, heroic presence, called up by history

After the historical opening Gildas provides over eighty chapters of exhortation about the sins that surround him, and how attention to Christian duty is the only thing that could lead to a better situation – it is a providential history on which he is relying, and he never imagines the British, with their burden of sin, can defeat the Anglo-Saxons however much he dislike the invaders. The briefly mentioned Roman hero has passed: there is no sign of a native heroic world and no real interest in secular history either.


The same genre of heavily Christian history, pointing in a different direction, and without any trace of the heroic, was produced by Bede by 731, named in a strong Christian tradition an Ecclesiastical History – but this time of  `the English people’: the Celts, especially the Welsh, are largely written out of recent British history. The early historic chapters are  drawn from the De Excidio, including in Chapter 16 the story of Aurelius Ambrosius, who is justifiably against the Anglo-Saxons because they were then still `heathen conquerors’ (63). Just like Gildas, Bede’s mission is to defend and strengthen the Christian church, but his method is not to excoriate sin but to praise the organisers of the church and its systems. As typified by the material on the date of Easter, Bede stands for organised international stable Christianity, and has no need of secular heroic traditions. In fact he tends to underplay civil and court violence, no doubt in part because tucked away in Jarrow it did not come to his notice very much – his world is very different from the busy urban world of Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks. But this is also a preference: for Bede real action is ecclesiastical not heroic, which is very much the point of the story about Caedmon switching his poetic genre.

So though Gildas and Bede are great combiners of material, they separate historic and heroic, apart from Aurelius. Distinctly different was the author of the Historia Brittonum, put together by about 800, and surviving earliest in a manuscript of around 1100. In the past the author was called `Nennius’, though that name could only be attached to a later redaction: yet when this named person says he has assembled all he could find, he seems to describe the Historia process very well. The word used is coacervavi and for some reason translators have said `I have made a heap’, presumably because they think little of the quality of the assemblage. But coacervo means `I assemble’, `I compile’: compiled is better than piled.. What was assembled was Gildas-linked material on the origin of the Britons, a fair amount of data from a northern history, Christian material such as an account of St Patrick, seen as a new Moses for the Irish. There are usually several hundred years of the Annales Cambriae, and, most interesting here, the Historia also includes some material from secular and specifically heroic Welsh tradition.

In general the Historia seems to be at times knowingly mixing the historic and the heroic. Nora Chadwick located the text in early ninth century Gwynedd (North Wales) when, in part because of `a relaxation of Viking pressure’ but also through the power of the local kings of Gwynedd Merfyn Frych and Rhodri Mawr, both intellectual activity and a sense of nationalism develop in the Celtic countries. This is where and when the earliest manuscript survives – the contacts with Ireland were quit rich. The heroic, in such a context, may have a para-historical value, and Chadwick’s argument indicates that the church and the secular apparat are here close, which seems to facilitate the historic-heroic link as we will later see.

Classical and historic detail does not in the Historia preclude a Christian viewpoint. St Germanus is the opponent and eventually, mediating divine power, the destroyer of Vortigern, the pro-Germanic British prince. The eventual British resistance is itself seen in Christian terms. But as well as chapters on Germanus and Patrick, secular material provides those on Emrys and Arthur. Emrys is the Welsh form of Ambrosius Aurelianus. He is the marvellous boy who is found in order to be sacrificed to save Vortigern’s tumbling tower, but he plumbs the mystery that there are fighting dragons beneath the tower. We will know him later as Merlin, but here he is not a figure of wisdom, but primarily heroic, the true British prince who builds his own castle and rules. And we have for the first time the story of Arthur and his twelve successful battles, some recognisable – as well as four in Lincolnshire, there is one in southern Scotland, one at `urbs legionis’, presumably Chester, and of course the important one at Baddon. Arthur is presented as a formidable hero, killing 960 in one day (a triune Celtic-style number, though 990 might be more traditional). He is capable of battle-fury as at Baddon, but he is also a Christian leader, bearing the image of Mary into battle.

Presumably this, like the Cambrian Annals references to Baddon and Camlann, Arthur’s battles, is material coming from secular heroic traditions enlisted in a form of historical nationalism, beyond or beside church interests. There are similar native instances. In chapter 39 Vortigern has had a son by his daughter, and St Germanus is kind to the boy. Razor and scissors are brought, and the boy asks his father `of the flesh’ to cut his hair, but Vortigern angrily refuses: this is a reverse of Arthur fondly cutting the hair of his nephew Culhwch. Towards the end, the Historia goes on a tour of the wonders of Britain. We see a stone marked by the great paw of Arthur’s hound Cafal as the king chased the mighty boar Twrch Trwyth: this chase also occurs in Culhwch ac Olwen.

The Historia Brittonum is overall a text striking in its rich mix of genres, information and comment. But its richest quality, never properly identified and certainly not respected, is that here for the first time British history is to some degree hybridised with British secular heroic tradition. The historic and the heroic are at least side by side. We will see how they can interrelate more fully in a while in Geoffrey of Monmouth. But first it will be useful to look at the secular heroic traditions, elements of which have entered the Historia, to see what happens in them, and what does not.


The hero stories that we have from this period are dark: in the Táin, Ulster and Connaught slaughter each other; Beowulf’s grand career and splendid kingship comes to a stark if honourable end. In a more overt example of heroic self-consumption, Roland dies in a paroxysm of martial glory. For Arthur, Camlann will always follow Baddon. We know that epic does not end with a song and dance of happiness, but these narratives seem to be doing more than just letting time and human life pass as they do: they seem to be taking a stand beyond the collapse of a grand order and reflecting back on its values and its inherent weakness – that is, you can see a distinct element of history, even moralised history, in the structure of these noble but sombre heroic narratives.

The other striking feature is that they are filled with detail that itself speaks to the historical without making the connection overt. It is not only the Táin which is full of genealogies and explained place-names. The references in Beowulf make up a whole study and reclaim a whole social culture of the Germanic past now seen and remembered from England. The Song of Roland in the same way weaves the history of families, wars and political manoeuvring into the events that focus on one day at Roncesvalles in August 778. The absence of a formally understood classical or Christian historic genre does not prevent these texts from speaking about the past of  social, even national, culture, if only referentially. In Culhwch ac Olwen there is a sequence almost six pages long in the translation which lists the names of Arthur’s warriors, with an encyclopedic quality.


It is Geoffrey of Monmouth who brings together fully the historic and the heroic, fulfilling the promise and it seems the intention of the Historia Brittonum, and as he does this primarily, as least as far as his readers and his influence are concerned, through the figure of Arthur, it is appropriate to discuss and speculate briefly about the possible existence of a separate and early heroic Arthur story like those of Cuchulainn, Beowulf and Roland.

As has been noted, the first link between Arthur and the Anglo-Saxons is in the Historia Brittonum, datable to about the year 800. Welsh tradition has other early references to Arthur, but none is certainly earlier than the Historia, and, more strikingly, none of them identifies Arthur as a defender of the British against Germanic invaders, just as a major warrior figure. Two battle-poems mention him: in the Gododdin, a powerful memorial to warriors from the Edinburgh region who fought the Anglo-Saxons at Catraeth in about 600, he is once mentioned as a even greater warrior than the hero being lamented in that stanza. The link may well be just that their names rhyme, Gwawrddur and Arthur, and equally casual is the fact that this stanza cannot surely be traced to the poem’s earliest layer. Another elegiac poem speaks of a battle probably in Somerset, where the hero Geraint fought and died. The narrator says he saw Arthur there as `guider of toil’, meaning battle, and uses the word `amherawdyr’ of Arthur, implying `general’ – the Latin imperator behind the Welsh does not though  make him a Roman general. It is often said, with some reason, that Arthur does not appear in the early Welsh genealogies nor its pagan mythology. But two other very different early poems place him in a semi-mythic world. In Preiddeu Annwfn he and his men go in his ship Prydwen (`Beautiful’) on a very costly raid on the otherworld; then a poem called simply after its opening words Pa Gwr lists the feats of Arthur and especially Kai  in fighting battles – these include one which may well be the same as one of those listed in the Historia Brittonum, but also includes tussles with witches and other monsters.

Geoffrey of Monmouth states that he was using an ancient British book as his source, given to him by Walter the Archdeacon. He says this book had a `consecutive and orderly narrative’ (51) and set out all the deeds of all his British kings, and he has translated it from Welsh or British as he calls it. While the Historia Brittonum does have the range he specifically mentions, from Brutus to Cadwallader, it quite lacks both the detail and the order. When he speaks of the end of Arthur he again refers to Walter, but here only says Walter told him about this. Maybe he suggest this knowledge was in part oral, though he obviously had the Historia Brittonum (and suppressed all reference to it), and also Welsh genealogies, as well as a good classical library. Did he also have access to an early heroic Arthur epic poem ?

As a way of thinking about an ur-Arthur text that Geoffrey might have read, I went through the heroic texts and identified characteristics as Lord Raglan does for the international hero in his book The Hero. I found a few features shared by Beowulf and Roland, and a couple of contacts between Culhwch and Roland. Between Arthur and Roland I could only see in-family treason and the disastrous final battle being shared. The surprise was that I found about eight features common to Arthur and Beowulf: indirect access to kingship; defeating monsters; military achievement overseas; ruling in glory; final battle; lasting honour; warrior fame; emblem of past glory. Between Arthur and Cuchullain I found perhaps five shared features: mysterious double-fathered birth; absence from domain in childhood and youth; access to power when young; warrior leadership; elusive marriage. Perhaps more puzzlingly, it has long been noticed that Arthur shares a lot of heroic characteristics with Finn McCool. Finn has some 11 heroic attributes and Arthur shares 8 of them, but Finn’s story is entirely heroic, not at all historic. The most telling statistic is that in Geoffrey’s account, of the 22 `international hero’ motifs listed by Raglan, Arthur scores some 16 – and through all the later development gains at most 2 more. This makes him score very highly in international terms. Almost none of these heroic events pre-exist Geoffrey: it is his version that makes Arthur the international hero.

I do not mean to suggest that Arthur’s story is constructed as a combination of influence from Cuchulainn and Beowulf: the contacts are hero-generic. So when did Arthur become an international hero?  It is conceivable that a lost text from say the ninth century assembled this Arthur material, a post Historia Brittonum venture in Welsh, but where is it, or where are the references to it ? The figure was of such interest the story would surely have survived in some form, and be shadowed in Culhwch ac Olwen. I think it is far more likely that Arthur’s hero-story was put together by what we know to have been the brilliant, imaginative and structurally assured hands of Geoffrey of Monmouth, as part of his being the only full combiner of historic and heroic in this early period. This would be a parallel to his handling of the Merlin story.

Yet this imaginative power may not have been as unusual as we might think. In preparing this paper I wanted to get the dates of production of texts reasonably accurate, so checked up on what scholars thought. In terms of the histories, the material is fairly securely datable – to the life of Gildas and Bede, for example, or to a set of records being produced, as with the Annales Cambriae that are used in the Historia. Only the Historia Brittonum, which has a heroic loading, has a puzzling even, multiple dating. Yet this is the case with all the hero stories and, most interesting of all, in almost all cases around the year 1100 seems to be the earliest when scholars are confident that the text we have took its shape. While there is a strong tendency to feel and argue that these are ancient materials rehandled in literary mode – and early commentators seemed to yearn for real antiquity in these materials -- a case can and has been be made for the contrary, for an eleventh-century Beowulf or Roland, for example or even a twelfth-century Culhwch or Cuchulainn: a medieval creation of the Tain has been argued for. The recording and it may be at least some of the structuring of the hero stories may be a retrospective part of the moment of  medieval innovation. The early medieval heroes may be a high medieval retrospective construction.

Though most people remember Geoffrey’s work for Arthur, his Historia is a large, well-planned whole reaching from the founding of Britain to the founding of Celtic British rule. It has many functions: a major one, which has been well-discussed by scholars, is to shape a mythic past for the new Norman rulers. But
Norman as its main subliminal direction may be, Geoffrey’s Historia maintains a recurrent interest in the British position. I leave these two themes, Geoffrey’s British and Norman connections, unamplified here.

But sustaining and subtending  this ultimately para-Norman and recurrently pro-British meaning in the text, there is another structure that may facilitate condensing the heroic and thehistoric. Hanning has written at some length about what he calls a new twelfth-century historiography. In some detail he describes Ordericus Vitalis, Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury moving away from the absolute providentiality of earlier Christian-based history. He sees them as, in classical mode, developing a narrative with `a larger role for human causation’ and `a lively interest in psychological motivation’ (126).

Geoffrey is very much in key with this new position, and it connects with his own classical traditionality as he mimes classical hero-history at times. Within the flow of Geoffrey’s detailed account of kings and royal families and their triumphs and conflicts, there are three major sequences focused on individuals in this new world of Britain. First we have Brutus, no longer seen through a quasi-scholarly set of overlapping accounts as in the Historia Brittonum, but given a potent active biography. Later comes the story of the great Celtic leader Belinus, with his somewhat difficult brother Brennius, how they ruled and squabbled in Britain, combined to defeat and then destroy Rome, and how Belinus returned to prolong a benign rule over Britain and found the city that became Caerleon. Then of course appears Arthur, the main focus, Geoffrey’s gift to succeeding ages and artists. Little follows him: Bede’s northern Anglo-Saxon kings are only briefly mentioned through the medium of the Historia Brittonum: never considered  is the undoubtedly great Alfred or the decidedly holy Edward the Confessor. Geoffrey’s model is to set in history the heroic post-Roman British leaders, and then to invent a divine message to Cadwallader to tell him the time of the Britons is over – at least until Merlin’s prophecy comes true -- so Cadwallader leaves for Rome and plague sweeps Britain. It is a striking final return to providential Christian history in order to exculpate the British from losing their land. The text says that `those few Saxons who remained alive’ (282) send for new settler stock to Germany: Anglo-Saxon England is reduced to a few hundred years only, before power passes to the Normans.

Thorpe, in his Introduction (21-2), asks why Arthur became the stand-out success, not Belinus. Maybe people had heard of Arthur ? But not the Normans, surely. The real reason is structural, Geoffrey’s use of the full-blown heroic and international-hero model for Arthur’s formation, while Brutus and Belinus are just classical fragments. Geoffrey developed the approach of the Historia Brittonum, using with real imaginative power the secular heroic materials it yoked awkwardly to history. In a brilliant sequence borrowed from the earlier Historia, Emrys, Vortigern and Arthur are all redeveloped, Arthur most of all. Emrys is turned into the wise cross-temporal figure of knowledge, Merlin; Vortigern into the enemy whose defeat by true Britons is ideologised by secular Celtic Merlin, not the saintly continental Germanus; and then Arthur is given the full Cuchullain/Beowulf/Roland treatment -- in fact goes beyond them, augmented to full international epic hero status ranging from his mysterious birth to equally mysterious passing.

With his splendid buildings like those then going up across England, his tight hold on the church (his uncle St David has taken over as archbishop, in a fully Norman-style if also ahistoric operation), with his capacity to lead from the front in furious battle, Arthur is every inch a Norman-style monarch, meshing heroic warrior achievement with historic political status. That immediate credibility was driven by the underlying and overwhelming power of the epic hero which Geoffrey had the power – and the place and the time – to interweave with the model of a dedicated history. Augustinian canon that he was, not a monk or priest (though he very late became a priest to become a bishop), Geoffrey held back the Christian providential force of the earlier historical narratives—though he had things to say ironically about the church, as Valerie Flint showed in Speculum in 1979. As a secular scholar, closely involved with the new Norman state, Geoffrey’s position is more like that of the Gwynedd writer who shaped the Historia Brittonum, except that Geoffrey has the confidence and power to condense the historic and the heroic, rather than intercalate them.

Though it is generally agreed there was an early shorter version of the Historia Regum Britanniae, from Geoffrey’s hand, I find it very improbable that there was anything like a previous substantive source as Geoffrey suggested in a familiar medieval authority-seeking manoeuvre. The previous version is, it seems to me almost certainly, the Historia Brittonum, to which we can add Geoffrey’s wide knowledge in Latin and Welsh traditions, and no doubt many conversations of the kind he implies with his learned friends at Oxford like Walter the Archdeacon.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, the saying goes, and here there were two men. One was Arthur, to represent the new force of European monarchy, including its fears and dangers – the international hero set in a version of  history; and the other man was Geoffrey, scholar, wit and creative writer, in the best combined tradition of all three, but mostly the imaginative creator  and bringer to fruition of a long Britain-related tradition of writing,  both historic and heroic, that, through his genius, still exerts its power over creative accounts of the heroic and the historic to this day.



1. Early British historic material


After a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home, God gave strength to the survivors. Wretched people fled to them from all directions, as eagerly as the bees to a beehive when a storm threatens, and begged whole-heartedly, `burdening heaven with unnumbered prayers’ that they should not be altogether destroyed, Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of all the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm: certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather’s excellence. Under him our people regained their strength and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented and the battle went their way.

From then on victory went now to our countrymen, now to their enemies: so that in his people the Lord would make trial (as he tends to) of his latter-day Israel to see whether it loves him or not. This lasted right up till the year of the siege of Mount Badon, pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least. That was the year of my birth: as I know, one month of the forty fourth year since then has already passed.

Historia Brittonum

Vortigern and Germanus

39. Then, on top of all his misdeeds, Vortigern took his daughter to wife, and begot a son upon her. When this was made known to saint Germanus, he came with all the clergy of Britain to accuse him. When the great Synod of the clergy and laity met together in a single council, the king told his daughter beforehand to come to the meeting, and put her son in the lap of Germanus, and say that he was the child’s father. The woman did as she was told, but Germanus took the child kindly, and addressed him `I will be you father, and will not send you away, unless a razor and scissors and comb are given me, and you are permitted to give them to your father after the flesh.’ The boy heard him, and turned to his grandfather Vortigern, his father after the flesh, and said to him, `You are my father. Crop the hair of my head.’ But he was silent, and said nothing, and refused to answer the boy. He got up in great anger, and fled from the face of saint Germanus, and was accursed, and was condemned by saint Germanus and the whole council of the British.

Arthur’s battles

56. At that time the English increased their numbers and grew in Britain. On Hengest’s death, his son Octha came down from the north of Britain to the kingdom of the Kentishmen, and  from him are sprung the kings of the Kentishmen. Then Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their leader in battle.

The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth, were on another river, called the Dubglas, which is in the country of Lindsey. The sixth battle was on the river called Basas. The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is the battle of Coed Celyddon. The eighth battle was in Castle Guinnion, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his  shoulders, and the heathens were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother. The tenth battle was fought in the bank of the river called Tryfrwyd. The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns.

2. Welsh heroic Arthur material

 The Gododdin

He glutted the black ravens on the wall
Of the fort, though he was not Arthur


In Llongborth I saw Arthur,
Brave men struck with steel,
Emperor, guider of toil.

Pa Gwr
Before Emrys’s lords
I saw Cai on the move,
Spoils he carried off,
The tall man was in anger,
Heavy was his vengeance,
Bitter was his anger.
When he drank from a buffalo horn
He drank for four men;
In battle when he came,
For a hundred he would kill;
If god did not cause it,
Impossible would be Cai’s death

Preiddeu Annwfn

I am famous, splendid if the song is heard:
In the fortress, four-cornered, four-sided,
In poetry from the cauldron it was spoken,
By the breath of nine maidens it was set ablaze.

HERO FUNCTIONS (as in Raglan, The Hero)

1. Mother is a royal virgin

2. Father is a king and

3. Often a near-relative of his mother

4. The circumstances of his conception are unusual

5. He is also reputed to be the son of a god

6. At birth an attempt is made to kill him

7. But he is spirited away

8. And reared by foster-parents in a far region

9. Nothing is known of his childhood

10. On reaching adolescence he enters his future Kingdom

11. After a victory

12. He marries a princess

13. And becomes king

14. He rules uneventfully

15. And prescribes laws

16. Later he loses favour with the gods and/or his subjects/his family

17. Is driven from the throne or city

18. He meets with a mysterious death

19. Often in a high place

20. His children, if he has any, do not succeed him

21. His body is buried, but there is some doubt about his death

22. He has one or more holy sepulchres

Arthur:  2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20, 21, 22    (close 17, 19 )

REFERENCES (In order of occurrence)


Táin Bó Cúailnge, `The Cattle Raid of Cooley’, trans. Thomas Kinsella (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970)

Lebor Gabala Erenn, `The Book of the Taking of Ireland’, ed. R. A. S. MacAlister, Irish Texts Society, vols xxxiv-viii, new edition with Introduction by John Carey (London, Irish Texts Society, 1993)

Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae`, `Of the Destruction of Britain’, ed. and trans, Michael Winterbottom (London, Phillimore, 1978)

Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica de Populo Anglice, `Ecclesiastical History of the English People’, with Introduction  by D. H. Farmer, revised ed. (London, Penguin, 1990)

Gregory of Tours Historia Francorum, `The History of the Franks’, trans and with Introduction by Lewis Thorpe (London, Penguin, 1974)

[Nennius], Historia Brittonum, `History of the Britons’, ed. and trans. John Morris (London, Phillimore, 1980)

Le Chanson de Roland, `The Song of  Roland’, trans and with Introduction by Michael A. H. Newth (New York, Italica, 2011)

Beowulf, trans Kevin Crossley-Holland, with Introduction by Heather Donoghue (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999)

Culhwch ac Olwen, in The Mabinogion, trans G. and T. Jones (London, Everyman, 1966).

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae, `The History of the Kings of Britain’, trans. and with Introduction by  Lewis Thorpe (London, Penguin, 1966)


Robert Hanning, The Vision of History in Early Britain (New York, Columbia University Press, 1966)
N. K. Chadwick, `Early Culture and Learning in North Wales’, in Studies in the Early British Church, ed. N. K. Chadwick (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1958).
Christopher Brooke, The Saxon and the Norman Kings (London, Collins, 1967)
J. S. P. Tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1950)
V. I. J. Flint, `The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth: Parody and Its Purpose, A Suggestion’,  Speculum 54 (1979), 447-68.

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