Welsh Legends and Myths - King Arthur
Welsh Legends and Myths
Arthur, the Warrior King, Man or Myth
The legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table has been told and retold hundreds of times over the centuries. Films have been made of their exploits and many towns claim Arthur as their own local hero. To discover the truth behind the legend of Arthur we must peer back through the mist of time and explore early Welsh history.
Accounts of Arthur existed in Welsh literature as far back as the 6th Century when the bards referred to Arthur in ‘Y Gododdin’, a series of death poems where a brave warrior responsible for the death of 300 men has his valour compared, unfavourably, to Arthur’s. The Welsh poet Taleisin, also from the 6th Century, wrote of Arthur’s exploits. The ‘Black Book of Carmarthen’, one of the earliest manuscripts written in Welsh and which is now kept in the National Library of Wales, recounts the adventures of Merlin and Arthur. The ‘Mabinogion’, a medieval Welsh manuscript dealing with pre Celtic Christian mythology again written in Welsh, relates eleven legends including stories of Arthur and his family.
More than seventy films have been made about King Arthur’s exploits and his adventures have been the basis for fifteen different television series.
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a scholar of Norman decent. Historians believe that his parents arrived with William the Conqueror. Geoffery spoke Breton, a Celtic language similar to Welsh. Even today Breton and Welsh speakers understand each other and there is an affinity between the races.
For centuries the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon was believed to be the site of Arthur’s round table. In 1587, the poet, Thomas Churchyard, referring to Caerleon wrote, ‘In Arthur’s tyme, a table round, Was whereat he sate;
And yet a plot of goodly ground,
Set forth that rare estate.’
When, in 1066, the Normans invaded Britain they were opposed by an army led by Harold, a Saxon King. The Celts in Wales had been fighting the Saxons before the Normans arrived and, although not welcoming this new invader, would have welcomed this new challenge to a common enemy. Geoffrey of Monmouth seized on the Welsh fight against the Saxons as heroic and chivalrous, good against evil. His first story, written in Latin, ‘Prophetiae Merlini’ (Prophecies of Merlin) was, he claimed, translated from ancient Celtic texts in his possession. This early work was included later in his principle work "History of the Kings of Britain" in which he developed a series of stories around King Arthur. The Welsh warrior Arthur, written of in ancient Celtic manuscripts, was becoming a Norman propaganda tool.
Geoffrey of Monmouth identified Caerleon as the capital of Arthur’s Kingdom. According to Geoffrey, it was a great city. He described it thus, "For it was located in a delightful spot in Glamorgan on the River Usk, not far from the Severn Sea. Abounding in wealth more than other cities, it was suited for such a ceremony. For the noble river I have named flows along it on one side, upon which the kings and princes who would be coming from overseas could be carried by ship. But on the other side, protected by meadow and woods, it was remarkable for royal palaces, so that it imitated Rome in the golden roofs of its buildings. Famous for so many pleasant features, Caerleon was made ready for the announced feast."
Caerleon, located on the banks of the River Usk, had been a Roman garrison city complete with fine buildings and an amphitheatre, evidence of which still exists today. Finding the ruins of Roman bath houses, barracks and substantial municipal buildings at Caerleon, the Norman writer, Geoffrey, had suitable evidence to support his version of Arthur’s story.
Others expanded on Geoffrey’s writing. One medieval text recounts the story of ‘The Rise of Gawain’, Arthur’s Nephew and how the young Gawain pushed King Arthur into the River Usk, leaving the King to explain to Queen Gwendoloena (Guninevere) why he was soaking wet. Later versions added the round table. The French author Cretien de Troyes added the name Camelot but still referred to Caerleon as Arthur’s capital. In the 15th Century Sir Thomas Malory compiled a collection of romantic stories, he called ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ (The Death of Arthur) in which he had Arthur re-crowned at Caerleon. His book, published in 1485 by William Caxton, the first printer in Britain, was an instant success.
Further variations of the stories of Arthur followed. In the 19th Century, Alfred Lord Tennison stayed at The Hanbury Arms, Caerleon where he wrote a poem entitled ‘Le Morte d’Arthur, based on Malory’s earlier work. Tennison later expanded the poem into a series and published them as ‘Idylls of the King’. The Idylls contain the common thread of Arthur and lead the reader from his early years to his betrayal by Queen Guinevere and his death at the hand of his evil son Mordred.
More recently, in 1994, the writer Michael Morpurgo published ‘Arthur, High King of Britain’ which recounted that it was at Caerleon where Arthur laid, incestuously, with his sister Margause and Mordred was conceived.
In the original Welsh legends the name of Arthur’s sword Excalibur was ‘Caledfwlch.’ In the stories the sword was used to kill an Irish king while stealing a magic cauldron. The same sword known as ‘Caladbolg’ appears in Irish folklore.
The power of King Arthur’s legends and the Knight of the Round have led to many claims regarding his heritage but the evidence is clear. No record can be found that King Arthur existing in the middle ages. Camelot and the round table are ideals, invented to justify the Norman conquest of England and Wales, using metaphors of good and evil. The Norman lords were depicted themselves as Arthur and his knights saving the land from evil. The brutal truth of Norman occupation was very different. Spinning a story for political ends is nothing new. Shakespeare reinvented history to justify a doubtful Tudor claim to the throne of England. Sensibly, he wrote plays that the public and, more importantly for his own wellbeing, the Royal Court wanted to hear.
The 2004 film ‘King Arthur,’ parts of which were filmed on the Black Mountains in Carmarthenshire, embellished the legend further than ever before. It depicted Arthur as a Roman cavalry officer defending Hadrian’s Wall against the Picts and fighting the Ancient Britons, led by Merlin. To add to the fun, Queen Guinevere was portrayed as a warrior princess complete with bow and arrows.
What cannot be disputed is that Arthur began life as a Welsh Warrior whose legend became more elaborate each time it was retold and Merlin, his chief advisor, was a Carmarthen man. The Mabinogion points to the fact that Arthur existed in pre Christian Celtic times, before Romans introduced Christianity, the time of the Silure, the most fearsome Celtic tribe. Arthur lived, not at Camelot surrounded by gleaming towers and flags, but in a hill fort such as Garn Goch, near Llangadog and that he never wore a suit of shining armour. Like the 2004 film depicting Arthur as a Roman soldier, many of today’s stories are pure invention. Despite being largely fiction, King Arthur’s stories remain some of the greatest and most enduring legends from our Island’s past. They will continue to entertain for centuries to come.