Thursday, July 7, 2016

King Arthur in Wales (Notes:8)

Look familiar?


When we consider how the Arthurian legend was received in Wales, we must remember how during the medieval period, no one spoke Latin was a root language. It would not be until the end of the 9th century that Latin had evolved into the various romance languages (French, Italian, etc.). To write in Latin, accordingly, meant that you were educated. Moreover, to write in Latin was an announcement on your end as to the level of education you had obtained since writing was usually taught separately from reading and speaking. Reading and speaking was taught only in a native’s mother tongue and so excluded Latin, delineating it as a different subject all together.

  In ‘Egerdogin’ a Welsh text which mentions Arthur, is only the surface of how the Welsh tradition deals with the Arthurian canon: in the ‘Black Book of Carmarthon’ there is a poem called “The Stanzas of the Graves: which lists all of the burial sites in Wales. The poem makes reference to several figures in the Arthurian narrative (such as Guinevere, Gawain, and Camland). 

Meanwhile, in the “Triads of the Isle of Britain,” as a cultural preserver of Welsh identity, we see at least forty mentions of King Arthur. In triad 54 “Three Unbridled Ravagings of the Isle of Britain” we see Mondred gain a negative reputation the Welsh equivalent of Guinevere. Triad 56 tells us of how Arthur had three great queens, all of whom were named Guinevere, two of which were his wives. Triad 80 describes Mordred’s conflict with Guinevere.

In the text of the Maghobian, we see some caveats take place in regards to the texts listed above in that, as twentieth century scholar Jeffery Gantz has argued, their appearance in the Maghobian should be more aptly titled “Tales from the White Book of Ignirk” due to the stories likely French origin. The second caveat follows the first in that due to their French lineage, they should not be considered Welsh. 

This position is problematized, however, when we remember that the native Britains who fled England to Brittanty during the Anglo-Saxon invasion still kept in contact with their Welsh counterparts, thus making some iterations of these stories more problematic to date. There is disagreement, however, in whether Welsh texts were late newcomers or if the texts were based off of an older oral tradition. Many researchers today, however, believe that each set of stories—in Welsh and French—are based off of the same oral tradition.

  Five stories from the Maghobian are explicitly Arthurian: “Owen, or the Goddess of the Fountain,” “Pentier, Son of Egrog,” “Garet and Ineed” and “Kaleek and Owen” as well as “The Dram of Roniever.” The last two, of which, are explicitly Welsh and have many supernatural elements.

What survives today of the Welsh Arthurian tradition is likely a fragment of what had originally circulated in the oral tradition. Since story telling was the default mode of entertainment, one of the more popular Arthurian legends—Keleek and Owen—likely would have shifted in its performance depending on the season and community (this was the norm in all communities with oral traditions). Each community would often add or remove details depending on what their emphasis demanded at the time of telling.

         In ‘Keleek and Owen’ we see a list of Arthurian knights along with king Arthur and this list, and the accompanying story, make Keleek and Own the oldest Arthurian story to date in terms of what we think of story (something with a beginning, middle, and an end with rising action, adventures, and a definitive conclusion). As such, this story is this course instructor’s recommendation for anyone who has a desire to read at least one early Welsh Arthurian story. Additionally, the cataloguing of names acted as a kind of cameo and genre defining experience in which the audience could feel inspired and place themselves within a tradition since they could hear a name and enjoy remembering the adventures of that particular knight from another series of tales.

   In Welsh society, homosocial bonds, intimate but non-sexual connections between men, were important aspects of literary culture, hence the part in Keleek and Owen where the protagonist asks for a shave from the lord. In terms of male-to-male interactions, this story is important to the Arthurian canon since it is here that we see the Arthur figure—in his hall, not a castle—assign one of his knights to assist the protagonist instead of helping the lad, his revealed to be nephew, himself. 

   This is perhaps one of the earliest instances of a dichotomy between passive observer and active participant. It is interesting in that it denotes a setting where Arthur leads by example instead of by action, having as much prestige as he evidently possesses. 

As a side note, many in contemporary Wales still consider King Arthur as their liege and resent how he has been coopted by corporations to sell products and tarnish his legacy.