Daily Archives: January 25, 2011

Arthur vs Ysbaddaden: Arthur’s Literary Debut

We cannot prove that the Celtic tales are not changed, but we can have some reasonable assurance that what we are reading is something very like what Taliesin might have sung in the days of Arthur himself.

In my last post, I addressed the issue of Arthur’s mysterious, quasi historical origins and how he is tied up with history, if not precisely a historical figure himself. Now time to move on to less historical and more fantastic elements of Arthurian legends.  In this post, I will be focusing on Arthur’s first known appearance in a literary work.

When Bards Play “Telephone”

Arthur and his knights... maybe they're playing telephone...

Out of the hazy beginnings of his legend, Arthur first appears as a realized hero of story (as far as we know) in the Welsh story of Culhwch and Olwen found in the Mabinogion. This Arthur is not the Arthur that you probably envision when someone says, “Hey, how about that King Arthur?” (which, of course, you have been asked on more than one occasion… Such as in my last post…). This is the Celtic Arthur, and he is a very different sort of hero.

Celtic mythology is, quite frankly, weird. It doesn’t have a creation myth; its gods are more like super humans than actual deities; its world consists of overlapping dimensions of the mundane and the magical. All these things comes together in the Irish and Welsh tales (they are so close in their content that we can generally assume that they have similar origin, inspiration, and spirit) to create a mystical fantasy realm that is ideally suited for all manner of adventure, enchantment, and a godlike king named Arthur.

Unfortunately, as I have mentioned in earlier posts, the Celts were not overly fond of writing in their pre-Christian days, so the stories that we have written down in such works as the Mabinogion or the Irish Táin Bó Cúailnge (pronounced rather like “toyn bo koolee” if you want to feel especially smart talking about it) are the product of Christian monks and scholars writing in the medieval period, long after the original stories had first been told and the ancient beliefs of the Celts had faded.

So how can we rely on anything they write? If you think about it, these monks were writing down stories that had hundreds of years of telling behind them. They could easily have changed things either accidentally or deliberately. We only have their word for it that these are the original stories at all and not a skewed version resulting from centuries of playing bardic “telephone” with ancient tales.

But what we must understand, first of all, is that these writers were not just monks. They were people with a heritage. They would more than likely still identify with their culture and the legends and folktales of their people. These scholars were writing down stories that they likely had an emotional investment in, stories that mattered to them. Yes, their Christian faith was their highest priority; but, as many of us well know, a love of stories and myth is not only possible, but even enhanced by a committed faith in the true Myth.

Secondly, we need to understand the value that the Celts placed on bardic tradition. Because they sang the stories instead of writing them down, their bards had a sacred duty to preserve the stories in every detail. We cannot prove that the Celtic tales are not changed, but we can have some reasonable assurance that what we are reading is something very like what Taliesin might have sung in the days of Arthur himself.

A Familiar Figure in a Strange Land

And so, here we are with a whole bunch of strange stories about godlike men riding through an ancient, alien Britain. Who was the Arthur of this world and how could he possibly be connected to our favorite hero from White’s novel or Monty Python’s memorable film? Well, he might not be the familiar king of Camelot yet, but this Arthur carries the first hints of those elements which would make Arthur such a notable hero of legend.

In the story of Culhwch and Olwen, the hero is Culhwch cursed only to love and marry one girl. Yes, that would be Olwen. It’s really not the girl who makes the whole situation a curse. Olwen is the stereotypical beautiful maiden. She’s rather like a Disney princess. She has fair golden hair and flowers spring up wherever she walks (no joke). The problem is her father. He’s a giant, and a nasty one, what’s more. Ysbaddaden won’t give his daughter away without exacting a horrible cost. Culhwch goes to seek help from his royal cousin, whose name is — you guessed it — Arthur. So, we have a quest to defeat a giant with a fair maiden as the reward. This isn’t so different, after all.

The other notable aspect of this tale is the warriors in Arthur’s band. Here, we meet the earliest versions of cranky Kai, faithful Bedivere, and valiant Gawain. One of the most significant traits of the Arthurian kingdom is not so much Arthur himself, as the knights who surround him. Arthur’s greatness is demonstrated most clearly in his ability to attract the worthiest knights to his circle.

However, it is not so much the storyline or the names that make the Celtic origins of Arthur important. The Celtic spirit and Otherworld give the stories of Arthur and his knights a certain mythic essence that is hard to find elsewhere.

But I’ve gone on long enough here.


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