Arthur and the Porter

Pa gur or Arthur and the Porter id the 31st poem of the Black Book of Carmarthen, a manuscript dating to the mid-13th century, is commonly referred to by its opening line, “Pa gur yv y porthaur?” (meaning “What man is the gatekeeper?”), or simply as “Pa gur,” alternatively known as “Ymddiddan Arthur a Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr” (“The dialogue of Arthur and Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr”). It presents a fragmented, anonymous poem in Old Welsh, structured as a conversation between Arthur and the gatekeeper Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr. Arthur seems not a king but the leader of a war band.

In this dialogue, Arthur boasts of his own heroic deeds and those of his companions, particularly highlighting Cai the Fair. Pa gur stands out as one of the earliest Arthurian works in the vernacular, offering glimpses into early adventures of Arthur that have since been lost. While its exact age remains uncertain and has sparked extensive debate among scholars, current scholarly consensus leans towards a date around c. 1100.

The Porter Scene as a Celtic Literary Motif

The poem “Pa gur yv y porthaur” unfolds within the context of a recurring Celtic literary motif known as the porter scene. This common narrative element is also found in works like the Welsh “Culhwch ac Olwen” and the Irish “Second Battle of Moytura.” This motif usually provides an opportunity for the hero to demonstrate his worthiness to a skeptical gatekeeper and, by extension, to the audience. This is achieved through a detailed recounting of his skills and accomplishments. True to this tradition, “Pa gur” features Arthur and Cei at the gates of an unnamed stronghold, where they recite their numerous feats and those of their companions. Their aim is to persuade the reluctant gatekeeper of their claim to be “the best men in the world.”

Summary of Arthur and the Porter

The poem commences with Arthur inquiring about the porter’s identity. Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr promptly reveals his name and reciprocates the query, prompting Arthur to disclose his own identity and the composition of his retinue, including Cai the Fair and “the best men in the world.” Glewlwyd demands Arthur’s endorsement for his companions, leading Arthur to enumerate his men and extol their valorous deeds: Mabon, son of Modron, servant to Uthr Pendragon; Cyscaint, son of Banon; Gwyn Goddyfrion; Manawydan, son of Llŷr, who wielded pierced shields from Tryfrwyd; Mabon, son of Mellt; Anwas the Winged and Llwch the Windy-Handed, defenders of Edinburgh; and finally Cai, renowned for dispatching foes three at a time while imploring them.

The narrative then shifts to Arthur himself, recounting his battles against a witch in the hall of Afarnach, Pen Palach in the abodes of Disethach, and dog-headed adversaries at the mount of Edinburgh. Bedwyr Perfect-Sinew decimated his foes by the hundred, exhibiting ferocity on the shores of Tryfrwyd. It’s been suggested that this segment concerning Arthur and Bedwyr might actually be spoken by Cai.

Arthur once more lauds Cai’s martial prowess, momentarily interrupted by the lament:

“I had servants, it was better when they were alive.”

Arthur recalls witnessing Cai’s swiftness before the lords of Emrys, noting his formidable wrath and remarkable drinking capacity. Such is Cai’s might that only God himself could orchestrate his demise. Cai and Llachau, the poem reveals, engaged in countless battles. Cai confronted nine witches atop Ystafngwn and battled lions in Anglesey. The narrative then introduces another of Cai’s adversaries, the fearsome cat of Palug, against whom “his shield was polished.”

Nine-score soldiers would fall as its food; nine-score champions…

The remaining portion of the poem has been lost.

Full Text of Arthur and the Porter

What man is the porter?
Glewlwyd Gavaelvawr.
Who is the man that asks it?
Arthur and the fair Cai.
How goes it with thee?
Truly in the best way in the world.
Into my house thou shalt not come,
Unless thou prevailest.
I forbid it.
Thou shalt see it.
If Wythnaint were to go,
The three would be unlucky
Mabon, the son of Modron,
The servant of Uthyr Pendragon;
Cysgaint, the son of Banon;
And Gwyn Godybrion.
Terrible were my servants
Defending their rights.
Manawydan, the son of Llyr,
Deep was his counsel.
Did not Manawyd bring
Perforated shields from Trywruid?
And Mabon, the son of Mellt,
Spotted the grass with blood?
And Anwas Adeiniog,
And Llwch Llawynnog–Guardians were they
On Eiddyn Cymminog,
A chieftain that patronised them.
He would have his will and make redress.
Cai entreated him,
While he killed every third person.
When Celli was lost,
Cuelli was found; and rejoiced
Cai, as long as he hewed down.
Arthur distributed gifts,
The blood trickled down.
In the hail of Awarnach,
Fighting with a hag,
He cleft the head of Paiach.
In the fastnesses of Dissethach,
In Mynyd Eiddyn,
He contended with Cynvyn;
By the hundred there they fell,
There they fell by the hundred,
Before the accomplished Bedwyr.
On the strands of Trywruid,
Contending with Garwlwyd,
Brave was his disposition,
With sword and shield;
Vanity were the foremost men
Compared with Cai in the battle.
The sword in the battle
Was unerring in his hand.
They were stanch commanders
Of a legion for the benefit of the country- Bedwyr and Bridlaw;
Nine hundred would to them listen;
Six hundred gasping for breath
Would be the cost of attacking them.
Servants I have had,
Better it was when they were.
Before the chiefs of Emrais
I saw Cai in haste.
Booty for chieftains
Was Gwrhir among foes;
Heavy was his vengeance,
Severe his advance.
When he drank from the horn,
He would drink with four.
To battle when he would come
By the hundred would he slaughter;
There was no day that would satisfy him.
Unmerited was the death of Cai.
Cai the fair, and Llachau,
Battles did they sustain,
Before the pang of blue shafts.
In the heights of Ystavingon
Cai pierced nine witches.
Cai the fair went to Mona,
To devastate Llewon.
His shield was ready
Against Oath Palug
When the people welcomed him.
Who pierced the Cath Palug?
Nine score before dawn
Would fall for its food.
Nine score chieftains…

[here the manuscript breaks off]