Legendary King Arthur: The Welsh Myths

The exploration of Arthurian references within medieval Welsh manuscripts delves into a rich tapestry of myth, legend, and historical conjecture. These manuscripts are crucial for understanding how the legend of King Arthur, a figure deeply ingrained in the British and Celtic mythos, was perceived and evolved during the medieval period in Wales.

‘Galfridian’ comes from the name of Geoffrey of Monmouth, which is in Latin Galfridus Monemutensis.  Galfridian and post-Galfridian literature refers to Geoffrey’s own works and those later sources which are clearly derivative of his work, most especially his Historia Regum Britanniae.  Pre-Galfridian literature is that which is generally agreed to date from before Geoffrey wrote his HRB, that is c. 1138.  Non-Galfridian literature is that which, though it may be later in date than c. 1138, shows no signs of being derivative of, or even aware of, Geoffrey’s work.

The Manuscripts

At the heart of this exploration are a handful of key manuscripts, each contributing unique elements to the Arthurian narrative.

The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin)

One of the earliest surviving manuscripts written solely in Welsh, this book contains poems that reference Arthur and his exploits, offering insight into how he was viewed in early Welsh literature. It was written by a solitary scribe over several years during the latter part of the thirteenth century. Within its pages are found religious verses, early eulogies, prophetic poetry linked to the pre-Galfridian Merlin cycle, and compositions pertaining to Arthur and other legendary figures. Among the notable Arthurian works within the ‘Black Book’ is “Pa gur yv y porthaur?” Other references to Arthur are more fleeting, such as those found in the Englynion y Beddau (“Stanzas of the Graves”), yet they retain significance.

The Book of Taliesin

The ‘Book of Taliesin’, comprising 38 folios, was transcribed by a single scribe in the initial quarter of the fourteenth century. Its contents, a blend of religious, prophetic, mythical, and historical poems, claim to represent the compiled works of the bard/sage Taliesin, as envisioned during the later Middle Ages. While debate exists over the authenticity of an early nucleus possibly originating from the sixth-century Taliesin, grounded on archaic praise-poems directed towards Urien of Rheged and contemporary rulers, more certain dating pertains to the tenth-century prophetic poem Armes Prydein, briefly mentioning Myrddin (Merlin). The majority of the poems, spanning from the eighth to eleventh centuries, are attributed to the legendary Taliesin, characterized as omniscient and semi-divine.

Arthur’s name surfaces in just five of the ‘Book of Taliesin’ poems – Kat Godeu, Kadeir Teyrnon, Kanu y Meirch, Marwnat vthyr pen[dragon], and Preideu Annwfyn, with the latter being most notable.

The White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch)

The ‘White Book of Rhydderch’ dating from the 14th century, this manuscript is one of the most important surviving manuscripts in the Welsh language and contains a diverse collection of texts, including prose tales, poetry, genealogies, and historical tracts.

The manuscript contains a variety of texts, including the earliest surviving version of many medieval Welsh prose tales, collectively known as the “Mabinogion.” These include famous stories such as “Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed,” “Branwen ferch Llŷr,” “Culhwch and Olwen,” and “Math fab Mathonwy.” Additionally, the White Book contains various historical and genealogical texts, religious works, and poetry attributed to renowned Welsh bards.

The Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest)

The ‘Red Book of Hergest’, similar to the White Book, is a 14th-century manuscript also contains texts of the Mabinogion, along with other material including poetry and historical texts. Crafted by three groups of scribes collaborating between 1382 and approximately 1410, it boasts an extensive array of texts, including the most comprehensive version of Trioedd Ynys Prydein.

Notably absent are materials found in the ‘Book of Aneirin’, the ‘Book of Taliesin’, as well as religious and legal texts. The chief scribe, Hywel Fychan ap Hywel Goch of Builth, is credited with a significant role in the creation of the manuscript, with his handwriting identified in several other Welsh manuscripts, such as the ‘White Book of Rhydderch’. Close parallels exist between certain texts found in both the ‘Red’ and ‘White Books’, such as their versions of the ‘Mabinogion’ and the Triads, suggesting an independent derivation from a lost common archetype.

The Book of Aneirin

Despite its brevity, the ‘Book of Aneirin’ holds significant literary and historical importance. Within its pages, Arthur is mentioned by name only once, specifically in a version of “Y Gododdin.” This solitary mention of Arthur provides a glimpse into the medieval Welsh literary tradition and its incorporation of legendary figures like Arthur.

The Texts

Annales Cambriae

The “Annales Cambriae” or “Annals of Wales” is a chronicle that contains a record of events in Wales from the Roman period until the Middle Ages. This document is particularly significant for its mentions of several key figures and events from Welsh history and legend, including Arthur and Merlin. The annals record events year by year, from AD 447 to 954, with later additions that extend to 1288. The entries are typically brief, noting significant occurrences such as battles, deaths of kings, and natural disasters.

Historia Brittonum

The “Historia Brittonum” (History of the Britons) is a significant early medieval text that played a crucial role in the development of British history and the Arthurian legends. The exact authorship of the “Historia Brittonum” is uncertain. It was traditionally attributed to Nennius, a Welsh monk, but modern scholarship often treats it as the work of an anonymous compiler. The text is believed to have been written around the 9th century, possibly in the year 828 or 829.

Chapter 50 (or 56 depending on your version) discusses twelve battles fought and won by Arthur, here called dux bellorum (war leader) rather than king:

At that time, the Saxons grew strong by virtue of their large number and increased in power in Britain. Hengist having died, however, his son Octha crossed from the northern part of Britain to the kingdom of Kent and from him are descended the kings of Kent. Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander [“dux bellorum”]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. And while they were being defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.

Nennius’ Historia Brittonum

The Mirabilia of the Historia Brittonum

The “mirabilia” section in the “Historia Brittonum,” dated around AD 829/30, is a compilation of twenty marvellous and mystical occurrences. These marvels, or “mirabilia,” are described in sections 67 to 75 of the text. The first four marvels are individually numbered and not specifically linked to Wales. However, marvels 5 to 14 are distinctly located in Wales, particularly in the southeast and along the border with England. The remaining six marvels are divided between Anglesey (15-18) and Ireland (19-20).

Of particular interest are two of these Welsh marvels, found in section 73 of the “Historia Brittonum,” which are associated with the legendary figure of Arthur. They mention

In the area of Buellt, there is a remarkable stone bearing the footprint of Arthur’s dog, Cafall. This imprint is believed to have been made while Arthur and Cafall were hunting the pig Troynt. Interestingly, if anyone attempts to move the stone from its location, it inexplicably returns to its original spot by the next day. Another marvel is found in the region of Erging, where a grave said to contain Amr, the son of Arthur, lies. Amr was tragically slain by Arthur himself. This particular grave is peculiar because it never measures the same length twice. In these accounts, Arthur is consistently referred to as a soldier (“Arthuri militis”) and not yet recognized as a king.

Y Gododdin

“Y Gododdin” is an early Welsh poem of heroic death-songs found in the late thirteenth-century ‘Book of Aneirin’. It is thought to come from the late 6th or early 7th century. It is one of the earliest known examples of Welsh literature and is notable for its elegiac tone and historical significance. The poem commemorates the Battle of Catraeth, where warriors of the Gododdin tribe, based in what is now southeastern Scotland, launched an attack against the Anglo-Saxons but suffered a devastating defeat. The reference to Arthur in this source may be no earlier than the 9th century, but it demonstrates the fame of Arthur among the Welsh at this time.

He pierced over three hundred of the finest
He slew both the centre and the flanks
He was worthy in the front of a most generous army
He gave out gifts of a herd of steeds in the winter
He fed black ravens on the wall
Of the fortress, although he was no Arthur 
He gave support in battle
In the forefront, an alder-shield was Gwawrddur.

Y Gododdin CII

There is also a reference to Myrddin (Merddin, Merlin) in the A text of Y Gododdin.

Morien carried off with his spear,
Myrddin of song, sharing the best

Y Gododdin XLIII

Marwnad Cynddylan

Cynddylan or Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn was a seventh-century Prince of Powys. The key source for Cynddylan is the lament for his death known as Marwnad Cynddylan (Elegy for Cynddylan). Marwnad Cynddylan is a seventy- or seventy-one-line awdl-poem. The poem would seem to refer to Arthur in much the same way as does Y Gododdin, to allow a comparison for Cynddylan.

It was better when they were
the young whelps of great Arthur, the mighty defender.

Marwnad Cynddylan

The Dialogue of Arthur and Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr or Pa gur yv y porthaur

“Pa gur yv y porthaur?” (translated as “What man is the gatekeeper/porter?”), also known as “Ymddiddan Arthur a Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr” (“The Dialogue of Arthur and Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr”), is a notable pre-Galfridian Arthurian dialogue poem from the “Black Book of Carmarthen.” This work is considered to be from the same era as other dialogue poems in the Black Book, likely dating to the ninth or tenth century, as suggested by scholars such as R. Bromwich and B.F. Roberts in their studies (“Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd” and “The Arthur of the Welsh”). However, the possibility of a later date, even as early as the eighth century could be considered.

Who is the man that asks it?
Arthur and the fair Cai.

Pa gur Arthur and the Porter

Culhwch and Olwen

“Culhwch ac Olwen” is a notable Welsh narrative featuring a hero associated with Arthur and his warriors. Culhwch ac Olwen is the earliest tale in the ‘Mabinogion’ and is preserved in two manuscripts: a complete version in the Red Book of Hergest, dating to around 1400, and a fragmented version in the White Book of Rhydderch, from around 1325. The language of Culhwch ac Olwen appears to be Late Old Welsh. It stands as the lengthiest of the extant Welsh prose stories. Lady Charlotte Guest famously included “Culhwch and Olwen” in her compilation of Welsh tales, which she titled “The Mabinogion.” This inclusion has played a significant role in introducing and popularizing the story in the broader context of Welsh literature and Arthurian legends.

In “Culhwch ac Olwen,” Arthur is portrayed as both a formidable sovereign, titled the ‘Chief of the Kings of Britain,’ and a legendary monster-slayer. This narrative, primarily a literary creation, seems to have been woven from numerous pre-existing oral and legendary Arthurian tales. These stories were combined with a traditional ‘giant’s daughter’ folktale, resulting in the current version of the story. The Arthurian elements in the tale are believed to be part of an ancient collection of non-historical stories, similar to those found in “Pa gur yv y porthaur?,” Chapter 73 of “Historia Brittonum,” and “Preideu Annwfyn.”

Two prominent examples of pre-existing Arthurian legends incorporated into “Culhwch ac Olwen” are the hunt for the divine boar Twrch Trwyth, an Arthurian association dating back at least to the eighth century as mentioned in the “Historia Brittonum” and likely rooted in ancient Celtic religious beliefs, and Arthur’s voyage to Ireland in his ship Prydwen to capture Diwrnach’s cauldron, akin to the journey to the Otherworld described in the poem “Preideu Annwfyn.” These elements in “Culhwch ac Olwen” seem to have evolved from local place-based folklore.

Other early Arthurian narratives preserved in “Culhwch ac Olwen” include the slaying of the Very Black Witch in the ‘Uplands of Hell’, the defeat of the giants Wrnach and Dillus the Bearded, the liberation of the pagan god Mabon ap Modron from an Otherworldly fortress by Arthur’s warband, and Arthur’s resolution of a conflict between the divine figures Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwythyr ap Greidawl.

The Spoils of Annwfn or Preiddeu Annwfn

“Preiddeu Annwfn” or “Preiddeu Annwn” (translated as “The Spoils of Annwfn”) is a sixty-line enigmatic Middle Welsh poem found in the 14th-century Book of Taliesin (as Poem XXX). It narrates King Arthur’s journey to Annwfn or Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld. Specific dating of the poem range from general Old Welsh period to mid to late 8th-century origin, predating the “Historia Brittonum.”

The poem’s backdrop is an odyssey undertaken by Arthur in his ship Prydwen to Annwfyn to acquire a mystical cauldron owned by Pen Annwfyn and possibly magical or fairy creatures from a fortress there. This tale has several parallels in Celtic literature, such as the quest for Diwrnach the Irishman’s cauldron in “Culhwch ac Olwen”. It also hints at the capture and subsequent liberation of Gweir in the Otherworld by Arthur, a theme mirrored in “Culhwch ac Olwen” with Arthur’s rescue of Mabon ap Modron. These fuller narratives were likely familiar to the original audience of “Preideu Annwfyn,” enabling them to grasp the poem’s now obscure references.

Stanzas of the Graves or Englynion y Beddau

The “Englynion y Beddau” (‘Stanzas of the Graves’), found in the thirteenth-century “Black Book of Carmarthen,” poetically records the burial sites of once-famous heroes, reflecting the intimate connection between heroes and places in early Welsh literature. The heroes are more legendary and folkloric than historical. While the earliest surviving manuscript of these stanzas is from the 13th centurythe poem dates back to the mid to late 9th century, representing older oral tales and topographic folklore.

Of the 73 stanzas, only three (8, 12, and 44) mention well-known Arthurian characters, with stanza 44 being particularly significant as it names Arthur himself and suggests his grave is impossible to find, possibly because of rumors that he wasn’t dead, a theme present in pre-Galfridian literature. Gwythur, Gwgawn, and March, also mentioned in this stanza, are tied to Arthur in various early Arthurian legends and tales like “Culhwch ac Olwen” and the semi-Arthurian Tristan stories. Stanzas 8 and 12 reference the graves of Gwalchmai, Arthur’s nephew, and Cynon, along with Osfran’s son at Camlann and Bedwyr on Tryfan hill, tying them to early Arthurian legend.

8. The grave of Gwalchmei is in Peryddon
as a reproach to men;
at Llanbadarn is the grave of Cynon.

12. The grave of Osfran’s son is at Camlan,
after many a slaughter;
the grave of Bedwyr is on Tryfan hill.

13. The grave of Owein son of Urien is in a square grave
under the earth of Llanforfael;
at Abererch is Rhydderch the Generous.

14. After things blue and red and fair
and great steeds with taut necks
at Llanheledd is the grave of Owein .

44. There is a grave for March, a grave for Gwythur,
a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword;
the world’s wonder/ difficulty (anoeth) a grave for Arthur.

The Battle of the Trees or Cad Goddeu

“Cad Goddeu” (The Battle of the Trees), a poem from the 14th-century “Book of Taliesin,” delves into a mythical battle led by the divine sons of Dôn, using an army of magically animated trees, possibly from Coed Celyddon, the Caledonian Forest. The poem is considered part of the transformational genre in Welsh literature and contains elements that may trace back to older traditions like pagan tree-lore.

Arthur is mentioned only once in the poem, where the ‘druids of the wise one’ are instructed to prophesy to him, suggesting his presence in the narrative. The poem also refers to the ‘lord of Britain’ in the context of the battle, which can be interpreted as another reference to Arthur.

The Death-Song of Uthyr Pendragon or Marwnat Uthyr Pen[dragon]

Marwnat Uthyr Pen[dragon] or ‘The Death-Song of Uthyr Pendragon’ is from the The Book of Taliesin XLVIII. It is dated to the Old Welsh period in general, roughly the ninth to eleventh centuries.

A sword-stroke daring against the sons of Cawrnur?
I shared my shelter,
a ninth share in Arthur’s valour.
I broke a hundred forts.
I slew a hundred stewards.
I bestowed a hundred mantles.
I cut off a hundred heads.
I gave to an old chief
very great swords of protection.
Is it not I that performed the rights of purification,
When Hayarndor went to the top of the mountain?
To my deprivation, to my sorrow, sinew was brave.
The world would not be if not for my offspring.

The Death-song of Uther Pendragon, The Book of Taliesin XLVIII

Kadeir Teyrnon

“Kadeir Teyrnon” is a less well-known poem associated with the legendary figure of Taliesin, a semi-divine character in Welsh mythology. This poem is characterized as a boasting poem, a common genre in Celtic literature where the speaker boasts of their own or others’ achievements. In “Kadeir Teyrnon,” Taliesin extols the virtues of a figure named Teyrnon before he proceeds to free his patron, Elffin, from captivity.

The identity of Teyrnon in this poem is subject to interpretation. The word ‘teyrnon’ in Welsh can be translated as ‘a prince’. This has led to speculation that Teyrnon could be a reference to Arthur himself, one of the most prominent and legendary figures in Welsh and broader Celtic mythology. If this interpretation holds, it places the poem within the rich tapestry of Arthurian legend, wherein Taliesin, known for his wisdom and magical abilities, interacts with other significant figures from these myths.

The mention of Taliesin’s role in releasing Elffin from imprisonment also highlights the recurring themes of rescue and liberation found in Celtic storytelling, emphasizing the intertwining of human and supernatural elements that is typical of these legends.

Did not (he) lead from Cawrnur
Horses pale supporting burdens?
The sovereign elder.
The generous feeder.
The third deep wise one,
To bless Arthur,
Arthur the blessed,
In a compact song.
On the face in battle,
Upon him a restless activity.

The Chair of the Sovereign, The Book of Taliesin XV

Arthur and the Eagle

The “Ymddiddan Arthur a’r Eryr” (‘Dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle’) is a poem that appears in various manuscripts from the 14th century and later. Based on linguistic and thematic analysis, it is generally dated to around 1150 and is considered to have content that is non-Galfridian, meaning it doesn’t align with the interpretations of Arthurian legend as presented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his “Historia Regum Britanniae.”

The poem has a religious theme, portraying Arthur not as the Christian king often depicted in later Arthurian tales, but rather as a pagan warrior-hero. So this could possibly be before Arthur becomes king.

The central focus of the poem is a conversation between Arthur and an eagle. This conversation leads to a moment of religious enlightenment for Arthur, as the eagle is revealed to be the reincarnation of his deceased nephew Eliwlad, who is the son of Madog and grandson of Uthyr Pendragon. This narrative presents a unique perspective on Arthur, blending elements of pagan belief systems with the legendary figure’s character, and illustrating the diverse ways in which Arthurian legends have been interpreted and reinterpreted over time.

I wonder, seeing I am a bard,
On the top of the oak and its branches on high 
What the vision of an eagle, what the illusion.

Arthur and the Eagle

The first stanza is interesting as Arthur refers to himself as a bard or port.

Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhwyfar

The “Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhwyfar” primarily survives in two manuscripts from the 16th and 17th centuries. This work, which likely dates back to at least the mid-12th century, is considered to have origins outside of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tradition. The dialogue begins with Gwenhwyfar serving guests at a feast, including Melwas. Subsequent verses depict Gwenhwyfar taunting Melwas, who in turn boasts of his bravery compared to Cai. Both texts mention a meeting between Gwenhwyfar and Melwas in Dyfneint (Devon), though the specifics of this encounter remain ambiguous. The narrative backdrop of this poem is rooted in a pre-Galfridian Welsh tale about Arthur rescuing Gwenhwyfar from Melwas’ Isle of Glass in the Otherworld. Melwas, also known as ‘honey-youth’, is portrayed in other texts as a magician who magically abducts a girl, presumably Gwenhwyfar, to the world’s end. This theme is similar to that in “Preideu Annwfyn” and its related stories.

The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd

The “Black Book of Carmarthen” poem, “Ymddiddan Gwyddno Garanhir ac Gwyn fab Nudd” or “The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd”, holds significant Arthurian interest, particularly in its last seven stanzas. The poem potentially dates from the 10th century.

I have been where Llachau was slain,
The son of Arthur, extolled in songs,
When the ravens screamed over blood.

The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Black Book of Carmarthen

A key Arthurian reference in the poem relates to Llacheu, the son of Arthur, described as “awful/marvellous in songs” and associated with a scene where ravens croak over blood. This portrayal, edited and translated by J.B. Coe and S. Young, underscores Llacheu’s importance in the early Arthurian saga, as he is also mentioned in the pre-Galfridian “Trioedd Ynys Prydein” and “Pa gur yv y porthaur?”.

Llacheu’s death is mentioned in a 13th-century elegy by Bleddyn Fardd, indicating he was slain below Llech Ysgar, a location connected to the courts of Madog ap Maredudd and possibly Crickheath Hill south of Oswestry, Shropshire. The identity of Llacheu’s slayer remains unnamed in non-Galfridian sources, but “Y Seint Greal” suggests it was Cai, likely due to a confusion with Loholt from the Perlesvaus.

Geraint uab Erbin

The medieval Welsh poem “Geraint uab Erbin” celebrates the hero Geraint for his exploits at the Battle of Llongborth. Composed in Middle Welsh, the poem features three-line englyn stanzas and is preserved in several versions. The oldest known version is found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, completed circa 1250, although the poem’s origins may trace back to the 10th or 11th century. Additionally, it is included in the ‘White Book of Rhydderch’ and the ‘Red Book of Hergest’. Notably, the poem is one of the earliest texts mentioning King Arthur.

The narrative centers on the Battle of Llongborth, serving as a tribute to Geraint, often identified as a late 6th-century Dumnonian prince. The exact location of Llongborth remains uncertain, speculated to be either Langport in Somerset or a general ‘ship harbour’.

In Llongborth I saw Arthur,
And brave men who hewed down with steel,
Emperor, and conductor of the toil.

Geraint son of Erbin

A key Arthurian element is introduced in the eighth stanza. The passage describes the demise of Arthur’s valiant men at Llongborth, highlighting their martial prowess. This could imply the poet envisioned Arthur’s men, or perhaps Arthur himself, aiding Geraint in battle. Such a reference might either directly honour the poem’s subject through association with Arthur, famed for his martial excellence, or serve as a metaphorical comparison, likening Geraint and his fallen comrades to Arthur’s renowned warriors. This interpretation aligns with the portrayal of Arthur as an unrivalled warrior, with the term ‘emeraudur’ (from Latin ‘imperator’) possibly prefiguring the depiction of Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. However the term’s meaning should be interpreted as more akin to ‘general’ or ‘commander’.

The Dream of Rhonabwy

“Breuddwyd Rhonabwy” or The Dream of Rhonabwy is a unique piece of medieval Welsh literature, likely composed between the late 13th and early 14th centuries, with possible origins extending from the mid-12th to the mid-14th century. This dating is partly suggested by a reference to the tale made by the poet Madog Dwygraig, who flourished around 1370-80. Distinguished from the mainstream Arthurian narratives influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth (Galfridian), this tale stands out for several reasons.

Firstly, while it is commonly grouped with the ‘Mabinogion’ tales, “Breuddwyd Rhonabwy” differs significantly from them. It is found exclusively in the Red Book of Hergest and is notably absent from the White Book of Rhydderch. Furthermore, it is physically separated from the other ‘Mabinogion’ tales within the Red Book by some 56 columns, suggesting a distinct placement and importance.

Unlike the other tales that evolved over time, “Breuddwyd Rhonabwy” seems to have been the work of a single author. This is notable because it implies a more cohesive and individual creative vision, rather than a collective evolution of folklore and myth.

Most importantly, the tale utilizes traditional material not as a goal in itself but as a means to create a unique and satirical Arthurian narrative. The tale is characterized by a “satiric rather than a heroic vein,” marked by ambiguities and ironies. In this tale, King Arthur is depicted in a non-heroic light and interestingly portrayed as a giant. This portrayal of Arthur breaks away from the typical heroic mould found in other Arthurian literature.

In essence, “Breuddwyd Rhonabwy” can be seen as a parody or critique of Arthurian literary conventions. It acknowledges these conventions but chooses to subvert them, offering a fresh and critical perspective on the Arthurian legend. This aspect makes “Breuddwyd Rhonabwy” not just a story within the Arthurian canon but also a commentary on the nature of Arthurian literature itself.

The Latin Saints’ Lives

In the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, Arthur is featured in the Lives of various saints including Padarn, Carannog, Illtud, Gildas, Cadog, Goueznou, and Euflamm. Notably, these texts often depict Arthur differently from his portrayal in other early literature. Rather than the heroic figure found in texts like “Culhwch ac Olwen,” he is often cast as a tyrant, serving as a foil to the saintly protagonist. These Vitae, or ecclesiastical hero-tales, require a conflict between the religious hero and secular power, often resulting in the ruler, in this case, Arthur, being humbled or belittled.

Arthur is portrayed as an arrogant, grasping tyrant who faces defeat not in battle but due to his greed and failure to perform traditional roles like giant or dragon-slaying. These Arthurian episodes are manipulated to cast him in a negative light, yet are consistent with his portrayal in other Arthurian legends. However, Arthur’s wrongdoings in these Vitae are not irredeemable or malicious, as seen with other rulers in similar narratives.

In Caradoc of Llancarfan’s Vita Gildae from the 1120s or 1130s, we encounter a version of the pre-Galfridian Welsh tale about Gwenhwyfar’s rescue from Melwas’ Otherworldly Island of Glass and a tale of conflict between Arthur and Huail ap Caw. These stories reflect Arthur as a ‘Protector of Britain’, a theme seen in “Culhwch ac Olwen” and other early Welsh Arthurian poems.

Lifris’ Vita Sancti Cadoci, written between 1061 and 1104, includes two unique tales. One involves a topographic folktale about exchanging magical or Otherworldly animals at a ford, and the other portrays Arthur as a mighty warrior and protector existing outside of normal society.

Additionally, tales of Arthur slaying dragons are found in the Welsh “Vita Prima Sancti Carantoci (c. 1100) and the twelfth-century Breton Vita Euflami. The latter is notable for its description of Arthur with a triple-knotted club and lion-skin shield, indicating knowledge of other Arthurian monster-hunting stories in Brittany. These tales, while not widely known, contribute to the diverse and complex portrayal of Arthur in medieval literature.

The Triads of the Island of Britain

The “Trioedd Ynys Prydein” or “Triads of the Island of Britain” is an ancient Welsh compendium, preserved in various medieval manuscripts, including the mid-13th-century NLW Peniarth 16, which houses up to triad 46. The remaining triads are found in later manuscripts such as the 14th-century “White Book of Rhydderch,” the “Red Book of Hergest,” Peniarth MS. 47 from the 15th century, and Peniarth MS. 50. These triads, which are mnemonic devices used to recall traditional material by systematizing it into groups of three, are thought to have first been compiled in the 11th or 12th century, although the traditions they contain are older.

The ‘Early Version’ in NLW Peniarth 16 is seen as pre-Galfridian, while the ‘Later Version’ in the White and Red Books shows Geoffrey of Monmouth’s influence, despite not being primarily derived from him. These triads are significant for their Arthurian references, particularly in the later versions, reflecting the growing interest in Arthurian legend and the incorporation of non-Arthurian figures into this cycle. For instance, Arthur is often depicted as the ‘lord of Britain’ and is involved in various legendary narratives, such as the hunting of Henwen and the portrayal of his court, Llys Arthur.

Arthur’s role in Welsh tradition is emphasized by his exceptional addition to certain triads, highlighting his high status and heroic qualities. His deeds, including his final battle at Camlann, conflicts with Medraut, and his role as the Protector of Britain, are narrated within these triads. Additionally, Arthur is mentioned in various contexts, such as one of the Three Frivolous Bards and in an englyn attributed to him. These triads thus offer a rich insight into the traditional and legendary aspects of Welsh history and mythology, particularly the evolving narrative of King Arthur.

The manuscript known as ‘Tri Thlws ar Ddeg Ynys Brydain’ (‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’), preserved in over forty copies with the earliest dating back to around 1460 in NLW Peniarth 51, is a significant compilation in medieval Welsh literature. Despite each version listing only thirteen items, fifteen distinct treasures are named across the different manuscripts. Notably, two of the items – the ‘Hamper of Gwyddno Garanhir’ and the ‘Cauldron of Diwrnach the Giant’ – are also mentioned in the earlier Welsh tale ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’. The late dating of the ‘Tri Thlws ar Ddeg Ynys Brydain’ manuscripts should not diminish their value in preserving ancient fragments of Welsh traditional literature, believed to originate from tales of magical objects associated with the Otherworld.

Among these treasures, two are of particular Arthurian significance. The first is the ‘Cauldron of Diwrnach the Giant’, also featured in ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’, where it is taken from Ireland, symbolizing the Otherworld. This cauldron has a unique property: it only boils the meat of the brave, not that of a coward, a motif also found in the possibly eighth-century poem ‘Preideu Annwfyn’. This similarity underscores the interconnectedness of these tales and the traditional nature of this particular treasure.

The second item of Arthurian interest is ‘The Mantle of Arthur in Cornwall’. This cloak renders its wearer invisible while allowing them to see others, a feature suggestive of its Otherworldly origin. This mantle is briefly mentioned in both ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’ and ‘Breuddwyd Rhonabwy’, where it is described as white and attributed to an Otherworldly source, having been brought to Arthur by a red man riding a red horse.

These artefacts, therefore, are not just mere items in a list but are imbued with rich mythological significance, representing the intersection of the Arthurian legend with the mystical and magical elements of medieval Welsh lore.

The Gogynfeirdd and Cywyddwyr

The Arthurian legend played a significant role in the works of the Gogynfeirdd, the court poets of the Welsh princes in the 12th and 13th centuries, and was further embraced in later Welsh poetry. Arthur was commonly referenced as a symbol of military excellence, echoing his portrayal by pre-Galfridian poets. In these later compositions, Arthur is often depicted as a paragon of military valour, similar to his representation in earlier works like Y Gododdin and Marwnad Cynddylan.

For instance, the mid-12th-century poet Gwalchmai ap Meilyr, named after Arthur’s nephew, commended Madog ap Maredudd, the king of Powys, for possessing ‘Arthur’s Strength’. Similarly, Cynddelw, around 1170, likened Madog’s army’s shout to that of Arthur’s host. Prydydd y Moch, active around 1170-1220, referred to Arthur as a generous and battle-famous lord, describing him as an unstoppable force.

The Gogynfeirdd’s works also include favourable references to other Arthurian characters like Medraut, Arthur’s son Llacheu, Gwenhwyfar’s father Ogrfan Gawr, and figures like Gwalchmai and Cai. These references typically align with non-Galfridian traditions, sometimes contradicting Geoffrey of Monmouth’s narratives, as seen in the treatment of Medraut and the battle of Camlann.

Despite Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Historia Regum Britanniae” and “The Three Romances” (“Y Tair Rhamant”) increasing Arthur’s international fame and influencing later Welsh poetry, the Gogynfeirdd and subsequent poets often continued to draw from native, non-Galfridian Arthurian traditions. They selectively integrated Galfridian elements, favoring traditional Welsh depictions of characters like Llacheu, Medraut, and Cai over their Galfridian counterparts. This selective adoption is evident in the works of 14th to 16th-century poets, who maintained native characterizations while incorporating some elements of the post-Galfridian Arthurian material.

Over time, however, the influence of post-Galfridian material grew, gradually blending with and sometimes overshadowing the native tradition. This shift is visible in the changing perception of characters like Gwenhwyfar and Medraut in Welsh poetry. By the early 16th century, Medraut had evolved from a positive figure into the traitorous enemy of Arthur, as depicted in Galfridian tales.

This blend of native and non-native elements is also seen in later versions of “Trioedd Ynys Prydein” and texts like “Pedwar Marchog ar Hugain Llys Arthur” (‘Twenty-Four Knights of Arthur’s Court’), where both Galfridian and non-Galfridian influences are evident. The Galfridian influence catalyzed the recording of various, sometimes contradictory, traditions about events like the battle of Camlann.

In summary, while the Arthurian legend became increasingly prominent in later Welsh poetry, influenced by its growing international fame and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s works, Welsh writers and poets demonstrated a remarkable and enduring commitment to their native Arthurian traditions.