Arthur of Britain?

David Jones, in his long essay 'The Myth of Arthur' asserts that "the tradition of Arthur was, for the Welsh, an authentic part of their historical mythus, whereas for the English it was a literary convention mixed with local traditions as at Glastonbury ...". It is easy to lose sight of this fact. 'King Arthur and his Knights' are all too familiar. It is likely that the source material for much of the medieval Arthurian romances was Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain which was written in Latin in the Twelfth Century (Breton sources have been suggested for the French romances of Chretien de Troyes but these are not extant). Geoffrey drew upon an older 'historical' source in the work of the ninth century chronicler Nennius. It seems that he also drew upon Welsh material, some of which has survived and some has not. It is likely that he filled in both the historical and the fictional gaps by making things up. Certainly he drew things together that had not previously belonged together, bringing in Merlin from a quite different set of literary and legendary material. But his Arthur is at least a Brythonic war lord in a country that was divided both within itself and by invasion. The medieval romance tradition ignores this context and makes him very much a contemporary figure (to them) ruling a medieval court whose knights get mixed up in the Holy Grail legend. As for the great English Arthurian cycle, it is based very much on this pan-European material in spite of its sinewy engagement with the realities of knightly conflict (Sir Thomas Malory wrote his Arthurian cycle while in prison having fought in some the the decisive battles of the Wars of the Roses). Malory's constant refrain is "so the Frensshe book maketh mencyon". The last books of the cycle (based in this case partly on the earlier English alliterative Morte Arthur) are a fast-moving and tragic account of illicit love and its consequences. But in the hands of Tennyson in The Idylls of the King they became a Romantic and dreamy expression of Victorian neo-medievalism. This is this 'English' Arthur that survived into the cinema age, though some more recent films have put back the harder edge of Malory's gritty realism.

But still all this is a million miles away from How Culhwch Won Olwen, or the Arthurian references in early Welsh poetry. But what did survive into the later medieval tradition was the idea that, as Malory puts it:

"Som men say in many partys of Inglonde that Kyng Arthure ys nat dede, ...... Yet I woll nat say that hit shall be so, but rather I wolde sey: here in thys worlde he chaunged hys lyff. And many men say that there ys wrytten uppon the tumbe thys:


The idea of a grave for Arthur in the Englynion y Beddau is 'anoeth' a word that has caused some problems of interpretation. In modern Welsh it usually means 'unwise' but can also mean 'strange'. In earlier Welsh it also had the meaning 'marvel'. So 'An unwise thought ,a grave for Arthur' or 'A great marvel, a grave for Arthur' are both possible. But the general idea is that Arthur doesn't need a grave because he is not dead but sleeping and will come again to re-claim the sovereignty of the island of Britain in a time of of need. It was an idea that the Welsh adhered to but it was firmly knocked on the head by Edward I when he had two bodies removed from a tomb at Glastonbury in 1278 in the middle of a period of conflict with Llywelyn ap Gruffudd the last native Prince of Wales. Here are Arthur and Guenevere says Edward, so he's not coming back. In such ways do myth and legend become the stuff of politics, which I suppose gets as close to the world of a Brythonic warlord as we can get.


Bo said...

Very odd word, a(n)noeth. No idea of the etymology---not got GPC here. But, on reflection,it must be >*ande-oxto or something, which would seem to mean 'non-narrow', which is unlikely. I wonder if we cd derive something from ande-nokwto-, 'unnaked', and thus 'not apparent' and, nominally, 'an unclear thing, mysterious object or event'.


Heron said...

I'd always assumed it was 'doeth' with the 'd' taking the nasal mutation because of the prefixed negative particle rather than a word on its own account. But 'annoethau' in Culhwch does seem to require this. Glossed there both as 'marvels' and 'tasks' these seem not directly related to 'doeth', (though they are very unwise tasks!) Orgraff yr Iaith Gymraeg gives an-doct as the construction.

In the intro to Culhwch, Bromwich & Evans suggest 'peth anodd ei gael' which I suppose covers the range. They also say it is not otherwise recorded in prose but cite some other examples from poetry.

Bo said...

Hm. I think the Orgraff is wrong! It's not at all clear to me how we get from 'unwise thing', which would be the literal meaning of an+doeth, of course, to 'peth anodd ei gael', as you say---though it's clear how we get from the latter to 'wonder, marvel'. But *ande-nokwto-->and-nopt-->ann-noxt-->annoeth.

I suppose on the other hand that the doct- in the OyIG could be retaining its original sense as a latin passive participle of docere, 'teach, present on stage', so we could imagine a British-Latin compound *an(de)-doctum, 'a thing not taught, not presented to public view or knowledge' and thence 'a hidden thing, mystery' and thence in turn 'marvel, wonder, thing hard to find'.

Phew. Sorry for being a bore. Beautiful and learned post as always!

I'll ask Paul Russell.

Heron said...

Having looked in GPC it's clear that these are two distinct words:
anoeth = marvel
annoeth= unwise
only the latter being in current usage.

But there certainly are versions that give 'unwise' in the translation of that englyn. I had wondered if the two meanings had influenced each other, but it might just be a translator getting confused!