Here is the first in a series of articles where I analyze various King Arthur stories and contrast them with the original Welsh stories. At first let’s start with the most famous one, Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as well as the related Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
Le Morte d’Arthur
Le Morte d’Arthur – a tome vast in size (almost 1,000 pages) and vast in significance. It is the first novel ever printed in English on the printing press, and continues to be phenomenally popular. It could be considered the bridge between King Arthur as folklore and King Arthur as literature, collecting a wide variety of tales into a single book and serving as the defining force for all later King Arthur stories to respond to. Every Arthur tale after Le Morte d’Arthur is either inspired by it or is defined in opposition to it, the author either saying “how can I use Mallory?” or “how is my story different from Mallory?”
That being the case: “how Welsh are the Mallory stories?” The answer is a simple one: “not Welsh at all.” Mallory defines the Romance Arthur strain, contrasting with both the Pseudo-Historical Arthur and the Welsh Arthur. Any story or interpretation of the “Welsh King Arthur” is defined mainly by how unlike Mallory it is, for the following reasons:
- French Names: Lancelot du Lac, Mogan la Fey, Beaumains, La Cote Male Tayle, the very title itself “Le Morte d’Arthur.” As a book largely based on the French Romances, French names appear throughout Le Morte d’Arthur. As Lancelot himself is supposedly from France, “du Lac” may make sense, but Morgan was raised in Cornwall and then moved to Wales — so why exactly is she “la” Fey? The predominance of such names, along with all the courtly imagery, makes the whole thing feel like French folktales as opposed to Brythonic ones.
- Lancelot and other French heroes: Lancelot and Galahad are characters created by the French romancers, and are treated as the greatest knights of King Arthur’s court. Conversely, many of the early Brythonic champions, such as Kay (Cai) and Gawaine (Gwalchmai) instead become bad-tempered foils for the “real heroes,” while others such as Bedivere (Bedwyr) have become forgetfully minor figures. Having Gawaine as a savage vengeful figure is especially odd, as in the Welsh stories, Gwalchmai’s defining trait is his courtesy. Tristan and Percival are authentically Welsh and treated with respect, but they’re still very clearly second banana to the French figures – Tristan being the second greatest worldly knight after Lancelot and Percival the second holiest knight after Galahad. The Holy Grail itself is not present in any Welsh story, and so its defining role in Mallory (as well as Galahad and Lancelot’s relationship to it) moves the story in a very different direction.
- Courtly Chivalry: The Mallory stories are very much set in the Middle Ages. No mention is given of invading Saxons or Picts, no appearances of Ambrosius, Vortigern, or other semi-historical figures. Furthermore, there is an obsession with tournaments and courtly love, and especially champions jousting against knight after knight, causing each to declare loyalty to the champion and King Arthur. Very different from the much wilder giant-slaying and tribal wars of the earlier native tales.
- Lack of Fantasy: Perhaps the most surprising element of the Mallory stories is the general lack of fantasy elements. They are clearly not the focus. Though there is Merlin, most of his magic is confined to vague prophecies of doom and creating monuments to the knights’ failures. There are very few dragons and giants, barely any fey — most of the more fantastical King Arthur stories (“The Green Knight,” “The Loathley Lady,” etc.) are missing. Though Mallory does include various Christian miracles, including, naturally, the Holy Grail, he is clearly uninterested in most other flights of fancy. For him, much more drama is found in knights tilting against each other than in encountering sorcerers and monsters. This is, of course, very different from the Welsh stories. Most of the Welsh champions have super powers, and they rarely fight human adversaries — giants, dragons, werewolves, witches, fey warriors, talking animals — these are who Arthur and his court pit themselves against.
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table.
Roger Lancelyn Green was a member of the Inklings, a close friend to J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and the man who most encourage Lewis to publish his Narnia series. Green is best known for his series of mythology adaptations (Greek, Norse, King Arthur, Robin Hood, etc.) and for trying to draw upon as wide variety of sources for his books. That’s why Robin Hood gets his treacherous servant Worman and battles the Witch of Papplewick while his take on Norse myths references Saxo Grammaticus and a Faroe Island folktale.
Green freely admits that his main inspiration for King Arthur was Mallory, but he also brings in stuff from other sources, including:
- Saxon References. Though Green doesn’t give any focus to any of the pseudo-historical King Arthur’s Saxon wars, he does reference them at various times, clearly placing his tales in their timeline, even though he doesn’t shy away from knights, tournaments, and other medieval trappings.
- Welsh Romance. Green includes “Geraint and Enid,” one of the three Welsh romances from the Mabinogian.
- Sense of Fantasy. Green adds “The Green Knight,” “The Loathley Lady,” and a non-Mallory version of Tristan. Though none of these are based on specific Welsh stories, they are still stories of heroes wrestling with monsters and enchantment rather than jousts and tournaments. They feel more primal, inspired by old and wild folktales from an old and wild people.
- Less Tournaments and French. Just the fact that Green’s book is far shorter than Mallory’s and adds a lot that Mallory doesn’t include means that a huge amount of Mallory gets cut. A lot of the repetitive jousts after jousts are removed with their variously coloured knights and many of the French names (such as “La Cote Male Tayle” and “Le Morte d’Arthur”) are gone. Tristan, in particular, feels much more like an Celtic folk hero than a Norman knight.
So Green’s book is more “Brythonic” than Mallory’s (it could hardly be less), but still firmly on the Romance side of the Romance vs Welsh divide. Next time we’ll take a look at how some more modern books compare.
Culhwch meets King Arthur
When I started doing research for Wizards of Wales (which I have now renamed Enchanters of Britain), I started taking a look at a lot of Welsh folktales a lot more closely than I had done before. In exploring them, especially the bizarre romp “Culhwch & Olwen,” I discovered a version of King Arthur that I hadn’t previously known existed, despite being a big King Arthur fan ever since I was a child. Sadly, the original Welsh version of King Arthur has been eclipsed by the knightly romances of Chrétien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Mallory, and by the modern obsession with finding the “real” King Arthur, some British or perhaps Sarmatian warchief fighting against the Saxons back in the 5th century of history. Even the rpg supplement GURPS Camelot, when describing the different interpretations of King Arthur, talked about the historical Arthur, the Arthur of the Romances, and the Arthur of modern pop culture, but never mentioned the Arthur of Welsh myth.
But if you look back at the original surviving Welsh fragments, they are more fantastical than Mallory not less, presenting a folk hero in the style in Heracles or Sigurd, rather than a historical general. “Culhwch & Olwen” is the only early Arthurian folktale that survives in its (more-or-less) entirety, and it presents a court of Arthur filled with demigods, such as the fairy king Gwyn ap Nudd and Manawydan ap Llyr, and with superpowered heroes, with powers ranging from being able to stamp mountains flat to setting themselves on fire.
So what defines the original Welsh Arthurian stuff?
- Fantastical. Fantasy elements surround the characters. Arthur’s champions (even his dog!) have superpowers and they battle fairies and demigods. There are talking animals, armies of werewolves, dragons, numerous giants, and wide variety of wizards and magical artifacts. Not all the stories even take place in the regular world — the heroes travel into hidden enchanted valleys all the time and frequently enter Annwn, the Otherworld.
- Pre-Chivalry. Though the time period of the original stuff is not really defined, it is still clearly not the Middle Ages. There are no tournaments or courtly love, no jousting knights. It’s dark ages warriors going on strange personal quests, contending with the remnants of pre-Christian imagery and slaying monsters less for chivalric reasons and more for personal glory. The later pseudo-historical writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth and others has Arthur battling the invading Saxons and Angles; though not part of the original stories, it still fits very well with it.
- Welsh. The heroes are not English and they certainly do not have the French names and titles that appear in the Romances (Lancelot du Lac, Morgan la Fey, Beaumains, etc.). They are Brythons, the people who became the Welsh and the Cornish, and they have a strong cultural identity.
Perhaps the last is the most important point about the early Arthur stories. They were cultural stories presenting the heroes of the Brythonic people, heroes that defined Welsh and Cornish identity. Though the English later appropriated Arthur for their own purposes, in the original stories he was clearly Brythonic and Celtic. A hero of my ancestors rather than my ancestors’ conquerors.
Culhwch & Olwen
I haven’t been posting much here recently, largely due to all the numerous projects I’ve been engaged with. I was working on a novel last year and thinking to myself that I really hoped to get it done soon because the thing I really wanted to work on was “Wizards of Wales,” an adaptation of Welsh myths looking at various wizards and enchanters. Then I realized “why I am I working on a book I’m not interested in when I could be focusing on the one I am interested in?” Thus I switched over from Guardian of the Garden City to Wizards of Wales. Then while researching for that book, I got really interested in the Welsh version of King Arthur, which has surprisingly little influence on later King Arthur retellings. Even stories that claim to be about the “real” King Arthur are more interested in simply moving the events of Le Morte d’Arthur into a more historical time period (Mists of Avalon) or adapting Geoffrey of Monmouth or other early pseudo-historical Arthurian works but ignoring the actual Welsh stuff (Mary Stewart’s Crystal Caves series).
This is a real shame, as the original Welsh stuff is fascinating. Its champions possess bizarre powers and strange personalities, fighting giants and monsters in mysterious quests. In Culhwch & Olwen, the only original Welsh Arthurian story to survive in its entirety, Arthur’s court includes various demigods, such as Manawyddan ap Llyr (of the Mabinogi), Gwyn ap Nudd (king of the fairies), and Morvran (son of the goddess-witch Ceridwen), as well as figures with such a range of powers as superspeed, superstrength, flight, fire-generation, and lips so long that the top lip can be curled back and worn like a hat. It feels less like a court of medieval knights and more as a more bizarre version of the Argonauts of Greek myths or the Avengers. It is crazy and awesome, full of magic and passion — truly the folktales of the Welsh people’s most famous folkhero, rather than Norman-style knights in armour.
Trying to piece together all the old Welsh stories and fragments, combining them together into a coherent narrative, has been a really fascinating experience, and resulted in what was originally going to be one book on Welsh myths splitting into two: Wizards of Wales and Arthur, King of the Brythons. It’s something I’ll be exploring further in this blog, looking at aspects of King Arthur that sadly are rarely explored.
So I haven’t been posting a lot recently because, as usual, I’ve been insanely busy. Also, I’ve been switching gears in what I’ve been doing, trying to focus on finishing my novel, Guardian of the Garden City, instead of letting myself get distracted by other things. As tempting as it is to submit to every call for submissions that comes my way, it has really been slowing down the time I’ve been spending focusing on what really matters to me artistically.
When I hit a wall with my novel, I starting researching a lot of stuff that I felt would be relevant to helping the story flourish, both revisiting a lot of old favourites such as Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and China Mieville’s Kraken, and taking a look at new stuff such as Paul Stoller & Cheryl Olkes’ In Sorcery’s Shadow.
The big problem with Guardian is that there’s a very particular mood that I’m trying for with the supernatural — that feeling of obsession and madness, of the power that comes from looking at aspects of the world in a strange new way. A mood is the most ephemeral of things, especially because on top of that I’m trying to capture the right feel of Victoria, cult capital of the world. The book is supposed to explore Victoria’s strange history and urban legends, and — most importantly — capture part of its soul. What is written in my novel should be true, from a certain metaphorical perspective.
This is very challenging, ambitious stuff, which is why it’s taking such a long time. Frustrating yet fascinating. I think my next book project will be The Wizards of Wales, an exploration of magicians in Welsh folklore. Then I’ll be operating within an established tradition, not needing to build my own cosmology from scratch. That sounds so much easier.
Tomorrow I teach the third installment in my “Writing for Graphic Novels & Comix” class as part of Langara College’s “Graphic Novel & Comix” program. It’s an honour to be one of the program instructors, and a really exciting experience to be teaching people how to best organize their ideas, develop their story, and convert it into a comic script. Many people say that often the instructor learns as much about the subject as the people he’s teaching, and it certainly true that preparing each class has made me think long and hard about the steps for creating a good story and a good comic, including character motivation, the arc of a plot, and the composition of a comic page.
It will be fascinating to discover how I feel about all of this at the end of the final class, and also what comic stories my students will produce. It has been an exciting adventure so far.