Historical Sources for Arthur

Historians are not in agreement as to whether or not the ‘real’ Arthur—the living, breathing, fighting human being—ever existed. The original sources for the legend of King Arthur come from a few Welsh texts. These are:

1) Y Goddodin—a Welsh poem by the 7th century poet, Aneirin, with it’s passing mention of Arthur. The author refers to the battle of Catraeth, fought around AD 600 and describes a warrior who “fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress, though he was no Arthur”.

2) Gildas, a 6th century British cleric who wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). He never mentions Arthur, although he states that his own birth was in the year of the siege of Mt. Badon. The fact that he does not mention Arthur, and yet is our only historian of the 6th century, is an example of why many historians suspect that King Arthur never existed.

3) Taliesin, a 6th century poet, to whom The Spoils of Annwn, is ascribed, and from which Winter Moon draws its inspiration. This poem is only one of many in which he mentions Arthur.

4) The Four Tales of the Mabinogi: These are four connected stories of Welsh mythology. They include the story of Culhwch and Olwen, in which Arthur and his men track down the thirteen treasures of Britain and The Dream of Rhonabwy, a tale of Arthur that takes place after the Battle of Camlann (thus indicating that he survived it). These are Welsh tales, written down sometime during the 11th century, with little or no relation to the later English/French embellishments of Arthur, which began with Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Later Welsh texts all build on the bits that are found in these works, and the extensive stories that are lost to time. These texts, in chronological order, are:

1) The Annales Cambriae. This book is a Welsh chronicle compiled no later than the 10th century AD. It consists of a series of dates, two of which mention Arthur: “Year 72, The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors. Year 93, The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”

2) The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, dating to the middle 12th century. This is the beginning of the King Arthur legend as we know it. Geoffrey was born in Wales, but worked for his patron, Robert of Gloucester, who was particularly interested in legitimizing the claim of his sister (Matilda) to the English crown. Thus, the confusion of landmarks which moved Arthur from Wales to England proper, and the romanticizing of the tale, including the notion that Britain was originally conquered by Brutus, the son of the Trojan hero Aeneas, and thus Britain was ‘classical’ in origin.

3) Roman y Brut (The Romance of Brutus) is the translation of Geoffrey’s work into Anglo-Norman verse. It takes much of Geoffrey’s story and adds the round table, courtly love, and chivalry, thus transforming Arthur from a Welsh warrior to a medieval, Anglo-French knight.
From this point, the Welsh Arthur is all but lost, and the Anglo/Norman/French ‘King Arthur’ is paramount.

By 1191, the monks of Glastonbury were claiming knowledge of his grave, and soon after, the link between Arthur and the Holy Grail, which Joseph of Arimathea supposedly brought there. By 1225, monks in France had written The Vulgate Cycle, telling of the holy grail from the death of Jesus Christ to the death of Arthur, and included the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. This story became the standard version used throughout Europe.

But not in Wales. Arthur belonged to the Welsh, and they knew it. Their tales were older and more mythic, harking back to an earlier era where bards sang in the great halls of battle leaders and kings. It is on these traditions that I have based The Immortal Pendragon Trilogy.

Arthur, the battle leader of whom the bards sang, was something of a Welsh super hero. His descent to the Underworld, for example, or the tasks through which Culhwch puts he and his men; his twelve battles, and his labors on Mt. Badon, all speak to a man that was more than human. He was so killed at fighting and leading that Aneirin immortalized another fighter by comparing him to Arthur and noting that while he was a great warrior, “he was no Arthur.”

In Winter Moon, I write Morgane into the story as a goddess who transforms Arthur into a yfed-gwaeth—a drinker of blood. As with the Lancelot and Guinevere story, the Morgan le Fay/Arthur incestuous relationship derives from later stories by authors from the Continent. The original Welsh tales make no mention of her, except as the mother of Mabon. I have taken liberties with this aspect of myth in Winter Moon, building her character out of the Morrigan, the Celtic triple goddess from whom her name may have been derived. Morgan le Fay plays the triple goddess role in Arthurian fiction (as maiden, mother, crone) and I find satisfaction in giving her that role as an actual goddess in Winter Moon.

The word ‘vampire,’ from its roots in Eastern European languages, did not appear in the English language until the 17th century. The modern Welsh word, ‘fampir,’ without a doubt, has a similar history. Demons, however, in all their vast and frightening incarnations (including vampire-like creatures who stalked the living and when disinterred, were full of blood) did exist to Dark Age peoples. They believed in gods and devils and things that go bump in the night. That Arthur might have been a bit of all three—god, demon, and very, very human—would perhaps not have been too much of a stretch to our Dark Age ancestors.


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