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Welsh Stories

Chapter 2

Welsh stories

The Welsh in their folk stories and legends use the statement:

'No one has the right to this Island except only the nation of the Welsh the remnant of the former Britons that came here in former days from Troy.'
This is a statement connected to the early triads of Wales, the 'Island' having been dissolved into the areas of Wales, The North, and Cornwall, where belief in Arthur continued to exist, seeing him as:

'Supreme Lord of the Island of the Mighty.'
In the poems of 'Taliesin' (See Taliesin), the Welsh bard of the sixth century, and a contemporary of Arthur, we are introduced for the first time to Arthur's deadly sword known as 'The Lightning Sword', the sword having further ancient associations with the 'Lightning Gods' of pre-Christian worship. It is not wholly clear as to the powers of the sword at this point in Arthurian history, so understanding should be sought from pre-Celtic and Celtic beliefs. Taliesin introduces 'magic cauldron of inspiration and plenty' which is mentioned throughout Celtic legends. It has been suggested that this is where the first basis of the 'Holy Grail' (See Grail) stems from, which is later developed in the legends of Arthur, and Christian belief.

Before Geoffrey of Monmouth's account, Taliesin introduces us for the first time in the Arthurian cycle to the 'Isle of Avalon' (See Avalon), also referring to it as the 'The Island of Apples', which has been suggested as a geographical reference to its location in the county of 'Somerset', (which is famous for the production of Cider, a drink made from apples) or a coded message to folklore associated with the apple, of paradise, of heaven, of reincarnation, a place from which it may be possible for Arthur to return. The Isle of Avalon was stated to be the place where Arthur was to be buried after the fatal 'Battle of Camlan', (See Camlan). It has been suggested that the Isle of Avalon could represent the 'Island of the Blessed' as known in Celtic beliefs, and the boat in which Arthur is to travel to be the same as the white crystal boat which transports man to this Island. Avalon was a place also known as the 'Fortunate Isle', so named, it is said, because:

'it supplied all things of itself, the fields there had no need of farmers to plough them and that nature alone provided all cultivation.'
The Fortunate Isle could be a reference to the exact geographical location of Avalon in Somerset, although the county, now known as 'Kent', could be inferred, being traditionally known as the 'Garden of England' for the same reasons, being also a county of Royal patronage and close to the Saxon strongholds of Essex and Middlesex (AD527), Sussex (AD491), of Wessex and Mercia. Kent had been the location of the 'Battle of Crayford', defeated by 'Hengest' and abandoned to the Jutes in AD457 but in AD616 Kent came under control of Wessex and the Saxons. To have the location of Avalon in the south-east would not have pleased the Saxons, hence possibly the location of Avalon being hard to fix in the works of Saxon-affiliated writers and chroniclers. Arthur could not have originated from England. Arthur, a Saxon! If this were so, he would have claim to the British inheritance, a further threat on Saxon domination, and ultimately would have useful to an enemy, the Normans. With the Romans finally seen to have withdrawn from Britain in AD436, Britain was left to defend herself, and for the next two-hundred years the strength of the Saxon influence grew, culminating in an Anglo-Saxon advance further into the Island and the widespread introduction of Christianity in AD636 (later followed by the organisation of the Anglo-Roman Church by 'Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury' in AD669).

The Welsh Chronicles are stories that are some of the oldest in Western Europe, perhaps of suppressed ancient religious practices, that constantly make reference to Kings and Lords who guard a sacred place against challengers. The Welsh Arthur was not only a hero of the same stature but someone with magical attributes. The 'Mabinogion' is thought to have been written around AD1050. It is the most well-known collection of traditional Welsh stories of this time, and contains the first real example of Arthurian romance, with details of ancient rituals and of venerated Gods. Together with the Mabinogion, a vast array of poems, sagas and chronicles began to emerge expressing the loss and anguish of a people desiring freedom, searching for the legendary Arthur.

The oral versions of these later stories were being written down around AD1080, just after the Norman's had burst into Britain (AD1050), and across into Wales (c.AD1063). The Normans crushed what was left of the Saxons and then established a Latin Christendom, and became fascinated with the legends of Arthur. As they moved further into Wales, the Normans desperately sought a Welsh ancestry and a right to inherit the kingdom known as Britain, and so the Arthurian Cycles can be seen to have been of great political interest.

The AD1147 'Historia Regum Britanniae' of Geoffrey of Monmouth (See Geoffrey of Monmouth) was to become a European best seller. It is said that Geoffrey primarily wrote to satisfy the Norman's by those who believed him to be a Breton, but many believe he may have been Welsh if only at heart, mainly working in Oxford (UK). Geoffrey's writing was in Latin, and is widely believed to have been a fictionalised account of the ancestral line but with much of the information based mainly on Celtic fact, stating that it was largely drawn from ancient Celtic and Cymric writings. 'Walter Map', (AD1137-1209), 'Archdeacon of Oxford', AD1197, (See Map) and a Welsh man, was clerk to 'Henry II'. It is believed that Map could have drawn on Geoffrey of Monmouth's work when organising his own work on Arthurian legends, for his writing of 'De Nugis Curialum', 'Of Courtier's Trifles', a collection of historical tales, legends, and anecdotes, and Geofrrey's later work on the adult biography of Merlin.

The association of Map and Geoffrey's work is thought to have been largely responsible for the introduction of the concept of chivalry and manners to Arthurian legend, areas which were later to become central to French writing. It has been suggested that it was Map who first made firm the associations of Arthur with Christianity, with Arthur then seen to be the embodiment of the perfect Christian Knight.

The 'Historia Regum Britanniae' was dedicated by Geoffrey to the legitimate son of 'Henry I', 'Robert, the Earl of Gloucester', perhaps an attempt to legitimise the Norman claim to the a British inheritance. It is here that Geoffrey introduces the character of 'Merlin' (See Merlin), previously known in Celtic legend as the Welsh bard 'Myrddim', who, through the use of magic, had orchestrated the bringing together of 'Igerna' (See Igerna), also known as 'Igrain', the wife of 'Gerlois, (See Gerlois) the Duke of Tintagel and Cornwall', and the King's brother 'Uther Pendragon' (See Uther Pendragon) at the now famous coastal settlement of 'Tintagel' (See Tintagel), Cornwall, England (UK). It was said that is was here, at Tintagel, that Arthur was reputed to have been conceived. So from Geoffrey's book, Merlin now becomes a hero to the Norman's and the Welsh, with Arthur clearly an outcome of political relations at a time when Geoffrey was anxious to give the Norman's a claim to the British monarchy.