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Volume 69, 1940
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The Birth, Growth and Death of a Legend.

[Read before the Auckland Institute, June 15, 1938; received by the Editor, November 18, 1938; issued separately, June, 1939.]

G. Blake Palmer, M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P. (Lond.), D.P.M.

All legends have a beginning, usually a simple one, then pass through a phase of active elaboration, and at some stage of their existence, gain an actual belief among many of those through whose minds and mouths they pass.

Legends must also have a focus around which is built up the more elaborate body of their maturer form. This starting point need not of necessity be in the activities of an historical figure. Often the legend attaches itself to some mythological figment, called into being by the projection of early peoples' striving to give outward expression to inner doubts and desires or trying to explain some natural phenomenon in figures of their own understanding.

Legends at all stages, and even during their decline, are always attracting extraneous elements and matter to themselves, often absorbing other legends within their former framework. Once started, they grow apace, changing their form and hiding their origins beneath a mass of later accretions until the true matter of their origin is completely obscured, at least to the casual observer and collector of tales. The locations of the chief incidents or the name and nationality of its hero may change with remarkable facility. A legend cannot be properly said to die, otherwise we should have no knowledge of it, but at some stage of its existence it may forfeit that vital element of belief which enabled it to grow and flourish. Many forces may tend to perpetuate or stimulate the factors of belief—nationalistic pride and prejudice, political and ecclesiastical support, or in its more decadent day, the services of the pseudo-historian, of the bard, the writer of romances, or even the composer of grand opera. The legend may be kept alive by local folk-lore and customs, or it may even be aided in its survival by influences as diverse as the over-zealous antiquary securing his material by attentive visits to the local inn, and the tourist agency which advertises the legend for its own profit. Finally, the daily and weekly press, which delights to fit every archaeological discovery into the exploits of some well-known legendary hero, at least implies a persistence of pseudo-historical belief.

Legends vary in their capacity for growth, but those of the hero-king, especially if he has led an ultimately losing cause, are perhaps those whose growth is most luxuriant and whose form changes continually as they pass from simple beginnings to their decadence, whether in the remote past or in the romantic movement of the nineteenth century. They have much in common, and within a few decades of their inception all begin to attract elements from the current legendaries of their own and neighbouring peoples. It is the genesis of these legends of the culture-hero or hero-king that is

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discussed in this paper. There are many such heroes, each with his cycle of legend. Some, like Alexander and Charlemagne, have remained more historical and less stirring in the imagination of the people than others, the leaders of lost causes, like Roland and Arthur. Let us consider King Arthur.

Arthur, of course, was not a king, and many have even flatly denied his human existence. He has recently been taken as a type species of the mythical hero,(1) as a survival of a Celtic god Artaios,(2) as a proof of Welsh and Bretons' mendacity; in fact, many of those who cannot accept an historical mention for him offer proofs which outbid the wildest legends in their improbability. Some have denied him on the ground of the silence of certain distant contemporary and early authorities; but on precisely analogous grounds one might deny the existence of St. Patrick himself, whose earliest extant documentary record dates from two centuries after his death.(3) But this discussion is out-of-place. It may be affirmed with reasonable certainty that there was an historical Arthur who, at the turn of the fifth century, raised a body of heavy-armed cavalry—a mobile field force modelled on similar Roman troops of the fifth century—and used them against the Saxon invaders of Britain.(4)

His progress can be traced in history, legend and folk-lore in Greater and Lesser Britain, until with the advent of Geoffrey of Monmouth 's Historia in the mid-twelfth century, he entered upon a literary career with which this paper has little concern. The progress of King Arthur throws many important sidelights upon the genesis of a legend, especially upon the extraordinary changes in form and content that it and associated folk-lore can undergo. Its examination should provide salutary lessons to many who theorise upon the meaning of legends without inquiring into their earlier forms. A similar error has been responsible for much place-name nonsense until quite recent times.

The starting point or hero of a legend is relatively unimportant in determining its ultimate form—the historical background of its earlier years greatly influences future development. Especially is this the case with King Arthur, whose times are even now wrapped in such mystery and historical uncertainty that the date of what is said to be his greatest victory cannot be placed closer than between the limits of 493 and 516 A.D.(5) A passing glance at the state of Britain, especially western Britain, in the fifth century is not out of place.

The records of the period are mainly archaeological, poorly supported by a sole contemporary witness who, unluckily, was not an historian, but a monk most anxious to prove that the manifold suffering of his fellow countrymen could be traced to their neglect of spiritual affairs. Gildas the Wise, who was born in the year of Badon, tells us:

“If there were any records of my country they were buried in the fires of the conquest, or carried away on the ships of the exiles, so that I can only follow the dark and fragmentary tale that was told me beyond the sea.”(6)

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Britain, long harassed by Saxon, Irish and Pictish pirates, had been granted autonomy by Honorius in 410 A.D. The cities of the Romanized south-east undertook local defence, and government on a cantonal basis existed. By 450 A.D., they were hopelessly disorganised, and the more vigorous Celtic kingdoms of the west who had enjoyed autonomy and even their own militia under the Roman rule, exerted an overlordship over the more decadent but Romanized citizens. The Celtic backwash, which reached even to Kent, provided a rough but strong government, and Britain, according to contemporary writers like St. Patrick and St. Germanus, was still prosperous.(7) In about 450 A.D., a Celtic King, Guorthigern, called in Saxon foederati to assist him in a local campaign.

“They land first on the eastern side of the island, by the orders of the unlucky King of Britain, and fix their horrid claws therein, nominally about to fight in defence of our country, but more really for its destruction. Their motherland, learning of the success of the first band, sends over in more numerous companies these dogs of mercenaries, who come across on their ships to unite with their base-born comrades. From that time the seed of iniquity, the root of bitterness was planted among us, and the poisonous growth, as we deserved for our demerits, sprang up on our soil with rank-growing stalks and leaves. The barbarians, introduced among us as our soldiers and ready (as they falsely boasted) to brave every danger in behalf of their worthy hosts, ask for regular pay. It is given, and for some time stops, as the proverb goes, the dog's maw. Presently, however, they complain that their monthly wages are not supplied in sufficient quantity, deliberately making out a colourable case against their employers, and say that more profuse maintenance must be given, or they will break their agreement and ravage the whole island. Nor is there long delay; the threat is followed by its execution. For the conflagration that started in the east, the due punishment for our previous sins, was spread from sea to sea, fed by their sacrilegious hands; it blazed across every city and region, nor did it stay its burning course until after devastating almost the whole surface of the island, its ruddy tongues licked the western ocean.” (Gildas: De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, chap. 23.)

They were aided by their compatriots penetrating along the waterways of Eastern Britain, and at the turn of the sixth century a determined effort was made by the Celtic Kings to evict these Saxon intruders. Numerically and in equipment, the Celtic West was stronger than its aggressors, but was hopelessly divided amongst itself in civil war between its many states. Nominally Christian, boasting some men whose asceticism has seldom been surpassed (the Monks of Menevia even yoked themselves like oxen to the plough), possessing a rapidly declining knowledge of Latin,(8) rhetoric and letters, and with a good artistic tradition, (9) the courts of the petty

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rulers of the west were hotbeds of intrigue, vice and oppression, and their scandals have come down to us to-day in the pages of Gildas, where they await discovery by some astute director at Hollywood.

The Saxons, inferior in numbers and equipment, profited by the civil strife of their opponents and commenced their invasion with a series of raids, so vividly described by Gildas:

“Every colony is levelled to the ground by the stroke of the battering ram, the inhabitants are slaughtered along with the guardians of their churches, priests and people alike, while the sword gleamed on every side, and the flames crackled around. How horrible to behold in the midst of the streets the tops of towers torn from their lofty hinges, the stones of high walls, holy altars, mutilated corpses, all covered with livid clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been crushed together in some ghastly wine-press!

“And there was no grave for the dead, unless they were buried under the wretched ruins of their homes, save the bellies of birds and beasts of prey—with reverence, be it spoken, of the blessed souls (if indeed there were many found) which were carried at that time by the holy angels to the height of heaven … Of the miserable remnant some flee to the hills, only to be captured and slain in heaps; some, constrained by famine, come in and surrender themselves to be slaves for ever to the enemy, if only their lives might be spared—and this was the best that was granted, others wailing bitterly passed overseas.” (Gildas: De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, chap. 24.)

Later they followed with a slow penetration of the Celtic west, which only finally ceased more than a millennium later with the shireing of Wales under Henry VIII.(10)

The Britons, however, with all their faults, were more stubborn in resistance than the Continental Gauls, and late in the fifth century there arose two leaders, around one of whom has grown up the whole cycle of Arthurian legend.

The Celtic civil strife had halted about 467 A.D. with the suppression of Guitolinus by Ambrosius Aurelianus,(11) and they made considerable headway against the invaders. A period of alternating fortunes followed—

“down to the year of the siege of Mount Badon, which lies near the mouth of the Severn, the year of the last and not the least slaughter of these ruffians, which was the forty-fourth (as I know) with one month elapsed, since it was also the date of my own nativity. But even now our cities are not inhabited as they were of yore, but lie in ruins, deserted and wrecked, our foreign wars having ceased, but not our civil strife.”(12)

It is obvious that the leader who united the warring Celtic kingdoms against the Saxon invaders was just such a figure as would attract legend, hero-worship and tales of the miraculous. This process, slow at first, was accentuated by the well-attested and traditional

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tendencies of the Welsh away from verbal exactitude. It was intensified by their Bardic organisations and above all by the renewed attacks on Celtic independence in the ninth, tenth and twelfth centuries. Plain facts were embellished into glorious fictions, brave warriors became great heroes, and Arthur, not even a petty king in the sixth century, grew into a valorous warrior in the eighth, and having early caught the glowing colours of a hero of romance, by the twelfth century had become emperor of the whole civilised world.

Let us consider first the plain facts. Gildas, a contemporary, born in the year of Mount Badon and writing before 547 A.D., gives the outline and mentions the battle, but does not directly name Arthur; Bede, copying Gildas, is also silent on the name. The first mention of Arthur by name, but in the same context as Gildas' Badon story, is in the early ninth century Historia Brittonum of Nennius. It is conceded by many that this contains traces of an earlier seventh century annal written perhaps by Rum Map Urbagen, later St. Paulinus (?). In any case, the earliest manuscript—that of Chartres(13)—was compiled before the 1st January, 801 A.D.

Here we are told how: “In those days Arthur fought against them. He fought with the Kings of the Britons and was their leader in war (sed ipse dux erat bellorum). He first fought at the mouth of the waters of the Glein, the second, third, fourth and fifth battles were on another river Dubglas, in the country of Linnuis; a sixth was fought on the river Bassas, a seventh in Cat Coit Celidon, a battle in the wood of Celidon, an eighth at the castle of Guinnion, where he carried on his shoulders an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and on that day the pagans, put to flight, lost many killed through the aid of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Blessed Virgin his Mother. A ninth battle was at Cair Legion, a tenth at the Tribruit, an eleventh at Mount Agned, and the twelfth was fought in Mount Badon, where 960 men fell to the single onslaught of Arthur (‘s men) and he alone fought against them. And in all these battles Arthur was victorious.”(14) (15)

Another, somewhat later compilation, the Annales Cambriae, dating from the tenth century, gives these entries:

“An. LXXII (i.e. 516 A.D.). The battle of Badon in which Arthur bore the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were notorious. (Note the transfer of the legendary interest from one battle to another). An. XCIII (i.e. 537). The battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”

Here we have not later than the year 954 A.D. Arthur associated with the name of Medraut, the Sir Mordred of the Romances. How much earlier the two were associated it is hard to say.

The tenth century yields little else to supplement the tale of Arthur save an interpolation in one of the South Wales genealogies, now provedly unreliable.

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But returning to the Historia Brittonum, Arthur is met in a guise which was carefully suppressed by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and on which the Romances are silent. He appears as the legendary huntsman of the “Pig Troynt”—the Twrch Trwyth in the later story of Kulhwch and Olwen, and we get our earliest glimpses of him in his capacities of the leader of the Hell rout, the Harrier of Hades (which by contemporaries was held to be located in Ireland), the magic huntsman, and the many strange and purely mythical associations which are so commonly attributed to him in the bardic literature and folk-lore.

Perhaps it would be well to depart from chronological order and relate in some detail the fuller development of the Celtic Arthur before the Romances changed his character beyond recognition. But before discussing these new legendary associations, a short digression is permissible to consider the tendency, already noticed in Nennius, for miraculous and legendary qualities to attach themselves to the hero-leader. This process, common to all hero legends, is admirably summarised by Lord Raglan, and though, of course, he is discussing the hero of myth, his generalisation applies. I think, to all legends of the hero-king type.(16)

  • (1) “The person with whom legends (myths) are associated must not be too recent, or the true facts of his career will be remembered, or too remote, or he will have been superseded or forgotten. About fifty years after his death is a probable time for legend (myth), but this may be extended if his career has been recorded and his fame has not been eclipsed by a latecomer of similar character,” as with King Arthur, who had no immediate successful followers in Celtic Britain.

  • (2) “He must have been famous or notorious in certain definite connections and his exploits or misfortunes must be such as to afford pegs upon which legend (myth) can be hung.” The absence of Arthur's tomb is such a peg.

  • (3) “The miracles which the legend (myth) contain will be attributed to the historical character if, when the legends (myths) are first attached to him, the possibility of such miracles is still believed in, otherwise they will be omitted,” as later writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace and others omitted all references to King Arthur's association with the Hell-rout and Twrch Trwyth, yet permitted him to do battle with serpents. A similar tendency is noted in comparing the older and more recent Yitae Sanctorum. The progress of Arthur fits the scheme admirably.

A fourth point could perhaps be added to emphasise the tendency for any well-known popular hero to displace the names formerly associated with some other legendary or allegorical story. For example, in the earlier Welsh tradition, Cai, the Sir Kay of the Romances, fought with Palug's cat on Mona. The story is later told of Arthur. A reverse tendency is found elsewhere; for example. Arthur's somewhat undignified fight with a hog is glossed over or attributed to his followers.

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To return to the progress of Arthur: Nennius' passage is short and occurs in connection with certain Mirbilia of South Wales. Here we meet the earliest recorded Arthurian place names (in what are now the shires of Brecknock and Hereford).

“There is another marvel in the district called Buelt. Here is a pile of stones and on the top of the heap is a single stone with the footprint of a dog on it. When they hunted the Pig Troynt, Cabal, who was the dog of the warrior Arthur, set his footprint on the stone, and Arthur after made a heap of stones beneath the stone in which the dog's footprint was and it is called Cam Cabal.” Cabal, in all probability, was originally Arthur's horse, as he is in folk-tales.(17)

“There is another marvel in the district which is called Ercing. Here is a burial place beside a well which is named Licat Anir, and the name of the man who was buried in the place was named Anir. He was the son of the warrior Arthur …” And the story goes on to say that the mound is of different length wherever measured.

On a recent visit to Cefn Carn Caval south of Rhayader Gwy, a cairn has been found answering the description, “and on it is a stone about two feet in length and not quite a foot in width in one side of which there is an oval indentation about two inches deep. On a brief inspection this might be imagined, without any great strain, to be the print of a dog's foot; but if it is closely examined it will be observed that whilst there is a faint tracing of the ball of the foot, the divisions of the toes and positions of the claws is not marked.”(18)

King Arthur was the huntsman of several magic pigs, some of which left blessings of fertility and crops in their tracks. The character of such stories is obvious, but the great hunt deserves further mention and will serve as an example. The hunting of the Pig Troynt is described in very great detail in one of the stories of the Mabinogion, “Kulhwch and Olwen.”(19) In its present form it is purely Celtic in spirit and probably shows the most highly developed native Arthurian legend before the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth's fabulosa historia.

In Kulhwch and Olwen, which in its present form dates probably from the early twelfth century, and contains many precise descriptions of Welsh life, customs, and geography of those times, the bald narrative of Nennius is expanded. The “reasons” and setting of the legendary hunt are told in full. Kulhwch seeks help of King Arthur, his cousin, to assist him to find Olwen, daughter of Yspaddaden, the chief giant. His wish is granted, and the quest begins. Thirty-nine tasks are set, many of which are agricultural, and many more preparatory to the hunting of Twrch Trwyth, between whose ears are the comb and scissors with which to trim the beard of Yspaddaden. Kulhwch ultimately succeeds and marries Olwen.

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In the story, Arthur is already the King of a splendid but entirely Celtic court. His gatekeeper relates the story of his conquests and campaigns in Europe, a forerunner of the foreign wars in the Romances. He receives well-born strangers with presents and feasting, welcomes tales of their adventures, and grants their boons unquestioningly. A long list of the members of his court is recited, and in it are met Cai and Bedwyr, Gwenhwyfar and Essyllt, though in a character scarcely recognisable to readers of Malory and Tennyson. Cai and Bedwyr have miraculous powers, and no doubt these “knights” at least represent a personification of older Celtic deities (the moon and lighting).

But to return to the legendary huntsmen and the hunting of Twrch Trwyth—surely the greatest of all hunting legends. Kulhwch is told by Yspaddaden: “There is no comb in the world, or scissors, with which my hair can be dressed because of its stiffness, save the comb and scissors between the two ears of Tyrch Trwyth, the son of Tared Wledig.” He replies, “Easy is it for me to get it, though you think it is not easy.”

In the quest which follows Arthur hears that the boar is in Ireland, and sails abroad in Prydwen to meet him there, which he did at Esgair Oerfel. Here, “Arthur's bodyguard fought with him. Except what evil they had from it they had nothing of good. The third day Arthur himself fought with him nine days and nine nights. He slew none save one little pig out of the swine.”

“And the Grugwyn threatened to move to Britain.”

Arthur followed.

“They set forth by sea towards Cymru, and Arthur and his hosts his horses and his dogs, went aboard Prydwen, and he cast a glance of an eye on them.”

“And Twrch Trwyth alighted at Porth Cleis in Dyfed.* Arthur came that night as far as Mynyw. The next day Arthur was told that they had gone by … and they had slain what men and cattle there were in Deu Cleddyf before the coming of Arthur.”

The hunt ranged with geographical exactitude through Dyfed, Buelt and Ercing and all South Wales. Men, dogs and horses were slain. The hunt started through Dyfed to the Presseleu Hills (whence came the blue stones of Stonehenge) and across the river Nyfer, “and then Bedwyr with Caval, Arthur's dog, and all the warriors brought Twrch Trwyth to bay at Cwm Cerwyn.” Many men were killed, but the pig escaped. “Thence he went as far as Glyn Ystin and there the men and dogs lost him.”

“Then all the huntsmen went to hunt the swine as far as Dyffryn Llychyr.” “And thence he went to Ceredigiawnt …” “Twrch Trwyth went thence between the Tawy and Ewyas …

[Footnote] * Part of modern county of Pembroke.

[Footnote] † Modern county of Cardigan.

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And Arthur said to the warriors of the Island, ‘Twrch Trwyth has slain many of my men, not while I live will he go into Cornwall. I will oppose my life to his life. Do what you will.’” And the whole hunt entrapped him by the Severn and secured part of the spoil.

“On one side Mabon the son of Modran spurred his steed and obtained the razor and on the other Cyledyr Wyllt, on another horse, assailed him in the Severn and took the scissors. Before they deprived him of the comb he found the ground under his feet, and neither dog, man nor horse could keep company with him until he went to Cornwall. Thence Arthur and his host went until they had driven him into Cornwall. What evil they had suffered before was play compared with what they suffered getting the comb. Prom one evil to another the comb was got from him. And thence he was expelled from Cornwall and was driven straight ahead into the sea.”

The symbolism of the hunt is varied, and there are many contending interpretations—solar, agricultural and allegorical. Curiously enough, its starting point in Dyfed at Porth Cleist was the favourite port of the barbarous Irish raiders of the fourth and early fifth centuries. The boar hunt may well represent their invasions and expulsion. The comb and scissors are an obvious symbol of civilisation, only attained when the raiders have been driven away as they were, not by Arthur, but a hundred years before his time. Confusion of time, especially of past time, is a characteristic of folklore and folk memory. To the folk, a thousand years are but yesterday. In semi-literate communities, events in the preceding generation have an almost equal value with remote antiquity. For example, when visiting the Church of Boveney, I asked the old cleaner how old it was. There was a memorial tablet commemorating an Elizabethan worthy in this church which she must have looked at every week for forty years, and yet her reply was: “It is very old, sir— over a hundred years I should say.” That was in 1928. The church did, in fact, date from the Conquest. There are innumerable examples of a similar lack of a sense of past time in legend.

I now come to what is perhaps the most interesting of all developments in Arthurian story—the legend of the undying Arthur, of the hero resting after his labours and awaiting his recall to save his people and lead the Cymry to victory. This legend was old long before 1125 A.D., and is referred to scathingly by William of Malmesbury. In his Gesta Regum we read:

“But the tomb of Arthur is nowhere beheld whence ancient ditties fable that he is yet to come.”

Tombs of Arthur's followers had long been known, some even to Nennius. William of Malmesbury mentions:

“the tomb of Walwen, who was the not degenerate son of Arthur by his sister … was found in the time of King William upon the sea shore, 14 feet in length …”

[Footnote] ‡On Milford haven.

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The earlier bards knew of no tomb for Arthur, as this quotation suggests:

“Bedwyr's grave at Allt Tryvan
A grave for March and a grave for Guythur,
A grave for Gwgawn of the ruddy sword.
Not wise (the thought) a grave for Arthur.”(20)

The belief of the Welsh and, above all, the Bretons of Brittany in the undying Arthur was strengthened enormously by the renewed attacks on Celtic independence in the twelfth century. Of Brittany, for example, it was said concerning the undying Arthur—

“That it was most true is proved to-day by the varying opinions of men on Arthur's death and life. If you do not believe me, go to the realm of Armorica, which is lesser-Britain, and preach about the market place and villages that Arthur the Briton is dead as other men, and the facts themselves will show you how true is Merlin's prophecy, which says that the ending of Arthur shall be doubtful. Hardly will you escape unscathed, without being whelmed by the curses or crushed by the stones of your hearers.” Alain de Lille, Prophetica Anglicana.

Another example)—the posthumous son of Geoffrey of Anjou was named thus in 1187. The entry reads curiously:

“Natus est Arthurus, filius Gauffridi, desideratus gentibus.”

Arthur had in fact acquired a definite political value. His name was a rallying signal for the Welsh insurgents. Of them it was written concerning the belief current at the end of the twelfth-century:

“The King will return, in strength and power, to rule over the Britons as they think according to his word, wherefore they still await his coming, even as the Jews their Messiah, deceived by an even greater folly and unhappiness, and infidelity to boot. They are often deceived and labour in vain, for they do not know the appointed day.”

The existence of such a political menace in the legend of the undying Arthur called forth an ingenious and natural response from those faithful followers of the English Crown, the Monks of Glastonbury, who but a short time before had been rewarded for their help in the Crown's dispute with St. Thomas of Canterbury. Abbot Henry (inspired, it is said, by a secret message from the Bards!) surrounded the area between two old Saxon pyramids in the monks' graveyard with a curtain. He ordered the monks to dig, and found there the grave of Arthur. Giraldus Cambrensis records it thus:—-

“In our days the body of the King, which fables had made into something fantastic in its ending, as if it had been carried far away by spiritual agency, and was not liable to death, was found between the pyramids in the churchyard at Glastonbury and taken honourably in the church for decent burial in a marble tomb. It lay deep in the ground in a

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hollowed oak and was marked with wonderful and as it seemed miraculous tokens. One of these was a leaden cross attached to a stone beneath the coffin with an inside inscription on its inner face toward the stone: ‘Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus cum Wenneveria uxore sua secunda in insula Avallonis.’”

The remains were re-buried in the new abbey church and brought much prestige and many pilgrims to the Abbey. But even this did not straightway kill the story of the undying King. He continued to trouble the English Crown, and his name and rumours of his coming were sufficient to rouse the Welsh to rebellion a hundred years after his grave had been “discovered.” “What was reputed to be his crown was surrendered to Edward I at Carnarvon in 1282.

Though the undying Arthur opposed England in Wales, the dead Arthur was put forward as a valuable ally in the dispute with Scotland. In 1301, Edward I, on the slender and imaginative basis of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia, claimed dominion over Scotland, and actually appealed to Pope Boniface VIII on the ground that “Auguselus held Scotland as a vassal of Arthur.” For a time Scotland had no ready answer, but some eighty years later they found that the legend could be given a most ingenious twist. They stressed Arthur's alleged illegitimacy, claimed Mordred as the rightful heir and the Picts as allies of the Britons against the Saxons. Appropriately enough, 142 years later still, an Aberdonian, Hector Boece, in his Scotorum Historia published Scotland's fullest version of this new Arthurian legend, and thus became the fount of all Scottish Arthurian folk-lore. The real Arthur was never in Scotland.

Thus, by the fourteenth century, there were current the native Arthurian legends in Wales and Brittany and, of course, the former Kingdom of Dumnonia. These also had as variants borrowings from romance. England shared with France the romances and literature of the Arthurian cycle already quite changed in character since Geoffrey's Historia. Scotland had her own politically-inspired variants of the English legends. Similar processes have operated in all lands and at all times, and the results are a fertile source of confusion to those who seek history in legend.

A later expression of belief in an undying Arthur is contained in a reference to the final re-interment of Arthur at Glastonbury:

“At Glastonbury on the queere
They made Artourez toumbe here
And wrote with Latyn verses thus:
Hic jacet Arthurus, rex quandum rexque futurus.‘”(21)

Legendary heroes change their nationality readily. The two big Celtic groups in Britain and on the Continent each claim him as their own, though in all probability he never left Britain. In the fourteenth century he nearly became the Patron of England, for as Froissart tells us, Edward I, in 1344, planned an order of chivalry

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and actually convened a great feast at Windsor to consider his proposed “Order of the Round Table.”(22) Later this became “The Order of the Garter.”

Let us now consider another great group of Arthurian legends which have much in common with similar legends in other lands. In fact, Arthur's name has in these merely displaced that of an earlier hero. Their strong culture-hero characteristics are obvious.

Arthur, resting from his labours and sleeping in some hollow cave or enchanted hill. This is a very common expression conveying the sense of the other world. With them I commence my final group of Arthurian stories, those in folk-lore.

There are many resting places of Arthur in Britain, but that need not surprise us, as most such heroes, like Queen Elizabeth, slept in many places. Arthur sleeps in—

  • (1) Caerleon with all his court.

  • (2) South Cadbury, Somerset, in a hollow hill with iron gates which open on St. John's Eve. He is there with his court and a pack of hounds.

  • (3) At Craig-y-dinas in South Wales, in a cavern with treasure hoard guarded by a bell.

  • (4) Beneath the castle ruins at Sewingshield, Northumberland, with his court, Guinevere and a pack of hounds.

  • (5) Beneath Richmond Castle in Yorkshire.

  • (6) At Bwlch y Saethan, where he fell in defending the pass, while his men rest nearby on Snowdon in a cavern deep in the hill. This story has reappeared in connection with a cavern newly found near Aberdare in Glamorgan (Auckland Star, June, 1938). The discoverer told the Press he was exploring for King Arthur and his knights and treasure.

  • (7) Beneath Mount Etna in Sicily, which legend is at least as old as 1194 A.D., and was no doubt carried by the Norman followers of King Robert.

  • (8) And many more besides.

From the romances we have the many versions of his sleeping to be healed of his wounds. They are but a literary expansion and fanciful elaboration of the older folk belief. One quotation suffices:

“Therefore Morganis, a noble matron who was ruler aid patron of those parts and akin to King Arthur by blood, took him after the battle of Kemelen to the island which is new called Glastonbury for the healing of his wounds.” (De Principis Instructione, Giraldus Cambrensis, 1193.)

In all these legends Arthur sleeps usually surrounded by his court, his knights and his treasure, though sometimes—as often he was in life—without his Queen. He is usually awaiting the performance of a ritual by the one who has stumbled upon his hiding place.

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This will enable him to awake again. In every case, as with Percival in the Grail quest, some essential task is left undone, some question unasked, and the spell remains unbroken and the treasure hoard lies intact. A typical example from Northumberland. At Sewing-shield, near Hadrian's Wall, King Arthur sleeps in the Castle vault, with Guinevere, all his knights and a pack of hounds. On a table-lies a bugle-horn, a garter and a stone sword. When someone blows the horn and cuts the garter with the stone sword, the whole court will awaken. One day, a farmer exploring the ruins, found his way by chance to the vault. He cut the garter with the stone sword, but forgot to blow the horn. Arthur awoke, but fell sleep again with the words:

“O woe betide the evil day
On which this luckless wight was born,
Who drew the sword, the garter cut,
But never blew the bugle-horn.”

These stories have a remarkable resemblance to the old myths of the sleeping Cronus, whom Plutarch records as sleeping in an island in Britain:

“Moreover, they said, there is an Island in which Cronus is imprisoned with Briareus keeping guard over him as he sleeps, for, as they put it, sleep is the band forged for Cronus and they add that around him are many divinities, his henchmen and attendants.”

In all these fables the pack of hounds is present to remind us of the great hunting of Twrch Trwyth.

Perhaps the traditions at South Cadbury deserve further mention, as bearing on the myth of the sleeping Arthur. Cadbury is near Glastonbury. Leland and Camden identified the site as Camelot, and indeed named the camp “Camalat.” In the sixteenth century, it was believed to be Arthur's camp, and the discovery of Roman coins, burials and a silver horseshoe were quoted as evidence in support. A nineteenth century rector carefully collected the local traditions:

“Folk do say that on the night of the full moon Arthur and his men ride round the hill and their horses are shod with silver, and a silver shoe has been found in the track where they do ride, and when they have ridden round the hill they stop to water their horses at the Wishing Well.”(23)*

The name of King Arthur has been locally preserved and. attached to an almost forgotten bridle-path leading from the hill at Cadbury to Glastonbury. On the Eve of St. John or on a rough

[Footnote] * In case so late a survival of legend-belief of this type arouses undue scepticism, I would point out that in 1939 A.D. the Rector of Cerne Abbas, Dorset, has found it necessary to protest against the practice of his spinster parishioners-praying by moonlight to the Giant of Cerne—for the blessing of a husband or for success in love!

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winter's night, the lonely labourer returning home may hear King Arthur and his hounds go by along the track. Folk-lore has preserved, perhaps by accident, the location of the old entrance to the Camp at Cadbury, now obliterated by ploughing and undiscernible even to an archaeologist, except by a line of ash trees growing in the now filled hollow-way. The Rector was half facetiously asking an old cottager where the iron gates of the Hollow Hill could be found, and was startled by the instant reply: “Why, doant ee know, zur, up among they ash trees.”

The same processes that converted the earlier versions of Arthurian tales into their later romantic and extravagant form are even yet at work locally, for the Cadbury traditions have received poetic expansions as follows:

“… the village maiden treads, But knows that far beneath her feet within the caverned hill, King Arthur and his mail-clad knights are soundly sleeping still,

With golden lamps reflected in polished marble floors.

And ever watchful dragons guarding the golden doors,

She knows that they who ne'er have sinned, nor caused a heart to grieve,

Whose faith is pure and love is true, who kneel on St. John's Eve

And lave their eyes in Arthur's Well, shall see the hill subside

And passage open at their feet, the golden gates divide.

And Arthur couched amid his knights, each girded with a sword,

And by the tranced monarch's head, a priceless jewel hoard.”

Arthur's name has sometimes slipped into a more ribald rhyme, as in Upper Hesket in Cumberland, where an itinerant and innfrequenting antiquary heard this rhyme:

“When as King Arthur ruled this land,
He ruled it like a swine,
He bought three pecks of barley meal
To make a pudden fine.
His pudden it was knodden well
And stuffed right full of plums
And lumps of suet he put in
As big as my two thumbs.”

But perhaps this is but an echo of the Scottish propaganda of Hector Boece.

Folk-lore, like folk memory, is very unreliable, and is always changing. In many parts of Cornwall there is a succession of legends attached to the same antiquities or site. Dozmary Pool, formerly associated with the devil-ridden Treqeagle, now has Arthurian associations. Against this can be set Bodrugan Head, which in the sixteenth century was associated with Sir Bors de Ganis. Now there

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is also a story of a hero who took a spectacular leap from this headland. In the tenth century the hero was Tristan, now it is Henry de Bodrugan, who chose the wrong side at Bosworth Field.(24)

A hairdresser at Taunton said that the Wellington monument near Taunton was put up to commemorate the defeat of the Danes by King Arthur at the battle of Sedgemoor!*

Such are the lapses of folk memory, than which none is more remarkable than that of the Glastonbury car-driver who pointed out to a distinguished fare the hut where Arthur burnt the cakes!

Many identifications of Arthurian sites are of very recent origin. For example, in 1839, a well at Walton Crags in Northumberland was said to be the one at which St. Paulinus baptised his converts. Now it is known as “Arthur's Well.” At about the same period, a local writer noted the Cornish habit of ascribing almost every unknown antiquity to King Arthur. Motives, similar to those which prompted Abbot Henry to find Arthur's grave, exist to perpetuate or originate legends to-day. In one of the leading English railway companies' carriages can be seen photographs of some picturesque mediaeval ruins at Tintagel which have been found to post-date even Geoffrey of Monmouth. The ruins are described as “King Arthur's Castle, Tintagel.” The journey to see them is one of the longest on the line!

A final miscellany of tales follows. King Arthur wanders in various guises. In Cornwall he is associated with the raven, sometimes with the Cornish chough. Cervantes said he wandered in the guise of a bird. In the thirteenth century Dreams of Rhonabwy, ravens play a prominent part in the gathering of the host at the Battle of Badon.(25) King Arthur often rides at night as at South Cadbury. He is also said to have founded Cambridge University, a counterblast to University College (Oxford's) claim to Alfred as a traditional founder. At Caerleon in 1799 he gave his name to a well-known inn, whose sign reads:—

“Though o'er my door, yet take my word
To honour you he's able
And make you welcome with good ale,
And Knights of the Round Table.”

This inn's sign perpetuated the earlier local belief that Arthur's Round Table, like his court, was at Caerleon, a belief no older than Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Mention of Geoffrey occasions my last reference to the literary Arthur. Of all the developments in the legend of Arthur none is more remarkable than the immediate and almost unquestioned acceptance of the wild imaginings of the Historia, within a few years of the authoritative dismissal of such fancies by William of Malmes-bury. There were, however, a few not entirely disinterested contemporary sceptics. One amusing example will perhaps be forgiven.

[Footnote] * This incident was communicated by Mr. O. G. S. Crawford, to whom I am also indebted for several suggestions and corrections since the paper was read.

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It is again from Giraldus Cambrensis, in his Itinerarium Kambriae (1191), speaking of:

“Meilerius of Caerleon … who claimed the power of telling truth by the help of demoniac familiars. The devils were exorcised by placing the Gospel of St. John on his bosom. But when, by way of experiment, the Gospel was removed and Geoffrey Arthur's history of the Britons was put in its place, then all the devils came back thicker than before.”

It would seem that the reduction of a legend to literary form, so far from fixing it, only leads to an intensification of changes. But is the converse true? Can the legend and genealogies transmitted for generations by the “tohunga” of Polynesia be regarded as having kept unchanged their earlier form? Are they any more reliable than the extensive folk-lore of Southern Scotland, purporting to show former activities of Arthur and much of which dates from the fourteenth century political uses of Arthurian legend; or that of Cornwall, which in many cases is no older than the Idylls of the King? How much reliance can be placed upon this orally transmitted material for the purpose of reconstructing an exact history of Polynesia? Surely these legends and genealogies can hardly have escaped the many influences which have moulded, formed and distorted the original Arthur until he seems to have lost all resemblance to his original self, location or nationality To draw safe historical conclusions, legends must be studied in their earlier, as well as their later, forms. Their travel must be followed, and allowance made for the many factors and influences which worked to mould them.

Words applied to the Greek mythology over three hundred years ago still hold good for many legends to-day:

“Seeing they are diversely related by writers that lived near about one and the self-same time, we may easily perceive that they were common things, derived from precedent memorials arid that they became various by reason of the diverse ornaments bestowed on them by particular relations.”(26)

The greatest caution must be observed lest the later accretions be mistaken for the original essentials.

Special References.

  • (1) Raglan. The Hero, London, 1936.

  • (2) Rhys (quoted by Snell). Studies in Arthurian Legend. 1891.

  • (3) Bury. Life of St. Patrick. 1905.

  • (4) R. C. Collingwood. Roman Britain, ch. 19. Oxford, 1937, 2nd ed.

  • (5) Mount Badon. For discussion on this important question see Appendix iii, ref. (4), also Antiquity, vol. 6, pages 459–463, 1932, and Antiquity, vol. 5, pages 236–239, 1931.

  • (6) Gildas. De Excidio et Conguestu Britanniae, chap. 4.

  • (7) Hodgkin. A History of the Anglo-Saxons, vol. 1. Oxford, 1935.

  • (8) cf. Inscriptions on contemporary Memorial Stone in Wales quoted in ref. (7).

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  • (9) E. T. Leeds. Celtic Ornament in the British Isles to 700 A.D. Oxford, 1033.

  • (10) Collected Papers of T. F. Tout, vol. 2. Manchester University Press, 1933.

  • (11) Annales Cambriae “computus.”

  • (12) Gildas. De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, chap. 26.

  • (13) Faral. La Legende Arthurienne, vol. 1, p. 58 et seq. Paris, 1929.

  • (14) Best critical discussion on Arthur's battles: O. G. S. Crawford, Arthur and His Battles, Antiquity, vol. 9, p. 277 et seq., 1935, but possibly wrong in identification of northern sites. See also footnote *.

  • (15) Faral. La Légende Arthurienne, vol. 1. Paris, 1929. Contains a good discussion on early records, but place names identifications are a little wild and not now acceptable in many cases.

  • (16) Raglan. The Hero. 1936.

  • (17) Sir E. K. Chambers. Arthur of Britain, p. 188.

  • (18) Snell. King Arthur's Country. 1920.

  • (19) T. P. Ellis and J. Lloyd. Mabinogion. A New Translation, vol. 1, p. 170 et seq. Oxford, 1929.

  • (20) Black Book of Carmarthen, quoted by Chambers.

  • (21) Liber Rubeus Bathonae, quoted by Chambers.

  • (22) Froissart. Chronicles of England, France, and Spain.

  • (23) Snell. King Arthur's Country. 1926. This work is a valuable topographical survey, but is very unreliable in many ways. Richard of Cirencester, for example, is quoted as an authority!

  • (24) Sir E. K. Chambers. Arthur of Britain, p. 194.

  • (25) Mabinogion. A New Translation, vol. 2, p. 20. 1929.

  • (26) Bacon. The Wisdom of the Ancients, quoted by E. S. Hartland in Mythology and Folk Tales. 1900.

General, References.

(a)Historical Background.

There is no single general work dealing with Fifth Century Britain and the later times in which the Arthurian Legend was forming. The following have proved very useful:—

I. Roman Britain and English Settlements. Collingwood. Oxford, 1936.

II. Roman Occupation of Britain, Haversfield and Macdonald. Oxford, 1927.

III. Archaeology of England and Wales. Kendrick and Hawkes. 1932.

IV. Hodgkin. History of the Anglo-Saxons, vol. 1. 1935.

V. E. T. Leeds. Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology. 1935.

(b) Topography.

Map of Britain in the Dark Ages, South Sheet. Ordnance Survey Office, Southampton. 1935.

(c) Arthurian Sources.

Faral. La Légende Arthurienne (3 volumes). Bibliothěque de l'Ecole des. hautes études. Paris, 1929.

Picture icon

The Late James Scott Maclaurin.