Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > The Arthurian Legend > Early Welsh Tradition
   Nennius and Gildas  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XII. The Arthurian Legend.

§ 1. Early Welsh Tradition.


“A GRAVE there is for March” (or “Mark”)—so runs a stanza in one of the oldest extant Welsh poems  1 —“a grave for Gwythur, a grave for Gwgawn of the Ruddy Sword; a mystery is the grave of Arthur.” “Some men say yet,” wrote Sir Thomas Malory, many centuries later, “that king Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place.” The mystery of Arthur’s grave still remains unsolved, for
       
Where is he who knows?
From the great deep to the great deep he goes.
Towards the end of the twelfth century, in the very heyday of the British king’s renown as a romantic hero, the monks of St. Dunstan’s at Glastonbury—at the original instance, it is said, of Henry II—professed to have discovered the mortal remains of Arthur in the cemetery of their abbey church.  2  Some sixty years before, William of Malmesbury had given an account of the discovery in Wales of the grave of Arthur’s nephew, Gawain but the grave of Arthur himself was not, he said, anywhere to be found; hence ancient songs  3  prophesy his return. It was thought that the illusory expectations thus cherished by the British Celts could be dispelled by the Glastonbury exhumation. But so sorry an attempt to poison the wells of romance met with the failure it deserved. Arthur lived on, inviolate in fabled Avalon. Graven on no known sepulchre, his name,
       
a ghost,
Streams like a cloud, man-shaped, from mountain peak,
And cleaves to cairn and cromlech still.
The memory of no other British hero is so extensively preserved in the place-names of these islands; “only the devil is more often mentioned in local association than Arthur.” 4 
  1
  The nomenclature of Arthurian fable, which has a voluminous critical literature of its own, does not concern us here. No student of Arthurian origins, however, can fail to be impressed by the strange disproportion between the abundance of Arthurian place-names in the British islands and the amount of early British literature, whether in English or in the insular Celtic tongues, dealing with the Arthurian legend. The early English Arthurian literature, in particular, is singularly meagre and undistinguished. The romantic exploitation of “the matter of Britain” was the achievement, mainly, of French writers—so much so that some modern critics would have us attach little importance to genuine British influence on the development of the legend of Arthur. For, when all is told, Arthurian romance owed its immense popularity in the thirteenth century to its ideal and representative character, and to its superiority over the other stock romantic matters as a point de repère for every kind of literary excursion and adventure. Thus, the “matter of Britain” very quickly became international property—a vast composite body of romantic tradition, which European poets and story-tellers of every nationality drew upon and used for their own purposes. The British king himself faded more and more into the background, and became, in time, but the phantom monarch of a featureless “land of faëry,” which
       
None that breatheth living aire doth know.
His knights quite overshadow him in the later romances; but they, in their turn, undergo the same process of denationalisation, and appear as natives of no known clime or country, moving about in an iridescent atmosphere of fantasy and illusion.The Arthurian fairy-land thus became a neutral territory—an enchanted land where the seemingly incompatible ideals of knight-errantry and the church were reconciled, and where even east and west brought their spoils together as to some common sanctuary. “Pilgrimage and the holy wars,” writes Gibbon, “introduced into Europe the specious miracles of Arabian magic. Fairies and giants, flying dragons and enchanted palaces, were blended with the more simple fictions of the west; and the fate of Britain depended on the art, or the predictions, of Merlin. Every nation embraced and adorned the popular romance of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table; their names were celebrated in Greece and Italy; and the voluminous tales of Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristram were devoutly studied by the princes and nobles, who disregarded the genuine heroes and heroines of antiquity.”
  2
  Britain, however, claimed the titular hero of the legend; and it was on British soil that the full flower of Arthurian romance in due course made its appearance. Sir Thomas Malory’s marvellous compilation superseded, for all time, each and every “French book” which went to its making. And, as Caxton takes occasion to emphasise in his preface to Malory’s book, Arthur, as the “first and chief of the three best Christian kings” of the world, deserved “most to be remembered amongst us Englishmen.” It so happens, however, that in our own, no less than in Caxton’s, time “divers men hold opinion that there was no such Arthur, and all such books as been made of him be but feigned and fables.” There is, indeed, much in the history of the legend to justify the attitude of these sceptics. The first great outburst of the popularity of the story was due to a writer who, in the words of one of his earliest critics,  5  “cloaked fables about Arthur under the honest name ofhistory”—Geoffrey of Monmouth. The historical Arthur—assuming that Geoffrey meant all that he wrote about him to be taken as authentic fact—thus made his first considerable appearance in literature under very dubious auspices. The “British book” which Geoffrey professes to have used has never been discovered, and is not unreasonably supposed by many to have been a myth. Thus, they who would substantiate Caxton’s assertion that “there was a king of this land called Arthur” have to produce earlier, and more authentic, evidence than anything furnished by Geoffrey.   3
  Old English literature, even the Chronicle, knows absolutely nothing of Arthur. Wales, alone, has preserved any record of his name and fame from a date earlier than the twelfth century. But even Welsh writers of an indisputably early date tell us very little about him, and tell that little in a tantalisingly casual and perfunctory way. Yet it is in a few obscure Welsh poems, in one very remarkable but difficult Welsh prose tale and in two meagre Latin chronicles compiled in Wales, that we discover the oldest literary records of both the historical and the legendary Arthur. A few stubborn critics still maintain, against the opinion of the best Welsh scholars, that the Welsh works in question are not, in substance, earlier than the twelfth century—that, in other words, they contain no fragments of Arthurian lore which can be proved to be older than the date of the MSS. in which they are preserved. None, however, will now dispute the approximate dates assigned by the best authorities to Nennius and the Annales Cambriae; and it is in the two Latin documents bearing these names that we have the earliest extant records of a seemingly historical Arthur.   4

Note 1. A poem, in triplet form, entitled The Stanzas of the Graves, preserved in The Black Book of Carmarthen, a MS. of the twelfth century. [ back ]
Note 2. Giraldus Cambrensis gives the longest account of the affair (De Principis Instructione, VIII, 126–9). [ back ]
Note 3. Antiquitas naeniarum. Gesta Regum Anglorum, Bk.III. [ back ]
Note 4. Dickinson, King Arthur in Cornwall (Longmans, 1900), Preface, p. vi. [ back ]
Note 5. William of Newburgh. [ back ]

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   Nennius and Gildas  
 
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