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21.05.12 Lloyd-Morgan/Poppe (eds.), Arthur in the Celtic Languages

The Medieval Review

21.05.12 Lloyd-Morgan/Poppe (eds.), Arthur in the Celtic Languages


Arthur in the Celtic Languages is the latest in the University of Wales Press series, Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages. It revisits that series' inaugural volume, Arthur of the Welsh (1991), itself an update of R. S. Loomis's Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages (Oxford 1959). On its publication, Arthur of the Welsh (AOTW) became the standard point of entry for research into Welsh literature of the middle ages. Its success gave rise to further volumes in the series, each focusing on Arthur in a different language or location; along with the obvious concentrations on English, French and Latin are also included volumes on literature from Iberia, Scandinavia, Germany and the Low Countries.

Arthur of the Welsh was, as much of the field at the time, concerned with transmission of texts, with analogues in other literatures, and with establishing the boundaries of the canon, and it did so admirably. In the intervening three decades, however, new critical and linguistic approaches and methodologies made a return to Arthur's homeland necessary and inevitable. The new volume takes a more text-centred approach, and also expands the remit from "Welsh" to "Celtic" by including the other Celtic languages: Cornish, Breton, Irish and Gaelic versions of Arthur. (The single Celtic language not represented in any capacity is Manx, in which no examples were found.) This benefits scholars of Celtic Studies more generally, but also each of the included languages, whose corpora prove too small to merit an entire volume of their own.

The volume is divided first along linguistic, and then thematic lines. The bulk of the material included remains primarily Welsh, simply because the surviving corpus of native Arthurian literature is significantly larger than in other Celtic languages. These sections are then segmented further by generic and, roughly, chronological constraints (dating any given text with accuracy remains the great dilemma of Welsh medieval literature). In "The Beginnings of the Welsh Arthurian Tradition," Nerys Ann Williams discusses Arthurian references in the early poetry, expanding on the grounding provided by Patrick Sims-Williams in AOTW and updating the analysis to include more recent developments in the scholarship, particularly surrounding the Book of Taliesin. John Bollard and Jenny Rowland revisit the Welsh Merlin poems and the Tristan story, respectively, and the chapters in this section effectively locate the Welsh Arthurian legend both temporally and contextually within its local context. At the same time, they introduce the reader to some of the longstanding dilemmas inherent in attempts to trace the texts' origins and transmission.

That introduction sets the scene for Simon Rodway's discussion of "Culhwch ac Olwen" which discusses, if not verifiably an early Welsh Arthur, a native one that "that was...superseded, in Welsh as in other languages, by Geoffrey of Monmouth's recreation" (74). This leads to Catherine McKenna's chapter on "Breuddwyd Rhonabwy (The Dream of Rhonabwy)," a fellow to "Culhwch" really only in that both are medieval Welsh tales, written in prose and featuring a version of Arthur. Where "Culhwch" makes use of folkloric tale-types, "Rhonabwy" involves elements of the romantic dream vision in a particularly Welsh milieu. The texts do not appear to have been considered related by medieval scribes, but both were featured in AOTW (by Brynley Roberts and Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, respectively) as examples of "native" texts. Here, both take new developments in scholarship into account, particularly on the relationships and shared sources (or lack of them) between Wales and its neighbours, both English and continental.

This, too, lays groundwork to segue neatly into the next section, "Medieval Translations and Adaptations into Welsh." While Rodway questioned what distinguishes a "native" tale from an adapted one, the volume presents an answer in a straightforward list: "Brut y Brenhinedd" (The Welsh version of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain), the quest for the Holy Grail, and the three translationes of Arthurian romances "Iarlles y Ffynnawn," "Geraint fab Erbin," and "Peredur ab Efrawg." The latter three are introduced by a short piece from the editors explaining the context of a longstanding debate in Welsh medieval Arthuriana over their genre and origins. These are troublesome texts with a complicated history of both scholarship and transmission, and an introduction to the scholarly context will be helpful.

A section titled "Influences and Re-compositions" is a pot into which are thrown all the remaining bits of Welsh Arthuriana not immediately at home in the preceding chapters. This includes the Triads of the Island of Britain, to some of which Arthur appears to have been added, references in non-Arthurian-themed poetry of the later middle ages, and "hybrid texts," described within as those Arthurian prose tales between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries which are "neither a translation nor a free adaptation of a single earlier composition" (203), but original works which draw on a number of sources. Chapters on folklore, toponomastics (both medieval and more modern, and some of ambiguous origin), and modern Welsh literature show the influence of centuries of story on the culture and even landscape of Wales.

It is therefore only after some 260 pages that we leave Wales, leaving seven chapters for the collected Arthurian offerings of the other Celtic nations. There is far less surviving material to work with, for reasons better left explained by the authors of the individual contributions. Oliver Padel attributes the lack of a surviving native Arthurian tradition in Cornwall--the land of Arthur's birth and, in Geoffrey of Monmouth, his chief court, as well as the location of the Tristan legend--to the Anglicization of the region by the twelfth century and the fact that literature written in Cornish "appeared late on the British scene" (263). There is only one surviving medieval example, but Padel can trace Arthur's lingering influence in local place names and folklore.

Three chapters discuss Arthurian material in Breton. Hervé Le Bihan begins with the earliest eleventh-century traditions and medieval hagiography; the similarities between some of this material and that from Wales are noticeable. Fañch Postic and Hélène Bouget discuss the influence of nineteenth-century writer Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué on modern ideas of Arthur's ubiquitous tradition, and Françoise Le Saux discusses Arthur's limited presence (and significant absence) from Breton-language literary circles in the twentieth century.

This leads to the final division, the Gaelic languages, consisting of only three short but informative chapters. The fact that Arthur, as a foreign and not entirely friendly king, was not a major figure in Irish literature means there is little for Poppe, introducing the texts, to list, but Aisling Byrne's explanation of the reception of the Grail story in late medieval Ireland provides a vital context for anyone curious about the scarcity of an Irish Arthur. This leaves Linda Gowans solely responsible for any appearances by Arthur in Scotland; she discusses Arthur's inclusion in the genealogy of Clan Campbell from the 15th century (361) and his later appearance in oral folktales and ballads.

Clearly, by the end of its 389 (before the index) pages, Arthur in the Celtic Languages has covered quite a lot of ground. As a general rule, the chapters do not delve too deeply into the theoretical underpinnings of the texts discussed, nor are they meant to: the stated purpose of the volume is to collect and introduce the wide variety of Celtic Arthuriana, from the well-known set texts found in Guest's translation of The Mabinogion to obscure references in late medieval cartularies, in one place. It is a timely grounding in the literature and its most immediate questions, debates and contexts, from which further exploration can be made.

Arthur in the Celtic Languages is an ambitious work, the culmination of three decades of dedication. The editors have done their best to include every possible variation on Arthur in any Celtic language, even where there is little Arthurian tradition to be found. It will prove, as did AOTW, to be an indispensible reference for students and researchers on Welsh and Celtic Arthuriana, as well as a useful book for non-Celticist Arthurians to keep nearby. As with the other newer additions to the Arthur in the Middle Ages series, however, it is not an affordable book for individual researchers, and with library access limited in the last year by the Covid-19 pandemic, the slightly more affordable electronic version may prove especially useful.