Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature

Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature

Juliette Wood

By O. J. Padel. (Writers of Wales Series) Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000. 139 pp. 5.99 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-7083-1682-4

Although the title indicates that this is a book on Arthurian literature, any book on Arthur will have something to interest folklorists. This one, unlike so much which is published on this famous hero, is an excellent survey-cum-study, written with authority and assurance. In the introduction, Professor Padel sets out the plan and approach; namely, to examine the differing interpretations of Arthur given by learned authors, rather than the more consistent portrayal of the traditional Arthur in British folklore. The material is presented chronologically, beginning with the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, and including all the relevant Welsh and Latin sources. Besides the comparatively well-known Arthurian texts such as Culhwch ac Olwen, the three Welsh romances, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, the book also surveys references to Arthur in medieval Welsh poetry, and in Welsh translations of medieval French works. The emphasis, despite the chronological presentation of sources, is on the nature and intention of the texts in which Arthurian material occurs, and Padel surveys and assesses the latest thinking on the sources. Of particular interest is the possible relationship between the Dream of Rhonawbwy and the prose ariethiau, a kind of formal rhetorical exercise. There is also a useful discussion of references to Arthur in Welsh poetry, and how these relate to the changing attitudes to Arthur in medieval and Renaissance Wales. There are also good sections on major Arthurian characters such as Cei, Bedwyr and Gwalchmai.

Arthur is presented as a multifaceted figure, not one rooted in any particular area or with obvious historical roots. Padel suggests that the traditional image of Arthur is more stable and less reverent than the literary one. Folkloric references to Arthur, especially associations with natural features, remain relatively constant over an extremely long period of time. Individual sites may be named or renamed at different periods, but the process, according to the author, goes back at least to the earliest datable Arthurian source, the ninth-century Historia Brittonum. Local place names give him a more supernatural character (that of giant or returning hero) and concern what Padel terms “Arthurian furniture,” for example, chairs, ovens, etc.

The final section of the book deals with the question of whether there was a developed and specifically Welsh Arthurian tradition. This certainly has wider implications, as so often Arthurian books concentrate on a specific, historically and geographically bound view of Arthur.

Juliette Wood, University of Wales, Cardiff, UK

COPYRIGHT 2002 Folklore Society

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