The Introduction to R M Jones’s 1960 edition of the Romances
The text chosen by Emeritus Professor R M (Bobi) Jones, at the time of his 1960 edition of the three Welsh romances (classed as part of the Mabinogion), is the Red Book of Hergest. The G Jones & T Jones translation (Everyman, 1949) is based on the White Book of Rhydderch. (G Goetinck’s edition of Peredur (University of Wales, 1976) is based on the White Book too.) Translations (fairly free) of passages, below, are keyed to R M Jones’s text and the Jones & Jones translation.
The authority vested in Arthur
“[The distinguished writer] Mr Saunders Lewis (1893 – 1985) had this to say about the three romances: ‘In this trilogy perhaps the highest achievement of the Middle Ages is to be found’; and as the prose of the Middle Ages is the highpoint of all our prose, it can be seen how important these short tales are to the cultured Welshman. Here is international literature that stands side by side with the masterpieces of all times in any country. All Europe knows about these romances.”
The editor goes on to place them “in their proper place in literary history”. He quotes from three French scholars who support the importance of Celtic Arthurian literature for the development of European literature, namely, Ernest Renan (1823–1892), Gaston Paris (1839–1903) and Jean Marx (1884–1972).
The editor goes on to refer to the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes and very many others, across the Middle Ages and later centuries – and also painters – too numerous to mention in this summary.
The transmission of the romances
“It is difficult to say anything about the author of the three stories brought together in this volume, Iarlles y Ffynnon/The Lady of the Fountain/Owain, Peredur and Geraint: we do not know his name nor when he lived nor where he came from. If I was pressed to make a guess, I would say that the Monmouth border area – where the Welsh language lasted for centuries – was the cradle of these romances (and many of the others), and that they were composed about 1100, although the earliest manuscript and its contents were produced some years later, and the language somewhat modernised.
Though there are few geographical references in the stories, the places that are mentioned are located in the wider region, for example, the Forest of Dean, Cardiff, Caerleon, Gloucester, the River Usk, Cornwall and the River Severn. What the court of Narberth is to Pwyll and Manawydan, the court of Caerleon is to the romances. The Monmouth Priory was founded by Benedictines from Brittany in the late 11th century, in contrast to similar Norman foundations in Wales. Moreover, there is a Breton flavour to the French versions of the Welsh romances. Compare Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History circa 1130-39 and Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae (Lives of the Saints of Britain) circa 1200, which came from the same area. I believe that we must place the romances side by side with these great works as productions characteristic of the Monmouth area. This explains some names like Ėrec and Yvain in the French versions, which reflect the Breton Guerec and Ivan, and it accounts for many of the references to the Monmouth area and to Bretons in various other stories. When the Bretons came to Monmouth, they were struck by local ‘history’, and they saw its relevance to their own nation: it was a shared ‘history’, about heroes whose names at least they vaguely recalled, as part of their past, on the island of Britain. Their enthusiasm, together with their ability to translate stories from Welsh into French (….), caused the floodgates to open….Soon after they were composed, they were related to the Bretons of Monmouth, and from there they spread like wildfire through the Norman castles of Glamorgan and over to France and the rest of Europe. This is probably the way they were transmitted….
The Welsh story-tellers adapted the material for contemporary society; they promoted the heroic age, in accordance with the fashion of the times; and the resultant refined compositions show evidence of literary genius. The names of the heroes are not those of the original protagonists, to be sure: there is no doubt that those were gods of some kind – of fertility, for the most part. The stories grew from myth into romance, myths based on historical persons. But the incidents that form the skeleton of these stories did not arise from precisely this process: the raw mythological material was taken and turned into a new creation. Furthermore, by realising that the romances are rooted in myth, our reading of them is enriched: we come to recognise the magic and thrill of the names, the events, the numbers, the colours, the shapes, etc; and they become more meaningful, because of their distant connections of a religious but (generally) pre-Christian nature, and of much greater interest.”
The achievement of the romances
“There is one fundamental difference between Culhwch and Olwen, The Dream of Macsen and the romances on the one hand and the ‘Four Branches’ (Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Math): though the ‘Four Branches’ are realistic in their geographical references, each one is derived from mythology.” An ideal is created, to inspire the Welsh contemporaries of the composer of the romances.
“The principal elements are:
- Historical characters, for the most part from the 5th and 6th centuries – subjects to be praised and celebrated
- Mythological stories (traditional stories associated with beliefs about the weather and the seasons, places such as fountains, with their air of mystery)
- Features imported from contemporary society (French influences, customs, dress etc).
And in the attempt to combine these three elements, the author succeeded in creating a national epic – this because he was more conscious of his theme than his preferences or his personal feelings. The author’s intention was not to disclose anything about himself but rather to please his audience and to conjure up a vision of the past. On the continent the Arthurian tales were exotic, the heroes were remote from the audiences’ experience, and the setting was otherworldly; but to the people of Wales the tales were an expression of national pride.
In the romances we see the creation of ideals; and we see evidence of the same kind of ideal of perfection portrayed by contemporary poets in their odes and poems of praise.”
I have chosen, from among the editor’s examples, only those from the Lady of the Fountain, here:
“And Owein was certain that he had never seen any kind of food of which he did not there see plenty, save that the service of the food he saw there was better than in any place ever. And he had never seen a place with so many rare dishes of meat and drink as there. And there was never a vessel from which he was served save vessels of silver or gold.
[the Lady of the Fountain: Jones (ed), p 15; Jones & Jones (translators, from the White Book), p 165]
And the feast that had been three years preparing was consumed in just three months. And never had they a feast more cheering than that, nor a better.
[the Lady of the Fountain: Jones (ed) p 25; Jones & Jones, p 173]
In the romances, references to ideal feasts are common, as are those to clothes, ladies of the court, the bravery of the knights, and so on. Certainly, part of this idealisation reflects the wish of the author or arranger to present supernatural wonders: the extraordinary lives the characters lead (foreign to our own humdrum, everyday life), and the surprising things that happen to them – these were the only things that he thought would arouse the interest of his audience. As well as this consideration, however, there was also the fact that these stories are derived, basically, from supernatural material, and that the heroes in them were originally the ones whose performance of miracles was a ‘natural’ part of their divine constitution. Hence, magical happenings and unexplained secrets recur throughout the romances, and a particular strangeness permeates them….
In the Lady of the Fountain there is a black man, with one foot, and with one eye in the centre of his forehead; and in Peredur too there is a big one-eyed man. Now, it is a common practice of many of the world’s peoples to refer to the sun as the ‘eye of heaven’ (cf Shakespeare: ‘Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines’ [Sonnet 18]). And with the Germanic tribes as with the Greeks, the sun god – controller of storms and lightning too – had only one eye. In Ireland too there was a sun god with one eye in the centre of his forehead. When we remember Sol (in Culhwch) ‘who could stand all day on one foot’ (whereby ‘Sol’ means ‘sun’ of course), and when we recall the stormy, turbulent associations of the black, one-eyed men in the Lady of the Fountain and in Peredur, it seems fairly obvious – without reference to other pieces of evidence – that the creatures had been storm-and-sun gods in their distant, more ‘illustrious’ past.
This is an example among many of how we can trace other links here and there – to a ring, to a serpent, to twenty-four women, to a lion, to a miller, to sudden desolation, and scores of other elements – ultimately going back to a definite mythological source.
I conclude then that it is the combination or interweaving of the three themes – idealisation of the heroes of the past, the relation of wonders (in a lively, ‘journalistic’ way), and the use of remnants of mythological stories – that contribute, to an extent, to the feelings of wonder and estrangement aroused in us when we read these tales. Note too that sometimes only one, or a combination of two, of these themes adorns these pages….
There are many other prominent features that mark the romances, apart from such lively descriptions. They are noteworthy for their exploration, in greater depth and subtlety, of two themes that had already surfaced in the Four Branches and in Culhwch and Olwen, and which were destined to be dominant themes in the literature of France and other countries, namely: Courtly Love and Knight Errancy. In each of the romances, one can see the interweaving of love and adventure: the woman often provides the occasion of the adventure; and romantic love begins to be transformed into a social cult, with the woman carefully taking her place on her pedestal. Every Welshman knows of the traditional respect for women that was expressed in the Laws of Wales: through the medium of these romances, the whole of Europe got to know about this cause of pride.
At this point we should refer too to the consummate orderliness and logical construction of the romances, a feature rather exceptional in the Middle Ages. It is true that Welsh prose had developed earlier than that of other languages; but there is a far greater unity in these three romances than is to be found in later prose romances from elsewhere. Not only does one hero hold the narrative thread intact, but also the framework of the episodes is neat and satisfactory for the reader. By contrast, the Canon of Toledo, in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, complains:
I have never seen a book of chivalry with a whole body for a plot, with all its limbs complete, so that the middle corresponds to the beginning, and the end to the beginning and middle.
[Book I, Chapter 47, translated by Cohen]
The method other prose writers used was to keep piling episode upon episode, without restraint. But the Canon of Toledo would have been satisfied if he had seen the Welsh romances, especially in their original state. Certainly, the Lady of the Fountain and Geraint are more organic than Peredur; and the former two share a similar plot. The plot has four branches or parts:
- An introduction, which begins at Arthur’s court, brings in the hero and leads him to his marriage
- A crisis that separates man and wife – in body or in spirit
- A series of adventures of increasing difficulty that eventually lead to reconciliation between the hero and his wife
- An extension to the story that introduces an episode, complete in itself, which confirms the bravery of the hero.
It appears that the marriage represents a fall from the high status of knighthood; but perhaps this part of the story tries to show that the knight can undertake adventures still, despite having to be reconciled with his wife!
Although Peredur is a somewhat different type, and reminiscent of the pícaro, his tale is developed clearly and with attention to detail. Indeed, Sir John Rhŷs showed, long ago, that many of the essentials of Peredur are similar to those of the Lady of the Fountain. For example, Peredur returns, wounded, to Gwenhwyfar to be healed; then he defends the castle of his host and hostesses against their enemies’ attacks; finally, he revokes his vow, ‘never to speak word to a Christian’, once Angharad Golden-hand admits that she loves him. Owain, having lived among wild animals and become weak, comes to the park of the widowed countess: she promptly comforts him and sends a maiden to heal him with ointment; then Owain, taking account of her husbandless state, defends her castle against an attack. The ‘Black Oppressor’ of the Lady of the Fountain is similar to the ‘Black Oppressor’ of Peredur; and Sir John Rhŷs made many similar points, demonstrating that various characteristics of one tale corresponds exactly to those of another.
Each of the romances develops swiftly and shows the firm grip of the narrator. In Geraint in particular, the several changes of scene and the switch of emphasis from one character to another are masterly and unusually skilful, for such an early story. Note too how the element of expectation is built up, time and again: in Geraint, for example, Geraint encounters Edern fab Nudd rather early on; but there is an air of mystery about him; and he is too important to talk to Gwenhwyfar’s maiden or to Geraint himself. So Geraint follows Edern into the town, amid the great preparations for the tournament, meets the ‘hoary-headed man’ and his daughter, at the ‘old ruined court’, and finds out all he needs to know.
However neat the plotting is, it is above all their splendid style that puts the stamp of genius on these stories. Restricting oneself to the beginning of each of the three stories, one can see evidence of the author’s achievement in the way he sets the scene, concisely and vividly, and in the swift and effective way he introduces the main character, bringing together all the background information necessary for getting the story off to a good start.
The descriptions of the character and the incidents are lyrical in their rhythm and lightness of touch: one clause balances another as the exposition proceeds, in all its fine detail. Here is an example, from the Lady of the Fountain:
And at long last I came upon the fairest vale in the world, and trees of an equal height in it, and there was a river flowing through the vale, and a path alongside the river. And I travelled along the path till mid-day; and on the other side I travelled till the hour of nones. And then I came to a great plain, and at the far end of the plain I could see a great shining castle, and a sea close to the castle. And I came towards the castle.
[Jones, pp 2f; Jones & Jones, p 156]
One could quote from any page to demonstrate the elegant, neat construction of the sentences, effective as they are in moving the story on and conveying the knights’ honourable nature and the beauty of the scenes that the storyteller is imagining. The author uses pauses in the characters’ dialogue to allow time for development in their thinking; and he varies the speed of the action to suit the demands of the content, slowing things down when conveying the leisurely pace of life at court (as implied, for example, in the depiction of the preparations for Cynon’s story, in the Lady of the Fountain), and speeding things up when describing pieces of action (such as fights)….”
The editor refers to “the effects of the author’s poetic education too in his use of language – the power of the rhetorical devices and the copiousness of the adjectives – especially in Peredur and Geraint.” He continues: “[The writer] deploys these [devices] without exception when he wishes to slow down a sentence, and to elevate the style, or else to express excitement and even mirth. Moreover, the author can make a virtue of concision: everyone who has compared the French and Welsh versions in detail has observed how much more economical and concise the Welsh author is (how he exercises self-restraint) – sometimes reaching levels of brevity typical of proverbs and scientific writing…
And the author varies his style, between the flowery (but not too flowery) and the concise, according to the requirements of the narrative; and the way he varies dialogue, and relates incidents and descriptions, reflects the essential variety that the craft of writing demands. This variety can be seen in the shape of his sentences and the tenses of his verbs – the past tense, the historic present used (for dramatic effect), the verb noun, the pluperfect, the imperfect, auxiliary verbs, and other devices – even though it is a straightforward linear story that is being told. As a consequence, the progress of the stories is fluent and dramatic, lively and polished, and full of energy and movement.
Let us stop to observe how the author brings leading characters to life: Gwalchmai is a gentleman, patient, full of sympathy, humble, and a model of self-restraint; Cai is impudent and reckless, often discourteous and unfeeling; Peredur, the naïve and unsophisticated country boy, grows up to be a complete, sophisticated knight; and other heroes, and many small characters, are made interesting.
The author can depict a person with a few vivid brush-strokes…..[And] the author displays a fair amount of psychological insight, as can be recalled from Peredur: an unknown knight comes to Arthur’s court, insults Gwenhwyfar, and issues a challenge; all the knights hang their heads, in fear and shame; then Peredur, the awkward countryman, rides in, on his “wan, piebald, bony nag”; and the knights are pleased by the distraction, as it takes their minds off the unknown knight’s challenge….
[The writer’s] economy of words is characteristic not only of Peredur but also of the other stories. This is what happens, for example, in the Lady of the Fountain, after the countess has been angered by Luned:
And thereupon Luned went off, and the countess arose and went to the chamber door after Luned, and coughed loudly, and Luned looked back. And the countess gave Luned a nod, and Luned came back to the countess.
[Jones, pp 18f; Jones & Jones, p 168]
The author of these romances is a master of literature – if not the greatest in the history of Welsh literature, then one of the greatest, for sure. It is him we can thank for one of Wales’s two great contributions to world literature.”
References to editors and translators:
Cohen, J M (translator) (1950), The Adventures of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin
Jones, G and Jones, T (1949) (translators), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent & Sons (Everyman)
Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion
Professor R M (Bobi) Jones died on 22 November 2017. His passing was noted by scholars and commentators.