Theban themes and threads across 2000 years

The Ancient Greeks: Oedipus and his family

The Athenian tragedians of the 5th century BCE – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – wrote superb dramas about:

  1. the fates of King Oedipus of Thebes (the man who killed his father and married his mother, Jocasta) and his children, Antigone, Eteocles, Ismene and Polynices (Polyneices).
  2. the dynastic rivalry between the two sons, leading up to a disastrous war
  3. the unsuccessful attempts by their mother and sisters to reconcile the two brothers
  4. the intervention of the Athenian hero, Theseus, to ensure the decent burial of the warriors fallen in the war – at the earnest request of their grieving womenfolk.

In these plays, women are victims of strife and war – the ones who mourn openly, and the ones who insist upon the performance of the proper funeral rites for their menfolk.

In The Seven Against Thebes of Aeschylus, seven warriors (Polynices and his allies) arrive from Argos and lay siege to the city.  The city is saved, but both Eteocles (current ruler of Thebes) and his exiled brother Polynices are killed.

Sophocles wrote three plays about the fate of Thebes and Oedipus and his family.  Oedipus the King is perhaps the best known.  Oedipus shows his determination to discover the truth about his history.  By the time of Oedipus at Colonus, the war between  Polynices and Eteocles is about to begin: both sides ask Oedipus for his support – he refuses.  Antigone deals with the aftermath of the war.  The besiegers’ corpses have been left unburied outside Thebes, on the orders of Creon, now the sole ruler, in contravention of religious law.  Antigone defies Creon and (symbolically rather than thoroughly) covers the corpse of Polynices with soil.  Antigone and Creon debate the conflict between a man-made law and a higher law.

In the Phoenician Women of Euripides, Jocasta tries to reconcile the two brothers (her sons) but fails.  The war commences.  In the end, the two brothers fight a duel and kill each other.  Jocasta kills herself in grief.  Creon (now the ruler) expels Oedipus from the city – Antigone goes with him.  The body of Polynices remains unburied.

In the Suppliants of Euripides, set outside Thebes, after the war, the mothers of the fallen besiegers (abetted by their sons), Adrastus (King of Argos), and Theseus’s own mother, all beg Theseus to overcome Creon’s decree and to arrange the burial of the exposed warriors.  When negotiations with Creon fail, Theseus launches a successful attack, and the mourners’ wishes are fulfilled.

Later adaptations – Latin

In the 1st century CE, Seneca writes the tragedies, Oedipus, based on Sophocles’s model, and Phoenissae, based on the two plays by Euripides mentioned above.

Later in the 1st century CE, Statius wrote his epic, the Thebaid, influenced by Greek and Latin models.  Here, in contrast with the Greek plays, the conflict between Oedipus’s sons is inflamed by the direct intervention of supernatural figures – gods, a fury from hell, and the ghost of Oedipus’s own father.  Indeed, both sons of Oedipus, and their allies, are doomed, as Jupiter himself makes plain:

                 manet haec ab origine mundi
fixa dies bello, populique in proelia nati.  [Book III, lines 242f]

[This day has remained fixed for war, since the beginning of the world, and the peoples born for battles.]

The plot of the epic follows the thread of the Greek tradition, outlined above (points 1-4) – much elaborated, with vivid description of vehement speeches and violent acts.  No gruesome, revolting aspect is spared the reader.   (One incident – Tydeus’s gnawing the head of Melanippus [Book VIII] – is mentioned by Dante in Inferno, Canto XXXII.)

The aftermath of the war between the brothers is covered in Book XII.  Here, Argia, widow of Poynices, and Antigone, his sister, meet on the battlefield, where the fallen warriors’ corpses still lie.  The women now prepare the body of Polynices for his funeral – but when they place it on the still smouldering pyre of Eteocles, the latter’s body rejects it, to the extent that two separate fires break out from the pyre.  The other widows go to Athens and plead with Theseus for help.  Theseus accedes to their request, attacks Thebes, and kills Creon.  The exposed corpses have their funeral.

The characters act as if they are exercising free will, but in fact they are following their destiny.

(Statius appears in Dante’s Purgatorio, Cantos XXI and XXII.  Statius is ranked by Chaucer with Virgil, Ovid, Homer and Lucan, in Troilus and Criseyde, Book V; and he is listed among many great poets, in The House of Fame, Book III.)

Later adaptations – Western Europe

It was Latin literature, rather than Greek, that influenced the European vernacular literatures of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The anonymous 12th century Old French epic, Le Roman de Thèbes, is based on the Thebaid, but it is much influenced by contemporary methods of warfare and the Crusades.

Il Teseida delle Nozze d’Emilia (the Story of Theseus and the Nuptials of Emilia) by Giovanni Boccaccio (14th century) shows the influence of Virgil’s Aeneid and Statius’s Thebaid.  Here, Book I deals with the war of Teseo (Theseus) against the Amazons and his marriage to their queen, Ipolita (Hippolyta); Book II deals with Theseus’s war against the Thebans, to ensure the burial of warriors killed in the Theban civil war, at the request of their widows.  (Compare Book XII of the Thebaid.)

Then there is a change of emphasis.  Books III-XII cover the rivalry between the Theban cousins Palemone and Arcita over the beautiful Emilia, sister of Ipolita.  The young cousins are Boccaccio’s creation.  They fight over a lady rather than a city.

Pagan gods reappear: Arcita is depicted as a protégé of the god Mars, Palamone of the goddess Venus, and Emilia of the virgin goddess Diana.

To resolve the dispute, Teseo arranges a combat between Arcita and Palamone.  The result is unexpected: it has features of the surprise elements or vicissitudes characteristic of romance.  Behind the scenes, the gods interfere in the process.  The humans have to make a “virtue of necessity”, as Teseo says:

                        far della necessitate

virtù, quando bisogna, è sapienza.     [Book XII, stanza 11]

[To make a virtue of necessity, when the need arises, is wisdom.]

Is Il Teseida an epic or a romance or a bit of both?   I think that, as regards medieval romance, the practice of chivalry can be combined with the pursuit of love (see, for example, Arthurian literature).

The Knight’s Tale (14th century) by Geoffrey Chaucer is a free adaptation of Boccaccio’s Il Teseida and is very much shorterIt concentrates on the rivalry between Palamon and Arcite, rather than the Amazonian and Theban wars.

In the Preface to his Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), John Dryden writes about what we know as The Knight’s Tale, as follows:

I prefer in our countryman, far above all his other stories, the noble poem of Palamon and Arcite, which is of the epic kind, and perhaps not much inferior to the Ilias [Iliad] or the Aeneis [Aeneid]: the story is more pleasing than either of them, the manners as perfect, the diction as poetical, the learning as deep and various, and the disposition as artful.

And indeed, Dryden includes his own somewhat free translation of The Knight’s Tale in The Fables.  Dryden overstates the case, but The Knight’s Tale is magnificent – as a romance rather than an epic.

The influence of the Theban stories can be seen too, both in Anelida and Arcite (which appears unfinished) and in Troilus and Criseyde (Chaucer’s longest integrated story). The story of The Thebaid is summarized, indeed, in a passage in Book V of the latter.  In Book II, Pandarus discovers Criseyde and her friends reading a book about Thebes – whether from The Thebaid or from Le Roman de Thèbes is open to interpretation.  (What happened to Thebes foreshadows what will happen to Troy itself – but the Trojans fail to see this.)

In The Siege of Thebes (15th century), John Lydgate offers an addition to the Canterbury Tales in the form of a prequel to The Knight’s Tale, from the story of Oedipus to the intervention of Theseus at the end of the Theban war.

As its Prologue acknowledges, The Two Noble Kinsmen (circa 1613), by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, has as its primary source The Knight’s Tale.

In the Prologue, the playwrights express doubt as to how their own achievement measures up to Chaucer’s:

To say truth, it were an endless thing,

And too ambitious, to aspire to him.

They make a good point (see below).

(Act One resembles Euripides’s Suppliants, whether by accident or design.)

The surprise ending of the play resembles that of the source literature.  The play can be classified as a tragi-comedy, as happy and unhappy outcomes are mingled.  (Fletcher wrote, or co-wrote, several tragi-comedies himself.)

The play’s weaknesses are pointed out by its editors.  In particular, is the cousins’ rivalry, over a lady they have barely spoken to, of much interest to the audiences and readers of today?  In the Introduction to the Penguin edition (1977), N W Bawcutt states:

The theme of the main plot – two young men so equally noble that a girl cannot choose between them – is not one of the basic human situations with which an audience can readily identify itself, and presents artistic problems that the dramatists do not always overcome.

Arcite and Palamon take themselves, and their professions of love, very seriously – too seriously, perhaps.  Chaucer, by comparison, shows his skill in his use of irony, which lends some distance between the narrator and his characters.  (This is also the case in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, where the reader gets to know the main characters well, but also is enabled to look at them from more than one angle and thus both to feel both sympathy with them and to take a critical attitude towards them.)

Much of the play is taken up by the serious story of the (unnamed) daughter of the jailer.   She falls in love with Palamon, herself.  She recognises the implications of her own lowly status:

 Why should I love this gentleman?  ‘Tis odds

He never will affect me; I am base,

My father the mean keeper of his prison,

And he a prince.  To marry him is hopeless;

To be his whore is witless.  Out upon’t!

What pushes are we wenches driven to

When fifteen once has found us!


[Act II, Scene 3, lines 1-7 (Penguin edition)]

The daughter’s love is unrequited; she becomes mad or distracted, somewhat like Ophelia in Hamlet.  However, she survivesShe plays an important role: unlike the main characters, she is not inhibited from frankly expressing sexual desire (see above).  She can be seen as more interesting and believable than the main plot characters, to present-day readers and playgoers.

Here, we have come a long way from the Greek dramas.  The latter have stood the test of time.  It is doubtful whether, on their own terms, they have ever been equalled, since.












Welsh language and literature: R M Jones (1960), ‘Y Tair Rhamant’

R M “Bobi” Jones (1929-2017), Y Tair Rhamant – Iarlles y Ffynnon, Peredur a Geraint, RHAGYMADRODD, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion, 1960.

Amcan y blog ‘ma yw cadw’r rhagymadrodd gwerthfawr hwn yn fyw (er iddo wedi’i gytogi, i raddau helaeth, fan hyn).

Y Testyn Hwn

“Testun Llyr Coch Hergest a gyflwynir yma, gydag ambell gywiriad amlwg drwy help llawysgrifau eraill.  Dewiswyd y Llyfr Coch am mai dyna’r testun hynaf sy’n cynnwys y tair rhamant hyn yn gyfan; ac mae’n destun da.”

Ymherodraeth Arthur

“Yn y llyfr hwn fe geir llenyddiaeth y dylai pobl Cymru eu trwytho eu hun ynddi ac ymfalchïo ynddi yn anad dim arall o bopeth yn hanes ein llên.  Dywed Mr Saunders Lewis (1893–1985) am y tair rhamant hyn: ‘Yn y drindod hon y ceir efallai gamp uchaf ein rhyddiaith yn yr Oesoedd Canol’; a chan mai rhyddiaith yr Oesoedd Canol yw uchafbwynt ein rhyddiaith oll, gwelir mor bwysig yw’r chwedlau bychain hyn i’r Cymro diwylliedig.  Dyma lenyddiaith gydwladol sydd yn sefyll ochr yn ochr â champweithiau mawr yr oesoedd mewn unrhyw wlad.  Gŵyr Ewrob oll am y rhamantau hyn.

Er mwyn eu canfod yn eu lle priodol yn hanes llên rhaid i ni eu dodi yn fras ac yn fuan yn erbyn cefndir y chwedlau Arthuraidd neu’r Matière de Bretagne a ddaeth i’r amlwg o’r ddeuddegfed ganrif ymlaen.

O’r tri chylch o storïau a ysgubodd drwy Ewrob yn yr oesoedd hyn, Matière de France (Siarlymaen, Rolant), Matière de Rome (chwedlau clasurol), a’r Matière de Bretagne (Arthur), nid oes dim dau mai’r olaf a gafodd y dylanwad mwyaf.”  Mae R M Jones yn dyfynnu tri ysgolhaig, sef Ernest Renan (1823–1892), Gaston Paris (1839–1903) a Jean Marx (1884–1972).

Mae R M Jones yn cyfeirio hefyd at waith Sieffre o Fynwy a Chrétien de Troyes ac eraill lawer, dros y canrifoedd, ac at y paentwyr a adwaenir fel ‘Pre-Raphaelites’, ac, ym myd miwsig, Richard Wagner.  “Mewn llawer modd bu’r rhamantau hyn yn eang eu gafael ac yn ddwfn eu hargraff mewn llawer gwlad.”

Trosglwyddor Rhamantau

“Anodd dweud dim am awdur y tair stori Gymraeg a gyhwysir yn y gyfrol hon: ni wyddom na’i enw na’i amser na’i fro.  Pe gofynnid i mi yn dawel i roi cynnig ar ddyfaliad, fe ddywedwn i mai Erging yw crud y rhamantau hyn (a llawer o’r lleill), ardal gwbl Gymraeg hyd yn dra diweddar, ac yn Erging-Trefynwy, ac iddynt gael eu llunio tua 1100, er bod y llawysgrif gyntaf a’u cynnwys i’w chael flynyddoedd wedyn a’r iaith wedi ei diweddaru ychydig.

Er lleied o gyfeiriadau daeryddol sydd ynddynt, daeryddiaeth yr ardal honno sydd yn y storïau, er enghraifft Fforest Ddena, Caerdyff, Caerllion, Caerloyw, afon Wysg, Cernyw, afon Hafren.  Megis Arberth i Bwyll a Manawydan felly Caerllion yw’r llys i’r rhain.  Pan ddaeth y Llydawyr i Drefynwy, gwirioni a wnaethant uwchben yr ‘hanes’ a gawsant i’w cenedl hwy eu hun gan gyfawrwyddiaid yr ardal, ‘hanes’ am arwyr yr oeddynt hwythau’n cadw brithgofion am eu henwau o leiaf, gan iddynt fod yn rhan o’u gorffennol Prydeinig.  Eu brwdfrydedd hwy, ynghyd a’u gallu i drosglwyddo’r storïau o’r Gymraeg i’r Ffrangeg a barodd i’r llifdorau ymagor.  Yn fuan ar ôl eu llunio fe’u hadroddwyd wrth Lydawyr Trefynwy, ac oddi yna fe aethant fel tân gwyllt drwy gestyll Normanaidd Morgannwg a throsodd i Ffrainc ac i lawer gwlad.  Ymddengys mai dyna eu hynt debygol.

Mae [yn y storïau hyn] olion etifeddiaeth o chwedlona hir Cymreig wedi ei haddasu ar gyfer cymdeithas gyfoes ac yn dyrchafu oes arwrol yn ôl angen a ffasiwn gwreiddiol yr amseroedd, ac wedi ei llunio’n gyfansoddiadau cain gan ben-campwr llên.  Nid enwau’r arwyr hyn oedd ar yr arwyr gwreiddiol, bid siŵr: nid oes dim amheuaeth fod y rheini’n dduwiau o ryw fath – duwiau ffrwythlondeb, gan amlaf, yma.  Tyfodd y storïau o futh i ramant, muthau a dadogwyd ar bersonau hanesyddol.  Ond nid yn y drefn hon nac yn yr union ddull hwn y ganed y digwyddiadau sy’n sgerbwd i’r chwedlau hyn: cymerwyd y defnydd crai mutholegol ac fe’i trowyd a’i gerfio’n greadigaeth newydd.  Eto, o sylweddoli fod y rhamantau hyn wedi eu gwreiddio mewn muth, fe gyfoethogir ein darllen hefyd, down i adnabod ‘rhin’ neu wefr enwau priod, digwyddiadau, rhifau, lliwiau, ffurfiau ac yn y blaen, dônt yn fwy ystyrlon oherwydd eu pell gysylltiadau ‘crefyddol’, cyn-Gristnogol fel arfer, ac yn llawnach eu diddordeb.”

Camp y Rhamantau

“Y mae un gwahaniaeth sylfaenol rhwng Culhwch ac Olwen, Breuddwyd Macsen a’r rhamantau ar y naill law a Phedair Cainc y Mabinogi ar y llaw arall, a hynny yw, er bod y pedair cainc yn fanwl realistig o ran data daaryddol, mutholegol yw tarddiad pawb.  Ond ymgais yw’r rhamantau a Culhwch megis Breuddwyd Rhonabwy a chwedlau eraill (a cherddi’r Gogynfeirdd) i greu delfryd yr hen Ogledd arwrol ‘hanesyddol’ mewn Cymru gyfoes.

Y prif ddefnyddiau yw:

  • Cymeriadau hanesyddol o’r 5ed i’r 6ed ganrif gan mwyaf (rhin eu henwau a’r ysfa am eu mawrygu a’u dyrchafu)
  • Themâu mutholegol (storïau traddodiadol ynghlwm wrth gredoau am y tywydd a’r tymhorau, lleoedd fel ffynhonnau a’u dirgelwch, etc)
  • Allanolion cymdeithasol cyfoes (dylanwadau Ffrengig, moesau, dillad ac yn y blaen).

Ac wrth geisio cyfuno’r tair elfen hyn fe lwyddodd yr awdur i greu epig genedlaethol, a hynny oherwydd ei fod yn fwy ymwybodol o’i thema nag o’i fympwyon neu o’i deimladau ei hun.  Nid hunan-ddatguddio a arfaethai namyn gwasanaethu ei gynulleidfa, rhoddi iddynt eu breuddwyd-orffennol.  Ecsotig oedd y chwedlau Arthuraidd i’r cyfandir, a’u harwyr yn bellennig a’u hawyrgylch yn arallfydol; eithr i’r Cymry yr oeddynt yn fynegiant o falchder gwladgarol.

Ceir ymgais ymwybodol i ddelfrydu, a gwelir yn amlwg yr yn math o berffeithrwydd eithafol ag y ddisgrifiai’r y Gogynfeirdd a Beirdd yr Uchelwyr yn eu hawdlau a’u cywyddau moliant:

A diau oedd gan Owain na welsai erioed neb rwy fwyd ni welai yno ddigon ohono, eithr bod yn well cyweirdeb y bwyd a welai yno nag yn lle arall erioed.  Ac ni welodd erioed le cyn amled anrheg odidog o fwyd a llyn ac yno.  Ac nid oedd un llestr yn gwasanaethau arno namyn llestr arian ac aur…. [Iarlles, tud 15]

A’r wledd y buwyd dair blynedd yn ei darparu yn un tri mis y’i treuliwyd.  Ac ni bu esmwythach iddynt wledd erioed nag well na honno. [Iarlles, tud 25]

Cyffredin yn y rhamantau yw cyfeiriadau ‘delfrydol’ fel hyn at wledda megis at ddillad, at ferched y llys, at ddewrder y marchogion, ac yn y blaen.  Bid siŵr, y mae peth o’r delfrydu hwn o achos dymuniad yr awdur neu’r cyfarwydd i gyflwno rhyfeddodau annaturiol, y bywyd diarffordd nad yw o’r un gyff â’n bywydbob dydd cyffredin ni, y digwyddiadau aruthr hynny a oedd, yn ei dyb ef, yr unig bethau a wir gynhyrfai diddordeb ei gynulleidfa.  Yn ogystal â’r ystyriaeth yna, sut bynnag, yr oedd hefyd y ffaith fod y storïau hyn yn tarddu yn y bôn mewn deunydd goruwchnaturiol, fod y bobl hyn sy’n arwyr iddynt wedi bod yn wreiddiol yn rhai yr oedd perfformio rhyfeddodau yn rhan o’u cynneddf ddwyfol ‘naturiol’.  Hynny sy’n esgor ar yr odrwydd hwnnw mewn ambell episode o naws hudol a dirgel a dreiddia drwy wead y rhamantau hyn.

Yn Iarlles y Ffynnon y mae gŵr du ag un droed ac un llygad yng nghewyllyn ei ben, ac ym Mheredur hefyd y mae gŵr du mawr unllygeidiog.  Yn awr, dull cyffredin llawer o bobloedd y byd yw cyfeirio at yr haul fel ‘llygad y nef’ (cf Shakespeare: ‘Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines’ [Sonnet 18]).  A chyda’r Tewtoniaid fel gyda’r Groegiaid yr oedd duw’r haul – a oedd yn Sylfaen melt a storm hefyd – yn unllygeidiog.  Yn Iwerddon yn ogystal ceid duw’r haul ag un llygad yng nghywellyn ei dalcen.  Pan gofiwn am Sol (yng Ngulhwch) ‘a allai sefyll un dydd a rei un droed’, a Sol yn golygu ‘haul’ wrth gwrs, a phan gofiwn gysylltiadau stormus, tyrfus y gŵr du unllygeidiog yn Iarlles y Ffynnon ac ym Mheredu ymddengys yn weddol amlwg – heb nodi’r profion eraill sydd ar gael – fod y rhain wedi bod un eu gorffennol pell, mwy ‘llewyrchus’, yn dduwiau storm-haul.

Dyma enghraifft ymysg amryw o’r sut y gallwn ddilyn mân awgrymiadau eraill yma ac acw – at fodrwy, at sarff, at bedair ar hugain o wragedd, at lew, at ŵr melyn, at ddiffeithwch sydyn, ac at ugeiniau o elfennau eraill – yn ôl yn y pen draw i ffynhonnell futheolegol bendant.

Casglaf felly mai cyfuniad neu gydblethiad o’r tri chymhelliad hyn – delfrydu gorfennol arwrol, cyfleu rhyfeddodau ‘newyddiadurol’, a defnyddio gweddillion storïau mutholegol – sy’n cyfrif i raddau am y naws ryfedd a deimlwn yn aml wrth ddarllen y chwedlau hyn.  Cofier hefyd fod, ambell dro, un neu gyfuniad o ddau yn unig o’r cymhellion ar waith, megis yn llawer o’r disgrifiadau grotesg a geir yn britho’r tudalennau (e.e. y forwyn bengrech ddu sy’n dod mewn i’r llys ar gefn mul melyn [Peredur, tud 83-4]).

Y mae llawer arbenigrwydd arall yn perthyn i’r rhamantau heblaw’r disgrifiadau gorawenus hyn.  Ynddynt y meithinrwyd yn gain ac yn llawnach ddwy thema, a oedd eisoes wedi brigo yn y Pedair Cainc ac yng Nghulwch ac Olwen ac oedd i fod yn themâu llywodraethol am gyfnod yn llenyddiaeth Ffrainc a gwledydd eraill – sef Serch Cwrtais a Marchogwraeth Grwydrad.  Ym mhob un o’r rhamantau hyn fe welir cydblethiad o serch ac anturiaeth, y fenyw ambell dro yn ysgogydd i’r anturiaeth – a serch rhamantau yn dechrau ymffurfio’rn gwlt cymdeithasol wrth fod y fenyw’n dringo gan bwyll bach ar ben ei phedestal.  Gŵyr pob Cymro am y parch traddodiadol at y fenyw a fynegwyd yn y Cyfreithiau Cymreig: drwy gyfrwng y rhamantau cafodd Ewrob benbaladr wybod am y syberwyd yma.

Dylid cyfeirio yma hefyd ar drefnusrwyd gorffenedig a ffurf resymegol y rhamantau, peth go eithriadol yn yr Oesoedd Canol.  Gwir fod rhyddiaeth Gymraeg wedi datblygu ynghynt na rhyddiaeth llenyddiaethau modern eraill, ond y mae mwy o undod o lawer yn y tair rhamant hyn nag sydd yn y rhamantau rhyddiaeth estron diweddarach.  Nid yn unig yr un arwr sy’n cadw’r llinyn rhediad yn esmwyth gyson, ond y mae adeiladwaith yr episodau yn dlws ac yn foddhaus i’r darllenydd.  Pentyrru diymatal oedd dull yr ysgrifenwyr rhyddiaeth estron o lunio eu rhamantau.  Datblyga pob un o’r rhamantau [Cymraeg] gyda chyflymder a gafael.  Yn Geraint yn neilltuol, y mae’r ambell newid golygfa a symud pwyslais o’r nail gymeriad i’r llall yn feistrolgar ac yn ddieithr o gelfydd mewn storïau mor gynnar â’r rhain.  A gall yr awdur fod hefyd yn wyrthiol o gryno – y mae pawb sydd wedi cymharu’n fanwl y fersiynau Frangeg a’r Gymraeg wedi sylwi cymaint mwy cynnil a chryno ac ymatalgar yw’r awdur Cymraeg – weithiau bron yn wyddonol neu’n ddiarhebol  o gryno, e.e. pan ddaw Edern fab Nudd yn glwyfus ac yn lluddedig i lys Arthur.  (Gweler Geraint, tud 116.)

Diau fod Iarlles y Ffynnon a Geraint yn fwy organaidd na Pheredur, a chynllun cyffelyb sydd ganddynt ill dwy.  (Er bod patrwm Peredur ychydig yn wahanol ac yn fwy ar lun taith y pícaro, y mae’r chwedl hon hefyd yn datblygu’r yn glir ac yn ofalus.)  I’r cynllun hwnnw y mae pedair cainc:

  • Rhagymadrodd sy’n dechrau yn llys Arthur ac yn cyflwyno’r arwr ai arwain at briodas.
  • Argyfwng sy’n gwahanu’r gŵr a’r wraig o ran perthynas onid o ran lle.
  • Cyfres o anturiaethau sy’n cynyddu yn eu anhawster ac yn arwain o’r diwedd at gymod rhwng yr arwr a’i wraig.
  • Gohirir diwedd y stori drwy gyflwyno hanes sy’n gyflawn ynddo’i hun er mwyn dangos dewrder yr arwr.

Ymddengys fod y briodas wedi bod yn rhyw fath o gwymp o safbwynt ‘buchedd marchog’ ac ymgais yw’r rhan hon, efallai, i ddangos fod anturiaethau’n bosibl iddo o hyd er gwaethaf cymodi â’i wraig!

Yn amgenach na’r cynllunio dillyn hwn ac uwchlaw pob dim arall, eu harddull ysblennydd yw’r hyn a esyd stamp athrylith ar y rhamantau hyn.  Mae’r disgrifio ar gymeriad ac ar ddigwyddiad yn delynegol yn eu rhythm a’u hysgafnder.  Fe ellid dyfynnu o unrhyw dudalen i amlygu adeiladwaith destlus a hapus y brawddegau a’u symud addas iawn i gyfleu naws urddasol y marchogion a phertrwydd y golygfeydd a welai’r storïwr.

Y mae traddodiad barddol yr awdur yn ddigon amlwg.  Yn gyntaf, yn ei agwedd gyffredinol at y testun.  Cymerer Peredur pan ddaw allan o guddygl y meudwy wedi bwrw’r nos yno:

Trannoeth y bore ef a gyfododd oddi yno, a phan ddaeth allan yr oedd gawod o eira wedi ry odi y nos gynt, a gwalch wyllt wedi lladd hwyad yn nhâl y cuddygl.  Â chan dwrf y march cilio o’r walch a disgyn brân ar gig yr aderyn.  Sef a orug Peredur, sefyll a chyffelybu dued y frân a gwynder yr eira a chochder y gwaed I wallt y wraig fwyaf a garai a oedd cyn dduedd a’r muchudd, a’i chnawd oedd cyn wynned â’r eira, a chochder ei gwaed yn yr eira i’r ddau fan gochion yn ei gruddiau.  [Peredur, tud 59]

Gwelir ei hyfforddiant barddol hefyd yn asbri’r cyfuniadau rhethregol, amlder ansoddeirau a’r rheini’n fynych yn gyfansawdd yn ôl dull yr Araith, ym Mheredur a Geraint yn arbennig.  Defnyddir y rhain bron yn ddieithriad pan ddymunir arafu ac urddasoli brawddeg neu fynegi brwdfrydedd afieithus.

Y mae’r amrywio rhwng yr arddull flodeuog heb orwneud a’r arddull gryno-gryno hon yn ôl y galw, a’r amrywio’r dialog ac adrodd digwyddiad a disgrifiad, yn adlwyrchu’r amrywiaeth hanfodol sydd yng nghrefft yr awdur, yr amrwyddiaeth sydd yn siâp ei frawddegau ac yn amser ei ferfau – amser gorffennol, nachaf + yn + berfenw, amherffaith, berfenw + orug, llyma + yn + berfenw, a ffurfiau eraill er mai adrodd hanes y gorffennol syml yn unig y mae ef.  O ganlyniad mae’r storïau’n symud yn rhwydd ac yn orffenedig ac yn egnïol.

Gellid oedi i sylwi fel y mae’n creu’n fywiog ac yn gain amryw gymeriadau pendant – Gwalchmai, y bonheddwr goddefgar yn llawn cydymdeimlad, yn ostyngedig ac yn gallu trechu hyd yn oed yr ysfa i’w ddangos ei hun; Cai, powld a byrbwyll, yn anghwrtais ac yn ddideimlad; gwledigrwydd naïf a phlaen Peredur yn datblygu i fod yn farchog soffistigedig cyflawn; ac eraill o’r arwyr amlwg heblaw llawer o fân gymeriadau tra diddorol.  Gall ddarlunio person ag ychydig o drawiadau llawen â’i frws.  Teimlaf fod y manddarlun cyfareddol hwn yn enghraifft deg o’i ddull gwrthrychol, cyflym:

Ar hynny llyma bump morwyn yn dyfod o’r ystafell i’r neuadd; a’r forwyn bennaf ohonynt, diau oedd ganddo na welsai dremaint cyn deced âhi erioed ar arall, a henwisg o bali rhwyllog amdani, a fuasai dda gynt, oni welid ei chnawd trwyddo – a gwynnach oedd na blawd y crisiant.  Ei gwallt hithau a’i dwyael, duach oeddynt na’r muchudd; dau fan gochion fychain yn ei gruddiau, cochach oeddynt na’r dim cochaf.  Cyfarch gwell i Beredur a orug y forwyn a myned mwnwgl iddo ac eistedd ar ei naill law.  [Peredur, tud 53]

Y mae cryn dipyn o grafter seicolegol gan yr awdur, fel y cofir ym Mheredur: ar ôl i’r marchog dieithr ddod i’r llys a sarhau Gwenhwyfar a phawb yn plygu eu pennau o gywilydd ac o ofn, dyma’r gwladwr trwsgl gan Beredur yn dyfod i mewn ar ei hen farch digrif, ac ymfalchïai marchogion y neuadd i gyd fod modd rhoi sylw i hwn bellach er mwyn i’r helynt arall fynd dros gof.

Ymhellach ymlaen y mae Peredur yn aros ychydig gyda’i ewythr er mwyn dysgu moesau da, ac y mae sylwadau hwnnw’n bur arwyddocaol fel y gwyddom oll, ysywaeth, erbyn hyn:

‘A chyda mi y byddi y wers hon yn dysgu moes ac arfer y gwledydd a’u mynudrwydd (h.y. cwrteisi), cyfartalrwydd ac addfwynder ac unbenrwydd.  Ac ymadawa weithion iaith dy fam.’  [Peredur, tud 48]

Nid yw cynildeb bachog o’r math hwn wedi ei gyfyngu i Beredur: fe’i ceir yn aml ym mhob un o’r storïau.  Er enghraifft, yn yr Iarlles, wedi i’r iarlles ddigio wrth Luned:

Ar hynny, myned a orug Luned ymaith; a chyfodi a orug yr iarlles hyd at ddrws yr ystafell yn ôl Luned a phesychu yn uchel, ac edrych a orug Luned tu dra’i chefn.  [Iarlles, tud 18-9]

Meistr llên yw awdur y tair rhamant hyn, efallai meistr mwyaf llên Cymru, yn sicr saif yn uchel ymysg ein llenorion pennaf.  Canys iddo ef, wrth gwrs, y mae’n rhaid diolch am un o ddau gyfraniad mawr Cymru i’r byd.”



Goethe’s ‘Faust’ – a true tragedy?

The writer of the Epilogue to my copy of Goethe’s Faust*, Hanns W Eppelsheimer, refers to “human arrogance, rising up against the deity, in order to seize a piece of the divine omnipotence for itself, with the aid of wizardry and magic,” as “a very old theme”.  He adds: “At the beginning of modern times, when in the 16th century the Renaissance set science free, the simple desires for power, wealth and sensual pleasure came to be joined by the new striving for unlimited knowledge.”  Enter the historical Faust (the name is a pseudonym), the semi-biographical stories about his life – and (in due course) the works of Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang Goethe (Faustus and Faust, respectively).

[*Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich, 1962]

Let’s go much further back in time.  At the beginning of the ancient Biblical Book of Job, the “sons of God” – and Satan (the “Adversary” [REB]) – come before God.  God addresses Satan and says to him, “And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job?” (1:8, [AV/KJV]).    In Martin Luther’s translation, the wording is:Hast du achtgehabt auf meinen Knecht Hiob?” (Note the word “servant”.)

God confirms the fact of Job’s goodness.  Satan counters that Job is good only because he is in receipt of God’s favours.  If he were to suffer (instead), he would curse God.  God empowers Satan to test Job by making him suffer.  Job loses his family and his animals and his health and retains only the company of his wife.  His wife urges Job to curse God, but he steadfastly refuses.

The story ties into the problem of why good people suffer.

In the Prologue to his Faust Part 1 (actually, the Prologue in Heaven), Goethe borrows a theme from Job, Chapters 1 and 2.  Before God there appear the heavenly hosts, the Archangels Raphael, Gabriel and Michael – and Mephistopheles.  The latter makes disparaging remarks about the people down on Earth.  God cuts through this and singles out Doctor Faust for special mention:

Der Herr: Kennst du den Faust?

Mephistopheles:             Den Doktor?

Der Herr:                                         Meinen Knecht!

The Lord: Do you know Faust?

Mephistopheles:             The Doctor?

The Lord:                                         My servant!

God maintains that Faust serves him, through his striving, despite the mistakes he makes (and is sure to make); and Faust remains aware of the correct path to take through life.  It is good that, rather than relaxing his efforts, he should be tested.  God, indeed, permits Mephistopheles to try to divert Faust from his “Urquell” (fountainhead or wellspring).  Mephistopheles appreciates the favour and sets to work.

What Goethe is saying (through his God character) is, firstly, that humans are expected to “strive”, and secondly, that as long as they do strive, they are following the right ethical path through life.  (Mistakes matter little.)

And then we meet Faust himself, alone in his study at night, at the beginning of the drama proper, and he speaks for himself:

         Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,

Juristerei und Medizin

Und leider auch Theologie

Durchaus studiert, mit heiẞem Bemühn….

Ah, now I’ve studied philosophy, jurisprudence and medicine, and alas, theology as well, ardently and painstakingly, from beginning to end.

[Translated by David Luke, editor, Goethe, Penguin Poets, 1964]

He has learnt a great deal; but he wants to learn more, beyond the bounds of handed down knowledge – metaphysics, perhaps, or the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Early in Part 1 of the drama, Faust makes his own bargain with Mephistopheles: if he ever relaxes from his striving and wishes to stay still, in the beautiful moment, then Mephistopheles can take his soul.

At this stage, Faust resembles Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus.  The close parallel may be explained with reference to the semi-biographical material, available to both Marlowe and Goethe.  As for the “servant of God” theme, Goethe has borrowed it from the Book of Job but has changed it out of all recognition.  In Job, the plight of the protagonist is stark and extreme: the suffering imposed on the truly good man is poignant.  Goethe’s protagonist, on the other hand, is not made to suffer: rather, new ways of enjoying life are opened up to him.  Unfortunately, Faust’s own enjoyment can be at the expense of other people. (The tragedy of Part 1 is that of Gretchen and her family.)

In Part 2, Faust engages in good works, notably, the reclamation of low-lying land from the sea.  There arises, though, from the writings of the New Testament, the question as to whether good works are sufficient to ensure salvation – a Christian theological debating point.  St Paul explores this in his Epistle to the Romans: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (3:28, AV/KJV).  Luther’s German translation (doubtless available to Goethe) says: “So halten wir nun dafür, daẞ der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den Glauben.”  Luther is saying here that “a man is justified, without the deeds of the law, only by faith.”   Luther adds the “only”; and this decision ties in with Lutheran theology.  On this view, Faust’s good works cannot be sufficient for his salvation.  We can add that Faust does not have faith, either.

Finally, at the end of the drama (in Part 2), Faust does have one moment of relaxation, and, accordingly, Mephistopheles tries to arrest his soul.  But, in the event, Mephistopheles is cheated of his long-sought-after prize – by the intervention of angels, including a transformed Gretchen.  Faust is enabled to ascend to Heaven.  Faust’s salvation, on Goethe’s terms, relies upon his own striving, the operation of the “eternal feminine”, and the words of forgiveness uttered by his female victim (Gretchen).

It as if Goethe has been influenced, here, by the thinking of Humanism and the Enlightenment, rather than by Judaism or Christianity.  This approach, however, comes across as optimistic, undramatic and far from tragic, in comparison with the powerful, challenging, moving stories (however different) of Job and of Marlowe’s Faustus – the former about the man who survives and is compensated for his losses, the latter about the man who sadly, magnificently, but inevitably, follows the path to damnation in Hell.

Let’s talk briefly about the nature of the completed Faust.  It is almost entirely in verse.  It is very long.  Whereas many verse (or verse and prose) dramas of Shakespeare and his contemporaries average roughly 2000 lines, and the Faustus A version has about 1,500, and the B version about 2,100, Part 1 of Faust has 4,612 lines, and Part 2 has 7,499!  Moreover, Part 2 has literally hundreds of parts.  Therefore, either Part poses great challenges, whenever a staging is contemplated.

I conclude, indeed, that Faust is a poem, and not a play, a drama or a tragedy as ordinarily conceived.



This forms a lively drama.  The work of a man in his twenties, like Christopher Marlowe, in relation to his Faustus.  There are scenes of comedy and of love and seriousness.  There are scenes in verse and scenes in prose.  There are songs – some comic, others poignant.

The language moves the action on rapidly and evokes the feelings of the participants vividly.

The core of the story is Faust’s relationship with Gretchen.  Unfortunately, she and her family members suffer the consequences, and Gretchen herself ends up in prison – awaiting execution?  Gretchen refuses to be rescued by Faust and Mephistopheles.  The woman pays! (Bring on feminism!)  Faust and Mephistopheles get away scot-free.  There is no tragedy for them.

Mephistopheles’s role is that of an avuncular pandar.  No pact between Faust and Mephistopheles is shown in this early version (contrast the later Part One).

Here, Faust is not demonstrably at theological fault (contrast Marlowe) but at moral fault.

The later Faust Part One follows this version fairly closely and elaborates upon it and sophisticates it.  Gretchen is pronounced “saved” at the end.  Part Two forms in effect, a totally different, complex work, with hundreds of characters.  (Is it actable?)  Faust avoids damnation (forgiven by Gretchen), and so never suffers a personal tragedy.


Goethe’s play commences in a similar place to Marlowe’s Faustus, with references to the protagonist’s mastery of philosophy, medicine, law and theology – and magic.  (See below, Appendix 1.)  From then on, the two diverge.

In comparison with Faust and the Urfaust, Marlowe’s version has the merits of being blunt and honest, with a suitable climax and ending.



Appendix 1. The opening lines of Goethe’s Urfaust.

The play commences with a soliloquy by Faust:

Hab nun ach die Philosophey

Medizin und Juristey,

Und leider auch die Theologie

Durchaus studirt mit heisser Müh.


I attach a very free adaptation of the first 28 lines, below, to give an indication of how they come across.


I know it all – philosophy,

Medicine, law, bureaucracy,

And sadly too theology,

Sweated over thoroughly.

I remain a stupid fool,

Of rote learning a mere tool.

Doctor and Professor I am called:

With ten years’ teaching I have stalled.

Back and fore and up and down

I lead my pupils, like a clown.

I see that we can nothing know:

It breaks my heart – a heavy blow.

I am smarter than my neighbours –

Pedants, wedded to their labours.

I don’t think of doubts and errors.

Hell and Devil hold no terrors.

But in me is instilled the yearning

To uncover what’s worth learning.

I’d prefer it if our college

Did impart more useful knowledge.

I have no money to my name

And in the wider world no fame.

To make my fortune, avoid the tragic,

I’ll devote myself to magic,

Exercise my mental strength:

Secrets will be revealed at length.

With confidence, instead of doubt,

I’ll teach the things I know about.



Appendix 2. Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1987), Urfaust, Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam Jun – Epilogue by Robert Petsch

The Epilogue provides a context for the appearance of Goethe’s first version of Faust circa 1775.  Here, the late Professor Petsch wrote as follows (in translation):

Among books offered for sale at 18th century Germany’s trade fairs (e.g. in Frankfurt am Main), which kept old popular books in being, there was to be found an abbreviated version of the Historia von D Johann Fausten (1587)* – a version that revealed the influence of the Age of Enlightenment in its critical attitude to the old legend.  As he reports in his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (Truth and Poetry), as a boy, Goethe himself read and devoured the story, mislaid it, restored it, and made the content firmly his own.  The figure of the old devil-conjuror on the puppet stage gripped him and made a greater impact on him.   The brilliant Faustus drama by Shakespeare’s greatest predecessor, Christopher Marlowe (which Goethe only got to know later in life) had been taken by English actors to Germany, gradually turned into a popular drama, and reduced to puppet theatre.

In the “clever” 18th century, people no longer wanted to know about the fable; the clergy were annoyed by the inclusion of the Devil; the philosophers of the Enlightenment sensed stultifying superstition; but an enlightened spirit like Gottfried Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) had an inkling, behind the debased text of the strolling players, of the former poetic significance of the material and applied himself to an up-to-date revival; he did not wish the honest truth-seeker to be lost, despite his straying from the strait and narrow.

Then the younger generation, those of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ (‘Storm and Stress’), to which Goethe himself belonged, brought to the Faust legend a deeper understanding.  In contrast with the Age of Enlightenment, they sought to do justice to the seamy side of life, to understand mankind’s dark impulses and passions, and to take a leap into the incomprehensible.

[*freely translated into English and published (1592) as The Historie of the damnable life and deserved death of Doctor Faustus – the principal source of Marlowe’s own play.]





Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ as a Christian play

I’ve just been moving some of our many books around, to make way for the installation of a new fireplace and fire.  A few were left in the living room, though.  Among them, I found: Nicholas Boyle, Goethe, The Poet and the Age, Volume I, The Poetry of Desire (1749-1750), published by Oxford University Press in 1991.  800 pages!  I browsed through the pages and looked in particular at the comments on the protracted history of Goethe’s Faust, which Goethe worked on repeatedly throughout his long life (he died in 1832).  The useful evaluation of the “Urfaust” (the first draft, circa 1774) is to be found on pages 218-229.

I have copies in German of the Urfaust and of the final Parts I and II of the completed work.  (Goethe calls it a “tragedy” – but is it really?)

I wish to re-read Goethe.  But first I have looked at again at Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (circa 1589-92) – not only in its own right but also to compare it with Goethe’s Faust (and to write up my findings, in due course).

A few plays by the contemporaries of William Shakespeare’s stand out: Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is one of them.  It appears to me that it is not a play that Shakespeare himself could have written.  Aspects of the protagonist could be said to be distributed among various Shakespearean characters – the ambitious Macbeth (aided and abetted by his wife), the uxorious Antony (who submits to Cleopatra), the arrogant Coriolanus, and the sage Prospero, who abjures his magical powers in the end.

I find that I have four copies of Faustus.  From my mother I have inherited a straightforward reproduction of the 1604 “A” text, in the 1909 Everyman edition of The Plays of Christopher Marlowe, with an introduction by Edward Thomas (poet).  Secondly, I have a copy of Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays, edited by J B Steane, published by Penguin in 1969.  The text of Faustus is an unfortunate mixture of the 1604 “A” and 1606 “B” texts; and the criteria for the selections are not clear.  Then follow two very scholarly editions.  My third is: Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’, a 1604-version edition, edited by Michael Keefer, and published by Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ontario, in 1991.  The fourth is: Christopher Marlowe, ‘Doctor Faustus’, A- and B-texts (1604, 1616), edited by David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, and published in the Revels Plays series by Manchester University Press, in 1993.

Ah! The two versions of Faustus, which have caused the much pouring of scholarly ink.  Which one is the closer to Marlowe’s original intent? Let’s cut a long story short.  The main scenes of the “A” version look to be “Marlovian” by virtue of wording and style, but the comic scenes may be by a collaborator.  The “B” version contains additions by other writers and is much longer.  J B Steane makes a pithy comment on the differences, as follows (pages 261-2):

[This] editor’s personal opinion is that the play is artistically stronger in its shorter form.  The A text (1604) has everything essential to the presentation of the ‘tragical history’; the B text (1616) adds, for the most part, light, simple-minded comedy….There is quite enough knockabout and emptiness in the middle section of [the A text].  But at least the balance there is more favourable to the essential, the tragic and the poetic: in the B text we are much nearer to the ‘set of farces’ which we gather Doctor Faustus had become in [Alexander] Pope’s time.

The A version is indeed coherent and impressive – and actable.

Many plays have twists and turns in the plot and take the audience by surprise.  This is not exactly the case with Marlowe’s Faustus.  The pleasures of the play are derived from the majestic blank verse of the main scenes, from the comic scenes (which provide “comic relief”), and from the spectacle of the Seven Deadly Sins.

As for the fate of the protagonist, he slides inexorably down the slippery slope towards his damnation and confinement in Hell.  Occasionally he hesitates and reviews his situations but he persists in his course.  It is fair to say that he receives advice (conflicting!), but he has to take responsibility for his decisions. (Don’t blame Mephistopheles!)

In his day, Marlowe was regarded as something of an anti-authority rebel, especially in theological terms.  However, on the face of it, Faustus reflects traditional Christian theology: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  Now, the prescribed remedy for sin is repentance.  In the A version, Faustus is told by the Good Angel that he can still be saved, if he can repent [Revels A II.iii.79] ; but it appears that he cannot, as his heart is already hardened.  This accords with Calvinist doctrine, prevalent in the Church of England in Marlowe’s time.  (Here is raised too the old philosophical question as to the relative strengths of free will and predestination.)  In the B version, the matter of repentance is diluted: Faustus is told that he can be saved, if he will repent [Revels B II.iii.80].  (See Keefer, Introduction, pages lxv-lxvi, and Bevington & Rasmussen, Introduction, page 29, for discussion of this distinction.)

Any indications that God’s arbitrary power and Christian doctrine are to be deemed intolerable have to be detected between the lines of the play.

I see Faustus’s fault largely in a sort of intellectual laziness.  He sees magic as a quick way to power and to sexual love. He has no patience for the slow ways to knowledge – proof in argument, logic, medicine, law or divinity.

Anyway, to back up my point, I shall call upon the only passage I am taking the liberty of quoting from this marvellous work:

 These metaphysics of magicians

And necromantic books are heavenly….

Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.

O, what a world of profit and delight,

Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,

Is promised to the studious artisan!

All things that move between the quiet poles

Shall be at my command. Emperors and kings

Are but obeyed in their several provinces,

Nor can they raise the wind or rend the clouds;

But his dominion that exceeds in this

Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man.

A sound magician is a mighty god.


[Revels A I.i.51-2, 54-64]




My next task is to examine Goethe’s Faust, and to contrast and compare it with Marlowe’s Faustus.





To go or not to go? Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare.


Plots of stories and dramas often centre on love rivalries, involving three or four people.

In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Filostrato (14th century), set in the time of the mythical Trojan war, the main characters, Troiolo and Criseida fall in love, have a relationship, but keep it secret.  Unfortunately for them, a personnel exchange is arranged, whereby Criseida is obliged to leave Troy and go over to the other side (the Greek camp), to be with her renegade father.  Then she is wooed by Diomede, and she accepts him in the place of her former lover. Troiolo is left to bewail his fate.

When the lovers first hear about their impending separation, Troiolo proposes to Criseida that they steal away from Troy while they have the chance:

         andiamcene in un’altra regione….

e’ son di qui remote

genti che volentieri ci vedranno….

Fuggiamci, dunque occultamente.


[Part 4, from stanzas 144f, Mondadori edition, Milan, 1990]


“Let us betake ourselves to another region….There are, remote from here, peoples who will receive us gladly…Wherefore let us make our flight secretly.”

[Translation by Griffin N and Myrick A, Cambridge, Ontario, 1999 – available online.]

In reply, Criseida gives reasons for not taking flight, namely, the adverse consequences for the Trojans’ war against the Greeks (in which Troilus himself plays a great part), and for their own reputations, and indeed for the quality of their relationship.  She promises, instead, to return to Troy ten days after her enforced departure to the Greek camp.  (In the event she does not.)

Filostrato is the main source of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.  In it, Chaucer’s Troilus makes the same proposal (about leaving together) to his Criseyde.  Troilus assures her that, between them, they do have enough wealth to live on.  He adds:

         And hardily, ne dredeth no poverte,

For I have kyn and fremdes elleswhere

That, though we comen in our bare sherte,

Us sholde neyther lakken gold ne gere

But we been honoured while we dwelt there,

And go we anon; for as in myn entente,

This is the beste, if that ye wole assente.


[Book 4, lines 1520ff, Riverside Chaucer, 1987]


         And you need have no fear of taking hurt

Through poverty, for I have friends elsewhere,

And kindred; though you came in your bare shirt,

You would not lack for gold and things to wear;

We should be honured if we settled there.

Let us go now, for it is plain to me

This is the best, if you will but agree.


[N Coghill’s translation, Penguin, 1971]


Criseyde gives reasons similar to those of Boccaccio’s Criseida, and also swears to return to Troy after ten days.  (She does not.)

Now, some of Chaucer’s works are sources for some of those by William Shakespeare.  Chaucer’s Troilus is the principal source for the love plot in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.  In brief, the story is speeded up; the personality of Cressida suffers in the process.  But Cressida should be seen in context, i.e. as a victim of male oppression; and the reader (or spectator) of the play should ask how many choices she actually has.

I’d like to move on to a very different play, namely, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It has often been said that the plots of the Dream are devised by Shakespeare himself and are not derived from other writers.  True, there is a love rivalry plot, to do with Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Lysander.  But as I have said at the beginning, this topic is very common.  Here, the conflicts are resolved, with a happy ending.  In Act 1 Scene 1, Hermia and Lysander are presented with a difficulty – the impending marriage of Hermia, against her will, to Demetrius (her father’s choice).  (Patriarchy!)  As in Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s Troilus stories, the man suggests to the woman that they take flight, at an early opportunity.  Lysander says, reassuringly:

         I have a widow aunt, a dowager,

Of great revenue; and she hath no child.

From Athens is her house remote seven leagues;

And she respects me as her only son….

If thou lovest me, then

Steal forth thy father’s house tomorrow night,

And in the wood….

There will I stay for thee.


[Act 1 Scene 1, lines 156ff, Penguin edition, 1967]


Could these lines have been inspired by Shakespeare’s reading of Chaucer?



R M Jones (Emeritus Professor) on the three Welsh medieval romances – ‘the Lady of the Fountain’, ‘Peredur’ and ‘Geraint’ – a translation and summary of his introduction to his edition

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:

  1. Historical characters, for the most part from the 5th and 6th centuries – subjects to be praised and celebrated
  2. Mythological stories (traditional stories associated with beliefs about the weather and the seasons, places such as fountains, with their air of mystery)
  3. 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.



Quests and questions in medieval epics: Peredur, Perceval, Parzival; Gwalchmai, Gauvain, Gawan

1 Below is a rough-and-ready table, which shows parallels and differences between the Welsh medieval tale, Peredur, the late 11th century epic by Chrétien de Troyes in French, and the German epic by Wolfram von Eschenbach (circa 1200).  Much is left out, eg regarding the respective styles of the writers.  (Fuller summaries can be found elsewhere.)

Peredur Perceval Parzival (with book nos)
The story of P’s father.  1 & 2
P, from mother to court. P, from mother to court. P, from mother to court.  3
P meets tent maiden*. P meets tent maiden. P meets Jeschute.  3
Gwenhwyfar* insulted. Guinièvre insulted. Ginover splashed by kt.
P with uncle 1. P with Gornemant. P with Gurnemanz.  3
P + Condwiramurs.  4
With Uncle 2 Grail Castle Grail Castle  5
Bloody spear and head* King and Grail etc Anfortas and Grail etc  5
P asks no questions. P asks no questions. P asks no questions.  5
Meets foster-sister. Meets cousin. Meets Sigune  5
P in love. P loves Blanchefleur.
P defeats jealous knight. P defeats jealous knight. P defeats Orilus.  5
P  with Witches.
P lost in thought of maiden. P lost in thought about B. P lost in thought of C.  6
Angharad and P.
The Empress* and P.
———— ———— ———–
Ugly maiden reproves P.** Ugly maiden reproves P. Cundrie denounces P.  6
Gwalchmai’s adventure. Gauvain’s adventures. Gawan’s adventures – 7, 8
P with hermit. P with hermit uncle. P with Trevrizent.  9
P kills Witches***.
Gauvain’s adventures. Gawan’s exploits  10-13
Gawan et al wed.  14
P and half-brother.   15
P back with Cond.  15
P poses the Question.  16
Anfortas healed.  16
P > King , Cond > Queen.  16

*symbols of sovereignty?

**Should the challenge be about neglecting his wife, or neglecting revenge, or indeed both?

***Peredur achieves revenge for the harm done to his family.

2 The anonymous Peredur is written in prose and is very short, compared with the others.  Perceval has over 9,000 lines of verse.  Parzival is much longer, with over 24,000 lines.  It can be safely said that Parzival elaborates upon (and completes) Perceval, Wolfram’s only, or chief, source.  It can be proposed that Perceval expands upon Peredur or upon a common source, but that the French version may have influenced the Welsh manuscripts that have come down to us, especially in the latter part (cf the Question Test).

3 Perceval is unfinished.  There are medieval French language continuations, not discussed here.  Peredur displays up to three endings!  In other words, while the story is easy to follow at the outset, it is confused and confusing later on.  The ending given by the destruction of the Witches of Caer Loyw provides a fitting ending, if one assumes that the tale is fundamentally about revenge and the gaining of sovereignty over the tribe or clan.  Reconciliation with the hero’s wife (which one?) would parallel what happens in the similar and contemporary Geraint and Owain (Iarlles y Ffynnon).

4 About half of Perceval is devoted to the adventures of Gauvain.  The proportions are not so tilted in Parzival, but six books are allocated to Gawan, out of the sixteen.

5 Significant wounds in the Parzival story relate to intimate areas.  There is a strong hint that Anfortas has been wounded in the genitals, because of his illicit love affair, outside the Grail Order.  Clinschor the enchanter has been castrated, because of his adultery.  (I was expecting him to appear in person in the story, but he doesn’t.)

6 It is a characteristic of Parzival that all the participants are related – either by blood or (in the course of the narrative) by marriage.  Wolfram marries off all the principal unmarried characters.  (See, for example, Book 14.)  This is not a feature of the other versions.

7 Wolfram is very forgiving of characters that have done wrong.  He has good words to say about Keie, Orilus and Clamidê (oppressor of Condwirmarus).

8 On reading Peredur, one has no sense of an audience – with Perceval and Parzival one does.  Chrétien and Wolfram address their listeners (the latter, frequently), in asides.  Wolfram includes many references to his contemporaries, to places and to current events.

9 At one end of a spectrum, Peredur reflects old Celtic mythology, with its magic and shape-shifters.  At the other end, Wolfram creates his own mythology, loosely based upon the Templars: the Grail Order represents and serves the dual values and principles of Christianity and chivalry.  Clinschor’s powers of enchantment are portrayed in Parzival, but (to my mind) they are not well worked out.  There is no confrontation between Gawan and Clinschor, only the former’s survival of the assaults associated with the perilous bed (Book 11).  (Compare Perceval, lines 7676-7884.)

10 I haven’t mentioned the Grail!  The concept is adumbrated in Perceval and expanded upon, on a grand scale, by Wolfram.  It does not appear in Peredur, as is plainly evident.

11 Parzival can be regarded as a “bildungsroman” – the story of the education and development of the hero to full maturity and his taking on of adult responsibilities.

12 Finally, a personal opinion: I do not think it is fair that any of the main protagonists should be blamed for not asking the great question concerning the Grail (or its Welsh equivalent, the bloody severed head).  The advantage of this (non-)event is that it ensures the continuation of the story and provides the hero with obstacles to overcome and chances to prove himself.

All three versions are a “good read” – in translation.  The original medieval texts require notes and glossaries to be understood.

Principal books consulted

Goetinck, G (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales

Goetinck, G W (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawg, Cardiff: University of Wales

Hatto, A T (1980), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Harmondsworth (Middlesex): Penguin

Hertz, W and Hofstaetter, W (1969), Parzival: eine Auswahl, Stuttgart: Reclam

Jones, G and Jones, T (1949), The Mabinogion, London: Dent (Everyman)

Jones, R M (Bobi) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant: Iarlles y Ffynnon, Peredur, Geraint, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

Mustard, H M and Passage, C E (1961), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, New York NY: Random House (Vintage)

Owen, D D R (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: Dent (Everyman)

Wright, J and Walsh, M O’C (1954), Middle High German Primer, London: Oxford University Press

Racism and sexism in three parallel medieval romances – ‘Peredur’, ‘Perceval’ and ‘Parzival’


The Welsh Peredur (written down in the 14th century but of earlier composition), the French Perceval (11th century, by Chrétien de Troyes), and the German Parzival (circa 1200, by Wolfram von Eschenbach) – each can be called a “bildungsroman”, insofar as it traces the education, development and maturing of a young protagonist.

(Peredur starts very well, but the ending as we have it is confused; Perceval is unfinished; Parzival is very sophisticated.)

I wish to discuss two episodes about the hero, before he has gone out into the wider world, from the rural, isolated spot where his widowed mother is keeping him.

The lad and the knights

Early on, then, the young man suddenly comes across a posse of Arthurian knights.  The knights ask the hero for directions, and he asks them about their equipment. So their priorities are different.

(1) In the anonymous Welsh Peredur, when the eponymous hero meets three Arthurian knights, his questions are answered readily:

‘Say, friend,’ said Owein, has thou seen a knight go hereby today or yesterday?’  ‘I know not,’ he replied, ‘what a knight is.’  ‘Such a thing as I am,’ said Owein.  ‘Wert thou to tell me that which I would ask of thee, I in turn would tell thee that which thou dost ask.’  ‘I will, gladly,’ said Owein.’

[Peredur, tr G Jones & T Jones, p 184; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 118f]

(2) In the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, however, some of the five knights (passing by) treat the hero differently, when he asks questions, and they complain that he is holding them up.  They comment on Perceval unfavourably:

“So help me God,” says their chief, “he’s a real ignoramus….” – “You may be perfectly certain, my lord, that the Welsh are by nature more stupid than grazing beasts; and this is one is just like a beast.”

[Perceval, tr D D R Owen, page 377]

Has the writer picked up discriminatory attitudes from the Norman French who were interacting with the Welsh in Britain at the time?

(3) Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (based here upon Perceval) reproduces this scenario, with variations.  Here, the hero delays four passer-by knights with his questions: three become impatient (while their leader is more sympathetic):

The foremost lost his temper at the sight of the boy in mid-path.  ‘This stupid Waleis [Welshman] is slowing us down.’  (The Waleis, I must tell you, share the same distinction as the Bavarians, but are even denser than Bavarian folk…)

[Parzival, tr A T Hatto, Book 3, p 72]

The lad and the maiden in the tent

The hero’s first encounter with a stranger, on his way to Arthur’s court, happens to be with a lady.  (Note that the hero recalls his mother’s advice and applies it, or misapplies it, here.)  The main thread of the three parallel stories is this: the hero enters a tent (or pavilion) and finds there a beautiful lady; he helps himself to food and drink, takes a ring from her finger, and kisses her.  But the details vary a lot.  I need to quote from the descriptions at some length.

(4) Note that, when Peredur reaches the pavilion, he has not eaten for “two days and two nights”.  I proceed:

The maiden made him welcome and greeted him….’ My mother,’ said Peredur, ‘bade me wherever I saw meat and drink, to take it.’  ‘Go then, chieftain,’ said she, ‘to the table.  And God’s welcome to thee.’ [Peredur takes half, only.] ‘My mother,’ said he, ‘bade me take a fair jewel wherever I might see it.’  ‘Take it then, friend,’ said she.  ‘’Tis not I will begrudge thee.’  Peredur took the ring, and went down on his knee and gave the maiden a kiss [on her hand?], and took his steed and departed thence.

[Peredur, tr Jones & Jones, pp 185f; emphasis added; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 120f]

Note how polite both parties are and how generous the lady is.  She is a good hostess and he is a good guest.

Given the mythological and magical elements underlying the story, it is possible that the lady has insight into Peredur’s destiny; and she may indeed be an Otherworld character (and herself an educator).

In her study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, G Goetinck states:

The meeting of Peredur with the Tent Maiden is one of the first episodes in which the hero is helped and guided by the power of the Otherworld whilst he is being trained.  It is also a version of the meeting between the hero and Sovereignty….

[Goetinck, p 140]

(5) In Perceval, there are no indications of a mythological aspect to the lady, and the situation is quite different:

On the bed [in the tent], all alone, lay a young girl fast asleep….She woke with a start….The girl trembles with fear on account of the youth, who to her seems crazy….”Be on your way, lad!” she says.  “Be off, before my lover sees you.” – “By my head, I’ll kiss you first, whoever it may upset,” says the youth, “because my mother told me to!” – “I’ll certainly never kiss you if I can help it,” says the maiden. “Be off…!

Perceval is much stronger than the lady: he kisses her seven times [presumably on her mouth]; and he pulls her ring (“set with a brilliant emerald”) from her finger, and puts it on his own.  She bursts into tears.  He adds insult to injury:

“Bless you, maiden.  Now I’ll be off well rewarded – and it’s much nicer kissing you than any chambermaid in all my mother’s house, for there’s nothing bitter about your mouth!”

[Perceval, tr Owen, pp 383f]

Perceval takes food and drink, without asking permission, and departs, leaving the young woman still weeping.

Perceval, then, is cruel and unfeeling and not at all chivalric.  He does not treat the young lady as his equal.  He totally misapplies his mother’s advice about how to treat women.  His immaturity does not excuse his behaviour.  He gets off to a bad start in his career as a knight.

Perhaps the status of this lady reflects the low status of women in France, at the time, compared to the rights accorded to them in the Wales of the early Middle Ages (cf the laws attributed to Hywel Dda).  From the remarks made by the lady in Perceval, it is clear that she relies on her male friend to defend her; and for her it is unfortunate that he is temporarily absent.

(6) Parzival is like Perceval, at this point in the story.  (The lady is named Jeschute and she is a duchess.)  The account is long and circumstantial. It reflects badly upon the hero.  I quote a salient passage:

The lady wailed loudly.  He paid no attention to what she said but forced her mouth to his.  Wasting no time, he crushed her breast to his, duchess or no, and also took a ring.  On her shift he saw a brooch and roughly tore it off.  The lady was armed as women are: but to her his strength was an army’s.  Nevertheless there was quite a tussle of it.

[Parzival, tr Hatto, Book 3, p 77]


The fundamental theme of the three romances is the education of the hero concerning love, chivalry and government.  Evidently, Perceval and Parzival have a very long way to go before they can be regarded as educated!  Peredur, however, has already mastered basic courtesy.  The nature of his encounter with the lady is appropriate to the development of the overall story.  Perceval and Parzival’s behaviour, by contrast, is characterised by the use of brute force, so that they come across as villains rather than heroes, at least for the interim.

The Welsh story is shorter and more concise than the continental ones.  On the surface it is unsophisticated, in comparison with its continental analogues.  But it has beauties and subtleties of its of its own; and in some respects it deserves to be seen as more appealing than the other two.


Jones, G and Jones, T (translators) (1949), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

Goetinck, G (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Goetinck, G W (editor) (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawc, Cardiff: University of Wales

Hatto, A T (1980), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

Owen, D D R (translator) (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

See also:

Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion







The Lion, the Lady and the Lackadaisical Lover


I am working my way through the five romances attributed to the French poet, Chrétien de Troyes (late 12th century) – albeit in translation, as medieval French is quite different from the present-day language, and difficult.

Arguably, Chrétien’s Yvain, le chevalier au lion, is his best or one of his best.  It has twists and turns, conflicts that are resolved, psychological interest, ethical dilemmas, and a happy ending.  (Perceval [which I’ll read last] is important, partly because of the first mention, there, of the Grail; but it is unfinished.)

For its part, Wales has inherited its own tale (or romance) – Iarlles y Ffynnon = the Lady (or Countess) of the Fountain. The hero is Owain.  Germany has Iwein, by Hartmann von Aue.  Hartmann’s version of the tale is based on Chrétien’s and (like his) is in verse.

The anonymous Welsh tale is similar to the others as regards the main plot, but it differs in details.

The Fountain of the title may be regarded as symbolising eternity and fertility and (here) sovereignty.  To defend the Fountain against all-comers is to defend the domain of the ruler.


The male hero – Owain/Ivain/Iwein – marries the noble widow (the Lady of the Fountain, called Laudine by Chrétien), after he has killed her husband in one-to-one combat.  (By marrying her he takes on the responsibility of defending her territory.)  He leaves her, by returning to Arthur’s court and failing to come back to her at the agreed time.  This is a dereliction of duty.

Note the custom that dictates (apparently) that a woman rules the Fountain country, and that she chooses a husband as a helpmate.  Does this reflect a matriarchal tradition?

Apart from Laudine/the Countess herself, there is another important and active lady, namely, Luned/Lunete.  She gives counsel to her mistress, who relies on her, as she is very practical and sensible. It is she who advises the Lady to accept the necessity of having a strong husband and hence to marry the hero, as he has already proved himself in combat.  It is she too that brings the couple together.  (With Chrétien, she is the female messenger who challenges Yvain, at Arthur’s court, over his desertion.)  She is blamed, however, by the Lady’s retinue, when the couple become estranged, and she is threatened with death by them.

Luned/Lunete is vividly portrayed, and she is perhaps the most colourful character in the tale.

The male protagonist has numerous adventures, while he is separated from his wife.  He rescues a lion that is being attacked by a serpent (or dragon), and thereafter is accompanied by him on his adventures, and helped in his fights.  Hence, in the French version, Yvain is known as the ‘knight with the lion’.

What exactly does the lion mean, here?  Lions commonly symbolise authority, strength, confidence and courage.  This lion also represents gratitude, friendship and loyalty.  Perhaps he offers an example to the hero of correct behaviour.

Another colourful character is the forester who directs questing knights to the Fountain of the story.  In The Lady of the Fountain, he is a black (black-haired) giant, with one eye and one foot: he carries an iron club, with which he exercises power over the many animals that graze around him.  He appears to be an Otherworld creature – a sun god, come down from pre-Christian mythology.  (The one eye represents the sun.)  It is possible that he is a storm god too, if he is responsible for the ensuing storm at the Fountain.

The continental versions retain the giant’s function but differ considerably in the nature and scope of their description of this figure, and his mythological aspects are diminished.  This “churl” (“vilain”) is said to be misshapen but also to have “a head larger than that of a pack-horse or any other beast” and “great mossy ears like an elephant’s, heavy eyebrows and a flat face with owl’s eyes and a nose like a cat’s, a mouth split like a wolf’s, [and] the sharp yellow teeth of a wild boar”.   [Yvain, tr Owen, pp 284f]  And Hartmann’s description is similar and includes comparisons with animals.

(In this respect, compare the ugly female messenger who challenges the hero of Peredur, Chrétien’s Perceval and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, respectively.  In Peredur, the maiden is described as misshapen, but there are no references to animals, whereas in the continental analogues there are several comparisons to them, as there are in Yvain.)

Stylistic features

Chrétien includes a subplot: Yvain and his friend Gawain fight on opposite sides as champions for two sisters.  Chrétien says, in a long passage, that the two knights love each other, but when they are fighting on opposite sides, they hate each other.  Love and Hatred become allegorical characters.  The Welsh version has none of this.

There are shared magical elements, notably, a ring that confers invisibility and a panacea-like ointment, and the raising of a mighty storm by the pouring of water on to the slab at the Fountain.

There are polarities and mirror images in the basic story.  The hero is rescued by Luned/Lunete from certain death; and in turn he rescues her from execution, later on.  The Lady’s hatred for the hero, as the killer of her husband, turns to acceptance of him (love for him, in Yvain), then to hatred of him (in Yvain, at least), and finally to reconciliation.


I am inclined to believe that the French version represents an enlargement upon the Welsh, rather than that the Welsh version is a summary of the French.  The Welsh account is concise and always to-the-point.  The French version is much longer and far more elaborate and much more rhetorical than the Welsh.  Chrétien addresses his audience directly, from time to time; he includes long dialogues between characters.

Both versions of the story are attractive and have literary merit.  The simpler, more direct, concentrated Welsh version stands up well, against Chrétien’s, in my view.

Principal sources

Jones, G and Jones, T (translators) (1949), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

Wright, J and Walshe, M O’C (1954), Middle High German Primer, 5th edition, Oxford: OUP

Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

Lagarde, A and Michard, L (1964), Collections Textes et Littérature, I, Moyen Age, Paris: Bardas

Goetinck, G W (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Owen, D D R (translator) (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: J M Dent (Everyman)