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.”



‘God’s Plenty’

BBC Radio 4 offers its listeners a weekly music and chat programme.  It has been running since the 1940s.  The presenter interviews a famous person and asks them how they would cope if they happened to be stranded on a desert island, alone.  (The execution surpasses the craziness of the concept.)  The imaginary compensations granted to the castaway are: one luxury item, eight gramophone records (CDs, I suppose, nowadays) and books – the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and one other book.

I admit that I don’t listen to the programme; but it has made me think.

In the unlikely event that I were stranded, alone – whether on a desert island or not – what (on the lines of the offers made above) would I choose to have with me?

The choice of a luxury item can be deferred.  Perhaps it could be a comfortable bed.

I’d happily choose to have the Bible and Shakespeare, as I dip into them from time to time already.

And the third book?  The answer is: the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer – available in the excellent Riverside Edition, first published in 1987, which provides background information, including help with Chaucer’s medieval English.

Translations of major works are available in modern English translation, e.g. those by N Coghill and B Stone, published by Penguin (London).

Why this choice, given all the other possible ones?

There is great variety: lyrics, mini-epics, and collections of stories.

One of the remarkable things about Chaucer’s work is the way he is influenced by continental literatures (Roman/Latin, French and Italian).  He is hence a cosmopolitan rather than a merely English poet.  Moreover, he adapts the originals and blends them and makes something new.  (‘Poetry’ means ‘making’.)  In some passages, he translates closely, but in many places he paraphrases, makes omissions, or adds his own material.  (Compare, for example, Boccaccio’s Filostrato and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.)

Chaucer’s writing addresses religious and philosophical topics, in particular, the matter of determinism versus free will – a serious business, but conveyed in readable, digestible ways.  (See, for example, Troilus and Criseyde and the ending of the Knight’s Tale.)

He uses much humour and irony and gentle satire.  See, for example, the comical discussion between the cock and his hen wife in The Nun Priest’s Tale about the significance of dreams.  (The cock refers to learned books, whereas his wife relies on personal experience; and experience, on this occasion, would have provided the better guide concerning the risk a fox poses to chickens.)

Chaucer invents believable, memorable characters, e.g. the talking Eagle (in the House of Fame) and the Wife of Bath (in the Canterbury Tales).

He evokes pathos, especially as regards the fate of the eponymous protagonist in Troilus and Criseyde.

He gives us a gallery of characters from many walks of life (apart from the highest and lowest classes) in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

He is a master of the use of the narrator as a literary device; and the narrator even puts himself, as a character – into the Canterbury Tales.

An early, favourable critic of Chaucer (and translator/adapter) was John Dryden (1631-1700), himself a prominent poet in his day.  He comments on him at length in the Preface to his Fables, Ancient and Modern.  He is generous in his praise; and he sums up his verdict with the phrase: “here is God’s plenty.”

Hundreds of other poets shine; but as a companion to cheer me up, if I were to be stranded on a desert island, I have found no one yet to compare with Chaucer (other than Shakespeare himself).

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?



Finding your tongue – anthologies of Welsh literature

When, at the 2006 National Eisteddfod, I picked up a copy of Welsh Women’s Poetry 1461-2001 (edited by Katie Granich and Catherine Brennan and first published by Honno Press of Aberystwyth in 2003), I found I could not put it down.  My copy suffered from the rain as I read it on my way to the public transport that would take me home.

There is a wealth of material.  There is poetry in both English and Welsh, and the Welsh pieces are accompanied by translations, so it can be appreciated very widely.

Until the 21st century (arguably), literature has been dominated by men and women have largely been invisible (with a few exceptions, eg some great English female novelists).

My 2017 treat to myself is a new compendium of Welsh language poetry and prose, from the first millennium to the present day: The Old Red Tongue – An Anthology of Welsh Literature, edited by Gwyn Griffiths and Meic Stephens and published by Francis Boutle (London) – nearly a thousand pages, for £30.

Unlike the Honno anthology, very nearly all the originals are in Welsh, but like the Honno one, they are accompanied by English translations.  This is excellent, as medieval Welsh is in places difficult to follow for the inexpert.  (So too sometimes is dialect.)

Many of the translations have been made by the renowned Anthony Conran and Joseph P Clancy.  Some pieces have been translated for the first time.

There is are useful introductions both to historical periods and also to individual writers.

I’ll take the liberty of quoting from the publisher’s blurb, which describes the volume as an “anthology of over 300 texts – poems, plays, memoirs, essays, extracts from novels and short stories, hymns, eulogies, elegies, medieval prose, political and theological commentaries – from nearly 200 writers”.

The book does what it says on the cover – the net is cast wide.

In the last hundred years or so, fortunately, women’s voices have come to be heard, whereas in earlier times men dominated.  The female writers are: Gwerful Mechain, Ann Griffiths, Eluned Morgan, Kate Roberts, Marion Eames, Jane Edwards, Eigra Lewis Roberts, Nesta Wyn Jones, Manon Rhys, Menna Elfyn, Christine James, Angharad Tomos, Gwyneth Lewis, Sonia Edwards, Elin ap Hywel, Mererid Hopwood and Meleri Wyn James.  (Still a small minority, but growing.)

There is an extensive bibliography at the end, useful for further reading.

I should add that The Old Red Tongue is one of a “lesser used languages of Europe” series, which includes anthologies of literature in Breton, Manx, Galician, Channel Islands Norman French, Esperanto, Maltese and Occitan.  A worthy enterprise.

(One English language anthology is: Poetry 1900 – 2000 – one hundred poets from Wales, edited by Meic Stephens, first published by Parthian, Cardigan, in 2007.)

Here are feasts for those who love literature and for those who love Wales.

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.



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