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

Texts

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

 

POSTSCRIPT

Professor R M (Bobi) Jones died on 22 November 2017.  His passing was noted by scholars and commentators.

 

 

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Look to the Lady – a medieval tale

I am taking a brief look at the tale of an Arthurian knight – brave, uxorious and stubborn – and his faithful, long-suffering wife – in two versions, medieval Welsh and medieval French, respectively.

We are talking here (a) about Geraint fab Erbin (editor R Jones’s title) or Gereint son of Erbin (translators Jones & Jones’s title) and (b) about the Ėrec et Ėnide of Chrétien de Troyes.  Geraint = Ėrec; Enid = Ėnide.

The verse account composed by Chrétien de Troyes dates to the late 12th century.  The Welsh version manuscripts date to the 14th century.  They form part of the collection of prose stories published together, nowadays, as the “Mabinogion”. We do not know whether these two works are derived from a lost common source or whether Ėrec et Ėnide was the principal source for the “Mabinogion” tale (perhaps together with oral traditions in Wales).

The main thrust of both versions is similar.  Chrétien’s is much longer and more elaborate.  The Welsh one is compact and does not waste words in making its impact.

It would be tedious to compare both versions, point by point.  I would like to examine the rival literary merits of a climactic episode that appears in them both.

First, the theme: it is that of the hero who first wins a lady to wife, then risks her loss through his uncaring behaviour, and finally, after many trials and tribulations, is reconciled with her (largely thanks to faithfulness and patience on her part).

Secondly, the story, in brief.  The story can be divided into four parts.  Part 4 is like an appendix or epilogue.

1 The hero is a knight who enjoys adventure and who wins his battles.  This part culminates in his wooing of Enid/Ėnide and marrying her.

[R Jones edition of the Welsh, pages 97-119; Jones & Jones translation, pages 229-246; Chrétien, lines 27-2262.]

2 The hero goes to see his father – an example of filial piety.

[R Jones, pp 119-125; Jones & Jones, pp 246-250; Chrétien, pp 2263-2472.]

3 The hero withdraws from social life and tournaments, preferring to spend all his time with his wife.  This draws adverse comments by those who know him; and the heroine is upset.  When she lets slip her worry about her husband’s diminished reputation, he launches on a series of dangerous adventures, taking her with him.  Over time, the expense of energy and loss of blood through wounds received take their toll on his health.  After coming close to death, the hero sees sense and appreciates the care his wife has for him, and they are reconciled.

[R Jones, pp 125-151; Jones & Jones, pp 250-270; Chrétien, lines 2473-5366.]

4 The hero engages in a final adventure, the details of which need not concern us here.  (Chrétien’s account is very long; the Welsh version is very short.)

[R Jones, pp 151-156; Jones & Jones, pp 270-273; Chrétien, lines 5367-6958.]

I now turn to a climactic point in the story, towards the end of Part 3.  I invite the reader to choose which account is more effective in its artistry – the Welsh or the French.

The Welsh:

Exhausted by his fights with giants, and appearing to be dead or dying, Geraint has been laid down in the hall of Earl Limwris, with his wife Enid and the earl himself nearby. The earl tries to persuade Enid to abandon Geraint and to live with him, and in the meantime to accept his food and drink.  As she refuses him, he gives her a “box on the ear”.  This is what happens next, in the Welsh version:

[Enid] gave a great sharp-piercing shriek, and made outcry far greater then than before, and it came into her mind that were Gereint alive she would not be boxed on the ear so.  With that Gereint came to himself at the echoing of her shriek, and he rose up into a sitting posture and found his sword in the hollow of his shield, and hastened to where the earl was and struck him a keen-forceful, venomous-painful might impetuous blow on the crown of his head, so that he was cloven, and so that the table stayed the sword.  Everyone then left the table and fled out.  And it was not fear of the living man that was greatest upon them, but the sight of the dead man rising up to slay them.  And then Gereint looked on Enid and a double grief came over him: the one to see how Enid had lost her colour and her mien, and the other was that he knew her to be in the right.  ‘Lady,’ said he, ‘dost thou know where our horses are?’  ‘I know,’ said she, ‘where thine own went, but I know not where went the other.  To yonder house thy horse went.’  He then came to the house and fetched out his horse, and raised Enid up from the ground and set her between him and the saddlebow.  And away he went.

[Jones & Jones, page 269; cf R Jones, pages 149f]

And the couple make good their escape.

We see here that Geraint’s priority is not to comfort Enid immediately but to organise their escape – and indeed, Enid is practical too, telling Geraint where his horse can be found.  Note that the solid basis of their relationship is revealed by their prompt actions and their few, apposite words.  (Contrast Chrétien’s treatment of the matter, below.)

In the French, the context is similar.  The Count of Limors wants to take Ėnide for himself.  He orders her to eat and drink, and, as she refuses, he strikes her, twice:

In the middle of these arguments and disputes, Erec recovered consciousness like a man waking from sleep.  It was no wonder if he was startled to see the people around him; but when he heard his wife’s voice, he was troubled and filled with grief.  Getting down from the dais, he quickly draws the sword.  Anger and his love for his wife give him courage.  He runs over to where he sees her and strikes the count on the head, beating out his brains and knocking in his forehead without any word or challenge, so that his blood and brains go flying.  The knights leap up from the tables, all thinking this is a devil come in here amongst them….

[Owen, lines 4851ff, page 64]

The hero’s change of behaviour is marked by the passage that commences thus:

The count was slain at his meal.  Then Erec, carrying his wife away, embraces and kisses and comforts her.

[Owen, lines 4914ff, page 65]

And Ėrec adds soothing words but (remarkably) fails to accept all the blame for their situation, as shown by this sentence:

“And if you’ve ever spoken ill to me, you have my forgiveness and pardon for both the offence and what you said.”

[Owen, ibid]

How dare he say this?  He adds insult to injury!

In my opinion, Chrétien’s description is bland, whereas the Welsh version is lively.  The latter also conveys more pathos, as the feelings of Enid and Geraint, respectively, are vividly conveyed.  The account of the escape of Ėrec and Ėnide is long and drawn out, as a look at the full text reveals, whereas that of Geraint and Enid is short and to the point.

I would argue, both on the basis of this episode and on my reading of both versions of the whole tale, that the Welsh version, though much shorter than the French, is the superior of the two.

Indeed, Geraint can be seen as following (on a smaller scale) the pattern of Homer’s Achilles in the Iliad, insofar as (first) he exhibits petulance when his pride is hurt and (secondly) he repents and changes his course when he is moved by grief.  In accordance with this approach, the Welsh tale can be taken as a mini-epic.  But on another view, the story has a heroine – Enid – rather than a hero!  Seen in this way, the tale is a romance.

References

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Three Welsh medieval romances

Introduction

Students of Welsh literature are proud of the medieval inheritance, including the anonymous eleven tales bracketed together as the “Mabinogion”.  Among these are the three so-called “romances”.  They tell the story of Owain (Owein), in The Lady of the Fountain, of Peredur in the tale centred on him, and Geraint (Gereint) in Geraint son of Erbin.

These romances have analogues in French and German:

Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain ou le chevalier au lion and Hartmann’s Ywein (compare Iarlles y Ffynnon [Owain]);

Chrétien’s Ėrec et Ėnide and Hartmann’s Erec (compare Geraint);

Chrétien’s Perceval and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (compare Peredur).

Are the continental versions superior?  Or just different?  My own opinion is that the Welsh versions, albeit shorter than the continental ones, and in prose rather than in verse, have literary merit in their own right.

Features

1 The romances are patently not like present-day novels.  In varying degrees, the tales are episodic rather than connected and dominated by one plot; some incident episodes are interpolated, or added – after what would appear to be the natural ending.

2 The stories are Arthurian, although Arthur, and Gwenhywfar (= Guinevere), are somewhat peripheral, in two of the romances.  However, many episodes do start, or finish, at Arthur’s court, in Caerleon on Usk.  Arthur and Gwenhwyfar play prominent parts in the Geraint and Enid story.

3 The protagonists are knights and heroes.  They are associated with Arthur’s court but have independent adventures, which provide the content of the tales.  They are knights errant, seeking adventure.  Arthur’s court appears to be surrounded by independent chiefdoms, where either friendship or hostility may be encountered, and (perhaps) otherworld characters.

4 The eponymous heroes are always victorious in combat.  However, they are less successful in love than in battle – they have to work harder, to gain and to maintain relationships.  All three protagonists have to learn to take the responsibility of faithfulness to his lady seriously.  (Arthur and Gwenhwyfar serve as a model.)  The romances, then, are largely about love.

5 The heroes have to learn to take responsibility for leadership and rule, and to balance this with their matrimonial obligations.

6 The content reflects a society where there is a division of labour between men and women.  The knights do the fighting.  The ladies encourage and nurture the heroes: some of them need to be rescued (like “damsels in distress”).  Female messengers, moreover, confront heroes with their failings and stir them into action.

7 Some characters are individualised: Cei is always rude, Gwalchmai is always polite, Luned is kind and clever, Gwenhwyfar is the perfect hostess and sponsor, and Enid is loyal to Geraint, under pressure.

8 The chronology of each tale is linear; descriptions of combat are repetitive; descriptions of climactic events are colourful, however; and the characters’ dialogues are crisp.

9 There is much repetition, within episodes, but also subtle variation.  (Cynon’s story is repeated by Owain’s – with a different outcome.)

10 Supernatural characters, and figures of an ambiguous nature, play an important part.  The protagonists are tested by natural and by supernatural powers, on their journey to full maturity.

11 Significant symbols appear, for example, the bloody spear and severed head, in Peredur.

12 There and hints of both Christian and pre-Christian belief systems in the romances.

Assumptions concerning relationships between the Welsh romances and the works of Chrétien, Hartmann and Wolfram

1 The French versions by Chrétien de Troyes gave rise to the German versions by Hartmann von Aue and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

2 The Welsh romances are not translations of the French; the French versions are not direct translations of the Welsh; the Welsh and French versions may derive from a common source.

3 The French and German versions refer to place names in Wales, rather distorted.  The Welsh setting points to strong Welsh influence.

4 At the same time, scholars detect French influence on the Welsh versions that have come down to us.

Iarlles y Ffynnon – the Lady of the Fountain

The story

The lady of the title (otherwise known as the Countess = Iarlles) is not named.  Her maid, who plays an important part in the story is named, as Luned.

The hero is Owain.  Other knights who are important in the story are Cynon and Gwalchmai.

The story is about a knight who leaves Arthur’s court home to go on a quest: he wins a wife, but he loses her (by his neglect of her); but finally he is reconciled with her.

On his quest, then, Owain defeats and mortally wounds the knight who defends the lands of his wife (the Countess) by guarding the symbolic fountain.  (Owain succeeds where his friend Cynon has already failed.)  Luned persuades the Countess to marry again.  With Owain himself already in mind, she advises the Countess thus:

Thou knowest that thy dominions cannot be defended save by main strength and arms; and for that reason seek quickly one who may defend them.

[Jones & Jones, page 168]

And accordingly, Owain marries the Countess.

Invited back to Arthur’s court, Owain goes for a visit.  A period of three months is agreed, but in the event Owain stays for three years, in effect, deserting his wife.  Then a female stranger comes to Arthur’s court.  She comes up to Owain and takes away the ring that is on his hand:

‘Thus,’ said she, ‘does one do to a false treacherous deceiver, to bring shame on thy beard.’  And she turned her horse’s head and away.

And then remembrance of his adventure came to Owein, and he was sorrowful.

[Jones & Jones, pages 173f]

Owain despairs at first; but then he rehabilitates himself (with the aid of a friendly lion).  In the end, Owain proves his fitness, once more, to be a true husband, and the couple are reconciled.

The History of Peredur son of Efrog

Summary

Peredur starts life as the seventh and sole surviving son of his widowed mother; he leaves his widowed mother; he becomes an Arthurian knight; he falls in love with various ladies; he sees “marvels” at an uncle’s castle; he avenges the harm done to his family on the perpetrators – the witches of Caer Loyw.

In his youth, Peredur receives instruction – in various proportions, as regards arms and courtesy, respectively – from a series of people, principally, his own mother, two uncles, and a hermit.

The hero’s duties

In Peredur, the hero can be said to have two obligations to fulfil: (i) the task of righting wrongs (through chivalry), and (ii) the task of finding (and keeping) a lady.

1 The righting of wrongs

The righting of wrongs has to do with avenging injuries suffered by Peredur himself (through Cei’s insults), members of his family, members of Arthur’s court, and others (eg “damsels in distress”).  This task is performed by force of arms.

In particular, Peredur is called upon to kill the witches of Caer Loyw, in revenge for the killing of a cousin and the laming of an uncle.  Moreover, by killing the witches, the sovereignty that belongs to his family is (or can be) passed on to Peredur himself.

2 Love

Somewhat like the other heroes of the romances, Peredur appears to find the maintenance of a love relationship (once achieved) much harder than achievements in combat.

Peredur has a series of love affairs, with three principal ladies in succession: (i) an unnamed fair lady*, (ii) Angharad Golden-hand, and (iii) the Empress of Constantinople.

Note that love too can be connected with sovereignty: a knight can gain it by marrying a powerful lady, as in Peredur’s relationship with the Empress of Constantinople, in Peredur, and in Owain’s marrying the Countess (in The Lady of the Fountain).

*The unnamed fair lady

The lady in question is described as follows:

Whiter was [her flesh] than flowers of the whitest crystal; but her hair and her eyebrows, blacker were they than jet.  Two small red spots on her cheeks, redder were they than aught reddest.

[Jones & Jones, pages 194f]

(Compare Chrétiens’s Blanchefleur and Wolfram’s Condwiramurs.)

Later, Peredur is entranced by a colourful sight that reminds him of the woman he loves:

The she-hawk rose up, and a raven alighted on the [duck’s] flesh.  Peredur stood and likened the exceeding blackness of the raven, and the whiteness of the snow, and the redness of the [duck’s] blood, to the hair of the woman he loved best, which was black as jet, and her flesh to the whiteness of the snow, and the redness of the blood in the white snow to the two red spots in the cheeks of the woman he loved best.

[Jones & Jones, page 199]

These parallel passages are fine in their own right.  They also point to a way the first love story could have gone.  Wolfram’s Parzival makes much of this knight-lady relationship and guides it towards a happy ending.

Variations on the Grail motif

The Grail as such does not appear in Peredur.

At the court of the second uncle, Peredur sees, not a “grail”, but a spear running with blood and the bloody severed head of a man on a salver.  Nobody present offers an explanation of these manifestations; and Peredur does not ask.  (Compare the behaviour of Perceval and Parzival.)

Later in the story, Peredur is confronted, at Arthur’s court, by a “black curly-headed maiden”, with a “rough unlovely look about her”, and misshapen: she tells him, accusingly, that she should have asked about the meaning of the spear and the severed head, when at his uncle’s court.

Later still, however, a “yellow-haired youth” makes a different point:

‘The [severed] head was thy cousin’s, and it was the witches of Caer Loyw that had slain him.  And ‘twas they that lamed thy [first] uncle.  And….it is prophesied that thou wilt avenge that.’

[Jones & Jones, page 226]

With the help of his Arthurian companions, Peredur proceeds to kill the witches of Caer Loyw – and so the story ends.

Comments:

1 The question test raised by the challenging maiden points to the insertion of new material, perhaps under the influence of Perceval or a source behind it.  (In both Perceval and Parzival, the question test is of major significance.)

2 The youth’s explanation of the significance of the bloody “marvels” fits in with the righting of wrongs element of Peredur.

3 Another genuine reason for the maiden’s challenge (in an earlier version) might have been a call to Peredur to return to his true wife (whichever lady she might be).  (Compare the story of Owain).  This would fit in with the love element of Peredur.

Conclusion

Peredur is interesting, because:

  1. it shows the development of the hero
  2. it shows the hero’s valour
  3. it shows the hero’s courtesy to women and to older men
  4. it has descriptions both of great ugliness and great beauty
  5. it has many magical or supernatural elements
  6. its contents and themes can be compared and contrasted with those that characterise Perceval and

Geraint son of Erbin

The characters of Geraint and of Enid (his wife)

In the first half of the story, Geraint displays courtesy and valour, respect for his father, and love for his wife (tending to uxoriousness).  In the second half, however, Geraint’s behaviour is marked by pride, jealousy and stubbornness.

Enid remains a loving and faithful wife to Geraint.  She warns him of oncoming dangers, as best she can, even though she is constantly rebuffed by Geraint for her pains.

The story

The theme is that of the hero winning a lady to wife, then losing her (cf Owain), and eventually achieving a reconciliation with her.

Geraint goes on a quest to avenge the hurt caused to one of Gwenhyfar’s maids (and indirectly to Gwenhwyfar herself).  He is victorious in a tournament; he puts right the wrongs suffered by the family he lodges with; he woos Enid, the daughter of the house, and marries her.

Geraint relaxes and adopts a life of ease and inactivity.  This gives rise to gossip, and causes distress to Enid.  The couple become estranged.  Precipitately, Geraint takes Enid off on a quest, without a clear object or direction, to prove his valour once more.

After numerous victories against opponents, Geraint ends up exhausted and wounded and unconscious, and seemingly near death.  A certain earl, taking advantage of the situation, tries to persuade Enid to leave Geraint for him.  Enid refuses, the earl hits her, and Enid shrieks; Geraint wakes up, seizes his sword and promptly kills the earl.  The couple make their escape.

Realising how emotionally cruel he has been to Enid, Geraint looks on her in a new light:

Geraint looked on Enid and a double grief came over him: the one to see how Enid had lost her colour and her mien, and the other was that he knew then she was in the right.

[Jones & Jones, page 269]

This change signals the beginning of the reconciliation process.  And the story ends happily for them.

Sources, in order of publication date

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

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

Evans, J G (editor) (1973), Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch –Y Chwedlau a’r Rhamantau, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, with an Introduction by Evans, R M.

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

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

Vitt, A M (2010), Peredur vab Efrawc – Edited Texts and Translations of the MSS Peniarth 7 and 14 Versions, MPhil, Aberystwyth University, viewed 28 April 2017, http://cadair.aber.ac.uk/dspace/bitstream/handle/2160/6118/Vitt_Electronic%20MPhil%20Thesis.pdf?sequence=1

More to follow!