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!

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