The Other King Arthur: Reviewing the Mabinogion

Every time another King Arthur movie comes out, I find myself cringing.

Even beyond the tendency of writers to oversell the notion of Forbidden Romance (regardless of the devastation wrought by the same), it seems like every writer wants to find some novel way to tinker with the plot, giving it their own “twist” or “take” or whatever they call it.  It’s all very well basing a movie on a well-known story, but one usually assumes that if you’re going to tell a well-known story, you’ll stick to that story, or something close, and not tell a completely different and contradictory story using names (and little else) pulled from the original.

But–in the case of Arthurian legend–which is the original?

Most people, whether they recognize it as such or not, are familiar with the tradition of Sir Thomas Malory, who completed a rather comprehensive version in the 15th century, to the delight of the incoming Tudor dynasty, which got a lot of PR mileage by casting Henry VII as someone in the tradition of Arthur, uniting England after a series of civil wars.  (In fact Henry even named his first son Arthur–but he died and so the world got Henry VIII instead (yes, that one).   The Tudors also constructed an enormous wooden Round Table that still hangs in Winchester, UK.  But I digress.)  Malory’s version (rendered into Modern English) would be recognizable by most people, though with a lot of extraneous material.  It includes the generally-known plot line and all the major characters:  Arthur, Guenever, Lancelot, Merlin, Gawaine, Kay, and all the rest, complete with all the chivalrous trappings.

But there’s a contradiction here.  The historical Arthur lived in the sixth century AD, achieving some level of fame fighting the invading Saxons.  The idea of chivalry (and all the other odds and ends appertaining thereto) arrived in England with the invading Normans in the 11th century.

So how did we get here from there?  A little bit at a time, it seems, through a variety of different story-tellers–it’s impossible to tell who wrote down new stories and who merely repeated what someone else had made up–all trying to please an audience.

If you’re interested in seeing what Arthur’s court looked like in its earliest literary form, you should take a look at the Mabinogion…or more specifically, a translation of the same, since the original written version was not written in English.  This collection of 12 Welsh stories (written down in the 1200s) contains some of the oldest stories of King Arthur’s court in literature.  It’s a bit different from what you’re used to.

What you won’t find is the whole “cycle”:  the whole story, cradle to grave, as it were.  These stories are just that–episodes.

You also won’t find most of the normal cast and crew.  There’s no Lancelot, no Galahad, no hits, no runs, no errors…no, wait….  There are a few familiar names (Kay and Bedivere show up with slightly different spellings) but not many.  Even Merlin only appears once, under a different name, and in a story not directly connected to Arthur.  Camelot and the Round Table are conspicuous by their absence–Arthur’s center of government is at “Caerlleon,” which turns out to be near Newport, Wales.

Still, there are some familiar themes–the idea of questing for adventure is still there, and there is jousting and tourneying  aplenty, as well as some element of “courtly love”…all of which is a bit strange, on the whole, since again all of this was stuff imported from Normandy.  So what we’ve got is a bunch of people with very Welsh names taking part in a series of very Norman adventures.  If that’s not what they mean by cultural cross-pollination, I don’t know what it is.

(Update, February 2013:  Much of this “cultural cross-pollination” seems to have occurred via Brittany, a Celtic region in northwestern France whose population was evidently boosted by refugees fleeing the Saxon invasions of the 6th century–around the time the historical Arthur would have been in operation.  From there, the stories evidently spread through the Continent, picking up embellishments along the way, until they were brought back to Britain via the Norman Conquest.  One can imagine the Welsh, upon hearing the stories from the Normans, getting a sensation akin to that felt by authors who, having signed over the rights to adapt their book into a screenplay, pay no more attention until they see the final product in the cinema.  For more information on this process, you might look up Chapter VIII of Thomas Rolleston’s Myths and Legends of the Celts.  It’s a bit antiquated, perhaps–otherwise it wouldn’t be available for free on Gutenburg–but hey:  we are talking about antiquity here, right?)

All in all, the Arthurian stories included with the Mabinogion are much closer to Lawhead’s version than Malory’s–though Lawhead too offers a full cycle and a lot of original material.

The other stories in the Mabinogion aren’t really connected with Arthur (except for one story about Taliesin, in which Arthur is only mentioned) and clearly have a different character–okay, they have a whole cast of different characters.  Let me try again.  They have a different feel to them–perhaps we could say it’s more Celtic, farther removed from the influence of the Saxons and Normans.  The characters are much larger than life, and the laws of nature seem less strict; and for some reason every other character carries a magic wand (really!).  If Merlin were to show up in one of these stories, he’d just be one of the crowd, instead of a stand-out as he is in the stories derived from Malory.

I haven’t quite decided what I think about the book as a whole.  Some of the stories aren’t especially thrilling as such.  Some contain such a wealth of detail that the plot grinds to a halt, as when the whole collection (seemingly) of Arthur’s attendants are named off; but in the 13th century I expect they had a lot more time for that sort of thing.  Other stories are more interesting, if a bit violent (again, a product of the times) with a tendency to feature people who may or may not be knuckleheads but do on occasion act in a thoroughly knuckleheaded manner.

As a literary exercise, it’s highly interesting to see the little elements that appear here for perhaps the first time and come back in other stories later by other writers.  For example, readers of Tolkien may recall the bit in Lord of the Rings where Frodo is obliged to cope with a giant, disembodied hand (movie-goers won’t remember this–nyaah, nyaah, nyaah); well…guess where he found it…Tolkien, I mean.  And then there are the other elements that over time have become  so incorporated into the genre that they’ve become part of the furniture, as it were, like all the magic wands.  There are several little pieces like this.

So if you’re big on Arthurian lore, or if you’re interested in early literature, or if you’re interested in where fairy tales really come from, this is a book that you might want to look up (don’t try reading these stories to your kids, though).   You won’t find a whole Arthurian cycle; you certainly won’t find anything particularly idyllic (exactly what was supposed to be idyllic about Arthur’s court is uncertain–sounds like Tudor propaganda to me).  But you will find stories about people–some of whom behave like real people, and some of whom pull out magic wands and change themselves into fish, but people nevertheless–and if you’re a storyteller too, you might find a few ideas for your own stories.

Meanwhile, considering how little of the whole Arthurian legend is based in historical fact, and how much of even Malory’s version boils down to so many centuries’ worth of fictional elaboration, I suppose I may as well stop cringing over the relentless modifications by modern writers….

Among other resources, readers interested in more about Arthurian legend might find this page interesting….


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4 Responses to “The Other King Arthur: Reviewing the Mabinogion

  1. dhparker Says:

    This is a great analysis of several ideas. I’ve got so much to say about it, I think I’ll send you an email. 🙂

  2. If you are interested in the King Arthur legends… « Thoughts From Mystery Hollow Says:

    […] The Other King Arthur: Reviewing the Mabinogion […]

  3. hillary brooks Says:

    I would be very interested in reading this. I have always loved reading about Arthur, anything I could get my hands on. But I have to say, I have NEVER seen a movie about him that I liked. Thanks for the info! 🙂

  4. King Arthur the movie | Tallhwch Says:

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