Arthurian Legend: The Celtic Connection
Updated: Nov 10, 2019
Arthurian legend is over 1,400 years old. It has been told, retold, and expanded across generations and cultures. Arthur Pendragon epitomizes the great medieval Anglo-Saxon king. The only problem with that (well, actually, there’s more than one) is that the historical Arthur wasn’t medieval and he certainly wasn’t Anglo-Saxon. In fact, he likely wasn't even a king. The person on which the legend was based lived in the Dark Ages and, while there is a small possibility he may have been Roman, most scholars believe he was a Celt. Ironically, he likely fought against the Anglo and Saxon hordes who were invading his homeland. Regardless of whether Arthur was a Roman or a Celt, many other elements of Arthurian legend, including the characters of Morgan le Fay and Merlin the wizard, decidedly descend from Celtic sources. This post provides just a brief introduction.
Celtic people lived on the island of Britannia at least as far back as the 3rd century B.C. In 44 B.C., the Romans, led by Julius Caesar, invaded the island but failed to conquer the Celts. In 43 A.D., the Romans tried again and succeeded in pushing the Celtic peoples to the west, to what is now Wales, and to the north, to present-day Scotland. The Romans continued their occupation for nearly four hundred years until their legions were called back to Rome to protect the emperor from barbarians at the gates.
By 500 A.D., perhaps emboldened by the departure of the Roman troops, small bands of Germanic raiders, namely the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, began incursions into Britannia, first seeking loot then land. Initially, the Celtic inhabitants didn’t put up much of a fight. By the mid-sixth century, however, the Celts apparently had had enough. Roused and led by a charismatic Celt, they mounted a fierce resistance. Ultimately (as I’m sure you know), the Angles and Saxons won, merged, and became rulers of the island. Until William and the Normans showed up in 1066. The Celts didn’t disappear into the mist, though, nor did the story of the great warrior and the battles he’d won. A mid-sixth century monk named Gildas, in his work, De Excidio Britanniae writes about the warrior and his victory in twelve battles. Scholars believe the war leader to be the historic role model for Arthur, although he wasn’t yet called a king—or even called Arthur. Gildas praises Ambrosius, but he also refers to the Bear or arth in Welsh. The earliest source in which Arthur is named is the Welsh Annales Cambriae. That source says Arthur fought in the battle of Baden (a historic battle) and in a battle at Camlan where, according to the source as well as the legend, both he and Mordred died. The two locations are in Wales, i.e., Celtic country.
Of course the two written sources which contributed greatly to Arthurian legend are Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regnum Brittaniae and Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. These books were written in the medieval period, perhaps the reason Arthur is so associated with the Middle Ages.
If you have a serious thirst to learn about all things Arthurian, go to Wales. There is a library located in the northern part of Wales which houses the largest collection of books on Arthurian legend. The collection contains over 2,000 volumes and is open to the public. If you’re really serious about Arthur, Merlin, and company, Bangor University in Wales offers an M. A. in Arthurian Literature, the only university in the world to offer the degree.
So why is Wales the center of Arthurian literature? Wales is likely the birthplace of the legend and possibly even Arthur himself (although Cornwall also claims that honor). Many places in Britain—in England, Scotland, and Wales—assert an association with Arthur, Merlin, and / or events from the legend. With good reasons: it’s cool to be connected to the legend and it’s great for tourism. But Arthurian legend seems to be entwined in the Welsh collective soul more strongly than it is anywhere else. Except perhaps for Cornwall.
Why do I keep mentioning Cornwall? One word: Tintagel. For those who are not familiar with the basic legend (and, really, where’ve you been?) Tintagel is a castle in Cornwall, England, where Arthur, according to the legend, was conceived with a little assist from Merlin’s magic. Uther Pendragon, the high king, had fallen madly in love (or in lust more like) with Igraine, Duchess of Cornwall. There was one little glitch: she was married to the Duke and she kept refusing the king’s advances. But, as Mel Brooks says, it’s good to be the king! So Uther sent Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, off on a little errand, namely, to fight a battle far away from Tintagel. Merlin used his magic to make Uther look like Gorlois, and so when the king went to Igraine’s bed, she accepted him as her husband and Arthur was conceived. Gorlois conveniently died in the battle. Igraine married Uther and they lived happily ever after. Well, not really but…. Anyway, that’s the Tintagel and Cornwall connection to the legend. And archaeology has provided evidence that Arthur could have been there. Excavations at the castle have turned up pottery dating from the 5th and 6th century and a piece of slate found in the 1980s is said to have a Latin inscription which links the place to Arthur.
There are far too many places in Wales which claim association with the legend for me even to list them here, but below are a few to check out if you’re ever in the area (or maybe just check them out online).
Dinas Emrys in Gwynedd, Wales, is often connected in literature with a site where King Vortigern wanted to build a castle, but the building kept falling down. Finally a seer claimed that pouring the blood of a fatherless boy on the foundation would solve the problem. A fatherless boy was found. His name was Merlin. The boy talked his way out of getting sacrificed by making a prophesy of his own. He claimed that two dragons, a white one and a red one, were fighting beneath the foundation. Read Mary Stewart’s excellent novel, The Crystal Cave, to find out more. By the way, the national symbol of Wales is a red dragon.
Llanuwchllyn, Wales, claims to be the place where Arthur was fostered by Sir Ector until the boy was about fourteen. This small village just happens to be located in Gwynedd which means that there is an intersection of Arthur and Merlin stories here. (After all, Merlin was the one who arranged for Arthur’s fosterage).
Carmarthen is said to be the birthplace of Merlin. If he was actually born, that is. More on that in another post.
Caerleon, in Southern Wales has been cited as a possible location of Camelot. Geoffrey of Monmouth definitely mentions it as a place of Arthur’s Court (then again kings often held court in various places depending on the season). The place is referred to as Arthur’s Round Table. It only has been called that, however, since the eighteen century.
Llyn Dinas (which is near Dinas Emrys) and the Bosherston Pools in Pembrokshire, Wales are both named by some as the home of the Lady in the Lake and as Excalibur’s resting place. Dozmary Lake in Cornwall is claimed as a third candidate for that honor.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post. If you have, please like and share it. Thanks. Posts on Merlin and Morgan le Fay’s Celtic roots are forthcoming.
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