Friday, April 25, 2014

Was Uthyr Pendragon the Result of an Error in Translation?

In researching Gwendolyn's Sword, I was faced with a fun challenge in determining how to address the legend of King Arthur. King Arthur's tale, like any enduring myth, has evolved with its retelling, and the layers of the centuries have brought with them new characters, events, and twists in the plot that reveal more about the time and the author who added them than about Arthur himself. But to treat the myth correctly and faithfully in my story, I had to piece together a snapshot of the state of the myth in 1193 England, and then also dig back to the original historical origins. It was this second endeavor that led me to Pendragon, by Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd, Welsh historians and founders of the Centre for Arthurian Studies at the North East Wales Institute. For those interested in the ancient Welsh origins of the Arthurian legend, Blake and Lloyd's account is both highly accessible and readable--and rich in historical detail and reference. That's a difficult combination to pull off, and I'm grateful that they accomplished it so well.

The authors' vast survey of the ancient Welsh source manuscripts for Arthur includes The Book of Aneirin (c. 1100 C.E.), The Book of Taliesin (c. 1325), and The Black Book of Carmarthen (c. 1250), wherein one finds The Welsh Triads, which preserve material not found in any other source. The years given for the manuscripts above are the approximate dates of the actual written document. Welsh mythology and literature, however, was an oral tradition, and many of the tales recorded in these manuscripts date back as far as the 6th or 7th c. C.E. It is not well-known that, among all of Great Britain and Ireland, Wales was the region most thoroughly occupied by Roman government, military forts, trade and, thus, culture. Much of the Roman economic and cultural infrastructure persisted in Wales, carried on by the elevated houses of Welsh families who had prospered side-by-side with their Roman counterparts, well after the Romans departed and literally abandoned their posts. John Davies' A History of Wales includes a telling map showing a well laid-out network grid of Roman forts and roads impressively criss-crossing the multiple elevations and climates of Wales. It was perhaps the remnants of this infrastructure that supported the ancient Welsh in preserving their unique culture, language, and mythology through the upheavals of the middle ages and into modern times. This is certainly a happy accident for students of Welsh history and lore.

As is the case with material deriving from an oral tradition, the source material found in the ancient manuscripts is written in lines of verse. One can easily imagine that the use of stanzas and rhythm would have aided the memorization of the bards of the time. It is not much of a leap to imagine that these verses also came with a well-known melody, the highs and lows and pauses serving both to aid memory as well as to enthrall the audience. Winter nights were long and spent in the cramped quarters of firelit halls and cottages. Long, entertaining songs would have helped to pass the night while also passing along to the next generation the values, wisdom, and ways of the ancestors.

Reviewing all of this material, Blake and Lloyd do indeed find mention here and there of Uthyr Pendragon, but none as the father of Arthur. The Arthurian poem Pa Gur? in The Black Book Carmarthen, mentions Uthyr thus:
Mabon am Mydron
Guas uthir pendragon
Mabon the son of Mydron
Uthyr Pendragon's servant.1

The authors note that Uthyr Pendragon is associated with Arthur, as are the dozen or so others also mentioned in the poem. However, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his widely popular Historia Regnum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain," c. 1135-ish), states unequivocally that Uthyr fathered Arthur with Eigr, and provides a rather salacious tale to describe the event:

"The king complied with the proposal, and acted with great caution in this affair; and when he had committed the care of the siege to his intimate friends, underwent the medical applications of Merlin, by whom he was transformed into the likeness of Gorlois; as was Ulfin also into Jordan, and Merlin himself into Bricel; so that nobody could see any remains now of their former likeness. They then set forward on their way to Tintagel, at which they arrived in the evening twilight, and forthwith signified to the porter, that the consul was come; upon which the gates were opened, and the men let in. For what room could there be for suspicion, when Gorlois himself seemed to be there present? The king therefore stayed that night with Igerna, and had the full enjoyment of her, for she was deceived with the false disguise which he had put on, and the artful and amorous discourses wherewith he entertained her. He told her he had left his own place besieged, purely to provide for the safety of her dear self, and the town she was in; so that believing all that he said, she refused him nothing which he desired. The same night therefore she conceived of the most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity."2
Given the absence of mention of Uthyr's paternity of Arthur, the authors pose the obvious question: " has to wonder where Geoffrey got his information from."3

It turns out that one line of the Welsh text juxtaposes the words "arthur" and "uthir", and Blake and Lloyd offer evidence that Geoffrey's idea for Uthyr's paternity may have found its origin is this one line and a (perhaps intentionally) faulty translation:

"Another poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen contains a line that may be the source of Geoffrey's identification, and is given in its original form below:
"Mab arthur uthir ig kertev
"The son of Arthur terrible in songs
"You will notice that 'arthur' and the word 'uthir', which in this context means 'terrible', appear next to each other in this line. Did Geoffrey come across this line or one very similar and read it as 'Arthur mab Uthir ig kertev', which would then translate as 'Arthur the son of Uthir in songs'? Did this line give Geoffrey exactly the hint he needed to make Uthyr Pendragon the father of Arthur? Although impossible to prove, this possibility has been put forward as a possible source for Geoffrey's description of Arthur's paternity. According to the Historia, Uthyr was the brother of Aurelius Ambrosius, but no other source confirms this point and the naming of Uthyr as Arthur's father must rest squarely on Geoffrey's shoulders."4

Why would Geoffrey have taken such license, one might ask. Geoffrey took license with many of the subjects of his Historia; such departures did not carry the same scholarly condemnation during his time as they would today, and although the Historia was widely circulated and read in the 12th c., today it is treated exclusively as a source of contemporary commentary and lore, with only incidental historical value. The scientific method, the separation of fact from fiction, of natural from supernatural, of reason from madness had not yet come about in the general worldview and epistemological consciousness of the time. Staying faithful to this very un-modern view of events and phenomena is one of the more common pitfalls into anachronism for the author of historical fiction. Moreover, Geoffrey was not drafting his magnum opus in a vacuum. He was writing for a Norman audience, recent invaders and settlers of Britain whose displacement of the previous British landowners and noble families wanted some popular, pseudo-historical justification. To boot, this Norman culture was decidedly patriarchal, whereas the Welsh culture that served as the nurturing soil from which the origins of the Arthurian legend sprouted were not, and in fact may have leaned more toward the matrilineal. Many lines of verse, for example, are given to Eigr, Arthur's famously beautiful mother, and her multiple offspring from more than one partner--none of whom were named "Uthyr." Perhaps Geoffrey presumed, and not without good reason, that such a lineage in a man that he meant to co-opt as a Norman-favoring hero would have been intolerable to the audience of his time.

It was a little sad for me, as an author, to be faced with the reality of having to abandon the great romance of the name "Pendragon" in my treatment of the Arthurian legends. On the other hand, because my tale is of a female heroine, and I attempt, among other things, to explore Arthurian legend from the perspective of a warrior who also happens to be a woman, the discovery of Eigr's ravishment by Uthyr as a fiction created by a man and intended to demote her from her original powerful presence in Welsh mythology is rather fitting. And perhaps more fertile for future writing than the more predictable, clich├ęd version set forth by Geoffrey.

1. Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd, Pendragon (2003, First Lyons Press), p. 84.
2. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regnum Brittanniae, trans. by J. A. Giles, ed. Six Old English Chronicles (London: Bohn, 1848), pp. 173-271, available at
3. Blake and Lloyd, p. 84.
4. Blake and Lloyd, p. 84-85.

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