The Time of Thaw

Welcome to Thaw in the fictional 6th century world of y Ddraig.

As the name (and place in the calendar) suggests this is the time when the ice and snow begins to melt and the first signs of green life begin to emerge. Early in this moon, livestock nibble greedily on the first fresh food they have had for months, grow frisky on the sweetness and freedom, and begin mating. The ground is now soft enough to sow some of the carefully preserved seed and soak the dirt with melted snow.

With water and the gentle sun now stretching for much of the day, it doesn’t take them long to germinate.

Early in this month is the very important Spring equinox which is celebrated with a feast finishing off the last of the stored food and which celebrates the abundance of spring.

Glossary & List of Characters ‘Ascension’

Welcome to the world of y Ddraig in 547AD Brython. Little has changed about the language or pronunciation since the time of ‘Sacrifice’ but there are some new characters to meet.

  • f – pron. as hard ‘v’
  • ff – pron. as a soft ‘eff’ sound
  • ll – The Cymraeg ‘ll’ consonant is like a soft ‘thl’ or a ‘cl’
  • w – a vowel sound closest to ‘oo’
  • dd – pron. a hard ‘th’ [as in lithe]
  • y – pron. ‘uh’ alone or within a word or ‘ee’ on the end
  • c/g – ‘c’ is always hard and interchangeable with a hard ‘g’

Gwanaelle [gooan-eye-ethl] The daughter of a noble family in the North, she fled her father’s weak ways and lived wild until she stumbled upon melangell’s valley (“sacrifice”, book one). When the dragonling emerged from the Creil, Gwanaelle kept her wits about her and, in the simple act of reaching a hand out to it, became the dragonling’s new carer and mother.

Eifion [eye-vee-on] Second-in-command to the high Chieftain’s exiled brother, Cai and now in exile himself, Eifion took the dragonling and Gwanaelle from the yew valley when the darkness came. He has lived in a neighbouring valley with them ever since harbouring a dark and devastating secret.

Nyneve [nun-ave] The child who emerged from the Creil. A dragonling, unascended. She has lived in ignorance of her true heritage surrounded by the love and protection of Gwanaelle and Eifion for fourteen years.

Bleheris [ble-hair-is] A traveller in song, silver of tongue and hair. Bleheris is a bard, well-schooled in the politics of the land. And of y Ddraig.

Gwalchafad [gwolk-a-vad]  Once squire to his illustrious older brother Gwalchmai (known in Artwr’s company by the epithet ‘Gauwain’) Gwalchafad fought his way out of his brother’s shadow and became a warrior in his own right. Now thane of Trellech. Known in the language of the Angles as ‘Gaheris’.

Artwr [ar-toor] High Chieftain of all Cymry, has fought for decades against the Angles and Saxons invading from the east. Relocated his stronghold to Caerllion when a dragon destroyed the one at Caerwent. Surrounds himself and his Queen, Gwynhwyfar, with warriors there.

Y Ddraig [uh thr’eye-g] Drake or dragon. Amongst the oldest creatures on the islands of Brython, survivors of endless invasions from across the seas. Have lived in increasing seclusion since men first wrought iron against their forests. Revered and feared equally, y Ddraig’s magic is universally coveted.

Creil [cray-el] The dragon’s egg, y Ddraig in senescent form. Hunted for its power—political and actual. It offers the sight to those who can master it.

Cymry [cum-ree]. The Romano-Brythonic people south of those lands held by the Picts and the Scoti. Until the 17th century, Cymry referred to the people as much as the land and borders shifted and changed with the people inhabiting them.

Maps (‘Ascension’)

A score of years have passed since the time of ‘Sacrifice’ and the political landscape of Brython has changed considerably as the Angles have claimed much of the east of the island. But by the time of ‘Ascension’ in 547AD little has changed within what is left of Cymry.

Cymry547AD_Map

 

Ascension_map

Maps (‘Sacrifice’)

To help you get oriented within the world of y Ddraig, here are two maps showing the spread of Cymry in 528AD and the journey that the characters take within it (modern-day Wales).

Brython 528AD

 

Cymry 528AD [Eryri, Mathrafal, Elfael, Caerwent]

 

Glossary of characters and pronunciation (Sacrifice, Book I of y Ddraig)

After Rome abandoned Britain to its own protection in the 5th century, those remaining in Briton spoke a mix of old Brythonic (Cymraeg) with Latin overtones. ‘Romano-British’ it is sometimes referred to. This language bears little relationship to words we would recognise today as English and so I have used them sparingly. However, names of characters and places from history I have left untouched. Here is a character and pronounciation guide to help you navigate the world of y Ddraig.

  • f – pron. as hard ‘v’
  • ff – pron. as a soft ‘eff’
  • ll – The Cymraeg ‘ll’  is like a soft ‘thl’
  • w – a vowel sound closest to ‘oo’
  • dd – pron. a hard ‘th’ [as in lithe]
  • y – pron. ‘uh’ [or ‘ee’ on the end of a word]
  • c – always hard and interchangeable with ‘g’

Cymry [cum-ree]. The Romano-Brythonic people south of those lands held by the Picts and the Scoti. Many embraced the new God alongside the old (Brythonic) gods. In the 6th century, Cymry referred to the people as much as the land and borders became irrelevant. As the Angle invaders pushed west, the term came to mean any land where the original Brythons were holding strong.

Y Ddraig [uh thr’eye-g] Drake or dragon. Amongst the  oldest creatures on the islands of Brython, survivors of endless invasions from across the seas. Have lived in increasing seclusion since men first wrought iron against their forests. Revered and feared equally, y Ddraig’s magic is universally  coveted. Later, warlords assumed the title ‘dragon’ to reflect their status. The greatest and strongest of all become the pen dragon.

Creil [cray-el] y Ddraig in senescent form, the dragon’s egg. Greatly desired for its power—political and actual. Hunted across all of Cymry. Amongst its other magic, it offers the sight to those who can master it.

Melangell [Mel-an-gethl]. The fate of y Ddraig falls to her when her people are slaughtered. The Mathrafal [Mahth-rah-vahl] are a peaceful people, true to the old ways and caretakers to one of Cymry’s most powerful mysteries. Infant Melangell was taken forcibly from her family because they are descended from the powerful Annwfn [unn-oo-ven] – the Otherworld [or afterlife].

Cai ap Cynyr [kye ap kunner] A phenomenal warrior  loyal to his Chieftain brother while living perpetually in his shadow. Cai is one of several warriors bringing Artwr those relics he needs to defeat their enemies, the Angles and Saxons. He is Lord of his own stronghold, in Ylfael [Uhl-vial] and the  only true son of Cynyr Forkbeard.

Artwr [Ar-toor] Secreted as a baby with Cai’s family, Artwr is forced—unprepared and unwilling—into the role of pen    dragon in a land overflowing with bickering Chieftains. He has been holding Cymry against the Angle invaders for over a      decade.

Eifion [Eye-vee-on] Cai’s sword-brother, his younger Second-in-command. A loyal champion for the high Chieftain, Artwr, and his immediate Chieftan, Cai.

Gwanaelle [Gooan-eye-ethl] Gwanaelle is a young refugee from the violence of Cymry’s warrior culture.

What is a ‘leap year’?

A LEAP YEAR is any year in which an ‘intercalary’ day exists–that is, a day that is inserted into the calendar to account for the tiny shortages of seconds, minutes and hours that occur across a given period (totalling 6 hours, specifically) caused by the fact that the Earth does not rotate around the sun precisely in 365 days. In the case of ‘our’ calendar, leap years are declared every four years (because 4 x 6hours = 24hours/1 day)
 
The phrase ‘leap year’ refers to the fact that in a regular year, any given date will advance by one day per year between one year and a next, but in a leap year that date will ‘leap’ over its proper day and come to rest on the next one.
 
Simple right?
 
Mmmm…not so much. Over a long period, those extra leap days, themselves, add up and so the Gregorian calendar accounts for that by removing three leap days every 400 years (sheesh, sure hope someone has made a note of that for 2400AD!) by NOT having a leap day in the three century years within any 400 year period that cannot be exactly divided by 400 (2100, 2200, 2300 in the current case).
 
What? Just…what?
 
The Celts seem to have liked things a bit simpler. The Gregorian (1582) Calendar wasn’t yet developed and the Celts refused to use the Julian (Roman) calendar that was (literally) in force over Rome’s Empire. Privately, at least. They used their own calendar for tracking the passage of time and their most significant observances. And it was a ‘lunisolar’ calendar (meaning the phases/seasons are determined using both sun and moon as a guide unlike our calendar which is purely solar) which puts it in the company of some traditional calendars you might recognise from today (Hebrew, Buddhist, Hindu, traditional Chinese, Japanese, Korean) some other ancient ones (Hellenic & Babylonian).
 
The Celtic ‘Coligny Calendar’ (for the location in France it was uncovered) at first looks completely baffling until you really get to know it and then it makes as much (or as little) sense as ours. To them, adding a single day in the second month of the year every fourth year and then robbing certain century years of it might seem pretty random (and difficult to track). Well the Celts didn’t mess about with a day here and there. Their core period of time was five years and they whacked an intercalary month in there at 2.5 years and the 5 year mark to bring everything back into reasonable alignment. That also seems a little random until you realise that was month 30 and 60. The dead middle and the end. Pretty logical really.
 
I’ve written a post about the Coligny Calendar here if you’d like to learn more about it.
 
Other interesting facts about leap years.
• A person born on Feb 29th is called a ‘leapling’
• The Olympic Games (summer) have been held only on leap years since 1896 (so, yes, we have one this year to be held in Rio)
• In Britain and Ireland, traditionally, women may propose marriage only in a leap year (although this ‘tradition’ doesn’t really trace back further than the 19th C)
• In the medieval period the leap day was calculated slightly differently and fell on or around Feb 24th (ie: the start of the last week of Feb).

The Time of Frost

Welcome to the least formal month in the calendar of the fictional y Ddraig world.

The Time of Frost began on the quarter moon (half light/half dark) and marked the turning of the weather for, now, people and animals began to emerge from the shelters that hopefully got them through winter in one piece. This was a time of experienced assessment, for releasing the animals to the woods if the worst of winter had not truly passed could mean their deaths and, thus, your own. But if the worst had indeed passed then rugged up people and thick coated animals could return into the frost-covered world in readiness for the melting season to come.

Frost is a time of emergence, seeing what had survived and little else.

A (not-very-yet-too-very) brief history of “Wales” and “England”

It’s just not possible to condense a millennium of history into a single post without generalising massively and becoming irritatingly long. Sorry for both, but in the interests of brevity I’m starting at the non-existant year zero (between 1BC and 1AD). Or near to it.

In 55BC, Julius Caesar (looking to boost his military conquests and running out of lands to conquer in the name of Rome) made a flying visit to the south coast of Britannia with a small force, hammered a bunch of Britons living there, was fought off but still managed to take the town he renamed Colchester and high-tailed it back to Rome crying ‘conquest’ of Britannia. Presumably, the fired-up Britons spat in the water after him and sat down to a heavy drinking session believing that they, in fact, had the victory.

Sixty-five years later (in 10AD) Rome tried again, with a much bigger force this time, and the occupation of Briton was formally ‘on’. Parts of Briton (well used to changing of the occupationary guard, I imagine) simply yielded to the might and the phenomenal resources of Rome. They may well have seen very much what was in it for them as Roman citizens. But not everyone was happy at the occupation and so ‘Britain’ fought back on multiple fronts as Rome elbowed their way ever North.

When they got to the most Northern reaches of the land they encountered a ferocious band of warriors they named the Picts (because of the heavy tattoos on their bodies), and repeated efforts by a range of military strategists failed to break the Pict ranks and so Rome just drew a line across the country at a convenient, skinny neck, built a mighty wall there, said ‘yours/ours’ and left the Picts to their North.

About 40 years of creeping occupancy on, they then turned their gaze more seriously in the direction of the ore rich west of the island which appeared to be full of a people of Celtic and Iberian roots and which, up until now, had been more trouble than it was worth. Parts of what we now know as ‘Wales’ capitulated fairly quickly (again, deciding that life as a well-resourced Roman citizen wasn’t the worst outcome for them particularly since, by now, Rome was letting them carry on with their fundamental elements of faith and just…aligning the Roman ones to them). Those in the Northern mountains dug in deep and fought in a way the Romans were incapable of managing – ‘guerrilla warfare’. They drew the Empire up into the mountains where large forces did poorly, they used the terrain to trap Roman forces and gain advantage, and they fought in small, strategic bands that did lots of damage. Thus, Rome more or less said ‘oh well, all the riches are in the south anyway’ and left them to their mountains, though occasionally they put some effort in to battling them just to keep them occupied and stop them from rallying bigger forces.

What they did do was recognise quickly that the power in the Celtic-based society hung on the mysterious Druid class who seemed to have all withdrawn to the isle of Mon (modern day Anglesea) buffered from Rome and the South by a wall of warriors, mountains and a natural moat! The Druids bothered Rome enough that they took forces away from Queen Boudicea’s uprising in the east to try and sort them once and for all.

And they did. And it was horrendous. The Druids, their homes, their holy forests — all razed to dust to try and break the spirits of the remaining Celts.

A large number of remaining ‘native’ Britons saw the writing on the wall and set sail for the Celtic stronghold of Brittany (literally ‘little Briton’) to start over.

Following that, the last lingering Britons did pretty much withdraw into the mountains and eked out an existence separate to the population to the south which was now thriving in its Roman-ness. Cities and towns were built, infrastructure was revolutionised, much of the dispersed population now centralised to those centres which had Roman forts to defend them and shared resources. Rome gave them freedom, structure, resources, education and aspiration. Rome easily beat off any incursions by the Irish (Scoti), the Picts, or Germanic tribes who tried to sneak in. They were funded, protected and empowered. And in very short order things settled down to ‘normal’.

Things could definitely have been worse for some Britons.

For four centuries (three for the west who were occupied much later), Roman Briton ticked over very nicely. But then, way south in Rome itself, a massive organised force (the Goths) sacked some Roman strongholds including Roma. Much like your body does with its blood when under attack, Rome had no choice but to withdraw all its military might from the least-essential lands (the peripheral) to focus on this major threat to its capital lands. Perhaps they assumed they could head back up north and re-take Briton once they were done. So around 400AD (ish) they took their soldiers, and their leaders, and a good chunk of what were (by then) ‘Roman citizens’ and they headed to Rome to defend the Empire.

They TOTALLY abandoned the Romano-Britons they left behind. As break ups went, it was unexpected and brutally clean. The remaining gentry and administrative classes bailed very soon after, following the Roman defence forces back into safer territory and taking their wealth with them. Within a few years, the infrastructure started to fail without experienced people or money to upkeep it. Most trade networks collapsed. People abandoned the failing cities and fled back out to the now-fallow land, dispersing back into the kinds of feudal communities and lifestyles that Rome had found on arriving. They abandoned all their ‘civility’ and national identity and focussed very much on just surviving in their own little patches. Some abandoned the One God (they’d just been getting used to) and fell back on the “Old Gods” out of desperation, trying hard to make amends for having abandoned them so faithlessly.

The ‘re-Celitcisation’ of Briton had begun.

A great analogy: I’ve seen the United States used as an analogy here and it’s a pretty good one because the timelines are roughly the same. In the case of North America, a superpower (Britain, for simplicity’s sake) swarmed in, subsumed all the first owners of the land, set up shop their way, ran that shop reasonably well for a couple of centuries, developed, grew, specialised into the country and power that the US is today (for the purposes of this analogy, ignore the US’s subsequent Independence). The measure of growth experienced in Britain between 10AD and 410AD during Roman occupation was much like the kind of growth the US experienced between 1607 and 2007 — massive! Imagine, then, that in 2008, all of the US’s military, financial and administrative services were simply…withdrawn. Imagine they all got on boats and went back to Britain or France or wherever to fight for someone else. Imagine, then, that anyone who had money invested in the US also upped-stakes with whatever of that fortune they could liquidate and just…left. Think what would be left of that America and what an utter shambles it would be after 400 years of doing things a particular way under the might of an Empirical occupier. Canada would immediately subsume resource-rich Alaska (if they could beat Russia to it), and swarm down from the north and take the border states at a minimum. Mexico and others would swarm up from the South. Every man and his dog would have a crack at getting those abandoned lands for themselves. And all the remaining Americans struggling to survive on what the land could give them without the trappings of their ‘civilisation’ would be completely ripe for the taking.  So…yeah… that was post Roman Briton.

Where were we? Back to the year 410AD, the specialisation and development that happened in Briton between since 10AD had created a strong, healthy civilisation full of Romano-Britons. But then Rome just packs up one day and sails off taking all of its everything with it.

Out of the North of ‘Wales’ rode all those warrior classes and warlords who had denied Rome and who had been ruling the mountains and occasionally battling the Picts and Scoti too who immediately set sail or swarmed in on foot into the north of what would later become ‘England’. Out of the south of ‘Wales’ emerged some of the strongest remaining Romano-British families on a fast-track Warlord program. And a couple of Germanic and Danish tribes came up from the Continent into the south of ‘England’ for good measure.

The struggling Romano-Britons begged Rome for help–like a child to a parent. But Rome was too busy saving its more favoured children (futiley, as it would turn out quite a bit later) and so no help arrived. The britons were pushed by fierce Northerners straight into the waiting swords of Germanic tribes coming ashore from the south. It was a horrible time of slaughter for a people who had lived in relative peace for four centuries.

As history tells it, a warlord called Vortigern–perhaps the King of all Briton, perhaps not–decided ‘better the devil you know’. Legend says he hired some Anglo Saxon mercenaries to come and fight off the Irish, Picts, Germans and Danes in return for some lands.  The regrouping Britons weren’t yet mobilised enough to be an effective defence force and because they were basically bankrupt following Rome’s departure. Land (and what was under it) was all they had. But jeez they had a lot of it.

So, the Angles came as promised and they were awesome. The Picts, Danes and Irish fled back from whence they came (loosely speaking). But the Angles recognised immediately that Briton was so defenceless they had to ask for help in the first place, and they took their time checking out Briton’s mineral riches and, naturally, came to question why they should limit themselves only to the lands they’d been promised?

Gleeful Angle messengers went back to the Germanic lands they’d come from and hundreds of ships were made and sailed to the whimpering shores of Britain. The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ wave began.

Poor old Vortigern has been much pilloried for his stupidity (or greed) in inviting the Angles into Britain but, really, it was only a matter of time. Briton was basically on its back, flailing. Someone was going to take advantage sooner rather than later. But he was certainly naive for imagining that he’d be able to ‘play’ the Angles as though he still had the might of Rome at his back. If he was going to surrender his country to someone perhaps it would have been better the Irish or the Picts? But, by then, Briton was basically Roman in ethos–the Celtic Irish were just too ‘foreign’ and the Picts were just too primitive to tolerate. The Angles, at least, had vaguely comprehensible gods and laws.

So, perhaps they were the lesser of several evils.

Anyway, within two generations of warring (ie: the end of the 5th century), the Island of Britain was split a couple of ways. The Picts still held the north (although they were battling it out with the Scoti/irish who pushed them way back into the north-north and took the south of the North for themselves) and the old Roman wall was still a frontier border that no-one seemed willing to cross. The Angles and Saxons (and to a lesser degree Danes and Jutes) swarmed in with insane numbers and subsumed the entire east of the island right up to that wall forming ‘Angle-land’ or ‘England’ as it eventually became known.

In the West (‘Wealas’, as the Angles called it), all the Romano-Briton-Celt types already there (or pushed there by the Anglo-Saxon invasion) sorted themselves into a defence force and pushed back against the Anglo-Saxons fairly successfully for about a century courtesy of some damned fine War-lording. The ‘Welsh’ were a thorn in the Anglo Saxon’s side for some time but, by the 8th century, the sheer volume of AngloSaxons meant that they had spread into Wales, too, and insinuated themselves throughout in pockets (though, again, not really in the mountainous, difficult north). Those who weren’t willing to stay and fight for a Celtic Wales sailed off for the still Celtic-rich lands of Brittany.

There was a brief flurry of Danish (Viking) incursion in Britain in the 9th and 10th C, but then in the 11th (1066 to be precise) in sailed the Normans. There’s a bunch of politics that goes with this but suffice to say that the Norman leader, ‘William’, was welcomed by large parts of the ‘Welsh’ population either because of the old adage the enemy of my enemy is my friend (and they still very much held a grudge against the Angles/Saxons) or (more obscurely but much more intriguingly) because William and the Normans came from Normandy which, while by now identifying as ‘French’ and being partly populated by Danes, was also fairly recently a rich Celtic land and part of the old Brittany. So the still Celticised Welsh may well have seen William’s arrival as the return of a traditional bloodline. More ‘them’ than the Angles, certainly.

William triumphed, England was Normanised, Wales kind of was too (but not totally because they were still holding onto their own identity), everything north of the wall just minded its own business for a while yet.

And so… the Celts of Briton had become the Romano-Britons and then they became Anglo-Saxon and by the 11th century they were known as the Anglo-Normans as the two cultures assimilated and their language grew to be a mix of (predominantly) French and Germanic based words, with some Danish and old Celt thrown in.

So there you have it. The incredibly tumultuous millennium that was the 1st AD. A revolutionary and revolutionising time for the people’s of Briton. In a nutshell.

The Time of Silence

As the name suggests, the Time of Silence refers as much to the land as it does to the people of the y Ddraig world.

In fictional 6th century Cymry this is the coldest, deadliest time. All the livestock are snugged up inside the shelters and nobody works outdoors or travels or even emerges if they don’t have to. Sometimes they are fully snowed-in and so they literally cannot get out their doors without brands and a team effort. Everyone hunkers down to get through the worst month and, outside, even the remaining birds are quiet, tucked in their nests busy surviving the cold.

Midway through Silence, (and at the mid-point between the Winter and Spring equinoxes) on the full moon is a fire/fertility festival, which was mostly observed within the home (given the impractical season) with candles or (at least) the hearth. It ensured protection and fertility for the crops and animals in the season to come.

A rough timeline of Arthurian literature

Two key things become apparent when you sit down to trace the history of the development of Arthurian literature. First, medieval writers were huge on appropriation of stories. Huge! Second, Arthrui-mania wasn’t just a British thing–the Dutch, Scandinavian, German and, particularly, French were all massive fans and hungry markets for these stories during the middle ages when the stories were new and flourishing.

In fact, the timelines and wide spread of the stories point fairly clearly to their origins being some kind of Celtic tale-in-common and that the stories were already circulating in their earliest forms in several cultures more or less simultaneously. Which makes the collective literature such a gorgeous puzzle. All those pieces and no real idea of what the finished image is supposed to be.

A word about appropriation

Arthurian scholar, Dorsey Armstrong (Purdue University) says that in medieval times “re-working a well-known story was deemed a far superior skill than just to make up something new”. Taking existing texts and re-visioning them for a new (or particular) audience. She cites Chaucer and Malory and (much later) Shakespeare with particular talent.

Indeed, we still do it today, putting new spins on old tales, while treading carefully not to be dirivitive or (worse) plagiaristic. But, back then it was practically a literary must. Interlacing two older tales into one was the hallmark of a very skilled practitioner, adding too much new material was the hallmark of a lesser one. And creating your own tale from scratch…? Pfff, the work of children.

This means that the list to follow are all re-workings to a more or less degree of some kind of origin tales, either singly or grouped or (the best ones) interlaced. So let’s look at those tales as best we can first.

Origin tales

Some of the oldest surviving text of the island of Britain (that we know of) are collected in Welsh manuscripts now called:

  • Black Book of Carmarthen
  • Book of Anierin
  • Book of Taliesin
  • White Book of Rhydderch
  • Red Book of Hergest

The Black, White and Red books (named for the colour of their hide covers and the patron for whom they were collated/scribed) are copied collections of older (probably oral) tales. But these texts date potentially back to around the 6th century (A.D.) and contain tales that could go back as far as 6th century B.C.

Anierin and Taliesin were Welsh’ poets/bards and the ‘books’ were remnant collections of different works believed to be theirs. [I use the word ‘Welsh’ loosely because in pre-AngloSaxon Briton there was no ‘Wales’ only Cymry who spread over much of the southern half of the land mass we know today as Britain.]

All these books are anything from fragments through to full stories/poems but they represent some of ancient Britain’s / Wales’ earliest surviving stories.

There is also the 19th Century translation by Lady Charlotte Guest of a bunch of old Welsh oral tales which she groups under the heading The Mabinogion and which has some stories in common with all the old Welsh texts (but others not). Even Lady Guest couldn’t help but draw some Arthuriana into her tales as an afterthought.

The Origins of Origin Tales

As far as I can see, scholars have found evidence that elements of many French tales of Arthur et al come from origin tales like the old Welsh ones rather than their later (‘widely published’) tales in Latin, leading them to believe that France (particularly) may have had their own origin tales courtesy of Brittany which was (at the time the stories were first generated) full of Celts. Either the Welsh tales migrated into Brittany and then into the French collective unconscious, or (far more likely) the tales told in Wales and those in Brittainy had both evolved from an older set of Celtic origin stories.

But the end result? The French have a very long and passionate sense of ownership of the Arthurian tradition that casts the whole lot somewhere in modern day France.

In Modena, Italy, a 12th century cathedral carries a stone engraving of Arthur, Cai, Gawain and others all battling at some waterlogged castle to rescue the maiden believed to represent the Guinevere figure. This engraving is dated to somewhere in the first years of the 12th century right at the time Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote what had been believed to be the ‘first’ text including tales of the great king, Arthur (Historium Regea Britanea). The engraving was up and in place just a couple of years after that text was released when the Italian cathedral first opened.

So, somehow in Italy (or at least amongst Italian stonemasons) the Arthur stories were familiar enough and revered enough (yet Christian enough) to have occupied a place alongside the bible stories on a Norman cathedral. And they did it within a few years of the ‘first’ Arthurian text. This is strongly suggestive of older story traditions that have had a few centuries to become entrenched/beloved and that come from some kind of central origin tale.

They do ‘prove’ that Arthur was not a medieval creatuion (for those who cling to that belief) and they suggest that he was a real figure of earlier times, and they confirm that older perhaps unrelated tales may have been caught up in the Arthurian frenzy thanks to practices of appropriation and become kind of bonded together through a process of literary accretion.

But mostly they show that the story/s we know today evolved over a thousand years.

Timeline of key literature, authors & their contributions to Arthurian lore

Pre-800AD – a number of the tales that will eventually make it into Arthurian texts likely started life as origin tales either in Wales (and made their way to the Continent via Brittany which was full of ‘Welsh’) or in Brittany (and made its way to Wales at the same time as the Continent more widely). These are (later) captured by scribes but circulated as oral tales that flexed and changed according to the audience. A bard would have been well trained to undertake this kind of appropriation on the spot to favour or flatter patrons or entertain audiences with specific political views. They are filled with early Brythonic people and place names.

830AD – Nennius’ Historium Brittanae (“History of Britain”) – Nennius was a scribe and man of God. His work is largely an opinion piece and a capturing-for-record of historical happenings of the previous century/ies but it does specifically liken a warrior called Gwaddur as still coming up short to Arthur (“but he was no Arthur”). Arthur himself is not explained, scholars say, because presumably to an audience of the time, he was perfectly self-evident. But this text firmly places an Arthur as fra back as at least 8th Century. Nennius’ key contribution: First known mention of ‘Arthur’.

1133AD – Geoffry of Monmouth, Historium Regea Britanea (“History of the Kings of Britain”) Geoffry [also known as Gruffydd ab Arthur]) was a man of God and a scribe and he wrote his book (supposedly) at the urging of his boss the Cardinal who (supposedly) gave him a very old and obscure British text to translate. The resulting new text overtly curries favour from both sides of a battle for power that was happening at the time Geoffry penned it and is deemed to be politically oriented (like most bardic tales before it, really). But it is the oldest literature that we have that describes Arthur and his origins, speaks of Merlin, and also links the legend of Troy and its prince, Brutus, with the origins of the people in the land called ‘Briton’. This work puts Arthur into context and makes the first allusions to the link between prowess as a warrior and romantic love (though it doesn’t pursue it). Geoffry’s key contribution: Arthur in tribal context, Merlin introduced

1155AD – Robert Wace Brut d’Angleterre (The English King”) Wace was born in the Jersey Isles and identified as French/AngloNorman). He wrote his Arthurian tales in the French vernacular rather than Latin so everyone could access them and he heavily favoured the love/courtly side of the stories (his battle scenes were notably weaker). Wace’s key contributions: The Round Table concept, Arthur’s conception through supernatural influence.

1160-70AD Chretien de TroyesParcival- le conte de grail”, “Chavalier au Lion”, “Sir Lancelot du Lac” , “Erec” (Perceval of the Grail; Yvain -The Knight and the Lion; Lancelot – the Knight of the Cart; Eric & Enid) De Troyes is known as the ‘father of medieval romance’ because his stories established the genre and its conventions which have endured until today. De Troyes created a chivalric Arthur (rather than tribal), boosted the courtly love concept, added the Lancelot/Guinevere thread, and first mentioned a grail as a story point (but note: not ‘the’ grail). He wrote his stories for powerful patrons (Marie de Champagne & the Count of Flanders) to help connect them to these massively popular stories. There is some belief that he created Lancelot because he did not agree with the adulterous theme required of his commission and so created a fabulous, torn, honourable new knight to be the adulterer so that Arthur was unimpeached. De Troyes’ key contributions: Lancelot, Lancelot/Guinevere adultery, moving Arthur from ‘tribal’ to ‘chivalric’

1160AD Icelandic translations started to appear, reworked with ‘nordic sensibilities’ and literature styles. High war, low god, no romance.

1190AD – Ulrich von Zatzikhoven Lanzilet (“Lancelot”) This appears to be the earliest German Arthurian contribution, based on what seems strongly to be an earlier Celtic source story than any of his predecessors. Von Zatzikhoven’s Arthur is more tribal (ie: more like the Welsh than the French) and focusses only on the part of the popular Knight in the Cart story relating to the abduction/rescue of Guinevere which is pictured on the cathedral in Modena. Since ‘abduction’ stories were a thing for the Celts, it is possible he limits his story to this aspect because the source does. He introduced several new knight/warrior stories (attributed to ‘Lanzilet’) not seen before but not believed to be the author’s original work and so likely characters from other/related celtic-era tales. No courtly love and no suggestion that Lancelot & Guinevere are having any kind of relationship. Ulrich’s key contribution: early celtic source stories/variants

1189AD to 1216AD – Layamon, Brut (“Brutus”) Priest Layamon translated the ‘history of Britain’ into vernacular English poetry for the first time including tales of Arthur selected from 8th C Bede, 12th C Wace, and some new material from 6th C (Welsh) ‘Book of Taliesin’. The tales were possibly selected and reworked to please/favour Henry III and to lean heavily on the kingly aspects, the battle and glory. Layamon’s portrayal of the love/chivalry aspects was poor. Layamon’s key contributions: Arthur into vernacular English.

 

1200AD – Hartmann von Aue Erec, Iwein (“Eric and Yvain”) German von Aue first translated Chretiene’s Eric & Enid into German, adds God into both stories.

1200AD – Wolfram von Eschenbach Parzival (“Percival”) – Wolfram took the tales to new heights in Germany, and medieval audiences went wild for it! This story turned the grail from a mere celtic-based serving vessel into a magic stone. Von Eschenbach’s key Contribution: Volume & popularity (in Germany), Grail as magic concept.

1200s – Marie de France Chevrefoil, Lanval (“The Honeysuckle”, “Tristan & Isolde”) Marie de France was the most important female writer of her time. She strongly identifies as French in the opening of the work but was not writing in France. Marie’s key Contribution: Female voice in legend.

1200s – Robert de Boron Joseph d’Aramathe (“Joseph of Aramathea”) and Merlin! (“Merlin”) de Boron from Burgundy first linked Arthur with Christ by including a long backstory about Joseph of Aramathea, took de Troyes’ serving Grail and made it a holy object and included backstory on the birth of Merlin as result of the rape by an incubus. de Boron’s rendering of ideas are widely believed to be far superior to his craft as a poet. De Boron’s key Contributions: The HOLY Grail. Questing in the name of God.

1200sLancelot en prose (“Prose Lancelot”) massive ‘translation’ by an unknown author which arranges multiple sources/authors from poetry into prose form. Key Contribution: First prose Arthur stories.

1400 Morte Arthure (“Arthur’s Death”) Another anonymous manuscript (of which only a single known copy survived) was a brilliant alliterative rendering of the tales dated to 1400 when rhyming was out and alliteration was very much in. After generations of Arthur being almost a bystander in his own stories, in this poem he takes centre stage and is the most human and flawed we will ever see him. After he routes the Anglo Saxons, apparently full of his own importance, he takes himself off to Europe not to fight and defend but to conquer and vanquish. This is the only place we see this side of Arthur. While he is away his nephew (only) Mordred usurps his place, marries his wife and does a bang up job of running the country. Key contributions: An imperfect, relatable Arthur, Arthur as central character, Mordred as a successful king and Arthur’s equal (and even better). 

1470AD Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, (“The Death of Arthur”) Sir Thomas Malory’s is the version best recognised today. Malory was most commonly believed to be a knight, imprisoned indefinitely during the War of the Roses. He had lots of time on his hands and so he pulled together the most comprehensive compendium of Arthuriana to date. His was the first continuous narrative bringing all the stories together in a logical fashion, focussed very strongly on the concepts of chivalry and Knightly honour and introduced the Pentacostal oath concept that all good knights would swear to [commit no outrage, commit no murder, always help women/the defenceless, flee treason, don’t rape, grant mercy to those who ask for it). Malory starts his text by establishing the Pentacostal Oath ‘rules’ and then structures his text around the testing of them. His Knights do not always triumph over their challenges by sticking to their oath [proving that the oath is good to strive for but won’t save you in all contexts]. Generally, Malory rewarded his knights for trying at least. Perhaps his charges were not so trumped-up as he claimed and this work was a kind of validation? [Interestingly, when William Caxton printed Malory’s work 15 years later he removed the ‘thou shalt not rape’ clause claiming that he didn’t want the general populace thinking that Knights needed to be reminded by oath not to rape women] Malory’s key Contributions: First continuous narrative, new structure, Pentacostal Oath/Rules of Chivalry.

[massive gap when Arthur went out of fashion] 

1885 – Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. On four occasions over twenty five years (and while he was Britain’s Poet Laureat), Alfred Lord Tennyson published a cycle of twelve Arthurian Poems, one of his most celebrated works which, combined, form the Idylls of the King. He used Malory’s Morte Darthur and the Welsh Mabinogion as his sources. His first ‘release’ in 1959 showcased the women of the Arthurian world ‘Enid’ ‘Viviene’ ‘Elaine’ and ‘Guinevere’ though not terribly kindly. A decade went by before Tennyson released ‘The Holy Grail and Other Poems’ then in 1871 he published ‘The Last Tournement’ and ‘Gareth & Lynnete’ a year later. ‘Balin & Balan’ was published in a collection of poems in 1885. Tennyson’s key contributions: Almost single-handedly resurrected the Arthurian craze in Britain. Used Arthur as an allegory for the Victorian times.

1889 – Twain’s A Yankee in the Court of King Arthur (later republished as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). Mark Twain satirised concepts of chivalry and the idealisation of the Middle Ages as well as criticising the Catholic Church. It also became a foundational text in a different pantheon —science fiction—by being the first to include a time travel concept. Twain’s key contributions: using the re-popular Arthurian medium to make contemporary social comment.