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Character Traits and Roles of King Arthur in Welsh Literature

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Although the mystery surrounding King Arthur’s existence remains a query that will afflict generations as it has generations before, an equally difficult task is found in characterizing him. For someone examining Arthur from a literarily uneducated standpoint, it would be easy to classify him as a noble and famed king, due to what we have seen portrayed in the mass media. According to IMDb, there are about 27 movies solely dedicated to the legend of King Arthur, and considering the fact that the most recent one was released in 2017, a fair assumption can be made that more movies of this variety will continue to be released. However, a miniscule application of common sense should lead you to the question: Why do they keep remaking the same movie? Here lies a very interesting point, because despite all the movies, and in general, all works being based on the same character, they each display Arthur with differing characteristics, and this is not just something that was adapted in order to please audiences in the modern era. In fact, Arthur has had shifting character traits and roles in Welsh literature from the time he first began to appear in it, and much of the reasoning surrounding this can be attributed to the multitude of genres that existed at this time.

Essentially, Medieval Welsh literature can be separated into two categories: poetry and prose. According to Caerleon, ‘Historia Brittonum’ is the first reliable reference to King Arthur. Unlike other texts which have been examined, ‘Historia Brittonum’ is not just a single textual body written by one person. Instead, Britannica describes it as, “a miscellaneous collection of historical and topographical information including a description of the inhabitants and invaders of Britain and providing the earliest-known reference to the British king Arthur”. Therefore, we can see that this text falls into the former of the two categories. The work reads, “And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror…nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone” (Nennius 23). From this bit of information, we see two important things about Arthur: he is a formidable warrior, but from the description about others ranking over him, we can see that he is not the great King of legend as of yet. The information given here is re-emphasized in section 73 of the text, which refers to Arthur’s dog Cafal as “the soldier Arthur’s hound”. Upon realizing that Arthur is just a glorified soldier, one begins to question what benefit there is for glorifying him in the first place. This leads to the extremely important theme of religion surrounding Arthurian legend. In medieval times, religion was arguably the head of society and controlled nearly every aspect of life, including war, and for our purposes, Arthur.

In section 50 of ‘Historia Brittonum’, it is said that, “Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders, and through the power of our lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight…the Britons were successful. For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty”. If this detail were to be omitted, it would be much simpler to see why Arthur accomplished what he did, but its inclusion brings forth a whole separate discussion. From what Nennius is saying here, it seems as if the credit for Arthur’s success should not be given to the man himself, but to God. In the conflict aforementioned, the battles are between the Arthur-led Britons and the Saxons. As can be inferred from Arthur’s bearing of the Virgin Mary, the Britons were Christians whereas the Saxons were Pagans. In his article ‘The Ages of Faith’, Norman Tanner states that during this time, Christianity permeated every aspect of life. Although it is controversial, and may certainly be a reach, I believe that the role Arthur plays in regards to Christianity, and religion as a whole, is somewhat similar to Jesus. In the Bible, Jesus is credited with performing a multitude of supernatural and seemingly impossible tasks, and his completion of said tasks increase his notoriety. Arthurian texts like the Historia Brittonum do the same thing, with Arthur doing things that no other man can do and as a result, he becomes king. In addition to Nennius’ characterization of Arthur as a formidable warrior, more favorable traits of Arthur are seen in texts like ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, another example of Medieval Welsh prose. In the text, Arthur’s cousin Culhwch has been cursed to never marry unless it is with Olwen, the daughter of a giant. In order to complete the almost impossible task, he seeks out the help of his cousin Arthur. It is worth mentioning that at this point, Arthur is king already, but despite his power, he shows his benevolence and loyalty to his kin by sending his best warriors along with his cousin, and ultimately he is successful in his quest. Although nothing is blatantly said regarding Christianity as in ‘Historia Brittonum’, it does not need to be at this point. ‘Historia Brittonum’ essentially set the mood for all later works, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae. As a result, Arthur’s Christianity status is essentially inferred in other works, and would have led to Arthurian tales and legends being accepted more easily considering the role Christianity had at this time.

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As of now, we have seen both Arthur the warrior and Arthur the king, both of which excel in their respective positions. Relating to the idea of Arthur’s usage as a vessel to further the influence of Christianity, the best examples are found in the ‘Lives of the Saints’. Similarly to the aforementioned texts, these works are examples of Medieval Welsh prose and were written by Christian monks. In one such text, ‘Life of St. Padarn’, Arthur shows an unseen greed and lust for the tunic of a saint. He demands said article, but is fueled by rage and leaves the Saint no choice but to have the ground swallow “Arthur up to his chin…he begs for forgiveness…” (4). In another example, ‘Life of St. Cadoc’, Arthur pursues a warrior known as Long Hand who has killed some of his men, but Long Hand is shielded by the Saint. Cadoc has the two try to resolve their dispute amicably, where Arthur decides that he wants cattle whose color scheme do not exist. Using his “powers”, Cadoc prays and is able to change the cattle to fit Arthur’s specifications, but they turn into ferns afterwards. Similarly to the conclusion of Saint Padarn’s life, the text reads, “Arthur, seeing this wonder, humbly asked the blessed man, that the wrong which he had inflicted on him should be forgiven him” (73). Other Lives follow this same pattern, in which Arthur acts in a very unreasonable manner, a Saint is tasked with performing a supernatural task, and then the King is left with no choice but to repent and beg the Saint for forgiveness. It does not seem likely that monks would represent Arthur in an unfavorable manner because they were not fond of him. Instead, I believe that both monks are simply building off of the works of non-clergy writers. In works written by people outside of the church, we are essentially seeing Arthur’s superiority over everyone else. Monks built upon this idea of superiority, but turned it around in order to demonstrate that none were mightier than the disciples of the lord, including Arthur. In ‘Arthur in Early Saints’ Lives’ by Andrew Breeze, the author states, “By showing how their saint got the better of Arthur, the monks both glorified their patron and defended their interests. They knew Arthur would…be respected by the secular rulers of their day” (Breeze 28). By having someone such as the legendary Arthur literally beg at the feet of these Saints, a reader can see that they are beyond powerful and should be respected more than the king. The Lives should not be considered as pieces that were designed to bash Arthur, but instead utilize his fame and notoriety to accomplish an ulterior goal.

In addition to the semi-historical and tales of Welsh prose, Medieval Welsh poetry also plays a significant role in showing how Arthur’s role is constantly shifting throughout different genres. In ‘Arthur and the Eagle’, King Arthur is seen walking through a forest and he meets an eagle who laughs at him, and explains he has seen Arthur before. Considering the fact that the eagle and Arthur have a dialogue amongst them, it is a safe assumption to make that the eagle is not actually an eagle, but Arthur does not catch this at first. The eagle is revealed to be Arthur’s dead nephew Eliwlad, and being the war-oriented man he is, Arthur asks, “Was the battle-slaughter good around thee?”. His primary concern is whether or not his nephew died well, and after receiving an answer, Arthur essentially offers to attack heaven for him. The eagle then tells Arthur, “…With God contention is not good”. To put it “kindly”, Arthur is represented as a complete idiot in this poem. The reasoning behind it is basically to say, “You would have to be a fool to oppose the Church, and if the mighty Arthur would not stand a chance, neither will you”. According to Sims-Williams, “…Arthur represents a typical member of the secular aristocracy, as in the Welsh saints’ Lives, and is the vehicle for some basic Christian instruction” (Sims-Williams 57). Similarly in nature to the Lives’, this tale was not meant to slander Arthur’s character, but in order for the poem to reach audiences and non-believers more efficiently, Arthur was displayed as something that can be related to by the masses.

In conclusion, we see King Arthur’s role change constantly throughout genres, although these different roles all are intentional in strengthening the Church. Arthur is known as a fearsome warrior who strikes fear into the heart of his adversaries, but it is essentially implied that without divine powers from above, he is just another man with a sword. This same divinity is what has allowed Arthur to assume his role as king, in which he is a kind and fair ruler. However, it is made evident that just because he is king does not mean he is superior above everyone, namely the Saints. Arthur is characterized as everything from a buffoon to a king, but no matter what role he assumes, it is clear that the concept of religion is playing a role in what he does. Despite not always being written by monks, what Tanner said about Christianity playing a role in everything at this time was certainly not far-fetched and is an extremely valid conclusion to draw from Arthurian legend.

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Character Traits and Roles of King Arthur in Welsh Literature. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/character-traits-and-roles-of-king-arthur-in-welsh-literature/
“Character Traits and Roles of King Arthur in Welsh Literature.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/character-traits-and-roles-of-king-arthur-in-welsh-literature/
Character Traits and Roles of King Arthur in Welsh Literature. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/character-traits-and-roles-of-king-arthur-in-welsh-literature/> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
Character Traits and Roles of King Arthur in Welsh Literature [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/character-traits-and-roles-of-king-arthur-in-welsh-literature/
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