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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
14.1 (Winter 2014)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Owein, or The Countess of the Fountain: Postscript
John R. Harris
The following commentary was intended to precede the text of the medieval Welsh romance Owein which was translated for the previous issue. The material grew too long for that issue, but interested readers will of course want to revisit the tale in Praesidium 13.4.
Not long ago, I serendipitously happened upon the transcript of a paper delivered by my friend, the Canadian scholar Joanne Findon. At issue was the shortest tale which has come to us concerning the Ulster Cycle’s central hero, Cú Chulainn—and brevity is not all that sets the story apart. Its narrative is deeply disturbing to the modern sensibility, for the great warrior knowingly slays his own son. The lad had sailed to Ireland from Scotland on instructions left by his father in the event that his pregnant mother, a vanquished Amazon named Aífe, should bear a son. The child is to yield to no man as he seeks out his illustrious sire, to whom he will be known thanks to a distinctive thumb-ring. Unfortunately, young Conlae is so near to the invincible that he throws a mighty scare into the Ulstermen, who beseech Cú Chulainn to stand as their last defense. Though the hero’s legal wife Emer (who somehow grasps the situation fully) remonstrates with him to spare his flesh and blood, honor is now at stake. Cú Chulainn is convinced that he must either slay the challenger or be forever diminished in the eyes of his countrymen… and he proceeds, though with major difficulty, with the barbarous killing.
Dr. Findon is rightly fascinated by Emer’s role in seeking to introduce common humanity into an inhuman calculation. She concludes, “a society obsessed with honour in which men murder even their own sons may be a literary construct shaped by redactors with a moral case to make against the so-called glories of the secular Irish past.” Within this construct, the nuanced character of Emer in a narrative whose style is otherwise almost telegraphic perhaps “presents a compassionate alternative to male violence.”(1) This is an appealing interpretation. Virtually all transcribing of ancient Ireland’s pagan lore and legend around the beginning of the second millennium would have been done by copyists who had acquired literacy through contact with Christian clerics, and who were indeed probably monastics themselves. At the same time, Irish manuscripts of the era impose very little detectable suppression upon their material, in contrast to continental practice.(2) One must wonder, then, what thoughts would have coursed through the mind of a scribe recording such “diabolical” stories. Local tolerance of revered, if now irreverent, traditions may simply have run high. Yet Findon, like increasingly many besides her in recent decades, divines the possibility that the old tales were kept largely intact precisely to capture their audience for a new value system through the provision of a new twist. This is, indeed, my own general position concerning Marie de France’s Eliduc and the Welsh Owein in what follows.
Nevertheless, I think I see a missing piece. I have long ceased to be surprised when strong echoes of Persian or Indian literature resound in Celtic traditions, though the classical and world separating these cultural polarities will often have preserved not a peep of the material. Such is the case with the Aided: its skeletal story is unmistakably that of the Iranian Shahname’s tragic episode involving the great hero Rostám and his son Sohráb. The legendary warrior is united with Tahminé for the briefest of encounters after she has heard tales of his military might. The two may indeed have skirmished in a more traditional version, as Sohráb later does with the valiant and beautiful Gordafaríd. (This and similar scenes would have been displaced or modified to satisfy the Muslim tastes at court: Ferdowsi, a highly literate chronicler of his nation’s glories, was no anonymous scribe with a reduced sense of authorial control.) The princess’s resultant pregnancy is handled by Rostám’s leaving instructions that narrowly parallel Cú Chulainn’s before his return to Ireland. If a son, the child is to come seeking his father in like manner even to the point of bearing a signet ring affixed to his shoulder. Perhaps the ring’s position was altered so as to render it invisible in ordinary circumstances; for Ferdowsi appears to have been so uneasy with the father-kills-son theme that he devoted extravagant emphasis to the role of an immovable destiny in all that follows, showing how recognition flutters about both heroes time after time only to evade them at the critical moment.
The supremacy of God’s inscrutable will, of course, would be a nuclear cultural value for Ferdowsi’s blend of Islam and Zoroastrianism just as a medieval Irish cleric might be expected to have endorsed peace and mercy over glory and conquest. Both recorders were no doubt taking liberties with traditional material in order to promote an “updated” message. Yet to acknowledge this much is to concede that neither invented the bare narrative event of father slaying son. Where, then, might that barbarity have originated? What would have been the killing’s significance to audiences who heard the myth for generations before the technology of writing existed? Would the lesson simply have been that glory never comes at too high a price? Findon herself draws attention to the opprobrium with which internecine acts were viewed in traditional Irish law, and such condemnation is indeed characteristic of tribal societies.(3)
Though Greco-Roman myth and legend offers no credible parallel to the Rostám/Sohráb tale, we do occasionally find fathers implicated in the death of their sons. Herakles slew his entire family in a fit of rage visited upon him by Hera. In an instance far more similar to our myth, and perhaps intersecting it at some prehistoric point, Theseus sires a son upon an Amazon only to order his death when the boy reaches maturity (though the evolved Hippolytus and Phaedra tragedy, obviously, has been absorbed into the “Potiphar’s wife” archetype). These two Greek heroes are clearly shamanic figures: their résumé even includes a journey to Hades. The only other warrior/archer “Master of the Hunt” in Greek myth (as opposed to vatic types like Orpheus) to have visited the land of the dead and returned is perhaps the most shamanic creation of that entire rich tradition—Odysseus; and Odysseus, according to one non-Homeric account (Apollodorus, Epitome 7.35-36), was at last slain by an unrecognized, illegitimate son of Calypso who beached on Ithaca without announcing his intent!
The literate Greeks may well have considered the fundamental myth so barbaric that its few lingering versions dissolve into other patterns or reverse its horror to leave the father victimized. As for the Romans, they must have absorbed the myth into their colorful quasi-history (in that thorough and plausible fashion unique to them), producing such instructive legends as Torquatus’s ordering his son to be executed for breaking ranks to kill a boastful Tusculan (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 8.7). In the shrinking sphere of Celtic dominance and in the less dynamic cultures of Indo-Iran, however, the shaman and his special connections to the Other World preserved a certain currency. Ancient myths often survived in less “decadent” form here, in the sense that they seemed to retain more of their primitive referents.
The crucial question in assessing medieval transcriptions of such matter, then, is this: to what degree may we suppose the redactor’s local audience aware of ancient mythic resonance? If our typical monastic literate was telling an old story with a new twist in order to promote a new worldview, from what points of reference had he displaced the coordinates whose shift would stir special insights? In the case of Aided Óenfir Aífe, how could Emer’s condemnation of a filicidal honor-killing be merely a Christian rebuke of the pagan cult of glory if pagan tradition itself would have deplored such an act? What else might the tragic battle between the dominant warrior and the young invader originally have meant? Might Cú Chulainn, for instance, as he displays this most self-annihilating behavior of the primitive shaman—the destruction of his own male progeny—have represented the entire gamut of rival supernatural beliefs and not just the heathen warrior code?
Patrick Cundun (Pádraig Cúndún) was able to send Gaelic poems back to Ireland from Utica, New York, in the first half of the nineteenth century which opened with a lonely stroll by the riverside and quickly resurrected dead heroes or relayed the visions of mantic female spirits.(4) A millennium distant, more or less, from the earliest texts of the Ulster Cycle and officiating at that ancient culture’s last rites, the expatriate bard nonetheless fully expected his lingering few readers to grasp passing allusions to the mythic Other World. We must assume that his expectation was largely fulfilled. If a pagan mythic sequence could be invoked with so few cues at such a remove of time and space, how can we suppose that the yet deeply rooted, functionally tribal audience of many centuries earlier would not have possessed a vastly keener receptivity to such nuance? Obviously, we must assume, instead, that listeners of medieval readings or recitations brought with them to the ceilidh a proverbial submerged iceberg’s worth of alertness to narrative echoes receding far into strictly oral traditions.
It is not my objective to delve further into the Aided Óenfir Aífe, but rather to evoke this case as characteristic of what confronts the modern analyst removed from ancient myths by centuries, or even millennia. The adapting and finessing scribes who bequeathed us our material with a subtle rearrangement of narrative furniture are themselves hard enough to decode as they go about courting minds and souls. To assess just what they were up against—to understand that from which they sought to woo a populace embedded in an unfathomable tradition—requires the utmost care, and more than a little speculation….
Notes to Introduction
1) From pp. 147-148 of Joanne Findon, “A Woman’s Words: Emer Versus Cú Chulainn in Aided Óenfir Aífe,” Ulidia: Proceedings of the First International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of Tales, ed. J.P. Mallory and Gerard Stockman (Belfast: 1994, December Publications), 139-148.
2) An excellent illustration of the disparity between Ireland and the continent in handling pagan matter resides in the many local adaptations of the most celebrated Roman epics, such as those by Virgil, Lucan, and Statius. See John R. Harris, Adaptations of Roman Epic in Medieval Ireland (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1998).
3) Op. cit., 143-144. Findon makes the telling point that Cú Chulainn was considered in a contemporary legal reference to this tragic tale to have committed filicide unwittingly, which suggests to her that the redactor had indeed shown some initiative in refashioning the narrative elements. To me, her discovery further suggests that an older version of the tale must have resembled the Shahname’s yet more closely than the one in our possession. Ferdowsi’s poem, by the way, would have been recorded during the same years as our Irish text, almost precisely; so the chance of direct influence, already highly remote for other reasons, must be rated as null.
4) As it happens both the first and the last poems of which we have a written record begin within this framework. “I gcéim dam seal go h-uaigneach” was composed in about 1812, long before Cundun departed Ireland, and “Im aonair cois abhann” was probably penned in 1856. (See pp. 1 and 108 of Pádraig Phiarais Cúndún, ed. Risteárd Ó Foghludha [Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig Díolta Foillseachám Rialtais, 1932]). The motif occurs several more times among the approximately thirty extant poems.
Analysis of Owein
The mythic kinship between the Irish Serglige Con Chulainn and Kalidasa’s classic Sanskrit drama Shakuntala is fairly obvious. In fact, though the Irish tale was recorded almost a millennium after the Indian play was penned, the former gives us a clearer look at the fundamental myth and allows us better to appreciate how the master playwright “adjusted” it to his romantic ends. Marie de France’s lay Eliduc (to add another chronological and geographical irony) stands in much closer proximity to Kalidasa’s work than to the Irish monk’s transcription in this regard. That is to say, Marie is also trying to turn a hero’s tragedy of being caught between this world and the next into a romance whose characters all live and breathe beneath our familiar sun. In the myth, a Lethean oblivion at last washes away the hero’s idyllic love affair with the ravishing princess of the Other World so that he may resume life in the body. In the romances—both romances—this same forgetfulness is transposed to the story’s mid-section so as to become the major complicating factor in the characters’ happiness.
That the medieval Welsh prose narrative Owein might occupy a limb of this fascinating family tree has been somewhat recognized by scholars for over a century,(1) yet not with any attention to why it perches just where it does. The assumption seems to be simply that later works pilfer from earlier works. Medieval story-tellers need have had no more specific design in tapping into an ancient myth than a mushroom has for growing out of one stump rather than another. I will confess that I myself thought to connect Owein with this particular myth only after years and years—probably at least two decades—of teaching it as a much weaker rendition of whatever material Chrétien de Troyes elaborated in his Yvain. Underestimating Owein, the third-to-last of the Mabinogion’s narratives, is easy enough to do if one judges only by surfaces. All of the other four works named so far (including the rather artless Serglige) are at least partially composed in verse. The prose of Owein, though its Welsh cadence has a special beauty (which I have tried to translate in some small measure), is hardly prose d’art, but instead rather sing-song. The paratactic “and” stands at the beginning of four out of every five clauses, at a minimum (“and he left upon the morrow… and he came to the ford… and he saw a great castle”). The tale’s diction is quite simple enough to have arrived straight from the oral performance of a cyfarwydd. Its descriptions and characterizations also have that uncritical, stereotyped quality which can be associated with live telling. (For instance, maidens seem always to be the fairest ever seen by this or that traveler, and service and food as good as any he has ever known.)
At the same time, the tale has none of that “stylistic hypertrophy” which can make Irish romances of a few centuries later such a thrill to read aloud: that is, the oral performer’s tendency to execute such flourishes as alliterated strings of synonyms, often extravagantly embellished when channeled through the leisurely medium of writing, has virtually no part in the style of this text.(2) I noticed a mere smattering of such ornamentation. The redundant pair (or doublet), “the world’s far reaches and its wastes” (eithauoed byt a diffeithwch), has a touch of assonance and occurs several times in some form; the onomatopoeic doublet, “pant-tramp and snort” (tuchan a chwynuan), describes the Black Knight of the Fountain’s approach; an alliterative phrase appearing to be a proverb, “in a pinch for a plan” (yg kyfyg gyghor), crops up when Owein is trapped between the castle gates; and adjectives alliterated in the Irish style occur in “shafts massy-hafted, keen-pointed” (pheleidyr kadarnuras godeuawc). This is not much adornment for a text containing about 10,000 words. Its style, at any rate, seems more that of a scribe creating a fairly raw copy on the assumption that live performance would embellish it than that of a paleo-novelist who intends to pack his literary gem with more phonetic fireworks than the greatest performer could manage. For a transcription date somewhere between 1150 and 1200, this is about what we would expect, after all.
One might readily conclude, then, that a Welshman possessed of literacy and the resourceful Chrétien had both heard versions of the same basic tale—and that the former had quickly jotted the story down from memory, whereas the latter had emptied his arsenal of rhetorical and melodramatizing talents upon it. Owein is as blunt and often unmotivated as a dream: we don’t know, for example, why the hero charges off to the fountain the day after hearing of Cynon’s adventure or why he fails to think of his beloved wife for three years. Yvain is comparatively plausible and articulated: the hero rushes to the fountain to avenge his cousin’s dishonor before Arthur’s court arrives there, and his three years of truancy are trimmed to half that length and attributed to a glorious pursuit of tournament triumphs that establish his valor. A lengthy essay could be devoted to such contrasts.(3) The Welsh marchawc Owein performs almost inscrutable acts as indifferently as a stone rolling down a slope with involuntary, random changes of course. The Norman French chevalier Yvain is a psychological study in chivalrous but sometimes immature conduct traveling the painful road to self-improvement.
By the same token, Chretien is not interested in allegory. As far as instruction goes, his romance of almost 7,000 verses (containing over three times as many words as our Welsh text) is at most a kind of etiquette manual.(4) Yvain’s pining after the lovely Countess of the Fountain (dubbed Laudine in French: she remains mysteriously anonymous in Welsh) consumes hundreds of lines, especially when he is hidden in Lunete’s chamber and later when he blunders upon the Fountain with his lion. His faults are those of a lover whose manly undertakings—paradoxically the very endeavors that make women admire him—lure him to neglect his lady. The lion himself, whose potential to carry allegorical meaning is so obvious that he can scarcely have any other reason for appearing in Great Britain, nevertheless merely functions in French as a witness to his master’s nobility and a sidekick in his martial exploits.(5) The referents of the story to human existence are social, not spiritual: the tale’s moral concerns how to balance conflicting commitments and be sensitive to others’ feelings, not how to die to the worldly self and be born to a higher sense of duty.
The Welsh text, for all its apparent simplicity, seizes the various opportunities for spiritual allegory with a zeal that beggars Chrétien’s breadth of vision. It is able to do this because, in that manner so characteristic of the Celtic Middle Ages, it assumes in its audience a certain knowledge of pagan mythology. With her Breton roots, Marie was capable of the same subtlety. Her contemporary and rival in the Norman French idiom, Chrétien, with his purely continental devotion to courtly values and his contempt for the pre-Christian substrate of his material, saw a strange castle only as a new challenge to the hero’s boldness, not as an implied shift into the Other World’s more ethereal dimensions.(6) The venerable Professor Brown himself, though concerned only with mythic resonance, apparently, and not with the semantic intent of such resonance, found the continent a pretty damp place with regard to keeping the pagan fires aglow. “It is only on Celtic ground,” he concluded in sweeping terms, “that stories written before the time of Chrétien can be pointed out that contain all of the important features of the landscape at the Fountain Perilous.”(7) One wonders where Marie falls on this Brownian timeline; but in any case, if Chrétien himself finally began to import certain mythic “features”, he clearly did not do so with the design of restoring any of their mythic quality.
What, then, led me to believe that Owein was shuttling back and forth between this world and the next as Eliduc does against the backdrop of the Wasting-Sickness Myth? Not Brown’s work, which I discovered but very lately. In my treatment of Eliduc preceding the translation [not reproduced here], I mapped out the essential stages of this myth: a) the hero goes a-hunting, b) the hero’s squire precedes him into the Other World as if somehow smoothing the way, c) the strange land’s queen entices the hero himself to enter and accept her love, d) the hero performs feats of rare valor in the strange land as if to win the queen or prove himself worthy of her, e) the hero’s living wife back in the mortal world grows jealous and exerts pressure upon him to sever his supernatural ties, and f) the hero must imbibe a draught of oblivion in order to wrest his otherworldly love from his heart. An obstacle to spotting this myth’s unique footprints in any text is the vast—indeed, global—popularity of the Other World Journey in evolving romance traditions. The hero’s traveling to an eerie space where “up” is “down” and “in” is “out” always makes for great adventure. Owein is no different from countless other medieval “updates” of pagan myth: it abounds in mystical bodies of water crossed, in cavernous spaces (now with gates or doors) entered, in shamanic rites performed such as the taming of wild beasts, in names suppressed or identity disguised, and in other allusions to the daring trespass upon the Land of the Dead.
This single generous range of allusions, though necessary to the Wasting-Sickness Myth, is not sufficient to it: we are across the River Styx but not in the presence of any beautiful, amorous queen. For years, as I have said of my own dullness, I saw nothing more going on in Owein than a series of Other World passages ingeniously stratified like an onion’s layers. The hunting motif is certainly invisible (unless Owein’s legendary band, the “Flight of Ravens”, mentioned haphazardly at the very end, evokes some special prowess of this kind). Of course, Eliduc’s hunting skills also escape remark but for a curious pair of lines: of our chosen texts, only the Serglige and Shakuntala foreground the hero as hunter. Yet if one omission is excusable, two would seem terminal—and Owein also lacks a squire-figure preceding the hero to the Other World as Láeg precedes Cú Chulainn. Or does it? Cynon’s yarn about stumbling into the Realm of the Fountain could readily be criticized from a purely narrative aesthetic. Why not simply have Owein himself chance upon the mystical domain one day as he wanders in knight-errant fashion? Perhaps because the redundancy seems necessary to the myth, and indeed is heavily and artlessly emphasized in the Irish Serglige. Cynon is Owein’s Láeg. Though one is not the other’s squire or attendant, the romancier has Cynon openly confess his inferiority to Owein before telling his tale. So an essential element of the source-myth now seems firmly in place.
That the Welsh tale features a lovely queen of the Other World needs no explaining. The Countess of the Fountain’s curious anonymity may in fact have been deliberately cultivated to hint that she is the Unnamable One, the Queen of the Dead. I have remarked in several footnotes to the translation upon her many further claims to this pedigree. The intruding mortal’s valorous deeds also plainly occupy a slot in the Welsh tale. We might well add a couple of more minute resonances with the myth. One would be the queen’s peculiar disjunction from her consort, a situation which makes her available to the mortal lover. The Serglige has Fand parted from Manandán in what we would call a marital separation. Owein resembles the romantic creations of Kalidasa and Marie in shuffling the details to create a passionate and enduring love interest; yet it also actually remains closer to the myth in that the queen has had a previous mate, whereas Shakuntala and Guilliadun are virgins.
Secondly, the presence of a close female attendant (or male, in the case of Guilliadun’s chamberlain) seems to play a vital role in advancing the lovers’ union. The extraordinary Lunet cannot be mistaken in this capacity. Her instant and abject devotion to Owein indeed would make little sense in the Welsh tale unless we may assume that the audience recognized in her a Lí Ban type of figure—an emissary of the Fairy Queen, that is, entrusted with bridging the gap between mortality and eternity. The matter-of-fact mind of Chrétien, in contrast, devises for his Lunete a previous visit to Arthur’s court when she was ignored by all but Owein, this to supply a worldly motive for her risky charity. After a certain number of such revisions, one must at last be impressed by just how resourcefully the French poet rationalized every allusion to the myth in secularizing his material: or else one must conclude that Chrétien and his audience simply did not know the underlying myth.
That the dramatic oblivion visited upon the hero in the myth’s dénouement becomes the story’s major complication in the Welsh tale is hardly a surprise. Kalidasa and Marie did the same thing: they transported the story’s tragic ending to its middle so as to make a romantic resolution possible. King Dushyanta’s forgetfulness was imposed by an irate brahman’s curse; Eliduc’s lapse of memory is never complete and always attended by guilt. How and why does Owein forget his wife? If the Indian playwright uses the romantic supernatural to usher in the oblivion theme and the Breton-French poet realistically conjures it with lapses of time and space during a dangerous enterprise, what could possibly salvage Owein’s heroism after he neglects his marriage for three years of wining and dining at Camelot?
This is a crucial question for any modern reader, and we must assume that it was not immaterial to the medieval audience. Yes, forgetfulness is an integral part of the Wasting-Sickness story; but why not leave the forgetting where it originally was instead of shifting it to the middle as Marie had done? Why not have Owein unable to fulfill his duties to Arthur because he is enthralled to the Countess of the Fountain, and then have Merlin administer the liberating potion of Lethe? Why create a central character who first strays from his wife and dependants, the, from his sovereign, both in seemingly irresponsible and unheroic weakness of character?
Of course, Arthur is no Eithne/Emer—no wife in the world of the living. Owein doesn’t have a wife before he ventures to the Realm of the Fountain. Perhaps, then, this tale never really belonged to the Wasting-Sickness paradigm; but in that case, the three-year transgression of a three-month leave makes Owein look more feckless and contemptible than ever, for now his forgetfulness has not even the exigency of a creaky mythic precedent to redeem it narratively.
The only satisfactory answers to these questions force us, on the contrary, to conclude that the original myth was very much on the romancier’s mind, and indeed that he was also counting heavily on his audience’s familiarity with it. How could Owein so callously overstay his leave of absence—and not by winning virile jousting contests, as Chrétien writes of Yvain, but merely by enjoying the Round Table’s jolly society? He overstays because he has forgotten the world of the Fountain—and he forgets that world because it is the Other World, precisely, and a mortal man cannot live both there and here. Indeed, why else would the tale have opened with Cynon’s “babushka doll” succession of passages into ever more mystical spaces if not to emphasize the Fountain’s otherness, its full divorce from the life we know? That Owein resumes his old life for an incredible three years without appearing once to recall his new identity as the Black Knight punctuates the gap. This is no mere lapse of memory: it is a psychic shift. Here cannot be there. Chrétien, having failed utterly to grasp the mythic significance of the separation (or having decided that he was utterly uninterested in it), tries to scuff up Yvain’s absence to more plausible proportions. The Welsh audience was being led in another direction.
But where, then, is Owein’s living wife? If we can suppose the audience seizing upon subtle cues and clues so as to realize that the whole tale was artfully reconstructing the Wasting-Sickness, then how can the story-teller have sheared away so vital a referent?
It seems to me that Owein not only has one mortal wife—he has two: the potential mates whose hand is offered him after he recovers from madness. That wild derangement itself, by the way, occurs in Cú Chulainn’s story after Fand rejects him, and it does not reappear with any force in either Kalidasa’s or Marie’s romantic rendition. We might also note that Owein’s two opportunities to marry “among the living”—the widowed countess besieged by a rude earl and the daughter whose two brothers are menaced by the giant—possibly echo some polygamous element in the original myth (for Cú Chulainn’s being husband both to Eithne and Emer has no other possible explanation than textual corruption and scribal ineptitude). Our Welsh hero’s marital status, then, truly resonates in strong tones with ancient mythic matter if we know how to listen.
And what, then, is the harmony we hear? For it would seem, from this perspective, that the Welsh romancier has carefully evoked the Wasting-Sickness Myth only to turn it inside-out at a critical point: the hero’s forsaking his otherworldly mate for his mortal wife. Now, in Welsh, he recoils horrified from the mortal world after realizing that he has re-embraced its ways and rejected his idyllic fantasy for three years. The reversal of the tale’s rotation about this central axis must surely conceal the essence of what the Welsh audience was intended to carry away. Marie, as we have seen, adopted a very similar strategy: she had Eliduc not ultimately reject Guilliadun so as to show that myth’s inevitable tragedies could find—miraculously—happy endings through the self-sacrifice of Christian rebirth. She had summoned the myth’s ghost in order to lay it to rest forever more. Is our Welsh composer doing something of the sort?
I believe he clearly is. In fact, if my view of Owein is correct, the transformation of the myth is even more elemental than Marie’s. For Eliduc’s salvation lies in a third way: if Guildeluec is his legal and “mortal” wife while Guilliadun is his ideal lover from a far-off land, the saintly Guildeluec who not only refuses vengeance but saves her rival’s life is an eruption of heavenly energy into a tale that had no room for it before. Marie seems to imply that the myths have now been invalidated by the arrival upon the scene of a power never imagined in them. “Saint Guildeluec’s” bringing the Wasting-Sickness Myth to an exalted conclusion is a literary kind of Harrowing of Hell.
Now consider what the Welsh romance has done. The Fountain is no longer a guilty fantasy, a set of inviting illusions spun by the clever deception of Sin. The Countess, likewise, is not Spenser’s Duessa, ravishing on the outside but polluted and depraved on the inside. The Irish scribe who had collected and recorded the matter of our Serglige, recall, appended a postscript that begged just this Spenserian sort of interpretation. “For great was the demonic power against the [Christian] Faith,” he scrawled, “and such was its extent that they [the otherworldly figures like Queen Fand] would… manifest pleasures and secret trysts to them [mortal men] as if these were everlasting. And thus indeed they [the mortals] would believe.” Owein’s allegory is simpler, and more generous. The fairy realm—the Other World that was once a heathen land of dead souls—now belongs to the eternal spirit. The earldom of the Fountain is the kingdom of Heaven.
What Owein must choose between, therefore, is not a living wife and a sinful erotic fantasy, but the dull realism of mortal reality and the idealism of the spirit. Certainly the allegory’s alignment is not perfect. The castle into which the hero chases the moribund Black Knight is a fearful place, and he must negotiate its terrible risks with all the ritual protection and disguise that his Sibyl (Lunet) can muster. Once the Countess enters his life, however, he is afire with a love and devotion that he has apparently never known before. She is his guiding light, his Lucia, though the terrestrial world remains ignorant even of her name. Arthur cannot so much as speak to her directly during his visit; and, of course, he wants to lure his old chum back to the merry world of feasting and good cheer which he fully understands. Though the new Owein, also unrecognizable to his former cronies at first, has committed himself to a life whose mercy and charity are emphasized (the preceding Black Knight seems to have spared his challengers and divided his spoil very infrequently), the old Owein proves stronger under friendly solicitation. The man who settles comfortably back into the Round Table’s revelry and entirely forgets the Fountain’s charms for three years is a man who has found faith in higher things only to lose it.
Here is where the terms of the allegory become particularly apt. When Owein reverts to the level of a troglodyte, growing fur over his nakedness and grazing with wild beasts, he is of course fulfilling another exigency of the Wasting-Sickness Myth; for Cú Chulainn, too, goes mad over the loss of Fand (as Orlando also does so over Angelica’s desertion, though that version of the myth has all but forgotten its origins). This mythic allusion, however, has been artfully recast as a fairly obvious evocation of the Pauline Old Man living the life of raw nature. What makes the indexing of myth to Scripture especially clear is Owein’s ensuing “baptism” with a mysterious oil meant to be applied lightly to the heart, but which the maidservant—with that unworldly generosity said by the Church to belong to God’s grace—lavishes all about him. Now Owein is “reborn”. The “old” identity that he resumes is really a second shot at the new identity he found in the Countess of the Fountain… but he must claim that identity, carelessly discarded for Arthur’s world, through several stages of penitential action.
The first such act reprises his actual service of the Countess by surrounding him in very nearly the same tight circumstances: a widowed countess whose realm is under assault desperately needs assistance. Owein fully resolves the crisis (without spilling a drop of blood, be it noted—in contrast to the slaughter exacted by Yvain in Chrétien’s parallel episode). The grateful lady offers her domain and herself in recompense; but Owein, unknown to her, is already married and, in any case, has performed this good deed to restore his worthiness, not to secure material profit. Allegorically, he has re-attained the point that he occupied before his “fall”. In declining the marriage offer, as well, he has re-affirmed his loyalty to that more mystical world where his soul is pledged.
Loyalty, or fidelity (fides—“faith”), is that vital Christian virtue in which he was wanting before. How is he spiritually both to supplement his deficient faith now and to demonstrate its acquisition? Enter the lion. The medieval association of this noblest of beasts with the pagan virtue of courage was probably readier and stronger than with fidelity. Chrétien, in any case, plainly opts for the former connection—and not in any allegorical manner: the courageous beast’s devotion merely testifies to the hero’s courage. I believe that the Welsh romancier has just as plainly opted for fidelity in his use of the lion; and this time, the animal’s appearance in the narrative does indeed suggest an allegorical function. Not only does Owein need a special dose of the formerly deficient quality at just this moment, when he is poised to move beyond his moral peak of earlier days; he also “claims” the lion in a fashion that reflects a freely determined value judgment. Trapped in a tight spot by the diabolical serpent, the lion can only be released by Owein’s conscious decision to favor supernal over infernal power. Chrétien hopelessly garbles any such reading by having the lion physically snared in the snake’s coils (how could faith ever lie in the Devil’s clutches, theologically speaking?), thus creating another occasion for Yvain to show his heroic prowess—for the French snake breathes fire, and a dangerous contest ensues!
If Owein’s lion should be read as a kind of spiritual appendage—a new extension built out of the old man—then his supplemental strength is soon needed. Lunet, the maiden to whom Owein owes his entry into “Heaven”, is soon to be executed precisely for having admitted someone unworthy of such exaltation. Never could a man be more honor-bound to undertake a defense. Yet Owein neither overtly promises his support to the distressed lady nor even names himself to her (both of which “errors” Chrétien would “correct” in his version). How can our reformed valiant be thus non-committal? The answer is so evident that it perhaps evades quick detection: he does not yet have a name, in the broader sense of a fully evolved identity. Owein is still a work in progress, a man in becoming. If he can save Lunet, then he will be Owein. Until then, he is a spirit in limbo.
The lion “stands guard” over the nocturnal colloquy about life and death in a manner that is narratively awkward yet emphatic of the allegory. The fidelity which he represents hovers over the hero at every moment but has not yet merged with him.
The ultimate test of the new man is to see if he can be faithful under conditions of almost impossible strain—in a crisis where he must very nearly be in two places at the same time. This is the challenge Owein faces when he hears of the outrageous and murderous injustice about to befall the hospitable earl’s family. Again, he does not leap up and declare to the castle’s sad denizens that he will be their champion (and again, Chrétien “corrects” this “oversight”). As the Gospelist warns us, faith without works is like a body without breath—and Owein’s faith, if it is true, must appear in deeds rather than promises.
With the lion’s help, he passes the test. The next day, he vanquishes both the brutal giant and the courtiers who have slandered Lunet. These scenes appear to give Chrétien fits, in that the lion’s intervention clearly violates the code of chivalry whose promotion is his exclusive concern. The French poet saves as many hearty blows for the hero as he can. The Welsh romancier, armed with allegory, is unworried by the situation’s compromise of the stock battle scene. The lion—who is not Owein, but is becoming more of him all the time—carries off both victories virtually unaided by his master’s sword. The message here must surely be this: left to his own devices, even the bravest of men will be overmatched by the forces of evil—but assisted by faith, he is elevated from his merely natural state to a level where he can conquer the most formidable odds.
Not being a romance in the continental sense, Owein does not end with a reconciliation of lovers drawn out (artfully or otherwise) by tears, abject apologies, and renewed vows. The anonymous Welsh story-teller simply reports that Owein recovered his lady after Lunet’s vindication, and that she remained his wife “as long as she lived”. Though brief to the point of a downright un-romantic terseness, the reunion of the pair succeeds in raising two questions which would else have remained dormant: 1) why did the married couple not transfer its residency to Arthur’s court from the start, and 2) what allegorical significance is there to the Countess’s apparently having died before Owein? Both of these loose ends created by the final clumsy tying together of events are perhaps owed to the allegory. Owein cannot bring his wife to court originally because he has not yet figured out how to bridge the gap between faith and daily conduct, between Heaven and the World. Only after a legitimate rebirth and a gamut of penitential trials can he make that complex transition. (In any case, the final words of the romance—perhaps added later—claim that Owein indeed returned to his domain after serving Arthur for an unspecified period.)
And does his vision of a higher reality, then (in the person of the Countess), leave him yet again while he still lives in the body? It would be even stranger if the vision outlived him. The most effective solution, surely, would have been for the knight and his lady to expire in the same hour. Would that this twelfth-century artist had possessed one or two more colors on his palette! No doubt, we should guard against calling a medieval allegory to too fine an accounting for its points of reference; but if the Countess’s pre-decease of her husband means anything at all, then it may well imply that her inspiration has at last been utterly absorbed into his identity. Like the lion, she may cease to exist apart from Owein when she fully exists within Owein.
I will leave to textual critics and historians the matter of whether the Dark Oppressor episode truly belongs to the original tale or, for some reason, was a late addition. The prose style of this brief, arguably anticlimactic section seems rather different from the foregoing text’s; and in Chrétien’s poem, the “Pesme Avanture”, as it is called, has been so “developed” at many points that all resemblance between the French and Welsh versions disappears. I limit myself here to a single observation, which again has to do with allegory and may indeed explain why the supplemental ending was patched in. The lion is said to accompany Owein for the last time on this strange journey, which in fact looks more like a descent into an ancient pagan hell—and less like an interlude in a rehabilitated fairy-land—than any other in the story. It makes one think of Enkidu’s dream of the dead in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Two dozen beautiful maidens are languishing in ashen poverty, surrounded by corpses both of loved ones and of strangers; and the beguiling hospitality of the place’s ruler extends only so far as inducing his “visitors” to imbibe of his enchanting drink, after which they become his thralls. This domain is Hell indeed, as opposed to a spiritual Tír na nÓg. Yet although it would seem that Owein has never been in greater jeopardy, his lion companion takes no part in the combat with the Dark Oppressor.
How does this all further the allegory? First by demonstrating narratively that the hero has come of age—that the lion has now entered his veins, making him in his sole person the champion of all virtues both pagan and Christian. Secondly, the Oppressor’s pact with Owein gives the tale’s conclusion an accent much more clearly religious than the foregoing elements of the allegory. The Oppressor agrees, if left alive, to transform his dreary habitation into a way-station for pilgrims (i.e., a rest-house for the body until the Resurrection). Death, of course, cannot be banished from terrestrial existence; but Owein succeeds in making this image of Death Incarnate consent to serve holy purposes rather than to terrorize innocents as he has always done before.
The episode thus emphasizes that the whole romance should be read as an adaptation of pagan icons, tastes, and values to Christian ones. It is an awkward finale to a tale of lovers parted and re-united: Chrétien does a much better job of crafting that bracelet. As a clue for how to tease out the story’s deeper meaning, however, the Dark Oppressor adventure is perhaps neither anticlimactic nor redundant, but almost necessary. The audience might otherwise not understand, or not understand as clearly. Chrétien and his audience apparently didn’t understand at all, though scarcely separated in time and space—by any estimate—from their Welsh counterparts. Jean Frappier and his acolytes, indeed, appear to praise their poet for what I am tempted to call an aesthetic of the random; for Chrétien, having decided that his matter, though instructive, lacked any significant allegorical dimension, was left with several episodes that serve no particular function in a mere love story. “Each of his adventures represents for Yvain, and for the reader, a sudden and unexpected confrontation,” write Chrétien’s modern editors in admiration. “… Naturally, such events cannot have a direct rapport with Yvain’s amorous crisis, unless we wish to require Chrétien to make everything that happens in Arthurian forests depend upon the love affairs of his heroes! This would be even more implausible than the pretexts that he creates.”(8) Exactly: the persistent eradication of allegorical potential from the Owein tale must leave the author with a series of plausibility (or vraisemblance) problems. How does this ointment come to have such remarkable curative properties? What’s a lion doing here? Is that a giant or just a very big man? And the Dark Oppressor… better to make him an ordinary baron whose castle has been invaded by two ordinary demons.
I do not intend to imply that our text of Owein served as the template for Yvain. An immense amount of ink has been spilled on that and related issues, many of which are incapable of definitive solution. I will say this much only. Given the “individualized” nature of Chrétien’s special contribution—his touches of descriptive detail, his attention to soul-baring monologue and dialogue, and in short what his editors denominate above a concern for credibility or realism—his source material must necessarily have been written (if not spoken) in a more traditional manner: that is, it must have been less endowed with these same garnishments.(9) That would bring the source closer to Owein in style. Adapting ancient mythic matter to the monotheistic, more introverted, more sin-and-redemption-conscious tastes of the Middle Ages through allegory was standard operating procedure among thoughtful copyists. (Even sophisticates of the classical world like Lactantius kept the Homeric epics alive and well by reading allegory into them.)(10) In this regard, the romancier of our Owein was surely furthering the invention of his predecessors more than creating something ex nihilo. We do not have a Marie whom we may credit with most of the work of adaptation: and, for that matter, we cannot know that Marie herself was the first to think of transforming the Wasting-Sickness Myth into a tale of forgiveness and redemption like Eliduc. If we wish (in our literate prejudice) to bestow honor for displaying radical creativity, then Chrétien would be our best choice; for to him must go the “honor” of dissolving allegory in a flood of particularizing character traits and details of setting. His mind certainly operated more like ours than did that of whoever composed the Welsh version of Yvain.
To return at last, then, to the Wasting-Sickness Myth, we may now summarize that one or more Welsh composers adjusted the source-myth to an allegory of spiritual progress. The Welsh audience, we may assume, knew the myth fairly well through local tales more or less like the Irish Serglige. The more thoughtful and tradition-conscious members of this audience, at any rate, would have realized that their story-teller was constantly alluding to the ancient myth even as he was switching its pieces around. Some of them must have guessed that the allusions were meant to draw attention to the switches: i.e., listeners were meant to grasp that this was and was not the Wasting-Sickness. How was it different, and why was it different? Clearly, the major difference was in the hero’s opting to cling to his beloved Other World Queen even after the madness of separation had been cured by a druidical concoction. The myth never ended that way: the hero was supposed to recognize his mortality and resign himself to what attachments he could find in this world. Why the reversal of such sage counsel? Because wise men become fools and fools are made wise in the light of the new faith. Paganism has been turned inside-out. The eternity of the fairy people—the sídhe in Irish, the tylwyth teg in Welsh—is no longer a mischievous, teasing, out-of-reach fantasy, but a bounteous realm of the spirit open to anyone who will scorn the death of the body and serve an unearthly master.(11)
There is genius in this adaptation. As I ventured in an earlier remark, the very simplicity of the strategy as a way of resuscitating an old myth surpasses Marie’s approach in Eliduc, which was essentially to repeat the myth in more mundane terms and then frustrate its tragic message by elevating the formerly vengeful wife to saintly heights of self-sacrifice. The Welsh option does not require any such tinkering with basic characterization: the Other World, once Owein’s lady brightens it like the sun, merely becomes Heaven instead of Hell. As inventive as this ploy may seem, we must not forget that it had been used many times in various ways during the conversion of Celtic Europe. Saint Godnait, a local figure in the Cork area of Ireland, was associated with bees, whose flight was held for time out of mind to represent the soul’s departure from the body. Saint Brigid is still honored in an annual ritual that features the twisting of rushes into a distinctive cross likely reminiscent of the pagan “wheel of the sun”. The summer solstice festival that has become Saint John’s Day is also celebrated (or was so until a few short years ago) in a fashion whose roots are far older than Christianity. Bonfires are built on hilltops throughout rural Ireland and kept ablaze during this shortest night of the year.
Owein, then, was but one exercise in a vast program of ecumenism and adaptation. It was a tale told thousands of times before—only, before (hints the allegorist), people didn’t really know what they were hearing. The Unknown God has now been named.
A Brief Addendum on the Irish Tochmarc Emire
Thomson’s introduction to the Welsh text of Owein mentions with interest A.C.L. Brown’s referencing the French Yvain to the Middle Irish Tochmarc Emire (“Courtship of Emer”).(12) Though Brown’s work had been published over half a century before Thomson’s review of it, the latter had the good sense to see that his predecessor’s erudition and astuteness were both exceptional. Brown does not extend his parallel of structural elements overtly to our Welsh text (and neither does Thomson), so we should not be surprised that many connections with Owein appear quite weak. The manner in which Cú Chulainn is trained in martial skills by the warrior queen Scáthach, for instance, bears but the faintest resemblance to Owein’s requesting arms and a horse from the countess who nurses him back to health; the Irish superman’s bodily abduction of Aífe (another potent Amazon) from the battlefield belongs to a distinctly different Indo-European mythic cycle ending in the hero’s slaying his own son—a sequence only remotely akin to Owein’s capture of the recalcitrant earl;(13) and Cú’s rescue of Princess Derbforgaill from the sea-monster Fomorians, of course, looks far more like Perseus saving Andromeda than Owein succoring the sad earl whose daughter (never in actual danger) is desired of a brutal giant. Employing the same critical eye, however, one would conclude that the resemblance between the adventures of Chrétien’s Yvain and those of Cú Chulainn in the Tochmarc seems even weaker. Why was Brown so enamored of this possible Irish-French connection in a debate about a Welsh-French romance?
Brown was constructing his analysis at a time when many scholars were engaged deeply in a senseless controversy over whether the French Yvain inspired the Welsh romance or vice versa. The embers of this dispute remain warm today, by the way; they certainly had a touch of the old fire in Thomson’s time, midway between Brown’s and ours. Thomson evinced no gullibility about the specific Irish influences which Brown, perhaps, overplays. He certainly would not have endorsed the proposition that the Tochmarc was a direct source for Yvain. Rather, he saw in Brown’s narrative parallels ample evidence that the French work might have mined a vast wealth of Celtic matter, some of whose bright veins show up in the text of the Tochmarc (itself a very obvious compilatory jumble: the Irish scribe goes on numerous digressive excursions to display his knowledge of tangential legends).(14) Thomson’s modified inheritance from Brown, then, is the position that the roots from which such tales as Owein and Yvain filtered their sap grew so wide and so deep that ignoring them to juxtapose these two recorded texts from either side of the Channel is creating a pair of false alternatives. For every one scene in Chrétien that seems to illumine a similar one in the Welsh story, we can find two or three echoes of the same scene in the broader Celtic world of the early second millennium.
Brown’s proposed Irish precedent for Yvain’s second half seems to me to acquire a unique interest when extended to our Welsh romance in one regard: the matter of the lion. There is no other instance, to my knowledge, of the king of beasts making an appearance anywhere in the Ulster Cycle (unless figuratively—for the Irish story-tellers loved their similes).(15) It is indeed odd, therefore, that Cú Chulainn should stumble upon this formidable feline on his way to study under Queen Scáthach. The creature eventually leads him rather than follows him—and then disappears for good once the hero reaches his destination; neither the Welsh nor the French lion makes such a quick exit after having played so minor a part. Yet we should not hold archetypal similarities of structure to too high a standard of correspondence (a sin of which I was no doubt guilty in the previous paragraph), since we know that oral performers adapted their general matter to particular narrative exigencies with great license. All of the authors in this medieval chain of influence were writing down material that had been heard, in some form and in most instances, many hundreds of times more than it had been read.
Indeed, that’s exactly why the lion incident is uniquely interesting: it does not belong to Celtic oral tradition. Here, if anywhere, Brown happened upon a useful clue. The lion must have come from somewhere. Chrétien could have accessed him through local traditions that reached back into Mediterranean antiquity—but few would entertain the notion that the Irish Tochmarc had pilfered his Yvain, which would challenge the texts’ apparent dates of recording.(16) To be sure, the Irish line of transmission must at some point have crossed the continent’s to have imbibed so un-Irish an animal; but if the generators of the Ulster Cycle could find a lion to guide Cú Chulainn well before Chrétien was born, then the generators of the tale that would become Owein could have found a lion to follow their Welsh hero just as early on.
Now, the continental influence that would have imported into the Celtic psyche, not only the image of lions, but also the moral symbolism of the lion, would have been not merely Roman-tinged, but distinctly Roman-Christian. This means that the very presence of the lion in the Tochmarc and Owein implies the related presence of a tendency to allegorize. The lion “meant something” to those who thrust him into myths and legends where his roar had never been heard. Hence those myths and legends themselves would now be drawn toward “meaning something” by way of extending the lion’s allegorical environment.
I shall return to the lordly lion; but I must first explain that I do not find either his shocking appearance in the Welsh romance or the Irish Tochmarc’s resonance with that romance’s second part to call for any qualification of my theory. That is, I continue to believe that the second half of Owein—the “madness and recovery” half—simply recycles the Serglige myth so as to introduce minor but critical differences in it: and the purpose of these inserted differences is to show the hero reacting with new humility and dedication in old circumstances—to fashion his penance, to demonstrate his conversion. It is to produce a full-bodied allegory. Why, in that case, does this second half reflect the mythic story of the Tochmarc Emire at so many points, as Brown resourcefully argued (though of Yvain and not Owein)? Because, I maintain, the Tochmarc is itself patterned after the Serglige myth, though in an almost hopelessly fragmented way. Cú Chulainn’s courtship of Emer is a kind of Other World Journey where he must bring his wife back from the spirit world.
Consider the evidence (and here I may need some of that indulgence in arguing for correspondences which I begrudged Brown, yet I think less than he). Though Cú Chulainn is not hunting at the outset, he arrives at Emer’s dún very ostentatiously in chariot and with charioteer, like King Dushyanta. The chattering maidservants around Emer describe the chariot in suspicious detail (van Hamel’s sections 9-16; see n. 14). Of course, these lovely attendants are themselves part of the ancient Indo-European equation: recall Shakuntala’s two faithful maids. Having thus barged into her presence, Cú Chulainn proceeds to have with Emer a stunningly long and nuanced exchange—especially for this medium—through which peeks either one’s instant and strong attraction to the other (sections 17-28; again, compare the first scene of Kalidasa’s play).
The courted lady has a somewhat surly guardian—her father Forgall in this case—who demands that the suitor perform acts of martial prowess before enjoying his lover’s embrace. Labraid of the Serglige and Exeter’s lord in Eliduc pose the parallel. Central to the myth, of course, is a concluding tragedy that separates the lovers as their irreconcilable worlds call them back; yet my comparative study of the myth’s versions has shown nothing if not that later raconteurs enjoy finding ways to avert this final separation. Here the strategy is balled up in the heroic test—the story’s second half, the part wherein our lion intrudes. Cú Chulainn has not one, but three, sexual partners that may well correspond to the “mortal wife”. The first is Scáthach’s daughter Úathach, whom the hero initially rejects so vigorously that he wounds her finger (section 69). The second partner is the redoubtable Aífe, whom the hero-apprentice subdues after learning his bellicose lessons from Scáthach, and among the terms of whose release is that she bear him a child (section 76). This odd and digressive wrinkle in the tale seems to be the scribe’s way of signaling his familiarity with a very tenuously relevant myth (see n. 13).
The third “wife” never actually consummates her union with the hero. She is Derbforgaill, the princess rescued from the Fomorian sea ogres. Significantly, Cú Chulainn returns to accept her once-offered favors on the rebound when Emer’s father refuses to make good on their bargain: here we see much the most lucid allusion to the hero’s tragic departure from his spirit-lover. Yet Derbforgaill and her attendant are so unwise as to appear at the tryst in the form of two birds, which Cú (section 84) brings to ground with his inerrant stone-casts. This miscue not only repeats the harsh handling of the “mortal wife” evident in the previous two cases (and accomplished psychologically by Eliduc upon Guildeluec), but of course harkens to the beginning of the Serglige—where Cú’s shots, however, miss their mark.
Eventually Cú Chulainn must attack his lady’s Other World domain itself and whisk her away, the jealous father perishing in a frantic leap during the assault. The hero gets his fairy princess, and he carries her back to the world of the living in a trail of blood and glory (and by-the-way aetiologies explaining the names of various fords).
Enough of the mythic archetype’s bones remain in this mangled narrative skeleton, I believe, to prove that we confront in the Tochmarc a version of the Serglige that has produced a successful courtship by repeating the myth—and repeating parts of it several times—within the first telling’s mid-section. The result is truly a dissonant narrative hodge-podge, its dexterous traditional displacing and interweaving of episodes rendered far more confusing by the scribe’s eager willingness to advertise his further knowledge of loosely related matter. One can well understand why neither Brown nor Thomson nor, as far as I know, any subsequent analyst has suggested that the entirety of the Tochmarc’s main narrative was generated by the same myth as that which underlies the Serglige. To be clear, Brown proposed the Serglige as a prototype for the kind of Celtic tale that might have inspired part of Chrétien’s Yvain, and he appended the Tochmarc as yet another example of Celtic matter that could have influenced Yvain’s later episodes.
And if I might seek yet further clarity—for the critical point here is extremely difficult to tease out of so many wreaths of mythic mist… I believe that the lion entered the story as a deliberate attempt to heighten its allegory, as I have said; and that some very clever Christian with native ties (or native with Christian ties) engineered this allegory’s construction by multiplying elements of the basic Serglige story. As this person devised it, the resulting narrative made good sense to the reflective. Its subliminal level was compelling. Yet his (or her—perhaps a Welsh or Irish Marie) exquisite device was not well understood by all. The lion may well have attracted an interest unconnected to his allegorical power—for his great maned figure, let us admit, would rivet attention all by itself. Degraded versions of the attempted allegory may have leached backward into the popular tradition in a manner which Goody and Watt, Ong, and others have called homeostasis: that is, an oral tradition, having acquired new matter from the outside (and even from very literate traditions), will typically and rather quickly knead it into the mythic heritage until few traces of intrusion remain.(17)
I am proposing that the Irish Tochmarc, insofar as it has absorbed the lion into its ancient narrative (which doesn’t take us very far at all), may well be snitching a popular element from an elegant—and more or less contemporary—allegory woven by Christian scribes out of similar ancient material. This allegory’s successful version, fortunately, has been preserved in the Welsh Owein. Even if I am correct, I would by no means assent to the proposal that the Welsh romance is the source of Chrétien’s Yvain—or even of the chevalier’s lion. The versions both written and told that almost surely preceded our extant Welsh text, however, would likely have sent ripples into the reverend Celtic traditions from which they had drawn: a reciprocal influence inevitable in any literature that has no conventions of stable documentation.(18) Chrétien, in turn, would have been exposed to these protean traditions through the mediation of artists like Marie who had a direct cultural pipeline to things Celtic. We have seen that the French romancier had dedicated himself to composing “realistic” adventures, with psychological detail, idiosyncrasy of character, and plausible material causation: allegory held no attraction for him. Hence any bits and pieces of once-allegorical innovation washing about in the local sources from which he drew would pose no greater a problem to him than the prehistoric, firmly embedded cast of giants, ogres, and dragons. One and all, they would be downscaled and plausibly pedigreed by his rationalizing quill.
The continental romance, in short, had its own aesthetic and its own objectives. Yet if for some reason we wish to award one of these three texts—the Tochmarc, Yvain, or Owein—a prize for being first to employ a lion-escort in an Other World Journey, our Welsh text (commonly believed to be the youngest manuscript of the three) likely commemorates best the form of that initial achievement.
Fragmentary Survival of the Myth in Other Northern European Tales
If composers like Marie and the originator of the Owein allegory were indeed exploiting the audience’s awareness of ancient mythic matter, then we would expect that the same matter might drift into other narratives where less ambitious craftsmen merely mined the tradition for the rudiments of a good yarn. I believe that this indeed happened. For a clear example, we need not even leave the confines of the Mabinogion: Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet (“Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed”) is such a story. Not that this first of the collection’s narratives is a mere yarn. On the contrary, the composer seems intent on creating a kind of Bildungsroman whose hero learns from youthful gaffes how to rule with discretion and magnanimity. Yet nothing in Pwyll’s maturation specifically fits the mold of choosing between a mortal wife and a supernatural lover or between this world’s tattered compromises and the next world’s elevated ideals. If the Other World seems far less disguised in quotidian realism here than in Chrétien’s romances, it is nevertheless conjured up to produce the practical kind of challenge that the Frenchman preferred.
The Welsh prince’s initial entry into the Other World while on a hunt is highlighted here more than in any of the narratives yet mentioned, with the possible exception of the Indian Shakuntala. Pwyll’s improperly chasing another lord’s hounds off a deer’s carcass with his own pack provides the story’s critical opening breach of manners. The hounds of Arawn, furthermore, have a coloring distinctive to otherworldly creatures in Celtic tales: they are white with red ears. Yet crucial elements of the myth have already been mislaid or deleted. Pwyll is on his own, unaccompanied by any attendant with supernatural connections. His hunt does not carry him into the presence of the Other World queen or members of her entourage. Rather, the fairy king whom he will assist in battle later is immediately front-and-center, to remain a major character while his wife languishes in a supporting role. Romantic love will figure prominently in the story eventually, but the prince’s ensuing journey to a strange land will not usher it in.
For Pwyll does not proceed to endure any kind of swoon or enjoy any exquisite supernatural visitation for a year: no Fand or Countess of the Fountain awaits him in the Other World palace. The regal Arawn, while not explicitly identified as a fairy king, possesses marvelous powers that allow him to exchange physical appearances with the brash youth—this by way of exacting a penance for the violation of hunting etiquette. He occupies Pwyll’s place in Dyfed for a year and Pwyll his in Annwn.(19) Not specified in the bargain is that Pwyll should abstain from sexual contact with Arawn’s queen. This delicate restraint he exercises on his own initiative, behaving as an exemplary husband in all matters except those of the bedroom. The tale represents Pwyll’s abstinence as the chastity illuminating a genuinely penitent heart: Arawn learns of it when he resumes his own form after a year, makes love to his wife that night, and is questioned about the sudden return of his interest. Were the Serglige myth lurking behind these events as a referent, we would have to parallel the queen with a living wife neglected—a Guildeluec—as the hero pines after his mystical lover. Such an association would be more than odd: it would lend itself to no sensible exegesis.
Yet we may be fairly certain that fragments of the ancient archetype are indeed haunting this tale, for Pwyll vanquishes Arawn’s rival Hafgan (in the single blow allowed) at a border-marking ford just as his year comes to full term; even so had Cú Chulainn administered a single, mortal blow to Labraid’s enemy Eochaid Íuil while the latter washed his hands. The similarity is too close to be coincidence—yet the nature and arrangement of such of similarities is too haphazard to suggest an allegorical intent or other semiotic gesture toward the original myth.
Rhiannon, the passionate love of Pwyll’s life (his “living life”), enters the story’s mid-section in a manner fully becoming of an otherworldly figure, but not quite appropriate to the Other World queen of the myth. She appears from a certain hill (of “fairy knoll” provenance, without doubt) jogging along steadily on her white horse. Inexplicably, none of Pwyll’s retainers can overtake her, though various ones make the attempt galloping at break-neck speed. Finally, at a third sighting from the magic hill, Pwyll himself undertakes the pursuit. The beautiful rider obligingly reins up for him upon his hail, and she reveals that she had come expressly for him each time. Betrothed to the detested Gwawl, she appeals to Pwyll to claim her hand, instead. Pwyll eagerly agrees. In one year’s time, he appears as instructed for the marriage celebration, and assumes the groom’s place. Yet during the marriage feast, before the two have consummated their union, a stranger asks a boon of the new husband, who unwisely consents without knowing the request’s details. Pwyll is thus tricked by Gwawl, whom he failed to recognize, into surrendering his new bride. He can only reclaim her a year later (the term Rhiannon sets before the second marriage) by himself attending a feast in beggarly disguise and asking that Gwawl fill his bag with food. As Rhiannon had anticipated when devising the plan, Gwawl is caught off guard by the bag’s enchantment. Discovering that it remains forever unfilled, he leans into its mouth in an attempt to break the spell… and is thrust fully in and soundly thrashed until he renounces his claim to Rhiannon.
Even this severe compression of narrative events is perhaps excessive for our purposes. What has been said more than suffices to show that a) Rhiannon is indeed a lover from the Other World, and that b) the dénouement of her love affair with Pwyll follows few of the original myth’s contours. She does indeed, like Fand and Guilliadun, take the lead in establishing an acquaintance with the man of interest to her; yet she does so personally, not through the mediation of such faithful servants as we find in more meticulous recasts of the myth. In fact, her servants betray her foully in the tale’s later complications, substantiating the horrendous slander that she has slain her own baby. An odor of madness hangs about this murder that never happened; and madness, of course, has a part to play in the archetype (as when Cú Chulain flees into the mountains upon losing Fand). Yet by rights, the traveler to the Other World is the character who should have suffered a lapse of memory or run berserk (or both). This character is Pwyll, who manifests such level-headedness (as befits his name, which means “mind”) that he alone staunchly defends his wronged queen, having no doubt learned through Arawn’s gentle chastisement the perils of precipitate action. Perhaps his “signature” lapse occurs earlier, in his ill-advised willingness to grant the suspect stranger any favor he may request; and perhaps the subsequent year spent in waiting to turn the tables on Gwawl corresponds to Owein’s period of wandering about disconsolately in the wilderness. If so, the narrative itself offers us no encouragement to make the connections.(20) They seem vaguely probable only because Pwyll’s story has gaps at these points that could readily be filled in with appropriate allusions if the teller had wanted to animate the ancient myth as a referent. That they are not so filled in strongly, even conclusively implies that he had no such want.
Consider, finally, the most conspicuous void of all: the utter absence of any tension between Rhiannon and the “living wife”. If this latter figure were to be parsed as Arawn’s queen, then (as has been said) we would face allegorical incoherence; for the two royal females, both immersed in the trappings of otherworldliness, do not enter into any competition whatever according to the tale’s chronology. It is true that Owein’s Countess of the Fountain also had no adversary in any wife or sweetheart of longer standing—yet Owein was offered the hand of no fewer than two ladies during his penitential recovery. A better argument on behalf of a parallel between these two adventures would be that the knight’s friends and advisors at court oppose his marital commitment in both cases; for Pwyll’s counselors urge him to abandon the maligned Rhiannon after their baby’s apparent death, just as Arthur’s jolly entourage seduces Owein into forgetting the Fountain’s domain. Yet only Owein’s story may be said to relate allegorically to the myth at this juncture. His disappointing oblivion erases not just a few faces, but an alternate reality of higher obligations and profounder values. Pwyll’s resistance to public opinion, in contrast, describes the action of a judicious ruler who strikes a compromise between fully expressed rival positions. His loyalty to Rhiannon possesses no more an aura of “otherness”—no more sense of mystery—than a stable husband’s wise and loving intuition that his wife’s tested character bears clearer testimony than do a half-dozen scared and scatterbrained maidservants.
To repeat by way of summary, then: too many correspondences exist between the structure of Pwyll and that of the essential Serglige myth for the resemblance to have occurred by chance. The latter must have nestled among the mix of traditional sources from which the former drew.(21) Yet the manner in which these points of contact float to the narrative surface of Pwyll is precisely haphazard, at least with regard to the myth’s integrity. In other words, there can have been no intent in Pwyll’s composition to allude to the mythic substrate so as to create ulterior meaning for the story.
Fragments of our myth can be found in other traditions throughout northwestern Europe, as well. I am indebted to an article by Rosemary Power for the following observations about Icelandic saga, territory entirely unfamiliar to me. Power writes generally of the relevant adventures within these sagas, “… a human hero makes a perilous journey to a delightful otherworld country. Here he performs certain deeds, the most important of which is to resolve a conflict between two rulers, and he also obtains a wife. He returns temporarily to mortal lands but then goes back to the other world to rule territory he has acquired there.”(22) This much immediately tells us what we concluded of Pwyll: a) that some elements of the Serglige myth have survived here, and b) that the myth’s integrity has been so compromised that audiences would not have divined any steady, coherent sequence of allusions to it. Power acknowledges as much, stressing not only the role of a pre-literate past in supplying bones for the narrative skeleton but also the likely Celtic provenance of some of those bones. “The individual authors apparently drew, independently of each other, on a group of oral tales within which this pattern had acquired its constituent elements. A number of these elements are found in Norse mythological tales, which must be the sources, but there are also features which are common to certain tales in Irish and Welsh literature.”(23)
Now, the notion of crossing a body of water to reach the spirit world is older than the Odyssey, and even than Gilgamesh: it is older, that is, than any literary record. To find the traveler waging war among the spirits, however, violates most mythic paradigms, for swords and spears cannot draw blood among the bloodless. (Consider that Odysseus and his crew wage war effectively only against the Cicones: armed resistance quickly proves futile in the succession of strange lands touched by their nostos.) The Serglige myth uniquely allows the traveling hero to meld himself so implicitly into spirit ways that he may fight a spirit battle. These Icelandic tales have embraced the myth’s aggressive option. They have also supplied a love interest for the hero from among the strange land’s denizens—a narrative wrinkle not exclusive to this myth; but they have further, and beyond the point of lingering doubt, adopted our myth’s back-and-forth tension between the hero’s two worlds. The sagas cited by Powers surely drew upon relics of the Serglige sequence.
Just as surely, though, they did not sustain their borrowings sufficiently to create an awareness that the myth was being purposefully reinterpreted. Thorstein (in Thorstein’s saga baejarmagns) gains advantage from a ring of invisibility like the one Owein receives from Lunet, and another kind of ring is critical in Kalidasa’s Shakuntala; but the parallels appear to break down at that point. Power further remarks that “the source [for Helgi’s saga] appears to be the opening section of Marie de France’s Lai de Lanval…”,(24) and Lanval itself interestingly features a rejected and jealous mortal “wife” (i.e., the consort of Lanval’s sovereign). Yet this discovery only demonstrates to us that the “Potiphar’s wife” sequence can readily become an overlay on the archetype that Marie used for Eliduc: no thorough, deliberate response to a sustained mythic recollection is taking place either in the French or the Norse. Certainly there could have been no such confident wedding of the pagan Other World to the Christian heaven as we see in Owein’s allegory, according to Power; for “it is obvious from the Icelandic sagas and from Saxo’s account that the delightful otherworld was not incorporated into the Christian moral order [in Iceland] and that it caused unease.”(25) Only in The Saga of Eirik the Far-Traveler is “the problem of accommodating the heathen otherworld to the Christian scheme… avoided totally… [since] the otherworld is uninhabited and is identified with the Earthly Paradise.”(26)
Traditional myths and legends about heroic battles, travels to far-off lands, combats with earth-born monsters, tragic deaths following fated downfalls, and the rest are often sufficiently similar that a late inheritor of a long tradition might splice together elements of originally distinct tales with little conscious awareness of his “infraction”. Even without a pagan past to be overthrown on behalf of a new gospel, a recorder with one foot in the fluid, associational techniques of oral composition might well alter an old story’s meaning in his or her bid to spellbind an audience. Such alterations are the rule rather than the exception as myths begin to lose their once-hallowed quality and “decay”, for a more sophisticated generation, into entertainment. The exceptional is to find a mythic structure indeed substantially complete and intact—to find it so recognizable that transpositions or alterations of events now have the look of intent. I thought it important to demonstrate in this closing section that the mythic archetype underlying the Serglige could and did crop up in many places where it had lost its rigor in fusing with other ancient matter. If we are to suppose that Marie and the Owein composer could exploit the myth’s referents to stir a deep awakening in the local audience, then we must not indulge ourselves in so generous a method of interpretation that everything looks like moral revisionism or allegory. This, it seems to me, is a sin common in scholars who would uncover new depths in texts from a distance of hundreds or thousands of years. Every cloud must not be permitted to resemble an elephant, or a castle. The threshold must be high enough that some would-be entrants fail to step over it. Now we have seen that several medieval tales primed with our myth could indeed fail to make a snowy mountain out of a sandy beach.
1) This recognition began, as far as I know, with Arthur C.L. Brown, “Iwain: A Study in the Origins of Arthurian Romance,” Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature VIII (1903), 1-147. Brown mentions nine points of correspondence between the Serglige Con Chulainn and Owein with which my five, offered a few paragraphs below, correspond almost perfectly, though I had not seen his list before composing mine. A few of Brown’s items are not justified as truly fundamental if one adds Shakuntala and Eliduc to the mix.
2) Cf. the Imtheachta Mhélora agus Orlando, which I have translated (“The Adventure of Mélora and Orlando,” Praesidium 9.4 [Fall 2009]) with special care to preserving those characteristics of oral style mimicked with loving exaggeration by the unknown author.
I base all of this commentary and my subsequent translation, by the way, on the text edited by R.S. Thomson, Owein or Chwedyl Iarlles y Ffynnawn (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1986).
3) Of course, such contrastive studies have been done in abundance, many of them also taking into account the story’s numerous Scandinavian and Germanic versions. Chrétien’s Yvain is generally viewed as closer to the source than these latter—if not itself their actual source; so the real question appears to be how Yvain relates to Owein. Thomson’s introduction is largely devoted to establishing that the two are so diverse as not to be directly aware of each other. This is obviously my own conviction. See Introduction, R.S. Thomson, Owein or Chwedyl Iarlles y Ffynnawn (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1986), ix-cii, and especially the scene-by-scene contrast of the French and Welsh texts on xxix-lvi.
4) In the tradition of Jean Frappier, whom they cite, the editors of Chrétien’s Yvain, ou le Chevalier au Lion (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968) observe that the poet viewed the essence of the literary traditions he had inherited as “l’association de la prouesse et de l’amour dans le chevalier arthurien” (p. 3 of Jan Nelson, Carleton Carroll, and Douglas Kelly, Introduction [1-29]). For the Celtic raconteur of the same time, sexual love had virtually no significance except as an allegorization of spiritual longing or of a carnality that distracts from higher love. The implicit irony here, of course, is that the Irish and Welsh composers remained closer to pagan myth. One might say that they mined paganism for Christian symbols which attached their tales more tightly to religious faith than did the method of continental authors, whose disdain for paganism was relatively overt.
5) The lion’s bow of obeisance to Yvain, clearly expressing fealty in a human gesture, is related in ll. 3394-3403. Shortly thereafter, when Yvain comes upon the Fountain, recalls his betrayal of Laudine, and swoons, the lion takes him for dead and attempts to commit suicide by running upon the hero’s sword (ll. 3506-3519)! In short, rather than invest this creature with mystical value, Chrétien does everything to humanize him short of making him talk.
6) Jean Frappier remarks that Chrétien viewed “with disdain” his Celtic precedents—“ces ‘contes d’aventure’ dont Chrétien parle avec dédain dans le prologue d’Erec” (Le Roman Breton: Yvain ou le Chevalier au Lion [Paris: Centre du Documentation Universitaire, 1952], 31). That continental copyists and composers censored with more vigor the pagan undertones not only of Celtic matter, but even of the ancient classics, than did their Irish, Welsh, and Breton counterparts is clear from many angles. The medieval Irish adaptation of the Aeneid, the Imtheachta Aeniasa, for instance, reproduces Neptune’s calming of the seas, Venus’s appearance to her son, and Cupid’s substitution for Ascanius from Virgil’s Book One; the French Roman d’Eneas deletes all of these.
7) Cited in Thomson’s Introduction (op. cit), lxxxviii.
8) Jan Nelson, Carleton Carroll, and Douglas Kelly (op. cit.), 19-20. The translation from French is mine.
9) At the end of the Welsh Dream of Rhonabwy, for instance (also contained in the Mabinogion), another unknown author openly taunts oral performers for their inability to produce the kind of minute descriptive detail with which he has saturated his text. Greater detail is always a reliable indicator that a literary tradition is moving in the direction of an author’s having more individual power over his work—a migration typical of the shift to greater literacy.
10) See Robert Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Traditions (Berkeley: U of California P, 1989).
11) Proinsias MacCana has argued that medieval transcribers and adapters of Irish traditional tales had brought the pagan Other World “poetically if not rationally within the framework of Chrisitian orthodoxy” (p. 100 in “The Sinless Otherworld of Immram Brain,” Ériu 27 , 95-115). I am suggesting that the Owein allegory goes beyond a mere reconciliation of the two “eternities” to a complete identification of them; but Professor MacCana’s work demonstrates that a tendency in that direction appeared in the Celtic world rather early on.
12) Thomson (op. cit. [see n. 7]), xci-xciv.
13) A very short, blunt, tenth-century transcription of the Aided Óenfir Aífe (“Death of Aífe’s Only Son”) exists that relates how Cú Chulainn’s prodigious son comes seeking him only to be slain by him in single combat. This text includes enough detail that an extensive parallel with the Iranian Shahname of Ferdowsi can be drawn. I know of no Greco-Roman counterpart to the myth.
14) The text in my possession was edited by A.G. van Hamel for his collection, Compert Con Culainn and Other Stories (Baile Átha Cliath: Institiúid Árd-Léinn, 1968), 20-68. This text is riddled with aetiologies, including a very long one explaining the how Emain Macha got its name, that relate to the tale only tangentially.
15) In fact, the lion is merely a simile even here. Section 63 of the Tochmarc speaks of a “fearful large beast like a lion” (amal leoman). The appellation is never applied directly.
16) Yet this notion is less extravagant than I had at first supposed. Though the original manuscripts of the Tochmarc are very early (see Rudolf Thurneysen’s Irische Helden- und Königsage [Halle: Niemeyer, 1921], 377 ff.), they are also quite fragmentary. The latest and most complete is perhaps fourteenth century; and the forms employed in the passage mentioning the lion (section 63) appear to me to belong to this later period, though I have received no independent confirmation of that claim. The practical impediment remains that the works of a continental court poet like Chrétien would scarcely have enjoyed rapid and wide dispersion throughout the Celtic world, whereas Celtic lore was being hungrily sought by continental creators of romance.
17) Walter Ong exemplifies homeostasis with word meanings themselves as they are viewed in pre-literate cultures. “Words acquire their meanings only from their always insistent actual habitat” (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word [London and New York: Routledge, 1982], 46-47), as opposed to the historical strata of meaning recognized by the dictionaries of literate cultures. The aetiologies within texts like the Tochmarc preserve the oral sense of an eternal present very plainly, by the way. The recorder of such “name stories” practically never pauses to think that what a proper noun appears to say in contemporary units of meaning may be a severe distortion of the original intent.
18) Parry and Lord long ago observed that oral performers believe implicitly in their having reproduced exactly the same tale at every telling, and subsequent commentators have documented this confidence further. A sort of narrative snowball evolves wherein the latest bits of accretion quickly become as integral to the tale as its pristine elements (cf. n. 16 above concerning homeostasis). Ruth Finnegan (Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance, and Social Context [Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1992], 125-126) cites the conclusion of Anraham and Foss published in Anglo-American Folksong Style: “In many cases, these variables [of significant content] will exist below the threshold of perception for both the singer and his audience”; and Finnegan herself concludes, “To ignore this dimension [of constant and dynamic adaptation] is to ignore a large part of style at the same time as its [i.e., the performance’s] poetic and individual quality.”
19) Annwn, or Annwfn, would have been understood as an otherworldly destination by the original audience. Andrew breeze simply denominates Arawn “king of the other world” in his summation of the tale (Medieval Welsh Literature [Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997], 69).
20) Yet it should be noted that Rhiannon rebukes Pwyll’s judgment rather severely after he grants the open-ended request: “No man was ever slower in [the use of] his senses than you have been” (Pwyll Pendeuic Duuet [Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1957], p. 12, ll. 324-325: my translation). Nevertheless, this appears more an instance of a young man’s immature judgment than of lunacy, and so Rhiannon’s words rate it.
21) For instance, Teirnon’s ripping away the arm of the mysterious invader who robs a new colt from him every year is reminiscent of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel.
22) See p. 156 of Rosemary Power, “Journeys to the Otherworld in the Icelandic Fornaldarsögur,” Folklore 96:2 (Jan. 1985), 156-175.
23) Ibid., 156.
24) Ibid., 158.
25) Ibid., 159.
26) Ibid., 166.
Dr. John Harris, founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values, is also Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.
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