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Reviews and Notices of Books.
STUDIES IN THE ARTHURIAN LEGEND. By JOHN RHYS, M.A., Fellow of Jesus College, Professor of Celtic in the University of Oxford. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891. Pp. vi, 411. Price, 12s. 6d.
THIS important work by our distinguished President forms the continuation of his Lectures on Celtic Heathendom, and is an amplification of two of the course delivered by him as Hibbert Lecturer for the year 1886, which could not be included in the volume published by the Hibbert Trustees. A critical notice of that work appeared in our Journal for 1888, p. 359.
The method of interpreting the mythic and heroic tales of the Goidelic and Brythonic Celts adopted in the author's earlier volume has been followed in that which is the subject of the present notice. That is to say, the incidents which make up the great bulk of the romantic literature of the Celtic peoples are explained according to the anthropological method, the presence of the grotesque or the supernatural in them being regarded as the echoes of savage beliefs, and the heroes of the stories as the representatives of forces the action of which was figuratively expressed. As in his earlier work, so now, Professor Rhys, being before aught else a philologist, does not disdain the explanatory system of philology, and by calling the science of language to the aid of anthropology he attains the happiest results without violating the principles of either. By both of these processes the principal personages of Aryan mythology have been transformed into sun-gods, moongoddesses, stellar divinities of greater or less importance, cultureheroes and the like impersonal entities, until the whole tribe of Celtic heroes, about whom our historians have written so much veracious history, are in some danger of disappearing altogether, like "the baseless fabric of a vision", leaving not a single chivalrous knight or beauteous maiden behind.
The Lectures on Celtic Heathendom came upon Welsh scholars with something of a shock, though Professor Rhys was by no means the first to examine and explain Celtic myths according to the methods of Dr. Tylor or Max Müller. Most of the Celtic scholars of France who circle round the Revue Celtique are supporters of the anthropological system of myth interpretation, and several German scholars of eminence adopt the same reasoning with certain importaut modifications. Though not so generally accepted in this country,
the solar myth theory formulated by that school has its able and learned expositors amongst ourselves; and whatever its ultimate fate may be, it cannot be denied that by the careful sifting of the historic from the fictitious, and the comparison of the myths prevalent amongst widely separated peoples, it has aided in the formation of a truly scientific conception of history. Professor Rhys was, however, the first to apply the solar myth solvent to the romantic tales of the Welsh; and having regard to the fact that he was working upon practically untouched material, we think it a matter of regret that he did not devote part of his first Hibbert Lecture to an exposition of the theory he had adopted, and the limits within which he intended to use it in his examination of the Welsh myths.
In the preface to the present volume he excuses his continued use of the terminology of the theory on the ground that it is "so convenient", and that nothing has yet been found exactly to take its place. He, nevertheless, thinks we may be upon the eve of a revolution in respect of mythological questions, "as Mr. Frazer's Golden Bough seems to indicate". If our judgment of that work be correct, the anticipated revolution need not be contemplated with much fear and trembling, for it seems to promise nothing worse than that personages who are now masquerading as solar deities will benceforth have to be content with the humbler rôles of sylvan sprites. Mr. Frazer's volumes form an extraordinary collection of myths, folk-tales, superstitions, and savage practices connected with tree-cult, marshalled in support of the author's conception, that in one stage of savage thought supernatural power was transmitted only by the death of its possessor and the succession of the murderer. The true explanation of the puzzling features of Welsh imaginative literature is so important a desideratum that we recommend the perusal of Mr. Frazer's work to our readers. For ourselves, we have failed to discover in it any portents of revolution; nor, in our opinion, has Mr. Frazer done more than draw particular attention to one phase of primitive belief, to the ignoring of many others for which the evidence is just as good. With this digression we return to the work which is the immediate subject of our present notice.
It was in regard to those characters which might be termed historical, and of whose corporeal existence some of our ablest scholars have never entertained a serious doubt, that Professor Rhys's undefined attitude excited the keenest comment. The Professor did not trouble to make it clear that he was dealing only with the mythic element, the aberglaube, the fabulous accretion around a genuine personage. The atom of fact was forgotten beneath the mountain of fiction, and Arthur, Cuchullain, Taliesin, et hoc genus omne, were shot out," in one wild horror mingled", not into the Carlylean limbo of everlasting night, but into the empyrean where they exist as the objects of a far different study-that of astronomy. The consequence is that Professor Rhys has been requested, upon several occasions, 5TH SER., VOL. VIII. 15
to explain his position a little more clearly in regard to several of the personages with whom he dealt so cavalierly; and, as might have been expected, this has been especially the case in regard to the personality of Arthur. As to the difficult question whether there was a historical Arthur or not, the author so far meets his critics, in the work now before us, as to say:
"One has to notice in the first place that Welsh literature never calls Arthur a gwledig or prince, but emperor; and it may be inferred that his historical position, in case he had such a position, was that of one filling, after the departure of the Romans, the office which under them was that of the Comes Britannia, or Count of Britain. The officer so called had a roving commission to defend the Province wherever his presence might be called for. The other military captains here were the Dux Britanniarum, who had charge of the forces in the north, and especially on the Wall; and the Comes Littoris Saxonici, who was entrusted with the defence of the south-eastern coast of the island. The successors of both these captains seem to have been called in Welsh gwledigs or princes. So Arthur's suggested position as Comes Britannic would be in a sense superior to theirs, which harmonises with his being called emperor, and not gwledig. The Welsh have borrowed the Latin title of imperator, emperor, and made it into amherawdyr; later, amherawdwr; so it is not impossible that, when the Roman imperator ceased to have anything more to say to this country, the title was given to the highest officer in the island, namely the Comes Britannia, and that in the words Yr Amherawdyr Arthur, the Emperor Arthur, we have a remnant of our insular history. If this view be correct, it might be regarded as something more than an accident that Arthur's position relatively to that of the other Brythonic princes of his time is exactly given by Nennius, or whoever it was that wrote the Historia Brittonum ascribed to him. There Arthur is represented fighting in company with the kings of the Brythons in defence of their common country, he being their leader in war (tunc Arthur pugnabat contra illos in illis diebus cum regibus Brittonum, sed ipse dux erat bellorum'). If, as has sometimes been argued (Professor Sayce in The Academy for 1884), the uncle of Maglocunus or Maelgwn, whom the latter is accused by Gildas of having slain and superseded, was no other than Arthur, it would supply one reason why that writer called Maelgwn insularis draco, 'the dragon or war-captain of the island', and why the latter and his successors after him were called by the Welsh, not gwledigs, but kings, though their great ancestor Cunedda was only a gwledig. On the other hand, the way in which Gildas alludes to the uncle of Maelgwn, without even giving his name, would seem to suggest that in his estimation at least he was no more illustrious than his predecessors in the position which he held, whatever that may have been. How then did Arthur become famous above them, and how came he to be the subject of so much story and romance? The answer, in short, which one has to
give to this hard question must be to the effect, that besides a historic Arthur there was a Brythonic divinity named Arthur, after whom the man may have been called, or with whose name his, in case it was of a different origin, may have become identical in sound owing to an accident of speech; for both explanations are possible." (Pp. 7-8.)
It would be important to know when the term amherawdyr first appears in Welsh literature. Its form seems to suggest that it was introduced directly into middle-Welsh at a comparatively late date, rather than to make for its first appearance at the close of the earlyWelsh period. The name of Arthur and the title of Gwledig are found (though not in juxtaposition) in the extraordinary poem of Taliesin's entitled Kadeir Teyrnon (the Chair of Teyrnon), which Dr. Skene does not hesitate to place in his division entitled "Poems referring to Arthur the Guledig." Though not one of them specifically invests Arthur with that title, we are bound to admit they are all sufficiently extravagant to justify Professor Rhys, or anybody else, in any amount of scepticism as to Arthur's bodily existence. The point, however, remains, that if the historic Arthur be regarded as a hero of the Northern Britons, the office he would probably have borne would have represented that of the Dux Britanniarum, in dignity inferior to that of the Comes Britannice. And the fact that Arthur is styled the Dux Bellorum by Nennius, added to the many trifling but converging allusions in the Welsh poems, appears to make for the northern habitat of Arthur. Respect for his friend Mr. Sayce has led Professor Rhys to consider the former's suggestion, that Maelgwn of Gwynedd was Arthur's nephew, more seriously than it deserved. It is no more than pure speculation, with very little to be said in its favour, and very much against. On the other hand, the view that the great Celtic hero's position was that of the Comes Britanniæ, having the general over-lordship of the island, would widen the sphere of his activity, and enable us to locate the scenes of his great battles at various places in England marked out by tradition, by correspondence of name, and by suitability of position,-places he could never have visited had he been merely the leader of the northern host. Our readers who are interested in the historic Arthur probably know that the site of his last great battle, that of Badon (Mons Badonis), has been identified by the late Dr. Guest (who considered Arthur to have been "the nephew of a petty king in the west of Britain") with Badbury Hill in Dorsetshire. (Origines Celticæ, ii, 189.) Dr. Skene, again, has fixed upon Bouden Hill, in Linlithgowshire. (Ancient Books of Wales, i, 58.) It may, therefore, be of moment to state that the opinion of Dr. Guest is also held by Mr. Egerton Phillimore, probably the highest living authority upon the topography of the early Welsh historians and chroniclers. Writing in Y Cymmrodor (xi, p. 76, note 9), Mr. Phillimore observes: "Mount Badon was probably Badbury Hill, in Dorsetshire, not very far from the coast. It is nearly if not quite impossible, for phonetic reasons, that Mons
Badonis can now be represented (as Mr. Skene thought) by Bouden (or Buden) Hill in Linlithgowshire."
While we have been mindful that our business is with history rather than with romance, though the history may be almost buried beneath the enormous overgrowth of fancy, we are not forgetful that Professor Rhys's province (at any rate in the book now before us) is legend, and not fact. So, having collected such notices of the fictitious Arthur scattered throughout medieval romantic literature as were discrepant, having with wonderful patience and skill brought them into accord so as to illustrate the growth of the Arthurian cycle of legends, and having wrought out the connection between the legendary Arthur and other characters of Celtic mythology, Professor Rhys's conclusions upon the position occupied by the great King, given in terms of the solar myth theory of interpretation, are thus stated:
"We have ventured to treat Arthur as a culture-hero; it is quite possible that this is mythologically wrong, and that he should in fact rather be treated, let us say, as a Celtic Zeus. In such a case the whole setting of the theory advocated in these pages would require to be altered, and arguments might be found for so altering it; but on the whole they seem to us to carry less weight than those which favour the treatment of the mythic Arthur as a CultureHero." (P. 24.)
This is accomplished by the much discredited method of philologists, in accordance with which the word "Arthur" is analysed into ar-thur, to be regarded "in its wider sense" as meaning "one who binds or harnesses, or has to do with agriculture"; while the opposing method of anthropologists, by its examination and comparison of different incidents in Arthur's mythic career (such as his journey to the Celtic Hades for the benefit of man), brings us to the same conclusion.
The same measure is dealt out to other important characters of Arthurian romance. Gwenhwyfar, Peredur, Owein, Lancelot, Galahad, and Urien are treated of, and the discords between the many versions of the gallant adventures in which they engage are explained, and often reconciled, with great ingenuity.
The objections which had been taken to Professor Rhys's treatment of Arthur solely as a mythic character present themselves with almost equal force in the case of Urien, Owein, and Geraint. When it is a question of the physical existence of the Round Table knight Gwalchmai, a personage who has no place whatever in Welsh history, but of whom it is stated in the romances, that when engaged in battle his strength grew apace till midday, when it would begin to wane as rapidly, there being no historical difficulty in the way, we can readily accept as adequate the solar explanation of this knight's peculiar attributes. But of Urien, who has been generally recognised as the Urbgen of Nennius (though Professor Rhys doubts the identity on philological grounds), of Owein his son, and of Geraint (ab Erbin), nothing inconsistent with actual fact is