Celtic Influence on Arthurian History

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Readers of Arthurian literature are no doubt familiar with the Celtic shimmerings throughout. Famous examples are the knights Kay (originally Cei) and Gawain (originally Gwalchmai). Celtic legend weaves itself throughout the tapestry of the Arthurian story, from the sword to the stone to the cup to the mystery religions to the very presence of Merlin. A decent understanding of Celtic lore heightens ones appreciation of the wonder that is Arthurian literature. But what of Arthurian fact?

As always, the facts are slim and the proof almost none. But historians make a habit of finding something when they are faced with nothing to go on. Also, some logical conclusions can be made as a result of having no evidence at all.

Previous columns examined the secrecy of the Druids in particular and the Celts in general. Written records were almost nonexistent because the powers that were preferred to pass their secrets and their knowledge by words of mouths. But ties to the Arthurian story can be found herein. To wit, when you cant find something, no matter how hard you try, you can generally assume that it doesnt exist … or that people didnt want it to be remembered.

One of the constant themes of writers contemporary with Arthur is that they didnt know what they were seeing. This interpretation is from modern historians, of course, who tend to see things through hindsight. How could they have not seen how great Arthur was? they will surely say. Yet, historians living in the time of Arthur dont write a whole lot about Arthur the general or the cavalry commander or whatever kind of warrior he really was.

Why? One possibility is that they didnt think much of him, as with Gildas, who was too involved in writing about the destruction of his people s island to hearken back to the glorious time before. Gildas, himself a Catholic monk irritated with the pagan resurgence in Britain, probably had his own agenda in not mentioning Arthur, although he does mention Badon Hill.

Now, the Romans left in the mid-5th century, leaving a tremendous void. It would be only natural for the Celts, one of the powers in Britain before the Romans took over, to step back in and reassert order. And these same Celts did not write things down. This could very well explain why no written records of Arthurs time exist. We know that in the generations following Arthurs, the name Arthur was the most popular in Britain, given to baby boys all over the island. This popularization must have come from somewhere. It is reasonable to assume that a great warrior lent his name to these new boys in the form of a verbal tribute by their mothers to the still-burning memory of a great warrior. Birth records are indeed one form of written records, and they seem to be the only reliable ones we have.

Another form of written record is the place-name. Arthurs Seat and Arthurs Rock and all manner of other Arthurs places dot the British landscape. They are in all corners of the island. As with the birth records, the inspiration for such naming must have come from somewhere. Arthur wasnt a common enough name in those days in those parts. Naming a baby after Arthur or a place after Arthur could very well have been the Britons way of memorializing a great man without writing his history in plain words.

If this all sounds a little vague, thats because it is. We have VERY little to go on in these matters. The Celtic connection is a good one because the Celts were there before Arthur and during Arthur and after Arthur. They saw what they saw, told themselves and nobody else, and took their stories and their secrets to the grave with them. (This, then, is the third and the most likely explanation for why more written records of Arthurs time have not survived: The people who knew the stories died before they could pass those stories on to their descendents or brethren or sistren or others.

The Anglo-Saxons were notorious for writing down just about everything they thought was important. But they wouldnt tell us so much about Arthur because he was the one who threw them back into the sea.

The Celts lent their practices and traditions and faith to the Arthur of literature; to the Arthur of history they left little more than names on a rock formation or a genealogical table. Yet, the Celtic influence can be seen in the Arthur of history. The Round Table, whatever it was, can be seen at its very essence as a loose federation of strong men fighting for a common cause. This was the Celtic tribe. Each tribe had a chieftain, and the tribes did not believe in consolidation. This is not to say that Arthur was just one in a series of rogues in charge of a group of brigands; rather, it is to say that the Celtic model for governing a group of people can be seen in the ideal of the Round Table. The Arthur of history may very well never have sat at a table made of wood in a large castle on a hill, but the Arthur of history very likely was a war leader whose supporters backed him with their swords and their words in the common cause of the defense of the realm.