Arthurian literature is at least as much a specialized area as Celtic literature is, so I shall arbitrarily ignore about 98% of the enormous amount of material on things Arthurian. Here then, is a brief and very opinionated introduction to the central texts in a discussion of Celtic Arthurian literature. Following the introduction is a brief annotated bibliography listing a few of the primary sources, that is the Arthurian texts themselves (usually in translation). Next is a list of some introductory resources, and finally, a few secondary critical analyses with a Celtic bent.
You might also find the Arthurian Literature Timeline of interest. Don’t overlook the many excellent Arthurian web sites, and in particular do visit the Arthurian Literature Basic Reading List created by Judy Shoaf, the Arthurnet list moderator, with suggestions from various Arthurnet list members, and most especially Caitlin Green’s Arthuriana site.
This bibliographic essay is divided into sections, to wit:
- Celtic Arthurian Literature: An Opinionated and Very Brief Introduction
- Primary Sources: Arthurian Literature from England, France, and Wales
- Arthurian Literature: Introductory and Background Reading
- Celtic Arthurian Studies
|Celtic Arthurian Literature:
An Opinionated and Very Brief Introduction
Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, there was a strong current in Arthurian scholarship that seemed to find a Celtic source for every conceivable element and aspect of the Arthurian mythos. Though there are still proponents of Celtic origin theories, they are much less unilateral in their approach. The problem is that there are huge gaps in our knowledge, and in the extant manuscripts, making supporting evidence for Celtic origin and influence theories hard to come by. We have the same problems of missing manuscripts in most of the other areas of Arthurian scholarship. Generally, current scholars tend to agree that the Celtic materials, especially in Welsh, are important analogues, and may provide a guide to the way the Arthurian legends were transmitted.
In the long Welsh poem Y Gododdin, preserved only in the Llyfr Aneirin/Book of Aneirin (now in the National Library of Wales and fully digitzied), the poet Aneirin writes about the battle of Catraeth c.600 CE. He refers to the valor of Gwawrddur who was mighty “though he was no Arthur.” This is the earliest extant known reference to Arthur. There is another poem, in the manuscript known as The Book of Taliesin, which makes a similar reference to Gwawrddur, perhaps inspired by Y Gododdin.
In the Welsh manuscript The Black Book of Carmarthen (Peniarth MS 1) written about 1250 (now in the National Library of Wales and fully digitized), the “Stanzas of the Graves” refer to the death and burial place of various Arthurian personages, including Gwalchmai, Bedwyr, March, and Arthur. In the same manuscript there is a poem that praises Gereint, perhaps the same Gereint who later features in the Welsh Arthurian romance. And there is also an odd but fascinating poem in the form of a dialog between Arthur and his porter, one Glewlwyd Mighty-Grasp. Much of the poem is an excuse to catalog names, both from Arthurian lore, like Cei, and also from Welsh mythology, like references to Mabon son of Modron and Manawydan. There is also a reference to Llacheu the son of Arthur in this poem, and in another elegy. The extant poem is only a fragment, because the Black Book is in poor condition and the leaf is quite damaged.
The Book of Taliesin (Peniarth MS 2, also in the National Library of Wales), mentioned earlier in connection with Gwawrddur, was written about 1275 but contains texts that are themselves much earlier than the manuscript. One of the texts is a poem titled by a later scribe “The Spoils of Annwn.” This poem, first translated by Roger Sherman Loomis in his Arthurian Literature in Wales, tells of an otherworldly raid to Annwn by way of Arthur’s ship Pridwen in an effort to rescue Gwair, a prisoner also referred to in the Welsh triads. The raid was a disaster; three ships embarked on the venture, and only seven men returned. The poem describes a special cauldron belonging to the Head of Annwn, and refers to Pwyll and his son Pryderi, mythic heroes from the first branch of the Welsh Mabinogi. The manuscript also contains an elegy for one Owain son of Urien, a historical person who later becomes thoroughly Arthurianized as the legendary Yvain, the French equivalent of the Welsh name Owain.
Two other Welsh Arthurian texts are also part of the so-called Mabinogion; Culwch ac Olwen/Culwch and Olwen and Breuddwyd Rhonabwy/The Dream of Rhonawby. Culwch and Olwen tells of the tasks that Culwch performs, with the assistance of Arthur and his men, to obtain Olwen, the daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden, as his wife. The Dream of Rhonawby, is a somewhat satirical portrait of Arthur and his men in the form of a dream vision. It includes references to Owain and other Arthurian heroes.
Finally, there are fourteen Welsh triads, short prose pieces in which three things are linked together by a shared characteristic, which refer to Arthurian people and places.
Moving from Wales, and across the channel to France, the route that many theorizie the Arthurian legends themselves traveled, only to cross back from Bretagne thereby returning the Arthurian legends to England in the form of lays told (or performed) by Breton conteurs. In France, Chretien de Troyes, a member of the court of Marie de Champagne and usually described as the first to write Arthurian romances, wrote five French Arthurian romances in the form of long poems between the mid-1150s and 1191 (Lacy, Arthurian Handbook, 80). The relationship between Chretien’s Yvain, Erec and Enide, and Peredur (which Chretien did not finish) and the three Welsh romances that are included in the eleven tales of the Mabinogion, (Owain or The Lady of the Fountain, Gereint and Enid, Peredur son of Efrog,) is not really clear. Either the Welsh texts or the French texts may be the source of the other texts, or both the Welsh and French works may be based on a common but no longer extant ancestor. The theory that the Welsh and French texts have a common ancestor is currently in favor, though the scholarly tide of opinion could, and almost certainly will, change.
Marie de France was a twelfth century poet writing in French (though she may have been English, Anglo-Norman, French or Breton; we don’t know). She may have even lived in England. She wrote a few longer works, but is most famous for her lais, short narrative romances that employ Celtic motifs. Two of her lais,“Chevrefueil” and “Lanval,” are Arthurian. Chevrefueil is a Tristan and Isolde tale, while Lanval is a story of an otherworld journey, a fairy mistress, and Guenevere (she makes a pass at the hero). Tristan and Iseut/Isolde are almostly certainly Celtic; their tale was incorporated into the Arthurian mythos early on.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an anonymous Middle English romance written as a long metrically sophisticated poem. The author also wrote at least three other works, all religious in nature. All four works by the so-called Gawain poet are preserved in a unique manuscript from about 1400, created by a poet in the Northwest English Midlands. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a giant green challenger rides (on a green horse) into Arthur’s court at dinner time on New Year’s and challenges any of the knights to strike off his green head with his green holly-bedecked axe, and then to meet him a year later and allow him to return the favor.
This motif is called the Champion’s Bargain, the Exchange of Blows, or the Beheading game, and it was early identified as a common Celtic, especially Irish, motif. Kittridge, Loomis, Benson et al have identified the medieval Irish tale Fled Bricrend as the ultimate source of the Champion’s Bargain / Exchange of Blows motif in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The rest of the tale involves Gawain’s acceptance of the challenge, his adventures in traveling to the appointed place to meet the challenger and his return blow, and Gawain’s second confrontation with his mysterious green challenger. If the only Middle English you’ve ever read is Chaucer’s, you might want to use a heavily annotated edition like the Malcom Andrew and Ronald Waldron Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, or a translation. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is set in December, and is a wonderful Yule-tide read.
I am including Malory’s Morte D’Arthur in the reading list below, though it is not itself specifically Celtic, because it is the longest version of the Arthurian cycle in English, it draws on lots of the earlier French and Middle English texts, often incorporating them word for word, and it is the version that is most familiar and accessible to those unfamiliar with Middle English.
|Primary Sources: Arthurian Literature
from England, France, and Wales
Culwch ac Olwen/Culwch and Olwen and Breuddwyd Rhonabwy/The Dream of Rhonawby.
Both Culwch ac Olwen and Breuddwyd Rhonabwy are translated in your choice of either the Jones or Gantz Mabinogion. Patrick Ford has a particularly good translation and commentary on Culwch and Olwen, though he doesn’t translate the Dream of Rhonawby. Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans have included extensive English notes in their revised Welsh edition Culwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale.
Ford, Patrick K. trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. ISBN 0520034147.
Amazon catalog page for The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales
Amazon UK catalog page for The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales
Bromwich, Rachel and D. Simon Evans. Culwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992. ISBN 0708313477.
Amazon UK catalog page for Culwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale.
Chretien de Troyes’ Arthurian romances
Personally I prefer the Kibler and Carroll translation or the Owen translation from Everyman to the earlier and now out of print translation by William W. Comfort.
de Troyes, Chretien. Arthurian Romances. Trans. by William W. Kibler and Carleton W. Carroll. New York and London: Penguin Books, 1991. ISBN 0140445218.
Amazon catalog page for Arthurian Romances
Amazon UK catalog page for Arthurian Romances
Sir Thomas Malory Works; Le Morte D’Arthur
The Vinaver edition is based on the Winchester Manuscript found in the 1930s. The Winchester ms. looks like it might have been the one that Caxton, who printed the first edition of Malory, used and revised. The Caxton version is used in the two volume Penguin Books Le Morte D’Arthur. Whether one uses the Winchester or the Caxton is a religious issue in Arthurian scholarship; I have no strong feelings either way. (I realize my lack of an opinion regarding this issue is shocking, and I am endeavoring to develop an intense hatred of one or the other version.)
Malory, Sir Thomas. Malory Works. Ed. Eugene Vinaver. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954; second ed. 1967 reprt. 1983. ISBN 0192812173.
Amazon catalog page for Malory Works
Amazon UK catalog page for Malory Works.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur Vol. I and II. Ed. Janet Cowen; introduction by John Lawlor. London; New York: Penguin Books, 1969. Vol. I ISBN 0140430431. Vol. II ISBN 014043044X.
Amazon catalog page for Vol. I.
Amazon catalog page for Vol. II
Amazon UK catalog page for Vol. I
Amazon UK catalog page for Vol. II
Marie de France’ Lais
I don’t have a favorite translation, though the Penguin is certainly easier to find. Avoid Eugene Mason’s translation at all costs; it is quite dreadful and Ewert’s isn’t much better.
Hanning, Robert and Joan Ferrante. trans. The Lais of Marie de France. Marie de France. E. P. Dutton: New York, 1978.
Burgess, Glyn S. and Keith Busby. trans. The Lais of Marie de France. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1986. ISBN 0140444769.
Amazon catalog page for The Lais of Marie de France
Amazon UK catalog page for The Lais of Marie de France
Marged Haycock’s translation is an edition with commentary, and it includes the Welsh text and a glossary. The Loomis version and his commentary is still worth taking a look at, though Haycock’s edition has superceded it.
Preiddeu Annwn. Ed. and trans. Marged Haycock. “‘Preiddeu Annwn’ and the Figure of Taliesin.” Studia Celtica XVIII/XIX (1983-84): 52-78.
Loomis, Roger Sherman. “The Spoils of Annwn: An Early Welsh Poem.” Wales and the Arthurian Tradition. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1956. pp. 131-78.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Tolkien and Gordon edition, revised by Davis, is the standard scholarly edition in Middle English, finally back in print in the U. S. Malcom Andrew and Ronald Waldron have an excellent student edition of the Middle English text, with lots of helpful annotations, in their The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript. There are many translations. Three relatively easy to find translations are those by J. R. R. Tolkien, Marie Boroff, and Brian Stone. Of late, I am increasingly impressed by William Vantuono’s 1991 facing page edition, with his newly edited Middle English, a good translation on the facing page, and a complete and very well thought out scholarly apparatus.
Tolkien, J. R. R. and E. V. Gordon eds; 2nd edition by Norman Davis. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967. ISBN 0198114869.
Amazon catalog page for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Amazon UK catalog page for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Andrew, Malcom and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978; paperback 1982. Third ed. 1997. ISBN 0859895149.
Amazon catalog page for The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript
Amazon UK catalog page for The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript
Marie Boroff. Trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967. ISBN 0393097544.
Amazon catalog page for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation
Amazon UK catalog page for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation
Brian Stone. Trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York and London: Penguin Books, 1959; second edition 1979. ISBN 0140440925.
Amazon catalog page for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Amazon UK catalog page for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
J. R. R. Tolkien. Trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. New York: Ballantine Books, 1975; repr. 1988. ISBN 0345277600.
Amazon catalog page for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.
William Vantuono. Ed. and Trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Garland, 1991. ISBN 0824060989.
Amazon ctalog page for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The Welsh Triads
The standard edition of the triads, and an invaluable resource, is by Rachel Bromwich. Bromwich includes an Introduction, notes, all the triads in Welsh and in English, and various indices of names, etc. The third edition has been scheduled for about a year, and should be out very soon.
Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Ed. and trans. Rachel Bromwich. University of Wales Press: Cardiff, 1978; Second edition 1991; third ed. 1999?.
Amazon UK catalog page for Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads
The Jarman is an edition intended for students, with standarized modern Welsh orthography, a facing page English translation, an extensive introduction, notes, glossary, and a full bibliography. The standard edition is still that of Ifor Wiliams, and Jackson offers a close translation. Recently John T. Koch has prepared an entirely new edition and translation, with extensive commentary.
Jarman, A. O. H. Ed. and trans. Y Gododdin. Llandysul, Dyfed, Wales: The Gomer Press, 1990.
Ifor Wiliams Canu Aneirin Caerdydd, 1938; reprinted 1970.
K. H. Jackson The Gododdin. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Paperbacks, 1978.
Introductory and Background Reading
Knight, Stephen Thomas. Arthurian Literature and Society. London: Macmillan, 1983. This is one of the first attempts to deal with Arthurian literature as literature within a socio-historical context. Knight concentrates on the early Welsh and British material in his first chapter, Monmouth’s Historia in the second, Chretien’s Yvain, or Le Chevalier au Lion in the third, Malory in the fourth, Tennyson in the fifth, and Twain’s A Connectiruct Yankee in the fifth. This is one of my favorite studies of Arthurian literature.
Lacy, Norris J. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1996. ISBN 0815323034 . This is probably the best overall book on Arthurian literature you can buy; it’s extremely well done, with the entries all made by leading scholars with good bibliographic suggestions. Make sure you get the updated paperback New Arthurian Encyclopedia; it is not only much cheaper it is also the latest edition.
Amazon catalog page for The New Arthurian Encyclopedia
Amazon UK catalog page for The New Arthurian Encyclopedia
Lacy, Norris J., Geoffrey Ashe and Debra N. Mancoff. The Arthurian Handbook. New York: Garland, 1988; second edition 1997. ISBN 0815320817. This book is a critical survey of all of Arthurian literature, from all countries, and from the very beginning in the fifth century to twentieth century Arthurian fantasy fiction. The book is divided into five chapters; Origins, Early Arthurian Literature, Modern Arthurian Literature, Arthurian literature in the Arts, Conclusion. More than half the book is a Glossary of things Arthurian; there are entries for individual characters,places and authors.Though there is some duplication with The New Arthurian Encyclopedia the Handbook is still a very useful introduction either on its own or as a companion to the Arthurian texts themselves.
Amazon catalog page for The Arthurian Handbook
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Loomis, Roger Sherman. ed. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages. This is still a good starting place since it contains authoritative (though a bit outdated) essays on the historical references and surveys of the Arthurian literature in various languages. Long out of print, it’s still a standard and it’s quite likely in a library near you.
Wilhelm, James. Ed. The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation. (Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, Vol 1267) Garland Pub Trade, 1994. ISBN 0815315112. This single volume edition combines and adds to the material in the earlier two volume edition. An anthology of critical essays, excerpts and short works, it is a good all-in-one introduction to Medieval English, French, and Welsh Arthurian tales. It includes essays on Arthur in the Latin Chronicles and in the Early Welsh Tradition, and a good selection of Arthurian literature: Culwch and Olwen, Arthur related excerpts from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troyes’ Lancelot, or The Knight of the Cart and Yvain, Peredur Son of Efrog, extracts from Wace and Layamon, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Alliterative Morte Arthure, Malory Le Morte Darthur, Marie de France’s Chievrefueil, Graelent, Beroul’s Tristan, and excerpts from the Tristan of Thomas, the French Prose Merlin and the Suite de Merlin.
Amazon catalog page for The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation
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|Celtic Arthurian Studies|
Bromwich, Rachel, and A. O. Jarman, Brynley F. Roberts Eds. The Arthur of the Welsh: the Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991. ISBN 0708311075.
Amazon catalog page for The Arthur of the Welsh: the Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature
Bromwich, Rachel. “Celtic Dynastic Themes and the Bretons Lays.” ´E;tudes Celtique 9 (1960–61): 439-71.
Bromwich, Rachel. “Celtic Elements in Arthurian Romance: A General Survey.” The Legend of Arthur in the Middle Ages: Studies Presented to A. H. Diverres. Eds. P. B. Grout, R. A. Lodge, C. E. Pickford and E. K. C. Varty. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1983. 41-55.
Bromwich, Rachel. “The Celtic Inheritance of Medieval Literature.” Modern Language Quarterly XXVI no. 1 March 1965): 203-27.
Ford, Patrick K. “On the Meaning of Some Arthurian Names.” Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 30 (1983): 268-73.
Ford, Patrick K. “The Death of Merlin in the Chronicle of Elis Gruffydd.” Viator 7 (1976): 379-90.
Gillies, William. “Arthur in Gaelic Tradition Part I: Folktales and Ballads.” Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 2 (Winter 1981): 42-72. “Arthur in Gaelic Tradition Part II: Folktales and Ballads” is in CMS 3 (Summer 1982): 41-74.
Goodrich, Peter. Ed. The Romance of Merlin: An Anthology. New York: Garland, 1990. ISBN 0824070429. This is an anthology of literature about or related to Merlin from the middle ages to this century. It’s a good starting place for Merlin studies. It includes many of the basic Arthurian texts from France, England, and Wales either in their entirety or as generous excerpts in translation with critical introductions and some useful discussions of the important issues.
Gowans, Linda. Cei and the Arthurian Legend. Cambridge, England and Wolfeboro N.H.: D. S. Brewer, 1988.
Jarman, A. O. H. “The Arthurian Allusions in the Book of Aneirin.” Studia Celtica XXIV/XXV (1989-90): 16-25.
Jarman, A. O. H. “The Arthurian Allusions in the Black Book of Carmarthen.” The Legend of Arthur in the Middle Ages: Studies Presented to A. H. Diverres. Eds. P. B. Grout, R. A. Lodge, C. E. Pickford and E. K. C. Varty. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1983. 99-112.
Jarman, A. O. H. “The Delineation of Arthur in Early Welsh Verse.” An Arthurian Tapestry: Essays in Memory of Louis Thorpe. Ed. Kenneth Varty. Glasgow: Glasgow University Press, 1981. 1-21.
Koch, John T. “The Celtic Lands.” in Medieval Arthurian Literature: A Guide to Recent Research. New York: Garland, 1996. 239-322. ISBN 0815321600. This is a survey, language by language, of recent scholarship. Koch’s overview of Celtic Arthurian literature is thorough, scholarly, and opinionated, (all virtues, in my opinion) and precedes a good bibliography of recent publications. It’s not cheap, so you might want to try the library first.
Loomis, Roger Sherman. Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance. New York, Columbia University Press, 1927; repr. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishing, 1996. ISBN 0897334361. From about 1930 through the mid-sixties there was a very active group of scholars now referred to as the Celtic School. The group included Roger Sherman Loomis, Jesse Weston, and William Nitze, among others. Though they were not the first to suggest that Arthurian romance had its roots in Celtic tales, they were responsible for attempting to explore that question. Some of the scholars, especially Loomis, now seem a bit extreme, and (particularly in terms of Celtic linguistics and language) need to be treated with caution and a fair amount of salt. However, they all made significant contributions, and were working in an era when many of the facsimiles, editions, and dictionaries we now rely on were not available. Loomis and Weston in particular are also important because of their translations.
Amazon catalog page for Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance
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Loomis, Roger Sherman. Wales and the Arthurian Legend. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1956; reprint Pennsylvania: The Folcraft Press, 1969.
Padel, O. J. Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature. Writers of Wales Series. University of Wales Press, 1991. ISBN 0708316824. This is a very readable, but very scholarly, and extremely useful introduction. I’ve a more in depth review I wrote for The Green Man Review here.
Amazon catalog page for Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature.
Amazon UK catalog page for Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature.
Paton, Lucy Allen. Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance. Boston, Ginn, 1903. Paton was a student of Loomis (you will note he wrote a preface and an afterword to the second edition). She was the strongest supporter of the theory that the Irish Morrígan was the direct ancestor of Morgan Le Fay, a tempting theory that has long since been discarded for both linguistic and thematic reasons. Rachel Bromwich in Trioedd Ynis Prydein has the best summary of the evidence against Paton and Loomis’ argument. Modron as a potential ancestor or relative of Morgan Le Fay is still possible albeit unlikely, according to Bromwich.