O. J. Padel, Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature

Cover of O. J. Padel's Arthur in Medieval WelshO. J. Padel. Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature. University of Wales Press, 2000. 2nd edition, 2013.

Since the earliest references to King Arthur occur in medieval Welsh poetry, it has been almost de rigeur to assert that Arthur, and hence the ancestry of Arthurian literature and myth, lies in Celtic tales preserved orally and transmitted by Breton conteurs to the Continent only to be returned to Britain in the form of medieval romances belonging to the Matter of Britain (though this theory has undergone some transformations of late). In his now classic bibliographic survey Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History, Roger Sherman Loomis devotes a chapter to Celtic Arthurian literature. Bromwich, Jarman and Roberts followed up in 1991 with the scholarly essay collection Arthur of the Welsh. But until this slim but thorough volume, Padel’s Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature, there has been no survey of the entirety of Medieval Welsh literary references to Arthur.

The book is deceptively slim; 140 pages of generously set 11 point Palatino, digest sized, with a color manuscript detail on the cover. There’s a “Select Bibliography,” and eleven chapters that are thorough without being dense. Padel, a lecturer in Celtic Languages and Literature in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at the University of Cambridge, provides a concise, scholarly, and even-handed survey of Arthurian Welsh literature, from the earliest reference (c. 829-30) in the Historia Brittonum, usually attributed to Nennius, right through to nineteenth century folklore collected in Wales.

Padel establishes right at the start that his subject is the Arthur of Welsh literature, that is, Arthur as a literary and mythological character, thus neatly side-stepping the thorny knots of recent historical studies. The eleven chapters are chronologically ordered, covering, after a succint “Introduction,” “The Earliest Texts,” “Arthur’s World: Culwch and ‘Pa wr yw’r porthor?’,” “Other Texts of the Central Middle Ages,” “Three Dialogue Poems,” “The Matter of Britain,” “The Continuing Tradition,” “Some Arthurian Characters,” “Was there an Arthur of the Welsh?,” and then the “Select Bibliography.”

The texts you’d expect to be discussed (Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and its Welsh version Brut Y Brenhinedd, Y Gododdin, Culwch ac Olwen, “Preiddiau Annwn,” and “The Dream of Rhonawby”) are all here. He also discusses the lesser known texts, including the “dialog” poems, references to Arthur in saint’s lives, and the untitled poem referred to as “Pa gur ” from the opening line “Pa wr yw’r porthor,” preserved only in the Black Book of Carmarthen.

Padel also carefully places these Welsh works within the context of the tradition of continental Arthurian texts, pointing out similarities and differences between Welsh and Continental depictions of Arthur. Although the tone is scholarly, Padel’s style verges on conversational, and he doesn’t assume that his readers are as familiar with his subject as he is. There are enough contextual clues and plot summary that you don’t have to have read deeply in things medieval and Arthurian to feel comfortable and benefit from Padel’s expertise.

Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature provides a solid introduction to a potentially confusing subject in an interesting yet scrupulously scholarly manner. Padel quotes from the Welsh texts where appropriate, yet provides an accurate English translation as well. His “Select Bibliography” is keyed to chapters, allowing easy identification of the secondary sources he cites in the text, as well as the standard scholarly editions of the literary texts themselves. The bibliography is excellent, and is almost startlingly lacking in chaff. This is an useful survey for someone who wants to know “just the basics,” in terms of Arthur in Medieval Welsh literature, and an excellent starting point for someone who wants to do further reading.

UPDATE:The second edition, published in 2013, is largely unchanged, but the addition of a supplementary bibliography makes the second edition even more useful.