The Mabinogion tale known as Owain (more properly called Chwedl Iarlles Ffynawn ‘The Story of the Lady of the Fountain’) is widely regarded as the most accessible and artistically successful of the Welsh Romances. There is an elegance and structural perfection about this tale which distinguishes it from the other rhamantau, and perhaps accounts for its enduring popularity with readers both modern and medieval. The same is true of its Old French counterpart Yvain – more properly known as Le Chevalier au Lion – which has also been considered one of the signal works of this type. The great French medievalist Jean Frappier described it as the chef d’oeuvre of Chrétien’s Arthurian Romances, while one of the key British editors of the Chrétien corpus described Yvain as ‘the most characteristic’ of the Romances.i If this is indeed the case, then the origins and antecedents of this archetypical High Medieval Romance are of unusual interest.
Owain – on the surface at least – exhibits a similar relationship to the French romance tradition that we find in Geraint. Episode-by-episode, there is a correspondence with Chrétien’s Yvain; however this was also very much a Welsh tale, narrated within a distinctively Welsh idiom. The discursive style of Chrétien’s romances: its educated references to Ovid and Macrobius, and chatty reflections on the various aspects of the human condition – all of these are entirely absent in Owain and the other Welsh chwedlau. Here, there is no distinct authorial voice, no knowing asides to the readers: the narrative flow is confined to the external. Events and details are made to speak for themselves: creating an almost cinematic effect analogous to the camera panning and finally centring on a significant object ii . Although it would be quite wrong to suggest that complex structures of meaning are not actively developed within the Medieval Welsh chwedlau, the communication of this meaning is always delivered implicitly, as we will consider in more detail below. The sens of the story is never discussed openly, or consciously explored, as it is in Chrétien’s romances. Where a particular emotional situation needs to be articulated in human terms, this is always done through the voices of the characters involved, never by means of the direct authorial commentary.
Stripped of its learned references and courtly asides, it is easier to see this version of Yvain in terms of the 'traditional tale', as close in form to the peasant völkmarchen as to the High Medieval Romance. In this respect, Owain and the other Three Romances – despite being later compositions – are rather less sophisticated than the Four Branches, and perhaps closer than the latter to the oral background. The oral background is evident in other ways as well. We have seen how these Welsh versions were retold with all the formulaic phrasing of typical the local narrative tradition. This use of repetition itself is characteristic of oral performance, and no doubt best appreciated within such a context. Likewise, the notorious ‘inconsistencies’ which dog the Welsh tales even more than their continental counterparts, would be less likely to trouble the aural listener than they might the attentive private reader. The Welsh-specific word-play found in Owain iii is further suggestive of the oral milieu; and also confirms the author/redactor’s skill as a literary artist in his own right. Features such as these have led some critics to see Owain in particular as a relatively autonomous Welsh creation – perhaps even an independent offshoot of the same original Brythonic tradition that inspired Chrétien’s Yvain in the first instance.
Both Owain and his father Urien were significant figures within the Welsh tradition, and appear to have been based on genuine historical persons. iv The ninth-century Cambro-Latin text Historia Brittonum describes a certain Urbgen (Urien) as one of the four British kings to have fought against the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria during the reigns of Hussa and Theodric in the final quarter of the sixth century. A contemporary picture of Urien (and also of his son Owain) survives in the praise poems of the so-called ‘historical’ Taliesin. Here Urien is described in the highly stylised idiom of the bardic encomium, but nonetheless a vivid portrait of a powerful Dark Age warlord emerges – surrounded (to use the words of Ifor Williams) either ‘by the sound of galloping horses or of carousal’, a generous friend but a fearsome opponent.
The territory of Urien and Owain was the kingdom of Rheged, which appears to be centred on the Solway Firth basin, possibly extending northwards some way into Dumfriesshire and Galloway. The poems describe the dynasty as having a stronghold in Catterick, and there is some suggestion that the kings of Rheged may have also exercised hegemony southwards over a wide area of northwest England extending deep into the Yorkshire dales and Lancashire, possibly even as far south as Rochdale (if the derivation Rhachet < OW Reget can be accepted). v As the early poems imply, his main enemies were the Angles of Northumbria, but it can also be supposed that he would have at times fought with other the Celtic peoples of the North, including his Brythonic neighbours in kingdoms such as Elmet (West Yorkshire), Lothian (Edinburgh) and Strathclyde (around Dumbarton and the Glasgow area). Indeed, a tradition preserved in Welsh and Cambro-Latin sources from ninth- or tenth-century Wales would seem to suggest that he was killed by the English after being betrayed by rival British kings Gwallawg and Morcant, vi who may even have been his one-time clients. Whether or not these dark hints have been accurately interpreted, there is no doubt that Urien and Owain were among the most powerful of the kings of the Hen Gogledd, whose untimely demise was seen as the beginning of the end of Brythonic power in the north. Such individuals would be a natural focal point for the residual mythological lore of the region – a process which may have begun, as we shall see, with the political self-aggrandisement of the Rheged kings themselves.
Of particular interest here is a hagiographic legend preserved in the fragmentary Latin Life St. Kentigern, in which Owain (called Ewen in this text) is described as fathering a child on the daughter of the King of Leudonia (which is generally identified with the old kingdom of Lot or Lothian in southeastern Scotland), after a protracted seduction. Underlying this account, as we will consider in more detail below, would seem to be some sort of tribal-historic legend asserting the claim of House of Rheged to the matrilinear Pictish-influenced territories of the eastern border region. It was this material that seems to have found its way into the Welsh narrative culture, and thence into the mouths of the itinerant Cambro-Norman or Breton conteurs from whom Chrétien de Troyes (directly or otherwise) seems to have received his inspiration for the tale of Yvain. Whether the Welsh tale of Owain itself represents a ‘re-importation’, deriving from this French rendition or whether it represents an independent reworking of the native source itself is a question which we will, for the time being, put to one side. All that needs to be said at this stage is that Owain (Yvain) was an unambiguously North British hero, and the tale of his seduction of the Lady of the Fountain had been known - in one form or another - to Brythonic audiences for some time before Chrétien composed his Romance in the 1170s.
With this Northern British context in mind, we will now examine the narrative sequence of Owain. Like most Arthurian Romances, it begins at Arthur’s court in Caerleon (reflecting the influence of Geoffrey and his school). The king and his knights are depicted as relaxing at the hall, before the former opts to withdraw from the company. At that point the knights begin bantering and telling stories, and are joined at this stage (significantly) by the queen. One of the knights present, named as Cynon son of Clydno in the Welsh tale, begins to describe a strange adventure in which he ‘wandered the remote and uninhabited regions of the world’ in search of a worthy opponent. He finds himself walking down a beautiful valley at the end of which was a broad plain and a ‘great shining castle’ with the sea behind it. The castle is home to a yellow-haired lord who shares it with twenty-four maidens ‘the least of whom was more beautiful than Gwenhwyfar.’ Cynon is given lavish accommodation, and while dining with the lord and the maidens he is told of a nearby wooded valley, where there is a mound on which a hideous ogre described as ‘the keeper of the forest’ who will direct the questing knight towards his desired goal. The description given of this forest-dwelling monster appears to reach far back into the more archaic strata of the Celtic imaginationvii:
“…you will see on top of the mound an enormous black-haired man no smaller than two men of this world. And he has one foot, and he has one eye in the middle of his forehead; and he has an iron club which I assure you would take two men of this world to lift. He is not a violent man, but he is ugly. And he is keeper of that forest. You will see a thousand wild animals grazing around him.” viii
The next day, following the yellow-haired lord’s directions, he retraces his footsteps up the valley but branches off to the right, before eventually arriving at the mound where he encounters the black-haired giant, whose appearance was even more hideous than the lord at the Castle of the Maidens had described. He demonstrates a strange power over the multitude of wild animals that surround him, who ‘did homage to him as obedient men would do to their lord’ix , recalling the primordial ‘master of the animals’ figure found in pagan Celtic iconography.x (Comparisons also might be made with the chthonic Pen Annwn figure we have discussed in the context of the First Branch.) He abuses Cynon rudely, but nonetheless, as the fair-haired lord had suggested that he would, shows him the way out of the clearing and directs him towards his goal.
The giant instructs Cynon to follow the path to the end of the clearing and climb the hill behind it. From there, he is told, he will see a broad valley:
“And in the middle of the valley you will see a great tree, its branches greener than the greenest fir trees. And under that tree is a well, and near the well is a marble slab, and on the slab there is a silver bowl fastened to a silver chain so they cannot be separated. Take the bowl and throw a bowlful of water over the slab. And then you will hear a tumultuous noise, and think that heaven and earth are trembling with the noise. And after the noise there will be a very cold shower – a shower of hailstones – and it will be difficult for you to survive it. And after the shower there will be fine weather. And there will not be one leaf on the tree that the shower will not have carried away. And then a flock of birds will alight on the tree, and you have never heard in your country such singing as theirs. And when you are enjoying the singing the most you will hear a great groaning and moaning coming towards you along the valley. And with that you will see a knight on a pure black horse, dressed in brocaded silk of pure black, with a banner of pure black linen on his spear. And he will attach you as quickly as he can. If you flee, he will catch up with you; if you wait for him on horseback, he will leave you on foot. And if you do not find trouble there, you will not need to look for it as long as you live.” xi
Cynon follows the ogre’s directions and arrives at the well. He then pours the water on the slab, which has the effect that the giant predicted. The Black Knight then arrives and attacks Cynon, who is given a sound thrashing and chased away from the well. He flees back to the clearing where the one-eyed giant is waiting, and the latter subjects him to a mockery so severe he considers it “surprising I did not melt into a pool of liquid for shame”. He then returns to the castle of the fair-haired lord and the twenty four maidens, where he is well-looked after and equipped with a new horse for his journey home.
Cynon’s account of his adventure is significant in a number of ways, not least because it serves as a prelude to the adventure of the main hero Owain, who on hearing it is immediately seized with an impulse to seek out the fountain domain. As Anne Wilson suggests of the parallel episode in Yvain: ‘this first [episode] seems to express a vision of the hero’s desires and how they might be achieved’. Owain effectively re-traces Cynon’s footsteps: lodging with the yellow-haired lord and the maidens, parleying with the Keeper of the Forest, pouring water on the marble slab and thus summoning the irate Black Knight. Owain, however, unlike Cynon is victorious in this last encounter, and ends up pursuing the mortally-wounded guardian of the well back to his castle, thus taking us on to the next stage of the adventure.
Before we move on to ‘the Fountain Castle’ episode, there are some aspects of this earlier account which would bear further examination. First, there is the identity of Cynon ap Clydno himself, who is by no means unknown elsewhere within the Welsh traditions. He appears in the Gododdin, the Old Welsh roll-call of northern heroes who were involved in the unsuccessful attempt to seize of the fortress of Catraeth (Catterick) from the Northumbrian Angles. Cynon, significantly perhaps, is identified as the sole survivor of this disastrous adventure. The attack on Catraeth is thought to have taken place around 600 AD, and the core of the poem is generally agreed to be more or less contemporary with that event – suggesting that Cynon’s pedigree as a hero of the Old North may be very old indeed. His father Clydno Eidyn is also a well-established figure in the verse and genealogies of the Old North, whose sobriquet suggests a connection with the Edinburgh area (Din Eidyn, or Edinburgh, also being the location from which the Goddodin heroes gathered over the year before their long march down to Catterick).
Owain son of Urien, we might remember, was a genuine historical figure who seems to have thrived in sixth century Rheged, and his association with this other well-known Man of the North is one of a number of suggestions that the source-tradition was a northern dynastic legend which seems to have provided the Welsh Romance of Owain with additional material not found in Chrétien’s Yvain (and vice versa). In this respect, the accumulated evidence of this northern background might be seen as supportive of the ‘common source’ theory. This is a question to which we will return. However, for the moment, the key point to take on board is the possible significance of the fact that Cynon is a Lothian hero, associated with the Southeast of Scotland, just as Owain is a Rheged hero associated with the western area of the border region. Some interesting possibilities emerge when we consider the likelihood that these details were present in the original tradition which may well have been contingent on the wider social context of the sub-Roman north. In terms of the inter-tribal politics of the region, it would have been regarded as significant that Owain (the Rheged hero) succeeded where Cynon (the Lothian contender) had failed in what has often been read as magico-mythical bid for Sovereignty. As with much of the early Brythonic tradition, the focus of interest here seems to have been geo-political – a question of which groups or individuals had rights over which territorial claims, and for what reasons. There are reasons, as we will see, for believing that the source tradition underlying both Owain and Yvain may have been a tribal-political tractate of this kind, justifying the extension of a Rheged-based hegemony over the Eastern Scottish borders, and perhaps North Britain as a whole.
In the sixth and seventh centuries, when the Brythonic traditions of the Hen Gogledd were in their formative phase, the hegemony of the North was a live political issue. The strength of the Northumbrian advance had already destroyed a number of the smaller Brythonic kingdoms, and (as the saga englynnion tradition tends to imply) the ability of the North British combrogi to mount a concerted resistance was seriously undermined by factional in-fighting and rivalry between local dynasties. Under these conditions it would not be surprising if the House of Rheged, as the strongest of these kingdoms, might have presented itself as the potential rallying point of a pan-Brythonic northern coalition (much as Gwynedd was to do, with some success, in Wales in the thirteenth century in response to the Anglo-Norman threat). Rumours of Owain’s supernatural origins, as well as his seduction of the King of Leudonia’s daughter – apparently staples of Bythonic mythical lore – may well have begun life as articles of inter-dynastic propaganda arising from this particular sub-Roman North British context.
So what else can be said of the Fountain Adventure hitherto? We will note the appearance of the ‘keeper of the forest’ – a monstrous, hulking figure which, as we suggested, seems to emerge from the more archaic strata of the Celtic imagination (see n. vi below). Structurally, as well, this figure has a well-defined place within narratives of this kind. A comparison might be drawn with the monstrous shepherd encountered by the heroes as they approach Ysbaddaden’s fortress during the early stages of Culhwch ac Olwen. Indeed, this entire sequence is so reminiscent of the early stages of the Fountain Adventure it is worth quoting in full:
They travelled until they came to a great plain, and they could see a fort, the largest fort in the world. They walk that day until evening. When they thought they were close to the fort, they were no closer than in the morning. And the second and the third day they walked, and with difficulty they got there. And when they got close to the fort they could see a huge flock of sheep without boundary or border to it, and a shepherd on top of the mound tending the sheep, and a jacket of skins about him, and a shaggy mastiff beside him, bigger than a nine-year old stallion. It was his custom that he never lost a lamb, much less a grown animal. Any dead tree or bush, his breath would burn them to the very ground.xii
Like the ‘keeper of the forest’, this skin-clad ruffian assails the adventurers rudely, but nonetheless offers them guidance and hospitality. The adventurers end up staying with the shepherd and his wife, the latter turning out to be Culhwch’s kinswoman. This stage of the journey represents a parallel juncture to Cynon and Owain’s sojourn at the castle of the fair-haired lord and the twenty-four maidens. The first sub-tale of the First Branch echoes this configuration of an encounter with a rather sinister otherworld figure in a forest, leading to the hero’s arrival at a ‘female’ domain (in this case the court of Arawn, in which the lord is absent and Pwyll is expected to sleep with his wife). The eighth century Irish wonder-tale Immram Brain also features an encounter with an uncanny male otherworld figure (Manannán mac Lír) in the liminal area ‘between worlds’, prior to the arrival of the Island of Women. Thus we might see both the lodging with the twenty-four maidens and the encounter with the Keeper of the Forest as traditional nodes in the deep-rooted Celtic fantasy structure of the Echtrai or Otherworld Journey, confirming the essentially native provenance of the narrative architecture of Owain.
However, there are particular details in the description of the castle of the fair-haired lord and the twenty-four maidens which may be of more specific significance. As pointed out by R. S. Loomis, Edinburgh was sometimes referred to as the Castellum Puellarum ‘Castle of Maidens’ in medieval legal documentation. This usage goes back at least as far as 1143, and may well be based on earlier tradition.xiii Could this be the same castle of twenty-four maidens presided over by the yellow-haired Lord, encountered by Cynon and Owain? This identification would certainly be consistent with the notion of an adventure that begins in Carlisle (as is the case in Chrétien’s Yvain), and involves the hero wandering the ‘wilderness and uninhabited places’ (i.e. the Caledonian forest and southern uplands) before emerging onto the Lothian plain, from which Edinburgh’s Castle Rock would have risen majestically, with the sea sparkling in the background – just as described in Owain. Despite the notoriously vague geography of the Arthurian Romances,xiv we might conject that such a journey was an integral feature of the northern source tradition drawn on by the medieval Romancers, which would be entirely consistent with the regional affiliations of Cynon and Owain respectively.
The ‘Castle of Maidens’ first encountered by Cynon and Owain is best understood as a prelude to the episode of the Fountain Castle. The latter, it should be noted, was another female-dominated domain with toponymic connections to the Edinburgh region (through the name of its countess). The Fountain Castle episode lies at the heart of the Romance, and the name of the Welsh version, Chwedl Iarlles y Ffynawn ‘The Tale of the Lady of the Fountain’, concentrates the focus on its resident chatelaine. This eponymous lady is evidently related in some way to ‘the daughter of the King of Leudonia’ of the aforementioned Life of Kentigern. Chrétien’s informant seems to have remembered this connection and the name of the equivalent figure in his tale is Laudine of Landuc, daughter of the Duke Laudenet ‘of whom a lay is sung’. The significance of this figure is important to consider if we are to understand the nature of the source material used by Chrétien, and how the French Romancer deployed this material in order to construct the ‘magical plot’ mechanism so characteristic of High Medieval Romance.
We might note at this point that in the tale of Yvain/Owain we have one of the most nakedly unambiguous representations of the sovereignty complex extant in the medieval literary tradition. The consort of the Lady of the Fountain is a figure simply known as the Black Knight in the Welsh tale, and it becomes clear as the tale progresses that, like the office of the Priest of Nemi, his was a role that is occupied by the killer of the previous incumbent. The chief responsibility of the Black Knight is the defence of a certain magical well, which seems to be connected in some way to the thunder, rain and the fertility of the surrounding land. After the death of the first Black Knight, the Lady of the Fountain is advised by her maidservant Luned (of whom, more below) that ‘unless you defend the well you cannot defend your kingdom’, and for this reason she would be best advised to take another husband who would be capable of this task. When Owain is put forward by the maidservant as a possible candidate for the role, the Lady of the Fountain initially expresses horror that she should marry the killer of her former husband. The maidservant’s retort to this objection states with brutal clarity the ruthless pragmatism of the sovereignty complex:
‘All the better for you, lady; had he not been stronger than your lord, he would not have taken his life. Nothing can be done about that,’ she said, ‘since it is over and done with.’xv
The lady takes the matter to the people of her kingdom, and even offers her own hand in marriage to any one of her countrymen prepared to ‘defend her kingdom’. None are brave enough to accept the offer, so she marries Owain who then became the Black Knight ‘defending the well with spear and sword’, defeating all rival contenders and ransoming their horses and armour to the general enrichment of the kingdom.
Thus the fantasy at the heart of the sovereignty complex is represented in all its terrible glory. Ultimately, this is a throwback to the primitive mental horizons of the primal horde – in which the strongest alpha males contest for a position of dominance over the food supplies and sexual favours of the females of the tribe. These atavistic psycho-social patterns survived in pagan antiquity as the researches of J. G. Frazer have suggested, in partially sublimated cult-forms: such as the warrior-priests of the grove of Nemi; or the taboos, myths and rituals surrounding ancient Irish kingship. By defeating the former Black Knight, marrying his widow, and ascending to the kingship himself, Owain is enacting this primal fantasy which, as we have already seen, appears to have exerted an irresistible attraction on the young rouge males of the feudal world.
It is significant here that the chief focus of this part of the Romance involves the defence of a magic well or fountain. In this image there would appear to be further evidence of that mysterious (and as yet, poorly understood) link between the imagery of the Romance and the magico-religious horizons of the pre-Christian world. Rivers, lakes and (in particular) springs or wells were focal points on the ritual landscape of the Celtic-speaking areas Britain and Ireland for the best part of three millennia. Coins, metalwork and animal remains were among the votive offerings frequently found at such locations – and the practice of tying ‘wishing rags’ to trees at such locations, or leaving food offerings in these sacred waters is not unknown in certain remote rural areas even to this day. Significantly, rivers were personified as female divinities in the Celtic world, with the River Marne in Gaulish France being named, as we have seen, after the great mother goddess Matrona. Other attested Celtic river goddesses include the Romano-British Coventina and the Irish Boanda, tutelary spirit of the River Boyne. Within the context of a pastoral, cattle-based culture such as would have typified much of the pre-modern Celtic world, it is not hard to see how a river system could acquire nurturing or even maternal connotations. It seems to have been in this regard that the well or spring seems to have become closely associated with the goddess cult in the Celtic world, and through that acquired its totemic significance as the focus of desire in the sovereignty complex represented beneath the magical plot of Owain.
So Owain/Yvain represents a scenario in which a young knight-errant takes a territory by force, having killed the previous sovereign and appropriated the latter’s sexual and economic privileges. In its medieval form, we can see that this fantasy structure would have exerted a powerful fascination for the landless males amongst the feudal aristocracy – for whom the strictures of primogeniture and the marital code of the Augustinian church would have limited the opportunities for both property acquisition and legitimate sexual relations. But, as we have already considered, the fantasy of a regicidal seizure of economic and sexual privileges also violated a complex of moral taboos which lay at the very heart of the Christian, chivalric society of the High Medieval period. This problematic contradiction seems to have created a peculiar and highly-charged psychic tension, specific to the social environment of the European Middle Ages, which was essentially what was explored and diffused by the literary process we have referred to as the magical plot.
The magical plot, as we have seen through our analysis of Geraint, works through a process by which the illicit fantasy is first evoked (sometimes covertly) and then sanitised through a series of displacements and compensatory manoeuvres. An important aspect of this displacement in the case of Owain (and its French equivalent) is the role of maidservant Luned. Now, the name of this character (with its non-lenited single L-) would seem to indicate that it is borrowed directly from the French Lunette (the name of the equivalent character in Yvain), and we might conject that her presence in the tale was an innovation of Chrétien’s, rather than an inherent part of the British source traditionxvi . This is important with regards to the wider question of the question of origins and influence, the so-called mabinogionfrage. A close examination of Lunette’s role and function sheds some interesting light on the nature of the input from the French poet to the genre of Arthurian Romance, and his role in the development of the narrative architecture of the magical plot.
The etymology of the name ‘Lunette’ is itself not without significance. Literally meaning ‘little moon’, the word is often used in an architectural context to denote a small semi-circular window in a dome or above a doorway. Here we may have an example of Chrétien’s ingenious (if rather un-Welsh) tendency towards the allegorical, for this is precisely comparable to role and position of this figure in terms of the architecture of the magical plot. To understand this, let us review the main events that occur immediately after Owain’s arrival at the Fountain Castle.
The hero arrives hot on the heels of the mortally wounded Black Knight and, pursuing the latter into the gateway of the Fountain Castle, suddenly finds himself trapped between the closing portcullis and the inner door of the gatehouse.xvii Peering through the crack in the doors, Owain first catches sight of Luned, who (presumably by peering back through this same crack herself) appraises him as ‘the best friend a woman could have…[and for a mistress] the best lover’. On this basis she resolves to help him escape, passing him a ring and a magic stone which will make him invisible, and allow him to escape once the gate is open. Once he is free from the gateway, he finds her and she guides him to a beautifully decorated upstairs chamber, where she provides him with the finest food and wine ‘late into the afternoon’. Later on, he hears wailing and lamentation and Luned explains to him that the inhabitants of the castle are mourning the dead Fountain Knight. He then opens the chamber window and looks out and sees the funeral procession, and asks about the lady he sees following in the wake of the crowd. Luned explains to him that she is the Lady of the Fountain, the wife of the man he has killed. He immediately falls in love with the lady, and tells Luned of his feelings. While the latter insists that the Lady of the Fountain could not love Owain ‘even in the slightest’, she nonetheless goes off and courts her on his behalf. In a series of rather fraught exchanges, she persuades her mistress that only ‘one of Arthur’s retinue’ will be fit to replace her husband as the defender of the kingdom, and promises to venture to Arthur’s court to find such a man. She secretes Owain in the upstairs chamber for a further period of time before bringing him to the Lady, who eventually accepts him as her husband and defender of the well.
If (as we might suppose) the original North British tale was more of a straight-forward depiction of the sovereignty complex, Chrétien’s reworking involves the rather more convoluted narrative architecture of the magical plot, which requires specific devices to disassociate the pleasure of this fantasy from the attendant guilt it provokes within the Christian-feudal moral system of its audience. To extend this architectural metaphor, a window is needed simply because there are now rather more walls. But Luned/Lunette not only acts as a window, she also serves as a cordon sanitaire, a narrative blind or focus of displacement. Her ambiguous role as the medium between Owain and the Lady leads to some vivid characterisation (apparent in the often fiery dialogue between the two women), but it also raises the inevitable question of the nature of her own relationship with the hero. As we have seen, she makes no secret of her initial attraction to Owain – describing him in glowing terms as an ideal friend and lover. We are never told explicitly that they slept together during Owain’s internment in the upstairs chamber, but the Welsh text gives us little reason to doubt that this was the case.xviii Later on in the tale, as we shall see, it is Luned (not her mistress) whom Owain personally rescues, after which they ‘converse until it was light the next day’. All in all, the relationship between Owain and Luned seems altogether more natural and substantial than the rather formulaic amor courteoise directed towards the Lady of the Fountain.xix
This introduces a new ironic depth to the text, about which we will have more to say below. However, our main interest here is the way in which the text seems to first arouse interest in and then create distance between audience and the illicit fantasy at the heart of the sovereignty complex. So far we have seen the fantasy invoked through various magico-mythological signifiers – a image of dominance offered by the sojourn at the Castle of the Maidens (home to one ‘alpha’ male and a coterie of females); the aggressive seizure of the magical well (an archaic goddess imago) and deposition of its male guardian; violent entry into the Fountain Castle followed by eventual marriage to the Lady of the Fountain and the formal assumption of the role of the Black Knight. But we have also seen how the power of this fantasy is at the same time being defracted, different aspects of it being spread over a variety of contexts. The role of Luned/Lunette as both conduit and cordon sanitaire is altogether typical of the veiling of the sovereignty complex through the narrative architecture of the magical plot.
We must now turn to the highly ambiguous sequence of events that occurs after the Fountain Castle episode, and may also be seen to play a part in the machinery of titillation and displacement which characterises the magical plot. In this latter section of the tale, we also come across traces of the same social tension that represented itself in the second section of Geraint – that is, the ‘female’ world of the marital chamber versus the ‘male’ world of the warband and the retinue. There are grounds, as there are in Geraint, for regarding this reinforcement of the fraternal bonds of the warrior aristocracy as part and parcel of the wider strategy of the magical tale, that is to say the displacement/sublimation of the instinctual will-to-power represented by the sovereignty complex
This section of the tale begins with a return to the court of Arthur, where the king – speaking for the court community as whole – expresses a sense of loss at the prolonged absence of Owain, and suggests an expedition to the Fountain domain in search of their missing comrade. They proceed to the magical well, where Cai enacts the rain-making ritual by pouring water over the marble slab – triggering the storm followed by birdsong that had been precipitated on previous occasions. Owain, clad in black as the fountain knight, duly appears – challenging Cai his old rival to a show of arms. Cai is overthrown by the Black Knight (as Owain is referred to throughout this episode) and returns to Arthur’s camp – begging the king to allow him to try once again on the following morning. After he is once again defeated, Owain’s friend and cousin Gwalchmai steps forward and fought with the Black Knight for the space of three days, neither able to overcome the other. Finally, in the course of combat, Owain smashes open the visor of Gwalchmai’s helm and recognises his kinsman. Fighting immediately ceases and Owain removes his helmet, reveals his old identity beneath the persona of the Black Knight. The cousins are reconciled and Owain rejoins his former companions at Arthur’s camp. The retinue then proceed to the Fountain Castle where they are royally entertained. And there they remain for a further three months, before it is decided that they should return to Arthur’s domains. Echoing a theme that also appears in Geraint, Owain is persuaded to return with them – assuring the Lady of Fountain that he will return in three months time. However ‘once he arrived among his people and drinking companions, he stayed for three years instead of three months’. Once again, the masculine world of the mead bench and the warrior retinue exerts its draw on the heroic-age spirit of the former knight-errant, once the female domain of the Fountain Kingdom is out of sight and out of mind.
Indeed, so seamless is Owain’s re-assimilation into the Arthurian court community that one is almost forced to question the reality of the whole Fountain episode. It is as if the hero has simply awoken from a fantastical dream, which is swiftly forgotten in the light of day. Thus, reworking a traditional theme of the ambiguous reality of the Otherworld experience, the redactor of this talexx also effects a momentary repression of elicit desire represented by the sovereignty complex. However, as the Romancers understood as well as Sigmund Freud that such repression can only ever be temporary measure, and the contents of the instinctual unconscious will always reassert themselves in one form or another. This return of the repressed is vividly represented by the Owain in the following terms:
One day as Owain was eating at table in the emperor Arthur’s court in Caerllion ar Wysg, behold, a maiden approaching on a bay horse with a curly mane that reached to the ground; she was dressed in yellow brocaded silk, and the bridle and what could be seen of the saddle were all of gold. And she rode up to Owain and grabbed the ring that was on his finger. ‘This’, she said, ‘is what we do to a deceitful cheat and traitor – shame on your beard!’ and she turned her horse’s head and away she went. And then Owain remembered his journey, and he grew sad. And when he finished eating, he went to his lodging; and he was very uneasy that night.xix
What follows is a sequence in which Owain undergoes a profound mental disturbance – similar to that of the wild man Lailocken in the Life of St. Kentigern – a tradition which, as we have seen, has a close relationship with the material of this Romance. (We might also note parallels with the 'madness of the bird-man' motif discussed in the context of the Fourth Branch.) Owain, in his madness, wanders ‘the remote regions of the world…until all his clothes disintegrated and his body all but gave out and long hair grew all over him’. He descends, in other words, into a sub-human, bestial state. It is in this condition that he wanders into the gardens of a widowed countess, where he is discovered and nursed back across the threshold of humanity by one of the countess’s handmaidens, who massages his body with some expensive healing ointment. After this, the hair begins to fall from his body ‘in scaly tufts’, and three months later ‘his body was whiter than ever before’. While recuperating at the court of this countess, he is informed that her castle is under attack from a neighbouring earl. Putting on some borrowed armour, he rides out and defeats this assailant, and brings him back as a captive to the countess as ‘payment for the healing ointment’. In gratitude, she offers him custody of her domains. He refuses, wanting ‘nothing except to wander the uninhabited regions of the world.’xxii
Before we go on to consider Owain’s subsequent adventures, we need to examine more closely this strange psychic breakdown on the part of the hero – and also the circumstances of his recovery. Both of these contain clues to the nature of the subterranean traumwerk which operates below the threshold of visibility in medieval texts of this kind. First we need to consider the madness itself. We have already noted the extraordinary amnesia which has allowed Owain to mysteriously ‘forget’ his three-year sojourn in the Fountain Domain on his return to Arthur’s court – a forgetfulness which on one level at least raises questions as to the true depth of Owain’s feelings for the Lady of the Fountain. However, a totally different view of Owain’s emotional state is suggested by descent into madness following his sudden recollection of his previous attachment. This apparent rift in Owain’s consciousness makes most sense when we regard his comprehensive ‘blanking out’ of his ties to the Lady of the Fountain as a form of unconscious repression. Hardly could there be a better expression of the fundamental incompatibility of the pagan fantasy represented by the Fountain Domain with the Christian, feudal world of Arthur’s court. However, Owain’s ‘other life’ as the Black Knight and defender of the well is brought to light with the arrival of the emissary from the Fountain Castle, and it is under the strain of this contradiction that the hero’s mind begins buckle. He is caught between two irreconcilable life principles – that of the instinctual will-to-power of the sovereignty complex on one hand, and the egoless fealty of the Christian-feudal world on the other. Herein, of course, lies the central problem of the magical plot and, one might even say, of the human condition in a more general sense.
Thus Owain’s descent into madness cannot be explained in terms of love-sickness alone, although this is clearly one of its key manifestations. When we remember the more fundamental conflict implied by this sequence, then the events of the subsequent episode – in which Owain emerges back out of this madness – undertake a new significance. It can hardly be entirely coincidental that Owain’s feral roaming takes him into the garden of a widowed countess, i.e. the characteristic fantasy object of the sovereignty complex. Furthermore, with the active (and at times, somewhat overenthusiastic) involvement of the widow’s maidservant in Owain’s healing, we have a specific recollection of the Fountain Castle adventure, with the Lady of the Fountain and her friendly chambermaid Luned. Repeat characters, as Anne Wilson points out, are the hallmark of this genre “the many characters in a plot will represent only a few characters in the hero’s mind”.xxiii The purpose of this sequence is clearly redemptive. Owain’s nurturing at the hands of these doublets of the ladies of the Fountain Castle implies a forgiveness by the latter, a sense of moral cleansing. But forgiveness for what? Again, the nature of the guilt is visibly implicated by the contents of this episode, as can be seen when we understand the processes of transference typical of this particular literary form.
A characteristic manoeuvre of the magical plot is to project or externalise psychic contents, particularly those of an undesirable nature. The rivals or adversaries faced by the hero in the classical Arthurian Romance more often than not are reminiscent of negative aspects of the hero himself, along the lines of the Jungian 'shadow'. In this particular episode in Chrestien’s version of the story, Yvain’s recovery is immediately followed by the arrival on the scene of a ‘young earl’ who is intent on seizing the widow’s possessions and marrying her against her will – enacting, in other words, the sexualised will-to-power which lies at the heart of the sovereignty complex. Yvain defeats this figure, and then (crucially) refuses the offer of the lady’s domains – thus proving beyond reasonable doubt the purity of his intentions. Such gestures are instrumental to the emotional and moral economy of the magical plot and we find them repeated enacted throughout the classical Arthurian Romance.
After this comes the famous moment in the tale when the hero comes across a serpent (or dragon) embroiled in conflict with a ‘pure white’ lion. He instinctively sides with the latter and slays the serpent. Thereafter, Owain acquires the lion as a faithful companion which gambol around him ‘like a greyhound’, and serves in him other ways: fetching firewood, hunting game and intervening decisively in many of his future feats of arms. It is after this animal companion that Yvain acquires the nom de guerre ‘Knight of the Lion’, which gives its title to French tale. Few critics have failed to identify the emblematic significance of the hero’s eponymous companion – which is usually held to embody the classic Christian-feudal virtue of fides (meaning both ‘loyalty’ and ‘faith’). In this respect, the Romance begins to undertake an allegorical quality – the medievalist A. H. Diverres likens this section to the fourth century Latin poem the Psychomachia, in which the virtues go to war against the vices xxiv . It this comparison can be sustained, it might be taken as evidence of the literary, clerical influence that Chrétien’s rendition seems to have had on the tradition. The allegorical lion, charming though it is, represents a thoroughly un-Celtic narrative component which was almost certainly absent from original northern saga of Owain and his courtship of the Lady of the Fountain.
Nonetheless, we can see the lion playing an important role in the psychic economy of the magical tale, and it is probably in this capacity that it retains its place in the extant tale of Owain. A full allegorical treatment such as we find in Chrétien’s tale is superfluous to this process. In the words of Anne Wilson once again: ‘the strong mythical associations of dragons with evil and destructiveness, and lions with courage, nobility and power, express all that is required for the magical plot. The hero frees the lion qualities from the grip of wickedness and makes them his devoted servants…the lion is a powerful magical agent for the exorcism of the hero’s sense of wickedness’. xxv
Not long after this, while sitting by a camp fire with his faithful lion, Owain hears a noise nearby that turns out to be his old friend Luned crying out from an underground prison xxvi. Evidently conversing through a crack in the floor, she explains that she has been incarcerated by the Lady of the Fountain’s chamberlains on account of her friendship with Owain, and that she will be killed unless he returns to defend her. He does not reveal his identity to her, but shares his joints of venison with her, and they converse until the light of day. After that he sets out to a nearby castle, where he finds the inhabitants languishing in a state of depression. The cause of their misery is a rapacious ogre who has kidnapped the sons of the earl, and is holding them ransom. The price of their freedom is the earl’s beautiful daughter, who will certainly be raped and then killed if handed over the ogre. Owain agrees to lend his assistance and, after staying the night at the castle, rides out to contend with the monster. With the help of the lion, he prevails. Immediately after this, he rides back to the place where Luned was imprisoned, and finds her on the point of being burnt at the stake. He challenges the accusatory chamberlains and, again with the help of the lion, is able to overcome them. Luned is set free and Owain is reunited with the Lady of the Fountain.
We will return to the problem of Luned in due course, but for the time being we need to briefly consider the significance of the apparently irrelevant adventure which inserts itself in the midst of the tale of her deliverance (and the consequent resolution of the main magical plot). The rapacious ogre is of course a variation of ‘the young earl’ of the previous adventure – another projection, in other words, of the illicit desires of the hero. Here, however, we have gone deeper still into the psychic and moral regression required by the purgatorial processes of the magical plot. The issue of property and aristocratic marriage – a key concern of the ‘young earl’ – are of no interest to the giant, for whom rape and gratuitous violence are merely an end in themselves. This is carnivorous instinctually of its own sake, the savage heart at the core of the sovereignty complex. So this is what is being revealed at this final unwinding of the magical plot?
It is perhaps significant that the giant episode interleaves itself in the midst of another adventure: the successful attempts by the hero to redeem his friend, the maidservant Luned. The role of Luned (Lunette in the French version) in this story has long puzzled critics, as we have suggested, and her prominence in the extant Romance as we have it today might at the very least be indicative of the heightened complexity of the High Medieval rendition. We have noted that both the Welsh text in particular implies a relationship between the hero and the maidservant which goes far beyond that of friendly mutual assistance, and even might be said to reflect a more ‘genuine’ bond than the rather formal and contrived amor courteoise represented between Owain and the Lady of the Fountain.
This intriguing subtext of the Romance may, as we suggested, indicate a subversive counter-current introduced by Chrétien. That the hero should experience a more authentic attraction to the maidservant than the lady runs counter to the hierarchic ethos of the sovereignty complex, and thus might be said to deflate the psychic tension of the magical plot. Whether or not this is its purpose, the end result is a rather worldly, almost modern, erotic configuration. Both Owain and Luned are exposed as schemers and opportunists. We are reminded that both belong to the same social stratum, and that Owain’s marriage to Lady of the Fountain is something of a mesalliance, entered into by the hero for essentially cynical motivations. An appropriate comparison might be with the relationship between Georges Duroy and his mistress Mme de Marelle in Guy de Maupassant’s 19th century novel Bel Ami – which ends with the hero winking at his mistress in the crowd as he processes down the aisle with his newly wedded bride, the daughter of newspaper magnate Monsieur Walter – representing the amoral hero’s ascent to the pinnacle of this particular social world.
The almost parenthetic mention of the Lady of the Fountain at the end of this sequence tends if anything to reinforce this view. We are simply told that ‘Owain, accompanied by Luned, went to the kingdom of the Lady of the Fountain, and when he left there he took the countess with him to Arthur’s court, and she was his wife as long as she lived.’ While conferring marital respectability on the hero, the Lady of Fountain does little else. It is not even clear that she retains her territory on his behalf. As in the French version of the tale, none of the sense of intimacy that exists between Owain and Luned seems is evident in his relations with Lady. We might wonder what, if any role, this ‘ironic subversion of courtly values’ might have had.
We suggested above that the function of Luned/Lunette might have been to defract the intensity of the instinctual desire emanating from the veiled Sovereignty Complex. More bluntly, she acts as a kind of proxy or cordon sanitaire, perhaps even absorbing the first flush of sexual desire in order to facilitate the process of erotic sublimation that constitutes the end-product of amor courteoise. In this respect, she represents a decoupling of sexual desire from the territorial aims of the Sovereignty Complex which, in its un-deconstructed state – was simply too compulsive and disruptive a force for the medieval Christian imagination. It was consistent with the aims of the magical plot that this dangerous fantasy should be systematically dismantled in this way. The externalised discharging of these two component elements – the first through the conflict with young earl (representing the neutralisation of the illicit territorial desires) and only then the defeat of the rapacious ogre (a neutralisation of errant sexual desire) – allows the hero to marry the Lady of the Fountain without guilt. This ending feels to us somewhat like an anti-climax, but to the contemporary medieval audience it would have carried with it a considerable redemptive charge. In an age in which the Sovereignty Goddess had come perilously close to political actualisation through the person of Eleanor of Aquitaine, xxvii the Arthurian Romance (a favoured mode within the Angevin court) was perhaps needed to neutralise the bewitching and destructive aspects of this fusion of sexual power with raw political force.
According to more familiar norms of narrative structure, the story should finish here: with the marriage of the hero and the heroine offering a cathartic conclusion, the ‘happily ever after’ of the modern romance or children’s fairy tale. Yet neither the Welsh nor the French versions of the tale finish at this point, a fact that has raised a number of questions. Anne Wilson more or less ignored this last section, describing the Du Traws sequence that follows in the Welsh tale as ‘a disjointed episode’, and concurring with the view of A. C. L. Brown regarding ‘the almost total absence of traditional material’ in the final section of the French tale. The latter, indeed, does include a number of ‘non-tradtional elements’ – allusions to certain legal, social and economic issues specific to twelfth century France; as well as an overlay of allegorical moralising (again reminding us of the Late Antique Psychomachia, an influential text within Chrétien’s intellectual milieu).xxviii
The Du Traws episode which appends the Welsh tale is, by contrast, brief and singularly unadorned. We simply told that ‘after that Owain came to the court of the Black Oppressor and fought against him’. This ‘Black Oppressor’ (the eponymous Du Traws) lives at his court with twenty-four ladies, who are kept in a state of miserable poverty. They explain to Owain that they were all once daughters of earls, whose husbands were slain and property stolen by the Black Oppressor, having been lured thence by the promise of friendship and hospitality. Owain then meets the Black Oppressor himself and defeats him in combat. The villain then surrenders and confesses that ‘I lived here as a robber, and my house was a robber’s den’. Owain accepts his pledge to reform himself and live as a hospitaller, running his house thenceforth as ‘a hostel for the weak and the strong as long as I live, for the sake of your soul’s sake.’ After this, Owain returns to Arthur’s court with the twenty-four ladies. Owain, we are told ‘lived on at Arthur’s court…as captain of his retinue, until he went to his own people.’
This strange, truncated alternative ending has been explained in a number of ways. Diverres looks at it in terms of a localised adaption of the Pesme Avanture (the equivalent episode in the final section of the French tale) and detects within it some localised concerns over the vagaries of Welsh and English inheritance law.xxix Tony Hunt, on the other hand, see this episode as a ruhepunkt ‘resting point’ – a formal narrative feature characteristic of the traditional, oral genre which he argues underpins the artistry of the Welsh tale. What no critic, to my knowledge at least, has noted is the structural resemblance of this episode to the Castle of Maidens episode at the beginning of the tale. Once this parallel is established, the significance of this strange appendage in terms of the psychic economy of the magical plot reveals itself with a degree of clarity.
The Castle of Maidens, we may remember, also involved twenty-four maidens cohabiting with a single significant male figure. The female captives of the Du Traws are described as miserable and bereft, with particular reference to their apparel: ‘the clothes they wore were not worth twenty-four pieces of silver’. The ladies of the Castle of Maidens, on the other hand, are surrounded by conspicuous luxury, such that ‘the least beautiful was more beautiful than Gwenhwyfar, the wife of Arthur, when she is at her most beautiful ever at Christmas Day.’ The central male figures in each location are also placed in a structural opposition. The host at the Castle of the Maidens is described as ‘the yellow-haired man’, and his clothing and footwear is adorned with gold and brocaded silk. We get little in the way of a description of the Du Traws, but his name itself ‘the Black Oppressor’, evokes a colour coding of the opposite hue.xxx
The significance of these binary oppositions becomes a little clearer when we recall the initial purpose of the Castle of the Maidens. This locus is first and most fully described in the introductory sequence in which Owain’s traditional rival/doublet, Cynan ap Clydno, describes his arrival at the castle at the beginning of the Fountain adventure. We may also recall that Cynon’ story in general and his description of the Castle of the Maidens in particular serves a distinct and particular purpose within the psychic economy of the magical plot – that is to represent the hero’s desires as they are at this stage in the story. From a sociobiological perspective, the vision of the gold-bearded host and his household of maidens is of course little more than a prettified vignette of the primordial fantasy involving the alpha male surrounded by his harem of female breeding partners. We find the same image encoded in a number of traditional Celtic otherworld descriptions. It is an image which recurs, in a number of different forms throughout the text of Owain, in which the fantasy underlying the sovereignty complex – that is, the seizure and possession of such a female domain – is obsessively circumnavigated.
However, a specific parallel is being indicated between the Castle of Maidens and the court of the Du Traws, positioned as they are at the beginning and end of the tale respectively. The qualitative change between these domains can be understood as suggesting a change in the hero’s inner relationship to the underlying fantasy involved – the key purpose, in fact, of the magical plot. Where the yellow-haired lord was hospitable and supportive, the Du Traws was vicious and deceitful; where the ladies of the Castle of Maidens were gorgeously arrayed, the captives of the Du Traws were threadbare and bereft. The opening episode is replete with images of wealth, light and gold and yellow hues, whereas this final sequence is riddled with darkness and squalor.
If we consider that the two episodes are essentially two different views of the same fantasy much is revealed about the tale as a whole. We have already seen, in our consideration of the middle section the tale (from Owain’s descent into madness to his eventual reunion with the Lady of the Fountain), how the morally dubious aspects of the sovereignty complex are projected in the form of various externalised, hostile personae: the acquisitive ‘young earl’, followed by the rapacious ogre (representing the more atavistic aspect of sovereignty complex). We might see the representation of the yellow haired man and the Du Traws in the same light. At the beginning of the tale, this figure is represented as genial and supportive. He embodies the fulfilment of the fantasy at the heart of the sovereignty complex, and guides the questing knight towards his own fulfilment of this fantasy at the Fountain Castle. He is, in a sense, complicit in the morally-troublesome act of killing the Black Knight and marrying the Lady of the Fountain. At the end of the tale, after the hero has symbolically defeated various other embodiments of the sovereignty fantasy (the young earl and the ogre) a vision of the castellan with his coterie of females is presented again, but this time in a wholly different light. The females in this case are threadbare captives, and the host is shown to be a murderer and a thief. This represents the final stage in the expulsion of the forbidden fantasy at the heart of the sovereignty complex.
In fact, on examination, we can find a closely woven set of structural correspondences of this type running throughout the text as a whole. Taking Owain’s madness as the pivotal point, almost every element in the first half of the narrative leading up to this event finds its counterpart in the second. Just as the yellow-haired man has his equivalent (and opposite) in the Du Traws, we might draw a similar comparison between the monstrous Keeper of the Forest and the rapacious ogre of the second half. We might even draw a comparison between the feudal loyalty shown by the beasts of the field towards this figure and the relationship between Owain and his lion follower in the second half. The ‘young earl’, of course, finds its reflection in the behaviour of the hero himself in the first half of the story. The key feature of these comparisons lies in the changing relationship between the hero and the regicidal fantasy at the heart of the sovereignty complex. In the first half, a series of steps (or ‘moves’ to use Anne Wilson’s term) are taken which see the hero adopt the guilty role of the regicidal husband of the Lady of the Fountain, aided and abetted by various significant helpers. The second half of the tale sees the various aspects of this regicidal role confronted in an externalised, disassociated form – culminating in the defeat of a shadow-version of the yellow-haired man, who might be said to have led the hero into the Fountain Domain in the first place.
So the tale of Owain demonstrates with particular clarity the process by which the forbidden fantasy is first invoked and then dismantled - the characteristic operation of the magical plot. But what makes this tale of particular interest is that we also have some indication as to its literary prehistory. This allows us to begin to advance some general theories about the origins of the genre of Arthurian Romance, and (in particular) the vexed mabinogionfrage, i.e. the problem of the relationship between Chrétien’s Romances and their Welsh counterparts.
Let us begin with a hypothetical literary history of the tale. The origin, as we have already suggested, might be located in the Northern British context – specifically the kingdom of Rheged, where a genuine historical figure known as Owain son of Urien seems to have thrived towards the end of the sixth century. We have conjected that the ultimate source of both the Old French Romance of Yvain and the Welsh chwedl of Owain was an Early Medieval geo-tribal tract from this North British context – legitimising the hegemony of the House of Rheged by reference to the feats of its sixth-century forebear. Specifically this involved the magical seizure of Lothian sovereignty on the part this Rheged prince by means of the seduction of a totemic royal female. This union is the culmination of a series of acts of trickery and violence – including the killing of her husband (the original Black Knight, who may have been identical with the Lothian Cynon ap Clydno in the source tradition) and a complex set of social/magical manoeuvres. An unflattering remnant of this tradition is preserved, as we have seen, in the early twelfth century Life of St Kentigern (the so-called ‘Herbertian Life’) – a rather primitive tale, in which the ‘seduction’ involved the recruitment of a procuress (a prototypical Luned figure?), an act of female impersonation followed by a sexual act that can only be described as a rape.
We might compare the conduct of the hero in this excerpt with the curious stratagems of Gwydion in the Fourth Branch. The latter’s often weird and morally questionable magical manoeuvres, as we have seen, seem to chart the seizure in the mythical foretime of matrilineal power (represented by his sister Aranrhod) – depicting a precursor to the constitutional reforms of Llywelyn Fawr in thirteenth century Wales. One might propose that the original source-tradition of the medieval stories of Owain/Yvain represents a similar form of discourse, this time functioning within the complex and often obscure political arena of the Early Medieval North.
So how did this peculiar narrative find its way from sixth or seventh century North Britain into the Champagnoise court community inhabited by Chrétien de Troyes in the mid-twelfth century? Did it come via Wales? And if so, where does this leave the relationship between Chrétien’s rendition and its Welsh equivalent? There have of course been a number of answers to this question, and what is offered here is merely one of a number of possibilities (albeit, in the present writer’s opinion, the least problematic).
It seems most likely that the tale of Owain’s seduction of the King of Leudonia’s daughter did indeed come to France via Wales, and the reason for asserting this particular provenance is the significant presence elsewhere in the medieval Welsh tradition of a number of other materials of clear Rheged origin. The so-called ‘northern history’ found in chapters 57-65 of Historia Brittonum is clearly, as Professor John Koch puts it ‘a Rheged document. It exalts King Urien as a Brythonic national hero…it credits the conversion of Northumbria to Urien’s son Rhun…it credits Taliesin, the euologist of Urien and his son Owain, as one of the five famous Brythonic poets. It tells us that Urien’s granddaughter Rhieinfellt was [Northumbrian king] Oswiu’s wife and therefore, by implication, the mother of Alchfrith, heir apparent of Northumbria between 655 and 664.’ xxxi We will return to this important Northumbrian connection in due course, but for the time being we must consider some of the other significant traces of the Cumbrian-Rheged tradition in the narrative and poetic law of Wales.
In Denbighshire there is a parish which is called Llanferris, and there is there Rhyd y Gyfarthu (the Ford of Barking). In the old days the hounds of the countryside used to come together to the side of that ford to bark, and nobody dared go to find out what was there until Urien Rheged came. And when he came to the side of the ford he saw nothing there except a woman washing. And then the hound ceased barking, and Urien seized the woman and had his will of her; and then she said “God’s blessing on the feet that brought thee here.” “Why?” said he. “Because I have been fated to wash here until I should conceive a son by a Christian. And I am the daughter of Annwfn, and come thou here at the end of the year and then shalt thou receive the boy.” And so he came and received there a boy and girl: that is Owain and Morfudd daughter of Urien. xxxii
Owain's mother is elsewhere described as Modron daughter of Afallach, reinforcing the suggestion that Owain was associated in the Welsh tradition with mythological material of decidedly pre-Christian provenance. The implicit link between Owain and Mabon ap Modron, which was also recalled in the French version of Geraint as well as in the Early Welsh poetic tradition, confirms that this aura of pagan glamour had already gathered around Owain in his original northern background, where Apollo Maponus ( > Mabon ap Modron) seems to have been a cult figure during the Roman era, if not beyond. Within such a context, it is not hard to see how a highly mythologised account of Owain’s hegemonic/amorous adventures in the female-dominated territory of Lothian might have taken root in the Welsh tradition, as part and parcel of this body of pseudo-historical and mythological lore from the former territory of Rheged. But at what point did the tale assume the form of a magical plot, the generic device which clearly governs the structural and emotional economy of its surviving medieval renditions?
Clearly, at some stage Owain seems to have been drawn into to the wider orbit of the Arthurian narrative universe, and I would argue that it was at this stage that the tale of his adventure in the Fountain Domain would have assumed something approaching its form found in the extant French and Welsh Romances. Such a development is easiest to comprehend as a result of the growing popularity of the Arthurian topos during the mid-twelfth century, following the work of the Caerleon school. This coheres with the general impression (though more work is needed to verify this) that the magical plot is somehow specific to the ‘High Medieval’ feudal environment. One could argue that it is only when Owain is subsumed into the social hierarchy of the Arthurian court, i.e. when he takes on the status of a courtly vassal rather than an autonomous regional prince, that the tensions between territorial ambition and feudal loyalty would begin to manifest. Without these tensions, the magical plot would lose much if not all of its force.
Given what would appear to be the specifically feudal context for the magical plot, regarding Chrétien as the chief architect of the basic tale structure might appear, on the surface at least, to be the least problematic explanation. Such is the prevailing assumption, whether stated explicitly or otherwise, of many current critics of the Welsh tale. Recent studies of the rhamantau tend to concentrate on the manner in which the Welsh tales were adapted from Chrétien’s twelfth century text (often with a view to exploring this process of translatio from a post-colonial perspective).
However, there are some difficulties with such an interpretation – not least in the fact that both the French and the Welsh versions seem to include separate details which seem to derive independently from the original northern context of the tale. The Welsh tale recalls the presence of Cynon ap Clydno, whom we have seen was a prominent ‘man of the north’, and possibly the one-time regional rival of Owain. The French version, on the other hand, not only recalls the tradition name of Owain’s beloved (Laudine), but also locates Carlisle as the starting point of the Fountain Adventure and presents a general imaginative geography that would be entirely consistent with the original provenance of the tale as tribal-political tractate of Rheged provenance.
The fact that the Welsh and the French tales seems to preserve, independently, different aspects of the northern background adds considerable weight to the theory of the ‘common source’ – a Welsh or Anglo-Norman version of the Rheged tale drawn on by both of these later medieval Romances. It would have been in this putative common source, which most likely took its final form in the mid-twelfth century, that the architecture of the magical plot was first developed. And, as we have seen, it is in the Welsh rather than the French version that this functional narrative structure is most concisely preserved. While we find in Chrétien’s tale certain superfluous episodes and devices, the Welsh tale renders the symmetry of the magical plot (constructing and dismantling the forbidden fantasy) with considerably greater artistic concision. This would suggest that Owain was as close, if not closer, than the French rendition to the Welsh or Anglo-Norman ‘common source’.
More work is needed on the origins and distribution of the curious narrative mode that we have referred to as the magical plot. Credit is due to Anne Wilson for her extraordinarily intuitive (but substantiated) disclosure of its generic operations below the surface of at least some of the romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Beyond this, Wilson suggests that the form is most characteristic in ‘traditional Western European literature’ – a rather vague assemblage that seems to include, for example, some Shakespeare plays (All’s Well that Ends Well, and Pericles) but not others. She also suggests something like the magical plot operates beneath the skin of certain well-known nineteenth century works, including Wuthering Heights. Wilson also devotes considerable attention to the plot structure of Apollonius of Tyre, a peculiar tale from classical antiquity that seems to have enjoyed astonishingly persistent and widespread popularity throughout Medieval Europe. A more recognisable prototype for the kind of magical plot we find in the Romances (with its uneasy relationship to questions of sovereignty and feudal bonds), however, would be the Anglo-Norman Romance of Horn composed around 1170 (just a few years before the commencement of Chrétien’s Arthurian oeuvre). In other well-known Anglo-Norman Romances, such as Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick, the contours of the magical plot are also clearly visible. This would seem to offer further indication of an Anglo-Norman origin for the form, but even if this could be proved to be the case, one would not expect such a complex and distinctive literary mechanism to have emerged ex nihilo, and the prior influence of classical, Germanic and Celtic sources might all be traceable in its structural evolution.
A comprehensive investigation of the magical plot would involve a marshalling of a formidable array of investigative tools from the fields of folklore studies, comparative mythology, literary criticism, social anthropology and psychoanalysis. Equally important is the social and historical context. If, as has been tentatively proposed on these pages, a connection can be made with the Arthurian magical plot and the interaction between Native Wales and the western outposts of the Angevin hegemony, it would be helpful to pinpoint specific individuals and communities involved in the development and propagation of these distinctively structured tales. Some sense of the qualitative aura of these tales, as well as their broader social ‘function’ might thereby be defined.
These are questions for another time. At this stage we can only limit ourselves to a few provisional conclusions about the Welsh Romances, and Owain in particular. In this analysis, we have identified a number of reasons to support a positive reappraisal of the ‘common source’ theory, as first suggested by J.-C Larchmeur, and subsequently by R. M. Jones and Rachel Bromwich. I would not, unlike the aforementioned scholars, offer any certain answer as to whether the common antecedent was Welsh or Anglo-Norman, nor would I suggest that we are any nearer knowing at which stages of the transmission oral or textual media were involved. It seems unlikely to me that the extant Welsh text of Owain – generally believed to have been composed in the early thirteenth century – would have been entirely uninfluenced by Chrétien’s well-publicised interpretation of the tale from the previous generation. However, there would appear to be a significantly different relationship between the texts than we find between Geraint and Erec et Enide as discussed in the previous article. Owain is not simply a loose and Cymricised re-telling of Chrétien’s tale, but rather an independent recension of what was an essentially insular tradition.
This observation is based on two main characteristics evident in the tale (and its French counterpart). The first is the clear North British provenance of its traditional material (and its specific association with the interests of Rheged within the context of the Hen Gogledd) – an area of interest we find represented elsewhere within the Welsh literary corpus. The second indication of its insular origin lies in the rather more complex problem of the magical plot, which would appear to be more precisely rendered in the Welsh tale than in Chrétien’s French derivation. It is in search of further light to shed on the problem of the origin of this ambiguous literary mode, and indeed a number of other problems surrounding the Welsh Romances, with reference to the third and final exemplar of the form, the so-called Ystoria Peredur.