A Round Table or Just a Round?
Wales has never been a major player in the world, at least as far as most of the world is concerned. IN the world of latter twentieth century literature, however, Welsh writers have reigned supreme. Their popularity is not the first such for a Welsh writer, though. Geoffrey of Monmouth penned a tale from an oral history told in the cold winter evenings about a legendary figure in Welsh history. Exploits of his character were often sung in a children’s round and told then retold around campfires near the faery circles in the forests. It is said that every stone and hill in Wales has a story and the mythological accounts of today’s hero, a child would became king with a little bit of help from magic, is part of the mystery of Welsh mythology.
The story of Wales began when a group of Celts migrated from Europe somewhere around 1000 BCE. By the time Romans arrived in 48 ACE, the Celtic language originally spoken had become less Celtic and something known as Brythonic, the forerunner of the modern Welsh language. Later another group known as Saxons would attempt to invade the land we call Wales in the sixth century ACE. The defense of the Welsh people was often attributed to a warrior known as Artimis, a supposed descendent from Brutus (not the Roman Brutus who befriended then betrayed Julius Caesar). He was first mentioned in poetry dating to 540 ACE, though exactly what his name was is still being disputed. Some translate the name as Arto, Welsh for bear; others use Artorius. Some even claim it a derivative of Artio, the Welsh bear goddess.
History bears mention of the battles fought against the Saxons and indeed a stone wall was the first barrier constructed in Wales to keep out the Saxons about this time. It would not be the last contested boundary between Wales and what we know today as England. Many of the legends from this period make note of a brave warrior who seem to have the backing of the bear goddess as he was powerful and undefeated and flew with her protection, recorded by the monk who would become Saint Gildas as a personage quite similar to the British king Cuneglasus, christened a name that meant “charioteer to the bear”.
The early tales spoke of bravery in fighting for the independence and rights of the Welsh people. The Celts had come from somewhere around Austria and the Saxons from northern Germany. Both brought the myths of their origins with them, although the Celts did not assign human shape to their deities. Perhaps as a means of bringing the groups together and perhaps just as a passage of time, the factual history of the region became mixed with the myths of antiquity.
And so we have a story of a man known as Arto or, as time progressed, Arth, the Welsh word for bear. It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who first wrote down the legends and combined them into one fanciful tale. Using the spirits of the Celtic people who own name was given them by a Greek when referring to a group living near Marseilles, France, and the strength of the Saxons, Arth became Arthur and his power derived from one of the plentiful boulders and stones that dot the Welsh landscape. An orphan raised in secrecy because of the illegitimacy of his birth, Arthur comes across a sword in a stone and, like all curious boys about the age of nine or ten, pulls it out. Such curiosity is seen as bravery and proof that he is to become the powerful and fabled King Arthur, the ruler of what we call Camelot.
The many stories regarding the legends of King Arthur, Merlin the Magician, Sir Lancelot, and Galahad, as well as the Knights of the Round Table are known worldwide and many cultures have contributed to them. Arthur was actually a popular name in Scotland and Britain during the early centuries ACE and several became figures in the histories of their regions. The town Camulodunum, now known as Colchester, is the oldest surviving settlement in Britain, having once been a Roman outpost. This is thought to be the origin of the name Camelot. In an area settles and invaded by many, the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, led by a later addition to the story, a Frenchman, might very well be the first and most successful combining of cultures.
The official website of Wales, wales.com, says this about Arthur: “In Wales, Arthur lives on in our everyday place names … These names are not to try and prove a point. They are real names, centuries old, part of a community memory which is still alive.” To every culture, their mythologies are exactly that – a communal memory of their past, their beliefs, their future.
The legends of Arthur, in all their versions tell of love and faith, or loyalty, and the dangers of over-reaching in life. About the stories of Camelot, Jonathan Lockwood Huie wrote: “The essence of life is not in the great victories and grand failures, but in the simple joys.” Willa Cather sais is more simply: “Where there is great love, there are always miracles.”
The stories of the world’s myths are about life and love, the love of mankind for itself and its beginnings. They are also the stories of overcoming life and beginning again. The daily battles often repeat themselves but they are always worth our efforts to do our best and to live our beliefs. The mythologies of the world encourage us to do just that. Jonathan Lockwood Huie describes how to live: “To lead a great life: Dream, Take Action, Repeat.”