Celtic Influence on Arthurian Legend: Particularly in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
King Arthur is one of the most well known legendary figures in the world. His name evokes images of chivalrous knights and beautiful castles. Often, people will throw around the name Lancelot as well. However, few people know that Lancelot was not an original knight of the round table. In fact, few people know that the original King Arthur is quite different than the one presented in the Arthurian romances. In fact, many scholars believe that Celtic culture had a huge influence on the Arthurian legend people are familiar with today. There are signs of the Celtic influence sprinkled all over the Arthurian romances. These are found mostly in the description of certain characters as well as the similarities more modern tales have with older Celtic legends.
One example of the Celtic influence is the similarities certain characters in Arthurian literature to figures in Celtic mythology. The well-known character of Morgan le fay, Arthur’s half-sister and usual antagonist, is suggested to be based on an Irish war goddess (Nitze, 81). The most obvious clue is that the name of the goddess, Morrigan, is extremely similar to that of Arthur’s own sister (Nitze, 81). Additionally, some scholars argue that Morgan’s hatred of Arthur parallels the goddess Morrigan’s hatred of Cuchulainn, a Celtic warrior (Nitze, 81). While not all scholars agree that Morgan sprang from Morrigan, the similarities are too large to ignore completely.
In addition to Morgan’s similarities to a figure in Irish legend, the wizard, Merlin, may also have been influenced by Celtic myth. Merlin, quite plainly, fits the archetype of the Celtic druid (“Transformations.”). After Geoffrey of Monmouth’s insertion of Merlin to the Arthurian legend, Merlin slid easily into the role of Arthur’s advisor (“Transformations”). It is theorized that Merlin comes from the character Lailoken from early Welsh poetry (“Transformations.”). However, this theory is a bit of a stretch. The character of Lailoken is a Welsh prophet who goes mad with the power of sight (“Transformations.”). Lailoken influenced the character of Myrddin, the wise prophet mentioned in many Welsh poems (“Transformations.”). The name was translated to “Merlin” and the character became one of the most influential characters in the Arthurian legend (“Transformations.”). However, much like the origins of Morgan le fay, scholars question the validity of this theory.
Finally, one of the most well-known knights of the round-table, Lancelot, can trace his origins back to Welsh and Celtic mythology. Sir Lancelot never actually appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s writings on King Arthur (“Sir Lancelot.”). Lancelot was first introduced by Chretien de Troyes, the first and most influential of Arthurian romance writers (“Sir Lancelot.”). While Lancelot seems to be purely a creation of the genre, some scholars trace his origins back to the Irish warrior Llenlleawg (“Sir Lancelot.”). Roger Loomis, in particular, finds him to be the most reasonable candidate for the French Sir Lancelot (“Sir Lancelot.”).
While the similarities certain Arthurian characters hold to characters in Celtic mythology, it is not the most prominent argument. Scholars can often disagree with character origin theories, as there is often enough proof for shaky claims. However, it is difficult to deny common themes and similar plot lines found in Celtic mythology and Arthurian romance. These similarities are found everywhere from the quest for the Holy Grail and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Lumiansky, 763). However, as the information on many legends is vast and difficult to summarize, this essay will focus on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a fanciful one. It begins on during a feast at Camelot when the Green Knight rides in unexpectedly (“Sir Gawain.”). The knight bears a beautiful axe and offers it as a prize to any who is brave enough to take up blows against him, with the stipulation that in one year and one day the blow will be returned (“Sir Gawain.”). While Arthur is the first to accept the challenge, Gawain jumps in and asks for the honor himself (“Sir Gawain.”). He easily beheads the knight. However, the knight does not seem phased, picks it up, and tells Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel one year and one day in the future (“Sir Gawain.). The initial interaction, the people of Camelot are fine and only Guinevere is out of sorts (“Sir Gawain.”).
The legend continues with Gawain setting out to find the Green Chapel. Along the way, he lodges at the house of Bertilak (“Sir Gawain.”). Bertilak goes out to hunt, offering whatever he gains that day for whatever Gawain gains at the house. Gawain agrees. While Bertilak is out the lady of the house tries to seduce him (“Sir Gawain.”). Gawain, ever the chivalrous knight, accepts only kisses as to not offend her but not crush her virtue. When Bertilak returns each day Gawain accepts the spoils of the hunt and returns the kisses to him (“Sir Gawain.”). The only thing Gawain keeps is a girdle Lady Bertilak offered, promising that it would protect him from physical harm (“Sir Gawain.”).
The end of the legend is anti-climactic. Gawain meets the Green Knight in the chapel, just as promised. The knight takes three swings at his neck. At the first, Gawain flinches. At the second, the green knight pulls back claiming to have been testing Gawain’s nerves. The final blow cuts the neck of Gawain but does not hurt him (“Sir Gawain.”). It is only then that the knight reveals himself to have been Bertilak the entire time (“Sir Gawain.”). He tells Gawain that the entire test had been a trick Morgan le fay was playing on Guinevere. The two part happily and Gawain returns to Camelot. He relates the tale to Arthur and the other knights and is allowed to keep the girdle (“Sir Gawain.”).
The first way the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be traced back to Celtic origins is the similarities it shares with the story of The Violent Death of Curoi (Loomis, 153.). The character of Cuchulain, who has been linked to the Arthurian legend before, holds similarities to the character of Gawain (Loomis, 153.). In fact, all the characters in the Arthurian romance hold similarities to characters in The Violent Death of Curoi (Loomis, 153.). The scholar, Roger Loomis, suggests that Bertalik is a clear representation of Curoi (Loomis, 158). It is Curoi who breaks in to the court, abducts the Celtic version of Lady Bertalik, and is eventually slain by Cuchulain (Loomis, 158-159.).
Additionally, The Violent Death of Curoi also influences the story of Gawain and the Green Knight in three very significant ways. These are the color of the Green Knight, Gawain’s delay for a year, and Gawain’s final search for the Green Chapel (Loomis, 156.).
Another, and very important, similarity the two stories hold is the use of girdles. As mentioned previously, the girdle Gawain acquires from the Lady Bertalik is the one thing he keeps as a reminder of his adventure. The use of the girdle is a common device used to represent a lady’s romantic favors, and it has been common since before the twelfth century (Loomis, 153.). In the story of Curoi’s violent death, Curoi is seen wearing a girdle of similar properties (Loomis, 159.). When Curoi first faces Cuchulainn he wins easily. However, when Curoi and Cuchulainn face off for the second time, Cuchulainn is victorious. This draws attention to the girdle. Curoi was wearing it the first time the two fought, while Cuchulainn bears it in the second fight. This suggests that the girdle in both stories possess the same powers, the ability to keep the wearer from physical harm (Loomis, 159.).
In fact, the use of the girdle is a common theme throughout much of mythology. Not only is the magical girdle seen in The Violent Death of Curoi, but it can also be seen in Wigalois and Krone, both twelfth century pieces (Loomis, 153.). In all three of these tales, a stranger knight rides in to court and offers to fight the Gawain figure (Loomis, 153.). While all these stories were written around the same time, they give more of an insight into the girdle’s origins.
In both stories, the girdle is given to the woman as a magical present. While she does not initially want the present, she is eventually forced to accept and, in turn, forces it upon Gawain (Loomis, 161.). These tales both hold similarities to the story of Curoi and Cuchulainn. While the other tales are not directly related to the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, the plots are too similar to deny. Therefore, Loomis argues that it can be used as proof of Celtic influence on the Green Knight tale (Loomis, 162.). Additionally, these three stories are all written by different authors and come from different parts of the world. This would be an impossible feat if the stories were not based on an original source.
Another part of the tale that needs to be examined is the relationship between Bertalik and Gawain as well as Gawain’s search for the chapel. There are many tales of the hero Cuchulainn and Curoi. In one such tale, Curoi actually arranges for Cuchulainn’s hospitable reception in Ireland (Loomis, 163.). This could account for Bertalik’s initial challenge when he first enters the story, while it changes to that of friendship at the end of the legend.
A final similarity that deserves mentioning is the similarities between Gawain’s shield and the shield worn by Cuchulainn in The Cattle-Raid of Cooley (Loomis, 166.). Both shields have similar coloring, that of gold and red (Loomis, 170.). Further more, Cuchulainn’s shield holds circular symbols of the sun, as Cuchulainn is often attributed solar characteristics (Loomis, 169). This is similar with the pentacle that is found on Gawain’s own shield (Loomis, 169). While the pentacle is said to symbolize the different religious aspects that Gawain embodies (God, the Virgin Mary, ect.), the sun is often attributed to religious aspects of the celtic myth (Loomis, 170.). Additionally, there is often mention of Cuchulainn’s shield have five wheels, or circles (Loomis, 170.). This could be the original reason that Gawain kept the symbol of five, as three is most often the number related to Christianity.
However, as much similarities as these tales have to Celtic influences, there are still aspects of the story that can not be traced back to the mythologies. These are the added features of the noble huntsmen who gives Gawain reprieve and the hunting trips that Berlatik goes on (Loomis, 173.). While these can not be traced back to the original stories of Cuchulainn and Coroi, they are too small to suggest that the story was not wholly influenced by Celtic traditions. In fact, if anything, it is simply a representation of the artistic license that the Arthurian romance writers took with traditional Celtic Stories.
It is hard to deny the influence of Celtic mythology on the Arthurian romances. Many interpretations of the characters differ than their original introduction in Geoffrey’s histories. This is often attributed to the Celtic origins of these characters. The most common examples of this are Morgan le fay’s similarities to Morrigan, Merlin’s ability to slip easily into a Celtic archetype, and the introduction of Lancelot into the romances. Another common Celtic element is the similarities traditional Celtic stories have to modern tales in the romances. The most prominent representations are found in the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As previously argued, it is impossible to deny the shared elements between Gawain’s tale and the tale of Cuchulainn and Curoi. Not only do they share many common plot devices, but there are also other tales from the same time period that hold similar plot devices. It would be impossible for stories to be so similar if they did not all derive from the same source. It is this that reminds readers not to disregard the origins of favorite tales. They may be older than one thinks.
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