For this week, the prompt for flash fiction submitted to #FairyTaleFlash is my favourite subject in all of folklore and literature: “Arthurian Legends: King Arthur, Excalibur, Guinevere, Merlin, Morgan LeFay, Knights of the Round Table, and more.” I decided to give a short character study on one of my favourite of King Arthur’s champions: Menw the Wise, one of King Arthur’s three warrior-wizards in Welsh folklore.
I am Menw, one of King Arthur’s three wizard-warriors. Merlin taught me my Art, and commanded me to obey and protect the king. But which of those commands takes priority? Should I disobey the king when his order would endanger him? When do I follow my own will? #FairyTaleFlash
With the exception of King Arthur himself, Merlin is the most famous character from Arthurian folklore. He defines the wizard archetype so perfectly that whenever an English story references some wizard, it’s usually Merlin, even if otherwise King Arthur doesn’t make an appearance. He’s part of the backstory in everything from children’s fantasy such as Harry Potter and The Talking Parcel to superhero tales such as Black Knight and The Demon. Like King Arthur, Merlin’s name is so well-known and so linked to an archetype that people often don’t realize how little they know about the character. They just think “yeah, Merlin – he’s an important wizard. I know what wizards are like – big white beard, staff, pointed hat, and either a traveler’s cloak or a robe full of stars. He can do all sorts of crazy magic and is a benevolent mentor to heroes.” However, Merlin’s origins are a lot more complex. Appropriately for a shapeshifter, Merlin’s story has taken on many forms.
Like many legendary figures, King Arthur originally existed in a largely oral tradition. It was the 12th century that gave us the first cohesive biography of Arthur, with his prominent appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. This book was also the first appearance of Merlin. His mother was a virgin princess and his father some sort of spirit (a demon or a fairy – it’s not proven which), which has granted him the gift of prophecy. As a boy, Merlin reveals to the British tyrant Vortigern that his tower keeps falling because underneath it a red dragon battles a white dragon, which predicts how Vortigern will be defeated by Ambrosius, whose throne Vortigern has usurped. After Vortigern’s defeat, Merlin becomes the advisor of King Ambrosius. Later Merlin transports Stonehenge from Ireland to Britain to serve as a memorial for the British slain by Saxon treachery, prophecies Ambrosius’ death and the coming of King Arthur, and finally disguises Ambrosius’ brother Uther Pendragon as Gorlois in order to sleep with Gorlois’ wife Igraine and produce Arthur.
In many ways, this Merlin is similar to the later one of more familiar stories. He is already performing many of his most memorable feats, such as moving Stonehenge and transforming Uther. He prophecies King Arthur. He is half-human. However, this Merlin never meets Arthur directly and he isn’t really a wizard. Merlin’s only explicitly supernatural ability is prophecy, and he transports Stonehenge through vaguely defined “machinery” and uses “medicine” to change Uther’s appearance. You’re supposed to view him as scholar and scientist rather than a magic-user – a startling notion to appear in a medieval text.
Later authors would turn Merlin into a full-blown wizard as well as have him stick around long enough to guide King Arthur in his early years. Not only would he transport Stonehenge and transform Uther through magic, but he would also perform numerous other supernatural feats – many of them involving changing his own form or others. These authors also made Merlin a more morally ambiguous figure – presumably because they felt any wizard (even one whose ultimate goal was good) could not be entirely virtuous. He’s still on the right side, King Arthur’s side, but behaves horribly when not on his mission. This Merlin loves to toy with people, refusing to explain himself and only telling people what he needs to in order to get them to do what he wants. He chuckles when he gazes at people’s future and sees they’ll die an ironic death. He sexually harasses his apprentice Nimue until she entombs him in a tree. This is the Merlin of the Arthurian romances, and especially Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – the most famous Arthurian text.
The character of Merlin gets transformed again in modern stories, such as T. H. White’s novel The Once and Future King and John Boorman’s movie Excalibur. These authors smooth out a lot of the rough elements of Arthurian heroes, such as King Arthur’s vengeful pride, Lancelot’s berserker rage, and Merlin’s disquieting nature, making them unequivocally heroic. Now Merlin is an entirely benevolent wizard, King Arthur’s kindly mentor, and surrogate father figure. In the Sword in the Stone installment of Once and Future King, Merlin is even Arthur’s tutor, transforming him into various animals to teach him about life. This is the Merlin most modern people think of – friendly bearded guy giving useful advice and casting some fancy spells. This is the Merlin that inspires Gandalf.
Sometimes earlier versions of the character still make appearances. Mary Stewart’s series of Arthurian historical fiction leans into Merlin being a prophet and scientist instead of a wizard, and the first book (The Crystal Caves) closely adapts Merlin’s appearances in History of the Kings of Britain. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court features Merlin as a manipulative charlatan and Phyllis Ann Karr’s Idylls of the Queen has him as a fanatical lunatic.
Perhaps the most complex exploration of these different versions of the character is Merlyn in Marvel Comics’ Captain Britain and Excalibur – when he first appears to give Captain Britain his power, Merlyn (or “Merlin”) appears as the benevolent father figure of Once and Future King to Brian “Captain Britain” Braddock, but later this proves to be a façade as the true Merlyn is a far more amoral manipulator, like the Merlin of Malory and the Romances. It’s implied he went all T. H. White because that surrogate father-figure and tutor is who Brian would most respond to, fulfilling a hole in the lonely boy’s life and appealing to his childhood fantasies of being a knight and belonging to something greater than himself. A Malory Merlin pretending to be a White Merlin to manipulate someone into doing what he wants is very on-brand. Later, the character seems to be invoking the original Geoffrey of Monmouth scientist Merlin as a lot of the character’s “magic” is revealed to be alien science – he’s even linked with the Doctor, the hero from the British science fiction show Dr. Who. It’s hard to know how much of this is intentional, especially because figures such as Geoffrey of Monmouth are rarely read these days except by medieval scholars. However, it is intriguing that these Marvel comics do seem to be engaging with all versions of Merlin, whether accidentally or on purpose.
Many King Arthur characters are vastly different from themselves in different interpretations – Queen Guinevere in particular has a talent for appearing as a virtuous hero or a sinister villain or anything in between, depending upon the needs of a particular story. But I’m especially fascinated by how different these versions of Merlin are. If the Merlins of Geoffrey, Malory, and White all hung out together, they probably wouldn’t like each other very much.
One of the reasons I love the stories of King Arthur is that they’re so mutable, able to be changed into whatever purpose they’re needed. It’s fitting that one of the changeable parts is the nature of Merlin, the shapeshifting wizard who is most famous for helping Uther Pendragon take on a different form.
“Ah, Geraint,” said Gwalchmai, “is it thou that art here?” “I am not Geraint,” said he. “Geraint thou art, by Heaven,” he replied, “and a wretched and insane expedition is this…. Come thou and see Arthur; he is thy lord and thy cousin.” “I will not,” said he, “for I am not in a fit state to go and see any one.” Thereupon, behold, one of the pages came after Gwalchmai to speak to him. So he sent him to apprise Arthur that Geraint was there wounded, and that he would not go to visit him, and that it was pitiable to see the plight that he was in. And this he did without Geraint’s knowledge, inasmuch as he spoke in a whisper to the page. “Entreat Arthur,” said he, “to have his tent brought near to the road, for Geraint will not meet him willingly, and it is not easy to compel him in the mood he is in.”
– “Geraint ap Erbin,” The Mabinogion
The stories of King Arthur is one of
those funny things that have conjured so many cultural tropes and
images that a lot of people think they know more about it than they
actually do. For example, I’ve heard people comment that they prefer
characters who are more complicated and flawed, and so perfect heroes
such as King Arthur and his knights are not interesting.
But King Arthur and his knights are so
deeply flawed. One of the most regular themes in the Arthurian
Romances is how great ideals and moral codes crumble and break
eventually. The whole arc of Arthur is that he created the perfect
kingdom but it was inevitably destroyed – not by an outside force,
but rotting from within due to the sins and weaknesses of the
knights. Infidelity, petty jealousy, incest, betrayal, feuds,
vengeful murder – all of these help to shatter the Round Table. So
It is fascinating to look at how older
cultures viewed mental issues, especially things like anxiety or
depression, where it is often ambiguous whether the person is
suffering from a disorder or if that’s just their personality. In
King Arthur stories, characters are frequently pushed to the breaking
point by traumatic events, when their views of themselves are
The most famous break is with Lancelot.
He is seduced by the princess Elaine when she’s disguised as
Guinevere, and once Lancelot realizes that she wasn’t the woman he
thought she was, he leaps out of a window and runs screaming into the
forest. It’s an ironic scene, for if he had had sex with Guinevere,
that would have been the supreme betrayal of his vows to King Arthur,
and yet it is having sex with Elaine that shakes Lancelot to the
core. He feels he cheated on the queen, sullied himself with someone
he didn’t love, and so he lives like an animal in the wild for
The theme of trauma reducing a man to
an animal shows up in several Welsh Arthurian stories as well. In the
Welsh version of the “Lady of the Fountain,” the hero Owain
temporary leaves his fairy wife, the Lady of the Fountain, to return
to King Arthur’s court. He becomes so wrapped up in Arthurian
adventures that he forgets to return to her, and after waiting months
for his return, the Lady eventually discards him as he discarded her
– appearing to him in court to deride his faithlessness and then
using her magic to hide her valley from him forever. Owain goes mad
with the guilt and loneliness, and he spends the next few years
living naked in the forest, eating raw meat. Similarly, the
semi-historical Myrddin (who the Arthurian Merlin was partly inspired
by) in “The Life of Myrddin” was traumatized by his involvement
in a great battle, and so fled naked into the forest, where he ate
moss and apples, befriended the beasts, and refused to return to
human society, snarling like a wolf whenever someone tried. It is
perhaps problematic to identify someone in the middle of a nervous
breakdown as akin to a wild beast, but a storm of emotions causing
someone to flee into their head and into the wilderness is a feeling
I can strongly identify with. Sometimes so much force is exerted on
the self that one wishes for the self to be blotted out.
“Geraint ap Erbin” is another Welsh
Arthurian story in which the warrior suffers from mental issues, but
in a dramatically different way. The first half of the story is about
Geraint winning the lady Enid by impressing her in a tournament, a
pretty traditional Arthurian Romance. The second half involves
Geraint being forced to leave Arthur’s court to take charge of his
father’s domain in Devon, giving up his adventures to instead become
a ruler and bureaucrat. Geraint hates this, constantly yearning for
Arthur’s court, and eventually shuts himself in his room, too
depressed to deal with any part of the court. Geraint believes that
since he can no longer be a warrior and adventurer, he’s a failure as
a man, and so he starts to suspect his wife Enid of infidelity –
deciding that there’s no way that she could ever love a failure like
him. In a storm of envy and depression, he drags Enid with him out of
Devon, determined to fight battle after battle in order to prove to
her and himself that he is still a man… or die in the attempt.
Geraint’s suicidal obsession and his
verbal abuse of Enid ring much more realistically than the other
characters’ descent into animalism, which makes it especially
shocking to read. There’s an intense moment where Arthur finds
Geraint almost dead from numerous wounds, both he and Enid dressed in
tatters, and the king is angry and frightened – demanding to know
why Geraint is putting himself and Enid through hell. It is very hard
for people who don’t suffer from depression or anxiety to understand
exactly why we who do are acting the way we are – it seems
illogical, bizarre, and self-destructive (and often is); this moment
in the “Geraint” Romance is startling for its psychological
There are various examples in stories
all over the world of characters struggling with mental issues. What
makes the Arthurian stories that struggle with this topic especially
striking is that King Arthur and his knights are supposedly
archetypes of masculine heroism and strength, perfect paladins pure
of thought and deed. By showing them being undone by their guilt,
self-hating and self-destructive because they fall short of their
ideals, it reminds us that depression can strike down all of us. All
of us are vulnerable, even the greatest knights of the world.
One of my favourite comic book authors is Grant Morrison. He writes with so much energy and creativity, such a sense of fun, that so many of his comics are a psychedelic thrill ride exploring so many crazy ideas. One of Morrison’s most ambitious projects was DC’s Seven Soldiers of Victory, seven interlocking miniseries about seven different DC heroes who independently fight against an invasion of demonic fairies known as the Sheeda.
One of these heroes is a reinvented version of the Shining Knight, a champion of King Arthur’s court who reawakens in modern times. While the original version of the Shining Knight was from the Dark Ages and the pseudo-historical King Arthur, Morrison’s version instead comes from a fantastical “ur-Arthur” thousands of years before recorded history. Basically, the archetypes of King Arthur and his champions appear over and over again in this world, each time in a different form.
This prehistoric fantasy Arthur first appears in Shining Knight #1, which retells the famous Taliesin poem “The Spoils of Annwn”: “before the spoils of Annwn woefully he sang, / And thenceforth till doom he shall remain a bard. / Thrice enough to fill Arthur’s ship we went into it; / Except seven, none returned from Castle Revolving.” In the comic, Arthur’s army is at war with the Sheeda, and they battle to the Sheeda’s capital of Castle Revolving to steal their enchanted cauldron which is the Castle’s heart. Of Arthur’s men, none but seven return.
Shining Knight #1 starts off powerfull and mythic: “From the far, unspeakable land of the Vampire Sun they came, from Eternal Summer’s End on Sheeda-Side….” It is clearly not some faux historical tale in the remnants of Rome nor a stiff and courtly Romance. It’s old myths, wild and fantastical. Sadly, beyond the basic premise of the poem (Arthur’s men go into Fairyland to steal the cauldron heart of Castle Revolving), Morrison is not especially interested in engaging with the original folktales.
It feels like he skimmed the poem, but never Welsh prose — didn’t actually take a look at the Mabinogian. Firstly, the fairies are called the “Sheeda” — a clear derivative from the Irish “Sidhe” — instead of the “Tylwyth Teg” or the “Fair Folk.” Merlin gets referenced as “royal were-dragon from Celtic mythology” whose name is also “Gwydion,” which is utter nonsense (Morrison’s earlier idea of Merlin being a renegade Sheeda sorcerer would have felt much more authentic). The warriors dress like knights, when having stranger, more primal costumes would suit the Welsh folklore and the pre-historic narrative far better. Morrison’s list of Arthur’s champions is especially telling:
“Against the Sheeda, Gawain, the Silent Knight, attended by his wondrous hawks. And Lancelot, defender of the faith so long with such a broken heart. Mighty Caradoc, who loved peace most of all. Peredur, blinded by the light of the Holy Cup, yet possessed of celestial senses unknown to ordinary men. Bors, the Laughing Knight. And Galahad next. Galahad, the Giant Killer. The Perfect Knight. Warriors all, of the Shattered Table. But first… Lancelot.”
The idea that each knight has his own special power or trait is straight out of “Culhwch & Olwen,” of course. There are some other Welsh touches here. Gawain’s hawks probably reference his Welsh name, Gwalchmai (“Hawk of May”). “Peredur” is the Welsh name for Percival, the star of one of the Welsh Romances. The name “Caradoc” is very Welsh, though I haven’t heard of any prominent members of Arthur’s court called that. Olwen later shows up in the story.
However, in folklore Gwalchmai’s defining trait is his politeness, whereas this Gawain is silent. This Peredur is obsessed with the Holy Grail (a Romance invention). Perhaps most prominently, Lancelot, Bors, and Galahad were all creations of the French Romances, and thus utterly alien to Welsh myths. Conversely, the comic has no references to Cai or Bedwyr, Arthur’s most devoted companions in the Welsh cycle.
Morrison’s Shining Knight is a lot of fun, and its description of Castle Revolving and the epic raid has a lot of strength to it. Certainly it captures a lot of the fantastical spirit of Welsh folklore, that is sadly missing in most Arthurian retellings. That said, it would have been more compelling and much more mythic if it engaged more with the original Welsh folktales. If the scene were to feature a fully Welsh retinue of warriors, I would describe them thusly:
“Against the Teg, Cai, defender of the faith so long with such a broken heart. Owain, attended by his black lion and his wondrous ravens. Mighty Bedwyr One-Handed, wielder of the Living Spear. Gwalchmai the Golden-Tongued, whose strength waxed and waned with the sun. Geraint the Seafarer. Menw, son of Three-Cries, the Warrior-Wizard. And Peredur next. Peredur, the Monster Killer. The Perfect Champion. Warriors all, of the Shattered Table. But first… Cai.”
Here is the first in a series of articles where I analyze various King Arthur stories and contrast them with the original Welsh stories. At first let’s start with the most famous one, Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as well as the related Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
Le Morte d’Arthur
Le Morte d’Arthur – a tome vast in size (almost 1,000 pages) and vast in significance. It is the first novel ever printed in English on the printing press, and continues to be phenomenally popular. It could be considered the bridge between King Arthur as folklore and King Arthur as literature, collecting a wide variety of tales into a single book and serving as the defining force for all later King Arthur stories to respond to. Every Arthur tale after Le Morte d’Arthur is either inspired by it or is defined in opposition to it, the author either saying “how can I use Mallory?” or “how is my story different from Mallory?”
That being the case: “how Welsh are the Mallory stories?” The answer is a simple one: “not Welsh at all.” Mallory defines the Romance Arthur strain, contrasting with both the Pseudo-Historical Arthur and the Welsh Arthur. Any story or interpretation of the “Welsh King Arthur” is defined mainly by how unlike Mallory it is, for the following reasons:
French Names: Lancelot du Lac, Mogan la Fey, Beaumains, La Cote Male Tayle, the very title itself “Le Morte d’Arthur.” As a book largely based on the French Romances, French names appear throughout Le Morte d’Arthur. As Lancelot himself is supposedly from France, “du Lac” may make sense, but Morgan was raised in Cornwall and then moved to Wales — so why exactly is she “la” Fey? The predominance of such names, along with all the courtly imagery, makes the whole thing feel like French folktales as opposed to Brythonic ones.
Lancelot and other French heroes: Lancelot and Galahad are characters created by the French romancers, and are treated as the greatest knights of King Arthur’s court. Conversely, many of the early Brythonic champions, such as Kay (Cai) and Gawaine (Gwalchmai) instead become bad-tempered foils for the “real heroes,” while others such as Bedivere (Bedwyr) have become forgetfully minor figures. Having Gawaine as a savage vengeful figure is especially odd, as in the Welsh stories, Gwalchmai’s defining trait is his courtesy. Tristan and Percival are authentically Welsh and treated with respect, but they’re still very clearly second banana to the French figures – Tristan being the second greatest worldly knight after Lancelot and Percival the second holiest knight after Galahad. The Holy Grail itself is not present in any Welsh story, and so its defining role in Mallory (as well as Galahad and Lancelot’s relationship to it) moves the story in a very different direction.
Courtly Chivalry: The Mallory stories are very much set in the Middle Ages. No mention is given of invading Saxons or Picts, no appearances of Ambrosius, Vortigern, or other semi-historical figures. Furthermore, there is an obsession with tournaments and courtly love, and especially champions jousting against knight after knight, causing each to declare loyalty to the champion and King Arthur. Very different from the much wilder giant-slaying and tribal wars of the earlier native tales.
Lack of Fantasy: Perhaps the most surprising element of the Mallory stories is the general lack of fantasy elements. They are clearly not the focus. Though there is Merlin, most of his magic is confined to vague prophecies of doom and creating monuments to the knights’ failures. There are very few dragons and giants, barely any fey — most of the more fantastical King Arthur stories (“The Green Knight,” “The Loathley Lady,” etc.) are missing. Though Mallory does include various Christian miracles, including, naturally, the Holy Grail, he is clearly uninterested in most other flights of fancy. For him, much more drama is found in knights tilting against each other than in encountering sorcerers and monsters. This is, of course, very different from the Welsh stories. Most of the Welsh champions have super powers, and they rarely fight human adversaries — giants, dragons, werewolves, witches, fey warriors, talking animals — these are who Arthur and his court pit themselves against.
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table.
Roger Lancelyn Green was a member of the Inklings, a close friend to J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and the man who most encourage Lewis to publish his Narnia series. Green is best known for his series of mythology adaptations (Greek, Norse, King Arthur, Robin Hood, etc.) and for trying to draw upon as wide variety of sources for his books. That’s why Robin Hood gets his treacherous servant Worman and battles the Witch of Papplewick while his take on Norse myths references Saxo Grammaticus and a Faroe Island folktale.
Green freely admits that his main inspiration for King Arthur was Mallory, but he also brings in stuff from other sources, including:
Saxon References. Though Green doesn’t give any focus to any of the pseudo-historical King Arthur’s Saxon wars, he does reference them at various times, clearly placing his tales in their timeline, even though he doesn’t shy away from knights, tournaments, and other medieval trappings.
Welsh Romance. Green includes “Geraint and Enid,” one of the three Welsh romances from the Mabinogian.
Sense of Fantasy. Green adds “The Green Knight,” “The Loathley Lady,” and a non-Mallory version of Tristan. Though none of these are based on specific Welsh stories, they are still stories of heroes wrestling with monsters and enchantment rather than jousts and tournaments. They feel more primal, inspired by old and wild folktales from an old and wild people.
Less Tournaments and French. Just the fact that Green’s book is far shorter than Mallory’s and adds a lot that Mallory doesn’t include means that a huge amount of Mallory gets cut. A lot of the repetitive jousts after jousts are removed with their variously coloured knights and many of the French names (such as “La Cote Male Tayle” and “Le Morte d’Arthur”) are gone. Tristan, in particular, feels much more like an Celtic folk hero than a Norman knight.
So Green’s book is more “Brythonic” than Mallory’s (it could hardly be less), but still firmly on the Romance side of the Romance vs Welsh divide. Next time we’ll take a look at how some more modern books compare.
When I started doing research for Wizards of Wales (which I have now renamed Enchanters of Britain), I started taking a look at a lot of Welsh folktales a lot more closely than I had done before. In exploring them, especially the bizarre romp “Culhwch & Olwen,” I discovered a version of King Arthur that I hadn’t previously known existed, despite being a big King Arthur fan ever since I was a child. Sadly, the original Welsh version of King Arthur has been eclipsed by the knightly romances of Chrétien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Mallory, and by the modern obsession with finding the “real” King Arthur, some British or perhaps Sarmatian warchief fighting against the Saxons back in the 5th century of history. Even the rpg supplement GURPS Camelot, when describing the different interpretations of King Arthur, talked about the historical Arthur, the Arthur of the Romances, and the Arthur of modern pop culture, but never mentioned the Arthur of Welsh myth.
But if you look back at the original surviving Welsh fragments, they are more fantastical than Mallory not less, presenting a folk hero in the style in Heracles or Sigurd, rather than a historical general. “Culhwch & Olwen” is the only early Arthurian folktale that survives in its (more-or-less) entirety, and it presents a court of Arthur filled with demigods, such as the fairy king Gwyn ap Nudd and Manawydan ap Llyr, and with superpowered heroes, with powers ranging from being able to stamp mountains flat to setting themselves on fire.
So what defines the original Welsh Arthurian stuff?
Fantastical. Fantasy elements surround the characters. Arthur’s champions (even his dog!) have superpowers and they battle fairies and demigods. There are talking animals, armies of werewolves, dragons, numerous giants, and wide variety of wizards and magical artifacts. Not all the stories even take place in the regular world — the heroes travel into hidden enchanted valleys all the time and frequently enter Annwn, the Otherworld.
Pre-Chivalry. Though the time period of the original stuff is not really defined, it is still clearly not the Middle Ages. There are no tournaments or courtly love, no jousting knights. It’s dark ages warriors going on strange personal quests, contending with the remnants of pre-Christian imagery and slaying monsters less for chivalric reasons and more for personal glory. The later pseudo-historical writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth and others has Arthur battling the invading Saxons and Angles; though not part of the original stories, it still fits very well with it.
Welsh. The heroes are not English and they certainly do not have the French names and titles that appear in the Romances (Lancelot du Lac, Morgan la Fey, Beaumains, etc.). They are Brythons, the people who became the Welsh and the Cornish, and they have a strong cultural identity.
Perhaps the last is the most important point about the early Arthur stories. They were cultural stories presenting the heroes of the Brythonic people, heroes that defined Welsh and Cornish identity. Though the English later appropriated Arthur for their own purposes, in the original stories he was clearly Brythonic and Celtic. A hero of my ancestors rather than my ancestors’ conquerors.
I haven’t been posting much here recently, largely due to all the numerous projects I’ve been engaged with. I was working on a novel last year and thinking to myself that I really hoped to get it done soon because the thing I really wanted to work on was “Wizards of Wales,” an adaptation of Welsh myths looking at various wizards and enchanters. Then I realized “why I am I working on a book I’m not interested in when I could be focusing on the one I am interested in?” Thus I switched over from Guardian of the Garden City to Wizards of Wales. Then while researching for that book, I got really interested in the Welsh version of King Arthur, which has surprisingly little influence on later King Arthur retellings. Even stories that claim to be about the “real” King Arthur are more interested in simply moving the events of Le Morte d’Arthur into a more historical time period (Mists of Avalon) or adapting Geoffrey of Monmouth or other early pseudo-historical Arthurian works but ignoring the actual Welsh stuff (Mary Stewart’s Crystal Caves series).
This is a real shame, as the original Welsh stuff is fascinating. Its champions possess bizarre powers and strange personalities, fighting giants and monsters in mysterious quests. In Culhwch & Olwen, the only original Welsh Arthurian story to survive in its entirety, Arthur’s court includes various demigods, such as Manawyddan ap Llyr (of the Mabinogi), Gwyn ap Nudd (king of the fairies), and Morvran (son of the goddess-witch Ceridwen), as well as figures with such a range of powers as superspeed, superstrength, flight, fire-generation, and lips so long that the top lip can be curled back and worn like a hat. It feels less like a court of medieval knights and more as a more bizarre version of the Argonauts of Greek myths or the Avengers. It is crazy and awesome, full of magic and passion — truly the folktales of the Welsh people’s most famous folkhero, rather than Norman-style knights in armour.
Trying to piece together all the old Welsh stories and fragments, combining them together into a coherent narrative, has been a really fascinating experience, and resulted in what was originally going to be one book on Welsh myths splitting into two: Wizards of Wales and Arthur, King of the Brythons. It’s something I’ll be exploring further in this blog, looking at aspects of King Arthur that sadly are rarely explored.