Arthur of Britain – questioning his legacy


Do we need to re-assess the status of Arthur in British mythic and legendary history? I am prompted to ask that question after reading Lorna Smithers The Broken Cauldron , although it has for some time been an emerging theme in her blog output and her literary work in the service of her patron god Gwyn ap Nudd in her previous book Enchanting the Shadowlands.

Arthur, according to one of the Welsh Triads, decided to dig up Bran’s head at the White Mount thereby removing the older protector of Ynys Prydain (and his mythological sway) because he wanted none but himself to be the defender of Britain. Lorna’s view of Arthur certainly sees him in this light, but concentrates on the significance of his raid on Annwn and the carrying of of the Cauldron of Rebirth from that place as related in the poem ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ in The Book of Taliesin. Her reconstruction of early Brythonic material is mythically innovative and inspired. Much of the material containing the Arthurian stories which developed into the romance cycles of the later Middle Ages might be called legendary history, following the narrative of the Historia Brittonum and other sources in Latin such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and detailing how Arthur led the resistance of the romanized Britons to the Saxon invasions. Here Arthur is the Dux Bellorum or leader of the warbands. But Lorna goes back, rather, to the mythic Welsh material where his activities include the raid on the Otherworld to capture the Cauldron and the hunt of a magical boar. What Arthur does here is not simply to act as a legendary hero but as a moving force in changing the mythic life of Britain. What Lorna attempts, then, is nothing less than a reclaiming of that earlier mythic layer with Gwyn ap Nudd rather than Arthur as the central protagonist. To do this she does not simply attempt to re-construct the myths, but to recreate them as part of a personal quest which is initiatory in its intensity. The public expression of that quest is contained in her published work such as the book under review putting it in the public domain and therefore available to enrich the common mythos for other Brythonic polytheists.

Arthur’s raid on Annwn and the act of one of his men, Lleawg, in pushing his sword into the Cauldron can be seen as a defining moment in mythic reconfiguring. The Cauldron is traditionally seen as being in the keeping of Ceridwen. Lorna is an awenydd who finds her awen in the impulse to offer Gwyn ap Nudd the poems, tales and other writings which he inspires in her. The source of the awen is traditionally the Cauldron of Ceridwen as featured in the tale of Taliesin but also as perceived by the earliest Welsh bards as the source of their inspiration. For Lorna Ceridwen is ‘Old Mother Universe’, the divine source of all life which is cyclically re-born from the Cauldron of Rebirth.

In updating this mythic material for our own times Lorna conceives the Cauldron by analogy with various modern artefacts such as the vats producing the chemicals which fuel modern industry. Just as, in the story of Taliesin, inspiration was gained from a few drops of the Cauldron’s brew, the remaining poisonous liquid running off to pollute streams and rivers, so modern chemical and energy production and the destructive environmental effects of this are seen by analogy as a deluge from the Broken Cauldron following Arthur’s raid on Annwn to capture it.

I have singled out one thread of Lorna’s thematic narrative here, but there is much more, including as she does that other mythic deluge from the broken well of Mererid and the tales of drowned lands both in Gwyddno Garanhir’s Borth, where Taliesin was discovered in a weir by Elffin, and the location of it  in her native Lancashire where the submerged harbour of Portus Setantiorum offers another location for the story.

In the final section on nuclear power, Arthur’s legacy of the Broken Cauldron finds its ultimate expression in the image of a leaking reactor and of meltdown of the reactor core. Here the mix of poems, creative prose and factual information combines in what might be taken as an awenydd‘s pessimistic prediction of the future. Does the final image, then, of Old Mother Universe falling asleep indicate an end or a new beginning? The Awenydd‘s words are always open to interpretation. The future lies also in our hands and Lorna’s inspired mythic re-imaginings should also be taken as words of warning. Will they be heeded?

What do you think?