There has been a significant amount of debate about the origin of the thirteenth or fourteenth century Welsh romance ‘Geraint ac Enid’, and its relation to the French work ‘Erec et Enide’ by Chrétien de Troyes in the later half of the twelfth century. Scholarly opinion generally fall into two camps: that the text of the ‘Geraint’ is based primarily on the ‘Erec’, with perhaps Chrétien adapting his own story from traditional Welsh or Breton material, or that both are derived independently of one another from a common lost Celtic source. (1) With so much ink spilled on the subject, (2) it seems a survey of potentially analogous tales may be helpful in tracing the development of the story as we know it.
Both the ‘Erec’ (e) and ‘Geraint’ (g) begin with King Arthur and his court on the hunt for a magical white stag reported to dwell in a nearby wilderness. While en route to view the chase, Arthur’s queen, Guinevere or Gwenhwyfar, is accosted by a mysterious knight and his dwarf companion. The hero pursues the queen’s attackers until he comes to a town and meets the beautiful Enide(e)/Enid(g). He enters a jousting tournament being held, and discovers the mysterious knight named Yder (e)/Edern (g) is also taking part. He overcomes his opponent and rides back to King Arthur’s court with Enid. Afterwards, the two embark on a series of adventures. Two of these further adventures are of particular note: one in which the hero slays two (e) or three (g) giants, and the other, very strange incident involving a magical garden enclosed within an invisible wall (e) or a hedge of mist (g), ringed by heads on stakes and guarded by an enchanted knight. (3)
The giants episode of both (e) and (g) are almost identical; the hero, after being warned by a crying woman, nearly dies subduing his monstrous opponents and falls unconscious, awakened only by the cry of his true love. The incident is an exemplary tale on the themes of chivalry and courtly love, and certainly of Norman origin, which nonetheless does not prove the incident was entirely a French invention. In Will Parker’s introduction to Geraint he summarizes a tale by the English historian William of Malmesbury (c. 1095-c. 1143):
a certain Yder fis Nuth is described as fighting three giants on the hill of Brentenol (identified with ‘Brent Knoll’ in Somerset), after having been knighted by Arthur… he is described as prevailing in this battle, but falling unconscious as a result of his wounds. The king, racked with guilt at the idea that he may have sent this young nobleman to his death, enlists a battalion of monks to pray for his revival, and when he recovers makes a generous grant of lands to the monastery involved. (4)
Here then we find what is recognizably the giants episode in a form older than the (e), but with a few striking deviations. The first and most prominent of these is that in this older form Yder fis Nuth, Welsh Edern ap Nudd, is the hero of the adventure, in contrast to both (e) and (g) where Edern is a villain acting against the hero who has replaced him in the narrative. Secondly we have the hero’s salvation through the power of prayer, without mention of the courtly love element. The prominence placed in monkish prayer is undoubtedly due to William of Malmesbury himself being an ecclesiastic, but the same argument could be made of Chrétien whose livelihood as a court poet was earned by the weaving tales revolving around courtly love. Third we find, interestingly, King Arthur’s sense of grief and responsibility at the young hero’s possible demise, which we will return to shortly.
Now that we have seen that the oldest tale extant connected to (e) and (g) features Edern ap Nudd as the narrative’s protagonist, let us turn our focus on him.
The Welsh name Edern is derived from the Latin word Aeternus, meaning eternal, (5) which though not particularly elucidating for our inquiry, is evocative at least of Bronze Age mythos. Further, his patronymic Nudd is connected etymologically to the ancient deity Nodens, which supports the argument for (g)‘s origin in Welsh antiquity. (6)
A fragmentary Anglo-Norman text, the ‘Roman d’Yder’ survives in one vellum manuscript from the second half of the thirteenth century. (7) The beginning is missing, and the text suffers from a few lacunae, but the extant material provides some items of interest. (8) After a series of adventures to set the stage, we enter the main plot, where we discover King Arthur furiously jealous of his new knight, Yder son of Nuc (9) after Queen Guinevere admits to Arthur that she finds him attractive. The king takes Yder on an aimless quest, making their way into a forest where they find Yder’s true love Guinloie. She warns them of a pair of giants hard by, dwelling in a castle decorated with heads on stakes. She relates that they possess a certain dagger, and whoever should defeat them and win it shall have her in marriage. King Arthur seizes on this quest as a way to bring about Yder’s death. He sends the young knight out to battle the monsters but contrary to his desires Yder is victorious. Later on Sir Kay, who similarly wants Yder dead, betrays the hero’s trust by giving him poisonous water to drink, which renders him unconscious. King Arthur, believing Yder dead, is now remorseful of his past actions and mourns the hero’s untimely demise. Eventually they depart, but afterwards a pair of Irish knights come across Yder by chance and restore him to health. He returns to Arthur’s court and marries Guinloie.
Adams accordingly finds that the poet of the ‘Roman d’Yder’ (y) was influenced by (e) (10) as well as by Chrétien’s other work, the ‘Conte du Graal’, pointing to Yder’s impoverished upbringing and the incident of the woman crying over a dead knight. While very likely correct, our interest rests on the fact that the hero is not Chrétien’s Erec or even the valiant Geraint but Yder, agreeing with the earlier account given by William of Malmesbury. Similarly, King Arthur’s grief at the demise of Yder and his restoration by wandering knights may indicate that (y) contains incidents that are throwbacks to earlier versions of the tale, presumably closer to the hypothetical Welsh myth.
Adams further contends that the name of Yder’s one true beloved, Guinloie, corresponds to the Winnlogee of the Modena Archivolt, and ponders the relationship of the name to Queen Guinevere, noting a passage from the poem ‘Tristan de Berne’ that mentions the love between Yder and Guinevere. (11) She goes on to speculate about the curiously unwarranted jealousy of King Arthur.
I would add that the narrative elements that appear to be the oldest surviving stratum of the tale resembles the international folktale of the man who sets hard tasks for his helper in a bid to slay him, only to end up admiring him. I don’t believe that this undermines an argument for (g)’s origin in Bronze Age Wales, as the “hard task” tale type is itself very ancient, appearing in the Classical Greek myth of Bellerophon and Iobates. (12) The tale type also appears in various Irish legendary tales which shall be considered in part two.
(2) For an in depth description of the history of the debate, see Arthur in the Celtic Languages, pp. 110-14.
(3) This brief summation does not do justice to either work, which should be enjoyed in full. ‘Erec’ http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/831
(8) The wonderfully astute editor of ‘Roman d’Yder’ Allison Adams connects the first surviving episode of the text with the fidelity test found in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ which has likewise been connected by Mary Jones to the Mabinogi of Pwyll. Other stories like that of Pwyll can be found in the Scottish ‘Lay of the Great Fool’ and the Irish ‘Finn and the Red Woman’.
(9) Anglo-Norman Nuc is cognate with Welsh Nudd, and the incident of how Yder reunites with his father Nuc in (y) has arresting parallels to the story of Bres and his father Elatha in the Irish text of ‘Cath Mag Tuired’, as well as the magical father and son reunion found in the medieval German tale of Emperor Ortnit. Though as far as I am aware no academic study of legends concerning rings that reunite father and son has been carried out.
(10) Adams agrees with Southward that many of the incidents harken back to Germanic myth, particularly the tale type of the “bear’s son”, pointing to Yder’s battle with the marauding bear and a similar account found in the English legend of Hereward the Wake. I find this argument unconvincing, as the incident of the bear fight does not appear in “bear’s son” tales; indeed the conclusion that at least the bear fight alone is of Germanic origin could be better justified by noting that it mirrors an incident found in the Nibelungenlied.
(11) See note 7, pp. 18
(12) Bellerophon, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bellerophon