(e) Érec et Énide by Chretien de Troyes, 12th century
(g) Geraint ac Enid by anonymous, 14th century
(y) Roman d’Yder by anonymous Anglo-Norman poet of French extraction, 13th century
(f) Tain bo Fraich, by anonymous, 8th century
Starting where we left off in the previous post, “The Antiquity of ‘The Romance of Geraint and Enid’ Part 1 – The British Evidence,” there is reason to ponder if a pre-Christian “original” Welsh myth followed the “hard task” international tale, or something akin to it, wherein a man assigns hard tasks hoping to slay his helper, eventually to gain respect for him. If such a tale type existed in ancient times in Wales as part of a Celtic body of myths, we may then find it attested in other countries sharing Wales’ Celtic heritage. In this light let’s carefully proceed.
Táin Bó Fraích
The Irish legend ‘Táin Bó Fraích’ or ‘The Cattle Rustling of Fraech,’ (f) survives in five manuscripts, mostly agreeing in language except in isolated examples that have been attributed to scribal error.(1)
The text of the (f) has been dated to the early part of the 8th century, with some grammatical forms updated in the Middle Irish period, about the beginning of the 10th century. (2)
Within (f) we find two separate stories concerning the warrior Fráech appended together rather clumsily, creating a remscéla or fore-tale to the celebrated epic ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge.’ As usual, this short summary does not do the legend justice, and should be read in full. (3)
Fráech, the son of Béḃinn, a woman of the Tuatha Dé, appears at the royal rath of the monarchs Ailill and Medb of Connaught where is he welcomed. After weeks of entertainment, he encounters their daughter, the beautiful princess Findabair. He proclaims his love for her and she gives him a ring as her token. Fráech returns to Ailill and Medb and asks for their daughter’s hand in marriage, but is angered by the exorbitant dowry price they demand. He storms off, and the monarchs conclude that he will attempt to take Findabair by force, and so they must kill him.
They locate Fráech and bring him back to the rath. King Ailill, feigning renewed friendship, takes Fráech out on a journey through the wilderness to a body of water. Noting Fráech’s talent as a swimmer, he suggests a swim. While Fráech is occupied, the king rifles through the warrior’s belongings and finds Findabair’s ring. He erroneously believes Findabair has brought shame to Medb and himself. He casts the ring into the water, but Fráech observes this and catches the fish that has swallowed the ring. Ailill requests that the warrior swim to an remote area across the water and retrieve a fruiting branch of rowan, without informing him that a water monster dwells there. The monster attacks as Fráech returns to shore. Findabair leaps into the water and passes the warrior his sword. Furious at his daughter’s intervention, Ailill hurls a spear which nearly strikes her, but is intercepted by Fráech. The duo return to shore but the warrior is dying of wounds inflicted by the monster. A multitude of green clad women of the Tuatha Dé appear and bear Fráech away; he returns some time later with an otherworldly aura, completely healed of his wounds. Medb and Ailill seek reconciliation; however, Findabair must die for bringing shame upon them. Fráech produces the fish and ring and concocts a lie (!) to explain away his possession of the princess’s ring and saves her life.(4) Ailill proclaims Findabair can choose the husband she desires, apparently Fráech. (5)
The tale of (f) is by no means exactly the same as the other tales that concern us. In British tradition the hero fights the critical battle against a number of giants, while in the Irish tale the hero slays a water monster or serpent.
This divergence between Welsh and Irish does not seem to have been produced after Christian conversion. A Scottish variant of the water monster fight of (f) can be found in the Dean of Lismore Book. (6) Also, in the ‘Lebor Gabála Érenn’ we find the hero Goidel Glas son of Nuil or Nel, who is found and healed by Moses after battling a serpent while swimming in the Red Sea. (7) Moses’ appearance can be explained by the Biblical story told in Numbers 21:9. (8) Tellingly though, the details of the Goidel Glas story mirror (f) more than they do the Biblical narrative. (9) This evidence suggests that both the ‘giant’ and ‘serpent’ tales were widely disseminated at an early date, and it seems an unlikely prospect that either could be considered more “authentically” pre-Christian than the other. Rather, it appears that we have two culturally specific variants of a mythological narrative.
To argue this point, we should now gather up the various similarities between texts:
1. In both traditions the heroes have mythic parentage. In Welsh, Edern is the son of Nuth, or the deity Nodens of the river Severn, and Fráech is son of the Tuatha Dé of the river Boyne.
2. Both heroes are connected to linguistically similar women. In British tradition and elsewhere, Winlogee, Guinloe, or more innocently Guinevere in (y) while in (f) we have the cognate Findabair.
3. In (e) (g) and (f) the heroine saves her love’s life by disobeying commands.
4. In (e) (g) (y) and (f) as well as the anecdote of William of Malmesbury the hero battles mythological beasts where he suffers dire wounds but is healed by mystic powers.
5. In William of Malmesbury’s account, the location of the fight is Brent Knoll, which was a marshy island during the text’s composition, the fight in (f) similarly centers around water.
6. In (y) and (f) and potentially suggested in William of Malmesbury, the fight is instigated by angry male relatives of an involved female character by feigning friendship with the hero.
7. In (y) and (f) the angered relative seeks reconciliation after the hero’s healing and return.
8. In (e) and (g) and (f) the hero returns immediately after his love is threatened with violence.
9. In (e) and (g) Yder or Edern is connected to sparrow hawks, in (f) the hero has a hawk who travels with him.
The large number of shared essential plot points, minor motifs and names, as distantly as the early 8th century provides strong evidence that the tale type was widely circulated and probably existed in several culturally specific variants as part of the Celtic mythological corpus. The importance of the tale type may be testified in that Carnfree (Fráech’s Carn) was the coronation site of the O’Connor kings in Connaught, where an Ogham inscription in Primitive Irish bears witness to the name of Fráech. (10) Goidel Glas is depicted as an ancestor of all the Celts. It has been argued by the esteemed Rachel Bromwich that Chretien de Troyes plucked the names of Érec and Énide for his telling of (e) from the traditional territorial names of Vannes in Brittany, Bro-Wened becoming Énide and Bro-Ereg Érec. (11) Furthermore, that area was traditionally founded by the hero Caradog Strongarm, who appears in a mythologized form alongside Edern in the Modena Archevolt, indicative that their tales became connected somehow at an early stage of development.
Therefore, propositionally, we can say a part of the myth followed a god or demigod whom, due to some misunderstanding involving a woman, gets provoked by a companion to battle mythological beasts. He overcomes his enemies but is mortally wounded. Due to mystical influence he is rejuvenated and ultimately returns to unite with his love. This demigod was probably considered an ancestor or founding figure. Certain details may have been emphasized, such as the demigod’s love interest’s disregard of commands in order to rescue him, or the guileful companion finding renewed admiration for the demigod after his impossible triumph. Much of this is reflected in Geraint. In fact, after comparing the (g) and the (f) I’ve found myself reversing some of my original opinions on how much influence the French text had in the story. Though Fráech’s companion hawk doesn’t at all mean we should conclude the sparrow hawk competition of (e) and (g) is entirely of Welsh character, it does cast doubt on my prior belief that it was completely a French invention. The same can be said of the central theme of “love overcoming all obstacles” shared by all the texts, and a staple of what is widely considered French “courtly love.” When Findabair gazes longingly at Fráech as he swims with the rowan branch the moment terminates with the lines, “the branch with the red berries between the throat and the white face. It is what Find-abair used to say, that by no means had she seen anything that could come up to him half or third for beauty,” echoing Geraint’s own sentiments for Enid, “the woman he loves best.”
In sum, all of these tales have been a joy to discover. They each have a rich complexity that reflect the unique societies in which they were composed. There is so much more to be said of them, but I’ve found it’s beyond the scope of this particular post, and I will have to get to it later on. And if anyone has read this far, I implore them also to read this delicately thoughtful and well researched piece by the poet Greg Hill on the subject of Geraint and Erec, the original inspiration for this topic. (12)
(4) The appearance of the ‘Ring in the Fish’ motif is fascinating and deserves more attention.
(5) An excellent overview of this story, as well as others in the Gaelic legendary corpus by the laudable Joseph Nagy can be found here, https://www.ed.ac.uk/literatures-languages-cultures/celtic-scottish-studies/media/celtic-dragon
(6) The Scottish Dragon slaying story-
(7) Gaidel Glas-
(8) Moses heals serpent bites-
(9) Moses does not heal Gaidel Glas the same way, the hero fights the monster while swimming, there is an emphasis on wearing green. It appears the notion that Moses healed serpent bites echoed the Irish legend enough that a synthesis of the two was created. This deserves more scrutiny.
(11) Vannes and its Breton names-
Also a certain Edern was the legendary founder of the Welsh commote of Edeirnion as well. However, I have not been able to get much information on the antiquity of the name Edeirnion and it’s founding.
(12) Hill’s moving article on Geraint.