Yr Hen Iaith part eighteen: Peredur’s Innocence and Masculine Violence
Continuing our series of articles to accompany the podcast series Yr Hen Iaith. This is episode eighteen
The medieval Welsh tale ‘Historia Peredur fab Efrog’ – ‘The Story (or History) of Peredur son of Efrog’ – has received a considerable amount of attention because of its similarity to the French narrative poem Perceval ou le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes.
They are also very different. For example, in the French text Perceval sees a wondrous ‘grail’, later connected by other writers to the ‘Holy Grail’. In the Welsh text, Peredur doesn’t see a grail but rather a severed head – a manifestation of a completely different plot development.
However, the most interesting thing about this medieval Welsh narrative (at least in my opinion), is the way in which it constructs a meaningful contrast between society’s male and female spheres.
This begins immediately, as the opening sentences describe the fate of our hero-to-be’s father:
‘Efrawg iarll bioedd iarllaeth yn y Gogledd, a saith mab oedd iddaw. Ac nid o’i gyfoeth yn bennaf ydd ymborthai Efrawg, namyn o dwrneimeint ac ymladdau a rhyfeloedd. Ac fal y mae mynych i’r neb a ymganlyno â rhyfel, ef a las, ac ef a’i chwe meib.
‘A’r seithfed mab iddaw, Peredur y gelwid. A ieuhaf oedd hwnnw o’i seithmeib. Nid oedd oed iddaw fyned i ryfel nac ymladd. Pe bai oet, ef a leddid fal y llas ei dad a’i frodyr.’
‘Efrog the earl possessed an earldom in the North, and he had seven sons. But it was not by means of his territory that he for the most part maintained himself, but rather through tournaments and combats and wars. And as is often the case with one who follows war, he was killed along with his six sons.
‘And his seventh son was called Peredur. And he was the youngest of his seven sons. He was not of age to go to war or to combat. If he had been of age, he would’ve been killed like his father and his brothers.’
Wise and cunning
Peredur’s mother is then characterized in a completely different way. We are told that she is ‘a wise and cunning woman’ (gwraig gymen ystrywus), and she goes to great lengths to ensure that her youngest son does not follow the path – and fall prey to the fate – of his father and brothers.
She takes him into the wilderness, far from the harmful influence of male society, and raises him in a peaceful utopia of her own creation.
The only individuals whom she allows into this alternative society are women, boys and ‘modest, content people’ (dynion didraha diwala) who could not and would not ever go to war.
The boy displays considerable physical ability and he entertains himself by fashioning little spears from holly twigs and throwing them. This detail is both charming and sobering, being a colourful way of saying that ‘you can take the boy out of war but you can’t take war out of the boy.’
As Richard Wyn Jones noted during our conversation on the podcast, many parents today avoid giving their children toy guns only to find that they fashion their own guns out of seemingly harmless objects.
One day young Peredur sees three knights travelling along the marchocffordd. This word translates readily as ‘bridle-path’ or ‘road for horse-travel’, but we can also use it as short-hand for one analysis of this tale by reading it as a reference to the ‘way’ (ffordd) of the ‘knight’ (marchog).
This is the path in life which Peredur is fated to follow. The boy asks his mother what these wondrous creatures are, and she –drawing upon her cunning in a continued attempt to isolate her son from anything associated with warfare – replies that they are ‘angels’ (egylyon).
It is the innate nature of warlike masculinity rather than martial vocabulary which attracts Peredur, and his simple reply is that he will go and become an angel as well.
He follows them, talks with them, and learns that they call themselves knights. When he returns, full of childish innocence and enthusiasm, and tells his mother that he has learned this simple fact, she is horrified and falls into ‘a dead feint’ (marwlewic).
When she comes to herself, his mother accepts defeat and offers Peredur advice which will help him as he travels the path to becoming a knight.
This includes travelling to Arthur’s court, where the best knights in the world are found.
The rest of the tale is a sprawling narrative, full of amazing adventures and martial feats, perhaps too much so for the taste of modern readers (unless you’re one of those people who thinks that you can’t have too many shootouts and car chases in an action film).
Despite this meandering structure, there is also clear narrative progression, as Peredur continues to improve as he follows the path of the knight.
He receives more martial instruction from gwiddonod, a word sometimes translated as ‘witches’ but perhaps better rendered as ‘female monsters’, ‘sorceresses’ or ‘giantesses’.
The defining features of a gwiddon are that she is female, powerful, supernatural, and skilled in combat.
Peredur thus finds himself in another female society, one which can be seen as a dark inversion of the peaceful utopia which his mother had created for him.
It is as if the extreme violence which had permeated his father’s life is manifest in this supernatural feminine form.
While Peredur learns how to fight even better by studying with the gwiddonod, he also kills them later in the story.
This tale has much in it which can fuel a feminist rewriting of it, and it can be read as a critique of the male sphere of war.
However, it also seems to present a rather different message, one less palatable to most modern readers.
This narrative suggests that masculinity and violence are inextricably linked and that any attempt at creating a society which is feminized and peaceful is doomed to fail.
Similarly, the sphere of the gwiddonod, both feminine and warlike, is ultimately seen as a monstrous perversion which must be expunged by male characters whom we are asked to see as heroes.
– Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (translators), The Mabinogion (revised edition, London, 1993)
– Sioned Davies (translator), The Mabinogion (Oxford: OUP, 2008)
– Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan a Erich Poppe (goln.), Arthur in the Celtic Languages (Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 2019)
Catch up on the previous episodes here.
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