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Yr Hen Iaith part fourteen: From Arthurian Apocalypse to Fashion Casualties – A Brief History of the Battle of Camlan

18 Jun 2023 6 minute read
The Battle Between King Arthur and Sir Mordred by William Hatherell

Continuing our series of articles to accompany the podcast series Yr Hen Iaith. This is episode fourteen.

Jerry Hunter

In discussing ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’ two weeks ago, I drew attention to one of many interesting parts of that long list of characters present in Arthur’s court, a triad naming the three men who escaped from the Battle of Camlan. Let’s look at it in more detail:

Moruran eil Tegit – ny dodes dyn y araf yndaw y Ghamlan rac y haccred, pawb a tybygynt y uod yn gythreul canhorhwy; blew a oed arnaw mal blew hydd.

‘Morfan son of Tegid – no man put his weapon in him in Camlan because of his ugliness, everybody thought that he was a devil helping [in the battle]; he had hair like a stag’s hair.’

A Sande Pryt Angel – ny dodes neb y wayw yndaw y Ghamlan rac y decket, pawb a debygynt y uod yn engyl canhorthwy.

‘And Sandde Angel Face – nobody put his spear in him in Camlan because of his beauty, everybody thought that he was an angel helping.

A Chynwyl Sant – y trydydgwr a dienghis o Gamlan; ef a yscarwys diwethaf ac Arthur y ar Hengroen y uarch.

‘And Cynwyl the Saint – the third man who escaped from Camlan; he left Arthur last, on his horse Hengroen [Oldskin].’

Some of the triads found in medieval collections talk about Arthur’s last battle, Camlan, but this particular triad is not in those collections.

It could’ve been in other versions of Trioedd Ynys Prydein (‘The Triads of the Island of Britain’) now lost, only spotted and preserved by the author of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ in his desire to collect as much Arthurian material as possible and present it in his raucous narrative framework.

Temporal slip

It’s worth pausing and considering what is actually happening in the text at this point.

Camlan is the last of Arthur’s battles, the apocalyptical conflict which brings an end to the legendary ruler’s reign. Has the author of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ and slipped up here?

In his consuming desire to include every scrap of Arthurian lore in his attempt to create a world overflowing with traditional Welsh Arthuriana, did he include something he shouldn’t have?

After all, when we read about this triad it is as part of the scene when Culhwch lists all of the heroes in Arthur’s court. Those heroes are there before us in our readers’ imaginations, alive and well, and Arthur is there, alive and well.

However, rather than seeing it as a mistake, I’d suggest that something more interesting – and, indeed, philosophical – is going on.

Indeed, this same apparent temporal slip occurs elsewhere in medieval Welsh literature; in ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ there is a striking reference to Camlan and the end of Arthur in the middle of a story in which Arthur is very much alive (but we’ll save that for another episode).

‘Arthurian Apocalypse’

There are other aspects of Welsh tradition which suggest that Camlan, signifying the end of Arthur’s legendary age, played an ideational part in structuring thinking about that entire body of Arthurian legend.

In other words, we might say that traditions concerning this ‘Arthurian Apocalypse’ of Camlan are ways of viewing all of the great Arthurian story, just as apocalyptical mediations in the Bible are a way of structuring Christian thought in general.

Camlan also became an important reference-point for Welsh writers, a way of indexing the ultimate apocalypse which should be avoided at all costs.

Indeed, one could say that the Welsh literary imagination of past centuries was frightened by the looming shadow of Camlan in way that our world has lived in the shadow of nuclear war since the middle of the 20th century.

It is the end of all things; the worst thing that can happen.

Tudur Aled

One of the most prominent Welsh poets of the late 15th and early 16th century was Tudur Aled, a bard who sang praise to the leaders of his society, one of many literary artists who continued that centuries-old tradition.

He also fulfilled another of the bard’s age-old roles, offering counsel to the people to whom he sang praise.

One such poem – in the strict-metre cywydd metre – counsels members of a leading family who were arguing amongst themselves.

He reminds them of the lessons of their traditions:

Trachas gwaed, trwy achos gwan, 
A ddug ymladd i Gamlan.

‘Very bad blood, because of a weak cause,
Brought about fighting in Camlan.’

In other words, don’t let your world descend into chaos because of your petty family squabble.

And, as these men were uchelwyr, members of the Welsh gentry class, they were central to the maintenance of society. If they self-destruct, society self-destructs.

And Tudur Aled, having referred to the great apocalypse to be avoided, then reminds them that England likes to ‘divide and conquer’ in Wales:

Cymru’n waeth, caem, o’r noethni,
Lloegr yn well o’n llygru ni!

‘Wales becoming worse, we’ll get, from this exposure,
England [getting] better from despoiling us!’

Remembering Arthur’s rule as the great Welsh leader, the resonances also add extra bite to this request that the squabbling uchelwyr don’t weaken Wales and let England take advantage of a nation so weakened.

Surreal world

There are a great many references to the Battle of Camlan in bardic poetry from the Middle Ages, and, indeed, from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Indeed, the ways in which references to this Arthurian apocalypse have been used in Welsh literature throughout the centuries – right up to T. Gwynn Jones’s landmark 1902 poem, Ymadawiad Arthur and beyond – is a huge subject in its own right.

We’ll end with one very different example.

Ellis Wynne’s 1703 masterpiece, Gweledigaethau’r Bardd Cwsg, ‘The Visions of the Sleeping Bard’, begins in this world. The eponymous bard goes to the top of a mountain in North Wales in order to enjoy the sights and he falls asleep.

When he awakes, he is on his way to the surreal world of his ‘visions’, but first he encounters some tylwyth teg (the denizens of Welsh folklore poorly translated as ‘fairies’).

Their bright, mismatched clothes jar his eyes:

A chynta peth a welwn i, yn f’ymyl dwmpath chwareu, â’r fath gâd-gamlan mewn Peisieu gleision a Chapieu cochion, yn dawnsio’n hoew-brysur. 

‘And the first thing I saw, beside me, was a twmpath [mound] for playing, and such a câd-gamlan of blue Petticoats and red Caps, dancing happily-busily.’

In Ellis Wynne’s sentence, câd Gamlan – ‘the Battle of Camlan’, the great Arthurian apocalypse – is used with the same force of that expression used in recent English slang, ‘fashion casualties.’

It is an extremely funny use of the traditional Welsh name for Arthur’s last battle, but only if the reader is steeped in that Arthurian tradition.

Catch up on the previous episodes here.

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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
9 months ago

I recall a large man in a long black cape selling me a book that claimed the battle was fought near Dinas Mawddwy…

Geoffrey Harris
Geoffrey Harris
9 months ago

I take the point, if we all understood the consequence of Camlan then perhaps we would unite in the common struggle for the survival of our beloved Cymru, stop looking towards our masters in Westminster and concentrate on winning our freedom.

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