Pa Gur/Gwr yv Y Porthaur?

Pa Gur/Gwr yv Y Porthaur?, or Arthur a Y Porthaur, or Ymddiddan Arthur a Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr

Translation: (What Man is The Gatekeeper?, or Arthur and The Porter, or Dialogue of Arthur and Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr),

from Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (Black Book of Cærmarthen).

Introduction

According to Caitlin R Green, Jon B Coe, Simon Young, Karen Jankulak, and Jonathan M Wooding, poem 31 of the Black Book of Cærmarthen, a mid-13th Century AD manuscript, is known from its first line as Pa Gur/Gwr yv Y Porthaur? (meaning “What Man is The Gatekeeper?”) or Pa Gur/Gwr (What Man?), or as Ymddiddan Arthur a Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr (Dialogue of Arthur and Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr), or even Arthur a Y Porthaur (Arthur and The Porter).

It is an Old Welsh anonymous fragmentary poem. Its form is that of a dialogue between King Arthur and The Gatekeeper (or Porter), Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr.  Caitlin R Green tells us that Arthur boasts of his exploits and those of his companions, particularly Cai the Fair.  Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson tells us that Pa Gur/Gwr is one of the earliest common Arthurian works.  It touches on several early adventures of Arthur which are now lost.

The poem is of unknown age and has been the topic of wide-ranging disagreement (some arguing for a date as early as the 8th Century AD), but a majority of scholars now favour a date of c AD 1100.

A Summary of the Surviving Portion of the Poem

A page from the Black Book of Carmarthen
A page from the Black Book of Carmarthen

Pa Gur/Gwr is a very difficult text; so said Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, Thomas Malory, and John Rhŷs (this present author agrees).  Translations of the poem vary greatly, sometimes even wildly.  The following summary is based on the translation version by Jon B Coe and Simon Young:

It begins with Arthur asking the name of the Porter.  Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr dutifully names himself and returns the question.  Arthur identifies himself and says that his company consists of Cai the Fair and “the best men in the world”.  Glewlwyd demands that Arthur bears witness for them, so Arthur names his men and extols their exploits: Mabon son of Modron; Cyscaint son of Banon; Gwyn Goddyfrion; Manawydan son of Llŷr; Mabon son of Mellt; Anwas the Winged; Llwch the Windy-Handed; Bedwyr (Bedivere); and finally, Cai (Kay), who “would implore them, while he slew them, three at a time”.

Concerning Arthur, he has fought a witch in the hall of Afarnach, against Pen Palach in the habitations of Disethach, and “dog-heads” at Edinburgh’s mount.  Arthur again praises at length Cai’s superior skill in battle, only to interrupt himself with the reflection that “I had servants, it was better when they were alive”.

Continuing, Arthur says “Before the lords of Emrys, I saw Cai at haste”.  Not only is his retaliation heavy and his anger bitter, but “When he drank from a horn, he would drink like four”. Cai is such a mighty warrior that his death can only be planned by God himself.  Cai and Bedwyr, we are told, “fulfilled battles”.  Cai attacked nine witches at the summit of Ystafngwn, and the lions in Anglesey.

There is the beginning of a description of another of Cai’s adversaries, the terrible Cat of Palug, against whom “his shield was polished”.  The last extant piece of the poem says “Nine-score soldiers would fall as its food; nine-score champions …”.  Unfortunately, the rest of the poem is lost.

Age of the Poem and its Origin

Oliver James Padel, Jon B Coe, and Hildegard L C Tristram tell us that the dating of Old Welsh texts presents extraordinary difficulties.  Even the linguistic criteria for dating them has not yet been agreed upon, according to John T Koch and Patrick Sims-Williams.  Pa Gur/Gwr is a case in point.

In AD 1959 the great linguist Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson went no further than to say that it was probably older than the Norman period.  In later years, Rachel Bromwich, John K Bollard, and A O H Jarman were agreed in assigning it to the 10th  or 11th  Century AD, with Brynley F Roberts tentatively narrowing that down to the 10th Century, though John T Koch believed that the 9th Century AD or even the 8th Century was possible.

According to Oliver James Padel and Patrick Sims-Williams, recent scholarly opinion has tended to favour a later date of c AD 1100.  The question of where Pa Gur/Gwr was written has received less attention, but Patrick Sims-Williams has suggested south-east Wales.  Sims-Williams indicates certain similarities to, firstly, the Vita Sancti Cadocis (Life of Saint Cadoc) of Lifris of Llancarfan, a work with a Glamorgan subject and author, and secondly, an episode of the Welsh romance of Peredur (Perceval) set in Gloucester, near the south-east Welsh border.  Patrick also interprets the poem as including a reference to the River Ely, in Glamorgan.

The Heroic Arthur

The Arthur of Pa Gur/Gwr is a folk-tale figure, a wandering hero leading a band of other heroes in an irresponsible life of adventures that pits themselves against monsters and sorcerous antagonists, rather like the Fíanna of early Irish literature.  Oliver James Padel and Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan tell us that Arthur’s companions – including Cai and Bedwyr, both important figures in later Arthurian legend – each have their qualities which they can take to any skirmish, but Arthur is a combatant in his own right, not just a leader.

Caitlin R Green has suggested that Arthur himself has supernatural powers in the poem, specifically the ability to make himself and his men invisible, though this interpretation rests on a highly contested translation of a difficult line in the poem.  The general tone can be seen as light-hearted; yet, at the same time, Arthur’s repeated use of the past tense in his boasts about his companions’ exploits arguably give them an elegiac tone, suggesting the possibility that we should see this Arthur of the poem as a man past his glory years and living in the past with a sadly diminished following (according to Oliver James Padel and Patrick Sims-Williams).

Original Source Material and Similarities to Other Works

Pa Gur/Gwr has often been compared to the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen.  Oliver James Padel tells us that one general similarity, in both works, lies in the use of allusion to a string of stories featuring Arthur and his men, but there is also a more specific tale that appears to be common to both.  In Pa Gur/Gwr, The Gatekeeper, Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr, questions Arthur’s right to be admitted.  In Culhwch ac Olwen, where he is Arthur’s Gatekeeper, he similarly demands to know Culhwch’s qualifications, so that Culhwch may be allowed to enter, and later in the tale, the giant Wrnach Gawr’s Gatekeeper acknowledges Cai and allows him entrance after his interrogation.

There is no agreement as to the relationship between these three episodes, but possibly that the author of Culhwch was burlesquing Pa Gur/Gwr, or so say Rachel Bromwich and Brynley F Roberts.  Caitlin R Green has stated that both authors may simply have been drawing on the same early Arthurian traditions.  N J Higham, Rachel Bromwich, and Oliver James Padel claim that there are somewhat similar episodes elsewhere in medieval literature: as in the Cambro-Latin Historia Brittonum (History of Britain), in the Irish tale of Cath Tánaiste Maige Tuired (Second Battle of Mag Tuired), additionally in the late-medieval English ballad King Arthur and King Cornwall, and possibly even in the famous 12th-century AD Arthurian carvings on the Modena Archivolt/Archivault at Modena Cathedral in Italy.

Yet, as Patrick Sims-Williams notes, “such exchanges with recalcitrant porters were commonplace … in real life, too, no doubt”.  Cath Palug, or the Cat of Palug, with whom Cai fought, does appear in Trioedd Ynys Prydein/Prydain (Triads of British Isle, or Welsh Triads); and similar cats do exist in other texts, as we shall see.

Wildcats abound in later French Arthurian romances: the C(h)apalu in oral tradition according to the 14th-Century AD Scottish chronicler John of Fordun, where they fight Caius; and in the anonymous 15th-Century English story, which tells that Arthur vanquished wildcats by tricking them into attacking their reflections in his glass shield.  This last stratagem, according to Patrick Sims-Williams, explains why Cai’s shield was polished when fighting the Cat of Palug in Pa Gur/Gwr.

John K Bollard informs us that the fight at Tryfrwyd in Pa Gur/Gwr seems identical with Bellum Tribruit, listed by Historia Brittonum as one of Arthur’s twelve battles.  Patrick Sims-Williams and Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan say that the nine witches of the peak of Ystafngwn remind them of the nine witches of Gloucester in Peredur; the nine witches in the first Life of St Samson; nine maidens tending the cauldron in Preiddeu Annw(f)n (Spoils of Annwn); and, in the present author’s mind, to nine virgin priestesses (The Gallizenae) who lived on the Ile de Sein/Sena, having been there since before 1287 BC (information of them was written c AD 43/44, and adapted in AD 1150).

Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson tells us that some of the characters mentioned in Pa Gur/Gwr, such as Manawydan son of Llŷr and Mabon son of Modron, are from the Welsh mythology that appears in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi (Mabinogion).  Finally, the “lords of Emrys” referenced in the poem could be seen as being related to the character named in Historia Brittonum and Gildas II’s De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On Ruin and Conquest of Britain) as Ambrosius (“Emrys” in Welsh), but the Pa Gur/Gwr poet may not have known either work.  Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, John T Koch, and Patrick Sims-Williams point out that Emrys was used by Welsh poets as a synonym for Gwynedd.

Conclusions?

Even though the poem is incomplete, it does shed some light on a few common themes and events in Arthuriana.  It presents an Heroic Arthur, who is a bit magically supernatural himself.  Whether or not Pa Gur/Gwr and other similar works have drawn from a common, now lost, source, or from each other; Pa Gur/Gwr does indeed typify the genre of these early Welsh Poems.

Perhaps the missing remains of the poem will one day surface.  It can only be imagined the delight and confusion if such completion of this poem would become possible.  The future is unknown.  Time will ultimately tell the tale.

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