The literature of Wales is a rich resource of information about the genealogy of Arthur and the identity of his relatives and the location of his family. In this literature we find that Arthur is a descendent of Cunedda on his mother's side, for Eigr is the daughter of Gwen the daughter of Cunedda; which gives pause to the contention that Arthur can be identified as Owain, the father of Cunoglasus the great-grandson of Cunedda on his father's side. The magic of Merlin's shape-shifting seems to be working its spell again, and once more we encounter the mists of confusion that pervade the legend of Arthur!
In Geoffrey's Historia, a magical episode relates the birth of Arthur, for Uther Pendragon, his father, is shape-shifted into the likeness of Gorlois, the husband of Ygerna; and having spent himself with her and conceiving the future King, Uther later confesses his love for her at the death of Gorlois and they are married.
This shape-shifting stands in remarkable opposition to the episode in the First Branch of the Mabinogi where Pwyll Prince of Dyfed is shape-shifted by Arawn a king of Annwn and spends a celibate year in the Otherworld with Arawn's beautiful wife (Jones and Jones, 1949). Another series of shape shiftings are met in the Fourth Branch, Math ap Mathonwy when Gwydion the magician sets as punishment for his brothers' rape of the king's footmaiden their transformation into animals for three consecutive years and they produce three sets of offspring; Gwydion also shape-shifts his nephew Lleu and himself into shoe-makers to gain entrance to Caer Arianrhod in a separate episode in the same Mabinogi (Jones and Jones, 1949).
Thus the shape-shifting of Uther Pendragon by Merlin into the likeness of Gorlois found in Geoffrey's Historia is consistent with magical shape-shifting incidents in Welsh literature.
What hidden meaning is contained in this confusion of identity? Is it to explain the confusion about who is the biological father compared to a foster family relationship? Fosterage was a standard Celtic practice and is met with in literary terms throughout the Mabinogi, and was reported by Julius Caesar in his social commentary of the Celts on the Continent in Gaul.
The son of Pwyll and Rhiannon, known originally as Gwri Golden Hair, was fostered into the house of Teyrnon and his wife. Once the lad was grown, he was presented to his parents and gained the new name, Pryderi. The child of Arianrhod was sent to fosterage, and when grown acknowledged as Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Arthur's cousin, Culhwch, was fostered after a manner, being brought up by his step-mother.
Could the child Arthur have been fostered by Eigr? Could it be that the son of Uther Pendragon was sent to the house of Gorlois for his early years? Both Uther and Eigr were the grandchildren of Cunedda (Phillips and Keatman, 1992; Blake and Lloyd, 2002), so the strong family tie would have ensured the young Owain's safety, were this so. When grown, he would be presented at court and may have then gained the title 'Bear', that is, Arthur. This scenario harmonises the otherwise conflicting results of the research efforts conducted by Phillips and Keatman (1992) and Blake and Lloyd (2002).
This is what Caesar recorded about fosterage in Gaullish society at the time of the Conquest, which culturally would apply equally to Celtic Britain at the same time, and in Sub-Roman Britain as it was rapidly re-Celticising: The quote is from 'Customs and institutions of the Gauls', VI.16.18 (Handford, 1982): "Their children are not allowed to go up to their fathers in public until they are old enough for military service; they regard it as unbecoming of a son who is still a boy to stand in his father's sight in a public place."
Given the reflection of this observation by Caesar in the childhood-to-manhood episodes of Pryderi and Lleu Llaw, it ought seriously be considered for Arthur.
(All references used on this site can be found on the references link below. If you require a print copy of this article, select your browser's file->print option, and the references for this article will appear on the printed document. Alternatively, all documents on this site are available in pdf format as a single document on the Caer Australis Archives)
Copyright © John Bonsing & S Rhys Jones 2006. All Rights Reserved
Blake, S & Lloyd, S 2002, The lost legend of Arthur, Rider, London.
Handford, S (transl.) 1982, The conquest of Gaul, Penguin Books, London.
Jones, G and Jones T 1949, The Mabinogion (1993 New Revised Edition) Everyman Library, Orion, London.
Phillips, G & Keatman, M 1992, King Arthur - the true story, Random House, London.
(All references used on this site can be found on the references link below. If you require a print copy of this article, select your browser's file->print option, and the references for this article will appear on the printed document. Alternatively, all documents on this site are available in pdf format as a single document on the
Caer Australis Archives)