Celtic Elements in the Story


The influence of Celtic stories and motifs in English storytelling is most frequently traced back to the original Arthurian material which was taken to Brittany by Welsh refugees where it was remade into new forms, returning to the Anglo-Norman court of Henry II in references to the Arthurian court in the Lais of Marie de France. It was via the Breton connection that the Arthurian material was eventually picked up by Chretien de Troyes and greatly elaborated in accordance with French chivalric concepts. However, the Bevis story includes Celtic elements that are unlikely to have been subject to this transmission, and indeed differ markedly from the Arthurian material. As has been argued elsewhere, the widespread and long-lasting popularity of the Bevis romance in medieval England may have been precisely because it made a change from the Arthurian material.

Gatekeepers are familiar characters in medieval stories, including those in the medieval Welsh tradition, where they control when and how strangers may enter courts and towns, but not all are so abusive as the gatekeeper or ‘porter’ who abuses the young Bevis when he tries to re-enter Southampton. The earliest known Arthurian reference in Welsh poetry is found in the poem Pa gur in which a gatekeeper demands of Arthur ‘what man are you? In the earliest Arthurian story, the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen, when the young Culhwch visits his uncle Arthur’s court he is prevented from entering, but only because ‘knife has gone into meat’. Nevertheless, these and other gatekeepers in the Welsh tradition prohibit the entry of potential heroes.


The earliest editor of Bevis does not notice any Celtic echo but does note that the lines in which the gatekeeper abuses Bevis occur only in the English text and are not found in the French original. The combination of these traditions lends a more Insular, not merely English, colour to the episode which aligns the poem with wider fourteenth-century socio-political concerns over integration and unification.


At Bevis’s first encounter with the dragon it spits venom over him, corrupting his skin so that he looks like a leper. These and other injuries he sustains lead to him immersing himself in a nearby well which has healing and restorative properties. In The Mabinogion tale of Branwen verch Llyr the great ‘cauldron of rebirth’ in the hall of the Irish king restores dead warriors to life. A magic cauldron is also included in the Preiddeu Annwn ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, where it is one of the treasures of the Otherworld. This derives from earlier versions of Celtic myths which may, themselves, have a very ancient origin. Belief in restorative wells, cauldrons, and fountains was very widespread across the earlier Celtic regions, most famously continuing in Bath where the springs were dedicated to the Celtic goddess Sulis, adopted as Sulis/Minerva by the Romans. In English literature, the motif of the knight who finds healing in a well returns in the 16th century in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. In both this and Bevis the well has lost its pagan connotation and symbolises the rebirth of baptism. In addition to this, the need for the hero to benefit over 3 days from the restorative waters implicitly engages with the Resurrection.


The presence of Celtic myths in the poem contributes depth to the theme of sovereignty, which includes Bevis’s later kingship, and that of his sons. The clearly mythic relationship between Bevis and his horse Arondel, which he wins and Josian then ceremoniously presents to him, arises from deeply submerged aspects of Celtic mythology in which the mother-goddess of the land is associated with a horse and possession of both legitimates kingship. The early connection between the land and the horse is famously represented by being incised in the English landscape in the form of the Uffington White Horse which, it is conjectured, is a symbol of the goddess ‘Epona’. From the hill on which it is cut it is possible to see 6 counties suggesting that the horse may have been a symbol of devotion and territorial claim.


The Mabinogion presents one Celtic version of the potentially symbiotic symbolism of the horse and woman. In the strange tale of Rhiannon, when her son Pryderi disappears she is assumed to have killed him and is punished by being made to sit at the castle gate where is has to offer to carry on her back any visitor to the castle. The fate of Bevis and his cruel mother reverberates strangely with this tale, as if reflected in a mirror. Bevis’s mother orders him to be killed, but he is not, and Rhiannon’s son is not in fact dead. Reversing the fate of Rhiannon, Bevis’s mother escapes punishment for trying to kill her son until he eventually returns, when she kills herself. Although there is no association between Bevis’s mother and horses, this is transferred to Josian, whose fidelity is equal to that of his devoted horse. When Bevis falls victim to various acts of jealousy, conspiracy and malice and his beloved Josian is given in marriage to another man, together with his loyal horse, the loss of his lady and his horse echoes his earlier dispossession by his mother and her lover. Although the poem, like other fourteenth-century romances, is infused with medieval chivalry and ‘courtly love’, the motif of the triple loss reiterates the ancient Celtic belief that the land was female so that at his accession a king symbolically ‘married’ his kingdom, while his horse was symbolic of his power and virility. In an interesting parallel, while Josian avoids the consummation of her marriage to King Yvor, when Yvor is given Arondel and tries to mount Bevis’s horse it throws him off and almost kills him. The pattern of avoiding being possessed by ‘the wrong man’ is clear to see.


While the Welsh and Irish versions of the Bevis story are later than the Auchinleck version and derived from it, the Celtic influence on it is noticeable and worthy of further consideration. That influence is unlikely to have come directly from Welsh (or Irish) sources, but probably came to the attention of the poet-redactor as part of the cultural effect of the Conquest when the Normans and their Breton allies, who were descendants of Welsh and Cornish ancestors, brought earlier storytelling traditions back to Britain. Although the stories had been developed in Brittany and elsewhere, they retained many signs of their Celtic origins. Thus the integration of ethnic diversity into English identity that Bevis addresses appears to include the integration of the Celtic strongholds that had also fallen to the Norman Conquest. It is also tempting to wonder if the biography of the fourteenth-century English redactor may have had some influence on his choices of allusions, motifs, and symbolism that he included in the poem, but however it came about, traces of Celtic culture add mythic dimensions to the English version of the Bevis story.