The Future of History

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Battle of the Broken Sword

You know the old joke - "Never asssume.  When you assume, you make an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me'."

It's astonishing how many discussions about things Arthurian start out from a common assumption.  One example is the place of Arthur's last battle, traditionally known as Camlan or Camlann (according to a Welsh dictionary, cadgamlan - "battle of Camlan" - is a byword for confusion, or a rabble).

The assumption made by almost all commentators is that Camlann was a place-name, probably from cam - "crooked", "bent", "false" or "wrong" - and llan, an "enclosure", "parish" or "yard".

And so, off we go, looking for places called Camlann.  Geoffrey of Monmouth (12th Century) thought it was the River Camel ("Camblam") in Cornwall.  Others have pointed to a Camlann near Dolgellau in North Wales.  Others still have suggested the Roman fort of Camboglanna on Hadrian's Wall.  But then the linguists pipe up that Camboglanna could not have been "Camlann" ... and we're back to square one.

Now, if the approach you're trying isn't working, it's usually best to try a different approach.  Nobody has identified the real site of Arthur's last battle.  Could it be because their assumption that Camlann was a place is entirely wrong?

There's another interpretation of Camlann.  The cam ("crooked") element is the same in Welsh and Gaelic (in Old Irish, camb - which, given that Camlann was often written "Camblann", suggests that this was the original root).  But in Gaelic, lann, as well as meaning a "meadow" or "land", can also signify a blade or sword (compare the Welsh llafn, a "blade").

So, what if Arthur's last battle was not the encounter at the Crooked Meadow, but rather the Battle of the Broken Sword?

Interestingly, Arthurian tradition indicates that this might have been the case.  Indeed, reading between the lines, it would appear that Arthur was presented with a sword, in advance of his last battle, which was specifically designed to fail him at a crucial moment.

Probably the best evidence for this is to be found in Le Conte du Graal (circa 1180) by Chretien de Troyes.  The hero of this tale, Perceval, was originally Peredur of York, who perished at Arthur's last battle.

Perceval encounters the Fisher King, who invites him to his castle and presents him with a sword. Perceval then neglects to question the meaning of the mysterious Grail procession which he witnesses, and he awakes in the morning to find the castle deserted.  He is soon upbraided by a maiden, who tells him that the sword he was given would surely fail him and shatter into pieces if he ever drew it in battle.  The only place where the sword could be "rehammered, retempered and repaired", Perceval is told, is at the "lake beyond Cotouatre", where the sword was made by a smith named Trebuchet (possibly from Turbe, the father of the smith-god Goibhniu or Gofannon).

Chretien's Cotouatre was a corruption of Scottewatre - that is, the Firth of Forth or the River Forth.  There is a lake, known as Loch Venachar, just north of the River Forth, near Stirling.  From this lake emerges Eas Gobhain, the "Cascade of the Smith", which forms the River Teith.  This river flows past the site of St Cadog's monastery from which - as I argue in The King Arthur Conspiracy - a "tempest of pilgrims" set out treacherously to attack Arthur at his last battle in Angus.

Welsh tradition also recalls a semi-divine figure, Dylan Eil Ton ("Ocean son of Wave") who was killed by a blow administered by his uncle, Gofannon.  Gofannon, the god of smith-craft, might also be remembered at Govan (Baile a' Ghobhainn - the "Town of the Smith"), and my last blogspot ("House of Arthur") was illustrated with a carving, identified by a letter "A" and thought by some to represent Arthur, which was discovered on a sarcophagus in Govan Old Parish Church.  If the smith, identified with the lake beyond the River Forth, who created Arthur's sword, intending it to fail when he most needed it, was also Arthur's uncle, then we have reason to suspect that it was St Cadog who forged the weapon.

The failure of Arthur's sword at his last battle in Strathmore, Angus, in AD 594, was catastrophic.  Arthur was mortally wounded, and with the "Duke of Battles" dealt with, the encroaching Angles ("Saxons") were able to invade and conquer most of North Britain.

Looking for a place called "Camlann" might be a fool's errand, then, if the battle was remembered as being the one at which Arthur's sword failed him, shattering into pieces when he most needed it.

It was the Battle of the Broken Sword.  And it is still remembered by the native Britons (the Welsh) as a byword for chaos and confusion.  Hardly surprising, really, because the failure of Arthur's sword sealed the fate of the Britons.

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