Megan Rible

A Comparison of Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance

The Arthurian legend that is so well known today first became popular in the Middle Ages, when writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes wrote tales of heroic deeds set in King Arthur's court. These stories were not authentic replicas of ancient tales, nor did they spring fresh and new from the minds of medieval authors. Instead, they were the result of centuries of social and literary evolution; a fusion of Celtic myth, Christian ideals, and medieval mores that developed as the legend passed from land to land, edited and augmented at every turn along the way.

Though a thorough analysis of the Arthurian legend and its interwoven nature would require a broad base of historical knowledge and comparative literature, many overlapping characteristics can be seen through a simple study of an older Celtic legend and newer Arthurian romance. The first story that will be examined in this paper is an Irish Celtic myth, The Legend of Deirdre, from the ninth or tenth century. Opening with a dire prophecy concerning the fate of an unborn child, the story of Deirdre follows the life of this tragic woman, who's vivid beauty leads a king to jealous murder, a lover to untimely death, and herself to suicide. The subject matter of this legend has no connection to the chivalrous events and happy ending of the second story, Chretien de Troyes' twelfth century Arthurian tale, Yvain, also called The Knight with the Lion. However, several Celtic themes and elements of style from The Legend of Deirdre can be found enmeshed within Chretien de Troyes' medieval narration. Despite Yvain's Christian medieval plot, aspects of the Celtic themes found in Deirdre concerning nature, magic, love, and honor remain at the heart of Chretien's Arthurian romance.

Nature and magic form the basis of Celtic religion, and therefore it is not strange that these elements can be found at the center of the story of Deirdre. The legend begins during the Druidic festival of Sanhain, commemorating the end of summer and the change of the seasons. Then, throughout the story, unnecessary references are made which subtly illustrate nature's importance, such as, "a fine orchard was planted around the hut"1 and "Levarcham taught Deirdre all she knew about herbs, flowers, trees and skies." Furthermore, when Deirdre runs into the forest after Naois, the man she loves, she admires the oaks and feels "a force in the feathered air that she had not known before." The forest is portrayed as sacred as well as a place of freedom, for that is where she goes to escape her bondage. Trees are also symbols of eternal life, as shown by their growth on Naois and Deirdre's graves. Finally, the recurring image of the raven is extremely meaningful. In general, birds of Celtic myth represent prophetic knowledge, but ravens especially presage bloodshed and battle.2 This animal symbolism is an integral part of the Celtic religion and legends, emphasizing the power and mystery of nature.

Unlike Deirdre, Yvain is a Christian story, and it begins on the Christian festival of Pentecost just as Deirdre begins on Sanhain. However, while reverence of nature is not a part of the Christian religion, Chretien emphasizes nature almost as much as the Celts. When he describes Laudine, he personifies nature as a goddess who creates human beauty, and even goes so far as to say that God would "never be able to make another like her, no matter how hard He tried."3 Later, when Yvain goes mad with grief, he runs into the forest to escape reality, just as Deirdre went there to escape her unwanted fate. Animal symbolism can also be found in abundance, the most obvious being the friendly lion that Yvain saves from a dragon. The dragon is a mythological beast to begin with, and the lion could symbolize the courage that Yvain has regained in his quest for redemption. Regardless, the fact that the lion is given human qualities parallels Celtic beliefs in the intelligence of animals. However, the description of nature most similar to that in Deirdre is that of the magical spring. Following the storm, Yvain sees a tree covered with birds, and "the tree was more beautiful because of them, and they were singing softly, in perfect harmony."4 Whether or not these joyous birds are meant to prophecy his eventual love of Laudine, their presence is certainly more reminiscent of Celtic imagery than Christian ideals.

In addition to nature, the magical element of the Druid religion is prevalent in Deirdre. Its first appearance is when the cry of an unborn baby, Deirdre, can be heard from her mother's womb. This marvel can be explained by the Celtic belief that on Sanhain, the barriers between the mortal world and the "otherworld," of the fairy or the dead, become weak enough to be crossed.5 In this mystical time, many unusual things are possible. The rest of the magic in the story originates in the figure of Cathbad, the Druid. He is a "seer" and can look into the otherworld to prophesize the tragic future of the unborn Deirdre. This is nothing, however, compared to his ability to change the form of an entire battlefield. Cathbad turns the plain into a dangerous, dense forest and then a freezing sea, but still the brothers remain alive. He then creates the equivalent of about a 10.0 earthquake, burying each brother in turn until finally Naois falls. This amazing feat, performed without much effort on his part, illustrates the power of Celtic magic.

This power is certainly enough to create the terrible storms caused by the magical spring in Yvain. In fact, the very existence of this spring in an Arthurian story attests to some Celtic influence, since the Christian religion is generally opposed to all forms of magic as heathen. It is interesting to note that, in the Celtic beliefs, wells and springs were considered to be magical places that bordered with the otherworld. In addition, it has been noted that the song of magical birds is one of many possible ways to enter that otherworld.6 Though Yvain does not appear to leave mortal surroundings, the spring is what first leads him toward his downfall, and what eventually brings him back in the end. In this sense, the Celtic gate to the otherworld becomes a gate to a personal journey of discovery and redemption. Other, less significant appearances of magic in Yvain are the two magic rings that he receives: one for invisibility, and the other for immunity in battle. Once again, magic is not a Christian concept, so Chretien is probably borrowing the concept of magical objects from Celtic amulets. Thus, while the magic in Deirdre and Yvain are of different forms, the fact that it is present in both stories supports the theory of Celtic influence.

Switching from religious to social issues, there are once again numerous parallels between the two tales, in spite of the changes two hundred years can make in a society. In Deirdre, love simply happens and is accepted, whereas in Yvain the perfection of love forms the basis of the story and is the reason for Yvain's inner struggle and quest. In both tales, however, the main characters fall instantly in love based on physical beauty. This seems to indicate a trend in marriages of convenience, and the need for people to imagine love in a world where it takes second place to monetary or social advancement. This instantaneous love also seems to go hand in hand with the fact that, in Deirdre, Deirdre is so beautiful that she "fires the imagination with a look or a gesture," and in Yvain, Laudine is of "such immeasurable beauty, for in making her Nature has surpassed every limit."7 If Deirdre can be taken to represent a general portion of Celtic literature, then the habit of Arthurian authors to pronounce every heroine as the "most beautiful" is not a new one. Though Yvain is set in a courtly medieval society rather than Deirdre's less civilized atmosphere, it maintains the Celtic ideal of instant and beautiful love.

Finally, the theme of honor as the greatest virtue is one that remains perfectly intact from Celtic to Medieval literature, as the Uisnach brothers and Yvain all acknowledge that it is better to die than to be shamed. While the Uisnach brothers fight together for the good of the family and Yvain fights for personal glory, they are all portrayed as the perfect warriors, just as the women are portrayed as perfect beauties. For example, just as the three brothers defeat an entire army of one hundred men on their own, so does Yvain take down three attackers by himself to save Lunette from being burned at the stake. These amazing feats of prowess and bravery are obviously a theme that has been handed down throughout the ages, because they are too congruent to be unique incidents.

Therefore, it can be said from reading these two legends that elements of a particular Celtic tale can be found in the Arthurian romances of Chretien de Troyes. Though this analysis is not applicable to Celtic mythology and Arthurian legends in general, the many similarities between The Legend of Deirdre and Yvain provide a solid basis for beginning more comprehensive research into the subject. While such research would most likely prove some of these conjectures wrong, at least a few should be able to stand the test of scrutiny. If nothing else, the character of Merlin in other Arthur stories should add credence to the theory that the magic of the Arthurian romances is based on Celtic Druidism.


The Legend of Deirdre summary

The Legend of Deirdre begins in the Great Hall of King Connacher of the family Ulster. The king and his knights are celebrating the Celtic festival of Sanhain when a piercing cry disrupts the revelry. The Druid Cathbad announces to the silent crowd that the cry came from the child still in the womb of Elva, the bard Malcolm's wife. He prophesizes that the child Deirdre will be of great beauty, that kings will desire her, and that warfare will divide the kingdom because of her. King Connacher is intrigued by Cathbad's description of her unequaled beauty and orders that she be raised in order to be his wife. She grows up to be both beautiful and kind. However, Deirdre does not want to marry Connacher, but rather the man she sees in a dream and who she is reminded of when a black raven drinks blood on the snow. One day she sees him walking by and runs out to kiss him and give him her love. The man, Naois of Uisnach, is at first afraid because of the prophecy, but he falls in love anyway. His brothers take him and Deirdre to exile in Scotland where they live happily until King Connacher sends a message for them to return and be forgiven. Deirdre is afraid because she has had a vision of ravens pronouncing that death awaits the three brothers in Ireland, but Naois is determined to return. When Connacher hears upon their arrival how beautiful Deirdre remains, he orders the brothers killed, but they defeat all one hundred men he sends against them. Then he orders Cathbad to kill them, and the druid proceeds to turn the plain on which the brothers stand into a dense forest, freezing ocean, and jagged rock torture chamber, respectively. The brothers fall one by one until Deirdre is left to weep over their ragged bodies, and then Connacher takes her to be locked in his palace. She refuses to eat, and soon dies. She is buried beside the grave of Naois, and a stake of Yew wood is set to mark each grave. Two years later, two beautiful Yew trees have grown together, their branches intertwined, so that the two trees are one.


This summary is taken from an adaptation of the Gaelic story by John Stuart Dick. I also have another shorter version of the legend in which some of the events are altered and Deirdre kills herself by bashing her head on a rock, but I preferred the longer one J.


In green fields
Now unknown
Your name upon
The standing stone
Love invites
One last call
When death from life
Begins to fall
The streams no longer go
To tides of distant seas
No love can grow old
Without memories
Your arms my home
Where I would sleep 

Deirdre's Lament by John Stuart Dick

End Notes

1 John Stuart Dick, trans., CD, rec. 1995, A Celtic Tale: The Legend of Deirdre, Hearts O'Space, 1996.
Note: all quotes from Deirdre refer to this CD text. 

2 H.R. Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1988), online, Animal Symbolism in Celtic Mythology, Internet, 28 Oct. 1998.

3 Chretien de Troyes, "The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)," Arthurian Romances trans. William W. Kibler, (London: Penguin, 1991) 313.

4 Chretien , "Yvain," 300.

5 Lisa A. Paitz Spindler, "The Celtic Wheel," online, Celtic World, Internet, 28 Oct. 1998. 

6 Patrick K. Ford, trans. The Maginogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales (Berkely, CA: University of CA Press, 1977), online, Animal Symbolism in Celtic Mythology, Internet, 28 Oct. 1998.

7 Chretien , "Yvain," 313.