The Grail Code 
Comic-book heroes of the Dark Ages

Looking for the beginnings of the Grail story takes us into some strange places. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether we’ve entered the realm of ancient pagan mythology or the realm of Saturday-morning cartoons.

We spent many happy hours rummaging through old Welsh legends when we were putting together The Grail Code, and it really hurt to leave out some of the treasures we found. We had a particular story to tell in the book, and we couldn’t distract our readers with long side trips into the far reaches of Welsh legend.

But that was the book. We don’t mind distracting you here.

In the ancient Welsh stories, Arthur’s court is like an assembly of comic-book superheroes, each with his own special power. The story of Kilhwch and Olwen, preserved for us in the Mabinogion, gives us an amazing list of Arthur’s warriors. Many of the names are annotated with scraps of legend:

Gilla Coes Hyd could leap over three hundred acres at one bound.

Sugyn son of Sugnedydd could suck up the sea on which three hundred ships floated, leaving nothing but a dry beach. (”He was broad-chested,” the story adds, which must be a bit of an understatement.)
Sol could stand on one foot all day.

Rhacymwri, the attendant of Arthur, could flail a barn into oat-size splinters. Apparently he did it to “whatever barn he was shown”; it must have been necessary to keep him out of sight of barns until his barn-flailing services were required.

When Gwevyl son of Gwestad was sad, he let one of his lips drop below his waist and brought the other up over his head like a cap. We’re not told whether this skill made him any less sad.

Gwrhyr Gwastawd Icithoedd knew every language, even the languages of animals and birds.

Uchtryd Varyf Draws had a red beard so long that he spread it over the forty-eight rafters of Arthur’s hall.

Clust son of Clustveinad could hear an ant fifty miles away, even if you buried him (Clust, that is, not the ant) seven cubits under the ground.

Gwiawn Llygad Cath could cut a haw from the eye of a gnat without hurting him, which must have made him popular among Arthur’s insect subjects.

Drem son of Dremidyd could stand at the southern end of Britain and see a gnat at the northern end, though we don’t know whether he could see it well enough to tell whether it required the services of Gwiawn Llygad Cath.

Sgilte Yscawndroed ran on the tops of the trees whenever there was a forest in his way.

Kai or Cai (the Kay of the later romances) had a number of special powers. He could make himself as tall as a tree whenever he liked. He could hold his breath under water for nine nights and nine days, and he could go without sleep for the same period. No physician could heal a wound from his sword. His natural heat was so great that people used him to light their fires.

Strangely, although the story gives this catalogue of Kai’s powers, he doesn’t use any of them. When he comes up against a giant, he uses guile to defeat him, rather than simply making himself as tall as a tree and squashing the giant with one foot.

In fact, very few of these fantastic figures make any use of their fantastic abilities in the story. (An important exception is the case of Gwrhyr Gwastawd Icithoedd, who talks to quite a number of animals and birds.) They simply have them, the way a modern narrator might indicate that a character had chestnut hair and green eyes without making the plot turn on that description.

These are the things you find when you go looking for Arthur in the dimmest reaches of the Dark Ages.

The strange stories themselves are entertaining and even fascinating, but what’s even more fascinating is the way the great romances of the Middle Ages changed these people from comic-book heroes to memorable human characters, without losing the sense of awe and wonder that made the stories popular in the first place. This is the raw material from which the Grail romances were constructed; we hardly realize how raw it is until we see what artists like Walter Map have turned it into.

17 Responses to “Comic-book heroes of the Dark Ages”

  1. Judy Warner Says:

    Have you ever read the children’s book, “The Five Chinese Brothers” by Claire Huchet Bishop? Each of the brothers has a special talent: one could swallow the sea, one could stretch and stretch and stretch his legs to make himself taller, one could not be burned, one could hold his breath forever, one had an iron neck. It is supposed to be an old Chinese folk tale, but it is awfully similar to these Welsh stories. I don’t know what to make of that.

  2. Ashley Says:

    Personally, I want to know more about Sir Marrok, who Malory says was betrayed by his wife and spent seven years as a werewolf. It sounds like an interesting story…

  3. fbc Says:

    Yes, Judy, I’ve heard of it. In fact I was just recently trying to remember that book from my childhood. (My 11 year old son had remarked that he was so thirsty, he could drink an ocean.) Thanks for that memory.

    (I’m getting to that age where stuff that happened to me 35-40 years ago is like yesterday, and the stuff I did yesterday is long-forgotten already.)


  4. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Exclusive! A guide to faking it in Welsh Says:

    [...] Quite a few Welsh names came up in The Grail Code, and quite a few more have come up in this little journal (especially when we talked about the Welsh superheroes of long ago). The problem with Welsh spelling is that it looks plainly impossible to eyes accustomed to reading English. We just can’t imagine the alphabet working that way. [...]

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