(Former) Enemies at the Gate: Insinuations of Betrayal in Pa gur yv y porthaur—By Edward Mead Bowen

This is a modified version of the paper Mr. Bowen presented in the Hortulus-sponsored session at the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Saturday, May 10, 2014.

The incomplete early Welsh poem Pa gur yv y porthaur, “What man is the gatekeeper,” continues to defy interpretation, yet remains one of the principal sources for early Welsh Arthurian material. The only version of this text appears in the manuscript known as the Black Book of Carmarthen (National Library of Wales Peniarth Manuscript 1). The provenance of the manuscript containing this poem, linked to Carmarthen in the south of Wales and dated to the mid-thirteenth century, is little in dispute.[1] The date for the composition of Pa gur has occasioned more debate. While some scholars have dated certain Welsh traditional narrative poems in the Black Book to before 1100 C.E., Pa gur is generally attributed to the beginning of the twelfth century C.E.[2] While one cannot be certain that the composition of the poem predates the publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) in 1138,[3] the poem betrays no obvious influences from Geoffrey’s Historia and the French romances of Chrétien de Troyes.[4] As such, scholarly consensus deems the poem an invaluable source of pre-Galfridian Arthurian material, particularly important for those seeking to sketch a portrait of early Welsh Arthurian legend.[5] Yet aside from the poem’s usefulness as a font from which scholars can collect a staggering number of references to Arthurian characters and narratives, Pa gur has garnered little critical attention save for a few notable exceptions. Deeper scrutiny of the poem’s content and stylistic features allows us to construct a cogent narrative of betrayal that places two major personages within the Welsh Arthurian canon first in conflict and finally, in reconciliation. In this way, Pa gur emerges as a powerful treatment of the consequences of feuds between friends—an account that as much informs our understanding of conflicting Welsh attitudes toward battle as it offers far-reaching implications for our understanding of early Welsh Arthurian tradition.

As the title of the poem indicates, the narrative of Pa gur yv y porthaur takes place within the framework of the Celtic literary motif known as the porter scene, a stock episode appearing in such texts as the Welsh Culhwch ac Olwen and the Irish tale of the Second Battle of Moytura. This motif typically serves to allow the hero to prove himself to an uncooperative porter as well as to the audience through a catalogue of his abilities and deeds. In keeping with this tradition, Pa gur places Arthur and Cei before the gates of an unnamed fortress, where they enumerate their exploits and those of their war-band to convince a stubborn gatekeeper that they are indeed “the best men in the world.”[6] As the dialogue continues, however, two peculiarities emerge that set Pa gur apart from other instantiations of the porter scene. Firstly, if one takes a step back to examine the poem as a whole, he or she realizes that it is, save for a few interruptions, a dialogue focusing exclusively on Arthur and Cei, with each man reciting the feats of the other. This emphasis on Arthur and Cei to the near exclusion of the rest of their war-band is not in and of itself extraordinary; a survey of the early Welsh Arthurian corpus firmly establishes the two men as the foremost figures in this body of literature as well as the most talented and accomplished members of Arthur’s company. Yet what at first seems to be simply a narrowed focus on Arthur and Cei begins to resemble something else when considered alongside Pa gur’s other notable peculiarity: its abrupt adoption and consistent use of the imperfect tense at line 17 and following. From this point onward, Arthur and Cei use the imperfect to describe their deeds and those of their men, narrating these exploits as if they have happened in the distant past. In cases where the pair recite the feats of their fellow warriors, the use of the imperfect makes this list sound more like an obituary or elegy as opposed to a list of living men’s credentials.[7] While it is possible that the other warriors whom Arthur and Cei praise are silently accompanying the two men when they approach the fortress’s gates, it is equally possible that Arthur is reflecting on warriors who have long since met their end.[8] Evidence for this interpretation becomes nearly ironclad at points, such as in lines 25-30, in which Arthur speaks of avenging two of his warriors who fought in the defense of Edinburgh, and in lines 62-63, in which Arthur states that it was better when his servants were alive, a term he uses to refer to his warriors earlier in the poem. These sentiments prompt us to imagine an Arthur whose career has reached a low point, and if the loss of Celli mentioned at line 33 corresponds to Arthur’s court of Celli Wig in Cornwall, this reference paints a yet bleaker portrait of an Arthur who has lost most of his warriors as well as his court.[9] If so, the Arthur at the gates in Pa gur is not so much boasting of his war-band as he is reflecting on his former glory. Such wistful reminiscence is absent from other instantiations of the porter scene and points to another purpose at work in Pa gur. Furthermore, if Arthur’s once-mighty war-band has dwindled from the host of luminaries Arthur names to a meager handful of men, the poem’s focus on Arthur and Cei, the two best of the few who remain, throws Arthur’s loss of status into even sharper relief. Yet what further deepens this sense of loss is the poem’s insinuation that Cei may himself bear some of the responsibility for Arthur’s fall—indeed, that he may have slain several of Arthur’s men. Let us return to the aforementioned account of the fall of Celli, presumably Celli Wig, at lines 31-36:

Kei ae heiriolei.
Cei would entreat them

Trae llathei pop tri.
when he struck them three at a time.

Pan colled kelli.
When Celli was lost,

Caffad cuelli.
there was fury.

Aseirolei Kei
Cei would entreat them

hid trae kymynhei.
as he cut them down.[10]

As these references to Cei pleading with his enemies bracket the description of the loss of Celli, we can assume that Cei fought with these foes in the same battle in which Arthur lost his court. The identity of Cei’s foes here, however, is uncertain. As the poem provides no intervening plural noun or group of obvious enemies between Arthur’s mention of his servants and his mention of the loss of Celli, we may assume that Arthur’s servants at line 17 are the foes in question. If so, we have to imagine that, in a narrative account known to the author of the poem, Cei turned against Arthur and Arthur’s men. This shift in loyalty would explain why Cei pleads with his enemies even as he strikes them—they were once his comrades-in-arms.[11] A reason for this temporary defection does not immediately present itself. Yet if one again steps back from the poem to examine it as a whole, its overall focus on Arthur and Cei may provide some insight, especially when one considers how the lion’s share of the glory in the deeds presented belongs to Cei. The poem devotes 31 of its 90 lines to Cei’s feats of arms, whereas Arthur’s achievements occupy a mere nine by comparison. As such, Pa gur presents a catalog of deeds in which Cei’s personal prestige threatens to overshadow the fame of not just Arthur, but the rest of Arthur’s war-band in its entirety. In the warrior culture of early Wales, competition for glory would surely have produced tensions between skilled comrades-in-arms as they rose to prominence within their war-band. This friction would have been especially pronounced if one of the members of the war-band was thought to be a more talented, more accomplished, and worthier warrior than the war-band’s own leader.

With this aspect of martial competition in mind, Pa gur’s reduction in scope to Arthur and Cei takes on a further dynamic of tension when one realizes that Cei’s accomplishments mentioned in the poem have clearly outstripped those of his leader. A similar situation arises in the early-twelfth-century Welsh Arthurian prose tale Culhwch ac Olwen, in which Cei is responsible for completing nearly half of the so-called impossible tasks that Arthur’s war-band must perform to win the hand of Olwen for Arthur’s cousin. Upon Cei’s victorious return home after completing a particularly dangerous quest, Arthur targets him with a satirical englyn, thereby delivering one of the most powerful insults one could deliver in medieval Welsh society. Why Arthur would deliver such a devastating blow to Cei’s pride is unclear. Linda Gowans suggests in her monograph Cei and the Arthurian Legend that Arthur’s englyn is simply a convenient device for removing Cei from the narrative so as to allow Arthur to take the spotlight for the latter half of the story.[12] The insult indeed serves this narrative purpose, but it is also not too farfetched to imagine a chieftain driving his greatest warrior away out of fear that the reputation of this warrior may overtake his own. Yet if renewing his primacy at the head of his war-band was Arthur’s reason for humiliating Cei into leaving, the price for this opportunity is steep. This stain on Cei’s honor creates a seemingly irreparable rift between him and Arthur, so incensing Cei that he resolves to never have anything to do with Arthur in his hour of need from then on—no matter the depth of Arthur’s misfortune nor the number of the casualties on his side.[13] As Pa gur contains several names and places omitted from Culhwch ac Olwen and various inconsistencies exist between the texts, it is unlikely that either drew upon each other as a written source.[14] What is far more likely is that both texts owe their common episode of a rift between Arthur and Cei to a shared narrative tradition of such a period of animosity.

If Pa gur does contain traces of a narrative tradition in which Cei turned against Arthur, that the two once again stand together at the castle gates indicates a reconciliation—perhaps one in progress even during the events of this poem. Arthur and Cei’s recitation of their war-band’s deeds, then, is not to persuade the gatekeeper that they had “the best men in the world,” but to remind each other that these men were the cost of their feud. Bearing this idea in mind, Arthur and Cei’s praise of each other shifts dramatically in tone; their boasts are suddenly commingled with remorse, and their enumeration of each other’s deeds becomes as much a rapprochement and mutual reckoning of accounts as it is a recitation of martial exploits. If in this way Pa gur explores the conflicting emotions associated with battle, the poem is in good company and properly belongs to a robust Welsh tradition of martial poetry that highlights the inherent tension of a warrior dying in the pursuit of glory and the mourners he leaves behind—a situation that comrades-in-arms and close relations would have experienced often in the warrior culture of early Wales. In Y Gododdin, perhaps the greatest example of this tradition, the narrator presents the saga of a war-band of at least three hundred men slain nearly wholesale in a battle at Catraeth; the narrator, who claims to be the sole survivor of this ill-fated campaign, honors these men’s legacy, but also depicts the sorrow of their grieving mothers, wives, and kinsmen while simultaneously giving himself space to lament that so great a company of warriors has perished:

Cywyrain cedwyr, cyfarfuant,
The warriors arose, they assembled,

I gyd yn un fryd yd gyrchasant.
Together with one accord they attacked.

Byr eu hoedl, hir eu hoed ar eu carant,
Short were their lives, long their kinsmen’s grief for them.

Saith gymaint o Loegrwys a laddasant.
They slew seven times their number of the English.

O gyfrysedd gwragedd gwyddw a wnaethant,
By fighting they made women widows,

Llawer mam a’i deiger ar ei hamrant.
Many a mother with her tear on her eyelid. …

O winfaeth a meddfaeth yd grysiasant,
After wine-feast and mead-feast they attacked,

Gwŷr yn rhaid, molaid, enaid ddichwant.
Men in battle, renowned, heedless of their lives.

Gloyw ddull i am drull yd gydfaethant,
In bright array around the bowl they fed together,

Gwin a medd a mall a amucsant.
They enjoyed wine and mead and malt.

O osgordd Fynyddog handwyf adfeilliog,
On account of the retinue of Mynyddog I am sorrowful,

A rhwy a gollais o’m gwir garant.
Too many have I lost of my true kinsmen.

O drychan rhiallu yd grysiasant Gatraeth,
Of three hundred champions who attacked Catraeth,

Tru, namyn un gŵr nid atgorsant.
Alas, save one man, none returned.[15]

A pair of poems from the collection known as Canu Llywarch Hen (The Song of Llywarch the Old) also explores the conflicting emotions associated with the glory and danger of battle, this time focusing on a father’s desire to secure fame through his son’s bravery and his grief and guilt when this courage results in his son’s death. The first poem, now referred to as “Gwên and Llywarch,” depicts the aged warrior Llywarch goading his son Gwên into vowing not to retreat in his next battle, no matter the odds. When this vow costs his son his life, the alone and grief-stricken Llywarch of the second poem, “Marwnad Gwên,” mourns for Gwên and the rest of his twenty-four sons, all of whom met their end through their father’s upbraiding tongue:

Gwen vordwyt tylluras. a wylyas neihwyr.
Gwên of the mighty thighs kept watch last night

ygoror ryt uorlas.
by the side of Rhyd Forlas.

a chan bu mab ymi ny thechas.
Since he was my son he did not retreat.

Gwen gwydwn dy eissillut.
Gwên, I knew your nature:

ruthyr eryr yn ebyr oedut.
you were of the rush of an eagle in the estuaries.

betwn dedwyd dianghut.
If I were wise you would have escaped.

Pedwarmeib ar hugeint am bwyat.
I had twenty-four sons,

eurdorchawc tywyssawc cat.
a gold-wearing, princely troop.

oed gwen goreu mab oe dat.
Gwên was the best of his father’s sons.

Pedwarmeib ar hugeint yn kenueint lywarch
There were twenty-four sons in the family of Llywarch,

o wyr glew galwytheint.
brave, fierce warriors;

[cwl] eu dyuot clot trameint.
the coming of too great fame is a fault.

Pedwarmeib ar hugeint a ueithyeint byg knawt
Twenty-four sons of the nurture of my body—

drwy vyn tauawt lle<de>sseint
through my tongue they have been killed.

da dyuot [bychot] colledeint.
The coming of a little is good—they have been lost.[16]

If one considers these two examples of this tradition and their themes alongside the reading of Pa gur that this paper has sought to establish, the similarities between these texts at once become quite evident. If tensions between Arthur and Cei did boil over into animosity, they, like the bereaved Llywarch Hen, must suffer the knowledge that they bear some responsibility for their men’s deaths. Like the lone survivor of Y Gododdin, Arthur and Cei mustlive on to tell the story of their once-great company, lest their war-band’s legacy be forgotten, yet must all the while endure the loneliness and shame of being two of the handful who survived. Yet what distinguishes Pa gur from other bittersweet treatments of battle in Welsh tradition is not only the added tragedy of such internecine war between friends, but also its emphasis on the need to reconcile, lest there be no one left to tell the tale.

As this paper has endeavored to show, Pa gur is far more than a simple instance of the porter scene and far more than a quarry of allusions and references from which scholars can mine information about pre-Galfridian Arthurian tradition in Wales. The poem’s tone, language, and references allow us to situate Pa gur within the context of an Arthur and Cei who have lost their war-band and their place of primacy, perhaps at their own hands. Hardly the only medieval Welsh treatment of the emotions associated with battle, Pa gur thus emerges as a poignant reminder of the tragedy of warfare between friends—one that would have been as palpable to medieval audiences as it is to us today.

Edward Mead Bowen


Benjamin Harrison is an MLitt student at the Centre for Scandinavian Studies, University of Aberdeen. His current research investigates the relations between social, political and communicative structures in high-medieval Norway through a case study of the thirteenth century legal codex, Hirðskrá.


[1] Daniel Huws, Medieval Welsh Manuscripts (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000), 70.

[2] Patrick Sims-Williams ascribes to the poem a provenance of southeastern Wales c. 1100 on the basis of the shared depiction of Arthur’s close relationship to Cai and Bedwyr in Pa gur and in the Vita Sancti Cadoci (the Life of St. Cadog), composed by Lifris of Llancarfan c. 1100. Sims-Williams also states that this southeastern composition would suit the reference to Eléï, the River Ely near Llandaf. See Patrick Sims-Williams, “The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems,” eds. Rachel Bromwich, A. O. H. Jarman, and Brynley F. Roberts, The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legends in Medieval Welsh Literature (Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales Press, 1991), 39.

[3] The reasons for this difficulty in dating are manifold. For a detailed discussion, see Sims-Williams, 35-38.

[4] Sims-Williams, 38.

[5] Idem, 36.

[6] Idem, 40.

[7] Idem, 38.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Idem, 41.

[10] The transcription of the text of Pa gur comes from the World Digital Library’s facsimile of the Black Book of Carmarthen; the translation comes from Sims-Williams’ “The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems.”

[11] Sims-Williams, 41.

[12] Linda Gowans, Cei and the Arthurian Legend, Arthurian Studies, vol. 18 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, and Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 1988), 23.

[13] Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion (London: Oxford University Press, 2007), 207.

[14] Sims-Williams, 39.

[15] See A. O. H. Jarman, Aneirin: Y Gododdin: Britain’s Oldest Heroic Poem (Llandysul, Wales: Gomer, 1988).

[16] See Jenny Rowland, Early Welsh Saga Poetry: A Study and Edition of the Englynion (Woodbridge, Suffolk, and Wolfeboro, N.H.: D. S. Brewer, 1990), especially “Gwên and Llywarch” and “Marwnad Gwên.”

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