When Arthur met an Eagle

Species: One woodland-adapted sea-eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla).

Source: ‘Ymddiddan Arthur a’r Eryr’ (the Conversation between Arthur and the Eagle), a teaching text on Christian theology with an Arthurian frame story.

Date: Most probably original to the Jesus 20 manuscript: 1300-1350 A.D.

Highlights: Once Arthur found an eagle laughing at him. He was annoyed until he found out it was his dead nephew, Eliwlad. At that point he hinted he could make war on God if it would help…

sea eagle

Sea Eagle photographed by GerardM, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0. Sea eagles (=white-tailed eagles; fish-eagles) often nest in lowland trees.

Once upon a storytime, and before Arthur was made into a boring emperor, he was seen as a warrior-lord. He lived in Cornwall and had friends like Bedguur and Chei instead of respectable knights like Sir Bedivere and Sir Kay.

Obviously being a warrior-lord is lots more fun than being an emperor, but it’s also lots more work. He had to actually do some of his own fighting, and often that involved fighting holy wars against evil pagans whilst holding-up pictures of Mary, mother of the Christian deity.

Our story comes on one of Arthur’s days off. In the early material Arthur has a brother called Madoc and nephew called Eliwlad who die before him. But in early Celtic material, death isn’t always the end. Eliwlad comes to visit Arthur from beyond the grave in a text called ‘Ymddiddan Arthur a’r Eryr’ (The Conversation of Arthur and the Eagle).

 

THE EAGLE

Arthur is walking through a forest quite happily one day when he first sees an eagle staring at him. As everyone knows, birds sometimes understand you when you talk to them in poetry, so being an amateur poet he gives it a go.

When you read these verses remember that Arthur and the Eagle are taking it in turns to speak, and that each verse has three lines. The first two are for emotional appeal and are often formulaic stock phrases, whereas the third advances the actual conversation (Rowland, 1990:286).

Arthur
I am amazed for I am a bard,
From the top of the oak and its beautiful branches
Why does the eagle stare? Why does he laugh? (Coe & Young, 1995:105)

The first verse gives the best description of the eagle. It is perched in an oak tree, and stares and laughs at Arthur. The first part of the description most probably identifies the eagle as being a sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), a bird much more likely to sit in a lowland woodland than a golden eagle. The second part, however, just as importantly cautions us that the setting is supernatural and not all the details will be naturalistic.

Arthur immediately gets an answer from the eagle. I like to imagine the eagle is much better at poetry than Arthur is:

Eagle
Arthur of surpassing far-flung fame
Bear of hosts, joy of shelter
The eagle has seen you before

Arthur
I am amazed besides the seas
I shall ask in contemplation
Why he laughs, why the eagle stares. (Coe & Young, 1995:105)

The eagle explains it has seen Arthur before, but Arthur doesn’t seem to understand this. This might be because lots of birds have seen him before, but I like to think it’s because he is so ‘amazed’ by the eagle’s pun. The eagle called Arthur the bear of hosts (arth llu) which cunningly resonates with the character’s name (Arth-ur). The eagle ends up having to repeat itself.

Eagle
Arthur far-flung fame of the journey
Bear of the host, joy of sight
The eagle has seen you before.

Arthur
Oh Eagle who stands in the branches of the oak
If you were of a race of birds
You would not be either tame or civilised (Coe & Young, 1995:105)

Arthur by this point has figured out that the eagle is probably not actually an eagle. The eagle has not attacked him, despite his standing beneath its resting place (potentially its nest) and bothering it. (Clearly Arthur is not familiar with the EU Birds Directive and the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which make disturbing many species illegal). Arthur may also be surprised that the animal is putting up with him at all considering that eagles were perceived to be untameable, unlike other birds of prey which were frequently used in falconry. Finally, the fact the eagle could talk may also have been a tip-off about its civilised nature. We previously read how Bran and his court made a similar remark upon seeing the tame, speaking starling in ‘Branwen’.

In fact they were wrong, here is a trained Haliaeetus (although not a British (white-tailed) sea-eagle.

Eagle
Arthur of the terrible sword
Your enemies stand not before your rush.
I am the son of Madog son of Uthr.

Arthur
I know not your shape, oh eagle
who roams the valley-woods of Cornwall
The son of Madog son of Uthr lives not. (Coe & Young, 1995:105)

A shocking twist! The eagle tells Arthur that he is his brother’s son, but Arthur explains that man is dead and refuses to recognise him. The problem is not the fact that the speaker doesn’t look like his nephew (shape changes are pretty common) but that Eliwlad is already dead. We skip a few verses here which are dedicated to explaining Christian theology.


Eagle
Arthur…
bear of men, not a deliverance of wrath
I was called Eliwlad before

Arthur
Oh Eagle of blameless appearance
In your utterance is no fault
Is it you, Eliwlad my nephew? (Coe & Young, 1995:105)

We switch at this point to an inferior source as Coe & Young (1995) do not translate the rest.

Eagle
Arthur audacious in the onset
If I be Eliwlod
Am I a good connexion of thine?

Arthur
Eagle, untreacherous in discourse,
If thou art Eliwlod,
Was the battle-slaughter good around thee?

Eagle
Arthur, audacious in answering,
Before whose face no enemy standeth,
From death there is no escape. (Herbert 1841:29)

Arthur is more ready to accept the eagle’s suggestion the second time, perhaps because the eagle speaks in the past tense. The conversation continues with a ‘Llywarch Hen’-style repartee which can be summarised like this:

  • A: Are you really Eliwlad?
  • E: Are you proud of Eliwlad?
  • A: Did you die well?
  • E: No-one escapes death. (Don’t be such a pagan)

Finally Arthur shows what an amazing character but bad Christian he is with a quick check about something:

Arthur
Eagle, undisguised of speech,
No one could through war
Bring thee to life again. (Herbert 1841:29)

It seems like a statement of fact, but the very fact Arthur is speaking it makes it a kind of half-query, half-offer. If it would help, Arthur could attack heaven for his nephew. This is extra fun because this text is intended as a catechising one: it is supposed to teach its readers about Christian theology. Eliwlad’s boring answer comes straight away:

Eagle
Arthur, dignity among the generous,
If the words of the canon shall be believed.
With God contention is not good. (Herbert 1841:30)

i.e. That’s very generous uncle, but if you listen to the Bible it suggests that won’t work out very well!

Silly Arthur

‘No, Arthur, actually you can’t attack Heaven…’

SO WHAT?

Apart from being fun to read, there are three significant things to note from the depiction of the eagle in the story.

  1. Species History: it is very significant that an eagle is described as living in Cornish woodlands in a fourteenth century text. Obviously this is not a real sighting, and the encounter was supernatural and never actually happened, but the description suggests eagles may still have been present in Cornwall at the time the text was written.
  2. Ecological Importance: The text suggests depicts the eagle as at the top of an oak tree, just like we have seen previously. This helps support the suspicion that sea-eagles can adapt to lowland woodland instead of coastland ecosystems and are suitable for reintroduction inland and in southern Britain as well as Scotland (Forrester & Andrews 2007:451-2).
  3. Literary Significance: This text offers an example of the motif of transmigrating souls living in the bodies of birds, which can understand poetry. An especially close comparison is the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes in ‘Math’ (Sims-Williams, 1991:58).

 

If you liked this blog post why not contact me on Twitter @NaturalHistoryL, or follow me on Facebook to get the highlights without any of the boring bits.

 

REFERENCES

Coe JB & Young S (1995) The Celtic Sources for the Arthurian Legend. Llanerch, Felinfach.

Forrester R & Andrews I (2007The Birds of Scotland. Scottish Ornithologists Club, Edinburgh.

Herbert (1841) Britannia after the Romans. Vol. 2. Henry G. Bohn, London.

Rowland, (1990). Rowland J (1990), Early Welsh Saga Poetry D.S. Brewer, Cambridge.

Sims-Williams P (1991) The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems. Bromwich R , Jarman AOH & Roberts BF (eds.) The Arthur of the Welsh. University of Wales Press, Cardiff: 33-71.

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