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Uther Pendragon

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Uther Pendragon

Uther Pendragon, by Howard Pyle from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights. (1903)

Uther Pendragon ([1] or ; Welsh: Uthyr Pendragon, Uthyr Bendragon) is a legendary king of sub-Roman Britain and the father of King Arthur. A few minor references to Uther appear in Old Welsh poems, but his biography was first written down by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), and Geoffrey's account of the character was used in most later versions.

He is a fairly ambiguous individual throughout the literature, but is described as a strong king and a defender of the people. According to King Arthur in the Battle of Camlann.

Epithet

Uther's epithet Pendragon literally means "Chief-Dragon", but in a figurative sense, "foremost leader" or "chief of warriors".[3] The name was misinterpreted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia to mean "dragon's head",[3] and further misinterpreted in the Lancelot-Grail Cycle to mean "hanging dragon". According to Geoffrey and works based on his version, Uther acquired the epithet when he witnessed a portentous dragon-shaped comet, which inspired him to use dragons on his standards. According to Robert de Boron[4] and the Grail cycle based on his work, it was Uther's older brother (elsewhere called Aurelius Ambrosius) who saw the comet and received the name "Pendragon", Uther taking his epithet after his death.

Early Welsh poetry

Though the Welsh tradition of the Arthurian legend is fragmentary, some material exists through the Welsh Triads and various poems. Uther appears in these fragments, where he is associated with Arthur and, in some cases, even appears as his father.

He is mentioned in the circa-10th century Arthurian poem "Pa gur yv y porthaur?" ("What man is the gatekeeper?"), where it is only said of him that Mabon son of Modron is his servant. He is also memorialized with "The Death-song of Uther Pen" from the Book of Taliesin.[5] The latter includes a reference to Arthur, so the marginal addition of "dragon" to Uther's name is probably justified. "The Colloquy of Arthur and the Eagle," a poem contemporary with but independent of Geoffrey, mentions another son of Uther named Madoc, the father of Arthur's nephew Eliwlod.[3]

In Triad 28, Uther is named the creator of one of the Three Great Enchantments of the Island of Britain, which he taught to the wizard Menw.[6] Since Menw is a shapeshifter according to Culhwch and Olwen, it might be that Uthyr was one as well. If this is so, it opens up the possibility that Geoffrey of Monmouth's narrative about Uther impregnating Igerna with Merlin's help (see below) was taken from a Welsh legend where Uthyr changed his own shape, Merlin possibly being added to the story by Geoffrey.[7]

Uthyr's other reference, Triad 51, however, shows influence from Geoffrey's Historia. It follows Geoffrey's description of Uther as son of Constantine II, now called "Custennin the Blessed", and brother of both Aurelius Ambrosius ("Emrys Wledig") and Constans II ("Custennin the Younger").[8]

Historia Regum Britanniae

Uthr Bendragon. A crude illustration from a 15th century Welsh language version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae

Uther is best known from Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae (1136) where he is the youngest son of King of Britannia Constantine II. His eldest brother Constans succeeds to the throne on their father's death, but is murdered at the instigation of his adviser Vortigern, who seizes the throne. Uther and his other brother Aurelius Ambrosius, still children, flee to Brittany. After Vortigern's alliance with the Saxons under Hengist goes disastrously wrong, Aurelius and Uther, now adults, return. Aurelius burns Vortigern in his castle and becomes king.

With Aurelius on the throne, Uther leads his brother in arms to King Lot and becomes the mother of Gawain and Mordred.

Uther later falls ill, but when the wars against the Saxons go badly he insists on leading his army himself, propped up on his horse. He defeats Hengist's son Octa at Verulamium (St Albans), despite the Saxons calling him the "Half-Dead King." However, the Saxons soon contrive his death by poisoning a spring he drinks from near Verulamium.[9]

Uther's family is based on some historical figures; Constantine on the historical usurper Constantine III, a claimant to the Roman throne from 407–411, and Constans on his son. Aurelius Ambrosius is Ambrosius Aurelianus, mentioned by Gildas, though his connection to Constantine and Constans is unrecorded.

Other medieval literature

In Robert de Boron's Merlin Uther Pendragon kills Hengest after an assassination attempt by the Saxon leader and Merlin creates the Round Table for him. In the Prose Lancelot Uther Pendragon claims to have been born in Bourges. He takes an army to Brittany to fight against King Claudas of Bourges, a situation resembling that of the historical ruler Riothamus who went to Brittany to fight ravagers based in Bourges.

There is an alternative account of Uther Pendragon's background in Anjou, father of Gahmuret, father of Parzival (Percival). Uther Pendragon and Arthur here appear as the scions of the junior branch of an unattested House of Anjou.

Uther appears in the chivalric romance Sir Cleges as the king to whom Sir Cleges brings the Christmas cherries, obtained by miracle.[10]

Modern literature

Uther Pendragon remains a widely used character in modern Arthurian literature. In T.H. White's The Once and Future King, Uther the Conqueror is the Norman King of England. Mary Stewart's first two books in her Arthurian saga, The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, feature Uther Pendragon as Merlin's uncle, Merlin being his brother Ambrosius' illegitimate son. Uther is depicted as a mostly decent but rather oversexed character, who becomes impotent in later life because of a groin injury, a Fisher King figure. In Bernard Cornwell's The Warlord Chronicles, Uther is the King of Dumnonia as well as the High King of Britain. In Jack Whyte's The Camulod Chronicles, Uther is King of the Pendragon, the Celtic people of South Cambria, cousin to Caius Merlyn Britannicus and Ambrose Ambrosianus Britannicus. Whyte's novel "Uther", written in 2000, revolves around a fictionalized version of Uther's life. In contrast to traditional versions, Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle makes Uther's brother Aurelius, whose widow (Ygerna) he marries, Arthur's true father. In Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon, Uther is the nephew of Aurelianus instead of his brother; while Aurelianus is the son of a Roman Emperor, Uther has no Roman blood. In Valerio Massimo Manfredi's The Last Legion, Uther is himself the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus. While the real Romulus Augustus disappeared from history after being deposed by Goths, in the novel he escapes to Britain, where he adopts the name Pendragon and eventually sires Arthur. In D. J. MacHale's Pendragon series, the main character, Bobby Pendragon, is the reincarnation of either Uther or his son Arthur.

In popular culture

  • In John Boorman's film Excalibur, Gabriel Byrne plays an ambitious but somewhat obtuse Uther Pendragon.
  • In the Camelot Uther is poisoned by Morgana in the first episode. Here she is his daughter, but was sent to the convent after he married Igraine.

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. "Uther", "Pendragon".
  2. ^ http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/MaloryWks2/1:3.6?rgn=div2;view=fulltext
  3. ^ a b c Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, p. 512–513
  4. ^ de Boron, Robert. Merlin and the Grail. Tr. Nigel Bryant. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001.
  5. ^ "The death-song of Uther Pendragon"
  6. ^ The Hergest Triads
  7. ^ Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, p. 56
  8. ^ Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, pp. 132-133
  9. ^ Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae 6.5-9, 8.1-24
  10. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p79 New York Burt Franklin,1963

References

Legendary titles
Preceded by
Aurelius Ambrosius
King of Britain Succeeded by
Arthur
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