Arthurian Names Beyond Morgan and Merlin
My love for Arthurian myth is a strong one. I love the knights, the quests, the magic, and of course, the names. Arthurian myth features some of the most unusual names out there, from the knight Sagramore to Guinevere‘s half-sister Guinevak (originally the complicated Gwenhwyvach), but we never really hear much beyond Arthur and Merlin. Well today I will be shedding some light on the more unusual characters – and names – of the myths.
In The Mabinogion, the earliest known prose literature of Britain, King Arthur features in a few stories, and in Culhwch ac Olwen the heroine is Olwen, the beautiful daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden, who was said to be so gentle that white lilies would grow in her footprints. Olwen in fact means “white footprint,” a fitting name. Culhwch comes to wed Olwen, however she cannot marry him without her father’s permission, which he won’t give until Culhwch completes almost forty difficult tasks. But with the help of Arthur Culhwch succeeds, Ysabaddaden dies, and he and Olwen are free to wed.
The Lady of the Lake has had many different names –Elaine, Evienne, Nyneve- but one of the most common is Nimue. Pronounced NIM-oo-ay, its meaning is unknown, but it is undeniably beautiful, the perfect name for a sorceress. In the Post-Vulgate Cycle, there are two Ladies of the Lake, Viviane and Ninianne. Viviane learns her magic from Merlin who falls in love with her, but she refuses to return his love until he teaches her all his magic secrets, which she then uses to trap him, sometimes in a stone, a tree, or a cave. Ninianne’s, story is similar, but here she is the one who bestows Arthur with Excalibur. In L’Morte de Arthur, author Sir Thomas Malory, kept Viviane but renamed the second one Nimue. Malory took the good parts of the other Lady of the Lake characters and combined them in his Nimue, who eventually married Sir Pelleas and became a formidable courtier. Unlike many other female characters in Arthurian mythology, Nimue is strong willed and has a more important role than just furthering the male character’s plots.
Laudine is a character in Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain, or, The Knight with the Lion written in the twelfth century. Yvain, a Knight of the Round Table, seeks to avenge his cousin Calogrenet who was killed by a knight called Esclados. He slays Esclados, and falls in love with his widow, Laudine, and with the help of her servant, Lunete, wins her hand and marries her. They are happy for many years, until the knight Gawain comes and tells Yvain that he has been absent not only in his chivalric duties but in the court of his King. Laudine says he can go but only for one year. Unfortunately Yvain is caught up in his duties and does not return for many years, after which Laudine will not accept him. Going mad with grief, Yvain is cured by a local woman, and, once again with the help of Lunete, wins back his lady Laudine. The name Laudine is thought to be a form of Laudonensis, a Latinization of Lothian, a region of Scottish Highlands.
Sir Safir is a Knight of the Round Table and a son of the Muslim King Esclabor. Although he is a younger son, Safir converts to Christianity before his two brothers. In one tale Safir, disguised as Sir Ector de Maris, wins the lady of Sir Espinogres. His brother Palamedes, who had sworn to protect her virtue, arrives and battles Safir for many hours. Both are impressed with the other’s skill, and eventually ask the identity of one another. Safir is horrified to learn that it was his brother he was fighting, and they both return the lady to Sir Espinogres. After Lancelot and Guinevere‘s affair, the brothers take the side of Lancelot in the war, and are eventually banished to his homeland of Gaul. I’m not sure of the original origin or meaning of the name, but in Persian it means “ambassador”.
Mabon ap Modron is not only an important character from Welsh mythology, but he is also a member of King Arthur‘s war party. Modron, his mother, was thought to be an inspiration for Morgan le Fay. Mabon ap Modron features in Culhwch ac Olwen and in the poem Pa Gur from the tenth century with another of that name, Mabon fab Mellt. King Arthur rattles off the accomplishments of his men in order to gain entrance into a fortress. Of Mabon ap Modron (here called Mabon fab Mydron), he says he is a “servant of Uther Pendragon”. Mabon fab Mellt is said to have “stained the grass with blood”. Mabon is thought to mean “Great son”.
Sir Lucan, the brother of Sir Bedivere and cousin of Sir Griflet, was King Arthur‘s butler, which then was essentially the head of his court. Lucan is King Arthur‘s last battle against Mordred and helps him escape, before he too dies of his wounds. While it is usually Bedivere or Griflet who return Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake for Arthur, in the English ballad King Arthur‘s Death it is he who has the honor. Lucan comes from the ancient Roman cognomen Lucanus, which is thought to have derived from the name of the city of Lucca in Italy.
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