Arthur as a chough in the poetry of R. S. Hawker

by Stephen Allen

Included in one of the earliest compilations of Welsh Arthurian poems – The Black Book of Carmarthen – are the ‘Stanzas of the Graves’, which list the sites of the graves of the once famous heroes:

‘Bet y March, bet y Guythur,
Bet y Gugaun Cledyfrut;
anoeth bid bet y Arthur.’

‘[There is] a grave for March, a grave for Gwythur,
a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword;
that hardest of things to find, a grave for Arthur.’

At the end of his epic Morte d’Arthur Sir Thomas Malory notes the inscription on Arthur’s tomb:

‘Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus’

‘Here lies Arthur, the once and future king’

Such sentiments are pointers to the anticipated survival and return of Arthur but in what guise?

In his poem ‘The Silent Tower of Bottreaux’ Robert Stephen Hawker refers to ‘the strange Chough’:

‘But why are Bottreaux’ echoes still?
Her tower stands proudly on the hill:-
Yet the strange Chough that home hath found,
The lamb lies sleeping on the ground.’

A footnote to the poem as published in Ecclesia (1840) explains that, ‘This wild bird, “Talons and beak all red with blood” chiefly haunts the coasts of Devon and Cornwall.’

Interestingly the note to the same poem is expanded in The Poetical Works of Robert Stephen Hawker, edited by J. G. Godwin (1879) with the additional remark that ‘The common people believe that the soul of King Arthur inhabits one of these birds, and no entreaty or bribe would induce an old Tintagel quarry man to kill me one’, while the reference to ‘Talons and beak all red with blood’ is dropped. The latter quotation is in fact from one of Hawker’s own poems ‘The Wreck’, also published in Ecclesia but omitted by Godwin in his Poetical Works.

‘The Wreck’ comprises eighteen stanzas, of which stanzas VIII and IX read thus:

VIII
Thou seest dark Cornwall’s rifted shore,
Old Arthur’s stern and rugged keep:
There, where proud billows dash and roar,
His haughty turret guards the deep.

IX
And mark yon bird of sable wing,
Talons and beak all red with blood,
The spirit of the long lost king
Pass’d in that shape from Camlan’s flood!

C. E. Byles did include ‘The Wreck’ in his edition of Cornish Ballads and other Poems (1904) but appended a completely new note: ‘In his own copy of Ecclesia, Hawker has written “by C.E.H.” (his first wife) against this poem. In another copy of the book is a pencil note in his hand as follows: ‘‘Written by Mrs. Hawker, except the three last stanzas, which are mine – R.S.H.’’ ’

The stanzas quoted above, then, were written by Charlotte Hawker but since Camlan is the site of King Arthur’s last battle and defeat in the Welsh Arthurian Chronicles, the reference in stanza IX in ‘The Wreck’ echoes the amplified 1879 note to ‘The Silent Tower of Bottreaux’ in holding that upon death Arthur’s soul transmigrated into a chough. It is this extraordinary notion that I wish to explore.

A member of the corvid or crow family, the chough’s distinguishing features are the red beak and red legs, those very characteristics highlighted by Charlotte Hawker. Another member of this same family is the raven.

In his magisterial Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages (1959) R. S. Loomis refers to ‘one of the most extraordinary stories’ which according to ‘common talk’ told that Arthur had been enchanted into the form of a crow. Loomis cites as his source Julian del Castillo’s Historia de los Reyes Godos published in Madrid in 1624. This echoes an identical claim made by Cervantes in Don Quixote, first published in 1612. Both emphasise that the transformation of Arthur into a crow is an English rather than a Spanish tradition.

Such common talk was explored in the nineteenth century by Robert Hunt, who set out to verify Cervantes’ claim by making enquiries into Cornish folklore, especially in the neighbourhood of Tintagel, as reported in his Popular Romances of the West of England (1865), although it must be noted that Hunt relied on Jarvis’ 1742 translation of Don Quixote, where the bird is identified as another member of the corvid family, a raven. (The translation by J. M. Cohen first published by Penguin in 1950 reverts to ‘crow’.) From his enquiries Hunt concluded, ‘Nowhere do I find the raven associated with him but I have been told that bad luck would follow the man who killed a chough for Arthur was transformed into one of those birds’. (p.309)

Without acknowledgement in her Folklore and Legends of Cornwall, published in 1890, Margaret Ann Courtney is unequivocal : ‘No luck follows a man, who kills a Cornish chough (a red-legged crow) as, after his death, King Arthur was changed into one.’ (p. 58)

A curious afterword is Derwent May’s ‘ Feather report’ in The Times edition of 20th August 2011 relating that though they became extinct in Cornwall in 1947 three choughs appeared on the Lizard peninsula in 2001. At the time it was speculated that they may have strayed over from Brittany. In the present context this is peculiarly apposite since Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that his Historia Regum Britanniae, whose notably detailed account of Arthur was considered over centuries to be credible history, was a translation of an ancient book in the British tongue brought out of Brittany by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford.

© Stephen Allen, 2011