By Minjie Su
King Arthur has fought against many things: kings, emperors, giants, dragons, magical boars, just to name a few. But among all the great warriors and monsters that have tried to conquer the Once and Future King of Britain, not many come as close to killing Arthur as a black kitten – the Cat of Palug.
In the Welsh Triad (Trioedd Ynys Prydein), under the title of the Three Great Swineherds of the Isles of Britain, the third Swineherd, Coll son of Collfrewy, has a pregnant swine named Henwen. This may be good news to an ordinary swineherd, but Henwen is no ordinary sow: it has been prophesied that her offspring will cause great harm to Britain. When her time is near, Henwen goes into the sea only to emerge again in the Kingdom of Gwent. Along the way, she gives birth to a wolf cub, an eagle, and a kitten. The kitten is thrown into the Menai Strait by Coll but she lands on the Isle of Anglesey. This, of course, turns out to be an extremely bad decision, for the kitten grows up to become one of the Three Great Oppressions of Anglesey. She is known as the Cat of Palug.
What happens afterwards is recounted in Pa Gur, Poem 31 of the Black Book of Carmarthen. Pa Gur itself is arranged as a dialogue between King Arthur and Glewlwyd, a gate-keeper, in which Arthur introduces each man in his company and presents them as monster slayers. Among those heroes we find our beloved Cai or Sir Kay, who at this time has not yet developed into the vile tongued character as he is in the romance tradition. One of Cai’s admirable achievement is the destruction of the Cat of Palug on Anglesey, with a polished shield (and presumably a spear to pierce the Cat with). Unfortunately, not much detail is given, and the poem breaks mid-action, but it is easy to guess the hardship faced by Cai and the Cat’s ferocity: some 180 soldiers have fallen and ended up becoming cat food. The story also finds its way into John of Fordun’s 14th-century Chronica gentis Scotorum (‘Chronicle of the Scottish Nation’), where he explains how a cracked boulder beside the castle of Dunbar came to be. One of John’s sources informs him that the split was caused by King Athelstan’s sword, when he came to Scotland and (sadly) defeated the Scots; but ‘some old hags’ tells him that it is caused by the Cat of Palug’s claw, when he struggled with Sir Kay.
However, in L’estoire de Merlin (‘The Story of Merlin’), which predates the Black Book by a few decades, it is Arthur who fights against a feline monster known as the Devil Cat of the Lake of Lausanne. Although this cat is far away from the Cat of Palug in terms of both name and location, it shares with her the aquatic nature and certainty the ferocity. The origin of the Cat of Lausanne is recounted by Merlin: once a fisherman vowed to give God the first fish he caught, but when he caught a worthy pike, he regretted and promised the next one instead. The next fish was even better, so the fisherman decided that Our Lord should wait. The third catch was a kitten, ‘blacker than mulberry’. The fisherman kept the kitten, hoping that it may rid his home of rats and mice, but instead the kitten got rid of his wife and children and himself. Then it fled to the mountains, killing and destroying whatever it touches. No one dares to live in the area around Lausanne now; it would do great good to the land and the people, if Arthur could get kill the Cat.
Naturally, Arthur agrees to fight the Cat. He leads his troops towards Lausanne and camps in a valley near where the Cat dwells. On the top of the mountain, Arthur faces the Cat alone, who by this time has grown into a huge beast, terrible to behold. Driven by hunger, the Cat charges at Arthur, splintering his lance and blunting his sword. In a sinister scene, the Cat:
leapt and grabbed him [Arthur] fully by the shoulders, and it sank its claws right through his hauberk into his flesh. And it jerked him about so hard that it sent more than three hundred links flying from the mail hauberk, and his red blood flowed after the cat had withdrawn its claws, so that the king very nearly fell to the ground. […] Then he held his shield in front of his chest, took his sword in his right hand, and swiftly ran upon the cat, which was licking away the blood that had wet its claws.
After a long, fierce struggle and a lot of blood loss on Arthur’s part, King Arthur finally manages to kill the Cat with – notably – his shield – curiously, this detail echoes Cai’s polished shield in fighting against the Cat of Palug. Afterwards, he confesses his fear to Merlin that ‘you can be sure that I’ve never feared for myself any more than I did when I was entangled with that devil, except when I fought the giant the other day in the mountain that rises from the sea [Mount St. Michael].’
However, a drastically different ending may have existed, as suggested in André de Coutances’ Le Roman des Franceis (The Romance of the French). In this ‘Romance’, André satirises the French, whom he hated for having told lies about King Arthur and about English history in generation. One of these lies concerns King Arthur’s death: instead of falling at the Battle of Camlann, Arthur is ‘heaved into a bog by the Cat Palug’. Having killed the king, the Cat conquers Britain and becomes lord of the realm. This is just outrageous, André complains, where did the French dig up such nonsense?
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Top Image: Photo by Nicolas Suzor / Flickr