A Cymric Arthurian Hero, also known as Cai, Kai, Kay: Path
Cei (Cai, Kai, Kay) is a Cymric (Welsh) hero known from the poem Pa gur yw y porthawr Mabinogi of Culhwch ac Olwen. He appears in the oldest Arthurian traditions as Arthur’s companion and is typically paired with Bedwyr (Bedivere).
References to Cei occur in both the poem Pa gur yw y porthawr found in Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin and in the Mabinogi of Culhwch ac Olwen. He also appears in the works of the Gogynfeirdd and in vernacular tradition.
Cei appears in the earliest Cymric Arthurian sources and along with Bedwyr he is represented as Arthur’s companion. Indeed, the early poem Pa gur yw y porthawr (What man is the porter?) is chiefly concerned with Cei’s exploits and seems to rank him foremost amongst Arthur’s champions. The poem extols Cei’s deeds, saying that he was equal to a host in battle and carried away booty (ie he was victorious). In the feasting halls when he drank from the mead horn he would drink as much as four. In battle he would slay his foes by the hundred. The poem then mentions Cei’s greatest deeds: the slaying of nine witches at the heights of Ystafngwn and the killing of the fabulous beast, Palug’s Cat. In the poem Cei is given the epithets Kei Guin (Cei the fair or blessed) and y guir hir (the long man). In Culhwch ac Olwen it is Cei who breaks through the walls of the defences encircling Mabon, Cei who plays a leading role in the episode of Custennin thus gaining entry to the Llys of Ysbaddaden and he who slays the giants Wrnach Gawr and Dilys Farfog.
Like many Arthurian figures in the native tradition Cei has many magical attributes. In Culhwch ac Olwen Cei is said to be the son of Cynyr Cainfarfog (Cynyr Fair-beard) and a discourse is reported between Cynyr and his wife where Cynyr said that if he has any share in the son that she is carrying then the boy then he will have the following cyneddf (magical peculiarities): his heart will always be cold and there will never be heat in his hands. He will be stubborn and when he carries a burden, whatever its size, it will not be sen; whether it is carried in front or behind. No one will withstand water or fire as well as he and there will be no servant or officer like him. T
he tale also relates Cei’s other cyneddf: that his breath lasted nine nights and nine days under water and he could exist for nine nights and nine days without sleep. A wound from his sword could not be cured and he could render himself as tall as the highest tree in the forest, if it pleased him to do so. So fierce was the heat of his personality that even when it rained hardest whatever he carried remained dry for a hand’s breadth away from him in all directions. On the coldest nights his companions would turn to him as they would to fuel for a fire.
Cei’s ability to change his height at will, and his epithet of y guir hir (and other traditions which make it clear that Cai was thought to be a giant) is strongly reminiscent of folkloric suggestions that Arthur and his relatives were giants/could alter their height. Thus they probably relate to the original race of giants populating Britain, the Plant Llŷr.
The etymology of Cei’s name is in doubt, with some deriving it from Latin Caius. However, the more likely derivation is from the Goidelic cái or cói meaning path. As Cei’s father’s name is cynyr meaning ‘way’ then, as Rachel Bromwich has pointed out in Trioedd Ynys Prydain this would make Cei ‘Path son of Way’ which echoes other names in Culhwch ac Olwen where the forename is a variant of the patronymic.
Though in Pa gur yw y porthawr it is said that “Unless it were God who accomplished it, Cai’s death were unattainable”. However, a lost story regarding Cei’s death is alluded to early in Culhwch ac Olwen “Gwyddawg mab Gwenester who slew Cei; and Arthur slew him and his brothers to avenge Cei.”.
In both the early tales and the poems of the gogynfeirdd Cei is protrayed in an entirely heroic and honourable light; whilst as Kay or Sir Kay of the later romances he is more of a buffoon and protrays open emnity to Arthur, a feature which entered later Cymric tales such as Peredur fab Efrawc, Iarlles y Ffynawn, Gereint fab Erbin, though Breuddwyd Rhonabwy returns to the more bardic depiction: “the fairest man who rides from Arthur’s Llys”. Even in the early Culhwch ac Olwen we see a hint of Cei’s less heroic and more churlish nature in the way he flouts Culhwch’s entry into Arthur’s court and abuses him once there. There is also a hint of Cei’s later feud with Arthur in this tale, for when Arthur recites a satirical englyn he composed upon Cei’s slaughter of Dilys Farfog then: “Cei became angry so that all the warriors of the Island could hardly make peace between him and Arthur. From thence forth Cei would not concern himself with Arthur’s need even if Arthur suffered weakness of his men were slain. Though it seems, at least in the tale as related in Culhwch ac Olwen that there must have been an approachemont between the two men. Indeed, in the poem, Pa gur yw y porthawr, Cei seems to be the friend of Llacheu, Arthur’s son, and they engage in many battles together.
However, in Y Seint Greal (the Cymric version of Perlesvaus: The High History of the Holy Grail), Cei kills Llachau out of envy for the younger man’s prowess; this ends the direct descent of Arthur’s lineage allowing Medrawd to pursue his bid for the throne. Pa gur yw y porthawr also mention’s Cei’s death as being ‘unmerited’ though there is no allusion as to the manner of his demise. Cei is also mentioned by name in the Mabinogion of Owein though he is only named in the very first portion of the tale as the provider of meat for the heroes of Arthur’s court. He figures later in the tale as the first knight to challenge Owein (in the guise of the black knight) and to be defeated by him.
According to tradition, Cei’s home was Caer Gei near Llanuwchllyn, Bala.
Nearby, in Nant Gwynant, Cei’s name is commemorated in Gwryt Cei (Cei’s Span) which, according to local legend refers to a pass across which the gigantic Cai could stretch his arms. Finally in the Trioedd y Meirch (Triads of the Steeds) Cei’s steed is named as Gwyneu gwddf hir (Gwyneu of the long neck).