One of the intriguing aspects of Arthurian studies is how often one of his knights or warriors are associated with kingship. Take the first part of Owain’s story for a start. Owain’s big adventure, as found in the Mabinogion and among Chretien’s works, is simple. Owain travels to a place where he finds a fountain and a large basin. He throws water upon the stone which causes lightning. The noise summons a knight whom he defeats and kills. This wins him the kingdom and its queen.
As you read the story, it sounds fairy tale-ish. How can water on a rock cause a storm? Why would any knight stick around either one of them waiting for combat? Kill a person in single combat and win a kingdom? The queen comes as part of the package?
But to read it like that is to miss everything the British would have seen. Once a king was decided there were two important parts of the inauguration. First, he sat on a kingship stone like the Stone of Scone in Scotland or Lia Fail in Ireland. Legend had it that a wrong candidate would be swallowed up by it, while the right candidate would cause it to scream. The second part was the marriage. A new king didn’t marry a woman so much as he married the land he was to rule, and the land was represented by a woman.
Selecting the new king was supposed to be a simple matter. All males who were descended from a previous king were eligible, so the prince who was considered the best leader/warrior/diplomat was voted in by the clan. It stands to reason that deciding on a new king didn’t always go so easily though. Sometimes princes fought amongst themselves and very often those combats would have ended in death.
With that in mind, Owain is just a story version of an inauguration ceremony. Knowing that it takes on a little depth and loses some of its fairy tale feel, too.
The rest of the story was probably invented by Chretien. His patron, Marie de Champagne, was a feminist in the twelfth century sense of the world. Marie thought that husbands should be devoted and adoring of their wives, but at the same time she believed they should never give up their knightly pursuits.