To continue my posts on the founding myths of the ancient European world, here’s Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regnum Britanniae (c. 1136). Compared with my post on Virgil’s much longer story of the founding of Rome, I’ve had trouble keeping this post brief. I suspect it’s because there’s so much more in Geoffrey’s ‘history’ that I love – and because his book is much less widely known (despite the fact that its main story is one of the best known stories in the world).
Geoffrey’s Historia tells the story of Britain from its founding by the Trojans in the 12th century BC, through its 99 kings to the last British king, Cadwallader, who after plague, famine and ruinous wars finally abandons Britain to the Saxons in the 7th century AD.
Geoffrey opens his history not with an appeal to a goddess or muse, but with a dedication to Robert, earl of Gloucester. Rather than asking for inspiration, he explains that he’s writing his history because the existing histories of Britain by Gildas (6th C) and Bede (c. 731) don’t go back far enough – and they don’t mention king Arthur. Geoffrey says his history is no more than his Latin translation of an ancient text in the British tongue (Welsh) that he has been given (although this purported original has never been found).
According to the legend Geoffrey relates, Britain was founded by the Trojan prince Brutus, the great grandson of Aeneas. Before Brutus’s birth in Italy, it is foretold that he will kill both his parents, be expelled from his kingdom, embark on a long voyage – and eventually find ‘the highest pitch of glory’. The prophecy is fulfilled. Brutus’s mother dies in childbirth and aged 15 he kills his father in a hunting accident. He is promptly expelled from Italy and travels to Greece, where he finds 7,000 Trojans (and their wives and children) who were enslaved by the Greeks following the Trojan war. After much bloodshed Brutus frees the enslaved Trojans, marries a Greek princess, and sails away with his fellow Trojans to find a new home.
Brutus and his fleet stop at an island dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana, who appears to him in a dream. She says:
‘Brutus! there lies beyond the Gallic bounds / An island which the western sea surrounds, / By giants once possessed, now few remain / To bar thy entrance, or obstruct thy reign. / To reach that happy shore thy sails employ / There fate decrees to raise a second Troy / And found an empire in thy royal line, / Which time shall ne’er destroy, nor bounds confine.’
So westward the Trojans sail, until they reach the island called Albion, which happily is ‘inhabited by none but a few giants’, and settle there. Brutus calls the island ‘after his own name, Britain, and his companions, Britons; for by these means he desired to perpetrate the memory of his name’. And he builds a New Troy on the river Thames, which is later renamed Kaer-Lud and becomes London.
Many hundreds of years later, king Vortigern – who has seized the British throne by treachery – is told by his magicians to find a youth who never had a father. In distant Wales a boy is found whose mother was impregnated by an incubus: ‘between moon and earth inhabit those spirits which we call incubuses. They are of the nature partly of men, and partly of angels’. His name is Merlin.
And so begins my favourite part of Geoffrey’s history: the story of Merlin. Geoffrey recounts many tales of Merlin, including how he moves the huge stones that now form Stonehenge (then in Ireland and known as the ‘Giant’s Dance’) from Ireland to Britain. Geoffrey’s Merlin does this not with magic but with his ‘engines’. Merlin says of these important stones: ‘They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal value. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coast of Africa, and placed them in Ireland … There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.’
And Geoffrey also tells the tale of Merlin’s magic which brings forth the conception in Tintagel of Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon and Igerna. When Arthur becomes king of Britain at 15, he is ‘a youth of such unparalleled courage and generosity, joined with that sweetness of temper and innate goodness, as gained him universal love’.
Arthur dresses in mail and wears a golden helmet with a dragon, a shield with a picture of the blessed Mary, a sword called ‘Caliburn’ (‘which was an excellent sword made on the Isle of Avallon’), and ‘graced his right hand with his lance, named Ron, which was hard, broad, and fit for slaughter’. And slaughter Arthur, Ron and Caliburn do. In Geoffrey’s telling, Arthur’s adventures bear about as much resemblance to later popular stories of King Arthur and Guinevere as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian does to John F Kennedy’s American Camelot.
Arthur exits Geoffrey’s story when, after being betrayed by his wife Guanhumara and nephew Modred, he’s mortally wounded in battle. But he does not die. Instead, he is ‘carried thence to the isle of Avallon to be cured of his wounds’. The year is 542.
Other memorable figures in Geoffrey’s history include the first reference to King Lear, Julius Caesar, Cymbeline, Vespasian, King Cole and the coming of Saint Augustine.
Geoffrey’s lasting legacy was his creation of the literary figure of Merlin and his reshaping of the legend of Arthur. The Welsh professor of English W Lewis Jones wrote of Historia: ‘Here was just what a romantic age was thirsting for, and Arthur immediately became the central figure of the most popular and most splendid of the romantic cycles … a hero whose deeds challenged comparison with those of Alexander and Charlemagne.’
Historia Regnum Britanniae was a medieval smash hit (186 manuscripts survive today) and was immediately translated and adapted across Europe. Marie de France wrote her Arthurian lais between 1167 and 1184. Chretian de Troyes, the most famous of all the French medieval poets, wrote a long series of Arthurian verse romances between 1170 and 1190, introducing into Arthur’s story Lancelot and his affair with Guinevere. Parzival was written in Germany during the same period and some 250 years later Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1485) was published by William Caxton. Geoffrey’s history went on to influence writers from Spencer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and Tennyson, to the screen writers of 20th century Hollywood.
As an interesting aside, in the late 12th century the French poet Jean Bodel described contemporary medieval literature as comprising ‘Three Matters’: the Matters of France, Britain and Rome. The Matter of France (which Bodel argued was ‘more authentic’ than the Matter of Britain) included the songs of heroic deeds and verse romances that centred on Charlemagne (c. 742-814) and his paladins, especially Roland, and their battles against the Moors in Spain. The Matter of Rome was made up of the epic tales of ancient Greece and Rome. The Matter of Britain was the name given to the romances based on the legends of Arthur, sourced in Geoffrey’s Historia, which Bodel argued were pure entertainments. He may have been right – because today the Matter of France has all but been forgotten, while the Matter of Britain continues to entertain us almost 1000 years later.