Thursday, October 19, 2000

The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Whether it be fact or fantasy, Geoffrey’s History is a very readable, gossipy text. Because it is a modern translation from the Latin, it is harder to judge the voice/tone of the text—though Prof. Lewis Thorpe insists he was faithful to the original text—whatever that was.

There were several different texts including a pseudo-Geoffrey text. Geoffrey, who was probably Welsh, claims an earlier text, now lost, for his source material which in 1136, he also claims to have translated into Latin from the British. So we might have a 6 - 11th c. text translated from Welsh/British into Latin in 1136, and then into English in 1966. 

During the 12th c., monks were churning out manuscripts and there already was a tradition of pseudo-historical Latin texts in Britain: Gildas (6th c.), Bede (8th c.) Nennius (9th c), So Geoffrey’s claim is possible. 

Though the text covers 1900 years’ worth of the pseudo-history of British kings, it reminds me of the Irish Lebar Gabala, which is referred to: “Their leader, whose name was Partholoim,” Geoffrey’s dynastic book was meant to be read silently, not aloud after feasts—where everything needs to be repeated—who was his audience? 

If Shakespeare owes much to Geoffrey’s story of King Lear, then Geoffrey owes much to his fellow chroniclers and to Caesar. We have the usual Celtic leitmotifs—battles, single-hand combat, berzerker frenzy, fosterage, revenge, crossed-fealty, broken oaths, treachery, shape-changing. 

We have giants, magic burial stones transported from Ireland, sacred fires, feasts, potlatches, fords and hazel woods, etc. We have new elements of chivalry—though it could be construed that chivalry is merely an extension of Celtic Heroic society. 

Geoffrey’s main characters are the Trojan Brutus (this story stretches credulity but there really were Celts in Asia Minor) who founded and named Britain (“the best of islands”) after himself; his son Kamber who named Kambria/Wales; Brutus’ ancestors, the infamous brothers Belinus and Brennius who sacked Rome (he knows Hellenic writings but not historic dates) who ravage the Franks! 

Cassivelaunus who fights Caesar, and Arthur, who occupies much of the text. Interesting to reread Caesar through a Geoffrey-colored lens. Shades of interpretatio Gaufrido who does wicked things to historical timelines!

Arthur is modeled after Caesar—conquering the Islands, Europe and even Rome. Much of the story is hinged on the prophecies and magic of Merlin and Pallatius, druid winds, etc.; a Druid college is mentioned. 

The Prophecy of Merlin is the weirdest text I’ve read: all those animals—totemic, tribal or kinglists? Merlin disappears after Gorlais’s death and never even meets Arthur! The British are almost always spoken of in a favorable light—though Geoffrey repeatedly reminds us their arrogant and quarrelsome nature works against them—and indeed it eventually is the source of their God-ordained downfall. 

Geoffrey paints the Saxons, Irish, Scots & Picts in a malevolent light—as he does the kings of the East (who were probably Christian!) and of course, evil Mordred. Interesting change of tone with the final chapter on the Saxon as the true inheritors of Britain after it was ravaged by civil wars and plagues—partially due to the introduction of a bad seed? Malgo’s line. 

Geoffrey owes much to Bede here. Interesting to see the doings of Edwin, Cadwallo and Penda fleshed out so. Throughout, the clergy are portrayed in cloying favor—obviously they are of the nobility. Even St Patrick is mentioned. God is wrathful, more akin to the Wheel of Fate than to Reason. 

Once again, this is a story for the nobility, not for the peasant or craftsman. The ultimate insult is that the surviving Britons get demoted to Welshmen.

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