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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XI. Early Transition English

§ 12. Layamon’s Brut

We come now to that section of the literature of the period which represents a revolt against established religious themes. It has been seen that religious writers occasionally made use of the motives of legend and love, and from this it might be inferred that these were the directions into which the general taste was inclining. At all events these are the lines along which the literary revolt began to develop, Layamon, in the first instance, setting forth in the vernacular legendary material which came to hand. Layamon’s Brut, written early in the thirteenth century, has come down in two MSS. (A text and B text), belonging respectively to the first and second halves of the thirteenth century. The later version has numerous scribal alterations: there are many omissions of words and passages, the spelling is slightly modernised, riming variants are introduced and foreign substitutes take the place of obsolescent native words. The author reveals his identity in the opening lines. He is Layamon, a priest of Ernley (Arley Regis, Worcester), on the right bank of the Severn, where he was wont to “read books” (i.e.,., the services of the church). Layamon’s ambitious purpose was to tell the story of Britain from the time of the Flood. He is, however, content to begin with the story of Troy and the arrival of Brutus, and to end with the death of Cadwalader, 689 A.D. As regards his sources, he mentions the English book of Bede, the Latin books of St. Albin and St. Austin (by which he probably meant the Latin version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History) and thirdly, the Brut of the French clerk Wace. Of the first two authorities, however, it is curious to note, he makes not the slightest use. The account of Gregory and the English captives at Rome (11. 29,445 ff.), which is often quoted in support of his indebtedness to Bede, in reality proves his entire independence, for glaring discrepancies occur between the respective narratives. Elsewhere in the Brut Bede is directly contradicted and, in fact, Layamon’s assertion of indebtedness, as far as Bede is concerned, can be nothing more than a conventional recognition of a venerable work which dealt with a kindred subject. Convention rather than fact also lay behind his statement that he had consulted works in three different languages.

His debt to Wace, however, is beyond all doubt. Innumerable details are common to both works, and moreover, it is clear that it is Wace’s work rather than Wace’s original (Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain) that has been laid under contribution. In the first place, Wace and Layamon have certain details in common which are lacking in the work of Geoffrey; in the matter of omissions Wace and Layamon frequently agree as opposed to Geoffrey; while again they often agree in differing from the Latin narrative in regard to place and personal names. But if Wace’s Brut forms the groundwork of Layamon’s work, in the latter there are numerous details, not accounted for by the original, which have generally been attributed to Celtic (i.e. Welsh) influences. Many of these details, however, have recently been shown to be non-Welsh. The name of Argante the elf-queen, as well as that of Modred, for instance, point to other than Welsh territory. The traits added to the character of Arthur are in direct opposition to what is known of Welsh tradition. The elements of the Arthurian saga relating to the Round Table are known to have been treated as spurious by Welsh writers; Tysilio, in his Brut for instance, passes them over. Therefore the explanation of this additional matter in Layamon, as compared with Wace, must be sought for in other than Welsh material.

Hitherto, when Wace’s Brut has been mentioned, it has been tacitly assumed that the printed version of that work was meant, rather than one of those numerous versions which either remain in manuscript or have since disappeared. One MS. (Add. 32,125. Brit. Mus.), however, will be found to explain certain name-forms, concerning which Layamon is in conflict with the printed Wace. And other later works, such as the Anglo-French Brut (thirteenth or fourteenth countury) and the English metrical Mort Arthur, both of which are based on unprinted versions of Wace, contain material which is present in Layamon, namely, details connected with the stories of Lear, Merlin and Arthur. Therefore it seems possible that Layamon, like the authors of the later works, used one of the variant texts. Further, the general nature of Layamon’s additions appears to be Breton or Norman. The names Argante and Delgan, for instance, are derived through Norman media; the fight between Arthur and Frollo is found in the Roman des Franceis (1204) of Andrè de Coutances. But Layamon seems to stand in yet closer relations to Gaimar’s Rhyming Chronicle, so far as that book can be judged from the related Münchner Brut. An explanation of the Carric-Cinric confusion, for instance, would be obtained by this assumption. The representation of Cerdic and Cinric in Layamon as one and the same person might conceivably be due, not to the account in the Old English Chronicle but to some such foreign version as is found in Gaimar (11. 819 ff.). To Gaimar moreover may probably be attributed several details of Layamon’s style—his tendency to employ forms of direct speech, his discursiveness, his appeals to the gods and his protestations as to the truth of his narrative. It is possible that one of the later versions of Wace may have embodied details taken from Gaimar. Waurin’s Chroniques et istoires (fifteenth century) seems a compilation of this kind, and it is not impossible that Layamon’s original may have been a similarly compiled work, with, it should be added, elements taken fromcontemporary Tristram and Lancelot poems. In any case, the English Brut is not based on the printed Brut of Wace, but on one of the later versions of which certain MSS. remain and of which other traces can be found. This particular version had probably been supplemented by Breton material introduced through some Norman medium, and, since this supplementary portion is reminiscent of Gaimar, there is reason for supposing that the particular version may have been mainly a compilation of the earlier works of Wace and Gaimar.

This view as to sources must modify, in some degree, the estimate to be formed of Layamon’s artistic merits, and must discount the value of some of the additions formerly ascribed to his imagination or reasearch. It will also account for certain matters of style already mentioned. But, when these items have been removed, there still remains much that is Layamon’s own, sufficient to raise his work far above the rank of a mere translation. The poet’s English individuality may be said to pervade the whole. It appears in the reminiscences of English popular legend perceived in Wygar, the maker of Arthus’s courselet, and in the sea of Lumond, the “atteliche pole,” where “nikeres” bathe. His English temperament appears in the fondness he betrays for maxims and proverbs, which afford relief from the mere business of the narrative. The poet is still in possession of the ancient vocabulary, with its hosts of synonyms, though the earlier parallelisms which retarded the movement are conspicuously absent. His most resonant lines, like those of his literary ancestors, deal with the conflict of warriors or with that of the elements. In such passages as those which describe the storm that overtook Ursula (II, 74), or the wrestling match between Corineus and the giant (I, 79), he attains the true epic note, while his words gather strength from their alliterative setting. His verse is a compromise betweenthe old and the new. With the Old English line still ringing in his ears, he attempts to regulate the rhythm, and occassionally to adorn his verse with rime or assonance. His device of simile was, no doubt, caught from his original, for many of the images introduced are coloured by the Norman love of the chase, as when a fox-hunt is introduced to depict the hunted condition of Childric (II, 452), or the pursuit of a wild crane by hawks in the fenland to describe the chase after Colgrim (11,422). The poet, in general, handles his borrowings with accuracy, but he has limitations—perhaps shows impatience—as a scholar. Apart from a totally uncritical attitude—a venial sin in that age—he betrays, at times, a certain ignorance on historical and geographical points. But such anachronisms and irregularities are of little importance in a work of this kind, and do not detract from its literary merits. Other verbal errors suggest that the work of translation was to Layamon notdevoid of difficulty. Where Wace indulges in technical terminology, as in his nautical description of Arthur’s departure from Southampton, Layamon here and elsewhere solves his linguistic difficulties by a process of frank omission.

The interest which the Brut possesses for modern readers arises in part from the fact that much of its material is closely bound up with later English literature. Apart from the Arthurian legend here appear for the first time in English the story of Leir and Kinbelin, Cloten and Arviragus. But the main interest centres round the Arthurian section, with its haunting story of a wondrous birth, heroic deeds and a mysterious end. The grey king appears in a garment of chivalry. As compared with the Arthur of Geoffrey’s narrative, his figure has grown in knightliness and splendour. He is endowed with the added traits of noble generosity and heightened sensibility; he has advancedin courtesy; he is the defender of Christianity; he is a lover of law and order. And Layamon’s narrative is also interesting historically. It is the work of the first writer of any magnitude in Middle English, and, standing at the entrance to that period, he may be said to look before and after. He retains much of Old English tradition; in addition, he is the first to make extensive use of French material. And, lastly, in the place of a fast vanishing native mythology, he endows his countrymen with a new legendary store in which lay concealed the seeds of later chivalry.