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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.

XII. The Arthurian Legend

§ 6. Geoffrey of Monmouth

Of Geoffrey’s personal history we know little. His full name appears to have been, significantly, Geoffrey Arthur. His relentless critic, William of Newburgh, takes “Arthur” to have been a by-name given to him on the score of his Arthurian fabrications; but the truth probably is that Arthur was the name of his father. His connection with Monmouth is obscure; he may have been born in the town, or educated at the priory founded there by the Breton, Wihenoc. He was never, as he is commonly designated, archdeacon of Monmouth, for there was no such archdeaconry in existence. Whether he was by descent a Breton, or a Welshman, we know no more than we do whether the famous “British book,” which he professes to have used, was derived from Wales or from Brittany. Neither matter is of much consequence. The “British book” may very well have been an authentic documents, since lost, which was placed, as he tells us, at his disposal by his friend Walter, archdeacon of Oxford. Much Welsh and Breton folklore doubtless reached him through monastic channels. Nennius and Bede furnished him with matter which can be clearly traced in his text. There can be little doubt, however, that the main source of the Arthurian portions of his History was Geoffrey’s own imagination. The floating popular traditions about Arthur, and the few documents which he had to his hand, plainly suggested to him the possibilities of developing a new and striking romantic theme. Geoffrey appears to have gauged the tastes and fancies of the courtly readers of his day with an astuteness worthy of a Defoe. Romance was in demand, and Geoffrey, giving the rein to his faculty for decorative and rhetorical writing, responded to that demand with an address that would have done credit to the most alert of modern novelists. The time-honoured vehicle of the chronicle was turned to new and unexpected uses. Sober and orthodox chroniclers, like William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, are deliberately warned off the ground thus opened out for the poet and the romancer. The “kings of the Britons” were outside their province, for “the British book” was to them a sealed volume.

Geoffrey’s relation to the Latin chroniclers of his time is dealt with in another chapter; here, his contributions to Arthurian story alone claim our attention. The glorification of Arthur in the History lends some countenance to the supposition that the work was written with an interested motive. Geoffrey probably aspired, like most of his class, to preferment in the church, and may have hoped that his book would ingratiate him with the earl of Gloucester and with Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, to whom he dedicated, separately, the “Prophesies of Merlin.” Assuming him to have had such motives, Geoffrey’s History is interpreted as being a kind of prose epic, intended to celebrate the united glories of the composite Anglo-Norman empire which attained its widest extent under Henry II. It did, indeed, provide a hero in whom Norman and Saxon, Welshman and Breton, could take common pride. Moreover, the ancient birthright and the essential homogeneity of the various races embraced in the Angevin empire were attested by an account of their descent from a branch of the Trojan stock celebrated in the Aeneid. Brutus, whose eponymous connection with the country had already been suggested by Nennius, became for Britain what Aeneas was for Rome. Geoffrey’s chronicle is thus the first Brut, the first elaborate, and possibly “inspired,” adaptation of the Brutus legend for the glorification of Britain; and, in time, all records of the early British kings, whether in prose or verse, which had this mythic startingpoint, came to be called Bruts—presumably in imitation of the title of Vergil’s epic.

Apart, however, from its Trojan prelude, and its possible political or diplomatic motive, there is little real analogy between Geoffrey’s Brut and the Aeneid. For Arthur, after all, and not Brutus, is Geoffrey’s ultimate hero. The flos regum of early Britain, the warrior who vindicates the essential valour of the British people, and who not only triumphs over his insignificant enemies in Britain itself, but conquers a great part of Europe and forces even the once victorious Romans to pay tribute to a British king, is Arthur. In him was fulfilled the prophecy that “for the third time should one of British race be born who should obtain the empire of Rome.” Thus, Geoffrey brings all his powers of rhetoric, and all his imagination, to bear upon his delineation of Arthur and his exploits. The first six books of the History tell, with many embellishments of style and with incidental references to contemporary events elsewhere, inserted, as so many grave guarantees of authenticity, the story of Arthur’s kingly predecessors. At the close of the sixth book the weird figure of Merlin appears on the scene; and Geoffrey pauses to give, in an entire book, the fantastic prophecies attributed to that wonder-working seer. Romance, frank and undisguised, now usurps the place of sober, or affected, history. Merlin’s magic arts are made largely contributory to the birth of “the most renowned Arthur.” Uther and Gorlois and Igerna and the castle of Tintagol, or Tintagel, now take their place, for the first time, in the fabric of Arthurian story.

Uther, with Merlin’s assistance, gains admission to Igerna’s castle in the semblance of her lord, Gorlois, and begets Arthur; upon the death of Gorlois, Uther takes Igerna for his lawful queen, and Arthur of due right succeeds to the throne. Crowned by Dubricius, “archbishop of the City of Legions,” at the early age of fifteen, Arthur at once begins his career of conquest. The Saxons, Scots and Picts are encountered and vanquished at the river Duglas; afterwards, with the aid of his cousin, king Hoel of Brittany, Arthur subjugates the entire island and divides Scotland among its original rightful rulers, Lot and his two brothers, Urian and Augusel. Lot, we are told by the way, “had, in the days of Aurelius Ambrosius, married Arthur’s own sister, who had borne unto him Gawain and Mordred.” Having restored the whole country to its ancient dignity, Arthur “took unto himself a wife born of a noble Roman family, Guanhumara, who, brought up and nurtured in the household of duke Cador, surpassed in beauty all the other women of the island.” Ireland and Iceland are next added to his conquests, while tribute is paid and homage made to him by the rulers of the Orkneys and of Gothland. His court now is the centre of a brilliant assemblage of knights, his fear “falls upon the kings of realms oversea” and his “heart became so uplifted within him” that “he set his desire upon subduing the whole of Europe unto himself.” Norway, Dacia and Gaul fall in quick succession under Arthur’s sway; Normandy is made over to “Bedwyr, his butler,” and Anjou to “Kay, his seneschal.” Returning to Britain, Arthur next holds high court at Caerleon-upon-Usk, then a city whose “kingly palaces” vied in magnificence with those of Rome itself.

  • At that time was Britain exalted unto so high a pitch of dignity as that it did surpass all other kingdoms in plenty of riches, in luxury of adornment, and in the courteous wit of them that dwelt therein. Whatsoever knight in the land was of renown for his prowess did wear his clothes and his arms all of one same colour. And the dames, no less witty, would apparel them in like manner in a single colour, nor would they deign have the love of any save he had thrice approved him in the wars. Wherefore at that time did dames wax chaste and knights the nobler for their love.
  • The pomp and colour of the age of chivalry, and its ideals of knightly love, are thus already beginning to qualify imaginative conceptions of the Arthurian court; while the picture of Arthur himself, as the head of princely vassals and emulous knights, makes the transition easy to the fellowship of the Round Table, and to all the other accretions of later romances. But Geoffrey does not, any more than the early Welsh poets and story-tellers or the later, and more deliberate, purveyors of fantastic fables, altogether remove his Arthur from wonderland. The British king still slays monsters; by his own hand he kills a Spanish giant at St. Michael’s Mount, and a still more formidable foe, the giant “Ritho of Mount Eryri, who had fashioned him a furred cloak of the kings he had slain.” Equally marvellous is Arthur’s individual might in battle, for, in his encounters with the Romans, “nought might armour avail” his antagonists “but that Caliburn would carve their sould from out them with their blood.”

    The great battle with the Romans, in which Arthur displayed such prowess, was a fateful one. The British hosts did, indeed, gain the victory; and Hoel and Gawain (Walgainus) performed prodigies of valour second only to those of Arthur himself. But the triumph was obtained at a heavy cost; many illustrious British chieftains, and, above all, the faithful Kay and Bedwyr, were numbered among the slain. The result of the battle was to fire Arthur with the design of marching upon the city of Rome itself. He was already beginning to climb the passes of the Alps, when “message was brought him that his nephew Mordred, unto whom he had committed the charge of Britain, had tyrannously and traitorously set the crown of the kingdom upon his own head, and had linked him in unhallowed union with Guenevere, the queen, in despite of her former marriage.” Arthur, taking with him his British warriors only, returns home. Mordred meets him as he lands, and, in the ensuing battle, Gawain and many others are slain. Mordred, however, is driven back, and Guinevere, in terror of her safety, becomes a nun. The final battle is fought at the river Camel in the west country. Mordred is defeated and slain, and most of the leaders on both sides perish. “Even the renowned king Arthur himself was wounded unto death, and was borne thence unto the island of Avalon for the healing of his wounds.”

    Such, in brief, is the narrative through the medium of which Arthur made his triumphant entry to the kingship of the most splendid province of medieval romance. Let Geoffrey have the credit which is his due. It is little to the point to seek to minimise his influence upon the rise and growth of Arthurian romance by emphasising his omissions,—that, for example, he knows nothing of Lancelot, of Tristram, of the Holy Grail and of other famous characters and incidents of the fully-developed legend. The salient fact is that, while before the appearance of Geoffrey’s History Arthur, as a literary hero, is virtually unknown, he becomes, almost immediately afterwards, the centre of the greatest of the romantic cycles. He is, indeed, transformed eventually into a very different being from the warlike British champion of Geoffrey’s book; but it is in that book that we obtain our first full-length literary portrait of him, and, in the Mordred and Guinevere episode, that we find the first deliberate suggestion of the love-tragedy which the romancers were so quick to seize upon and to expand. Geoffrey’s Arthur is, no doubt, largely a Normanised Arthur, and many of the details and incidents woven into his narrative are derived from his knowledge and observation of Norman manners and Norman pomp; but his story, as a whole, has, like every vivid product of the imagination, a charm altogether independent of the time and the conditions of its making, and is charged throughout with the seductive magic of romance. Hence the spell which Geoffrey’s legends exerted over so many famous English poets, haunted by memories of

  • what resounds
  • In fable or romance of Uther’s son,
  • Begirt with British and Armoric knights.
  • Possibly, no work before the age of printed books attained such immediate and astonishing popularity. To this the number of extant MSS. of the work bears testimony, while translations, adaptations, and continuations of it formed one of the staple exercises of a host of medieval scribes. The sensation created by the book at the time of its first circulation is attested by one of the earliest of all, writers who borrowed from it—Alfred of Beverley. In the preface to his History, largely an abridgment of Geoffrey compiled about 1150, Alfred states that Geoffrey’s book was so universally talked of that to confess ignorance of its stories was the mark of a clown.