Act like Men, Britons!

Tom Shippey

The legend of King Arthur must be the most enduring legacy of the Middle Ages. Everyone knows it: children, scholars, readers of comic books, movie-makers. The scenes and motifs associated with it – Excalibur, the Round Table, the adultery of Guinevere, the return to Avalon – are more familiar than anything linked to real medieval kings. Many people, furthermore, believe in King Arthur in a way that admits no argument. Not long ago I met a lady in Peoria, Illinois, who contributed annually to a fund for the upkeep of Guinevere’s grave in the churchyard at Longtown, on the Anglo-Scottish border north of Carlisle. She took very ill the least suggestion that there might be some doubt about its authenticity.

Much of the phenomenon must be ascribed to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Born some thirty years after the Norman Conquest, Geoffrey, with his Norman name and strong Welsh connections, was probably the child of a mixed marriage. His achievement was to inject old Celtic tradition into the mainstream of European literature, through his long History of the Kings of Britain, written in Latin in the 1130s. The History was the smash hit of the 12th century. The number of surviving manuscripts stands at 219, and the work was quickly and repeatedly translated, into Anglo-Norman, Welsh, Icelandic and (at second-hand) Middle English, as well as being turned into Latin verse. Geoffrey’s story worked through to Holinshed and on to Spenser, Shakespeare and Dryden. It gave us Cymbeline, Lear and Old King Cole, as well as Merlin. But has there ever been a definitive text? It survives with four different dedications, to three different people, singly or paired, and sorting that out is only the start of an immense process of comparison and collation, manageable (as Michael Reeve wryly remarked 17 years ago) only under ideal conditions unlikely ever to be fulfilled.

That said, Reeve’s new text, a collation of 11 of the most important manuscripts, is probably the best we’ve had since Geoffrey put his pen down, and it makes much previous scholarship redundant. Michael Faletra’s student translation, for instance, useful and recommendable though it is, is based on a Swiss manuscript edited not long ago by Reeve’s collaborator Neil Wright, but curtly dismissed by Reeve as corrupt in more than a thousand places. Its joint dedication to King Stephen and Robert of Gloucester, which Faletra regards as ‘savvy marketing’ by Geoffrey, is likewise dismissed as a ‘clumsy adjustment’ of the original one, to Robert and Count Waleran of Meulan. Faletra might well feel sore that Wright, having edited the Bern manuscript he spent so much time translating, then went off to translate a text edited by Reeve.

An accurate text, however, may not have mattered much to most of Geoffrey’s early readers. By the time he wrote his History there were some signs that an interest in Arthur was already growing among the French-speaking ruling classes of Western Europe, having been incubated for centuries on the Celtic margin. Geoffrey’s father was called Arthur and may have been a Breton, like many in the Conqueror’s army. Like the Welsh, the Bretons preserved a good deal of Celtic tradition, with its strongly erotic and mythical aspects (fairies, enchantments, the Grail), which were to prove so attractive to authors of medieval romance, but as allies of the Normans they were in a stronger position than the conquered Welsh to pass this on. What Geoffrey provided, however, was not mere romance but a national history that traced ‘the kings of Britain’ all the way from their allegedly Trojan origins right through to their replacement by the Anglo-Saxons. And embedded in that history, as Michael Faletra rightly says, was ‘the first complete narrative of the reign of King Arthur’, based on allusions in the Welsh monk Gildas’s sixth-century account of ‘the destruction of Britain’ after the Roman withdrawal, on a fuller but still sketchy ninth-century story later ascribed to ‘Nennius’, and on a ‘very old book in the British tongue’, which Geoffrey said he was translating, but which was probably his invention.

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