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.

Geoffrey thus played up to the medieval belief that the destiny of nations was the most prestigious of all historical themes. What he added to the Arthurian phenomenon was authority, prestige and a political frame. He was also a booster for Britain. In his account Britain had always (till degeneracy set in, and excepting unfortunate lapses) been proud, independent and ruled by its own Celtic kings. The Roman occupation was blurred into a Brito-Roman partnership, in which some of the kings had Roman names, but some Roman emperors were really British, and the issue of whether they were talking Welsh or Latin was ignored. They certainly had nothing to do with the Saxons, represented in Geoffrey’s time by the underclass speakers of English, and there was nothing to prevent the Norman rulers of 12th-century England and Wales from seeing themselves as the rightful inheritors of Geoffrey’s tradition.

There was scepticism from an early stage. Some sixty years after the History came out, William of Newburgh, a serious scholar, wrote Geoffrey off as a shameless fabricator, while Gerald of Wales told a story of a man who could see the laughing demons who came with lies: when he held the Gospel all the demons fled, but if it was replaced by Geoffrey’s book they came back in greater numbers than ever. Two hundred years later, Ranulf Higden, a monk in Chester, made the point another way. If, as Geoffrey said, Arthur had conquered Gaul and Saxony, killed Lucius Hiberius, Procurator of Rome and been prevented from taking Rome itself only by the treachery of Mordred and Guinevere, how did it happen that none of these shattering events was recorded by Continental historians?

The doubts slowly sank in, but remained unwelcome to generations of English kings anxious to claim ancient authority, prestige and legitimacy for themselves. Henry Tudor even had the bright idea of calling his eldest son Arthur, presumably in the hope that at the appropriate time – for the legend of the ‘Once and Future King’ was already well established – gullible people would say: ‘Arthur has come again!’ The ruse didn’t work; Arthur died young, clearing the way for his brother Henry VIII. If, as one of Geoffrey’s English appropriators/ imitators was to declare, Merlin had prophesied that ‘an Arthur should yet come to the help of England,’ it was evidently unwise to try to give Providence a lead.

This thought did not stop Henry Tudor from commissioning a top-rate Continental scholar, Polydore Vergil, to write a history of England which he may have hoped would take the Tudors back to their Welsh roots and to Arthur himself. Unfortunately, Polydore repeated Ranulf’s doubts, observing that ‘ther is nothinge more obscure … then the affaires of the Brittons,’ and relegating their stories about past kings to ‘the admiration of the common people (who allwais more regarde novelties then trewthe)’. Polydore wound up in the Tower, though not for doubting Arthur’s existence, and his Anglica Historia remained unpublished until 1534. It caused outrage among keen Arthurians, as shown for instance by John Leland’s furious Assertio inclytissimi Arturii Regis Britanniae of 1544, in which he insisted that the whole Arthurian legend was absolutely true, listed the 149 knights of the Round Table to prove it, wrote Polydore off as a damn foreigner, ‘idle, lukewarm, slipshod … splashed with Italian vinegar’ (languens, tepidus, et remissus … Italo perfusus aceto) and said he didn’t know whether to laugh or be angry. (He did the latter.) Just the same, word got round. Milton, a patriot if ever there was one, did at least consider writing on an Arthurian theme, but reported in 1648 that it was open to doubt ‘who Arthur was, and whether any such ever reign’d in Britain’; that all foreign and domestic histories were silent about him, apart from Nennius (‘a very trivial writer’); and that ‘he who can accept of Legends for good story, may quickly swell a volume with trash.’

There matters rested for two centuries and more. The legendary or romantic tradition of Arthur’s Round Table, founded on Malory and reinforced by more recent discoveries like the Welsh Mabinogion, was still alive and respectable, but the ‘historical’ Arthur presented by Geoffrey was known to be false. The great Victorian historians of England mostly left Arthur alone, as Kipling did in the children’s History of England he co-authored in 1911. Nevertheless, it may have been Kipling who threw the snowball that started the 20th-century avalanche of revisionism, for his ‘Centurion of the Thirtieth’ stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill draw a close and clear parallel between the end of the Roman Empire, when according to all accounts Arthur must have lived, and the putative end of the British Empire. The thought proved insidiously attractive, especially to writers who were themselves post-imperial, and before long the story of Arthur had ceased to be regarded as fiction and was being put about by historians and backed up by archaeologists. Geoffrey Ashe, notoriously, even reopened Geoffrey’s European conquest thesis, arguing in defiance of the objections of Ranulf and Polydore that there really had been a British invasion of the Continent in post-Roman times, and that although the invader was called Riothamus, this might be a Celtic title – ‘High King’ – rather than a personal name. So the man’s real name could have been Arthur, and Geoffrey’s tale of European conquest could be true after all.

That particular view has been firmly rebutted and is no longer seen as tenable by scholars. But all this has done is widen the gulf between academic and popular opinion: the recent King Arthur movie, for instance, with its set of legendary characters, most of them from Malory but some from Geoffrey, carried strident claims to historical authenticity. In brief, the argument in relatively recent times has been that Geoffrey’s presentation of an Arthur who led mounted and armoured knights to battle was not a non-historical projection of 12th-century Normans back onto the past, but a version of actual sixth-century Byzantine-influenced cataphractarii, or possibly steppe Sarmatians; while the story also preserves relics of the handover which must in reality have taken place from the Latin-speaking comites and praesides who once ruled Britain to the Celtic-speaking chiefs and warlords who in some undocumented way came to replace them, and whose valiant but unsuccessful resistance to English-speaking incomers is the main theme of Geoffrey’s central narrative. Geoffrey presents ‘Aurelius Ambrosius’ and ‘Uther Pendragon’ as brothers.

It’s easy to see why Geoffrey still finds readers. For those who like to believe there’s no smoke without fire, his story has great charm. There is a wealth of detail, but from the beginning people noticed gaps in the narrative into which they could put their own ideas: the Round Table was brought in by Geoffrey’s Jersey translator, Wace. There is also an enticing conflictedness in Geoffrey. He came from Monmouth, he seems to have known some Welsh (opinions vary as to how much), and the bedrock of his case is his ‘very old book in the British tongue’, i.e. in Welsh, unless by Britannici sermonis he meant ‘in Breton’. Did he have such a book? Faletra points out that Geoffrey has been thought responsible, in his capacity as Bishop of St Asaph’s, for compiling the Book of Llandaff, a collection of Welsh charters and other documents. Perhaps he had seen or owned something similar but older. His ‘Prophecies of Merlin’, rehashed here as Book 7 of the History and later expanded as a long Life of Merlin in Latin hexameters, suggests he had some access to early Welsh verse, and there are similarities to stories told by the Welsh storytellers, or cyfarwyddiaid, as preserved in the Mabinogion.

So, as a Welshman (if that is what he was), he would have been low in the polyethnic pecking order of 12th-century Britain, but as a Latin-user with a Norman name he would have been much higher. If he was the child of a mixed Breton-Welsh marriage, the Breton half might have given him at least one foot on the ladder of social advancement, but he might also have been sympathetic to the part-subjugated Welsh, as fellow Celts. Faletra favours this idea, though it’s questionable whether the notion of ‘Celticity’ was even thinkable in the 12th century, however attractive it may be to modern Americans. But one can see Geoffrey havering and hesitating. His Romans are sometimes timid incompetents, always defeated by the heroic British, such success as they do have derived from the periodic infusion of British genes and emperors. At other times they are decisive practitioners of firm government: look after yourselves, they say to the panicking post-Roman British, act like men, build watchtowers, build a wall.

In the background of the Arthurian section of Geoffrey’s story there seems be a memory of an old Welsh or British trauma: not the withdrawal of the legions in the early fifth century, but the expedition under Maximus of the fourth, which took troops out of Britain to fight for control of the empire but never brought them back. Geoffrey can’t admit that the British expeditionary force was beaten, and says instead that they settled in Armorica, i.e. Brittany, but the women destined to join them were intercepted or wrecked at sea. So that the soldier-survivors had to marry locally? ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ in the Mabinogion tells a similar story but adds that the Britons who didn’t return cut out the tongues of their non-British-speaking wives, so that their language would not be corrupted by foreign speech. Whatever the reason, Bretons and Britons have grown apart. Geoffrey can be seen as preserving an old post-colonial tradition, that of the Welsh, with the usual oscillation between strident assertiveness and cultural cringing, and presenting it in dolled-up fashion to a new Norman ruling class which found the assertiveness, at least, to be convenient. Edward I’s secretaries drew on Geoffrey when they wrote to the pope in 1301, using the Arthurian story to back up Edward’s claim to be king of Scotland by right of old conquest.

Politics apart, it can be hard for a modern reader to see quite why Geoffrey was so wildly popular in the Middle Ages. Much of his story consists of accounts of battles, and these are heavily clichéd and repetitive. He is liable to explain successes as the result of keeping tight formation, as if the other side wouldn’t have thought of it. The cunning stratagems he recounts must have sounded obvious even to medieval warriors: attacking from the rear, disguising yourself to look like the opposition. He repeats several times the motif of the inspired leader who defeats the enemy single-handed: Guiderius fighting Claudius Caesar (another one that the Britons actually lost), or Aurelius Ambrosius against the Saxons. Arthur kills 470 men by himself at Badon, and repeats the performance against Lucius Hiberius. Geoffrey also develops what one might call the ‘kick-ass’ theory of warfare, beyond what you’d find even in Hollywood movies: his leaders are always calling on the troops to act like men and send the enemy packing like the women they are; the enemy invariably oblige by collapsing with implausible ease. His sort of history is essentially rhetorical, and the rhetoric runs away with him.

Yet he has the big scenes, and he has a theme. Octa son of Hengist comes out of York to surrender to Aurelius, his thanes behind him, a chain round his neck, his head covered in dust. Given the ferocity of the previous fighting, and the Saxons’ reputation for treachery, mercy could not be guaranteed, but Aurelius hesitates, asks for advice, and is counselled to show Christian forgiveness by the warlike Bishop Eldad. The Middle English version of this is done brilliantly by the Worcestershire poet Layamon, translating at second-hand from Wace’s Anglo-Norman translation of Geoffrey. Layamon dramatises the whole thing in terms of the silent movement of eyes, as the king looks round at his wise men for advice and is met only with silence:

He biheold a riht hond, he biheold a lift hond,
wulc of wiisen ærest spæken wolden.
Alle heo weoren stille & swigedon mid stæuen.
Nes ther nan swa hæh mon that durste word sciren.
& æuere læi Octa at thes kinges foten swa.
Alle his cnihtes leien him biæften.

It’s a study in psychological pressure, but the core of it is Geoffrey’s.

As for the theme, it is one of rise and tragic fall, tempered by just a hint of renewal. At the end, King Cadwallader is about to set off for Brittany to ask the Breton King Alan to help the Welsh drive out the Saxons, but an angel tells him to desist: in Faletra’s version, ‘God did not want the Britons to reign in Britain any longer, not before the day that Merlin had foretold to Arthur should arrive.’ Cadwallader calls the expedition off, and the Britons return to their normal state of civil war, unlike the Saxons, who unite under King Athelstan, so that ‘the Welsh never again regained the kingship of the island.’ And yet there is still hope, if one could but make sense of the 74 ‘Prophecies of Merlin’. Geoffrey tactfully leaves open the position of the Normans in his historical vision, a gap that was ready to be exploited.

While it appears unfortunate these two books have come out at much the same time, they are intended for quite different audiences. Reeve and Wright’s text and translation is a definitive work for scholars, with a severe introduction by Reeve on the manuscript tradition. Faletra’s book is a single-volume catch-all designed for students, with more than 80 pages of appendices containing translations of Geoffrey’s most easily identifiable Latin sources, Gildas and Nennius; documents about Merlin and Arthur, including the Welsh poem Afallennau or ‘The Apple Trees’, Geoffrey’s Life of Merlin and snippets from many Anglo-Latin, Cambro-Latin and Breton-Latin sources; and a selection of ‘early responses’, approving, questioning or sardonic. Faletra’s translating style edges towards the demotic: Lear, lamenting the unkindness of his elder daughters, says ‘when the handouts went away so did they’ (abeuntibus muneribus et ipsi abierunt), rendered more tamely by Wright as ‘when my gifts were gone, so were they’; and after King Arthur has received the tribute-demand from Lucius Hiberius, in Faletra he and his nobles retire to a tower ‘to figure out’ (tractaturus) how to answer, whereas in Wright they just ‘determine’. The Americanisms may grate on some ears, but change of language is part of Geoffrey’s theme as well as transfer of power, so perhaps they are appropriate too.