What’s the Matter with Britain?
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s
Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
There are but 3 matters that no man should be without,
That of France, of Britain, and of great Rome.
—Jean Bodel, Chanson de Saisnes (12th century)
Of all of the “Matter of Britain”—the accumulated myths and histories about the founding and rule of Great Britain, a mass of literature and beliefs that, like the Matter of France and the Matter of Rome, provided much of the source material for medieval literature—perhaps no single text is more fancifully fabricated than Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain. The first non-Welsh work to chronicle the life of the legendary King Arthur, and presented to the public as a history (in Latin) rather than as a romance or an epic, it’s the most influential artifact—or artifiction—of the whole Matter, forming a very particular British self-conception that seems to remain to the present day. Serving in part as a nationalistic, imperialistic, and even racial/cultural propaganda-piece, The History of the Kings of Britain attempted to define who the Britons were—and weren’t—and elevated British national identity to nearly Biblical proportions. Historians in Geoffrey’s own century (the twelfth century) dismissed the chronicle as almost complete invention, but the book’s immense popularity and influence has never waned in the face of mere facts. Its wishful history prevailed over historical record in the collective popular and political consciousness in the same way that our own country’s outlandish myths have often overshadowed many of our more complex and difficult truths, and the result in both cases has been a partially self-imposed mask that delights many but that dissembles much more than it actually resembles.
Part of the book’s fascination today is that in addition to its Arthurial precedent, it contains the first record of King Leir (Lear), and Cymbeline as well, either directly influencing Shakespeare or having its substance passed to him through Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. This post-hoc view through Shakespearean eyes does nothing to explain its original enduring appeal, of course, and so one of the book’s many pleasures now is in examining its falseness and trying to parse the fraying threads of its fantastical tapestry. Although he draws and reshapes material from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and from The History of the Britons, which was attributed to Nennius, Geoffrey claims that his chronicle is in fact a direct translation of “a certain very ancient book written in the British language” (meaning Welsh). This outright falsehood on the book’s first page was meant to give his book serious credibility, but even just a few pages in, it becomes difficult to believe that anyone could have ever believed its wild refashionings of the world’s various successions of events. Belief is a very tricky thing, however. Besides, the book is so enjoyable to the credulous and incredulous alike that it may be best to view the whole thing as being beyond belief.
|Geoffrey of Monmouth|
Attempting to equate Britain with Rome—and ultimately to elevate Britain above it—Geoffrey constructs a founding myth in which Brutus, an invented great-grandson of Aeneas, leads a group of Trojan exiles to the island of Albion, which he renames Britain, after himself. Clearly mirroring Rome’s founding myth, Geoffrey’s narrative tries to weave itself into the threads of Vergil’s Aeneid, but the timelines of Aeneas’ progeny are jumbled and implausible and fit poorly into the framework of the myths that he’s attempting to employ. Also: Aeneas is entirely mythic. No matter, though, because all the battles with the new country’s native giants amuse and distract and create a primordial vision of an undiscovered country that it pleases the reader to see “settled” and “civilized.”
A large part of Geoffrey’s intention in creating his specific view of Britishness arose from a desire to ingratiate himself to the current political establishment and to align that establishment with the long sweep of “history” contained in his narrative. After establishing Britain as a kind of twin to Rome, Geoffrey chronicles its subsequent subjugation to Rome, its eventual emancipation from Rome, its entirely fictitious sack of Rome by victorious Britons, the subsequent golden-era heights of Arthurian rule, and then the ultimate “downfall” of Britain under relentless Saxon invasion, ending the chronicle in the late seventh century. Geoffrey published his book in 1136, just a few generations after the Norman conquest of England, and in his re-woven order of things, this Norse/French conquest tacitly serves as a reestablishment of the true Britons rather than as an invasion. As part of their own centuries-earlier conquests, the Britons had settled a colony called Armorica in the area of France that’s now called Brittany, and when Geoffrey picks an arbitrary time to put a clean end to his chronicle, the British royalty heads to exile in Armorica. So in his imagination, the Norman invasion is actually a return.
|Merlin and Arthur, from a manuscript of |
The History of the Kings of Britain
Part of how he arranges this is by having Merlin prophesy all these events in an oblique and long-winded vision that Geoffrey originally planned to write as a separate book but that he decided to interpolate into his chronicle. The parts of the book concerning Arthur and Merlin are central to its thrust, both because of their popularity and because of how Geoffrey reconciled their imagined floruit with the regime of his own time. Using several Biblical devices, he tries to outdo Rome once again by having the new Britain implicitly mirror the Jerusalem of the Second Temple. Although Merlin’s bizarre utterances are more reminiscent of the nonsensical hallucinations recorded in the book of Revelation (whose style of vision Dante would put to much better and more focused use in his Commedia), they also emulate the way that the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures ostensibly foresaw Jerusalem’s fall, exile, and rebirth. And more to the point, Geoffrey manipulates his text in the same way that the Biblical Redactor arranged the past to fit what would happen afterward.
Like the Israelites, whose travails were explained in the Bible to be the result of their repeated failure to walk in the ways of the Lord, the Britons fell (according to Geoffrey) because of their leaders’ wicked ways. And just as the Davidic line of rule remained alive in the Babylonian exile with a promise to return (according to the Biblical Redactor), so did the Arthurian line in Armorica. Thus with the Normans ruling Britain in Geoffrey’s time, the renaissance promised at the end of his chronicle has come, making Britain not just the new Rome of the chronicle’s time but a kind of new Jerusalem as well.
|Geoffrey of Monmouth|
With almost completely out-of-hand synchronization to the Bible and to a wildly revised Roman timeline, Geoffrey’s book is creative history at both its best and worst. The History of the Kings of Britain is a wonderfully rich and entertaining historical tapestry that’s also a craftily woven web of lies, and as with the self-aggrandizing propaganda of all previous and subsequent empire states, its facade forms the graven image of what seems to be quite a substantial Matter. But it’s a Matter that’s in no way a matter of fact.