Whenever I have chanced to think about the history of the kings of Britain […] I have not been able to discover anything at all on the kings who lived here before the Incarnation of Christ, or indeed about Arthur and all the others who followed on after the Incarnation. Yet the deeds of those men were such that they deserved to be praised for all time.Geoffrey of Monmouth
Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote three notable works in his lifetime: The History of the Kings of Britain, The Life of Merlin, and The Prophecy of Merlin. While his own peers did not think highly of his work, his tales of Arthur and Ancient Britain almost certainly sparked the wave of Arthurian romances which followed. But that’s not the only reason he belongs on your TBR list for 2023.
Specifically, we’re looking at The History of the Kings of Britain. This has The Prophecy of Merlin in it its own chapter, where originally it was a stand-alone.
His History is easy to read.
If I had adorned my page with high-flown rhetorical figures, I should have bored my readers, for they would have been forced to spend more time in discovering the meaning of my words than in following the story.
When you think of medieval literature, “easy to read” is not what usually springs to mind. Difficult, yes. Confusing, also yes. But easy? Never. Yet, if you compare The History with any other book out there, even other histories, you’ll see exactly what I mean. Part of that is because, as he said, he kept his language simple. He didn’t want to be a bore.
He wants the history of his people and culture to live on and intrigue a newer generation. And a newer culture. To do that, he has to be more direct and to the point. Which modern-day readers can appreciate.
Also, I think it helps that the tales he draws from are, by his own account, from an oral tradition. Most stories from the oral tradition are more direct and to the point. Look at Beowulf or at any of the Native American myths and legends.
I’ve read a fair number of medieval historians. Enough, at least, to get a feel for the writing style: Geoffrey of Tours, Bede, and Gerald of Wales. None of them come close to being as engaging as Geoffrey of Monmouth. Well, there’s also the figure of Merlin who comes in and out of the tales which, on its own makes for interesting reading.
There’s more than Arthur in his tales.
They told [Vortigern] that he should look for a lad without a father, and that, when he had found one, he should kill him, so that the mortar and the stones could be sprinkled with the lad’s blood.
Are you a fan of Merlin? Are you one of those who still long for the pagan past? Get a copy of The History today and feast your eyes. For while there’s definitely a Christian gloss on the tales, Monmouth himself isn’t an ideologue. He admires the pre-Christian figures as much as he does the Christian ones.
And Merlin, although he has a Christian gloss, is definitely something from the pagan past.
They are, after all, part of his own history as a Briton. And why should anyone be forced to despise their own cultural history just because their ancestors were of a different religion?
Sure, there’s the usual stuff in there to appease a watchful church and Norman overlords, but like Bede, Monmouth portrays all the gains and losses over the centuries in terms of a larger picture. A far larger picture. For Monmouth, the disasters which befell the Britons are part of a historical saga where they will eventually rise back up and rule their native isle as they once did.
Merlin, interestingly enough, is the one who gives the prophecy predicting the fall and eventual restoration of the Britons.
Along with Merlin are the feats and trials of Brutus, a descendent of Aeneas, and how he came to arrive in Briton. He took almost the same route Julius Ceasar did through Gaul. If these exploits are noted elsewhere, they are very obscure indeed and not very well known either.
Of course, they paint a much more Mediterranean-centric view of British history, which was undoubtedly to try to unite Celt, Saxon, and Norman in a common history of sorts.
Not that Celts or Saxons cared much for Rome outside of the church, but it was a valiant attempt nonetheless and almost sure to please any well-educated noble who had read the original Aeneid by Virgil.
Monmouth’s History is the Story of an Oppressed and Conquered People and their Eventual Victory
The mountains of Armorica shall erupt and Armorica itself shall be crowned with Brutus’ diadem. Kambria shall be filled with joy and the Cornish Oaks shall flourish. The island shall be called by the name of Brutus and title give to it by the foreigners shall be done away with.
Geoffrey of Monmouth isn’t just another dead, white, European male. Or a Christian who makes everything about God’s judgment at the expense of a pagan heritage. He’s one of a long line of writers who tried to make sense of centuries of suffering and conquest.
By his time, Britain had gone through several major cultural shifts. The first had been the Anglo-Saxons colonizing and conquering the Britons. The second was the incursion of the Danes against the Saxons. The third was the Norman Conquest. Meanwhile, the original Britons had either been assimilated or pushed into the outlying corners of the island.
It was, ultimately, this ousting of the original inhabitants of the island that birthed the Arthur legends. And that is no small thing. While French minstrels and writers ultimately put the soap-opera flourishes on the legends which then got another gloss in the Victorian era and again in the first part of the 20th century, the more recent iterations of the legends have gone back to the Celtic roots.
Moreover, they’ve gone back to their Celtic roots in roughly the same timeframe as Celtic heritage regained some ground. Road signs in both Welsh and English have appeared. Welsh is now taught as a first language in schools, Cornish is in the process of being resurrected, Scots Gaelic has more prestige, and Ireland is in the process of de-Anglicizing many of its place names, or so at least the debate still rages on that point.
So, through the centuries of what we would now consider colonialism and cultural appropriation, the old tale of the warrior king has finally returned to its original origins, and, I rather suspect, that without him, nothing Celtic would have gained so much ground as rapidly as it did.
That, in my opinion, makes Geoffrey of Monmouth worth reading (or re-reading) in 2023.
Geoffrey may have couched some of the tales to please the Norman nobility, but had he not. Had he allowed his own cultural background to wither away, then Arthur would have merely stayed a mention on a page here, a reference there, none of which had their own stories or lives.
In this age where we are questioning the imperial advances of Europe, especially considering the fallout, I think this makes The History something we should revisit. There is more history than the colonizing efforts from the Renaissance onward and it’s time we look farther back.
Perhaps then we’d see history in the terms of the larger picture as Geoffrey did. Perhaps even he’d inspire a new generation of storytellers who want to explore their own heritage and blend it with the new.
Arthur may have been a Celt by heritage, but he was blended with Norman sentiments and that is part of what made him survive through the long years.
The First Arthurian Tale
While there are numerous mentions of Arthur in other sources, Welsh sources especially, Geoffrey’s History is the first to combine them all into one primary narrative and place them within a historical context and story.
A dearth of Arthurian literature followed, most notably Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur but also Marie de France–a woman writer and poet. Yes, Medieval Europe had those too, although they were few.
For us in the 21st century, if you consider all the stories Arthur helped inspire, then that makes Monmouth something of a hero in his own right. Without Monmouth, there is no Lord of the Rings, arguably no Star Wars or Harry Potter, and even elements of the MCU, DC Universe, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer would not exist.
All because a cleric saw an opportunity to get someone else interested in the tales of his heritage. And he took it.
Now, that is something worth reading about. And celebrating.
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