Briynne's Reviews > The History of the Kings of Britain

The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
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Jan 05, 2011

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Read from January 05 to February 24, 2011

This was a fascinating, if sometimes slow, read. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s entertaining interpretation of British history has plenty of worth despite the fact that I’m probably going to be shelving it with the rest of my fiction. I love history – it’s a wonderful discipline that gives me a very comfortable sense of “knowing” through dates and facts and other seemingly concrete and indisputable little bits of information – but in many ways I would argue that this type of work is infinitely more illuminating. The fascinating thing about pre-Roman Britain is the mystery of it. Compared to the heaps of things that survived from the classical world, we don’t know anything about it. There are some potentially quite biased Roman sources, inferences from archeology, and much later accounts like this one. The history of sub-Roman Britain is also more than murky enough to allow for substantial poetic license, and Geoffrey takes full advantage.

Randomly enough, I initially picked up this book after hearing that it featured the first whole-hearted attempt at the story of King Lear. It’s one of my favorite bits of Shakespeare, and I was interested to look at what I understand to be the source material for the Holinshed Chronicle version of the story on which Shakespeare based his play. It was brief and contained only the most central characters, but the essentials were all there. Shakespeare certainly had more flair for drama and language, but it was interesting to see Lear and his daughters in a more original incarnation. Cymbeline and King Cole (of nursery rhyme fame) also make appearances as pre-Roman kings.

The origin myth that Geoffrey recreates is marvelous and ridiculous at the same time. He claims that the British kings trace their heritage from Brutus, who is related to Virgil’s Aeneas (who was himself the son of Aphrodite and related to King Priam). So the British kings are not simply descended from Trojan royalty, but from a Greek goddess to boot. If I were him, I think I would have tried for something a bit more Celtic-y, but I imagine he saw the Greek world as superior to the barbarian Celts and probably knew rather more about Greek mythology than that of his own country. But since the Romans did such a stand-up job of destroying druidic culture, he probably could have just made something up and no one would have been able to flatly contradict him. At any rate, while I admired the go-big-or-go-home manner in which he robbed from classical culture to shore up the importance of his own country, it made me a little sad that he didn’t feel it could stand on its own.

I loved the blatant propagandizing that Geoffrey does as well. First, there are the bits where he shamelessly throws the name of Gloucester into important moments in British history wherever possible as a nod to his patron. Second, there is the extraordinarily revisionist view of history that the Britons (saving the few who stayed behind in Wales) fled to Armorica/Bretagne due to a plague and were kept there due to divine mandate when they would have preferred to return and fight the Saxons for their birthright. And here I had been under the impression that those squirrely Germans simply out-fought and out-lasted them, but apparently they just won by default. One of the reviewers here makes the good point that this is nothing more than Norman nation-building; as in, “Look – we aren’t invaders, we’re ancient Britons claiming a throne rightfully ours. You should be happy.” It’s all actually very tidy when viewed from that perspective.

This edition also includes some great appendices of Geoffrey’s source material. There are excerpts from Gildas’ The Ruin of Britain and pseudo-Nennius’ The History of the Britons , as well as the entire text of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The Life of Merlin. Sadly, there’s no Bede, but nothing’s perfect. Anyway, if you are so inclined, the additional materials alone make this worth getting over the Penguin edition or any of the older ones I’ve seen. The translation itself is also excellent and very straight-forward without any of the unnecessary archaisms translators often love.

Arthur, I presume, is probably the most common reason people read this book. According to the notes, this is the first extant story of Arthur in a birth-to-death format. He pops up in the Welsh Mabinogion, which I read and hated, and which I guess is probably a bit earlier than this work, but he’s already fully-formed and fighting by the time he is mentioned. As it turns out, I hugely dislike the early Arthurian stories, which surprised me. There is none of the fun stuff like Morgan le Fey (though she does make a brief and quite lovely appearance in The Life of Merlin )or Lancelot or the Round Table or really anything but lots and lots of fighting. And on an absurdly grand scale as well – he portrays Arthur as not simply dispelling the Saxons, but as conquering huge swathes of Northern Europe. And he’s sort of mean. Boo and hiss.

And even though it lacks the romance and polish of later versions, Geoffrey’s fantastical account of Arthur is probably more important than any of the real history he accidentally included in his account. People always fuss about finding the “real” Arthur, or the historical man the myth is based on, but I honestly hope they never stumble across something that gives proof either way. The beauty of Arthur is that his story can be reinterpreted by any generation to fit the needs of the audience. That fluidity would be a bit hemmed in by pesky facts. I imagine the martial Arthur of this story suited newly Norman Britain, just as the chivalrous Camelot suited the later Medieval world, and the Arthur focused on justice and equality suits modern America. It’s an amazing thing for a story to remain so relevant and meaningful for over a thousand years.

This is good stuff – I’d definitely recommend it for people interested in British cultural and literary history.


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