(Painting of King Arthur by N.C. Wyeth (1882–1945), from Sir Thomas Mallory, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons
In 12th-century Britain, a peculiar churchman, historian and teacher named Geoffrey of Monmouth launched the mystical tale of King Arthur and the magician Merlin on its path to world acclaim with the debut of his book, The History of the Kings of Britain. Though the adventures of King Arthur and his chivalrous knights were eventually accepted and admired in Britain, the road to acceptance was rough. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s writing was initially widely criticized in the British scholarly world, but it found quick admirers in medieval French literature and poetry. Later, the tales of King Arthur sluggishly crept back to Britain, only becoming truly mainstream after the 16th century with the help of literary masters such as Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Tennyson.
Why was Geoffrey of Monmouth such a controversial figure? From what little is known about him, you would think of the man as the trustworthy sort. Geoffrey of Monmouth was likely a Welshman who earned his living as a teacher. He also was thought to have been bishop-elect of St. Asaph, but mainly resided in either Oxford or London. Geoffrey was a man of learning, and as such, he wrote his book in Latin. Geoffrey’s writing had charm, yet, he was also a humble man who often described his own writing as plain and simplistic.
The controversy that clouded around The History of the Kings of Britain can be explained by looking at the content of Geoffrey’s text, the way the content was presented and the title attached to the book. In regard to content, it is helpful to liken Geoffrey’s The History of the Kings of Britain, to Virgil’s The Aeneid and Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. All of these texts are dramatic, fantastical stories featuring heavy doses of oral tradition, folklore and religion. Though they are largely fictional, they are placed in historical settings, often using historical names. Geoffrey’s ties to mythology and folklore were made clear when the first king he covered in his book turned out to be Brutus—the grandson of the Trojan, Aeneas, a character written about by the ancient poets, Homer and Virgil.
Despite the clear mythological status of much of Geoffrey’s content, he chose to frame the text as if it were an ancient British work that he translated into Latin. Furthermore, the tone he used when he addressed the supposed translation conveys no sense of doubt in its historical accuracy. If Geoffrey’s work was truly a translation of a text written by an ancient Briton, he would have been wise to include a warning that the book should be read with caution when used as a source for history.
That takes us to another major controversial problem with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work—the title. As Geoffrey’s book (or translation) was largely about mythology and folklore, the use of the title, The History of the Kings of Britain, caused the text to be filed away as a faulty history book rather than a compelling collection of British myths and folk stories. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work would have received a much better reception if he had titled it Mythological Kings of Britain or The History of British Mythology. Nevertheless, the book was released and was heavily criticized by Geoffrey’s scholarly peers.
Though it would take centuries for the stories of King Arthur to find literary acceptance in England, French writers quickly began to enjoy Geoffrey’s work. In the late 12th century, the poet Marie de France (who lived in England) wrote of Arthurian tales in her Lais. Across the English Channel, Marie’s contemporary, Chrétien de Troyes further romanticized the Arthurian genre of writing, adding the well-known character, Lancelot. The tales of King Arthur even inspired the Bavarian knight-poet, Wolfram von Eschenbach (another contemporary of Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes), who wrote his own Arthurian poems.
It took a long, long time for Britain to have an explosion of Arthurian literature. Before the 16th century, there were few significant works (only around one per century) in Britain that mentioned King Arthur favorably. Besides critics and chroniclers, only Layamon’s Brut (1200 CE), Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight (from the 1360s) and Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1469) come to mind. After the mid-16th century, however, the number of British authors who wrote about King Arthur drastically began to increase. From the 16th to the 19th century, authors and poets such as Thomas Sackville, Thomas Norton, William Warner, Thomas Hughes, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Michael Drayton, John Milton, John Dryden, Sir Richard Blackmore, William Wordsworth and Alfred Tennyson all wrote about King Arthur and the magician, Merlin.
So, even though Geoffrey of Monmouth is not remembered as a great historian, his legacy remains intact. The myth, folklore and legend of King Arthur and Merlin, recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, survived relentless peer review to inspire authors and poets and entertainers to this very day.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966.