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Outlines of English and American Literature
Geoffrey of Monmouth
by Long, William J.

Geoffrey of Monmouth was a Welshman, familiar from his youth with Celtic legends; also he was a monk who knew how to write Latin; and the combination was a fortunate one, as we shall see.

Long before Geoffrey produced his celebrated History (cir. 1150), many stories of the Welsh hero Arthur [Footnote: Who Arthur was has never been determined. There was probably a chieftain of that name who was active in opposing the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain, about the year 500; but Gildas, who wrote a Chronicle of Britain only half a century later, does not mention him; neither does Bede, who made study of all available records before writing his History. William of Malmesbury, a chronicler of the twelfth century, refers to "the warlike Arthur of whom the Britons tell so many extravagant fables, a man to be celebrated not in idle tales but in true history." He adds that there were two Arthurs, one a Welsh war-chief (not a king), and the other a myth or fairy creation. This, then, may be the truth of the matter, that a real Arthur, who made a deep impression on the Celtic imagination, was soon hidden in a mass of spurious legends. That Bede had heard these legends is almost certain; that he did not mention them is probably due to the fact that he considered Arthur to be wholly mythical.] were current in Britain and on the Continent; but they were never written because of a custom of the Middle Ages which required that, before a legend could be recorded, it must have the authority of some Latin manuscript. Geoffrey undertook to supply such authority in his Historia regum britanniae, or History of the Kings of Britain, in which he proved Arthur's descent from Roman ancestors. [Footnote: After the landing of the Romans in Britain a curious mingling of traditions took place, and in Geoffrey's time native Britons considered themselves as children of Brutus of Rome, and therefore as grandchildren of Æneas of Troy.] He quoted liberally from an ancient manuscript which, he alleged, established Arthur's lineage, but which he did not show to others. A storm instantly arose among the writers of that day, most of whom denounced Geoffrey's Latin manuscript as a myth, and his History as a shameless invention. But he had shrewdly anticipated such criticism, and issued this warning to the historians, which is solemn or humorous according to your point of view:

    "I forbid William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon to speak of
    the kings of Britain, since they have not seen the book which
    Walter Archdeacon of Oxford [who was dead, of course] brought out
    of Brittany."

It is commonly believed that Geoffrey was an impostor, but in such matters one should be wary of passing judgment. Many records of men, cities, empires, have suddenly arisen from the tombs to put to shame the scientists who had denied their existence; and it is possible that Geoffrey had seen one of the legion of lost manuscripts. The one thing certain is, that if he had any authority for his History he embellished the same freely from popular legends or from his own imagination, as was customary at that time.

Arthurian Romances

His work made a sensation. A score of French poets seized upon his Arthurian legends and wove them into romances, each adding freely to Geoffrey's narrative. The poet Wace added the tale of the Round Table, and another poet (Walter Map, perhaps) began a cycle of stories concerning Galahad and the quest of the Holy Grail. [Footnote: The Holy Grail, or San Graal, or Sancgreal, was represented as the cup from which Christ drank with his disciples at the Last Supper. Legend said that the sacred cup had been brought to England, and Arthur's knights undertook, as the most compelling of all duties, to search until they found it.]

The origin of these Arthurian romances, which reappear so often in English poetry, is forever shrouded in mystery. The point to remember is, that we owe them all to the genius of the native Celts; that it was Geoffrey of Monmouth who first wrote them in Latin prose, and so preserved a treasure which else had been lost; and that it was the French trouvères, or poets, who completed the various cycles of romances which were later collected in Malory's Morte d' Arthur.


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