Geoffrey of Monmouth

and the Arthurian saga


The tales have been told and retold so many times, very few authors are associated with the King Arthur story. If we know any name at all, it's usually Thomas Malory's, who wrote his Morte d'Arthur in 1470. Caxton, the first English printer, presented an edited edition of Malory's work in 1485, and that has set the standard ever since. We tend to forget the authors who came before Malory, but we absolutely should not forget Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Although Geoffrey didn't create King Arthur, it must be stated in no uncertain terms that he is the chief architect of the King Arthur story as we know it. Before Geoffrey, we have scattered bits of history, references, and stories. After Geoffrey, there is a kind of skeleton of events which authors have built on and embellished ever since.

Geoffrey was a Welsh cleric, probably of Breton descent. When Osney Abbey, near Oxford, was founded in 1129, the list of witnesses to the foundation charter began with the name of the Archdeacon and ended with the name "Geoffrey Arthur." It's been suggested that Geoffrey took "Arthur" as his last name because it was his father's name.

It may not be going too far to believe that Geoffrey's fascination with the ancient Celtic hero Arthur may have begun when he was a child, hearing the tales his father may have told him about his namesake. "My name is Arthur," his father may have said, "and I want to tell you about another man named Arthur who lived long, long ago."

When William of Malmesbury began researching a history of England he was writing in 1125, he came to the conclusion that King Arthur was a real person, but all sorts of legends and stories had grown up around him. William's research was helped and encouraged by one of the royal family, Earl Robert of Gloucester. Robert helped another group of scholars collect more and write it down. This brings us back to Geoffrey, because he was a member of this group.

So it was that Geoffrey of Monmouth authored his book, History of the Kings of Britain, incorporating parts of an earlier work of his, Prophecies of Merlin, along the way. Though the book was written between 1135 and 1140, Geoffrey claimed that it was only a translation of a much more ancient book, written in the British tongue. While it's certain that Geoffrey had his sources, this ancient book has never been found or identified, and it probably never existed.

In Geoffrey's work, the story of King Arthur takes up only about a fifth of the book. Arthur's story is part of what has come to be known as "the matter of Britain." The book pretends to go back to the very beginning of British history, tracing the origin of the British people to ancient Troy. It's no secret as to why he did this.

In Geoffrey's time it was tradition to try to dignify the history of one's own people by linking its beginnings with the history of a great early civilisation. As Hugh A. MacDougall tells us in his "Racial Myth in British History," by placing the beginnings of Britain in Troy, Geoffrey is simply exploiting an existing myth.

With Arthur, Geoffrey's task was to develop a hero for a land which, by the standards of that time, had no heroes. He took many threads of legend and myth and fused them into a coherent whole. He made Arthur into more than just a defiant Celtic leader who stood firm in the face of the barbarian invasions of his time. Geoffrey's Arthur was an empire builder, though a failed one. He was the hero of an empire of nations, whether English, Norman, Breton, or Welsh. In this way, Geoffrey was only reflecting his time, which was during the reigns of Kings Henry I, Stephen, and Henry II. This was a picture of their kingdom.

Who was to say at that time that these kings couldn't succeed in conquering what Arthur ultimately could no hold on to - the continent of Europe? By the thirteenth century, that dream had died, but by then, it didn't matter as far as the story concerns us. Arthur eventually outlived the political situation that inspired his own existence.

Geoffrey made sure that "the matter of Britain" he'd written would tell of a history so glorious that it would easily match "the matter of France," which boasted of its own great hero, Charlemagne. The History of the Kings of Britain was accepted as pure history for as long as the kings would encourage it and as long as the people had no real history of Britain to compare it to. Not everyone accepted it blindly. When William of Newburgh wrote his own history, he commented,

Whatever Geoffrey has written is a fiction invented either by himself or others, and promulgated either through an unchecked propensity to falsehood, or the desire to please the Britons, of whom vast numbers are said to be so stupid as to assert that Arthur is yet to come, and cannot bear to hear of his death.

William of Newburgh advises us to reject Geoffrey completely, but that would be a mistake. Although the History can no long be treated as pure history, it is still one of the most important books of the Middle Ages. It's a book that has been loved very much and which has launched a thousand pens.

One more note. The King Arthur Geoffrey wrote of isn't exactly the Arthur we know today. In the History, there is no round table, no sword in the stone, and no Lancelot. Queen Guinevere is known as Ganhumara, and the sword Excalibur is known by the earlier name of Caliburn. In many ways, it is a version of the King Arthur story which is so old it's new again.