I. Introductory Note.
II. Biographical Note.
III. Historia Regum Britanniae.
IV. Vita Merlini.
I. Introductory Note.
If the story of Arthur as a national British hero can be attributed to any one author, it is most certainly Geoffrey of Monmouth. The familiar elements of the Arthurian story are the responsibility of this teacher and clerk in Oxford and the Welsh Marches in the first half of the twelfth century. Geoffrey is responsible for the composition of three Arthurian texts: Prophetiae Merlini
, Historia Regum Britanniae
, and Vita Merlini
. The wondrous and strange Prophetiae Merlini
(Prophecies of Merlin, hereafter denoted as PM), composed with the encouragement of Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, whose literary patronage Geoffrey tried to procure, was certainly circulating by 1135. PM enjoyed immense popularity as political prophecy; sections of the Prophecies were translated into Middle English and used to signify political events during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
PM was later included in Geoffrey's most famous work, Historia Regum Britanniae
(History of the Kings of Britain, HRB), composed by 1138. Shortly after its composition, Geoffrey's HRB was lambasted as a pack of lies
, since it attempted to present, in a chronological fashion with meticulous attention to the conventions of historical writing, the history of the nation of Britain from its legendary settlement by the Trojans up until the Saxon domination of the island. Later, around 1150, Geoffrey wrote the lesser-known Vita Merlini
(Life of Merlin, VM), a poem describing the madness and restitution of the famous character Merlin.
II. Biographical Note.
As is the case with many medieval authors, reliable information about the life of Geoffrey of Monmouth is scarce. Three different sources give us unfortunately scanty accounts of the life of this incredibly dynamic and imaginative writer. First, there is Geoffrey's own material — he refers to himself by name once in PM, twice in HRB, and once in VM. Second, seven charters and deeds mentioning his name attest to his role as an active public official in the church, in the schools in Oxford, and in the witnessing of at least one major political event. Both Geoffrey's work and the charters are contemporary documents which are most likely reliable. Third is a more shady source; this is the Welsh Gwentian-Brut
, a text that gives us numerous biographical details that flesh out the skeleton provided by the contemporary documents. The Gwentian-Brut
has been generally disregarded by scholars as a reliable source of biographical information on Geoffrey, since it was originally "edited" by the notorious Welsh forger Iolo Morganwg between 1801 and 1807.
Geoffrey was most likely born in Monmouth in Southern Wales: he identifies himself as "of Monmouth" in all three of his published Arthurian works (HRB, PM, and VM). Michael Curley also points out Geoffrey's affinity for Wales as, at least once in his re-writing of Nennius into the HRB, he changes scenes to locations closer to the city of Monmouth. In particular, Geoffrey relocates the death of Vortigern from Demetia to Little Doward in order to locate the scene nearer to his hometown.
But his affiliation with Brittany and Bretonic politics is also evident both in his focus on Brittany in his writings and from his appointment as Bishop of St. Asaph's in 1151 (Geoffrey Ashe points out that Anglo-Norman monarchs were not generally in the habit of appointing Welshmen as bishops); thus, it seems appropriate to speculate that Geoffrey was descended from a Bretonic family that emigrated to Wales sometime after the Norman conquest (1066).
Since seven different deeds and charters, all coming out of the city of Oxford, refer to Geoffrey as "Geoffrey Arthur," most have assumed that he used Arthur, his father's name, as a surname until he could establish his own professional reputation. During the most prolific period of his life (from approximately 1129 to 1151), he was in residence at Oford as a clerk and teacher; although Oxford University was not officially established until 1214, Geoffrey was most likely teaching and writing in one of the various small faculties located in the city. Oxford was important to Geoffrey's writing for three reasons: (1) it was an increasingly volatile and intense center of intellectual and literary activity; (2) it was the location for at least two near crises during the civil war between Stephen de Blois and Empress Matilda (1137-53), and as such it served as a kind of stage where certain major events in British history unfolded
; (3) most importantly, and related to (2), it was in Oxford that Geoffrey met Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, and Robert of Chesney, to whom VM is dedicated.
Although the veracity of whether or not Walter actually gave Geoffrey the "ancient British book" mentioned in the dedication of the HRB has been much debated, the two men most likely knew each other while at Oxford, as their names appear on at least five documents together between 1129 and 1151.
Whether or not Geoffrey moved back to Wales after being consecrated Bishop of St. Asaph's (February 16, 1152) is a matter of some debate; most likely he did not. For a newly-ordained Anglo-Norman bishop to move to a newly-established see in the midst of the territory where Owain Gwynedd was leading a revolt against Henry II would have been extremely unwise. Geoffrey was ordained at Lambeth in February, 1152, and we know he was in Westminster to sign the treaty between Henry Plantagenet (later Henry II) and Stephen that ended the civil war in 1153. Besides that, he may have resided in Oxford. However, as Curley points out, the very Welshness of VM makes it likely that Geoffrey must have lived in a place with some access to Welsh poetic material about the legendary figure Myrddin.
Regardless, Geoffrey died in 1154 in Llandaff, in South Wales.
III. Historia Regum Britanniae.
If it can possibly be said that Arthurian literature "began" as a popular genre at any one moment, it would be in 1138 with the writing of the History of the Kings of Britain
. Geoffrey's most famous text enjoyed immense popularity both on its own — more than 186 manuscripts of the original text survive
— and in later vernacular versions. The text was translated and adapted into Welsh, in the Brut y Brenhinedd
; into French, in Wace's Roman de Brut
; and into English, in Lawman's Brut
. Finally, HRB is not only a source for Arthurian literature; it also represents a wealth of other material used later by writers of romances, folklorists, and dramatists. Without HRB, we would not have such plays as Shakespeare's Cymbeline
and King Lear
Geoffrey's history combines traditions from oral British culture, historiographical writing in the tradition of Bede, and earlier writings on the political history of Britain. Chief among Geoffrey's written sources are Gildas's sixth century De Excidio Brittaniae
(On the Ruin of Britain
) and Nennius's ninth century Historia Brittonum
(History of the Britons
). Gildas's work alludes to such figures as the wicked and cowardly king Vortigern and the great chief Aurelius Ambrosius. Nennius adds to the cast of characters the Saxon chieftains Hengest and Horsa, and he is also the first to mention "Arthur the soldier," the "dux bellorum" (leader of battles). Geoffrey worked from these sources as well as, most likely, a loose collection of Welsh material about figures such as Arthur and Merlin (see below for a more comprehensive discussion of this earlier Merlin poetry). Geoffrey himself describes the deeds of the great kings whom he writes about as "a multis populis quasi inscripta iocunde et memoriter predicarentur"
[just as if written, they were proclaimed by many people joyfully and from memory]. Presumably, as many scholars have agreed, this remark refers to a rich oral tradition surrounding the figure of Arthur as well as other great kings of the Britons. In his Prologue to HRB, Geoffrey insists that his work is a translation of a "librum vetustissimum" [most ancient book], written in the British language and given to him by Walter, archdeacon of Oxford. Given Geoffrey's propensity for creating stories in the HRB, and due to the fact that no reference to a manuscript anything like this has been found, most readers, ancient and modern alike, have doubted the existence of this book. The book represents a lot more to Geoffrey, though, than an exemplar for his text. The narration of the HRB is an authenticating narration; Britain is, in a sense, a new Rome, as now its rulers can trace, with certainty, its descendancy from Troy. The Anglo-Norman rulers of Britain are destined, like Aeneas and Brutus, to rule this "best of islands." Like Arthur, the Britons also should establish their sovereignty over mainland Europe. The old book is a connector between this Anglo-Norman narrative and the past; while legendary characters from antiquity, such as Arthur and Brutus, lend authenticity to the new rulers of Britain, the ancient book validates Geoffrey's narrative through its connection between legendary past and historic, political present.
HRB is the first text to give a full-length version of the story of Arthur's career. The Arthurian material makes up about a quarter of the total length of the text, and introduces such well-known plot elements as the conception of Arthur by Uther and Ygraine by way of Merlin's enchantment, Arthur's conquest of the Roman Emperor, his battle with the giant of Mont-Saint-Michel, Guinevere's adultery (but with Mordred, not Lancelot), Mordred's revolt, the final and catastrophic battle at Camblam, and Arthur's mortal wounding and transport to the Isle of Avalon.
What, exactly, is HRB trying to accomplish? In his Dedication, Geoffrey remarks on the dearth of materials concerning the pre-Christian kings of Britain, Arthur, and the kings following Arthur's reign. Ostensibly, HRB is composed to fill this gap. However, Geoffrey also addresses Britain's current political needs in his writing. The text of HRB writes a connection between the rulers of Britain and Brutus, a refugee from the wreckage of Troy. Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas, leaves Italy, exiled following the accidental killing of his father, and after a series of adventures arrives at the island of Britain, which, as Geoffrey says, is "insularum optima"
[best of islands].
With the help of his fellow refugee Corineus, the Trojans clear the island of giants and establish a kingdom, in part through the naming of the land after themselves ("Britain" comes from Brutus, and "Cornwall" from Corineus). Thereafter HRB is characterized by a series of high profile kings, both good and bad, of which Arthur is the most emphasized. This royal processional through pre-Anglo-Norman history both legitimates the current rulership of Britain by the Normans and provides examples of good and bad rulers. Arthur, in particular, receives attention as an example of good kingship: he gives gifts, restores churches ruined by pagans, and expands his empire through overseas conquests.
IV. Vita Merlini.
Geoffrey's Vita Merlini
is a later poetic work, composed around 1150 and focusing on a more individual, private subject — the life of the famous enchanter Merlin — as opposed to the greater public focus of HRB. VM opens with Merlin in the position of being both "rex . . . et vates"
[king and prophet] of the Welsh, and going to war against the Scots. Exposed to horrific violence and witness to the death of several of his close friends, Merlin goes mad and retreats to the woods to become a kind of wild man, one of the first in the great tradition followed by Yvain, Lancelot, and Tristan. Unlike those three famous knights, however, Merlin seems to be a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, rather than lovesickness gone to an extreme; Geoffrey writes that after grieving for his friends' deaths for three days, Merlin was taken by a "novas furias"
[new madness] and ran to the woods to become a "silvester homo"
or "woodland man." This concept of Merlin as the "silvan man" is crucial to the development of the Arthurian character, as it is quite possible that two different figures were eventually merged into one to form the character with whom we are familiar. Two traditions of a Merlin character manifest themselves in early Arthurian literature and come to fruition in the single figure of Merlin in VM.
The character known as "Myrddin" in early Welsh poetry (and later distinguished from his Latin counterpart by the epithet "Merlin Silvester") is a madman and prophet who seems to be much more the inspiration for VM than does Merlin Ambrosius (see below). Our knowledge of this figure comes from six early Welsh poems dating from 1250 onward — "Yr Afallennau" (The Apple Trees), "Yr Oianau" (The Greetings), "Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin" (The Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin), "Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei Chwaer" (The Conversation of Myrddin and his Sister Gwenddydd), "Gwasgargerdd Fyrddin yn y Bedd" (The Diffused Song of Myrddin in the Grave), and "Peirian Faban" (Commanding Youth).
The problem with ascribing these Welsh materials as a source text for VM is that the manuscript sources significantly post-date the actual writing of VM. Welsh linguists, however, have shown through orthographic evidence that the material in such manuscripts as the Black Book of Carmarthen (in which "Yr Afallennau," "Yr Oianau," and "Ymddiddan" are found) is at least a century older than the manuscript itself.
The second character who contributes to the composite Merlin found in the VM is the boy-prophet known as Ambrosius in Nennius, who escapes death at the hands of King Vortigern by uncovering two fighting dragons under the foundation of his tower and later prophesies the political future of Britain. This character, identified in HRB as "Merlin Ambrosius," plays no active role in the story of King Arthur. In Nennius he has left the stage before Arthur is mentioned, and in HRB, while he assists Uther in his seduction/rape of Ygerne, he does not remain in the narrative long enough to actually meet Arthur.
The Merlin of VM is much more similar to the Myrddin of "Yr Afallennau" or "Ymddiddan," grieving over his friends, debating with Taliesin during his rare lucid moments, singing at apple-trees, and talking to pigs, than to the strange Roman boy in Nennius or even in HRB.
Despite this seeming inclination towards Welsh material, Merlin does demonstrate a likeness to his Ambrosius counterpart, as he prophesies the future of Britain during the long middle section of the text. Regardless of whether Geoffrey based the more "Welsh" aspects of his Merlin character on these poems, or was even aware of their existence, what is clear is that the Merlin of whose madness Geoffrey sings in VM demonstrates a connection between Welsh materials and the Latin tradition that begins with Nennius.
Geoffrey is also responsible for the initial portrait of the character who would become Morgan le Fay. In HRB Geoffrey names Arthur's sister "Anna"; in VM, we get one of the first instances of Morgan (later to be surnamed le Fay by Malory) in Arthurian narrative. (See link below to "Avalon.") What is most interesting about the Avalon passage is that, unlike later French or French-influenced Arthurian narrative, Morgen is a thoroughly benevolent figure, a healer and white magician, with no hint of the malice that she bears toward Arthur in later narratives.
Finally, in a conversation with Taliesin, Merlin describes the meteoric career of Arthur and his ultimate betrayal and defeat by Mordred. Geoffrey gives us no evidence, in VM, that he perceived Merlin as an advisor to Arthur; indeed, Arthur, it seems, has been dead (or otherwise recuperating in Avalon) for some time before Merlin has this dialogue with his bardic friend. While later traditions involve Merlin actively in the training of Arthur and in the making of the Arthurian kingdom, in VM he lives as a witness to the story of Arthur, and most importantly, on a structural level, as a storyteller in his dialogues with Taliesin.
For an excellent discussion of the role Latin prophecy, particularly PM, plays in the development of political discussions in Middle English, see James M. Dean's Introduction to Poems of Political Prophecy,
originally published in Medieval English Political Writings
(Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University for TEAMS, 1996)
See the Prologue to William of Newburgh's Historia Rerum Anglicarum
and the story of Melerius the soothsayer in Chapter 5 of Gerald of Wales' Itinerary through Wales
. For a thorough discussion of HRB's place in the genre of medieval romance, see Geraldine Heng's Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), Chapter 1: "Cannibalism, the First Crusade, and the Genesis of Medieval Romance."
For detailed discussions of the sources for Geoffrey's biography, see John Edward Lloyd, "Geoffrey of Monmouth," in English Historical Review
57 (1942): 460-68; J.S.P. Tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain: Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and its Early Vernacular Versions
(New York: Gordian Press, 1974), Chapter 20 (pp. 438-48); and Michael Curley, Geoffrey of Monmouth
(New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), Chapter 1 (pp. 1-6).
Ashe, Geoffrey, "Geoffrey of Monmouth" (in The New Arthurian Encyclopedia
, ed. Norris J. Lacy [New York: Garland, 1996]), p. 179.
Lewis Thorpe, trans. and ed., The History of the Kings of Britain
(London: The Folio Press, 1969), Introduction, p. 28.
Thorpe, p. 99.
Thorpe, pp. 62-67.
Griscom, Acton and Robert Ellis Jones, eds., The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth
, (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1929), p. 219.
Griscom, p. 221.
Geoffrey's opening statements in HRB describe the geographical layout of Britain as well as its agricultural potential. See p. 35 of Thorpe. In an effort to place his text firmly in the genre of "historical writing," Geoffrey's opening echoes that of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People
. For a discussion of the conventions of twelfth century historical writing, see Heng, p.311n3.
John Jay Parry, ed. and trans. Vita Merlini
(University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature
10: 3 [August, 1925]), p. 30.
Parry, p. 34.
Parry, p. 34.
Parry, p. 34.
See A.O.H. Jarman, "The Merlin Legend and the Welsh Tradition of Prophecy" (in The Arthur of the Welsh: the Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature
, eds. Rachel Bromwich, A.O.H. Jarman, and Brynley F. Roberts [Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991]) pp. 117-45, for a discussion of these Welsh poems and their relationship to later Arthurian literature.
A reverse source-relationship may also be possible. The Myrddin poems could be based on material in Geoffrey's Vita Merlini
(as the Welsh Arthurian romances Peredur
, and Gereint
are based on the romances of Chretien de Troyes), although most scholars consider the relationship the other way around.
See Tatlock, p. 175: Geoffrey has refashioned the Welsh "Myrddin" into "Merlin" in order to avoid confusion with French "merde."