Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Review: "The History of the Kings of Britain" by Geoffrey of Monmouth

For a very brief time at the end of my undergrad studies, I toyed with the idea of becoming an Arthur scholar. Despite being a politics major, I had done most of my coursework in Ancient History (which involved a senior thesis-style project on the British Queen Boudicca), and had done some work on the final years of the Roman Empire. Transitioning into graduate study of King Arthur seemed like a logical enough step.
I spent some of my summer between undergrad and grad school reading up on some of the source material, including the wonderful little history by Gildas the Wise, and the less-wonderful (but still interesting) work of Nennius, as well as a whole bevy of modern fictional works. Before I could pick up Geoffrey of Monmouth (writing ~600 years after Nennius and Gildas), I got to grad school and found out that Medieval coursework at Catholic University was -reasonably enough- focused on the High Middle Ages, the Scholastics, and generally Southern Europe. At the same time, I was enrolled in a graduate seminar on Heidegger, and didn't have time for anything other than being completely lost in Being. (That's a Heidegger joke, for those of you who don't know. For those of you who do, you'll know that it's not a very good one.)
Anyway, long story short(ish), I've added a "Medieval" section to my regular political theory reading cycle, and on the advice of Christian Humanist Gadabout David Grubbs, this was moved to the top of the list.

In one sense, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is not exactly what the title claims. It is about the Kings of Britain, but it is not so much a history as a work of historical fiction. (That is, if we consider something akin to a cross between the Book of Mormon and Quentin Tarintino's Inglorious Basterds "historical fiction" rather than "alternative history revenge fantasy.") The events and people Geoffrey works into his narrative are so fantastic (the British repeatedly invading and conquering Rome, for example) that we are tempted to place Geoffrey closer to Thomas Mallory than we are to Bede. And yet, as the translator points out in his introduction, history keeps poking through the imaginative narrative. (19)

With that said, the truth of Geoffrey's facts are to some extent beside the point. What's much more relevant for us is the nature of Geoffrey's heroes and his historical perspective. (And no doubt there are many other important and relevant points as well- remember, both the Middle Ages and literature are outside of my area of expertise).Geoffrey presents us with a string of kings who are, for the most part, noble and virtuous and who save the Britons time and again from both external invasion and from the natural results of their own wickedness. Not that all of the British kings are good, but certainly the ones that Geoffrey focuses on (Brutus, Brennius, Ambrosius, Arthur, etc) are knightly and noble characters, who stand out against his jeremiads:
You foolish people, weighed down by the sheer burden of your own monstrous crimes, never happy but when you are fighting one another, why have you so far weakened yourselves in domestic upsets that you, who need to submit far-distant kingdoms to your own authority, are now like some fruitful vineyard which has gone sour and you cannot protect your own country, wives, and children from your enemies? (264)
Time and time again the people are rescued by great leaders- and even occasionally become great themselves as they leave Britain on a mission of conquest into the neighboring lands (including Iceland, France, Ireland, and even Rome itself, with the Emperor resurrected and put back on his throne, presumably solely so he could be defeated by Arthur).

Tied up with this view of heroism is Geoffrey's historical perspective- a perspective which I think we modern Americans sometimes get caught up in. The general belief seems to be that when things are going well, it is because society is virtuous (or at least society's leaders are acting virtuously), and when things are going badly it is because the people have declined into lives of vice and crime. This is seen especially (since it's the Middle Ages, after all), on the battlefield. (For more on that, see The Art of War in the Middle Ages.) If the Britons win a battle, repel the Saxons (or whoever), and secure their kingdom from invasion (or even extend it abroad), it is because they have been living virtuous lives pleasing to God. If they lose, it is because they have become dissolute and wicked.

Like I said, I think we all believe this to some extent in modern America. We don't win wars just because of our technological prowess or tactical ability, we are morally worthy of victory. The times we've lost wars have been directly the result of the hippies having sex in the middle of the street. (Or something, I wasn't around in the 60s, and the exact details are a bit vague.) While I obviously don't favor this historical perspective, 1) I think it's fascinating; 2) I don't think it's completely off; 3) I think it's slightly better to the Nietzschean idea that bad things happen and eventually the world will explode, and that is all. I suppose I'd be a loosely-Hegellian thinker in my view of history, if that is allowable for a Reformed Evangelical. But I digress. Geoffrey's view of history is clearly that morality trumps all else, occasionally even fact.

Overall, this was quite an enjoyable and surprisingly fast read, given that it's a Medieval text. Recommended for anyone interested in the Middle Ages, Arthurian Romance, Shakespeare's source material, historiography, or just well-constructed narrative.

Also, the only woman in Britain was Guinevere, and I don't think she ever spoke.

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