Explorations in Arthurian History

A Literature Review

Part 2: Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century, had quite a retinue of Welsh tales to work from, as evidenced on the previous page. He made good use of these legends and wholely invented many of his own in introducing Arthur, King of the Britons; his adviser Merlin; Morgan Le Fay; and a host of other conventions.

Echoes of the Welsh tales can be found from the beginning, with the inclusion of Bedivere and Kay, the former as Duke of Normandy and Arthur's right-hand man and the latter as one of the king's brave knights. Morgan Le Fay is there, too, as the head of a group of nine women guarding the Isle of Avalon. In Geoffrey, as in several subsequent sources, Morgan is portrayed as a benign and, in some cases, helpful enchantress who commands the Isle of Avalon as a healer.

This final battle, of course, was Camlann, at which Modred (Arthur's nephew according to Geoffrey) also died. Geoffrey is quite clear in naming Modred as the instrument of Arthur's death and vice versa.

Arthur's magical sword, according to Geoffrey, is Caliburn, possibly based on the famous Irish sword Caladbolg (itself a derivation of the Welsh Caledfwlch), and was forged on the Isle of Avalon, which Geoffrey calls the "Isle of Apples." Sadly, we are offered no description of this magical sword. We are told, however, that Morgan Le Fay carries Arthur off to the Isle of Avalon after the final battle.

What happens to Arthur after that? Geoffrey doesn't say, perpetuating the myth that the great king didn't die. Geoffrey says Arthur was mortally wounded, but Geoffrey doesn't say Arthur died.

We are given many familiar themes and events, though, beginning with Arthur's birth at Tintagel Castle.

  • He is the son of Uther Pendragon and becomes king in his own right when he is 15, crownedby Bishop Drubicius at Silchester.
  • He routs his barbarian enemies (Saxons, anyone?) at the Battle of Bath and then defeats the Scots to keep things quiet on the northern frontier.
  • Arthur then rules peacefully from his court at Caerleon for 12 years, his queen at his side. She is named Ganhumara and is said to be a Roman lady of noble birth.
  • Arthur goes on to conquer Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Gaul (which was a sizable entity at that time). Geoffrey says he even defeats the Roman army commander, Lucius Hiberius, at Saussy.
  • He is drawn out once again to fight in Burgundy before meeting defeat back home at the hands of Modred. Geoffrey makes mention of the final battle but says only that Modred was slain and that Arthur was mortally wounded; no mention is made of who killed whom.

Most of all in Geoffrey, we meet Merlin. In the Historiae regum Brittoniae and in the later poem Vita Merlini we see the full figure of Merlin. Interestingly, he is portrayed as both the power behind Uther's and Arthur's throne and as a wild man who runs mad into the woods. In both portrayals, he is a prophet.

The prophecy business begins with a bang with the strange story of Vortigern's Tower in Dinas Emrys:

Wanting to build a fortress to withstand the encroaching Saxons, Vortigern had come to his wit's end when his own advisors and seers could not keep the foundation from falling. Desperate, he agreed to follow his seer's advice to sprinkle the blood of a boy who had no father on the ground.

Merlin, born in Carmarthen to the Princess of Demetia, who was (as legend and convenience would have it) impregnated by an incubus, was the manin this case, the boyfor the task. But rather than submit to another man's idea of his fate, Merlin determined his own by going into a trance and uttering what Geoffrey calls the Vitae Prophetiae, the "Prophecies of Merlin""
  • Rambling for vision after vision, the Prophecies introduced that Vortigern's Tower was built on a foundation atop a pool, under which were two sleeping dragons. When the engineers dug, they found a pool; when the drained the pool, they found two dragonsone red and one white. The dragons fought a terrible battle, and the red dragon won.
  • Merlin went on to predict the manner of Vortigern's death and the political future of Britain. Stunned by all this, Vortigern saves Merlin's life and makes him court advisor.

This title carried over when
Ambrosius became king. When the will of the people is faltering, Merlin tells Ambrosius he needs the Giants' Dance, tall heavy stones in Ireland. Leading the attack on Ireland is none other than Uther Pendragon, Ambrosius's brother. The Irish prove no match for the Britons, and the invaders focus on the stones. Having tried all manner of physical labor, they turn to Merlin, who uses certain "devices" to make the stones ready to move. The stones are transported back to Britain and installed on the Salisbury Plain. Ambrosius returns to fighting Saxons and is poisoned soon after.

His brother Uther assumes the kingship and immediately gets himself into trouble. At a feast he spies Ygerna, wife of Gorlois of Cornwall. Uther makes it very plain that he is attracted to her; Gorlois makes it plain whose wife she is by leaving the feast and heading home. When war is apparent between the two men, Gorlois ensconces Ygerna in Tintagel Castle and walls himself up in Dimilioc Castle. During the ensuing siege of Dimilioc, Uther is overcome with desire for Ygerna and appeals for help to Merlin, who gives Uther some "drugs" to take to change his appearance to that of Gorlois. It is "Gorlois" who enters Tintagel Castle and lies with Ygerna, begetting Arthur. Soon after, Uther meets the same fate as Ambrosius and is buried in the same place. (It is worth noting here that Geoffrey says Merlin uses "devices" to move the giant stones and "drugs" to change Uther's appearance. Geoffrey does not say magic. He also does not bring out the mystical element of Merlin's Prophecies. To Geoffrey, these were events, not mysteries.

Merlin is court advisor to Arthur as well. Once Arthur is king, though, the focus shifts from Merlin to Arthur. Geoffrey mentions Lot as well, naming him Loth of Lodonesia and later Lothian, and making him the parents (by his wife Anna, Arthur sister) of Gawain and Modred.

The Historiae regum Brittoniae is a feast for the fan of wild and tall tales but no picnic for the historian. Geoffrey traces the Britons back to Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas of Troy. Brutus, we are told, founded a kingdom at Troia Nova after driving the giants who inhabited Albion into the hills, then named the island after himself. Even more fanciful is that story of how Britain was never conquered by the Romans. Still, the Historiae regum Brittoniae is an entertaining read.

It appears that Geoffrey spun out of whole cloth many of the adventures and utterances of his characters. In this, he was not alone. But he was alone in describing many of what we now call Arthurian conventions. He is the first to mention Caliburn, Avalon, and the story of Arthur's birth at Tintagel . As has been shown, he borrowed from Celtic tradition for other elements of his story. And his story it is. For history, we must turn elsewhere. Click here to continue.

See also

Geoffrey's Plenary Court

The Importance of Geography: Carmarthen

The Importance of Geography: Dinas Emrys

The Importance of Geography: Stonehenge

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