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Geoffrey of Monmouth

Teoksen The History of the Kings of Britain tekijä

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Image credit: Statue of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Tintern, Wales. Photo © user Canis Major / Flickr.

Tekijän teokset

The History of the Kings of Britain (1138) 2,592 kappaletta
Life of Merlin (1973) — Tekijä — 96 kappaletta
The British history 4 kappaletta
Le profezie di Merlino (2008) 1 kappale

Associated Works

The Mammoth Book of Arthurian Legends (1998) — Avustaja — 189 kappaletta
The Penguin Book of Dragons (2021) — Avustaja — 99 kappaletta
The Paganism Reader (2004) — Avustaja — 62 kappaletta

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This poem had been always known as the other Geoffrey of Monmouth book - the one that was written after his history and did not get incorporated into it and which as a result as never as popular as the other 2 books he wrote ("Prophecies of Merlin" and the History - with the earlier one incorporated in the latter). Written almost 15 years after the history was published, it may appear to be almost inconsequential and yet, if one reads it, they will find yet another kernel from the story of Arthur (so it could not have been so impossible to find). Plus it had been preserved and survived to our days (which does not necessarily mean it was important - that's now how those things worked).

Reviewing this book requires reviewing two separate things: the poem itself and the translation.

So let's start with the poem - written in 1,529 hexameter verses in ~1150, it had not always been attributed to Geoffrey of Monmouth. The current scholarship seems to be in agreement that it was his but that can change. So let's assume its his - until we know more (that's part of the challenge and fun in medieval (and earlier) literature). It is very different from the history - it is didactic in places, with sidelines on the natural world (fishes from all things), cosmology and geography (survey of the islands in the neighborhood of the big island), it has dialogues which make one thinks of the Greek Philosophers, it has Taliesin (the Welsh bard who shows up to have a learned conversation and forgets to leave).

The History showed us Merlin as a boy and as a young man but then he fell off the story and we never saw him again - he was instrumental in making sure that Arthur existed but Arthur never met him. When we finally catch up with Merlin, he had been a kind and then a mad man, living in the woods for awhile (Wales has a lot of legends of wild men and that's what that particular part seems to be related to) and is now towards the end of his life. We get to hear what happened between when we last saw him and the current times but it is Taliesin who brings the bit of information that puts that in the proper timeline - the bard had been part of the party which followed Arthur and he was there when the king fell and was brought to the Isle of Apples/Avalon, where the local healer Morgen takes care of him. The name is not an invention - she exists in a lot of versions in Welsh mythology but that is the first written source to mention her - and with a bit of reinvention in the next decades and centuries, she will become Morgaine le Fey, the half sister of Arthur and a sorceress. But those times are yet to come - here she is just a healer. But another part of the legend is thus added to the growing account which will keep growing and mutating as times pass.

What makes that poem unusual is that the author does not claim to be translating or collating it - he is inventing new material. And that did not happen that often in these times (remember that even the History was supposedly a translation from a book he had... emphasis on supposedly).

The translation I read is the first (so it claims and I cannot find any others) English translation in verse. The translator's introduction reads like a shorter version of Wikipedia's articles on the sources (mostly Welsh of course), the author and the poem creation. There is one interesting part in there though - the one discussing the translation. He spends some time explaining why the iambic pentameter is the natural rhythm of an English-language epic poems and why hexameter worked so well for Latin and Greek (language structure, stresses and so on) and then goes onto a defense of the hexameter in English and his decision to use that for the translation. That decision is somewhat baffling. While hexameter can be made to work in English (Longfellow's "Evangeline" for example), Mark Walker is not Longfellow. It kinda works in some places and it really grates in others - and I wish he had gone for the iambic pentameter - I almost can see some places where the phrase wants to go that way and is forced into unnatural order and breaks so it goes where the translator wanted it to go. Here are the first three lines so you see what I mean (line breaks as per the translation; the Latin ones are not exactly like that - but that is hard to be done in a verse translation anyway):

"Merlin, his madness, the mischievous muse of the poet prophetic
I am preparing to sing; friend Robert peruse this my poem,
Glory of bishops, correct it now calmly with sensible pen-strokes,"

The same text, translated in 1925 by John Jay Parry(in prose) reads:

"I am preparing to sing the madness of the prophetic bard, and a humorous poem on Merlin; pray correct the song, Robert, glory of bishops, by restraining my pen."

(the full text is available here: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/vm/vmeng.htm; the complete Latin text is here: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/vm/vmlat.htm if someone wants it).

Add to this the decision to split the poem into parts and to add overviews/summaries for each part (complete with line numbers) before the poem itself and the edition was very annoying (once I stopped reading the summaries, it got better). I am not sure if the latter parts' translation grate less because I got used to the format or because they were less weird but it takes awhile to get used to the way the poem goes. And even then, some parts required almost a reshuffle to figure out what they mean (which goes back to my complaint about the decision to use hexameter.

PS: "Evangeline" can be read here: https://poets.org/poem/evangeline-tale-acadie. It does sound a bit weird at the start (the format is really weird in English) but it does not grate and it works.
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AnnieMod | 1 muu arvostelu | Mar 21, 2022 |
Lewis Thorpe opens his introduction to the Penguin edition saying that this book "may be said to bear the same relationship to the story of the Early British inhabitants of our own island as do the seventeen historical books in the Old Testament, from Genesis to Esther, to the early history of the Israelites in Palestine". That's probably the best description of what the book is - it has some history in it, it has some elements which cannot be true and there is that middle ground where a lot of the text lives which may be true - and only time will show what the next digs will find.

Finished in 1136 (or so the latest research tells us), it is a history of the Britons from the fall of Troy in 1240 BC (as apparently that's where it all started) to 689 and the death of Cadwallader (the historical king o Wales with this name dies in 682; there is another king (Cædwalla of Wessex) whose history is very close to what Geoffrey of Monmouth describes in the last years of the reign which would explain the slight mix-up). This death allows the Anglo-Saxons to take over and thus to put an end to the almost 2 millennia of history which this book covers - the author even points to which historians to read for the next chapters of the story - Caradoc of Llancarfan for the kings of Wales and William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntington for the Saxon kings (although that specific end note is missing from the most well known manuscript).

While writing the history, Geoffrey took a bit of time to finish another book: Prophetiae Merlini (The Prophecies of Merlin) which is known to had appeared before 1135. When this history came out, that earlier became part of it (together with its individual prologue) - so it seems like "publish an excerpt before the full book as a separate book/story so people get interested and then reuse it as is in a novel/longer text" have been an existing practice even as early as the mid-12th century and not just a 20th century literary journals invention.

The history itself can be almost mind-numbingly boring in places - there are names and places and battles and the same enemies show up again and again. The introduction makes a good job in preparing you for the names you need to watch out for. When I started reading the history I was not sure I want to read the whole of it - I picked it up for the Arthur story so I considered just reading that part and calling it done but decided to give it a chance and start from the start. As it turned out, Merlin is not really in the same timeline with Arthur (both of them never meet) and that there are some interesting bits in the early parts of the history (and not necessarily the giants although they were entertaining as well) and the story references the past so I am happy I read even through the boring parts.

Once Merlin and Utherpendragon showed up on the scene, I settled down to read the first version of a legend that everyone had heard. And as with most first versions, it turns out that the story I thought I knew did not start anywhere close to what I thought it is. Oh, there is a Guinevere and she is unfaithful (although not with who you expect and Geoffrey refuses to tell us any details). There is Merlin. There is Arthur. And there is the island of Avalon and a sword. And you may recognize a few of the names of the knights. But the rest is just missing.

Let's start with Merlin - who is not a wizard but a prophet. He utters his prophecies, he creates Stonehenge by moving the whole thing from Ireland where the giants initially erected it, he changes Utherpendragon to look like another man for a night so he can go and impregnate Ygerna with Arthur and then we never hear his name again. Yes - his actions are these of a man who can make miracles (of some types) so I can see how that got changed into a wizard later but here he is just clever and cunning and touched by God to allow him to see the future and prophesize. In any legend I know of, Merlin is alongside Arthur - but I guess that changed later.

And then Arthur was born, followed by his sister Anna. The only thing that makes him different from the kings before him seem to be the sword he is carrying and the fact that he is unusually successful (and a lot of the prophecies seem to fit him like a glove. So the legend is born. As for the Round Table... it is probably a lot more complicated than that but through the whole history, we are told about knights talking to kings as if they are equal and kings listening to them; about the kings and knights gathering together and discussing things (and we get a lot of speeches from these moments). So Arthur does the same - he follows in the steps of all the other kings that came before him, he invites more knights, especially from other lands to his circle - something natural and normal in these days. Not as much in the Middle Ages I'd guess when this book (and the legends that used it as a base) sprang in - so the round table is kinda here as an idea but we need to wait a couple of decades for Wace to actually name it so and describe it for the first time and then history and time and the numerous authors retelling the story will make it the symbol it is. And there is no Grail - definitely no Grail anywhere - it will be Chrétien de Troyes, half a century after Geoffrey of Monmouth told his own story, who will add that to the legend.

Of course, Geoffrey of Monmouth did not write in a vacuum. He often gives a nod to Gildas, Bede and Nennius - the Latin historians who wrote on the same topics before him. He also claims a book that he was given and is translating (which may have existed - if so, it had been lost; but it may as well have been just the way for Geoffrey of Monmouth to be humble and not to claim that he invented a lot of the stories). And he is really bad at geography - his ideas of how far someone can go and how long it takes between places had perplexed anything trying to research his work for almost a millennia at this point. The fact that his math almost never adds up may actually not be his fault - scribes could have mixed their roman numbers up and typos are not a modern invention.

Thorpe ends the edition I read with two very helpful supplements - a timeline with actual years and names of kings (based on the synchronization with non-British dates which Geoffrey of Monmouth uses extensively) and a name/place index where all references to that name/place are listed and glossed where needed.
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AnnieMod | 19 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Jan 31, 2022 |
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 manuscript, De gestis Britonum (On the Deeds of the Britons), later called Historia regnum Britanniae or The History of the Kings of Britain, is notable for being among the earliest written accounts of the Matter of Britain, or the King Arthur legend. It depicts Britain as a land populated by giants until Brutus of Troy defeats them all following the Trojan War. He founds the city of New Troy, later London, eventually leading to Leir of Britain (King Lear), Uther Pendragon, Arthur, Guinevere, and Merlin, who Geoffrey borrowed from Welsh sources.

Particularly interesting are books two, four, and seven through twelve. Book Two is an account of Leir, whom Geoffrey describes as the son of Bladud, one of the descendants Locrinus, the son of Brutus ruler of Loegria (England). Book four describes Julius Caesar’s effort to conquer Britain as well as a discussion of English kings who pledged fealty to Rome. Much of Geoffrey’s account in this matter is demonstrably inaccurate, though that does not interfere with his story. Book seven, the Prophetiæ Merlini, breaks from the narrative structure of the account to introduce the character of Merlin (based on and blended with Ambrosius Aurelianus from Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniæ as well as Myrddin Wyllt from Welsh legend). Geoffrey introduces Merlin to the Arthurian legend, attributing numerous prophesies to him and introducing the spelling variant of Merlin in place of Myrddin. Books eight through ten tell the story of Uther Pendragon, the birth of Arthur, Arthur’s conquest of England and Northern Europe, and the treachery of his nephew Mordred. Books eleven and twelve discuss Arthur’s battle with Mordred at Camlann and the fate of the Britons following Arthur’s death.

Despite Geoffrey’s claim to have translated the work from an earlier source, most scholars conclude that he fabricated that and that his work combines elements of St. Gildas’s 6th-century De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniæ (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), the Venerable Bede’s 8th-century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), the Historia Brittonum from 828, the 10th-century Annales Cambriae from Dyfed, Wales, the works of the 6th-century Brythonic poet Taliesin, the 11th-century Culhwch and Olwen, and various other Welsh sources.

This critical edition from the Arthurian Studies series features Latin text edited by Michael D. Reeve and a translation by Neil Wright, both of the University of Cambridge. For those interested in linguistics, this volume presents the English translation opposite the Latin original. The work itself is a must-read for English scholars and fans of the Arthurian legend. For more about how Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work inspired later Arthurian storytellers to build upon and refine the Matter of Britain, see: Tidhar, Lavie. “The Telling Is The Tale: Who Owns the Legend of King Arthur?” Tor.com, 17 August 2020, https://www.tor.com/2020/08/17/the-telling-is-the-tale-who-owns-the-legend-of-ki....
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DarthDeverell | 19 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Sep 11, 2020 |

Hacia el año 1148, una docena de años
después de la «Historia de los reyes de
Britania», apareció la «Vita Merlinin, en cuyo
epilogo se afirma que es obra de Geoffrey
de Monmouth. Se trata de un poema de
unos mil quinientos versos en el que
Geoffrey intercaló, entre las profecías del
famoso vate, 'varias disertaciones sobre
cosmología y ciencia natural.
Este extraño relato, irregular y abigarrado,
presenta a Merlín enloquecido ante el
espectáculo de la guerra, olvidado de su
familia y parentela, que se retira a la
inhumana y tenebrosa soledad de los bosques
para habitar en compañía de los animales
salvajes. Como Orfeo, el mítico cantor
tracio, Merlín se exilia a un destierro selvático,
y allá se le juntan otros bardos peregrinos
de prestigio como Taliesín,
Maelsin y su propia hermana Ganieda.

Esta primera traducción en castellano
del texto latino ha sido realizada por Lois
C. Pérez Castro, investigador del C.S.I.C.
Carlos García Gual, autor de varias obras
críticas sobre literatura artúrica, ha
completado la edición con un extenso
prólogo sobre los orígenes del personaje
literario de Merlín.
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FundacionRosacruz | 1 muu arvostelu | Aug 5, 2018 |


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Associated Authors

Neil Wright Editor, Translator
Charles W. Dunn Translator
Sebastian Evans Translator
Italo Pin Editor
Peter Roberts Translator
Lewis Thorpe Translator
Isabelle Jourdan Translator
John J. Parry Translator
Mark Walker Translator


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