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Geoffrey's King Arthur: An Essay

Updated on June 8, 2013
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When people hear the words, “King Arthur,” or the phrase, “Arthurian legend,” pictures of knights in shining armor and round tables immediately spring to their minds. The legend of King Arthur, the first king of the Britons, is deeply rooted into the minds of most everyone. Romantic images of Lancelot, Guinevere, and questing for the Holy Grail are often sighted as references to the legend of Arthur. However, before Arthur was such a romantic figure he was briefly mentioned in Welsh poetry. In fact, he was often not quite as noble or as magnanimous as the Arthur that people are used to nowadays. This modern view of King Arthur is attributed to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey of Monmouth took it upon himself to write Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) for his patron. It is here that King Arthur began to take shape into the great mythical ruler we now know today. However, the obvious question is why did Geoffrey of Monmouth feel the need to present King Arthur in a different light than the traditional poetry?


The first mentions of Arthur are quite vague and unlike what we are used to seeing in Arthurian legend today. In Historia Britonum the reader is introduced to an Arthur who is a very skilled warrior (Coe and Young). Additionally, it is mentioned that Arthur wore the Virgin Mary upon his shield (Coe and Young). This briefly clues the audience in on Arthur’s connection to Christianity, but in a very broad way. Disappointingly, except for a rather long-winded and unnecessary description of the other warriors who were fighting with him and the battle itself, there is little to be learned about the great king from this passage.

Early poems are equally unsatisfactory when it comes to knowledge about King Arthur. In Y Goddin, Arthur’s mention is little more than the main character lamenting that he “…is not Arthur” (Coe and Young). This, too, seems to suggest that Arthur was a very strong warrior but it says nothing about his personality. Dishearteningly, even this is not the least amount of Arthur’s personality that the readers get from one source. There are other poems and tales in the early works that simply list Arthurs supposed heritage (Coe and Young). This, in theory, would tell us a little something of the great king but, alas, these genealogies are riddled with errors.

The works that mentioned Arthur, which followed chronologically, were the hagiographies. The king made numerous appearances to the saints, though these appearances did not always paint him in the best light. (Arthur in Hagiography). In these stories Arthur is often found representing different sins of man. He can be seen arguing with saints, killing people, storming out of monasteries, and even becoming jealous of a saint’s clothing (Arthur in Hagiography). However, in the end of these stories, the great king makes amends, and returns to be pardoned by the saint. His purpose in these tales seems only to make the saints look more impressive. He is to show the reader that though he is a king of man, he must still bow down to the rules of God.


When Geoffrey of Monmouth got around to writing about Arthur the king took on a different light. He was less headstrong and sinful, and instead more willing to heed the advice of his friends (Geoffrey). He is generous and kind to his people, and no longer has the streak of rage or jealously. Geoffrey’s Arthur is almost always noble. In addition, Geoffrey also wrote out a more consistent version of Arthur’s lineage (Geoffrey). This more modern take on Arthur paved the way to the Arthur we think of today. The question remains, why did Geoffrey of Monmouth change the original versions of Arthur into something so different?

The first argument is that Monmouth wanted to create a British hero that would be equal, if not greater, than Charlemagne, King of the Franks (Loomis, 16). The scholar Gerould suggests that this is why Monmouth turned away from the unflattering description of Arthur in the lives of the saints (Loomis, 16). Gerould also points out some other noticeable details that may have been placed there by Monmouth. The first is the mentioning of the twelve peers of France as Arthur’s colleagues (Loomis, 16). Gerould believes that this was a direct nod to Arthur’s similarities with Charlemagne.


Early Arthurian Poets
Early Arthurian Poets | Source

Another major connection that Gerould saw to Charlemagne was Arthur’s ability to triumph over the Romans (Loomis, 17). The example he cited was Arthur’s defeat of Lucius. Lucius was a Roman ruler, much like how Charlemagne had been crowned ruler of the Romans (Loomis, 17). To Gerould, this is strong enough evidence that Geoffrey was intentionally comparing Arthur to Charlemagne.

Scholars frequently disagree with Gerould’s thesis, however (Loomis, 17). They do agree that yes, this does bare similarities to Charlemagne, but it may not have been intentional (Loomis, 17). The first thing the scholars point out to nitpick is that Arthur’s war campaign was not similar to that of the king of the Franks (Loomis, 17). Instead, the campaign of the king of the Britons is much more rooted in the Celtic traditions of battle (Loomis, 17). Instead, many scholars take the stance that Arthur’s defeat of Lucius was not set up comparatively to Charlemagne, but was instead written to prove Arthur’s strength over all the Roman people (Loomis, 17). When Arthur cites the line of descent and the capture of Rome by British sovreigns to Lucius, he is doing so to directly place himself and his people in the dominant position (Loomis, 17). Scholars firmly believe that Geoffrey did this on purpose, the details are far too great and deliberate to have been an accident. Additionally, the desire to portray as a ruler stronger than the entirety of Rome makes sense. There was racial tension between the British and the Romans (Loomis, 17). As scholars are positive that Geoffrey was British himself, as was his patron, it would be reasonable to assume that he harbored some less than pleasant feelings for the Romans (Loomis, 17). Also, other scholars have mentioned that there was a certain British-racial pride in the British born ruler upon the seat of Rome (Loomis, 18). This would have also influenced Geoffrey’s decision to make Lucius a Roman leader and paint Arthur as a skilled and wise warrior of the people.

Additionally, Arthur was also written with the mindset of having designs on Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia (Tatlock, 705). By changing the personality to that of one who wanted to unite the countries under one flag and one rule, Geoffrey had made it okay for other political powers of the time to have similar desires (Tatlock, 705). This was almost definitely for political reasons, as the conquering side of Arthur died out in the future romantic version of King Arthur (Tatlock, 705). While scholars may not agree on whom Arthur was supposed to be stronger than, they can agree that his change in personality was primarily for political and racial reasons. This, in turn, may have led to Geoffrey’s version of Arthur influencing many other works of literature.


Charlemagne
Charlemagne | Source

While Geoffrey’s Historia regae Brittanie is not at all what would be considered Arthurian romance in modern standards, it was the precursor. In fact, some scholars say that Geoffrey of Monmouth was the father of Arthurian romance (Loomis, 20). This is because it was Geoffrey’s Arthur that has persisted all of these years. Geoffrey’s Arthur is the Arthur who was quite noble and central to all of the stories. However, if he did not get directly involved with the conflict of the tale it was because he was too lofty of a person to do so (Loomis, 21). The King does not need to get involved with every petty problem. This left the main conflicts of the story open to the inclusion of the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table that most people are so familiar with (Loomis, 21). Additionally, it was probably Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work that brought the focus on to King Arthur in the first place (Loomis, 20). Admittedly, his Arthur is much more fleshed out than any of the other mentions before his time.

In fact, Historia regae Brittanie was the most influential piece of European literature for the longest period of time (Tatlock, 695). This did not simply extend to Arthurian romance either. Points from the Historia regae Brittanie went so far as to influence England’s political takeovers of Scotland and Ireland (Tatlock, 695). It also gave the most accurate history of the Britons that it had ever had before, though it should still be taken with a grain of salt (Tatlock, 695). In fact, the lack of histories in this time has become quite a nuisance among scholars today. Though, it seems they were not the only ones. Even Geoffrey of Monmouth does not appear to have had access to an accurate history. Instead, he says that what he has learned for the text was found in a very large and ancient book that was given to him (Tatlock, 696). However, he never names the book nor has the book ever surfaced. It is most likely that Geoffrey simply embellished what he was not sure of, historically, and told a small bluff to cover his tracks.


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However, Geoffrey’s modern interpretation of Arthur may have survived for many years, but his style of story-telling did not survive as long as his take on the Arthurian legend. Geoffrey’s history is known for being relatively succinct and not as long-winded as other histories from around the same time period (Tatlock, 695). Additionally, his descriptions were shrewd and to the point, without much flowery and unnecessary descriptions. As the time passed and the Arthurian legend that Geoffrey had so painstakingly created shifted from the hands of British writers to those of the French the style became much more wordy and descriptive (Tatlock, 705). Additionally, the character of Arthur changed once more. He went from being focused on growing his empire to more focused on love, chivalry, nobility, and other aspects of life. While this is not Geoffrey’s Arthur, it does prove that his re-characterization of the great king was based primarily in political reasoning as suggested earlier in the essay. It the authors did not have the same sense of British racial pride, they would not need to create Arthur as a strong and conquering hero.

Remnants of Geoffrey’s Arthur are still around today. There are modern interpretations of the Arthurian legend coming out every year in forms of books, movies, and television shows. A prime example of this is the BBC show, “Merlin.” Here, Arthur is portrayed much in the fashion of Geoffrey did, as a strong ruler who was open to the advice of his friends as well as generous.

The characterization of Arthur has gone through many distinctive changes over the years. When the ruler originally burst on to the mythological and historical scene he was simply a passing name in poetry. Then he grew to become a nuisance in the lives of saints. It was not until Geoffrey of Monmouth came around that Arthur was repackaged into a strong, generous, and powerful king without all of his original nasty habits. While it is not completely clear why Geoffrey changed him, if for more that just his own artistic license, it is thought that the reasons were primarily political. The people needed a hero stronger than the enemies and that is what Geoffrey created. Though the characterization of Arthur is still changing to this day, it was Geoffrey’s version that was the most influential and lasted the longest. He is the man the modern reader has to thank for giving us the Arthur we have all come to know.

Works Cited

“Arthur in Hagiography.” Class handout. Arthur in Medieval Welsh and Gaelic Literature. 2011

Coe, John and Young, Simon. The Celtic Sources for the Arthurian Legend Felinfoch, 1995.

Geoffrey of Monmouth. Historia ragae Brittanie. Class Handout. 2011.

Loomis, Roger S. "Geoffrey of Monmouth and Arthurian Origins." Speculum 3.1 (1928): 16-33. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2848118 .>.

Tatlock, J.S.P. "Geoffrey of Monmouth's Motives for Writing His "Historia""Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 79.4 (1938): 695-703.JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/984946>.

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