The Myth of Arthur’s Return

The NAEL provides the comparison of the excerpts by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace and Layamon describing the same event – the passing of Arthur. Geoffrey says matter-of-factly that Arthur went to the island of avalon to cure his wounds and he left the kingdom to his cousin Constatntine. He even gives the date: 542 AD. Wace adds further details but also moves away from the chronicle-like factualness of Geoffrey. He uses qualifying expressions such as “if the story is not false”. He also adds the detail about Arthur’s expected return, gives the land the name Avalon and adds that Merlin prophesied that nobody would ever know whether Arthur was dead or alive. Layamon gives the subject the full treatment, fleshing out the story with all the details we know nowadays: two ladies coming in a boat to fetch Arthur and identifies them as elves, the servants of the elf Queen Argante. So we can see how the narrative evolves from a mock-historical one to the full-on legend we know now.

On a side note, isn’t it curious that none of the historical kings of England was named Arthur? There were two heirs to the throne with that name: one was the nephew of Richard the Lionheart, probably done away with by his uncle and regent during his minority, King John Lackland (viz. Shakespeare’s King John). The other was the elder brother of Henry VIII and the first husband of Catherine of Aragon (hence all the drama about the divorce several years later), who died as a teenager. The name seems to have been jinxed.

This song has nothing to do with the Arthurian cycle, but I can’t help thinking about it when I hear the name “Avalon”.


Layamon ‘Brut’

Finally, after making our way through the Latin and French version we reach the English take on King Arthur. Layamon (or, if you want to be extra snobbish, Laȝamon) made a verse translation of Wace’s poems, adding a lot of his own material. His translation is in alliterative verse, like the one used in Old English poetry, but he also uses rhymes, which were unknown in Old English literature.

The excerpt in the NAEL picks up where we left off with Wace, after Arthur’s successful campaign, when he vanquished Rome and, with the emperor Lucius killed in the battle, it seems as if he were ready to become the new emperor. The poem provides the answer why people in Rome nowadays don’t speak English and eat fish & chips instead of pasta. A knight arrives from England with some seriously bad news, but he delivers them in a very roundabout way. He doesn’t want to deliver the bad news so he just stays up all night, chatting with the king.  The next morning Arthur is distressed because of a dream he had. He dreamt he was sitting on the roof of the big house together with Gawain, while his sister’s son, Modred, whom he had left back in England as a regent, was chopping down at the posts holding up the roof (as the editors of the NAEL write, he’s like one of two rats eating at the roots of Yggdrassil, the tree that was the axis mundi of the Germanic mythological universe). Modred is being helped by Guinevere. Arthur and Gawain fall the ground, Gawain’s both arms are broken, but Arthur breaks only his right arm. He kills Modred with the sword in his left hand and slices Guinevere to pieces. Then he has some seriously psychedelic visions about roaming on a vast plain with griffins and “really gruesome birds”. He is picked up by a golden lioness, who plunges into the sea. The waves separate them, but Arthur is picked up by a fish who brings him ashore. And then he woke up, all quaking.

The knight says, “Well, should it ever be true, you are the most powerful king in the world and you can easily vanquish all your enemies”. Arthur answers that he has no doubts about Modred’s and Guinevere’s loyalty. Then the knight finally delivers the crushing news: it is all true. Modred took over the kingdom and the queen, who was apparently very willing to become his mistress, predicting that Arthur should never return from Rome alive. Everybody is dumbstruck at first, then people start to discuss it more and more loudly. Finally, Arthur puts an end to it, saying that the next morning he is setting back home, with the plans to kill Modred, burn Guinevere at stake and kill everyone who aided and abetted them.

In many respects we can see the links between OE literature and Arthurian myths: not only on the level of language (alliteration), but also imagery (the palace representing the state of the kingdom, like Heorot) and yet another childless king with his nephew about to succeed him. Guinevere in this early version becomes quite willingly Modred’s lover, and there’s no Lancelot in the picture yet. The convoluted way in which the knight delivers the bad news rings a bell for me, but I can’t quite place it. Maybe I’ll think of it as I will be progressing through the NAEL.

Wace ‘Le Roman de Brut’

Wace was born on the island of Jersey, was probably a clergyman moving around in the aristocratic Norman circles. His Roman de Brut, a loose translation in verse of Geoffrey’s History is dedicated to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the queen consort of France and England, a participant in the crusades, supporter of arts, especially the “courtly love” phenomenon and in general one of the most fascinating and powerful women of the Middle Ages. The excerpt in the NAEL is the one describing the arrival of the messengers from the Roman emperor Lucius. The initial image is inadvertently comical, since they are twelve white-haired men, entering the hall in pairs, holding their hands, like pre-school kids. The letter they read aloud, however, is very haughty (I like especially the phrase “I am disdainful in amazement and am amazed with disdain”) and demands of Arthur to pay back all the owed tribute and go to Rome to humiliate himself, pronto. Arthur invites all his lords for a discussion. While on their way, Cador, the duke of Cornwall, says too long periods of peace are bad for the soul because they make people lazy and lecherous; Gawain, the more gentle soul says that peace makes land more beautiful and gives the knights time to court ladies and perform brave deeds in their honour.

Arthur declares that he has no intention of giving in to Rome’s demands. If Julius Ceasar extorted tribute from their ancestors, it doesn’t mean they are obliged to pay it, too. What is more, Britons ruled Rome already three times through Belinus, Constantine the Great and Maximus (unsurprisingly, Wace is playing rather fast and loose with historical truth). Hoel, the king of Brittany declares his unswerving support.

This is a continuation of the theme we saw earlier with Geoffrey: our ancestors are not only the descendants of Romans, the greatest people that lived on earth, but they also actually successfully fought Romans. We out-romanized Romans! Hurray!

Geoffrey of Monmouth, ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’

We’re moving into what is perhaps the most famous English contribution to the medieval literature, the Arthurian legends. Quite appropriately, the three texts that lay foundations for the whole cycle were written in the three languages used in medieval England, i.e. Latin, French (or Anglo-Norman, to put it properly, i.e. the dialect of French used by the Norman conquerors) and Middle English. We begin with an excerpt from The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Latin chronicler. Geoffrey tried to give Britain a noble genealogy, pretty much like people who hang fake ancient portraits on the walls and say they are their forefathers. From the point of view of a medieval chronicler, what could be a more noble heritage than Roman/Greek? So Geoffrey essentially does Aeneid – The Sequel. (And of course Aeneid itself is the sequel to The Iliad). Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas, kills his father by mistake during a hunt and is expelled from Italy. He goes to Greece, where he finds the remnants of the Trojans enslaved by the Greeks, organizes a successful rebellion and gets them out of the country. During their journey they come across a desert island with an ancient temple of Diana where you can ask for an oracle (although Geoffrey doesn’t explain how Brutus learnt about it). He performs all the necessary rites, which gives Geoffrey a chance to show off his learning when it comes to the matters of ancient Roman worship and Diana in a dream tells him to settle in Britain, “where the sun sets beyond the kingdom of Gaul”.

In case you were taught at school (like I was) that the Middle Ages were the Dark Ages and it wasn’t until the Renaissance when the revival of interest in classical culture took place, you can see this is completely wrong.  People of the Middle Ages were enormously interested in the ancient culture and very respectful of it. They managed even to compartmentalize their Christian beliefs and their interest in the pagan rites. Geoffrey describes the whole worship of Diana with a completely straight face – this is the world where all the prophecies of false gods (false from the Christian viewpoint) come true. Sure, the contemporary readers of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones also don’t think it was a historical reality, but they don’t invent genealogies based on these books. And until the 17th century Geoffrey’s stories were believed to be historical truth. On the other hand, many contemporary fans take their fandom very seriously, engage in all this elaborate cosplay and what not.  Perhaps this is what it was for medieval people, a very elaborate and serious game of make-believe? Perhaps cosplay was invented in the Middle Ages?



The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

We are finally leaving Old English era behind us and moving into the Anglo-Norman period. The first example of writing from this era is an excerpt from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a cycle of chronicles that were written independently in several monasteries all over England. The excerpt in the NAEL is the obituary for William the Conqueror from The Peterborough Chronicle.

The author describes the circumstances of William’s death – he set out to fight King Philip, who as the King of France was the liege lord of the dukes of Normandy, i.e. William himself. William burns down the city of Mantes and slaughters its people (including two anchorites, who burned to death in their cells), then returns to Normandy and dies there. And it served him right – the author doesn’t say that but you can feel the sentiment between the lines. He is buried at Caen, in the abbey he endowed.


StEtienne Tombo GuillaumeLeC” by UrbanOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


After the usual pious reflections about the vanity of this life and all its splendors, the author moves on to give a general appraisal of William, whom, as mentions, he met personally, having lived at his court. He begins by listing all the good things Wiliam did, which mostly include rich endowments of monasteries. But on the other hand, the list of bad things seems noticeably longer: William was a harsh and violent man, not hesitating to throw his own half-brother into the prison when he crossed him (This being said, other medieval kings did far worse things to pesky younger brothers, so Odo got off relatively lightly). William also enforced harsh laws (including castration for rapists), which on one hand was a good thing because they improved public safety, but on the other hand they went sometimes too far, as the doggerel verse about the draconian game laws indicates (you could be blinded for shooting a deer). The obituary ends with an exhortation to follow William’s example in all the good things and shunning all the bad things he did.

The story encapsulates the problems of historical biography. William is a harsh, greedy and cruel man, but on the other hand an effective ruler. If you were a citizen of Mantes, being fried alive, you probably wouldn’t appreciate that. On the other hand, if you were an Englishman, who under the rule of Wiliam could safely travel throughout the kingdom without parting with your life or money, you might appreciate William’s authoritarian rule, even if it meant higher taxes. People are not plaster saints, least of all the medieval kings. And even those kings who were canonized in the Middle Ages (usually for christianizing their countries) were far from ideal, too.

The Wife’s Lament

A mysterious poem, where a big part of the translation depends on how you interpret it. We know that the speaker of the poem is a “she”, because grammatical forms in Old English she uses are feminine. Her husband left and her husband’s relatives feel enmity towards her. She now lives in an earth cave beneath the roots of an old oak tree. We do not know exactly why her husband left the country – she says “I must suffer the feud of my beloved”, but we don’t know whether that means she must suffer the consequences of the feud her husband is embroiled in or whether the feud is the enmity he feels towards her, perhaps instigated by her family. She could be like the ladies from Beowulf, a peace-weaver, the wife given away to settle the feud and like in their case, the marriage didn’t work out or help to end the feud. She still misses her husband and imagines he misses her too. The poem, similarly to The Wanderer, ends with advice to keep “a glad countenance” even if your heart is full of sorrow.

The Wanderer

This is the poem made famous by its inclusion in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – several motifs are used both in the book and the movie, of which the best-known one is this speech, loosely inspired by a part of The Wanderer:

The poem is the complaint of the warrior who lost everything: his king, his comrades, his mead-hall and his family. He is like a ronin, if you excuse a comparison from a different culture – an outcast, without a lord, roaming the world in search of a new one. The lack of a liege-lord is something we perhaps cannot very easily relate to in our individualistic culture (think of the cliche “I want to be my own boss”), but in Germanic culture it meant not only economic deprivation but also the status of a social outcast. The Wanderer complains that he has nobody to turn for advice to and he has to keep his feelings hidden “in his heart’s coffer”. The need to keep one’s emotions to oneself (a harbinger of the famous “stiff upper lip”?) is emphasized several time throughout the poem.

The warrior sails through a cold winter sea, sees the ruins left by “giants” (perhaps Roman ruins) and they give him the only comfort he has – all things must pass and everything eventually falls into decay. Cold comfort indeed. This is an old trope, referred to in literary studies by its Latin name “ubi sunt?”, meaning literally “where are they?” We can see it recurring throughout the medieval literature, most notably several centuries later in Francois Villon’s “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”.