The Grail Code 
Geoffrey and the Very Old Book

“Whilst occupied on many and various studies, I happened to light upon the History of the Kings of Britain, and wondered that in the account which Gildas and Bede, in their elegant treatises, had given of them, I found nothing said of those kings who lived here before the Incarnation of Christ, nor of Arthur and many others who succeeded after the Incarnation, though their actions both deserved immortal fame, and were also celebrated by many people in a pleasant manner and by heart, as if they had been written.”

That was how Geoffrey of Monmouth introduced his History of the Kings of Britain. It would be a book about the great deeds of the kings of Britain; it would tell stories that simply aren’t to be found in other books; and in particular it would tell stories of Arthur.

“Whilst I was intent upon these and such like thoughts, Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, a man of great eloquence, and learned in foreign histories, offered me a very ancient book in the British tongue, which, in a continued regular story and elegant style, related the actions of them all, from Brutus the first king of the Britons, down to Cadwallader the son of Cadwallo.”

From Brutus to Cadwallader is exactly the range of Nennius’ History of the Britons, so it’s remarkable that Geoffrey doesn’t mention Nennius at all—especially since the number and variety of the manuscripts suggest that Nennius was very popular. It’s more remarkable when we find that parts of Geofrey’s book parallel Nennius very closely. Did Geoffrey really not know about Nennius? Or was this “very ancient book written in the British language” a translation of Nennius? Or was it one of Nennius’ sources?

Geoffrey was someone who could recognize elegant style, and elegant style is certainly one thing we can’t accuse Nennius of. (In my own translations of Nennius, I tried to convey some idea of the way he writes, stringing whole stories together by beginning every sentence with “and,” and showing no concern for inelegant repetitions and confusing pronoun references.) I suppose a Welsh translator might have decided to take just the stories and not the language from Nennius, producing an elegant and continuous narrative, but my inclination is to reject Nennius as a candidate for the “very ancient book.”

Most modern scholars simply dismiss Geoffrey’s “very ancient book.” They usually suggest that most of Geoffrey’s stories came out of his own prodigious imagination, and we can’t help thinking they really mean to call him a prodigious liar. He has been credited with, or accused of, fabricating most of the characters and stories in his History. Some writers have gone so far as to call the book a “novel.”

But perhaps we should give him a little less credit for imagination and a little more credit for honesty. Wherever we do have an older source for a story, Geoffrey’s version is more elaborate and more polished, but recognizably the same story. Many of the stories appear in Nennius, for example. Either Geoffrey based those sections on Nennius, or both Geoffrey and Nennius had access to some other source now lost to us—perhaps a very ancient book in the British language. Either way, comparing Geoffrey and Nennius gives us a good idea of Geoffrey’s technique: the stories are the same, but Geoffrey is a master entertainer, bringing out the drama and suspense at just the right points to keep us panting for more.

In other words, where we know he has a source, Geoffrey embellishes it but doesn’t change the basic outline of it. So we may take those examples as an indication of his technique as a whole. The number of lost books from the Dark Ages is far greater than the number of survivors. We have no reason to assume that Geoffrey had no source just because we can’t find the source ourselves.

There would also have been some strong incentive for honesty in that paragraph about the ancient book. Geoffrey was associated with Oxford; Walter the archdeacon was still alive, and would doubtless read Geoffrey’s book; most of Geoffrey’s initial readers would at least know of both men. If Walter had not given Geoffrey that old book, he would only have to say he hadn’t, and Geoffrey would be in a very embarrassing pickle.

So, in spite of what is probably the majority opinion of people who know far more about these things than I do, I’m going to say that I believe Geoffrey when he says he had a very old book in the British language. I’m not aligning myself with the Galfridian literalists, but I do take him seriously here.

None of this means that Geoffrey is a reliable historian. What it does mean is that he may be giving us evidence of how the Welsh legends had developed at a somewhat earlier time than his own, and from that equivocal evidence we may be able to make some guesses about what real history lies behind the legends.

So let’s see what Geoffrey has to say about Merlin and Arthur, and from there we can decide whether we’ve learned anything at all about history.

Postscript: I’ve departed from my usual practice of scribbling my own translation, for the simple reason that I don’t have a Latin text of Geoffrey in front of me, and I didn’t have time to go looking for one. The translations are from the version by Aaron Thompson, as revised by J. A. Giles. A comparison with these interesting images of the original edition of Thompson suggests that Giles’ revisions were extensive and not necessarily for the better, but I work with what I have.

6 Responses to “Geoffrey and the Very Old Book”

  1. Maureen Says:

    Thompson sounds very lively. I wonder if Gutenberg’s digitizing him?

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