The Grail Code 
Introducing Geoffrey of Monmouth

It may surprise you to learn—I confess it scares the willies out of me—that there is a kind of cult or subculture devoted to proving the literal truth of Geoffrey of Monmouth. The cult members are all biblical literalists, and apparently they see the literal truth of Geoffrey as a necessary corollary to the literal truth of Scripture.

I can’t make the connection myself. If you want to argue for the literal truth of the Bible, I think you can do it quite neatly without dragging Geoffrey of Monmouth into the fray. But it’s some measure of the success of his book that, nine centuries after he wrote it, it still draws absolutely fanatical admirers. I won’t link to their Web sites, but if you’re really curious, just type geoffrey monmouth flood into your favorite search engine. You’ll get some very interesting results. (Did I mention that there’s a conspiracy among orthodox historians to withhold the truth from you? But I probably didn’t need to tell you that.)

So who is this Geoffery upon whose veracity the Bible itself depends? Well, although most people today haven’t heard of it, his History of the Kings of Britain was one of the great bestsellers of all time. It was more than a bestseller—it was a phenomenon. It was Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code all rolled into one. That’s an apt comparison, I think: the History promised both magical fantasy and ancient secrets revealed.

All the great stories are in Geoffrey: Arthur, Merlin, King Lear, Cymbeline, Gorboduc—even Old King Cole. Ambrosius Aurelianus has a big part, though he appears under the curiously juggled name Aurelius Ambrosius. Vortigern makes a fine mustache-twirling villain.

But two of those characters in particular grabbed the public imagination: Arthur and Merlin.

Arthur in Nennius is reduced mostly to a list of battles, but Geoffrey has a wealth of detail about him. Arthur’s life is full of dramatic confrontations, exciting battle scenes, gripping adventure, love, betrayal, and all the things that make a perfect action blockbuster.

Merlin brings in the fantasy element and the ancient secrets revealed. As a wizard, he can always be relied on for breathtaking special effects. And as a prophet, he can spout enigmatic pronouncements with the best of them.

Geoffrey repeats Nennius’ story of Ambrosius and the dragons, but now the name of the little boy is Merlin (who is also called Ambrosius, Geoffrey adds parenthetically). And instead of the quick and simple prophecy of the victory of the Britons, we get a whole book of Merlin’s prophecies. It probably won’t surprise you at all to learn that, even as a certain school of Christian fundamentalists is trying to yank Geoffrey into the biblical orbit, an equal and opposite school of pagan new-agers and paranormalists is trying to prove the supernatural prescience of Merlin’s prophecies.

That’s no easier and no harder than proving the supernatural prescience of Nostradamus. Like every successful seer, Merlin makes his prophecies sound specific until you examine them closely. They’re like newspaper horoscopes: they’re an amazingly close fit for pretty much anything that comes up. (A relative brings you news of an opportunity this week, but exercise caution: things may not be what they seem.) It’s also true that the prophecies are much more specific for events before Geoffrey’s time than for events after his time. None of which will stop the true believers from insisting that Merlin predicted the fall of Communism or the rise of Pauly Shore.

At any rate, Geoffrey gives us a lot to read about Merlin and Arthur. And that naturally raises a question: Where did he get all those stories? Did he have some older source that recorded the traditions of his British ancestors? Or did he just make them all up?

You might be sorry you asked that question pretty soon. It takes us into a minefield of scholarship, where any false step will set off an explosion of academic tempers.

But we’re all brave souls, aren’t we? So let’s strap on our bucklers, buckle on our straplers, and get ready to tackle the Mystery of the Very Old Book.

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(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey