The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Penguin Classics, $11.95, paperback. Tel: 800-253-6476.
The man credited with legitimizing the Arthurian legend is the Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britian, written in 1136, traces Britain’s origins, beginning in 1200 BC and continuing on into Arthur’s time in the 6th century AD.
Geoffrey’s imaginative history links Britain to the destruction of Troy. Following the city’s fall, the son of Troy’s King Priam escapes to Italy, where he establishes his own kingdom. The story picks up with his great-grandson, Brutus, who leads a group of Trojan refugees in search of a new place to call home. Not knowing where to go, Brutus and his men put the question to the Goddess Diana, who tells Brutus about a promised land formerly inhabited by giants. She prophesies: ‘It will be a second Troy. A race of kings will be born there from your stock and the round circle of the whole earth will be subject to them.’ Following Diana’s instructions, Brutus lands upon an island, which he calls Britain.
Arthur’s role in the history begins with the story of Vortigern’s tower and Merlin, first told in AD 800 by the monk Nennius. Faced with an overwhelming Anglo-Saxon invasion, Britain’s King Vortigern asks his magicians what he should do. They instruct him to build a retreat in the form of a strong tower, but when his stonemasons begin to erect the sanctuary at Mount Erith it repeatedly collapses. In frustration, Vortigern again consults his magicians, who direct him to find a fatherless boy, kill him, and sprinkle the mortar with his blood. They claim this will strengthen the foundation.
The fatherless boy turns out to be Merlin. Rather than meekly accepting his fate, he reveals that an undergound pool is the cause of the foundation’s weakness. The pool is drained, and as Merlin prophesied, the magicians find two hollow stones containing two sleeping dragons–one red and one white.
The red dragon symbolizes the people of Britain and their blood in battle, and the white dragon symbolizes the Saxons. Merlin then speaks prophetically of the Boar of Cornwall who will bring relief to his people. This, of course, is Arthur.
Geoffrey devotes a large portion of his history to Arthur’s life, from his beginnings as the son of Uther Pendragon and Ygerna, to his final burial at the Isle of Avalon. He presents Arthur as a man destined to become king and to lead the British people. After spanning more than 1,500 years of British history, the book concludes with Arthur’s cousin Constantine taking the throne in 542.
Geoffrey’s combination of historical events with fantastic but inaccurate tales makes for an interesting read. His work provided a foundation on which subsequent authors built the full Arthurian legend.