History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth

History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth October 30, 2016

History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote this fictionalized version of English history that starts with the Trojan War. Aeneas flees from Troy and founds Rome. His great grandson Brutus leaves Italy and eventually founds Britain. The book covers a vast range of time, from the fall of Troy in the 1100s B.C. to  circa A.D. 700. He covers a lot of ground, much of it mythical or at best historically dubious. The highlights for me were his passages about King Lear (as in the character from Shakespeare’s excellent play) and about King Arthur. Arthur and Merlin take up a big portion of the middle of the book, with Merlin getting as much space as Arthur. The most fascinating bit was how they took what we now call Stonehenge from Ireland and set it up in Britain as a burial ground for royalty. Arthur’s military conquests are also chronicled but not the various quests of his knights (which comes in later literature maybe inspired by Geoffrey). The last third of the book tells of the Saxons coming to the island and how often they betrayed the local kings and dukes. After a while, it seemed like a lot of anti-Saxon propaganda!

The book was written in Latin and translated by Sebastian Evans in 1903 with a very Elizabethan-styled text. The style gives the book a sense of archaicness that can be off-putting for readers, with liberal use of words like “natheless” and “howbeit so” and other constructions that were surely antiquated even in the early 1900s. I eventually got used to the style; others may adapt more or less quickly. The style does give the book an ancient feel.

The other challenge in reading the book is the sometimes quite massive liberties that are taken with the history. At this point, scholars consider it ahistorical, which is pretty obvious especially when reading about the Roman invasions of Britain that don’t match up with any other history. Many portions just describe a few battles by the noble British kings against invaders and betrayers, or when they invade or reconquer Brittany (the part of France across the English Channel). The accounts all start to blend together. Even though it’s fiction, it’s still fairly dry reading for many parts.

What this book really needs is a “highlights” version compiling all the good bits in a shorter volume. The book is only 270 pages long but a hundred page “best of” version would be more readable and leave out the less interesting parts.

This book was on our shelf of “read and keep or get rid of” and unfortunately, it has landed on the “get rid of” side. If you want some ancient British history, read Bede’s History.

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