Thursday, 30 March 2017
A review of The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
Vexing as a checker of fact, but a primal, and vital, fountainhead in the history of English bullshit.
Tribal Legend isn't bullshit because the people telling it generally believe that it's true. Fiction isn't bullshit because the people telling it really believe that it's false. Even a naked lie isn't really full bullshit if the person using the lie has a clear and attainable goal. Fairytales come close.
True bullshit is a special thing. An exotic matter, like a rare element existing only for a moment, composed of parts of history, legend, and yes, lies. But never direct head-on deliberate lies, more like the scenes in movies where we 'enhance the image'. Geoffery is enhancing the image. He is not corrupting history, he is arranging it. Then all of this is spun together in a sophisticated matrix of claptrap, kept in active suspension so those fragments of rare element never have to come into contact with real and full reality, and then die.
I feel a deep mingling of emotions on reading this. Amusement; he is a very good, and hilariously egotistical, storyteller.
"I have been content with my own expressions and my own homely style and I have gathered no gaudy flowers of speech in other men's gardens."
Then later a character says; "Your speech, adorned as it was by Ciceronian eloquence."
Yeah, Ciceronian eloquence written by Geoffery of Monmouth and then pointed out by another character also written by Geoffery of fucking Monmouth.
Engagement also. And he can write. Armies gather on hilltops, sneaky saxons sneak through crowds disguised as beggars, kings make speeches, we generally know where everyone is and what is going on. Unless you've actually tried crawling through other medieval histories you have no idea how rare it is for it to be easy, or even pleasurable. It's rare today.
Then tiredness, and some anger. Just stop lying you fucking fool. Stop making shit up. Bede didn't need to.
Are we better off that you lied? What if you had just related what you saw written down, and what your friend told you, and whatever your other sources were and had just given us that, straight. Would we know more? We would have had the history of a story and instead we got the story of our history.
It makes me sad because I want it to be true. Or at least to have some truth in it. The same tension seems to exist with all the scholars who read Monmouth. Some are resigned, amused, others pissed off. We are all thinking, "could that bit be true? How about partially true? Could this bit be s reflection of some distant actual event? Could a weird Welsh book really have a list of pre-Roman rulers and could it be at all accurate? Could there have ever actually have been a Lier with three daughters? Or is it all fantasy and dreams?"
A few points;
The prophecies of Merlin are a particularly good example of despairingly-stupid Medieval bullshit. I try to avoid Dawkinsesque contempt for the past but my god this is some stupid fucking shit. It makes my head hang to think that men wasted lives thinking about it. At the same time, a lot of it is quite brilliantly creative;
"An Ass shall call to itself a long-bearded Goat and then will change shapes with it. As a result the Mountain Bull will lose it's temper: it will summon the Wolf and then transfix the Ass and the goat with its horn. Once it has indulged its savage rage upon them, it will eat up their flesh and their bones, but the Ox itself will be burned up on the summit of Urianus. The ashes of its funeral pyre shall be transmuted into swans, which will swim away upon dry land as though in water. These Swans will eat up fish inside fish and they will swallow men inside men. When they become old they will take the shape of Sea-wolves and continue their treacherous behaviour beneath the sea. They will sink ships and so gather together quite a treasure-house of silver."
I mean, I hope whoever came up with that crap got paid, or at least a meal out of it. Stuff like that isn't easy.
Arthur is described as wearing fine leather armour, you know society must be fucked up becasue that's some level-one shit.
He has the Virgin Mary painted on the inside of his shield so she can watch him as he fights. Gawain is described as doing the same thing in the Green Knight.
His spear is called 'Ron', which Wikipedia tells me is short for 'Rhongomyniad'.
At one point advancing soldiers are described as wearing their round shields hanging round their necks in front of them. I have never heard of this before.
"You foolish people, weighed down by the sheer burden of your own monstrous crimes, never happy but when you are fighting one another, why have you so far weakened yourselves in domestic upsets that you, who need to submit far-distant kingdoms to your own authority, are now like some faithful vineyard which has gone sour and you cannot protect your own country, wives and children from your enemies? Keep on with your civil squabbling and forget what the Gospel says; 'Every kingdom divided against itself shall be brought to desolation, and a house divided against itself shall fall.' Because your kingdom was divided against itself, because the lunacy of civil war and the smoke-cloud of jealousy obscured your mind, because your pride did not permit you to obey a single king, that is why you see your fatherland ravaged by the most impious heathens and your homesteads overturned one upon the other, all of which things those who come after you will lament in the future. They will see the cubs of the wild lioness occupy their castles, cities and other possessions. In their misery they will be driven forth from all of these, and only with the greatest difficulty will they ever recover the glory of their former estate, that is if they recover it at all!"
That is almost pure Mallory, who wrote his screed against the faithless English, I think about 400-500 years after this was written. Not much change there then.