Mistakes, Beginnings, and Mistaken Beginnings (Thesis Thursday #3)

Each Thursday, I’ll be stringing together some of the disconnected thoughts I’ve had about the subject of my dissertation in a feature I call “Thesis Thursday“. This is going to have to be a shorter entry, both because the 3000 words that’s becoming my usual habit is a lot of indulgence to ask of my regular readers, and because I’ve been busy moving this week.

Let us pick back up the subject of King Arthur’s beginning, which I left in mid-thought in order to visit with Rate and Cleges last week. In doing so we find ourselves again returning to the beginning and the subject of beginnings, the subject that never seems to be able to be fully or satisfactorily brought to an ending where Arthur is concerned, no matter how skilled or thoughtful the writer or critic trying to close it down.1

Though he sits a touch removed from the period covered by my dissertation, consider the case of John Milton. Arthur and Uther could hardly have hoped for a more thoughtful or skilled author to attempt an edition of their linked biographies, and that is precisely what Milton finally set about to do in the last decade of his life. In those final years, in the wake of the successes of the Paradises Lost and Regained, Milton returned to several projects he had begun and abandoned in his youth, among them a survey of British history which would, when finally published in 1670, be saddled with the unwieldy title, The History of Britain, that Part especially now called England; from the first traditional Beginning, continued to the Norman Conquest; Collected out of the antientest and best Authours thereof.

Milton lived in a time when a man's worth was judged by the extent of his collar.

The project the young Milton had begun in 1638 was far removed from what he ultimate created, intended originally to be an epic romance following the basic outline of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, telling the story of Britain through a series of heroic portraits, beginning with Brutus and his “Trojan ships in the Rutupian Sea” and building to a final climax with the tale of “Igraine pregnant with Arthur by that fatal deception, the counterfeiting of Gorlois’ features and arms by Merlin’s treacheries.”  By the time Milton finished the project, however, the youthful celebration of these fantastical and romantic elements of Britain’s ancient past had matured into a more measured skepticism.  The tumult of civil war, the rise and fall of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, and the subsequent restoration of the monarchy no doubt contributed to this shift, but regardless the cause, by the time the elder Milton returned to finish his original work, he was no longer keen to accept as notoriously inventive a historian as Geoffrey at his word.

Turning instead to the work of the more reputable sort of historian, Milton pared back the Arthurian section of his History. Dismissing the temptation to, as he said, “swell a volume with trash,” he reported of Arthur only what he could verify from sources such as Nennius’s2 ninth-century History of the Britons and William of Malmesbury’s twelfth-century History of the Kings of England3 Thus, the version of Arthur’s story that Milton relates in his own History of Britain is, as it was before Geoffrey got a hold of it, that of a distinguished, but minor insular war-leader who led the forces of the native British into battle against Saxon invaders in the sixth-century.  In effect, in trying to to write “properly” about Arthur, Milton found he could hardly write much about him at all. Without Geoffrey’s fanciful beginning, Arthur’s story never gets off the ground.

The long-ago promised story of Arthur’s supernatural siring by Uther upon Igraine through the machinations of Merlin Milton replaced instead with meditations on the plausibility of Arthur’s story and theories on how it might have come to be.  Uther bears much of the brunt of Milton’s renewed attention to plausibility in his History, ultimately singled out as the worst sort of historical nonsense.  Milton writes:

No less is in doubt who was his [Arthur’s] father; as Nennius or his notist avers, that Arthur was called Mab-Uther, that is to say, a cruel son, for the fierceness that men saw in him of a child, and the intent of his name Arturus imports as much, it might well be that some in after-ages who sought to turn him into a fable, wrested the word Uther into a proper name, and so feigned him the son of Uther; since we read not in any certain story, that ever such person lived till Geoffrey of Monmouth set him off with the surname of Pendragon.

Though Milton was no great Arthurian scholar, nor a particularly gifted historian, his explanation of the origin of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Uther Pendragon represents, more or less, the standard account for the next three hundred years, give or take a decade.  “Uther Pendragon” was thought just an interesting mistake, nothing more.

The “notist” to whom Milton refers is the anonymous author of the series of Latin notes found in one family of manuscripts of Nennius’s History of the Brtions, notes that have today come to be known as the “Sawley Glosses.”  The Sawley glossator, commenting on Nennius’s list of Arthur’s major battles offers this piece of trivia: “Arthur is called “Mab uter in the British tongue, which is fillius horribilis [the horrible/cruel son] in Latin, because of his cruelty during his youth.” If we are willing to follow Milton and the unnamed notist, the only thing left to determine for the serious minded scholar is who made the mistake originally–Geoffrey, of course, being the prime suspect and most likely scapegoat.

Indeed, a reputation as a bungler who doesn’t know his patronyms (son of the horrible one/Uther) from his epithets (horrible son) is about the best that Geoffrey could hope for during his three centuries in disgrace.  Once a historian realizes, as Milton did sometime between 1638 and 1670, that Geoffrey was an outrageously inventive and brazen liar and that his History is almost complete fabrication from beginning to end, repudiation usually gives rise to open contempt. As our awareness of the scope of his lies increases, it becomes increasingly hard to credit Geoffrey with anything original, and this is, in part, the reason so many are willing to hypothesize into existence a vast, internally consistent Arthurian biography floating around somewhere that Geoffrey must have copied down poorly and without giving credit. Usually, we look to the Welsh material for this lost source, to the vast orally transmitted body of Arthuriana that we can catch only fleeting glimpses of in the much later written versions. If only Geoffrey could have understood it properly!—or so goes that line of thought.

Now, Geoffrey’s Welsh competency is a subject far too knotty in its own right for now,4 and several pages of my forthcoming dissertation5 will be spent trying to prove Geoffrey’s Uther no mistake, but the point I’d like to end on today is that Geoffrey’s version of Uther and the Arthurian past were so troublesome for other writers, even one of Milton’s stature, that the only reliable solution was to, as Milton did, cut it out and stitch the story up without it.

If you risked, instead, trying to take parts of Geoffrey’s story and work it into something new, Geoffrey’s creation proved so successful and so compelling that it sucked these other stories into its orbit and deformed them with the strength of its pull, even against their author’s best efforts. If we wish to blame Geoffrey for something, we should blame him instead for being too damned good at his job.

  1. While I’d like to believe there was something more than biochemical keeping me from ever moving past the beginning stages of my dissertation, I will allow myself instead only the slight comfort that comes from knowing that better writers have also had problems beginning Arthur’s story. []
  2. Or Pseudo-Nennius, if you prefer. []
  3. Both sources Geoffrey knew, of course, and which he based his fabrication upon. []
  4. He seems to have been fluent enough with written Welsh to have written a fairly obscure pun about the original name for the British language being “curved Greek” that relies on knowing both Latin and Welsh. And even if he didn’t originate the pun, he was fluent enough to have appreciated the pun enough to circulate it. []
  5. And possibly even next week’s Thesis Thursday. []

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Steve Muhlberger

    This post makes a very interesting point about the psychology of scholars and their love/hate relationship with their sources. Is it especially those sources that are regarded as the last known link to a lost tradition that get loaded with the blame for the imperfect state of our knowledge?

    • http://www.gotmedieval.com Got Medieval

      My experience with the phenomenon is limited to Geoffrey, but I would imagine you’re on to something there. And even if the critics don’t believe Geoffrey was intimately familiar with the tradition, many still blame Geoffrey, implicitly if not explicitly, for sucking all the air out of the room and preventing the presumed tradition from flourishing apart from his efforts.

  • https://profiles.google.com/104791269167429064986/about?hl=en Judy S

    Thanks. This is great stuff. I really appreciate the breakdown of Milton’s relationship with Arthur.

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