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The History of the Kings of Britain

by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,462215,311 (3.65)61
Completed in 1136, The History of the Kings of Britain traces the story of the realm from its supposed foundation by Brutus to the coming of the Saxons some two thousand years later. Vividly portraying legendary and semi-legendary figures such as Lear, Cymbeline, Merlin the magician and the most famous of all British heroes, King Arthur, it is as much myth as it is history and its veracity was questioned by other medieval writers. But Geoffrey of Monmouth's powerful evocation of illustrious men and deeds captured the imagination of subsequent generations, and his influence can be traced through the works of Malory, Shakespeare, Dryden and Tennyson.… (more)
  1. 20
    The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (ed.pendragon)
    ed.pendragon: Tolkien was very familar with The History of the Kings of Britain, with its invented history resonant with verisimilitude but, at root, true fantasy, and echoed its approach particularly in The Lord of the Rings.
  2. 00
    Chronicles by Raphael Holinshed (BINDINGSTHATLAST)
  3. 00
    Arthurian Chronicles by Robert Wace (Michael.Rimmer)
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Lewis Thorpe opens his introduction to the Penguin edition saying that this book "may be said to bear the same relationship to the story of the Early British inhabitants of our own island as do the seventeen historical books in the Old Testament, from Genesis to Esther, to the early history of the Israelites in Palestine". That's probably the best description of what the book is - it has some history in it, it has some elements which cannot be true and there is that middle ground where a lot of the text lives which may be true - and only time will show what the next digs will find.

Finished in 1136 (or so the latest research tells us), it is a history of the Britons from the fall of Troy in 1240 BC (as apparently that's where it all started) to 689 and the death of Cadwallader (the historical king o Wales with this name dies in 682; there is another king (Cædwalla of Wessex) whose history is very close to what Geoffrey of Monmouth describes in the last years of the reign which would explain the slight mix-up). This death allows the Anglo-Saxons to take over and thus to put an end to the almost 2 millennia of history which this book covers - the author even points to which historians to read for the next chapters of the story - Caradoc of Llancarfan for the kings of Wales and William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntington for the Saxon kings (although that specific end note is missing from the most well known manuscript).

While writing the history, Geoffrey took a bit of time to finish another book: Prophetiae Merlini (The Prophecies of Merlin) which is known to had appeared before 1135. When this history came out, that earlier became part of it (together with its individual prologue) - so it seems like "publish an excerpt before the full book as a separate book/story so people get interested and then reuse it as is in a novel/longer text" have been an existing practice even as early as the mid-12th century and not just a 20th century literary journals invention.

The history itself can be almost mind-numbingly boring in places - there are names and places and battles and the same enemies show up again and again. The introduction makes a good job in preparing you for the names you need to watch out for. When I started reading the history I was not sure I want to read the whole of it - I picked it up for the Arthur story so I considered just reading that part and calling it done but decided to give it a chance and start from the start. As it turned out, Merlin is not really in the same timeline with Arthur (both of them never meet) and that there are some interesting bits in the early parts of the history (and not necessarily the giants although they were entertaining as well) and the story references the past so I am happy I read even through the boring parts.

Once Merlin and Utherpendragon showed up on the scene, I settled down to read the first version of a legend that everyone had heard. And as with most first versions, it turns out that the story I thought I knew did not start anywhere close to what I thought it is. Oh, there is a Guinevere and she is unfaithful (although not with who you expect and Geoffrey refuses to tell us any details). There is Merlin. There is Arthur. And there is the island of Avalon and a sword. And you may recognize a few of the names of the knights. But the rest is just missing.

Let's start with Merlin - who is not a wizard but a prophet. He utters his prophecies, he creates Stonehenge by moving the whole thing from Ireland where the giants initially erected it, he changes Utherpendragon to look like another man for a night so he can go and impregnate Ygerna with Arthur and then we never hear his name again. Yes - his actions are these of a man who can make miracles (of some types) so I can see how that got changed into a wizard later but here he is just clever and cunning and touched by God to allow him to see the future and prophesize. In any legend I know of, Merlin is alongside Arthur - but I guess that changed later.

And then Arthur was born, followed by his sister Anna. The only thing that makes him different from the kings before him seem to be the sword he is carrying and the fact that he is unusually successful (and a lot of the prophecies seem to fit him like a glove. So the legend is born. As for the Round Table... it is probably a lot more complicated than that but through the whole history, we are told about knights talking to kings as if they are equal and kings listening to them; about the kings and knights gathering together and discussing things (and we get a lot of speeches from these moments). So Arthur does the same - he follows in the steps of all the other kings that came before him, he invites more knights, especially from other lands to his circle - something natural and normal in these days. Not as much in the Middle Ages I'd guess when this book (and the legends that used it as a base) sprang in - so the round table is kinda here as an idea but we need to wait a couple of decades for Wace to actually name it so and describe it for the first time and then history and time and the numerous authors retelling the story will make it the symbol it is. And there is no Grail - definitely no Grail anywhere - it will be Chrétien de Troyes, half a century after Geoffrey of Monmouth told his own story, who will add that to the legend.

Of course, Geoffrey of Monmouth did not write in a vacuum. He often gives a nod to Gildas, Bede and Nennius - the Latin historians who wrote on the same topics before him. He also claims a book that he was given and is translating (which may have existed - if so, it had been lost; but it may as well have been just the way for Geoffrey of Monmouth to be humble and not to claim that he invented a lot of the stories). And he is really bad at geography - his ideas of how far someone can go and how long it takes between places had perplexed anything trying to research his work for almost a millennia at this point. The fact that his math almost never adds up may actually not be his fault - scribes could have mixed their roman numbers up and typos are not a modern invention.

Thorpe ends the edition I read with two very helpful supplements - a timeline with actual years and names of kings (based on the synchronization with non-British dates which Geoffrey of Monmouth uses extensively) and a name/place index where all references to that name/place are listed and glossed where needed. ( )
2 vote AnnieMod | Jan 31, 2022 |
Pseudo historical (and very entertaining) account of British history, written around 1136. It chronicles the lives of the kings of the Britons over two thousand years, starting with the Trojans founding the British nation and continuing until the Anglo-Saxons took over control of much of Britain around the 7th century. Considered historic until the 16th century, it remains a valuable piece of medieval literature, as it helped to popularize the legend of King Arthur. ( )
  Marcos_Augusto | Feb 19, 2021 |
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 manuscript, De gestis Britonum (On the Deeds of the Britons), later called Historia regnum Britanniae or The History of the Kings of Britain, is notable for being among the earliest written accounts of the Matter of Britain, or the King Arthur legend. It depicts Britain as a land populated by giants until Brutus of Troy defeats them all following the Trojan War. He founds the city of New Troy, later London, eventually leading to Leir of Britain (King Lear), Uther Pendragon, Arthur, Guinevere, and Merlin, who Geoffrey borrowed from Welsh sources.

Particularly interesting are books two, four, and seven through twelve. Book Two is an account of Leir, whom Geoffrey describes as the son of Bladud, one of the descendants Locrinus, the son of Brutus ruler of Loegria (England). Book four describes Julius Caesar’s effort to conquer Britain as well as a discussion of English kings who pledged fealty to Rome. Much of Geoffrey’s account in this matter is demonstrably inaccurate, though that does not interfere with his story. Book seven, the Prophetiæ Merlini, breaks from the narrative structure of the account to introduce the character of Merlin (based on and blended with Ambrosius Aurelianus from Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniæ as well as Myrddin Wyllt from Welsh legend). Geoffrey introduces Merlin to the Arthurian legend, attributing numerous prophesies to him and introducing the spelling variant of Merlin in place of Myrddin. Books eight through ten tell the story of Uther Pendragon, the birth of Arthur, Arthur’s conquest of England and Northern Europe, and the treachery of his nephew Mordred. Books eleven and twelve discuss Arthur’s battle with Mordred at Camlann and the fate of the Britons following Arthur’s death.

Despite Geoffrey’s claim to have translated the work from an earlier source, most scholars conclude that he fabricated that and that his work combines elements of St. Gildas’s 6th-century De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniæ (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), the Venerable Bede’s 8th-century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), the Historia Brittonum from 828, the 10th-century Annales Cambriae from Dyfed, Wales, the works of the 6th-century Brythonic poet Taliesin, the 11th-century Culhwch and Olwen, and various other Welsh sources.

This critical edition from the Arthurian Studies series features Latin text edited by Michael D. Reeve and a translation by Neil Wright, both of the University of Cambridge. For those interested in linguistics, this volume presents the English translation opposite the Latin original. The work itself is a must-read for English scholars and fans of the Arthurian legend. For more about how Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work inspired later Arthurian storytellers to build upon and refine the Matter of Britain, see: Tidhar, Lavie. “The Telling Is The Tale: Who Owns the Legend of King Arthur?” Tor.com, 17 August 2020, https://www.tor.com/2020/08/17/the-telling-is-the-tale-who-owns-the-legend-of-ki.... ( )
1 vote DarthDeverell | Sep 11, 2020 |
It is hard to place a numerical score on older literature, as our ideas of what is "good" is often constructed from out contemporaries. Geoffrey of Monmouth is a prime example of this time issue.

The History of the Kings of Britain is meant to serve not as a tale of epic proportions, but as a record, translated from British (ancient Welsh) into Latin. Still, the History toes a fine line between history and mythology, as most of the events (insert Merlin and King Arthur) have little root in fact.

That said, pre-orthodox historiography (for some early "normal history," read some Leopold van Ranke or Francis Parkman) tends to flirt with the mythic. You can see this from Herodotus into the early modern period.

So thus the problem emerges: how should I judge this? For me, as an academic, I feel inclined to reserve this text as "historical" or "academic," an example of historiography-in-action, yet judging from the other reviews on this site, people seem inclined to read it for pleasure.

My decision is thus: rather than reward this text as "timeless," I choose to give it a rating in scoring of how I perceive the average reader would rate this (my score is not ironically near the average rating). That said, the above points should be noted prior to reading. Still worthwhile, but there are better written books (for the purpose of pleasure reading). ( )
  MarchingBandMan | Sep 12, 2017 |
An example of the murky boundary between history and romance in Plantagenet times. This is good entertainment, a racy history that would please the Plantagenet court. Modern research has disproved almost everything in it, but it remains an artefact of the period. it definitely provided the basis of other author's work. there's another book that has crossed my shelves a good deal like this in tone, and sadly, veracity, Dudo of Saint Quentin's "History of the Normans." If you like this one give Dudo a try. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Aug 18, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (17 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Geoffrey of Monmouthprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dunn, Charles W.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Evans, SebastianTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jones, Gwynsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pin, ItaloEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Reeve, Michael D.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roberts, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thorpe, LewisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wright, NeilTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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KERSTIN THORPE
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Britain, the best of islands, is situated in the Western Ocean, between France and Ireland.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Completed in 1136, The History of the Kings of Britain traces the story of the realm from its supposed foundation by Brutus to the coming of the Saxons some two thousand years later. Vividly portraying legendary and semi-legendary figures such as Lear, Cymbeline, Merlin the magician and the most famous of all British heroes, King Arthur, it is as much myth as it is history and its veracity was questioned by other medieval writers. But Geoffrey of Monmouth's powerful evocation of illustrious men and deeds captured the imagination of subsequent generations, and his influence can be traced through the works of Malory, Shakespeare, Dryden and Tennyson.

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Twelfth-century scribe's
fantasy best-seller spurs
Arthur revival.
(ed.pendragon)

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