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Malmesbury is proud of his countrymen, Ordericus is more often sorry for them.
Less entitled to distinction than either Malmesbury or Ordericus is the somewhat pretentious Henry of Huntingdon, who brings his story up to the reign of Henry II. He was in the habit of interspersing his narrative with poems, and one of these, which celebrates Henry's accession, after the years during which, according to the AngloSaxon chronicle, Christ and his saints had slept, is worth quoting from, as showing the patriotism that was beginning to fix its hopes upon the strong rule of the Angevins : "Thy England calls thee, Henry, to her throne, Now fallen from her once imperial state, Exhausted, helpless, ruined, desolate."
And the young King is supposed to address her in these words:
Thine own red cross, proud England, leads me on,
So much for the chroniclers of real fact, the historians proper. We now pass on to those other architects of patriotism, those who invested our history with its background of legend, who gave to England, in King Arthur, what Theseus was to Athens and Æneas to Rome. Here we come into contact with the strain in our race which is neither Saxon nor Norman, but precedes both. We need not condescend to the extravagance of a school of modern critics, who have made a fetish of what they call the Celtic spirit, by the easy method of calling all the lighter imaginative touches in our literature Celtic and the more
* T. Forester's Translation.
solid work Saxon, so that the poor Saxon is indeed in a hopeless case, for no sooner does he pass his prescribed bounds of stolidity than, ipso facto, he becomes a Celt. But we may grant that the spirit of the old Celtic literature was essentially different from that of either Saxon or Norman, and that it could and did supplement both, in providing a basis for the glory to come. Its prevailing note may be characterized as dreaminess, in the most literal sense, for in the old Welsh stories we find ourselves in just the same sort of world as we sometimes dimly remember on awakening in the morning.
These heroes and adventurers do not strike one as being real men, for they behave in the same unconditioned and inconsequential manner as the queer folk with whom we people our nightly stage; one of them runs over long grass without bending it; another may be buried deep under the earth and yet hear an ant rising fifty miles off; another could suck up a sea on which were three hundred ships, for he was broad-chested. Their adventures are of the same rambling and shadowy description; we follow them with the same interest with which we watch the changing forms of clouds or the clefts and gorges between glowing coals.
It was in such a world as this that the traditional story of our race was brought to birth, and from which gradually emerges the colossal figure of Arthur. We need not concern ourselves with the steps of this development, nor with the question of whether there was, or was not, a real Arthur-some heroic chief of the Britons who smote the Saxons upon Badon Down, and died fighting at Camlan. The Arthur who emerges from these storiesand he only appears to have come into prominence at a comparatively late period-is not the patriot hero, hewing back the enemies of his race, so much as a dream king, a shadow about whom all the other shadows revolve.
It was necessary for these legends to come into the
hands of another race, in order that some measure of strength and unity might be imparted to them. It is where Welshman and Norman, dreamer and man of action, came into contact, that a chronicler resided capable of making these fairy tales serve a patriotic purpose. Geoffrey of Monmouth was his name, and he was a contemporary of Malmesbury's, being finally raised to the Bishopric of St. Asaph. In his chronicle we find the crude material upon which the masters of our literature were glad to work. Here we meet with Locrine and Gorboduc, Leir and Cymbeline, Kay and Bedivere.
Geoffrey professed to have derived these tales from a Welsh book, and he would have his readers accept them for fact; but the book in question has not been discovered; and, though in the Welsh histories that we possess we find the origin of much that he wrote, the spirit and a great deal of the matter of his chronicle seem to be his own, and it is just what we should expect from a man of Norman instincts working upon Celtic material. The dream element is still there, and in some places, notably in Merlin's prophecies, it becomes grotesque and incoherent; but with a few lapses, the narrative marches with a steady tread, and it is informed with a consistent and often extravagant patriotism. It fixed once and for all the main outlines of the British legend, and, though the story is not, logically speaking, to the fame of either the Saxons, against whom Arthur had fought, or those who had, in their turn, conquered the Saxons, it was enough that they were British for both to appropriate and glory in them.
Geoffrey takes us back to the very origin of our race, which is descended, like Rome, from a Trojan wanderer. The real origin of this hero seems to have been a pun on the name Britain, which of course must have been founded by some one of the name of Brutus, for the methods of scientific criticism were not quite unknown even in the
Middle Ages. The island was originally called Albion, and was inhabited by a few giants, and the oracle of Diana informs Brutus that he shall found a second Troy there: "Of thy line shall kings be born, and by them the whole earth shall be subdued." So Brutus comes, bringing with him his Trojan, or "British" followers. Corineus, his " fidus Achates," finds it a capital diversion to encounter the giants, and pitches Gogmagog, the biggest of them, bodily over a cliff. And so Brutus, having made short work of the giants, assumes the government of the island and builds his new Troy-which has since got the name of London-at the mouth of the Thames.
Then follow the records of his successors; how Leir was dishonoured by his daughters; how "Sabrina fair" was thrown into the Severn; and how Brennius, an Englishman, besieged and conquered Rome, one of the defeated consuls, by the way, being Lars Porsena. Julius Cæsar is rather more difficult to deal with, and he is allowed to get the better of Cassibellaunus in the long run. But he has previously sustained two frightful defeats, and when at last he does conquer, it is only by the assistance of a rebel British duke, who refuses to allow Cæsar to do more than put Cassibellaunus under tribute. The whole episode is entirely to the credit of the Trojan Britons. The fact of the Roman occupation was one unsurmountable even by Geoffrey, though he smooths it over considerably by British victories, and makes the Emperor Constantine a grandson of Old King Cole. The fact of the Saxons having conquered Britain was also one that had to be admitted.
But these humiliations are more than counterbalanced by the dazzling personality of Arthur. It may be said, without exaggeration, that every age has its own Arthur. Here we have neither the old shadowy figure-head, nor Malory's flower of perfect knighthood, still less a “blame
less king," modelled on a prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Geoffrey's Arthur is just such a hero as William the Conqueror or Roger Guiscard, a Norman adventurer on a grand scale, only with England and not Normandy for his native land. Arthur is not content with vanquishing the Saxons, but he must needs create an empire. He first conquers the Scots, who are referred to with an antipathy that was to last to the days of Dr. Johnson, as "that miserable race," reminding us of Malmesbury's courteous reference to the Scot's "fellowship with vermin." He next subdues Ireland, and going further afield, conquers Norway, Gottland, and the Orkneys. He then anticipates and surpasses the glories of Henry V, by conquering France and holding his Court at Paris; Normandy, by the way, being assigned as a province to Sir Bedivere. But Arthur's crowning exploit is the overthrow of Rome, though he is recalled by the treachery of Mordred before he can actually plant his banners on the Capitol.
If we are to judge Geoffrey of Monmouth upon his claim to be narrating things that happened, we must dismiss him as being either extremely credulous, or an unmitigated liar. The feats attributed to Arthur were too much even for Geoffrey's contemporaries, and one of them remarks dryly that he had made the British King's little finger thicker than the loins of Alexander the Great. But if we regard him in the light of a creative artist, consciously transforming legendary material into a prose epic, instinct with profound symbolism, we can hardly over-estimate the value of what he accomplished. We have seen how the first instinct of the Normans had been to despise everything English, and on the English side the tendency had been overmuch towards the helpless pathos of the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclers' "Christ and his saints slept." Neither contempt nor helplessness induces to patriotism, and these legendary glories, which