Rebirth of a Nation? Historical Mythmaking in Layamon’s Brut
Brennan, John P.
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 17 (2000)
In spite of Layamon’s claim to have based his Brut in part on books by Bede, Albinus and Augustine, it is well known that his narrative is drawn–as its title suggests–almost entirely from his fourth putative source, the Roman de Brut of his clerical predecessor Wace. Thus he follows Wace in chronicling the dynastic history of the kings of Britain from the founder Brutus to Cadwallader, the last British king to rule the island. Like Wace, Layamon devotes about a quarter of his poem to the career of Arthur, the leader who nearly succeeded in preventing the Anglo-Saxon conquest. Layamon, however, was not content merely to translate his Norman-French original, itself rather freely adapted from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae.
That Wace’s Roman is 14,866 octosyllabic verses long, while Brut encompasses over 16,000 lines, tells only part of the story, for Layamon’s alliterative verses are often equivalent to a whole couplet in Wace. Moreover, Layamon’s style, which mimics the rhythms of Old English alliterative prose and echoes the language of Anglo-Saxon heroic verse, is itself an indication that the Middle English poet is using Wace’s narrative for his own purpose. What that purpose might be has long been a subject of critical discussion. It is my (not entirely original) contention that Layamon’s poem turns the legendary dynastic history of Britain into the national epic of England.