By Gillian Polack
Sometimes fiction doesn’t simplify or explain the Middle Ages for us. It does something that consolidates a popular view and turns it into one of the accepted views of a time and place. I have discussed this before, when I looked at Mark Twain’s work. There are other, equally important approaches that shape the way we think about King Arthur and thus the way we think about the Middle Ages. Mary Stewart’s rather well known Arthurian trilogy-with-extra-volumes used a sub-Roman British setting, and placed an entirely twelfth century story of Arthur into it.
If I were doing this chronologically, I would begin with the sub-Roman British setting of what seems to be called, currently, Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga, the first volume of which, The Crystal Cave, was published in 1970. For me, however, the earliest mentions of Arthur we have were written down in the seventh century or later, and the relationship of those mentions with unwritten and unknown material is hard to argue for we lack enough data to even form an argument.
The Gododdin is a good example of how undeterminable early mentions of Arthur can be. The passing reference to Arthur in this poem may refer to a figure from as early as sub-Roman Britain, but it may equally well refer to a figure from folklore. It may be part of the original (oral) poem, or it may have been added when the poem was eventually written down. Some part of the Gododdin, scholars have discovered, are easier to pin a date on, but this line is not one of those parts. I don’t have the languages to assess this for myself, but, reading translations of all the earliest mentions of Arthur, and the push is clearly towards a folklore origin of an unknown date for Arthur.
A clearly historical Arthur, the one we think we know, was largely constructed, segment by segment, in the Middle Ages, with the most important changes and developments mostly happening in the twelfth century. Remember the twelfth century. It’s important. Merlin was added to the Arthur story then, which is also worth remembering.
First, however, let me say, simply, that there is no clear evidence (or even, to be honest, evidence at all) for an Arthur in sub-Roman Britain, nor any demonstrable proof in the earliest part of the Early Middle Ages for a king named Arthur or something similar to Arthur who did the things we think Arthur may have done. Simply, Arthur – the national hero who kept the dark at bay for a while – doesn’t appear at all on the literary scene until the seventh and eighth centuries and is of no great importance until the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Prophecies of Merlin (changing Merlin’s name in claiming the prophet for himself) then brought Arthur and Merlin together. The focus was on Merlin first, just as it is for Mary Stewart.
Why is Stewart’s borrowing important, given Stewart’s setting? After all, many writers take popular stories and shift them in time. Romeo and Juliet shifted to twentieth century New York, for instance, becomes West Side Story. It is important partly because Stewart argues, through her fiction, that she is depicting a mostly-historical truth. That her Merlin is the true Merlin. That her Arthur is correct.
The chief reason Stewart’s claim and her novels are so important is because they are critical to the perception of Arthur and Merlin expressed by many contemporary and recent fiction writers. They have helped shape how modern fantasists and historical fiction writers dream of Merlin and Arthur.
From a Medievalist’s point of view. there is something profoundly ironic in this. Geoffrey of Monmouth was… how to say this politely (it’s very difficult to say this politely)… not considered a reliable historian by his peers.
Geoffrey claimed that his source was an ancient book, yet Henry of Huntingdon, who was known for exploring every book collection he could and for using them in his own historical writing, had neither seen nor heard of this ancient book. So, Henry of Huntingdon knew books and Geoffrey’s was either non-existence or something only he had access to and no-one had ever heard of. This alone doesn’t make Geoffrey a liar. William of Newburgh calling him a liar is what that part of Geoffrey’s reputation rests upon. Gerald of Wales went one step further (as he often did, Gerald of Wales was famous for his snark) and described Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book as very attractive to demons. This means that Geoffrey’s contemporaries saw Geoffrey’s writing as untrue.
His famous contemporaries said these things very clearly, however, because Geoffrey of Monmouth’s books were the medieval equivalent of a best-seller. The most apt modern equivalent is probably the 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.
Geoffrey was a remarkable and convincing writer. His techniques were part of what made his work convincing and what made his contemporaries rise up against him. He could be convince even when he invented from scratch. I like to introduce this element of Geoffrey’s writing through his famous Prophecies of Merlin. Each manuscript contains new and updated prophecies – scribes and writers added to them to prove how amazingly Merlin could see into the future. The most recent prophecies help, in fact, to date some of the manuscripts. Geoffrey left the structure of the end of the Prophecies open and this enabled scribes to add more prophecies as time passed. Geoffrey used the very nature of medieval manuscripts (handwritten, constantly changed) reinforce his underlying argument that Merlin was real and a great prophet.
There’s no doubt about it, Geoffrey of Monmouth was one of the great fantasists of his time. He found a gap in history, took a tiny story, and he embroidered it so very well that his works were best-sellers. Hated by scholars, but best-sellers.
It’s time to return to Mary Stewart.
I first encountered the five novels as a trilogy. Stewart gives very clear credit to Geoffrey of Monmouth in the first volume of the edition I own. She quotes him, in fact, and explains how much she owes to his writing. Doing this, she brings the twelfth century and, more precisely, the historical embellishments and dreams of the twelfth century, into a much earlier period, as I said earlier.
Stewart is just as amazing a writer as Geoffrey of Monmouth. She seldom puts a word wrong in her fiction. Most of her work is suspense novels with a touch of the exotic, but the Middle Ages creeps in from time to time. Madam, will you talk? (1955) has a scene, for instance, where the main character reads medieval poetry to welcome the dawn.
What happens when you bring two such writers together?
The strange inventions of Geoffrey of Monmouth become very firmly attached to an early period in the popular imagination. The more complex historical understanding of Arthur and Merlin and where their stories grew and how they merged gets lost in the transition. I can’t count the number of arguments I’ve had with readers who are certain that Arthur was the Last of the Romans and that Excalibur was an ancient legend refurbished in the Middle Ages. The path these two brilliant writers have led many readers to pays homage to an emotional cultural validation that Stewart has created using the work of Geoffrey.
The emotional validation doesn’t, to be honest, bear much relationship to historical truth. Stewart’s historical truths are from her reinterpretation of an earlier period and she used Merlin as her conduit into that place and time. It’s an extraordinary creation, but very difficult to explain using the development of Arthurian stories as we know them.
The best way, in fact, of explaining them is the same way Geoffrey of Monmouth’s peers saw Geoffrey’s work: as fiction. Good fiction. Outstanding fiction.
The story reflects the needs of readers of the decades in which it was released and that reflection. It adds to this the desire for a clearly-identifiable historical Arthur and Merlin. Underlying the whole of Stewart’s work is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s clever story arc. Between them they built a very strong cultural edifice that, decades later, still echoes in the work of writers who want to tell stories of Arthur and Merlin.
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack