The disappointing truth about the ‘father’ of Arthurian romance

We know him as ‘Geoffrey’ and he hailed from the region in Wales today known as Monmouth. His name (in Welsh) was Gruffudd ap Arthur but his friends at the time would have known him as Galfridus Artur(us) though he chose to render it in his works in Latin (Galfridus Monemutensis) since he was a man of both education and God and since Latin spoke so clearly of both. Later, his peers have suggested that he chose the name Galfridus Arturus (Geoffrey Arthur) himself as a conceit to the fame he earned with his works. Which, as it turns out, was largely bollocks…

Geoffrey wrote a number of works purporting to be based on real (written or oral) history but which, it turns out, were greatly fictionalised. He does seem to have had a genuine interest in the early history of his country/s (Wales and England) and gone to town on some of the Welsh legends.

However…there is actually no evidence that Geoffrey was Welsh at all and, in fact, his Welsh language might have been quite poor. Monmouth was a Marcher (border) land and was overrun in the century leading up to Geoffrey’s birth there by Bretons forming the ‘wave’ part of the Norman invasion. Arthur and Galfridus are both Norman names, not Welsh.

Neither did he do most of his writing in Wales/Monmouth though he may well have trained in a Catholic priory there. As soon as he was of age he seems to have headed off to Oxford to be a canon there, situating himself at the epicentre of culture and learning of its day. He quietly rose through the ranks and in 1152 he was made Bishop of St Asaph (Wales) but probably never even travelled to his see given the warring going on in Wales at the time and, anyway, he only lived a few years longer, dying in 1155.

In fact, being Bishop of St Asaph appears to have been a pretty periolous affair as the Welsh locals rebelled against the English (Norman) rule being forced on them, so perhaps that’s a much better reason for him to have put off visiting. Regardless in 1155 he was replaced in the role, implying death, so perhaps he did finally decide to visit his see and it didn’t go well. The man who replaced him also died after only a year in the same role. All the ones before them lived long lives in the role. But they were Welsh. Hmm….

His works, at the time, were purported to be translations of obscure but actual histories of Britain, and were massively popular, publicly. But, though they may well have been inspired by some older written or oral tradition (while verifiable history in them is scant, it is enough to make that likely) it is now accepted that they are greatly embellished and dramaticised.

Not surprisingly their dissemination was like wildfire across Europe and, while Geoffrey’s contemporaries might have sneered at his works, the public gobbled it up like the popular fiction it was pretending not to be.

His works relating to a wiseman named Merlin and then, later, a bunch of kings including a brutal warlord called Arthur (though probably majority fictional) have endured across a millennia references to Arthurian works are known as pre- or post-Galfirdian depending on whether their content has been ‘tarnished’ by his creative brush.

Poor Geoffrey.

Later in his life he produced the Vita Merlini (the Life of Merlin) which, though generally unattributed, is widely accepted to also be his work. He seems to have had a crack at capturing history in a slightly more ethical fashion though his late attempt at credibility was poorly rewarded with low circulation and little recognition.

So, really, Geoffrey was the Dan Brown of his age. A man so gifted of pen and slick of tongue that entire populations went on to read his works as fact and not the fabulous fiction they actually were. Or Shakespeare, who used the works of others (whether inspirationally or derivatively) including Geoffrey’s as the basis for his great works.

Part of a writer’s job is to mine out of truth the details that will make it fantastic and engaging and memorable and Geoffrey certainly did that. Perhaps too well. His works were filed under ‘history’ for centuries.

And that’s not good. But it is what it is.

We will never know for certain whether it was Geoffrey’s intent that his works be read as literal history or just as the speculative renderings that modern non-fic bookshelves are full of today. Heck, there is now a whole sub-genre dedicated to ‘alternative history’, everything from creatively amplified Tudors to gloriously impossible Steampunk. I had a ball doing the same in my own works, taking scant facts and weaving them into fleshed out stories that might interpret the facts.

But therein lies one difference between Geoffrey’s work and mine. Mine is card-carrying, out-and-proud fiction. It doesn’t pretend to be actual history. If for no other reason than its full of dragons!

But what if Geoffrey didn’t mean his to be either? What if he was, in fact, a marvellous satirist and social observer and the whole thing was meant to be art and not science. I see no reason to think that it’s only modern brains who enjoy reading amplified histories, perhaps he was more novelist than we know. At a time when fiction was either non-existant or frowned upon.

Not for serious men of god. Teachers and religious leaders.

So…based on that great unknown, I’m prepared to throw Galfridus Artur(us) a bone and give him benefit of doubt.

If nothing else, his works resulted in such widespread distribution that copies have survived to today in multiple languages, and that has given historians and linguists hundreds of leads on a time that was otherwise remarkable for its lack of survivable records.

That’s gotta be worth something, huh?

For more, check out the very excellent summary here.