Arthurian Chronicles: Roman de Brut

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    ”… In the chronicle of wasted time

    I see descriptions of the fairest wights,

    And beauty making beautiful old rhyme,

    In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights.”

SHAKESPEARE, Sonnet cvi.


In the long line of Arthurian chroniclers Geoffrey of Monmouth
deservedly occupies the first place. The most gifted and the most
original of their number, by his skilful treatment of the Arthurian
story in his Historia Regum Britanniae, he succeeded in uniting
scattered legends attached to Arthur’s name, and in definitely
establishing their place in chronicle history in a form that persisted
throughout the later British historical annals. His theme and his
manner of presenting it were both peculiarly adapted to win the favour
of his public, and his work attained a popularity that was almost
unprecedented in an age that knew no printed books. Not only was it
accepted as an authority by British historians, but French chroniclers
also used it for their own purposes.

About the year 1150, five years before the death of Geoffrey, an
Anglo-Norman, Geoffrey Gaimar, wrote the first French metrical chronicle.
It consisted of two parts, the Estorie des Bretons and the Estorie des
, of which only the latter is extant, but the former is known to
have been a rhymed translation of the Historia of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Gaimar’s work might possibly have had a longer life if it had not been
cast into the shade by another chronicle in verse, the Roman de Brut,
by a Norman poet, Wace, which fills an important and interesting place
among our Arthurian sources, not merely because of the author’s qualities
as a poet and his treatment of the Arthurian story, but also because of
the type of composition that he produced. For the metrical chronicle
occupies an intermediate position between the prose chronicle, one of the
favourite forms of mediaeval monastic production throughout Europe, and
the metrical romance, which budded and blossomed most richly in France,
where, during the last half of the twelfth century, it received its
greatest impulse from Crestien de Troies, the most distinguished of the
trouv?res. The metrical romances were written for court circles, and
were used as a vehicle for recounting adventures of love and chivalry,
and for setting forth the code of behaviour which governed the courtly
life of France at that period. Wace’s poem, though based upon chronicle
history, is addressed to a public whose taste was turning toward chivalric
narrative, and it foreshadows those qualities that characterised the verse
romances, for which no more fitting themes could be found than those
supplied by the stories of Arthurian heroes, whose prowess teaches us that
we should be valiant and courteous. Wace saw the greater part of the
twelfth century. We cannot be certain of the exact year of his birth or
of his death, but we know that he lived approximately from 1100 to 1175.
Practically all our information about his life is what he himself tells
us in his Roman de Rou:—

“If anybody asks who said this, who put this history into the Romance
language, I say and I will say to him that I am Wace of the isle of
Jersey, which lies in the sea, toward the west, and is a part of the
fief of Normandy. In the isle of Jersey I was born, and to Caen I
was taken as a little lad; there I was put at the study of letters;
afterward I studied long in France.[1] When I came back from France, I
dwelt long at Caen. I busied myself with making books in Romance; many
of them I wrote and many of them I made.”

Before 1135 he was a clerc lisant (reading clerk), and at length,
he says, his writings won for him from Henry II. preferment to the
position of canon at Bayeux. He was more author, however, than
prebendary, and he gave his first effort and interest to his writings.
He composed a number of saints’ lives, which are still extant, but his
two most important works were his historical poems, the Roman de Brut
and the Roman de Rou (i.e. Rollo), a chronicle history of the Dukes of
Normandy. This latter was Wace’s last production, and beside having a
literary and historic importance, it has a rather pathetic interest.
He had begun it in 1160, in obedience to a command of Henry II, but
for some unknown reason Henry later transferred the honour to another
poet. Wace laid aside his pen, left his work incomplete, and probably
soon after died.

“Since the king has asked him to do this work, I must leave it and I
must say no more. Of old the king did me many a favour; much he gave
me, more he promised me, and if he had given all that he promised me,
it had been better for me. Here ends the book of Master Wace; let him
continue it who will.” [2]

Some twenty years earlier, in 1155, Wace had completed the Roman de
. He himself called it the Geste des Bretons (“History of the
Britons”), but it is best known under the title that appears in the
manuscripts, the Roman de Brut, given to it by scribes because of its
connection with Brutus, the founder of the British race. The Brut is a
reproduction in verse of Geoffrey’s Historia. To call it a translation
is almost to give it a misnomer, for although Wace follows exactly
the order and substance of the Historia, he was more than a mere
translator, and was too much of a poet not to impress his own
individuality upon his work. He makes some few additions to
Geoffrey’s Arthurian history, but his real contribution to the legend
is the new spirit that he put into it. In the first place his vehicle
is the swift-moving French octo-syllabic couplet, which alone gives
an entirely different tone to the narrative from that of Geoffrey’s
high-sounding Latin prose. Wace, moreover, was Norman born and Norman
bred, and he inherited the possessions of his race—a love of fact,
the power of clear thought, the appreciation of simplicity, the
command of elegance in form. Such a spirit indeed was his as in a
finer type had already expressed itself in Caen in the two noble
abbeys, under whose shadow he passed the greater part of his life,
the dignified and sternly simple Abbaye-aux-Hommes of William the
Conqueror and the graceful, richly ornamented Abbaye-aux-Dames of
Queen Matilda. Sincerity and truth Wace ever aims at, but he
embellishes his narrative with countless imaginative details. As a
narrator he has the tendency to garrulity, which few mediaeval poets
altogether escaped, but he is by no means without conversational
charm, and in brief sentences abounding in colloquial turns, he leads
us easily on with seldom flagging interest even through those pages
where he is most inclined to be prolix. He is a systematic person with
accurate mental habits, and is keenly alive to the limitations of his
own knowledge. He doubtless often had to bid his common sense console
him with the reflections with which he begins his Life of St.
:—”Nobody can know everything, or hear everything, or see
everything … God distributes different gifts to different people.
Each man should show his worth in that which God has given him.”

He is extremely careful to give his authorities for his statements,
and has all the shyness of an antiquarian toward facts for which he
has not full proof. Through Breton tales, for example, he heard of the
fairy fountain of Barenton in the forest of Broceliande, where fays
and many another marvel were to be seen, and he determined to visit
it in order to find out how true these stories were. “I went there
to look for marvels. I saw the forest and I saw the land; I sought
marvels, but I found none. A fool I came back, a fool I went; a fool I
went, a fool I came back; foolishness I sought, a fool I hold myself.”
[3] The wonders related of Arthur, he tells us, have been recounted so
often that they have become fables. “Not all lies, nor all true, all
foolishness, nor all sense; so much have the storytellers told, and so
much have the makers of fables fabled to embellish their stories that
they have made all seem fable.” [4] He omits the prophecies of Merlin
from his narrative, because he does not understand them. “I am not
willing to translate his book, because I do not know how to interpret
it. I would say nothing that was not exactly as I said.” [5] To this
scrupulous regard for the truth, absolutely foreign to the ingenious
Geoffrey, Wace adds an unusual power of visualising. He sees clearly
everything that he describes, and decorates his narrative with almost
such minute details of any scene as a seventeenth-century Dutch
painter loved to put upon his canvas. The most famous instance of
this power is his description of Arthur’s embarkation for the
Roman campaign. Geoffrey, after saying simply that Arthur went to
Southampton, where the wind was fair, passes at once to the dream that
came to the king on his voyage across the Channel. But Wace paints
a complete word-picture of the scene. Here you may see the crews
gathering, there the ships preparing, yonder friends exchanging
parting words, on this side commanders calling orders, on that,
sailors manning the vessels, and then the fleet speeding over the
waves.[6] Another spirited example of this same characteristic is
found in the Roman de Rou [7] in the stirring account of the advance of
the Normans under William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings:—

“Taillefer, who sang right well, mounted on a charger that went
swiftly, rode before the duke singing of Charlemagne and of Roland,
and of Oliver and the vassals who died at Roncesval. When they had
ridden until they came close to the English, ‘Sire,’ said Taillefer,
‘a grace! I have served you long; for all my service, you owe me a
debt. To-day, an it please you, repay it me. For all my guerdon I beg
you and fervently I pray you, grant me to deal the first blow in the
battle!’ The duke replied, ‘I grant it.’ And Taillefer pricked on
at full gallop, on before all the others he pressed. He struck an
Englishman and killed him; beneath the breast, clean through the body
he thrust his lance; he felled him down full length on the ground;
then he drew his sword, he struck another; then he cried, ‘On, on!
What do ye? Strike, strike!’ Then the English surrounded him at the
second blow that he dealt. Hark to the noise raised and the cries!”

Apart from matters of style, Wace made other changes from Geoffrey’s
narrative that are more important for Arthurian romance. He wrote the
Brut under the patronage of Henry II, and, if we may trust Layamon’s
statement, he dedicated it to Queen Eleanor, who was the ardent
propagator in England of the courtly ideals of southern France.
Accordingly Wace, perhaps partly because of his own milieu, partly
because of his royal patroness, wove into Geoffrey’s narrative more
pronouncedly chivalric material. The lack of the courtly virtue of
mesure (moderation) that is noticeable in Geoffrey’s Arthur, Wace is
careful to conceal; he gives, furthermore, a place to the descriptions
of love, which fill so many lines in the later romances, but which are
absent from Geoffrey’s pages. Gawain, for instance, who is “valiant
and of very great moderation,” declares that jesting and the delights
of love are good, and that for the sake of his lady a young knight
performs deeds of chivalry.[8] In addition to these changes, which
are to be attributed to his personal bent and surroundings, Wace also
makes it clear that he was conversant with stories of Arthur quite
independent of the Historia. Fables about Arthur he himself says that
he had heard, as we have seen, and from these he adds to Geoffrey’s
narrative two that bear unmistakable signs of a Celtic origin, and
that were destined to become important elements in later romance; for
he gives us the first literary record of the famous Round Table, [9]
and the first definite mention in literature of the “hope of Britain.” [10]

Wace is not to be regarded as one of the great contributors to our
knowledge of Arthurian legend, but without a familiarity with his
work, later French romance can scarcely be appreciated, so important
is his place as a delicate transformer of the story, the harsher
elements of which he veiled with the courtliness familiar to him,
while he diffused throughout it the indefinable spirit of French
romance; and this he did with the naive simplicity and grace that were
his by birth and temperament.


To Wace we owe still another debt, for the Roman de Brut served as
the direct source for one of the greatest members of the Arthurian
literature of any period. This is the Brut, written in the first half
of the thirteenth century, after the year 1204, by Layamon, an English
priest of the country parish of Lower Arnley in Worcestershire.

“There was a priest in the land, who was named Layamon; he was son of
Leovenath—may the Lord be gracious to him!—he dwelt at Ernley, at a
noble church upon Severn’s bank,—good it there seemed to him—near
Radestone, where he books read. It came to him in mind, and in his
chief thought, that he would tell the noble deeds of the English; what
they were named, and whence they came, who first possessed the English
land, after the flood that came from the Lord…. Layamon began to
journey wide over this land, and procured the noble books which he
took for pattern. He took the English book that Saint Bede made;
another he took in Latin, that Saint Albin made, and the fair Austin,
who brought baptism in hither; the third book he took, and laid there
in the midst, that a French clerk made, who was named Wace, who well
could write; and he gave it to the noble Eleanor, who was the high
King Henry’s queen. Layamon laid before him these books, and turned
over the leaves; lovingly he beheld them—may the Lord be merciful to
him!—pen he took with fingers, and wrote on book-skin, and the true
words set together, and the three books compressed into one. Now
prayeth Layamon, for love of the Almighty God, each good man that
shall read this book and learn this counsel, that he say together
these soothfast words, for his father’s soul, who brought him forth,
and for his mother’s soul, who bore him to be man, and for his own
soul, that it be the better. Amen!” [11]

With these words Layamon introduces us to his book and to himself; in
fact they contain the sum total of our information about his life. But
they put us at once into sympathy with the earnest, sincere student,
who wrote, not like Geoffrey and Wace, for the favour of a high-born
patron, but for the love of England and of good men and his few
hardly-won and treasured books. Of these books Wace’s Brut received
the lion’s share of his attention, and he made little or no use of the
others that lay before him.

He followed Wace’s poem in outline, but he succeeded in extending its
15,300 verses to 32,241, by giving a free rein to his fancy, which he
often allowed to set the pace for his pen. For Layamon in his retired
parish, performing the monotonous and far from engrossing duties of a
reading clerk,[12] lived in reality a stirring life of the imagination.
Back in the Saxon past of England his thoughts moved, and his mind
dwelt on her national epic heroes. Not only in his language, which
belongs to the period of transition from Anglo-Saxon to Middle
English, but in his verse [13] and phraseology, he shows the
influence of earlier Anglo-Saxon literature. The sound of the Ode on
Athelstane’s Victory
and of Beowulf is in our ears as we read his
intense, stirring lines. Wars and battles, the stern career of a Saxon
leader, the life of the woods and fields attracted him far more than
the refinements of a Norman court, and by emphasising the elements
that were most congenial to himself he developed an entirely different
picture from that presented by either Geoffrey or Wace. Writing with
intense interest, he lives and moves and has his being among the
events that he is narrating, and is far too deeply absorbed in his
story to limit himself to the page that he has before him. Given a
dramatic situation, the actors become living personalities to him, and
he hears impassioned words falling from their lips in terse phrases
such as he never found in the lines of Wace. Uther Pendragon, in a
deadly battle against the Irish invaders under Gillomar and Pascent,
slays Gillomar, then overtakes Pascent:—

“And said these words Uther the Good: ‘Pascent, thou shalt abide; here
cometh Uther riding!’ He smote him upon the head, so that he fell
down, and the sword put in his mouth—such meat to him was strange—so
that the point of the sword went in the earth. Then said Uther,
‘Pascent, lie now there; now thou hast Britain all won to thy hand! So
is now hap to thee; therein thou art dead; dwell ye shall here, thou,
and Gillomar thy companion, and possess well Britain! For now I
deliver it to you in hand, so that ye may presently dwell with us
here; ye need not ever dread who you shall feed.'” [14]

Arthur leads his men close to the hosts of Colgrim, the leader of the

Saxon invaders:—

“Thus said Arthur, noblest of kings: ‘See ye, my Britons, here beside
us, our full foes,—Christ destroy them!—Colgrim the strong, out of
Saxonland? His kin in this land killed our ancestors; but now is the
day come, that the Lord hath appointed that he shall lose the life,
and lose his friends, or else we shall be dead; we may not see him
alive!….’ Up caught Arthur his shield, before his breast, and he gan
to rush as the howling wolf, when he cometh from the wood, behung
with snow, and thinketh to bite such beasts as he liketh. Arthur then
called to his dear knights: ‘Advance we quickly, brave thanes! all
together towards them; we all shall do well, and they forth fly, as
the high wood, when the furious wind heaveth it with strength.’ Flew
over the [fields] thirty thousand shields, and smote on Colgrim’s
knights, so that the earth shook again. Brake the broad spears,
shivered shields; the Saxish men fell to the ground…. Some they
gan wander as the wild crane doth in the moor-fen, when his flight is
impaired, and swift hawks pursue after him, and hounds with mischief
meet him in the reeds; then is neither good to him nor the land nor
the flood; the hawks him smite, the hounds him bite, then is the royal
fowl at his death-time.” [15]

Layamon lets his imagination display itself not merely in the dramatic
speeches that he puts into the mouths of his actors; he occasionally
composes a long incident, as in the story of the coronation of
Constans,[16] of the announcement to Arthur of Mordred’s treachery,[17]
and in the very striking account of Arthur’s election to the throne of
Britain and his reception of the messengers who come for him. “Arthur
sate full still; one while he was wan, and in hue exceeding pale; one
while he was red, and was moved in heart. When it all brake forth, it
was good that he spake; thus said he then, forthright, Arthur, the
noble knight: ‘Lord Christ, God’s Son, be to us now in aid, that I may
in life hold God’s laws.'” [18] But in general Layamon’s expansions
of Wace are merely slight additions or modifications, sufficient in
number, however, to go far in doubling the size of the volume. His
great change is that which I have already mentioned, the spirit in
which the story is conceived, and this is best illustrated, perhaps,
in the person of Arthur himself. For Arthur is no knight-errant, but
a grim, stern, ferocious Saxon warrior, loved by his subjects, yet
dreaded by them as well as by his foes. “Was never ere such king, so
doughty through all things.” He stands in the cold glare of monarchy
and conquest, and save in the story of his birth and of his final
battle he is seldom, if ever, seen through the softer light of
romance. But Layamon is the only source for the story of which we hear
nothing in the later romances, and which is generally attributed to a
Teutonic origin, that elves came to Arthur’s cradle and gave him good
gifts—to be the best of knights, a rich king, long lived, abounding
in “virtues most good.” Layamon, too, gives a truly Celtic version
of Arthur’s disappearance from earth. Two fairy maidens bear the wounded
king in a boat from the battle-field over the sea to Argante, the queen
of Avalon, who will make him whole again. “And the Britons ever expect
when Arthur shall return.” This story, and also Layamon’s very important
account of the establishment of the Round Table, which is vastly more
complete than Wace’s, bear unmistakable marks of a Celtic origin. Layamon,
in fact, living as he did near the Welsh border, naturally shows
familiarity with current Welsh tradition. His work has a high value in
the vexed question of the origin and growth of Arthurian romance; for
it proves the existence of genuine Welsh tradition about Arthur, and
makes untenable the position of those critics who maintain that the
Arthurian legend had an independent development only on the continent.

Layamon’s contributions to our knowledge of the Arthurian material
are, however, comparatively small, since he augmented his original in
the main by passages inspired by his own imagination.[19] His additions
may be called poetic rather than legendary. Partly because of its
Saxon character his Brut never attained wide popularity, and it had
little effect upon the cycle; but it remains one of the most truly
great literary achievements in the field of both Arthurian chronicle
and romance.

Our three most important Arthurian chroniclers, Geoffrey, Wace, and
Layamon, were all men of marked individuality and ability; each lives
for us with as distinct a personality as if we had far more than our
very imperfect knowledge of the details of his life. Geoffrey, a
clever combiner, a highly gifted narrator and scholar, born at a happy
hour, gave the Arthurian legend a definite literary form, brought
permanently together independent elements of tradition, and
contributed enormously to the popularity of the cycle. Wace, the
professional author, the scrupulous antiquarian and na?ve poet,
carefully refined the material of Geoffrey, and dressed it in the
French costume of courtly life. Layamon, the intense and imaginative
English priest, transformed it by the Saxon spirit, and divesting it
of its courtly elegance, filled it with greater simplicity and force.


Arthur’s magic possessions form a prominent element in Welsh
tradition, and their appearance in the early chronicles is an
important testimony to the diffusion of Welsh legend. Kilhwch and
contains a list of his belongings, all of which there is
reason to believe, from record or from logical inference, were of
otherworld origin. Each has its significant proper name, which in most
cases conveys the idea of brilliant whiteness, a characteristic of
Celtic fairy objects. His ship, for example, is named White Form,
his shield “Night Gainsayer,” his dagger “White Haft.” The Dream of
[20] describes his carpet (or mantle), “White,” which had the
property of retaining no colour but its own, and of making whoever
was on it (or wrapped in it) invisible, and also his sword,
“Hard-breacher,” graven with two serpents from whose jaws two flames
of fire seemed to burst when it was unsheathed, “and then so wonderful
was the sword that it was hard for any one to look upon it.” This
sword (Caletvwlch, Caliburn, Excalibur) is a Pan-Celtic marvellous
object, and is one of Arthur’s most famous possessions. The deadly
blows attributed by Nennius to him in the Battle of Mount Badon
without doubt traditionally were dealt by Caliburn. Geoffrey of
Monmouth recognised it as a fairy sword, and says that it was made in
Avalon, namely, the Celtic otherworld. We may also feel confident that
the full panoply of armour with which Geoffrey equips Arthur (ix. 4)
consisted of magic objects, although Geoffrey, who in general, as an
historian, rationalises the supernatural, merely describes them as
amazingly efficacious. The shield he calls by the name of Arthur’s
ship in Welsh sources, Pridwen (evidently a fairy boat, limitless in
capacity), either from some confusion in tradition, or because, being
enchanted, Pridwen might, of course, serve as either ship or shield.

Layamon adds further information about Arthur’s weapons. His burny,

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