The Histories of the Kings of Britain, or Historia Regum Britanniae, by Geoffrey of Monmouth was very entertaining. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a “history” at all, but it was an interesting look at the myth underlying the English identity.
The Trojans—you know, those Trojans, the ones that pissed off the Greeks by making off with Helen—weren’t completely annihilated during the Trojan War. At least according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Virgil, and a host of classical writers. Nope, some descendants made their way to the British Isles that were only inhabited by giants, which they then handily defeated. Over the next 2,000 or so years, the British/Trojans fought wars, won land, and even sacked Rome, gallantly paving a path for the great British Empire.
If you know anything about history, then you’re aware that when the Romans “conquered” the British Isles, they were populated by the native Picts, Britons, Celts, Scots, etc. Were these native people originally from Troy? Unlikely. But it makes for a good story and a great origin myth (which I suspect was the point).
While this book is largely, if not entirely, fiction, it’s that fiction which has turned into legend we all know: King Leir and his daughters, Brutus, King Arthur, Merlin, Uther Pendragon, and Aurelius Ambrosius. What’s interesting is that while the myth of Arthur is one of the earliest known so lacks some of the drama of the version we know now (Lancelot, The Round Table, Excalibur), the story of King Leir and his daughters that we received through Shakespeare is almost exactly the same as the one found in this book.
Histories is made up of 12 books:
- Brutus: He was supposedly the great-grandson of Aeneas of Troy, and led the remaining Trojans to the British Isles where he was the first king.
- King Leir: He had three daughters, only one of which truly loved him. The other two conspired against him.
- Belinus and Brennius: Kings and brothers who sack Rome after nearly killing each other in a civil war.
- Roman Rule under Caesar.
- Vortigern: Usurps throne.
- Saxons: The Germanic tribe comes to Britain, invited by usurper Vortigern.
- Merlin: List of prophecies.
- Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon: Brothers and rightful heirs of throne serve as kings until both are poisoned separately by enemies.
- Arthur: Arthur expands the kingdom.
- Mordred: While Arthur’s fighting abroad, his nephew, Mordred, usurps the throne (and marries Guinevere, Arthur’s wife—and Mordred’s aunt. Ew).
- Constantine: Arthur, injured in reclaiming the throne, is taken to Avalon and gives his throne to his cousin.
- Cadwallader: Last of line of British kings before the wickedness of the people results in Saxons overcoming them.
As you can see, the Romans did conquer the British Isles (to an extent) and the Saxons did invade (whether outright or through immigration, we’re not sure). The text just twists the history to put England in the best light.
I wouldn’t say the writing’s lyrical, but it is a remnant of an older, more ancient form of English, and that makes it beautiful in its own right.
Once I realized that this books was full of myths and legends, I quite enjoyed it. Some parts were a bit long-winded, such as Merlin’s prophecies and the genealogies, but others were action-packed, something I was definitely not expecting when I opened up the book. As for whether it’s worth reading…I’d suggest reading the other versions of the more popular tales like Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and Shakespeare’s King Lear. That way you get the entire experience without having to wade through list upon list of forgettable kings.
Descent, but unnecessary. But it’s a classic, so there’s some value in it.