Reading between the frequently derided lines of Geoffrey of Monmouth

 – BRIEF ANALYSIS –

Yesterday I presented a sci-fi short story, the day before an examination of story telling techniques and a verse from a poem. Continuing this trend of diversity, I turn my attention to the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

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Geoffrey of Monmouth, best known for his Latin work The History of the Kings of Britain isn’t considered one of history’s most reliable chroniclers. As well as a cleric and noted scholar, was he also a learned historian detailing bits of his twelfth century yesteryears in an informative and entertaining fashion? Or, was Geoffrey of Monmouth simply an imaginative story teller with a flair for the unusual and a penchant for the melodramatic?

History hasn’t been kind to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s writings, especially those concerning King Arthur and Merlin. They are considered apocryphal and devoid of any documented (ergo trusted) sources to back-up his tales of sword and sorcery. To most modern scholars, his writing is considered pure fantasy, which is a shame.

Many believe in the Arthurian legends, and time has revealed some startling finds about this apparently fictional part of history. To those who consider Merlin to be a great and wise magician, Geoffrey’s tales actually provide sturdy proof that Merlin understood things about people, astrology, geology and the land, most people consider impossible, given the times in which he lived.

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One of Geoffrey’s of Monmouth’s stories touches upon the building of Stonehenge. When Merlin suggested to King Aurelius (c. 5 AD) that he should send an expedition to Ireland to collect stones from Mount Killarus, the King bursts into laughter asking “how can such huge stones be moved from so far distant a country?” A reasonable question, you might think but Merlin is irritated by the King’s response and so rebuked him for his laughter. “What I say has nothing ludicrous about it. These stones are connected with certain religious rites. They have properties which are medicinally important.” This story appears to be contemporary with Geoffrey’s his own lifetime, yet the attitudes displayed are clearly from a fifth century perspective. Aurelius is clearly possessed with a dark ages mind-sight because no twelfth century King would have laughed at the idea of large stones being transported, even overseas (in the twelfth century many British monasteries and cathedrals were being built from imported stone from Europe). This recounting of an old legend about the source of the Stonehenge stones is clearly set in an earlier period of history, when Aurelius’ response would have been entirely appropriate, perhaps highlighting the unique perspective of Merlin.

Merlin’s insistence that the stones be brought from Ireland also benefits being looked at from a fifth century perspective. Merlin’s birthplace was Caer Myrddun in Dyfed (now known as Carmarthen). The western part of this region had been colonised by an Irish tribe, the Deisi who established a dynasty of Irish Kings in West Wales. The local language for approximately five centuries was Irish as well names of towns confirming this, standing stones can be found in this region inscribed with Ogham script, a kind of language which originated in Ireland. The rule of the Desi tribes continued to around the end of the tenth century when the Vikings finally broke their grip on the region but to people of the fifth century, Ireland was not confined to that large island across the Irish sea, as we identify with the country today. In the light of these facts we begin to understand the Merlin story a little better.

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Preseli Bluestone

Using the character of Merlin,Geoffrey informs the reader of a remote source of the Stonehenge stones – from a fifth century perspective. This is interesting because from our modern perspective this aspect of the story is impressively correct. Many of the most impressive Stonehenge stones are Bluestones (so called because when polished there’s a distinct blue-ish hue) and the closest place known to contain such rock is the Preseli mountains of West Wales. To Merlin (and later Viking and Saxon occupiers of the this land) the Preseli mountains, in the area we now call Pembrokshire, would have been understood as being part of Ireland.

This reveals to us the answer to a much over-looked question and explains the “Irish” source of some of the Stonehenge stones. The question we must ask this apparently inaccurate account from Geoffrey of Monmouth is this; Where did Merlin come by the notion of transporting massive stones over hundreds of miles? Was it a tradition inherited by previous occupiers of the land? Merlin is supposed to have been fond of standing stones, was this too based on knowledge acquired by our ancestors?

The Merlin in Geoffrey’s tale spoke Welsh (as did most people in Britain at the time) but was contemporary with Irish occupation of Wales. Mount Killarus is the place Merlin believed the stones should be brought, however, if Merlin spoke Irish as well as Welsh and was the clever man many believe he was, more truth begins to unfold. Cill’ or ‘Kill’ is the Irish for ‘temple’ or ‘church’, while ‘arlais’ is Welsh for temple, making the name Mount Killarus or ‘Mount church temple’ , or more simply put ‘Sacred Mountain’. Many archaeologists and historians believe this region would have been recognised by Neolithic man as a ‘sacred mountain’ of sorts– a place where they could survey the land and look out to sea.

Since the 1920’s we’ve known some of the oldest furniture at Stonehenge are ‘Bluestones’ and a distant source of the stones was employed. We also know Merlin grew up within fifty miles of where these stones are known to have originated, the only place remotely close to Stonehenge – the Preseli hills. In other words Mount Killarus , as mentioned by Merlin in Geoffrey’s story.

We may never know if Merlin did indeed know of a tradition concerning the source of stones from Prseli but we do know for certain that these stones ended up at Stonehenge.

When stories of the mythical flirt with established scientific and historic fact in such a way, is it really wise to discount Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicles so entirely? I submit to you the oft quoted saying “many a true words may be spoken in jest”. Substitute ‘jest’ for ‘dramatic licence’ and may come to realise just how much may be gained by reading between Geoffrey’s frequently derided lines.

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As usual, all words Copyright Martin Gregory.

(He’s now known as Geoffrey of Monmouth, perhaps I should be Martin of South Gloucestershire? No. That’d be pants)

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