Reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain

MOTHER CULTURE SELECTION FOR NOVEMBER 2016

Geoffrey of Monmouth, an Oxford scholar and cleric, completed his Historia Regum Britanniae — The History of the Kings of Britain — around A.D. 1136. Writing in Latin, Geoffrey sketches more than two millenia of British history from its very founding through a century or so following Augustine’s arrival at Kent. Here we learn of the founding of Britain by Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas. We meet lively historical and literary figures such as King Cole, that merry old soul of nursery rhyme fame, and King Lear and Cymbeline of Shakespeare fame. Most notably, Geoffrey introduces to Europe, and us, to the splendid King Arthur, along with noble lords Gawain and Kay, faithless Guinevere, treacherous Mordred, and the perpetually mysterious and fascinating Merlin. Because Geoffrey includes stories that are not completely verifiable by modern research, and that have elements of mysticism and the miraculous, he is disdained in some quarters as unreliable. But Sir Winston Churchill offers a different perspective:

Modern research has not accepted the annihilation of Arthur. Timidly but resolutely the latest and best-informed writers unite to proclaim his reality. They cannot tell when in this dark period he lived, or where he held sway and fought his battles. They are ready to believe however that there was a great British warrior, who kept the light of civilization burning against all the storms that beat, and that behind his sword there sheltered a faithful following of which the memory did not fail…None the less, to have established a basis in fact for the story of Arthur is a service which should be respected. In this account we prefer to believe that the story with which Geoffrey delighted the fiction-loving Europe of the twelfth century is not all fancy. It is all true or it ought to be; and more and better besides. And wherever men are fighting against barbarism, tyranny, and massacre, for freedom, law, and honour, let them remember that the fame of their deeds, even though they themselves be exterminated, may perhaps be celebrated as long as the world rolls round. Let us then declare that King Arthur and his noble knights, guarding the Sacred Flame of Christianity and the theme of a world order, sustained by valour, physical strength, and good horses and armour, slaughtered innumerable hosts of foul barbarians and set decent folk an example for all time. ~ Sir Winston Churchill, The Birth of Britain, History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol. I

The version we use at Providence Prep is the Penguin Classics (click on image at left for Amazon affiliate link). As always, your first priority should be to just enjoy Geoffrey’s marvelous storyline. The ideas below for a close reading of this book build on the principles and practices detailed in this post I wrote for Scholé Groups:

TOWARD A LIFE WELL READ

The master aim of literature study should be to read and delight in the story. Keep these reading helps in their rightful place as servant to that master.

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT

Find out a bit about Geoffrey’s life and times. The introduction by Lewis Thorpe in the front of the Penguin edition is pretty good, or just read a bit about him at Wikipedia.  After you have read the entire book, I highly recommend two resources for thinking more deeply about it:

  • The Omnibus II introduction to Geoffrey’s History by N. D. Wilson (expensive, but sometimes available at your local library; or check with a home educating friend who has highschoolers—this intro is worth tracking down!)
  • Roman Roads Media Christendom: Defense of the Faith lecture series by Wes Callihan. Only two of the episodes in this series deal with Geoffrey, but they are outstanding! And the other lectures will also be a wonderful help in understanding the medieval period.

COMMONPLACE BOOK ENTRIES

If you are new to commonplacing, read this series of posts which includes lots of practical advice and specific how-tos for the practice of commonplacing.

THE ART OF COMMONPLACE

You might also enjoy my personal reflections on a lifetime of commonplacing.

Always read with a pen in hand! Mark possible passages for commonplacing at a future time.

Copy passages from History of the Kings of Britain that

  • state Geoffrey’s purposes for writing his history (from the Introduction)
  • reveal the “destiny” of Britain (from Diana’s prophecy)
  • show how Geoffrey situates his history with that of the Old and New Testament as well as well-known Roman history
  • reveal Geoffrey’s moral philosophy — to what causes does he attribute the rising and falling fortunes of Britain and her kings?

And always, as you read, record favorite passages, and those that

  • spark your interest, remind you of something else, or bring up questions in your mind
  • delight you – especially figures of speech and eloquent turns of phrase
  • point you to the good, the true, and the beautiful

REFLECTIONS AS YOU READ

Review the  general reading journal options. In addition, here are a few specific Reading Journal prompts to consider. This is not meant to be a deep analysis. Use this kind of guided journaling only as a way to enhance enjoyment of the story!

  • How does Geoffrey cite his sources? How does he situate his story historically? What does this tell you of how he views  his task?
  • When you are done reading the entire book, go back and read the very beginning pages. How does the first king of Britain come to reign? What happens to the Britons at the end? What is the significance of these events?
  • Does Geoffrey offer us infallible heroes? Why or why not? What does this reveal about his moral philosophy?

CONNECTIONS AND THE GREAT CONVERSATION

Write a response to the reading and/or community discussion. What did you find most interesting (or odd, or convicting…)? Are there any common themes or ideas from this reading which remind your of other books you have read? Are there any common themes or ideas from your Bible reading or recent sermons you have heard? Always be on the lookout for references to earlier or contemporaneous authors, ideas, and events—the ongoing Great Conversation.

Here are a few specific connections/reflections:

  • Journal your thoughts on the relationship of history to mythology. Connect to other authors/books we have read, like Bede, Homer, and Virgil. Keep thinking on these things as we study!
  • Make a little timeline from Geoffrey’s historical markers to line up the history of Britain with the history of the church and of Rome.

LINKS WORTH A LOOK

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
  • Pinterest has scads of pictures of Stonehenge and all things Arthur – maybe we should start a King Arthur board to share with one another? If someone wants to take the lead on that, I will post the link here.

 MOTHER CULTURE COMMUNITY

Mother Culture Community is an online fellowship of Christian classical home educators and other reading mothers (and aunts, and sisters, and grandmothers, and daughters), sponsored by The Reading Mother. Our mission is inspire our students in the pursuit of a life well‐read. We believe our own pursuit of a life well‐read is the best place to start.