Sunday, September 19, 2010

Penguins on Parade: Geoffrey of Monmouth!

Some Penguin Classics perform a much-needed service, and that certainly applies to Lewis Thorpe's 1966 translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century barn-burner, The History of the Kings of Britain.

This book was immensely popular in its own time – unlike the great bulk of stuff written in and around the 1130s, of which we have today, um, nothing at all, there are manuscripts of Geoffrey's work everywhere; if you stop reading, get up and check your kitchen drawers, chances are you'll find a battered old vellum manuscript of the Historia right next to your worn-out Jeremy Jordan CDs. Time has not been kind to Jeremy Jordan – but The History of the Kings of Britain is just as lively and engaging now as it was 900 years ago. And it casts a long shadow: it was hugely influential on Marie de France, Chretien de Troyes, Heldris de Cornualle, and Wolfram von Eschenbach. Without it, Malory's Morte d'Arthur and the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in their present forms would have been unthinkable, as would Holinshed, whose chronicles had rather a large effect on a certain English playwright. And every knights-errant pastiche that followed (surely knights will be the new vampires, in 2011? Who knows what mopey armored dreamboat is even now slouching toward completion on somebody's iPhone?) is forever in debt to Geoffrey's book. Of course, such popularity will have its detractors … in Geoffrey's own day, his work was slapped all over the Times literary pages by none other than Gerald of Wales, another best-selling author who told anybody who would listen that Geoffrey was a fraud, a charlatan, and perhaps a bigamist.

Gerald of Wales wasn't the only person to make such accusations against Geoffrey, and the bone of contention was always the same: that the mysterious ancient Welsh text “The Prophecies of Merlin” - a book Geoffrey claimed to have borrowed from a friend and used as the basis for much of what is most famous in his own work – was entirely bogus, and that Geoffrey had tarted up quasi-chronicle half-sources, mixed in a liberal amount of lurid fantasizing, and produced a book that was a disgrace to every genre it touched. According to these critics, The History of the Kings of Britain was not just a bad but a dangerous one, because its prattlings could be mistaken for the truth by the semi-literate groundlings who were its most eager consumers. In other words, Geoffrey of Monmouth was the Dan Brown of the 12th century.

Only Dan Brown never gifted to the world creations quite so durable as the main two Geoffrey gave us (at least, Brown hasn't done it yet – perhaps one gains new spurts of creativity after the $1 billion mark; I'll let you know, if it ever happens to me): it's from The History of the Kings of Britain that we get noble King Arthur and his wizardly adviser Merlin. True, Geoffrey either invents or seductively popularizes a host of other recognizable names, from King Lear to Old King Cole to Cymbeline – but it's his gripping, funny, psychologically acute narrative of King Arthur and his Knights, the battles, the adventures, and Arthur's final wounding at the battle of Camlann (and his voyage to the Isle of Avalon, perhaps to return one day) … it's that stuff that makes him and his book immortal, while the works of Gerald of Wales have fallen into an obscurity so deep only a hopeless crank would know them today.

But immortality can be tricky (don't get me started), and although his reputation and influence were enormous, Geoffrey's actual book went begging for a popular paperback edition until this one by Thorpe came along, and the whole endeavor of it perfectly captures the ethos that has always made Penguin Classics such great and sunny things. Take a strong and important text from the past, put it in the hands of a first-rate scholar/translator whose main goal is for lots of ordinary people to read that text, let him work, and price the end result within the book-buying budget of the poorest college student. Penguin has done this countless times, and it's exactly what happened with this handy little paperback of the Historia. In his Introduction, Thorpe is blessedly no-nonsense about his work:
There has been much debate about the division of the Historia into twelve, eleven, or nine books, and then the breaking down of each book into chapters. Whatever devices the various scribes and editiors have adopted here, it seems reasonably clear that these subdivisions were not made by Geoffrey himself. I have divided my translation into eight main parts, according to the subject-matter, and given a clear title to each part. These titles are repeated as a running-head at the top of my verso pages; and at the top of my recto pages there is a printed indication of the point reached in the narrative; a really full index raissone, the first ever printed of Geoffrey's book, is given at the end of the volume.

And there you have it – a back-breaking amount of work, done expertly and unassumingly, then handed over to a public that ought to be grateful. Probably Gerald of Wales would have called it blasphemous – but then, there's no pleasing some people.

[caption id="attachment_1492" align="aligncenter" width="220" caption="Geoffrey of Monmouth, in happier days"][/caption]

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