Arthurian Chronicles: Roman de Brut - Part 1

Part 1

Arthurian Chronicles: Roman de Brut.

by Wace.


"... 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 Engles_, 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 _trouveres_. 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 Brut_. He himself called it the _Geste des Bretons_ ("History of the Britons"), but it is best known under the t.i.tle that appears in the ma.n.u.scripts, 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 n.o.ble abbeys, under whose shadow he pa.s.sed 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.

Nicholas_:--"n.o.body can know everything, or hear everything, or see everything ... G.o.d distributes different gifts to different people.

Each man should show his worth in that which G.o.d 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, 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 va.s.sals 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 p.r.i.c.ked 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 p.r.o.nouncedly 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 n.o.ble 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 n.o.ble 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 n.o.ble 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 n.o.ble 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 G.o.d, 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 impa.s.sioned 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, n.o.blest 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 n.o.ble knight: 'Lord Christ, G.o.d's Son, be to us now in aid, that I may in life hold G.o.d'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 ill.u.s.trated, 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 pa.s.sages 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 nave 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 Olwen_ 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 Rhonabwy_ [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, he says (vs. 21133-34) "was named Wygar" (Anglo-Saxon _wigheard_), "Battle-hard," "which Witeze wrought," Witeze being a corrupted form for Widia, the Anglo-Saxon name of the son of Weland, the Teutonic Vulcan, a famous maker of magic weapons in romance, with whom his son might easily become identified in legend.

This is the explanation given by Professor G.L. Kittredge of the above lines, as a correction of Sir Frederic Madden's translation: "he [namely, the smith who made the burny] was named Wygar, the witty wight." Layamon says (v. 21147) that Arthur's helmet was called Goswhit, a name that is evidently a translation of some Welsh term meaning "goosewhite," which at once the helmet with Arthur's dazzlingly bright fairy belongings. Moreover, Layamon says (vs. 21158, 23779 ff.) that his spear Ron (a Welsh common noun, meaning "spear") was made by a smith called Griffin, whose name may be the result of an English subst.i.tution of the familiar word _griffin_ for the unfamiliar _Gofan_, the name of the Celtic smith-G.o.d. These facts are mainly important as testimony to the Celtic element in Arthurian romance, and especially to Layamon's use of current Welsh Arthurian tradition. The large variety of magical possessions a.s.signed to Arthur is also a notable indication of the great emphasis that Welsh legend laid upon his mythological attributes and his character as otherworld adventurer.

[The above facts have been established and discussed by Professor A.C.L. Brown in his article on the Round Table (p. 199, note 1) cited below in Excursus II.; also in _Iwain_, Boston, 1903, p. 79, note 1; _Modern Philology_, I., 5-8; _Publications of the Modern Language a.s.sociation of America_, XXV., 25 ff. See also the notes on the lines cited from Layamon in Sir Frederic Madden's edition of the _Brut_. For other magic possessions of Arthur, see below, Excursus II.]


(Wace, _Brut_, vs. 9994 ff., 10555, 13675; Layamon, vs. 22736 ff.)

Our earliest authority for the story of the Round Table is Wace. He and Layamon agree in calling it a tale of the Britons, and in saying that Arthur had it made to prevent rivalry as to place among his va.s.sals when they sat at meat. Layamon, however, expands the few lines that Wace devotes to the subject into one of his longest additions to his source, by introducing the story of a savage fight for precedence at a court feast, which was the immediate cause for fashioning the Round Table, a magical object. Ancient sources prove that the Celts had a grievous habit of quarrelling about precedence at banquets, probably because it was their custom to bestow the largest portion of meat upon the bravest warrior. It was also their practice to banquet seated in a circle with the most valiant chieftain of the company placed in the middle, possibly owing to the circular form of their huts, possibly for the sake of avoiding the disputes that so commonly disturbed their feastings. The Round Table, accordingly, is to be regarded as a Pan-Celtic inst.i.tution of early date, and as one of the belongings that would naturally be attributed by popular tradition to any peculiarly distinguished leader. Layamon's version so closely parallels early Celtic stories of banquet fights, and has so barbaric a tone, as to make it evident that he is here recounting a folk-tale of pure Celtic origin, which must have been connected with Arthur before his time, and probably before that of Wace; for this story was undoubtedly one of those "many fables" which Wace says the Britons told about the Round Table, but which he does not incorporate into his narrative.

[See A.C.L. Brown, _The Round Table before Wace in Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature_, VII. (Boston, 1900), 183 ff.; L.F. Mott, _Publications of the Modern Language a.s.sociation of America_, XX, 231 ff.; J.L. Weston, as above (p. xv.), pp. 883 ft.]