Through the mixed medieval genre of pseudohistory, Geoffrey of Monmouth (JEHF-ree of MAHN-muhth) created the first full-fledged biographies of King Arthur and his mentor, Merlin, as well as the classic structure of the glorious rise and tragic fall of the Round Table. He was probably born in 1100, perhaps in Monmouth, where he may have been educated in a Benedictine priory. He has left authentic signatures as witness to six charters connected with various religious houses at or near Oxford, where he may have been a secular canon at the College of Saint George, which he joined in 1129 and at which he may have taught.
Less conjectural are Geoffrey’s works and their enormous influence. In his lifelong search for ecclesiastical preferment, he dedicated to Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, his first work, The Prophecies of Merlin, an extended, panoramic, sometimes historical but largely allegorical discourse on British history. In Geoffrey’s major opus, History of the Kings of Britain, the inserted Prophecies become the prelude to Arthur’s career, the spiritual and (at one-third of the whole) textual center of the narrative of two thousand years of British rule. In the extended Arthurian centerpiece, the hero succeeds to the high kingship through hard-fought victories against domestic and nearby enemies, marries Guinevere, and, leaving her in the charge of his nephew Mordred, sails to the Continent with another nephew, Gawain. After defeating in single combat the Giant of Mt. St. Michel, with his army he conquers and kills the Roman emperor Lucius. As he is preparing to march upon Rome itself, he learns that Mordred has seized both Guinevere and Britain. Returning, Arthur faces the forces rallied by Mordred, newly resurgent Picts, Scots, Irish, and Saxons. He defeats his enemies, but only after suffering a mortal wound; he is carried to the mythical island of Avalon to be healed.
The remainder of the History of the Kings of Britain traces the declining fortunes of Arthur’s heirs. The first, Constantine, defeats the sons of Mordred and the Saxons. His successors, however, decline in power and influence, and the last high king, Cadwallader, defeated and having become a monk, is able to leave to his son Ivor and his nephew Iny the rule of Wales only.
Dedications of various editions of the History of the Kings of Britain to powerful contemporaries not only reflect the political climate in which Geoffrey worked but also help to date his various works. The several prefaces to the extant manuscripts, for example, are an index to the struggles between Stephen, nephew of Henry I, and the latter’s daughter, the empress Matilda, for the British throne. Equally telling, and of more personal significance, is the dedication of Geoffrey’s final work, the Life of Merlin, to Robert de Chesney, the new bishop of Lincoln, who was more friendly than his predecessor to Geoffrey’s churchly ambitions. Intended for a learned audience familiar with its scholarly and hagiographic sources, the Life of Merlin portrays Merlin in the Caledonian forest, mad with grief at his lord’s and companions’ deaths in battle. When his prophecies prove true, Merlin retires again to the forest with his sister Ganieda, who builds him a wondrous astronomical observatory. Again prophesying, this time about Britain’s fate, he meets the bard Taliesin, who tells him of Arthur’s transportation to Avalon for healing by Morgan le Fay. Merlin joins with Taliesin, Ganieda, and another “madman,” Maeldin, in permanent spiritual retreat in the forest.
Doubtless helped to ecclesiastical preferment by this and his other works, Geoffrey was made bishop of St. Asaph’s in 1152, but he apparently never occupied his see. He probably spent his last years in London and died in Wales. As disputed as the details of his life have been the identities of his sources, their “historicity,” and the intratextual and intertextual relationships of the various versions of his works. Yet Geoffrey’s real importance transcends whatever “historical” standards some commentators have seen him as violating. His work is, above all, imaginative and visionary. In his masterful bundling together of Arthurian themes, characters, and plot–all previously fragmentary and sometimes incoherent–he created narratives so influential that they became, uniquely, the basis of all important subsequent retellings.