For Layamon, the history of the British people begins—on the authority of Geoffrey of Monmouth—with the fall of Troy. The flight of Aeneas and his father and son to the Italian peninsula, where he establishes a Roman kingdom, is recalled from The Aeneid. Layamon then follows medieval Celtic tradition in telling of a great-grandson of Aeneas who, exiled from Italy, goes to Greece to unite and free the scattered Trojan people, whom he takes to the British Isles. He names them, in fact, after himself, for his name is Brutus—the “Brut” of the title. Landing in Britain, Brutus and his people find the island populated by giants, whom they defeat and slay.
The remaining 16,095 lines of Brut is an episodic succession of chronicles of the descendants of Brutus, some told in more detail than others. The nearly eighty kings from Brutus to Julius Caesar’s invasion in 55 b.c.e. cannot be substantiated historically, but many of them are well remembered in later treatments of prehistoric British legend. For example, Gorboduc, remembered tragically for dividing his kingdom among his sons and watching it disintegrate in civil war is celebrated in the pre-Shakespearean tragedy that bears his name. The Leir (Lear) of Shakespeare’s tragedy is also described in some detail in Brut.
By the time Caesar’s arrival brings Layamon’s account into historical view, the poet is nearly one-quarter into his narrative (line 3588). From this point, historical and mythical figures alternate, including mythic figures like Old King Coel of the nursery rhyme (lines 5415-5503) and the historical arrival of the Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, under Hengest and Horsa (lines 6880-8346, dated by Bede at 449 c.e.). In the middle of the Anglo-Saxon episode, the wizard Merlin makes his appearance, and the Arthurian segment of Brut—the most popular part of the poem, and for more than a century the only part in print—finally begins.
Merlin first appears in Brut as a boy, being bullied by other boys. He soon, however, shows his skill at prophecy, first for the Saxon king Vortigern, then for the Briton’s Aurelius and his brother Uther. Merlin predicts the birth of Arthur, and arranges it by transforming Uther into the shape of his counselor, Gorlois, so that he can sleep with Gorlois’s wife, Igrene. When Arthur is born of that union, elves attend him, giving him magical gifts.
Arthur becomes king and draws the greatest knights to his court from all over the world. Since each is the best in his own land, the knights at Arthur’s table begin quarreling over pride of place during the Yuletide feast. Consequently, Arthur has a Cornish carpenter build a round table that can seat sixteen hundred knights with equal dignity, yet a table that can be taken down and carried to any of Arthur’s castles.
After many military successes against Saxons in England and Germany, fellow Bretons in France, and even the Roman Empire, Arthur is brought down by his nephew, Modred, in a final battle in which both Arthur and Modred are fatally wounded. As he is dying, however, Arthur tells of the elvish queen Argante, who will come for him and take him away to the isle of Avalon, where he will be healed and will await his return when the Britons need him most. Indeed, a ship appears and two splendid ladies carry him away. The remaining two thousand lines of Brut detail the reigns of British and Saxon kings, down to Cadwalader, a historic figure who died in 682 c.e.
All that is known about Brut’s author, Layamon—also spelled “Lawman” and “Laweman”—is what he says in the preface to the work. The identification of the author at a time when most written works were anonymous may strike the modern reader as odd, but as Rosamund Allen points out in the notes to her modern translation of...
(The entire section is 1626 words.)