Layamon Essay - Critical Essays


To analyze Layamon’s Brut, it is first necessary to continue the discussion of his sources. As mentioned above, Layamon’s main source was Wace’s Roman de Brut, which in the edition that Madden consulted consisted of 15,300 lines, as opposed to the 32,350 lines in his edition of Layamon’s Brut. Granted that Madden’s lines (now termed half-lines) are shorter than the lines in Wace, it is still apparent that Layamon considerably expanded his main source. It has been suggested that Layamon may have used an already expanded version of Wace, which had been conflated with an earlier chronicle (now lost) by Gaimar. As this suggestion cannot be verified, however, most critics have looked elsewhere for supplementary sources. One recent modification in this matter of primary sources is the discovery that some of the material previously considered original in Wace derives instead from an extant “variant version” of Geoffrey. Furthermore, additions occurring in a Welsh version of Geoffrey are paralleled in Layamon.

Layamon in his preface mentions two works in addition to Wace: “the English book that Saint Bede made” and another book “in Latin, that Saint Albin made, and the fair Austin.” Saint Bede the Venerable’s best-known work, and the work potentially of the most use to Layamon, is his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731; Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1723), written in Latin and later translated into Anglo-Saxon. Albinus of Canterbury (died 732) reportedly helped Bede gather source materials, and so a number of critics have assumed that Layamon erroneously attributed the Old English translation to Bede, and Bede’s Latin original to Abbot Albinus (and to the great apostle to the English, “Austin” or Saint Augustine of Canterbury, died 604 or 605). Layamon claims both to have “compressed” these three books (including Wace) into one and to have used the latter two books “as a model.” This second statement is closer to the truth, for Layamon did not in fact make any incontestable use of Bede. He was probably acting in a tradition of vague citation to a previous authority; Geoffrey before him had claimed access to a certain “most ancient” sourcebook. Nor can Layamon be shown conclusively to have drawn upon Geoffrey in the original Latin, upon classical authors, upon French Arthurians (besides Wace), or upon Welsh records. Evidence does suggest, however, that he was familiar with late Anglo-Saxon homiletic literature, and may even have read classical Anglo-Saxon verse in manuscript.

The best known of Layamon’s additions are those that contribute new material to Arthurian legend. Wace had made the first recorded reference to the Round Table, to which Layamon adds an account of the quarrels over precedence that led to its institution (11360ff.) To Arthur’s biography, Layamon adds an account of the elvish gifts at his birth (9608ff.), a premonitory dream of his final misfortunes in the battle with Molred (13982ff.), and an expanded version of Arthur’s mysterious departure to Avalon (14277ff.) Arthur as a character seems less a romance hero than a stern and successful king, feared and respected by all the kings and great knights of Europe. (Perhaps it should be noted that the better-known exploits of some of Arthur’s knights, such as the Lancelot affair and the quest for the Holy Grail, do not appear in Geoffrey, Wace, or Layamon.) As for Merlin, Layamon reports more of his prophecies than Wace had done, and adds an account of his stay in the wilderness (9878ff.) that can be compared with the Welsh tales of Merlin Silvestris.


Carolyn V. Friedlander discusses additions from other parts of Layamon’s Brut in her examination of five of its longer episodes: those of Leir, those of the Brut, heroes and thanes. As an illustration, she cites an interesting Arthurian passage, in which Wace’s knights ascend a tower and joke gaily about the relative merits of wartime and peace. Layamon, on the other...

(The entire section is 1662 words.)