Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 135
Layamon's Brut is a romantic chronicle of the history of Great Britain and its people. Layamon starts his chronicle with the fall of Troy and lists all the kings, queens, and momentous events from then until his time. While some of the people and events described can be corroborated by other historical texts, many others seem to be myths and legends. The most famous of these is, of course, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
According to Layamon, the British people are descendants of the survivors of Troy, who were led by Brutus, a great-grandson of Aeneas, to the British Isles where they fought the giants who inhabited it and made a life for themselves. The title, Brut, comes from this Brutus, who is said to have named the people after himself.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1626
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 Brut, Layamon is merely presenting an Aristotelian preface, which begins by identifying the “efficient cause” of the work. This efficient cause is what is now called the author. Next, Layamon reports the work’s “material cause,” the three sources for his history: the ecclesiastical history of Saint Bede the Venerable, an unnamed book by Alcuin and Augustine, and the Roman de Brut of poet Wace.
Layamon, however, did not use Bede’s history; the second unnamed work is thought by most modern scholars to be a mistaken identification of Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1136; History of the Kings of Britain, 1718) by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The third book, which was Wace’s Norman French versification of Geoffrey’s book, was Layamon’s almost exclusive source for Brut. Although Brut has been called virtually a paraphrase of Wace’s romance, it is nearly twice as long. The near-doubling comes not from additional material, but rather from added or invented detail.
Nevertheless, there are key incidents in the English Brut that first appeared in print with Layamon, though many incidents come from French or Breton oral traditions. Many of the best-known elements of the Arthurian legends are first found in Layamon’s Brut. Two of them, Arthur’s birth and his death, involve supernatural elements that are likely to have origins in Celtic myth. At Arthur’s birth, Layamon reports, alven (elves) appear with three gifts for the future king: might in battle, kingship, and long life. Elves appear also in his passing, as the dying Arthur tells Constantine, “And ich wülle varen to Avalun to vairest alre maidene,/ To Argante, there quene, alven swithe sceone;/ And heo scal mine wunden makien alle i-sunde” (“And I will fare to Avalon to fairest of all maidens,/ To Argante, the queen, elf most beautiful;/ And she shall make my wounds all sound”).
The poetic line used by Layamon is in itself remarkable, being a bridge between Old English alliterative verse and the French-influenced rhyming verse of Middle English poetry. In the three lines above, for example, readers see something akin to the Old English pattern of two half-lines, each with two strong stresses, bound by alliteration. In Layamon’s alliterative lines, such as the first quoted above, there actually seems to be an irregular number of syllables, but the two halves of the line are bound by the alliterative pairs varen (fare, or travel) and vairest (fairest). In the other two lines, however, the half-lines are bound by rhyme, quene/sceone and wunden/i-sunde.
Some commentators have found in the ensuing lines, describing the British belief in Arthur’s return, a contemporary reference to Arthur of Brittany, thus dating the composition of the poem to the turn of the twelfth century. Richard I had named the son, Arthur, of his brother, Geoffrey, the heir to the throne. If Layamon had written the Arthurian passages before 1203, then, he may have intended the “return of Arthur” to reflect this latter-day member of the royal family. Strengthening this reading is that Layamon did not say merely that “Arthur would return,” but instead that “an Arthur sculde yete cum,” or “an Arthur was still to come.”
Many of Layamon’s earliest readers (and critics) were historians, and so the assessment of his work centered on the unreliable nature of his work as history. However, history in the modern sense of the word—an objective chronicle of real events—was far from Layamon’s intention. Like his primary source, Wace’s Roman de Brut, Layamon’s Brut is intended to be a romance, an adventure tale about knights and the marvels they encounter. Layamon describes British kings encountering mermaids (line 664), giants (902-966), dragons (7952-7976), and even a Nessie-like sea monster, not in Scotland’s Loch Ness but in Loch Lomond (10848-10852). Allen points out that Layamon employs even more of the romance themes and motifs than does Wace, who had called his work a roman.
Despite knowing Layamon only by what he writes in his preface, it is quite striking that readers have a name for him at all, given that he is an author of the twelfth or thirteenth century. His name itself also tells a great deal: It simply means “law man” or “man of law,” which does not necessarily mean he was a lawyer or a judge (though “judge” was one of the meanings of the word “lawman” in the thirteenth century), for laue could also mean “national custom,” an interest certainly reflected by Layamon’s history of British heroes. The narrative, however, does show a particular interest in the laws, and Layamon has a recurring phrase for selected kings, telling the reader that they “made good laws.” However, even if his name were a mere professional epithet, it must be treated as a personal name, for Layamon ends his preface by asking the reader to pray for him.
Though he may have had an interest in the law (or national custom), Layamon describes himself as a priest in the church at Areley, near Redstone, on the River Severn. This places him on the Welsh border, where he could not escape contact with oral traditions (or written ones that do not survive) about Arthur and other ancient Britons. An illuminated capital on the first page of one of the two manuscripts shows Layamon in the habit of a Benedictine monk. In one manuscript he calls himself the son of Leouenath, but in the other he gives his father’s name as Leucais. His main reason for mentioning the name is, he says, to invite prayer for him.
Though many of the accounts of successive reigns in Brut are by their very nature tedious, Layamon has an eye for a good story. He gives readers the human element of British history in this romanticized version of English chronicles.
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