Frances Lytle Gillespy (essay date 1916)
SOURCE: Gillespy, Frances Lytle. “The Narrative Art of Layamon's Brut and a Comparison with Wace's Brut.” University of California Publications in Modern Philology 3, no. 4 (November 24, 1916): 378-96.
[In the following essay, Gillespy compares Wace's Brut with Layamon's and argues that Layamon's descriptions of time and place are richer and more artful.]
The supposedly historical character of the work governs, to a large extent, the use of time-settings in both writers. Wace, following Geoffrey in the main, makes frequent statements as to the duration of reigns and events within reigns, and Layamon in his turn takes Wace as his model for the time skeleton of his work. He dates, however, more frequently and in more exact terms than does Wace,1 and he goes far beyond the French writer in the description of attendant circumstance. He occasionally describes wintry weather.2 Now and then he tells of a pleasant day when the sun is “swiðe briht.”3 At times he adds a circumstance indicative of direct observation, as in the statement that Lent came and the days began to lengthen (30627). The coming of the dawn is usually mentioned with some slight picturesque touch—“the third day it dawned fair” (21853 f) and more vividly “shields glistened there, light began to dawn” (21725 f) and again “It dawned and animals began to stir” (26940 f). The approach of night parts combatants as 28328. “The battle ended when the sun went to rest;” but the night itself is rarely described. It is thrice dusky (as 9802) and occasionally the moon is mentioned, as 20607 f. where we read that it shone directly south. In connection with the marvelous sight that Uther saw in Wales the sun shone “well nigh as bright as the sunlight” (17861).4 All of these descriptive suggestions appear meagre enough in comparison with the lavish coloring of modern poetry—but it is important to note, in comparison with Wace, that they all appear to be additions by the English writer.
The longer descriptions of time-setting also received greater elaboration in Layamon. The one exception is the description of a moonlight night, which is fuller in Wace.5 This description is, however, more than offset by such comparatively elaborate accounts as that found in Layamon's picture of the spring:
þa æstre wes aȝonge (24195) and Aueril eode of tune and þat gras was riue and þat water wes liðe and men gunnen spilien þat wes Mæi at tune.(6)
In addition to his further elaboration of descriptive features, the English poet frequently adds or deepens emotional coloring.7 Regret for the past, a longing for the good old times is frequently suggested or expressed, not only in the speeches of the characters, but by the writer speaking in his own person, as
… alle þa burhȝes (2065) þe Brutus iwrohte & heora noma gode þa on Brutus dæi stode beoð swiðe afelled, þurh warf of þon folke.(8)
The beginning of the poem shows that it is partly in this mood of regard and regret for the days that were gone that the whole work was conceived—a mood which is totally lacking in Wace's introduction.
On the whole, however, the use of time-setting is meagre and unskillful enough if Layamon's work be considered per se or the almost inevitable comparison with modern poetry be instituted. But in comparison with Wace the English poet's treatment appears remarkably full. He follows Wace in giving durations, but he dates more frequently and in more exact terms. He notes the time of day, when it adds to the sense of reality even when the action does not absolutely demand any specification. He mentions picturesque circumstance rather frequently. Wace almost never. In the English Brut there are several comparatively elaborate descriptions, in the French work almost none. The treatment of the passage of time as a whole is much the same in the two books, but an emotional coloring is more frequently present in the Layamon's poem. The treatment of the later poet, then, is more realistic and at the same time more suggestive.
The pseudo-historical character of the Bruts has its effect on the treatment of place as well as of time—an effect, however, that is largely superficial. To it is due the richness of geographical names. Literally hundreds of localities are mentioned by both writers, but distinctive bits of description are few and far between. Wace tells us that Scotland is a wooded country (1323) and gives a suggestion of vineyards in France in the line “Ne cep de vigne à estreper” (10386). Layamon speaks of the “wild land that Welsh men love.” Both poets describe the lakes of Scotland at considerable length. But except for these and a few other attempts at individualization the countries might be all one so far as their landscapes are concerned. And the time might be the same, for in both writers Brutus and his men at the beginning are evidently conceived as living in much the same sort of place as Cadwalader and his people at the end.
Throughout the narratives there are almost no set descriptions. England as a whole is characterized three times in terms that are a sort of combination of direct visualization and knowledge of phenomena. The accounts occur in both narratives but are far fuller in the English. Where Diana in Wace merely says that England is an island beautiful to dwell in, excellent for cultivation (W 681 ff), in Layamon she tells of birds and fish, wild places, and pleasant springs (L 1235-40). Wace gives an account of what Brutus saw when he surveyed his country with a list of natural objects as montaignes, valées, plaignes, and so on, but the English writer adds mention of animals, birds, and fish, characterizes the pleasant woods and fair meadows, tells us that the forest blossomed and speaks of the growing corn (L 2003 ff). A third description of the same sort is given under Belin's reign—a meagre account but one in which Layamon adds the work of human hands—burwes and tunes (L 4819, cf. W 2649)—to the landscape. The only other set descriptions of any length in either work are those of the lakes in Scotland. These accounts, however, belong more properly with the marvelous and will be treated under that head.9
Many landscape features are mentioned in connection with the action in both writers. They are elaborated, however, far more frequently in the English writer, who, for instance, describes with some circumstance the valley in which the Romans awaited part of Arthur's army (L 26932 ff), while Wace merely says “liu convenable trovèrent, à faire lor embuissement” (12529 f). A more striking illustration is the lack of any suggestion in Wace of the comparison of the hiding places of the Britons to those of badgers, while in Layamon we have a really picturesque simile:
Þet iherde Bruttes (12814) þer heo wuneden i þan puttes, inne eorðen & inne stockes heo hudeden heom alse brockes i wude i wilderne inne hæðe & inne uærne þat ne mihte wel neh na man nenne Brut iuinden.
An odd touch of characterization is used by the English writer in the case of the field of Ambresbury. Every time it is mentioned it has a conventional tag (in much the same way as a character often seems to have a special adjective, i.e., a fixed epithet assigned to him). It is a field “that was pleasant (muri)” (15188), “broad and very pleasant (muri) (17157), and again it is a field
þe is wunder ane brad (17453) he is brad & swiðe muri.
The characterization is itself slight and highly conventional but it seems to betray a desire not shared by Wace to tell something of the appearance of the famous field where
… Hengest biswæc (17456) Bruttes mid sæxen
—to make it appear in some way different from an ordinary field.
Occasionally the English writer introduces a bit of setting in such a way as to emphasize the action of an individual, as when Locrin's father-in-law threatened him with a battle-ax and “smote the stone where he was standing so that it was shattered into fragments.”10 Now and then Layamon mentions some landscape feature, not in connection with action but apparently merely to add to a picture, as when the knights find Merlin sitting by the edge of a spring which he loved (17025 ff) and again when the hermit comes upon him standing under a tree (18802).11
Rivers appear in both narratives when necessary for the action, but with almost no characterization. Gaie une ève corant is as full an expression as Wace ever uses, while Layamon rarely goes beyond such colorless adjectives as fair, hende, long, (often preceded by the adverb swiðe). The most interesting account of a river in either work is that of the Avon in the English Brut, where the interest comes from the figurative language and not from any direct description of the stream itself. Arthur says of Baldus: “Yesterday was Baldus boldest of all knights. Now he stands on the hill—”
& Auene bi-haldeð (21322) hu ligeð i þan stræme stelene fisces— mid sweorde bi-georede heore sund is awemmed heore scalen wleoteð swulc gold-faȝe sceldes— þer fleoteð heore spiten swule hit spæren weoren.
Other bodies of water are quite unimportant, with the exception of the sea, which is so significant that it will be discussed in a section of its own.
Passing on to the other part of place-settings—that which has to do with the works of man—we find that the work of the French writer is markedly less full than that of Layamon. In both narratives the setting is homogeneous—Aeneas's castle in Italy is evidently conceived in the same terms as one of a much later time and a different country, such as that of Vortiger. Both writers are very sparing of formal descriptions. But the use of details by the two contributes to a totality of impression that is markedly different. If every scrap of information in Wace were collected, the picture of the dwellings would still be a bare one, while in Layamon the many concrete details serve to present us with a picture that is at once vivid and comparatively full. In the building of Vortiger's castle, for example, the earlier Brut says merely
Cil ont commencié à olvrer, (7513) Pière mortier à aloer,
while the later poet tells us that the king is advised to erect a castle with strong stone walls, on the mount of Reir (15442 ff), and the details of building follow:
dic heo bigunnen sone, (15463) hornes þer bleouwen, machunes heowen, lim heo gunnen bærnen.
Later it is told that
heo lim & stan leiden to-somne of machunes þer wes wunder.
Towers are evidently thought of as coming under the same head as castles, or as synonymous with them, for Layamon writes
and of castles ner þer na þing (7081) bute þat tur þe makede Belin king.
But the tower built by Caesar at Boulogne was apparently quite an unusual piece of architecture, for it is described at some length by both writers and almost solely for its own interesting features without regard to action. Wace tells us that it was “d'estrange compas” (4299), very wide below and grew narrow as it extended upward:
Maint estage i ot et maint estre (4303) Si ot desus mainte fenestre Une pière tant solement Covri le plus halt mandement.
Compared with the bare account in Geoffrey, “turrim quam in loco, quae Odnea vocatur, construxerat” (IV, 7), his description is remarkably full, but it contains nothing so vividly suggestive of its peculiar construction as Layamon's
þer mihten sitten in þon grunde (7779) cnihtes sixti hundred & þa turres cop mitte weoren a cniht mid his capen.
Another sort of habitation that is evidently exceptional is the underground dwelling or cave that Locrine built for Æstrild, but here the English writer furnished all the details, for while Wace simply mentions a “célier desos terre parfondement” (1424 f). Layamon tells of
… an eorð-hus (2360) eadi & feier þe walles of stone þe duren of whales bone.
In the case of the baths near which Bladus' temple was built, the English writer has more information to give. Wace says they were “chauz et saluables” (W 1675), while the later author tells that Bladus made a
… muchele ginne (2846) mid ane stæn cunne al swa great swa a beam, þe he leide in ane walle stream; þe ilke makeð þat water hot;
and he built near these hot springs a temple to Minerva.
As regards buildings that have nothing unusual about their construction, the details given in the English writer are often meagre enough, but however meagre they may be they are almost invariably fuller than those of Wace. Sometimes there is merely the addition of an almost colorless adjective such as “very fair,” “rich,” “lofty.” But frequently there is direct visualization, as in the case of Diana's temple, which to Wace is simply “un temple d'antiquité” (634) while Layamon sees it “great and lofty, built of marble.”
Parts of buildings are mentioned more frequently in Layamon and serve to give reality both to action and to setting. For example, in the English Brut we hear that Brian's sister hid herself “on the benches between two widows” (L 30822—not in Wace). And again, that Ygerne went to her bower and had the king's bed spread with fine cloth (19042 ff—not in Wace). Constance's murderers found him in his bower sitting by the fire (L 13562—not in Wace). Many concrete details are added in the case of the king's coming to Tyntagel. Uther's men cried to the gate-ward to undo the gate-bolt (18992). The knights ran up on the wall, thought they recognized Gorlois and his men. Then they “weighed up the castle gate” (19002 f). Later, after they had decided to surrender to Uther, “they let down the bridge” (19242).12
Suggestion of an occasional grim decoration of the hall is given in the mocking song of Childric's men where they boast that they will make a “bridge (brugge)” of Arthur's back, take all the bones of the noble king, and join them together with golden ties and lay them in the hall door where each man goes forth (20993 ff). The idea of decoration is not unlike that found in the Beowulf where Grendel's hand is used to decorate the Hall Heorot. Another account which likewise appears to have an Anglo-Saxon ring and which mentions almost every important part of the castle in a few lines is that of the giant's attack on Howel's castle:
þa ȝaten alle he to-brac (25885) and binnen he gon wende He nom þare halle wah [wall?] and helden hine to grunde þæs bures dure he warp adun þat heo to-barst a uiuen...
(The entire section is 6237 words.)