The fascination that Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain exerted can be accounted for in two ways. Geoffrey gave to Britain a far deeper past than it had ever previously possessed, and he promulgated as part of that history the charismatic figure of King Arthur. Geoffrey filled a silent, empty space in Britain's prehistory with durable content. He did so not by obliterating what little he found in that past, but by giving fragments gleaned from other texts a fullness, a vivaciousness, a new life. The Trojan Brutus he takes from a scant narrative found in the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, growing the original story into the Aeneid in miniature. Geoffrey's Arthur emerges from his interweaving of vague references to a Welsh war leader into a coherent and compelling monarch whose conquests resemble nothing so much as those of contemporary Norman kings. Without Geoffrey's vision of earliest Britain as strangely contemporary place, the genre of romance would never have assumed the contours it came to possess, so attractive was the alternative (and secular, and marvelous) vision of history he offered. Arthurian literature could not have burgeoned without Geoffrey's creation of its primal scene in the History. The consensual world which the History of the Kings of Britain established invited medieval artists to add their own narratives, their own images, animating Arthur and Merlin and Guenevere through continuous dilation and frequent change.
Geoffrey of Monmouth's giants are an aboriginal population against whom the first settlers to Britain must wage genocidal war. Gogmagog, their leader, is executed by being hurled from a clifftop, plummeting to "a sharp reef of rocks, where he was dashed to a thousand fragments and stained the waters with his blood." The place of his spectacular death is known thereafter as "Gogmagog's Leap." Yet despite the action inherent in the designation, the toponym captures not a life in motion but an enduring arrest, an eternal fall from which Gogmagog – ever about to be smashed to blood and fragments by looming rocks -- will not escape: "Gogmagog's Leap," not "Gogmagog's Death." After the giants are cleansed from the land by the flood of newly arriving Trojan immigrants, moreover, we encounter more of the monsters. Just as in the Bible David fights one of the giants present after the Deluge, so in Geoffrey's History King Arthur will battles the giant of Mont Saint Michel.
Old English poetry is full of dark meditations on unnamed ruins. These crumbling remnants of human habitations may be Roman cities, like Bath; they could as easily be generic devastated architectures, since no specific history anchors them in the stream of time. In elegies like "The Wanderer" such windswept piles of stones are simply but ambiguously "the old work of giants, standing abandoned" (eald enta geweorc idlu stodon). Geoffrey of Monmouth is the first medieval author to attach primal architects to the Neolithic structures that intruded into his present. The History of the Kings of Britain speaks of Stonehenge and possibly Avesbury. Aurelius Ambrosius, a glorious king of the Britons and the uncle of Arthur, defeats at great cost the Saxons who have invaded his island. Desiring to construct for his fallen men a monument capable of memorializing them eternally, he
collected carpenters and stone-masons together from every region and ordered them to use their skill to contrive some novel building which would stand for ever in memory of such distinguished men. The whole band racked their brains and then confessed themselves beaten.
To conceive this "novel building" that can do justice to the story it incarnates, Aurelius must commission the prophet Merlin. No one, we are told, possesses greater skill "either in foretelling the future or in mechanical contrivances." A prophet and an engineer (rather than the magician he will become in later literature), Merlin was introduced in the narrative as the son of a cloistered nun and an "incubus demon" – the product, that is, of the kind of trans-species sex that usually engenders giants. Giants are in Old English literature builders of structures from time out of memory; a giant, Nimrod, was also supposed to have been the architect of the Tower of Babel. These monsters indeed form an integral part of Merlin's solution to Aurelius's architectural quandary, for he declares:
'If you want to grace the burial place of these men with some lasting monument ... send for the Giants' Ring which is on Mount Killarus in Ireland. In that place there is a stone construction which no man of this period could ever erect, unless he combined great skill and artistry. The stones are enormous and there is no one strong enough to move them. If they are placed in position round this site, in which they are erected there, they will stand forever ... These stones are connected to certain secret religious rites ... Many years ago the Giants transported them from the remotest confines of Africa and set them up in Ireland at a time when they inhabited that country ... There isn't a single stone among them which hasn't some medicinal virtue.'Entranced by this vision of an eternally persisting, eternally powerful construction, Aurelius commands that Merlin, Uther Pendragon, and fifteen thousand men set sail immediately for Ireland. There they meet Gillomanius, an Irish king incredulous that anyone would sail to his island to swipe big rocks. Gillomanius declares nonetheless that only over his dead body will the "minutest fragment of the Ring" be stolen. The Britons are happy to oblige, obliterating the Irish forces. Merlin then urges the Britons to attempt to move the rocks. Though they employ "every conceivable kind of mechanism ... They rigged up hawsers and ropes ad they propped up scaling ladders," no contrivance budges the unyielding stone.
Laughing at these attempts to alter a structure so powerful, Merlin easily dismantles the Ring with unnamed gear and places the megaliths aboard the waiting ships. He transports the disassembled ring to Britain and with precision rebuilds it upon the burial mound: "Merlin obeyed the King's orders and put the stones up in a circle round the sepulchre, in exactly the same way they had been arranged on Mount Kilaraus in Ireland, thus proving that his artistry was worth more than any brute strength." Whereas the Irish king can discern in the Giants' Ring only dead rock, Merlin – like the Ring's original architects -- realizes that in their clefts and beneath their coldness the megaliths harbor ancient power: the ability to cure ailing bodies, the ability to do justice to the dead, the ability to memorialize that which would otherwise be forgotten. True, he steals the stones from their native place and erects them where they will forever be out of place: like a later day archaeologist transporting Mayan artifacts from Mexico or marble sculpture from Greece he has no confidence that the people living with these artworks can appreciate their beauty or their history. Geoffrey apparently approves of the decision to relocate the Giant's Ring, for its founders seem no longer to be present in Ireland (the dwindled age of men has long been in progress there), and in Britain the Ring becomes the gravesite not only of Aurelius and his soldiers, but of King Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon. Arthur's cousin and successor to the throne, Constantine, will be interred there as well ("They buried him by the side of Utherpendragon, within the circle of stones called Stonehenge in the English language, which had been built with such wonderful skill not far from Salisbury"). Arthur, of course, will find no resting place, assumed as he is to the mysterious Isle of Avalon.
From Africa to Ireland to Britain, from giants to men, a ring of megaliths that should be so massive as to be immobile moves through time and across geographies. Merlin's gift is his ability to recognize the ancient history of the stone circle and add to that story another one, a living story oriented as much towards present and future as it is towards the commemoration of the past. Merlin sees in the stones the life they harbor: they are not dead remnants of a lost race, but the living incarnation of that race's presence, and mediators of new relations to history and remembering. Though full of giants and battles that never were, the narrative also conveys something of the truth of Stonehenge. Medieval people knew very well that stone ring was the product not of magic but ancient technology. A manuscript illustration in the 1440 version of the Scala Mundi contains a fairly accurate, birds-eye depiction of four trilithons (two immense pillars capped by a lintel); tenon joints are shown graven the lintels. The rocks of Stonehenge were not transported from Ireland, but they did arrive from a distance: perhaps twenty miles across Salisbury Plain for the sarsen stones, and an unknown distance for the outer rings, fashioned from bluestone that originated in the Preseli mountains, 135 miles distant in west Wales.
Geoffrey added Hiberno-African origins to Stonehenge, an addition that at least acknowledged the alien provenance of some of the structure's stones, as well as granting the whole of the architecture an origin a time and culture different from Geoffrey's own. Geoffrey was no Augustine, and his Stonehenge has no story to tell about the Great Flood or anything else found in the bible. His Latin phrase for the transported monument is chorea gigantum, a "Giants' Circle" but also a "Giant's Dance." That kinetic wording seems especially appropriate considering the life Geoffrey discerns in the stones, the vitality he insists resides in their depths.
(the image of a giant helping Merlin to construct Stonehenge is from British Library Egerton 3028 Fol30r. It is taken from a 14th C version of Wace's Brut and is the first known illustration of Stonehenge)