Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Giants' Ring / Giants' Dance

(for earlier posts on this topic, see At Avebury and Augustine, a giant's tooth, and particles of alterity. These are all part of a larger project on what the Middle Ages made of the prehistoric)


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)


letty said...

I was struck by that picture, and how these traditions live on:
is a 17th-century Dutch image of how they imagined giants building the megalithic monuments in the area where I come from (Drenthe, north of the Netherlands). I like the small, 'normal' people watching the process. Folk tales of how giants built the 'hunebedden' (dolmens) are still told here. The word hune- probably means 'giant': so the dolmens were giants' beds.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: your timing is impeccable; at the exact moment you posted this lovely piece from your book-in-progress, my M.A. students were reading Geoffrey of Monmouth, as well as reading bits and pieces from Geraldine Heng's "Empire of Magic" and Laurie Finke and Marty Shichtman's "King Arthur and the Myth of History," as well viewing the most recent "King Arthur" movie. They have also now read your thoughts here: thank you! Interestingly enough, in the Antoine Fuqua movie, which is pretty bad as far as movies go [although the cinematography is fantastic and the battle scenes quite realistic], the last scene in the film is the wedding between Arthur and Guinevere, performed by Merlin: you're not quite sure where they are, except that they are outside, but just at the end, as Arthur raises Excalibur in the air and shouts some tripe about a unified and free Britain, the camera pulls back to reveal they are all standing within the circle of Stonehenge, which is, somehow, miraculously, perched on a kind of cliff overlooking the sea [its original, Welsh location?].

Fuqua's movie is actually yet another fascnating "appropriation" of the Arthurian legend[s], one in which, I was kind of stunned to realize, Arthur's "knights" [seven, because as one student astutely pointed out, it's an echo of the "magnificent seven"--American cowboy knights of a sort] are a multicultural lot [Tristan is basically a Eurasian Mongol] culleds from the fringes of the decaying Roman empire, while their enemies, the Saxons, are Nazified and godless racists [they even carry the black double eagle on their battle standards]. Arthur fights, not so much for Britain [whatever that might mean] but for "freedom" [i.e., democracy] and a more "pure" Christianity than the one promulgated by the corrupt Roman Catholics in the film, who of course appear as greedy, selfish, and "gay" [Arthur is even, hard to believe, a Pelagian--the idea being: free will trumps all, and God gave it to us to use]. The Arthur of this film is also highly militaristic: might has to make right, and I suppose this is somewhat in keeping with that very little we *do* know about Arthur: he was a successful solider, at least *some* of the time, against the so-called "Saxons."

The film shows how versatile and supple the Arthur story is: it can put forth any dogma you need it to put forth, which wouldn't really work if Arthur were not so "empty" to begin with.

Karl Steel said...

That multicultural Arthur is, well, a pleasant alternative to Geoffrey, even if the Tristan's likely there only a gesture towards--rather than a participation with--other cultures, other peoples. I've just looked over some of my notes on the HRB for a seminar paper I bombed 6 years ago (!), where I wrote (what follows is clearly influenced by Michelle Warren and edited only minimally for sense):

"Geoffrey fills in the gap left by Bede, but his history is unified, not a patchwork of various other histories; it is, as Geoffrey repeatedly reminds us, almost entirely translated from "a certain very ancient British book." This unity represents the unity of the Britons, whose ethnic purity is an argument for their future entitlement to the Island. Geoffrey's ideal is a single British (that is, Welsh) King for the Island (Geoffrey inveighs against multiple kings, p. 265). When exhorting his army against Mordred, Arthur argues that because Mordred's motley army comes from foreign parts and a "variety of countries" (p. 260), Mordred's troops are weak and undeserving of the Island. Arthur's force by contrast is ethnically homogeneous, native; when Arthur returns to Britain, he brings "only . . . the island kings and their troops" (p. 258). It is a battle between a native-born, unified people and a foreign conglomeration, a battle analogous to Geoffrey's with Bede.

The lines are nowhere near as clear-cut, however, as Geoffrey initially portrays them, for Arthur's allies are not all native-born Britons. Among the dead at the battle of Camblam are "Odbrict, King of Norway; Aschil, King of Denmark; [and] Cador Limenich (see Tatlock, p. 76) . . . with many thousands of the King's troops, some of them Britons, others from the various peoples he had brought with him" (p. 261). Geoffrey creates a unified British past in part by rewriting the Scandinavian invasions as if they have always been there."

Two quick comments on Jeffrey's post:
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.

Then what do you make of the deaths of Kay and Bedver? Here's what I wrote in the paper itself (which, now that I look at it, is nowhere near as bad I remembered it, and as a certain unnamed professor judged it). Here's me, Fall of 2001:

"Arthur invests Bedevere and Kay—whose names are among the most identifiably Welsh names in his entourage (Warren, 55)—with Normandy and Anjou, the lands which were, of course, the two points of origin for Britain's Norman nobility. Both of these lords die at the Battle of Saussy, Arthur's final battle with the Romans and their allies (Thorpe, 252). Also, Geoffrey seems to support, more or less, Welsh claims to Britain throughout the HRB, yet in the conclusion, he claims the name “Welsh” was derived either from an eponymous leader or from their barbarity, and he leaves the Saxons in control of the Island. None of these factors speak of a clear allegiance; the dead lords of Normandy and Anjou might suggest a kind of assassination, while the possible barbarity of Welsh suggests their destruction was due to the justice of God. What are we to make of this?

The best answer might be that the subject-position of the HRB shifts constantly, that it is so protean that any attempt to pin Geoffrey to a specific political agenda is doomed to failure. Seen another way, Geoffrey can be seen to be performing a postcolonial critique of identities that claim to have emerged from homogeneities. In a masterful display of ventriloquism, the HRB perfectly rehearses a variety of cherished points on which secure—and hence exclusionary—identities are typically founded; but speaking alongside this ventriloquism is the critique that reveals the first voice as meaningless, a critique that reveals all identities, historically-argued or otherwise, as strategically constructed to serve the needs of the moment. In this way, the HRB could be thought of as a work of resistance, not insofar as it allies itself with any particular ethnic identity, but insofar as it resists any totalizing discourse. This would have served a pacifying political function on the twelfth-century Marches, as totalizing arguments for entitlement through homogeneous origins would have been, no doubt, deployed quite assiduously and dangerously on this contested borderspace in which Geoffrey located himself."


Finally, a bit of me circa now, on Stonehenge. Having taught the Topography of Ireland, I have in mind Gerald's wondering about the first (human) inhabitant of Ireland, Noah's grand-daughter. How do we know about her? Recalling other explanations for the knowledge of antediluvian history, he suggests that her history had been carved into stone. I think also of the passage from the life of saint Amphibalus that I've cited here before, in which the unnamed reader discovers the life of the Saint written on ruined Roman stonework. We might even think of Aeneas at Carthage weeping before paintings of the destruction of Troy.

And here we have Arthur's memorial to his brave, dead troops. There's nothing written, nothing representative; we have instead a chthonic mystery that exceeds any effort to confine this site to being a monument of any one event (I think here of my reading for last night, Cary Howie's (sometimes very frustrating!) Claustrophilia discussion of the complicated relationship of disclosure and enclosure of a work of art, the way that it resist "the gaze of its public even as it offers itself to this public" and they way it is "the custodian of what it ostensibly divulges" (12)).

The inefficiency of the monument--taken by blood from Ireland, and perhaps even from Africa--guided to success only by the assistance of a demonic engineer itself frustrates the pure line of memory, the predictable past.

I suppose what I'm getting at here is this: are you planning on doing anything with the absence of writing or plastic representation in this particular monument?

J J Cohen said...

Letty, thanks for that: beautiful.

Eileen, happy to be of use. The section that follows is even more about cultural translation, specifically Merlin's entombment between the corpses of two classical lovers in the Suite de Merlin. Fuqua's movie, I find, is a lot of fun to teach with. I like your singling out of the ridiculousness of freedom in it; shades of Mel Gibson in Braveheart.

Karl, much eloquence in what you write and really a post unto itself. As you know from my wn work I agree that Geoffrey is a writer who sabotages any attempt to trace any descent from some racial or ethnic purity. He is inconsistent and baffling. In the description that's about to go up on the department website for my new course I described the HRB as a Molotov cocktail of a text and I really think that's why it'll never get reduced into a simple argument for historical utility.

The Stonehenge section is about Writing Without Words (as Walter Mignolo has put it). I'm interested in the survival of the Irish tablets, but not in this particular movement: here my point of departure is the the post Eileen did a long time ago here on The Long Now, and especially on my long running obsession with the Universal Warning Sign project and the question it poses: how do you communicate with a future so distant that it surely will not speak your language?

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I'm really excited about this project, and particularly about the ways in which the ruins of the past figure so differently in Geoffrey of Monmouth than they do in OE poetry. It's interesting to me, too, that he gives a story for the ruins that are, for the most part, simply elda enta geweorc in OE.

I'm curious too about the story of the dolmens as a monument: 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 reason, of course, is also in the Wanderer (oh when will my obsession with this poem end!):

Ongietan sceal gleaw hæle hu gæstlic bið,/ þonne ealre þisse worulde wela weste stondeð,/ swa nu missenlice geond þisne middangeard/ winde biwaune weallas stondaþ,/ hrime bihrorene, hryðge þa ederas. / Woriað þa winsalo, waldend licgað/ dreame bidrorene, duguþ eal gecrong,/ wlonc bi wealle.

When wise, a man knows how things will be /when all this world’s wealth stands wasted,/as now walls crumble, beaten by winds, all over the earth,/and snow-covered mead halls decay, /for their rulers lie dead, bereft of life’s joys—/their men all perished (proud) by these walls.

(Wanderer, 73-80a - translation is my own, and leans toward the poetic rather than the literal)

There's another section, around lines 95 to 100 which speaks of another (the same?) duguþ, standing by a wall, wundrum heah, wyrmlicum fah (wonderously high, decorated with serpents).

I've often spent time -- as does the Wanderer, wondering who that duguþ was, and from whom they protected their enclosures. What I'd never thought through before was the power of these stones as memorial, the way in which they make the speaker linger over their mute story-telling, filling in the gaps left in the fabric of the past with fragments of stories that could belong to anyone.

The stone itself has no power, contrasting the knowledge of Merlin, which you explain so eloquently: 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. It's always dangerous to posit these things along a historical continuum, but barring that, it's its interesting to see the Wanderer in light of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Giant's Ring/Dance. They are probably not the same stones, of course -- but you can see in both cases a movement which moves, if you will -- moves from a past into a present that can't comprehend it, and moves a present world to remember, even if the memories aren't the "original" memories which attach themselves to the monumental stones.

One could query whether memories can ever be "original" -- but that would be a different comment, and I'm only on my first cup of coffee.

As an aside, Eileen's comment brings up a latent fear I have: I really liked the movie King Arthur, which makes me think that I probably actually do have the worst movie taste of all time. But seriously, who couldn't love Tristan -- he's just so depressing!