The story of Britain’s most persistent foundation myth
[Recensie] Brutus of Troy, founder of Britain and ancestor of the British people. For a long time the mythical Brutus was seen in Britain as founder of the land and first king of the united island. In reality however, the story that tells of Brutus’s adventures was not based on historical fact but on careful adaptation of older myths combined with a bit of imaginative writing. It seems a bit odd nowadays, but for a long time, during the middle ages and beyond, foundation myths played the same role as national histories do in the present. They originally created a sense of belonging together for a people through a shared history in times when written records were scarce, the historical method inexistent and literacy very low. In European origin myths the Trojans were very popular to play the part of ancient ancestor, likewise in Britain.
Origin myths are fascinating mixtures of history and fantasy, in which the latter clearly is dominant. The origins of origin myths are possibly even more interesting, and harder to grasp, for it is when researching the development of these myths one penetrates into the minds of the ancient peoples that created them. The conception and growth of mythic tales of a people’s origin also says much about the cultural world in which they were conceived. Experienced genealogist Anthony Adolph traces back the evolution of the origin myth of the British people who descended, according to legend, from the mythical Brutus of Troy.
Before Adolph focuses on the development of the Brutus-myth, he explains the concept of the origin myth as a cultural phenomenon and its growth in the classical world. The British Brutus-myth was imagined fairly late in contrast to other European countries’ myths, around the seventh century AD, by Gaelic monks it seems. Real fame was only achieved when Geoffrey of Monmouth incorporated the myth, inevitably adjusted and supplemented to his own taste, in his twelfth century Historia Regum Britanniae or History of the Kings of Britain.
The author not only unravels the beginnings of the Brutus myth, but also tells of the evolution of Brutus’s story along the centuries. While doing so, Adolph reproduces large parts of the pieces written by Hildebrand Jacob and Alexander Pope, among others, on Brutus in the early modern period. Where Jacob worked to melt together Geoffrey of Monmouth’s medieval tale with the Virgilian language of classical authors, Pope’s Brutus became an infallible ancient hero who at the same time held important lessons for the contemporary British prime minister Robert Walpole, of whom Pope was very critical. Each era its own Brutus, it seems.
Adolph approaches his subject with much enthusiasm, writing in a vivacious and ornate style. At times he chooses the perspective of treating Brutus and his adventures as real history, as they were regarded for many centuries. This adds a special flavour to Adolphs story although he is careful to disentangle myth and reality frequently throughout his book.
A bit disappointing about the book is however, that occasionally Adolph stretches too far in reproducing parts of writings on Brutus from later centuries to the point it hinders a pleasant read through the book. It seems at these moments the author got carried away by his own love for these retellings of the story, even when the point where they add worth to the main text has long been passed. Nevertheless the author succeeded in making his public aware again of the long and influential history the myth of Brutus of Troy had in British history, even though few remember him as a ‘founding father’ of Britain today.
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