A Mythical History of Britain

King Arthur by Julia Margaret Cameron

Richard Barber
Myths and Legends of the British Isles
Boydell 1999

This splendid volume collects together nearly forty different stories from Britain and Ireland, from the Roman period to the Middle Ages.

The first section includes origin tales of Scotland, Ireland and England built on a mythic history already developing long before the monk Nennius was busily compiling away in the early 9th century. Then follows a section on the Early History of Britain which includes the tales from Geoffrey of Monmouth plus Lludd and Llefelys and The Dream of Maxen Wledig (from The Mabinogion) and, not so oddly, Saxo Grammaticus’ version of the story of Amleth or Hamlet (translated by Peter Fisher).

The Marvels and Magic section includes bits from Nennius, the whole of the early Arthurian tale Culhwch and Olwen, Neil Wright’s translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin and Lady Charlotte Guest’s Taliesen. This is followed by the Heroes and Saints section with a Breton version of Arthur’s career, the whole of Beowulf in Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation, The Deeds of Cuchulain adapted from Lady Gregory’s retelling, and all four branches of the Mabinogi proper, together with a selection of saints’ lives (Brendan, Cadog, Joseph of Arimathea, George and Helena) from early and later medieval sources. Finally History and Romance features less accessible tales of, for example, King Horn and Havelok the Dane as well as stories of more familiar figures such as Robin Hood, Macbeth and Lady Godiva.

I’ve given a fairly substantial list of the contents so as to illustrate the breadth and richness of this selection, so reminiscent of a medieval hall hung with detailed tapestries (or even the cunning designs on Hamlet’s shield, as the Amleth tale describes). With Barber’s own translations or adaptations, and with brief introductions placing each text in context, the whole volume is designed with the needs of the modern novel reader in mind – readability and stimulation – whilst awakening them to the wealth of material contained in the corpus of traditional national narratives.

If you want an authoritative modern collection with informed commentary to replace all those cheap reprints of Victorian and Edwardian retellings (with their often dubious scholarship and idiosyncratic paraphrasing) then this is it; and if you want a one-volume mythic history of Britain that’s more authentic than Tolkien’s marvellous attempt to create one of his own, you probably won’t do better than this.


4/5 reposts of reviews to mark five years of Calmgrove; this first appeared online on November 24th, 2012 following its printed appearance in 1999 in the Journal of the Pendragon Society

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6 thoughts on “A Mythical History of Britain

    1. Probably out of print now but you should be able to get it secondhand, Lizza.

      Henry Treece’s The Green Man was a wonderful mash-up of the legends of Arthur and Amleth (I hope to reread it sometime soon). And your mention of Olwen reminds me I should have noted that this year is nominated as Wales’ Year of Legends!

  1. I really don’t know why I read your reviews, old and new. They so often fill me with a desire to drop all else and go on a heroic quest for those works.
    This, in particular, one feels one should not myth.

    1. Ha! If you did myth it you wouldn’t have a legend to stand on …

      Apologies, again, for dangling treats in front of you, that’s really not fair of me, should be against the lore.

      And that’s more than enough punning for one day.

      😀

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