From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Joseph Smith (By way of Cervantes)
When is a translation not a translation?
How much about King Arthur do we actually know? Some authorities have treated him as a basically mythological figure, while, at the opposite extreme, others accept chivalric details found in Medieval and early modern sources at face value. The truth must lie somewhere in between, but at which end of the spectrum? This question, it seems to me, is germane to the claims of the authenticity of other books that purport to be based on ancient documents that are no longer extant.
Recently, in connection with a study group looking at Medieval Latin texts, I had occasion to consult an old edition of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s De gestis Britonum or Historia regum Britanniae which was compiled in the 1920’s to address controversies about Geoffrey’s sources and included parallel texts from Medieval Welsh chronicles covering the same historical episodes he covered. Historia Regum Britanniae, or history of the British monarchy, traces the Kings of Celtic Britain from Brutus, a refugee (like Aeneas) from Troy, to Cadwallader, a seventh century figure and the last non-Saxon to have any claim to be king of Britain. Historia regum Britanniae contains a long section on King Arthur; it is the principal source for what became Arthurian legend. There are earlier references to Arthur, a historic sixth century British military leader, but most of what later writers used concerning the details of his life and that of members of his court traces back to Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Geoffrey, writing in the 12th century, claimed that his history was based on a translation of a very ancient book. No such book is known, and the general consensus among scholars is that he relied on a number of sources, including oral tradition, and embroidered on them considerably. At the time he was writing, English forces of Saxon and Norman origin pressed hard against the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd, whose rulers had some claim to be the heirs of the ancient kings of Britain. Geoffrey, who was Welsh, had a certain incentive to showcase Arthur and to ascribe to him chivalric deeds and attitudes considered admirable in Europe in general in the twelfth century. He ended up writing a best seller that has inspired countless subsequent writers.
Works of fiction set in the semi-legendary court of King Arthur were immensely popular in Medieval and early modern Europe, as they are even today. Besides being simply entertaining, this structure served to frame an author’s ideas in a way that was likely to be read, but not to be taken seriously by people – for example officials of the Catholic Church – who were on the lookout for heresy. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, for example, is one of these pseudo-Arthurian romances which can be read as a plea to allow women more agency and also, when coupled with the prologue, an endorsement of the contemporary (and marginally heretical!) Lollard philosophy of respecting the practical theology and moral philosophy of ordinary people leading decent secular lives.
Turning to Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote, the structure linking the narrative to two texts, one extant and one hypothetical, is quite deliberate and could potentially mask a political or philosophical purpose in addition to being a literary device. Don Quixote the character derives his inspiration from a popular early sixteenth century “Arthurian” romance, Amadis de Gaula, by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo. A few of his more outrageous actions are direct attempts to reproduce the exploits of the fictitious Amadis.
In chapter nine (immediately after the famous windmill episode) Cervantes makes the surprising and apparently absurd claim that the remainder of the novel is a translation from the Arabic of historian Cide Hamete Benengeli – that Cervantes acquired the manuscript from a scrap paper dealer in Toledo and had it translated by an Arab-speaking Spanish Morisco. The manuscript, whether it existed or was merely conceptualized as a literary device, could not have been “ancient,” because the narrative elsewhere refers to books published between 1570 and 1586.
Another very famous example of a putative translation from an ancient document is Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon, said to be a translation from Egyptian of a text engraved on golden plates unearthed in upstate New York in the early nineteenth century. Mormons, as an article of faith, accept this story at face value, while most non-Mormons consider it to be a complete hoax.
Geoffrey and Smith were clearly trying to lend credence to their messages by establishing a chain of descent from established authorities. Cervantes is more complicated, because his Cide Hamete, had he existed, would have been dismissed as unreliable or worse by authorities in charge of censoring printed material in 17th century Spain. Thus, the narrative structure looks more like another way of saying “not only is this fiction, but it is nonsense unworthy of the attention of the Inquisition”, in other words, disguising something by making it appear worthless.
Is there a common theme? The claim that any of the three influential works mentioned is in its entirety an accurate representation of a now-lost older work is extremely dubious, but that alone does not disprove the existence of the predecessors, or their incorporation into the final product. This has been most thoroughly investigated in the case of De gestis Britonum, but it may be worth asking whether Don Quixote, with its numerous subplots and digressions, contains material produced in Moorish Spain, or whether actual texts originating in Egypt in the early Christian era form the core of the Book of Mormon.
Photo is from The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts