The introductory chapter written by the translator adds a lot to the experience of reading. Wace’s Norman history and language are explained, as are the differences between Geoffrey of Monmouth’s more florid language and Wace’s simplicity, as well as Wace’s intimate descriptions of scenes where Monmouth only mentions the facts in passing. The introduction alone is worth seeking out for any Arthurian enthusiasts. The chivalry and romance deep-seated in Arthurian stories is partly rooted in Wace’s writing. Mason (the translator) notes that Wace was not one of the greatest retellers of Arthurian stories, nor the most capable, but emphasises that this book has a unique place in the linguistic and cultural history of the legends.
The story begins with Constantine, father of three sons, Constant, Aurelius Ambrosius, and Uther, being assassinated by Vortigern. This sparks a cascade of unofficial, unsacred and pagan influences on the government; Constant is not crowned by a priest, Vortigern marries a pagan woman, greed and malice grow in the land. Uther’s own period ruling not soon after follows a similarly adumbrative sinful nature. No true proper coronations, the king succumbs to lust described in a way that reduces both Igrene and Uther to a very low level of animalistic identity. She is only significant in her beauty, and Uther stares, salivates, flirts and takes her shocked silence for acceptance. Out of this vilified version of sex and arousal, in sinful murder, Arthur is conceived. But Uther marries Igrene; Arthur is not born a bastard. From here, things look up. Arthur does not become the flawless king we often see in idealised versions of Arthurian stories, but he certainly is upstanding and noble. Guenevere, as ever, is childless. They spend some time invading Norway and Gaul. I personally haven’t read any versions of this legend in which Arthur’s wealth and glory is based on conquering the once-and-future-French. It was quite amusing. As were the florid descriptions of the ‘proper’ and festive coronation Arthur has at Caerleon.
When Mordred appears, he is not introduced as he often is, as Arthur’s illegitimate son, but as Arthur’s sister’s. This puts it all in a different perspective, especially when Mordred rises up against Arthur in every way possible. Mordred is not properly crowned king, and in stealing Guenevere as his own wife from Uncle Arthur repeats the reprehensible actions that condemned Uther.
What can I say, but that this was very fun to read, coming from the usual pop-culture immersion in modern retellings of Arthurian legends that most young women my age seem to enjoy. It is most interesting to see the differences to other versions in the cascade failure of Arthur’s kingdom. There is an inevitability of power and corruption as an underlying theme in many modern retellings, but in Wace there is this repetition of rightness and wrong in the form of coronations, assumptions of power and marriages. It is in violations of Christian marriage that Arthur’s reign began and ended, and there is a huge overwhelming sense of inevitability to it all. What was seeded bad, by Vortigern and Constant and Uther, could come to nothing but tragedy. There is some delicious propaganda to be had in here.
While the style is far less immersive than other retellings and there are a lot of misogynistic and biased ideas, from the right angle it is very fun to read through. I imagine that if you have knowledge of Norman history, which I do not, there is a lot more depth and context. In any case, I am glad that I took the time to enjoy this one. It’s not something I would have picked up if it were not for the A to Z challenge, even though I have intend to read it for some time.
I couldn’t find all that many reviews of Roman de Brut, certainly none that are easily or freely found online. But you can brush up on Wace at wikipedia and see the whole thing for yourself at Project Gutenberg. There are analyses and essays and academic papers aplenty, so there’s a lot of context and factoids to be found.