Brutus of Troy: A short literary survey

Photo credit: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Laud Misc. 733 (cropped) CC-BY-NC 4.0. See full manuscript via this link.

I’ve recently been researching the legend of Brutus of Troy for a radio play I’ve written and produced for Soundart Radio, and thought I would share some of my findings in this article. There are many ways you might explore the existing material but for me my interest was primarily literary. I was looking for examples where other writers had rendered the story into poetry or prose or drama from which to draw inspiration for my own piece. And I was amazed at how many references I found to the story from some of the best poets in english literary history; Blake, Milton, Spenser in particular, but also Drayton’s Poly Olbion, a short reference by Alexander Pope, and it’s at the start of Gawain and the Green Knight. This Brutus (who is no relation to the et tu Brute Brutus of Julius Caesar fame) even features in a renaissance play by Nuham Tate, a rather hackneyed epic poem by Hildebrand Jacob, which seemed to take itself rather too seriously, and there is a passing reference in a short late poem by Chaucer. Anyway, all these stem from more historical renditions of the tale, the most famous of which is of course Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain – a pseudo historical and very charming book, which also contains the Merlin and Arthurian legends, not to mention an early version of the King Lear story. It was this vibrant and highly readable text that first got me interested in reworking the story in some new kind of format, along with the fact that my local pub when I first arrived in Plymouth was named after the giant Gogmagog. 

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this story is that the early writers seem to take the story as pure fact, unquestioning in their use of it. To the early chroniclers like Holinshed, Fabyan, and others, the story is the founding story of Britain. There are also many documents laying out the genealogy of the kings of england that clearly show Brutus at the top. Even up until Milton I think it’s fair to say there is not much questioning; this was just the history of Britain, that a man called Brutus who was related to Aeneas, sailed to Albion’s shores and made it his own after fighting off the indigeonous giant population. Later, once it is probably clear that the myth is just that, we get the story being used for more specific ends, justification of British empire most notably, or in the case of Blake, it features as a sort of precursor to some elements into his own mythological universe (but more on that another time). 

When I was writing out my own play, I brought together the different renditions of the same scenes in the story, to compare how different writers at different times and contexts reworked it in their own style. A good point of comparison is the part when Brutus prays to the Goddess Diana and asks for help finding his new home. He is effectively homeless at this point, wandering the high seas with his bunch of Trojan followers, cast out from Italy because he accidentally killed his father, and having escaped Greece. The speech he gives at the temple on the island of Leogetia, I noticed, was a bit of a set piece, with some poets just dipping in with their own version of that and not bothering with rest. 

Geoffrey of Monmouth
O powerful goddess, terror of the forest glades, yet hope of the wild woodlands, you who have the power to go in orbit through the airy heavens and the halls of hell, pronounce a judgement which concerns the earth. Tell me which lands you wish us to inhabit. Tell me of a safe dwelling-place where I am to worship you down the ages, and where, to the chanting of maidens, I shall dedicate temples to you.

Celestyall Goddesse, that woldest” fryth and wocle, 
The wylde bore & beests, thou feryst by thy myght : 
Guyder of shypmen passynge the Ragyous flode, ‘ 
The infernall howses, for and the erth of ryght 
Beholde & serche, and shewe where I shall lyght. 
Tell the cretayne place where euerlastyugly 
A temple of virgyns to the I shall edefye.  

Milton (transl. verses originally Greek, put in Latin, saith Virunnius, by Gildas a British Poet)
Goddess of Shades, and Huntress, who at will
Walk’st on the rowling Sphear, and through the deep,
On thy third Reigne the Earth look now, and tell
What Land, what Seat of rest thou bidst me seek,
What certain Seat, where I may worship thee
For aye, with Temples vow’d, and Virgin quires.

Alexander Pope
Goddess of woods, tremendous in the chase
To mountain wolves and all the savage race,
Wide o’er th’ aerial vault extend thy sway,
And o’er th’ infernal regions void of day.
On thy Third Reign look down; disclose our fate;
In what new station shall we fix our seat?
When shall we next thy hallow’d altars raise,
And choirs of virgins celebrate thy praise?

Hildebrand Jacob
Huntress divine! Dread of the forest herds
Who through the spacious heaven takest thy way
And hauntst the realms below. Our doubts resolve
Say, where our household gods may rest secure?
Say, where thy sacred altars safe shall rise
And virgin choirs for ever sing thy praise” 

I don’t have anything particularly profound to say about how each version offers evidence of a particular tendency or reference to contemporary attitudes of the author. But I can say there is a real delight in looking at the different versions of the same speech and comparing how they have separately all tried to produce their own version, with slight changes in vocabulary and syntax, choice of rhyme and so on. There is a pleasure in seeing more or less the same thing represented in different ways, and the effect this can have on our experience of the story. 

Diana’s response to Brutus is also quite well covered. This is the speech in which she says that he should head off in search of not Totnes specifically, but the island / isle / “sea-girt” land / Albion:

Geoffrey of Monmouth
Beyond the setting of the sun, past the realms of Gaul, there lies an island in the sea, once occupied by giants. Now it is empty and ready for your folk. Down the years this will prove an abode suited to you and your people; and for your descendants it will be a second Troy. A race of kings will be born there from your stock and the round circle of the whole earth will be subject to them.

Brute farre by West, ouer the lande of Fraunce, 
An He in occean there is, all closed with the see; 
This He ^ Geaunts whylom inhabyt by chauce, 
Nowe beynge deserte as apte for thy people & the, ‘
In this of thy body kynges borne shall be, j_ .
And of this lie thou shalt lort^e’ and kynge. 
Serche this, for here a perpetuell See to the, 
And here to thy childer a new Troy sbal sprynge.

The Goddesse, that both knew and lov’d the Trojan race,
Reveal’d to him in dreames, that furthest to the West,
He should discrie the Ile of Albion, highlie blest;
With Giants latelie stor’d; their numbers now decaid:
By vanquishing the rest, his hopes should there be staid:
Where, from the stock of Troy, those puissant Kings should rise,
Whose conquests from the West, the world should scant suffice.

Brutus far to the West, in th’ Ocean wide,
Beyond the Realm of Gaul, a Land there lies,
Sea-girt it lies, where Giants dwelt of old,
Now void, it fitts thy people; thether bend
Thy course, there shalt thou find a lasting seat,
There to thy Sons another Troy shall rise,
And Kings be born of thee, whose dredded might
Shall aw the World, and Conquer Nations bold.

Hildebrand Jacob 
Brutus, beyond the Hesperian reals of Gaul
Amidst the waves, an isle thy Trojans waits.
Thither repair. There shall a lasting Troy
For thee, and thy great race eternal stand.
Victorious monarchs from thy line shall spring
And o’er the boundless ocean spread their sway.”

Nuham Tate
… the God pronounc’d
To Albion, Brutus, bend thy naval course,
Fate gives that seat of Empire; mighty toils
Attend thy way, and thou shalt be divorc’t
From what thou hold’st most dear—that last dire Clause
Boded the loss of my Asaracus.
Thus Niggard Destiny by halves oblig’d me,
Gave me dull Empire while it snatcht my friend.

I’ll leave it to you to choose your favourite versions and it is fun to try to mash them all up and combine clauses from one and the other to create your own. 

Other poets have mentioned the story more in passing, with only the bare bones of detail, and in the third person, like Spenser for example, or the early reference in Gawain and the Green Knight:

Gawain transl. Marie Barroff

And far over the French Sea, Felix Brutus
On many broad hills and high Britain he sets,
most fair.
Where war and wrack and wonder
By shifts have sojourned there,
And bliss by turns with blunder
In that land’s lot had share.

At last by fatall course they driuen were
  Into an Island spatious and brode,
  The furthest North, that did to them appeare:
  Which after rest they seeking far abrode,
  Found it the fittest soyle for their abode,
  Fruitfull of all things fit for liuing foode,
  But wholy wast, and void of peoples trode,
  Saue an huge nation of the Geaunts broode,
That fed on liuing flesh, & druncke mens vitall blood.

Finally though, I wanted to share a section from Blake’s King Edward III which contains I think the most vivid portrayal of any part of the Brutus story. A minstrel sings a song to warriors in the King’s tent, of the arrival (presumably at Totnes) of the Trojans: 

Our fathers swarm from the ships. Giant voices
Are heard from the hills, the enormous sons
Of Ocean run from rocks and caves: wild men
Naked and roaring like lions, hurling rocks,
And wielding knotty clubs, like oaks entangled
Thick as a forest, ready for the axe.
Our fathers move in firm array to battle,
The savage monsters rush like roaring fire;
Like as a forest roars with crackling flames,
When the red lightning, borne by furious storms,
Lights on some woody shore; the parched heavens
Rain fire into the molten raging sea!
The smoaking trees are strewn upon the shore,
Spoil’d of their verdure! O how oft have they
Defy’d the storm that howled o’er their heads!
Our fathers, sweating, lean on their spears, and view
The mighty dead: giant bodies, streaming blood,
Dread visages, frowning in silent death!

All these texts are in the public domain and quite easy to find online.

Find out more about my radio play Brutus of Troy via this link.

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