Academic journal article Parergon

Arthurian Eco-Conquest in Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and La[??]amon

Academic journal article Parergon

Arthurian Eco-Conquest in Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and La[??]amon

Article excerpt

Arthur's characterization, in most iterations of his story, is consistently tangled up with questions about conquest and domination. The conqueror-king has, as Karl Heinz Goller contends, been seen 'as an incarnation of the idea of the Empire' (1) since his first appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century Historia regum Britanniae (HRB). However, the role of the natural world and its connection to Arthurian conquest in these narratives has been relatively ignored. We focus here on the treatment of what we are terming 'eco-conquest' in the Arthurian sections of Geoffrey's HRB, Wace's Roman de Brut, and La[??]amon's Brut, arguing that La[??]amon's Brut diverges sharply from the approach taken by Geoffrey in the HRB and expanded by Wace in his Roman de Brut--La[??]amon's source. While Geoffrey and Wace approach the land as territory to be mastered by humans, an eco-conquest necessary as preparation for the subsequent subjugation of that land's peoples, La[??]amon instead represents the land as leode--a fusion of people, nation, and terrain--depicting the natural world as necessarily connected to human society, rather than as subservient to human desires. We suggest that, as a case study, the depiction of Arthur and his warriors' treatments of the natural world provides valuable insight into each text's construction of Arthurian imperialism, frequently suggesting a larger, authorial argument about the ideal construction of kingdom and empire and the pursuit of leadership and conquest in each text.

I. Geoffrey and Wace: Eco-Mastery and Militarization

Geoffrey of Monmouth's HRB has been credited for its 'central place in the historiography of the medieval Arthurian legend', (2) introducing an Arthur who not only served as an inspiration for later texts, but who also, 'from the very beginning', contained and exhibited 'strong political implications'. (3) While there is and has been much discussion and debate regarding Geoffrey's political and cultural 'circumstances and allegiances', (4) many critics have rightly noted that the HRB reveals an interest in the values of conquest and the creation of empire. Susan Aronstein, for one, contends that 'Geoffrey does not altogether condemn' conquest, because empire building 'is necessary to increase economic and military resources', (5) while Thorlac Turville-Petre suggests that Geoffrey's text presents 'a cyclical view of history which the Normans could manipulate to legitimize their own conquest'. (6) In addition, the Arthurian story, as a particular case within the larger context of the HRB, links martial conquest and imperial desires to eco-conquest: a desire to assert superiority not just over other peoples, but also over the natural world. (7) 'Eco-conquest', human martial mastery of the environment--the practice of treating the natural world as territory to be dominated; as subservient to human needs; and also as a utilitarian resource to be mined to further human imperial aims--drives much of Arthur's and the Britons' engagement with the land in both the HRB and Wace's Roman de Brut. Mastery of the environment supports and lends authority to the Arthurian imperial project as the king's campaigns progress. (8) In essence, Arthur and his vassals consistently focus on the needs of the human, viewing the land as subject to, in service of, and instrumental for the desires of empire.

II. Early Encounters and Effective Eco-Conquest: The Saxons and Scots

Arthur's early conflicts, first with the Saxons and later with the Scots and Picts, model successful eco-conquest, not only representing the natural world as a thing that a competent leader can master, but also emphasizing the natural world's instrumental role in British victories, casting it as a resource to be mined. In the HRB and the Roman de Brut, the Britons both master and militarize nature, evaluating and exploiting the land's natural features to their own kingdom's advantage. Early on, there is a suggestion that the natural features of Britain are part of the military conflict, not aiding Arthur and his troops in any conscious way, of course, but serving as a key part of the Britons' strategy. …

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