Once More with Stonehenge

Where have I been? Apart from surviving the shock of the semester’s start, and suffering the siege of many writing projects, apparently all due at once, I’ve prepared–and submitted!–a book proposal. Wish me luck. The first part of the chapter sample looks like this (thank you to Wordle, reintroduced to me through Scott Kaufman (and, by the way, congrats Scott!). Of late, I’ve also been engaging in some girdle-based program activities over at the The Valve: medievalists, join in!

Now, I don’t even want to calculate how long it’s been since I last posted anything here that possessed more substance than a comment (and not an Eileen comment either!). It may be 3 weeks, but it could well fall into the geologic, deep time that’s been fascinating Jeffrey of late. I have some ideas for part of tomorrow’s undergrad lecture that I want to try out here (the class, by the way, comprises two texts: The Romance of Arthur and Hartmann von Aue’s complete works). In honor of my class, in a tribute to Jeffrey’s roche-amour, in tribute to a still-new anthology, and in tribute my first entry into thinking about Stonehenge, a favorite topic at ITM for the rest of us, let me propose a reading.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain catalogs of a few of his island’s wonders: Loch Lamond, where prophetic eagles shriek the future, a nearby pool, neatly square, populated in its each of its four corners by a different species of fish, and the Welsh lake Llyn Lliawn, whose whirlpool swallows anyone foolish enough to face it, but leaves alone those who keep their backs turned. These wonders are the only ones in the sections the Romance of Arthur excerpts from Geoffrey, and, unless my memory fails me, they are, or virtually are, the only wonders Geoffrey includes.

We should be reminded of the Wonders of the East, and we might even be reminded of Gerald of Wales’ Wonders of the (Irish) West in the History and Topography of Ireland (Section I.26-32, pp. 53-56 in the Penguin trans.). We’re not in the East, nor indeed in Gerald’s Ireland, but we’re not far off. Barring an exception I’ll produce in my ending flourish, none of Geoffrey’s wonders can be found in Middle Britain, the area of Norman control. When Geoffrey situates the wonders at Loch Lamond and Llyn Lliawn, he brings us to the Scottish North and Welsh West, and thus to the wild edges against which a colonizing polity pushed. To confirm the 12th-century wildness of Wales for Norman and Angevin rule, we need turn only to Gerald. For Scotland, we need only remind ourselves of the fear and scorn of the Insular North in The Owl and the Nightingale, dated (according to the intro here) to within 50 years of Geoffrey:

Þat lond nis god, ne hit nis este,
Ac wildernisse hit is and weste:
Knarres and cludes hoventinge,
Snou and ha3el hom is genge.
Þat lond is grislich and unvele,
Þe men boþ wilde and unisele,
Hi nabbeþ noþer griþ ne sibbe;
Hi ne reccheþ hu hi libbe.
Hi eteþ fihs an flehs unsode,
Suich wulves hit hadde tobrode:
Hi drinkeþ milc and wei þarto,
Hi nute elles þat hi do;
Hi nabbeþ noþer win ne bor,
Ac libbeþ also wilde dor;
Hi goþ biti3t mid ru3e velle,
Ri3t suich hi comen ut of helle. (999-1014)
The land is poor, a barren place, / A wilderness devoid of grace, / Where crags and rock pierce heaven’s air, / And snow and hail are everywhere — / A grisly and uncanny part / Where men are wild and grim of heart. / Security and peace are rare, / And how they live they do not care. / The flesh and fish they eat are raw; / Like wolves, they tear it with the paw. / They take both milk and whey for drink; / Of other things they cannot think, / Possessing neither wine nor beer. / They live like wild beasts all the year / And wander clad in shaggy fell / As if they’d just come out of hell. (trans. is Brian Stone, the Penguin Owl and The Nightingale, Cleanness, and Erkenwald)

In Scotland, in Wales, we are, then, in lands at once propinquitous and far away. Near enough to frustrate dreams of a homogeneous Britain or England, the edges must be conquered. Wonder and horror both serve the desire to conquer. They transform the greed and uncertainty fueling the colonial project into a mission civilisatrice and an adventure; they allow the intellectual arm to support the colonizer’s material forces, for the clerks first render the familiar strange and then subject the newly strange to the centripetal powers of knowledge.

Stonehenge is picked up on one of these civilizing missions. Aurelius Ambrosius (Uther’s brother, hence Arthur’s paternal uncle) steals it from the Irish on the advice of Merlin, who convinces him that nothing else will do to memorialize the Saxon wars. Although close by, Stonehenge is a wonder: built by giants from stones they brought from Africa, Stonehenge and its marvelous healing properties are the only medicine the Irish (or the giants: it’s unclear) ever need. But something seems to go out of them when they’re brought to Avebury, even though they’re set up just as they had been in Ireland. What had been a hospital becomes a mortuary: poisoned kings, Aurelius and then Uther, are brought to Stonehenge only to be buried. What has happened to the wonder?

I propose one answer via Wace, who finishes his description of the Stonehenge episode as follows:

E Merlin les pieres dreça,
En lur ordre les raloa;
Bretun les suelent en bretanz
Apeler carole as gaianz,
Stanhenges unt nun en engleis,
Pieres pendues en franceis. (8173-78)
And Merlin erected the stones, restoring them to their proper order. In the British language the Britons usually call them the Giants’ Dance; in English they are called Stonehenge; and in French, the Hanging Stones. (ed. and trans. by Judith Weiss)

Wace neglects to record what the stones had been called in “African,” Irish, or indeed in the language of the giants. Having done its colonial work, wonder ceases, and all that remains is British, England, French, the “local,” the mundane. Between the wondrous East and the distant West, the only power at Stonehenge is what’s buried here, but despite having been buried, what is here is nonetheless still vital. Standing in the circle, with the bones of kings beneath us, we are in a kind of entrepôt of regal memory and the imperative to conquer.

Fans of Geoffrey of course know that I’ve left out a wonder: the two dragons beneath the foundations of Vortigern’s tower, who fall to fighting when roused, and whose fighting, as Merlin interprets it, prophecies Vortigern’s inescapable future. I’m certain I’m far from the first to make the following point, and I know that I’m making this point only with the inspiration of Jeffrey’s attentiveness to the subterranean, but it’s clear that this one wonder in the land of the mundane can best be understood–at least in the context of my argument–as the return of the repressed. The colonizer’s dream of homogeneity in the centerpoint of Empire can be only a dream, for wonder is at our feet, at the very site of our national myth, where we had thought there to be only bones.


I’ve definitely been teaching Geoffrey as ambivalent, and perhaps leaning a bit too strongly on his peculiar (ethnic?) alliances with the Welsh while writing a history for (as best we know?) Robert of Gloucester. As we all know, the HRB simultaneously promotes and undercuts its colonial and imperial project. My students, may they be blessed, would have arrived at this point even without my prompting. Last Wednesday, when I just asked “What’d you think of the reading?,’ they seized upon one of the counterarguments to paying the tribute to Rome: “nothing that is acquired by force and violence can ever be held legally by anyone.” “But wait,” they asked, “What about Arthur? Didn’t he just conquer half of Europe for no good reason?” Yesterday, another student suggested that the two fighting dragons be understood, at least in part, as presenting violence from the perspective of conqueror and conquered (red for the violence suffered, white for the glory claimed). A hard reading to support, but not a bad one for that. I’ve pointed out that weird relationship the HRB has to Rome: they picked up on the Crusade bits (where Rome becomes ‘Easternized’), but thought it was strange, given the Trojan/Roman ancestry of both Arthur and Guinevere: why slag on your family that way? They liked it when I asked “and what language did Geoffrey write in?” and liked when I pointed out the Britons praising Arthur for his ‘Ciceronian’ eloquence and Geoffrey’s (apparent?) admiration of the ‘Roman’ architecture of Caerleon and what look to be echoes of classical epics (e.g., the death of Frollo).

So, yeah, I have a heard time imagining how it could be taught as anything but ambivalent, as contaminated with contradictions.

But I still want to lean on the names Wace gives Stonehenge: English, French, ‘Briton,’ but no name that preserves its (multiple) foreign origins, including a nonhuman origin from giants. And I have to disagree with you–oh sad day!–when you write: “there is no reason to believe that its giant-endearing ability to heal wounds has abated; the power in the rocks abides.” Aurelius and Uther are both poisoned. Surely if the stones could heal, Aurelius and Uther would have been healed by them. My strong sense is that wonder has–largely but not entirely given the dancing stones!–gone out of the stones: again, Stonehenge is now a mortuary rather than a hospital. This observation belongs to my larger argument, recently formulated, about the relationship between wonder literature and the justifications of conquest (I wonder if I could find analogous discursive phenomenon with Egyptian relics, where, perhaps, they might have been thought more exotic, more prone to being cursed, in situ than at the British Museum?). Once Stonehenge has done its work of inspiring another swatting of the Irish, once it’s been taken to Britain, it no longer needs to be a wonder. As the graveyard of kings, as a memorial to the desired ethnic purity of the Island, it starts to do an entirely different kind of work.

[although on “recently formulated,” see “I continue to aver not only that the Caribs, Aztecs, Pacific Islanders, and various African, Native American, and New Guinea ‘tribes’ have been exoticised, but also–and equally importantly–that Western culture has congratulated itself for putting a stop to this cultural excess through colonial ‘pacificiation’ and introducing Christianity to once-benighted natives” (Wm. Arens, ‘Rethinking Anthropophagy,’ in Cannibalism and the Colonial World, 41).]

So: you would know better than I would: are there references outside the HRB to Stonehenge in Britain healing?

That said, I love your attention to the rocks in motion at Stonehenge, to Wace’s preservation of this with ‘carole as gaianz.’ And, haha, I think your excellent reading supports where my argument ends up. In other words, despite the draining of wonder from Stonehenge, the dance of the stones undercuts any effort to keep the stones as only a memorial, as only Briton, French, and English. In that way, the stones function like Vortigern’s Tower, and suffer the same heterogeneity.

And, Eileen, yes, exactly. I referred to Arthur yesterday as a “secular Messiah,” then mentally kicked myself and added “by which I mean the Christian Messiah, in that he’s coming back.” Although I’m meant tomorrow to start on Beroul, I plan on spending a fair amount of time comparing the HRB on Arthur’s departure to Wace and Layamon. They’re similar, but the differences are worth the noticing (as another opportunity to teach the hardest skill to learn: close reading).