(for 'History' see previous post)
So Laȝamon isn’t writing modern History. That’s not really surprising. ‘History’ was split decisively from ‘fiction’ over a century ago, but ‘written fiction’ is just as artificial a construct as ‘history’.
Everyone tells stories from the time they can talk. But ‘fiction’ is conventional. And the rules governing it are as artificially made and as historically contingent as the rules governing the writing of ‘history’.
A modern fictional character is a proper noun, with a cluster of attributes and actions. In modern fiction the attributes and actions should be motivated and consistent. Would-be novelists are advised to ‘know their characters’, to work out ‘the back story’, to creat lists of likes and dislikes, even if these won’t appear in the novel. Apparent inconsistency is risky but permissible, if the narrative explains the inconsistency.
One of the underlying fictions of both history and fiction is that humans are rational and their actions are coherent, motivated and understandable by a third party.
Which brings us back to Vortigern as Laȝamon presents him.
Laȝamon makes no attempt to supply Vortigern with motivation. He flashes onto the screen as a fully-fledged power hungry villain . He’s ready to do anything to get it. That I could cope with. His past, what makes him who he is, is a blank. I can cope with that too though I find myself shading it in as I go along.
But once he’s in power the story becomes difficult. There’s nothing unusual in his willingness to hire Germanic mercenaries. This was standard Imperial practice.
But then we come to the story of Thongcaester and how Hengist the mercenary tricks Vortigern into giving him land.
When Hengist asks for land, initially, sensibly, Vortigern refuses the request, knowing his people will object if he gives land to the pagan Hengist. Hengist then asks Vortigern to grant him as much land as can be covered by a bull’s hide and oblivious to what’s coming, Vortigern agrees. When he’s found his ideal spot, Hengist has the bull’s hide cut into a single unbroken thong which allows him to map out a large plot of land where he builds Thongcaester.
At which point you’d expect any real, hard-headed military leader to have said, listen here, chummy, that’s not what I meant and you know it. But our man doesn’t. He just accepts it. It feels like the narrative has been conscripted by one of the Clever Hans type folk tales you find in the Grimm’s collections.
Hengist now sends for his wife and daughter. The wife is never mentioned again. But the daughter is trouble. We are now asked to believe that having allowed himself to be cheated out of land, Vortigern is going to jeopardise everything he’s worked for, to get his hands on a pretty girl. I don’t buy it. I see no reason why the leader of a group of mercenaries wouldn’t marry his daughter to his boss as part of family politics. But such a business transaction should have been hedged around with conditions. Blind Freddy can see that making your servant your father in law shifts the power balance in a dangerous direction.
Nor does it make sense that Vortigern doesn’t insist she convert to Christianity first. It’s not as though he’d be waiting for her to take a theological degree. We’re asked to believe that he’s so besotted with her that he can’t wait to get her into bed and therefore skips the whole Christian marriage ceremony, although he must know it will annoy his British subjects and alienate the Church, which will not (then or now) accept the union as binding. He also gives away Kent as her bride price which is also guaranteed to infuriate both its current owner and his supporters.
I want to know how the original audience responded to this.
And that will take us to the observation that something odd is happening in these stories with implications that go far beyond my interest in this narrative.