Albion: The Foundation Myth of Britain as the Cultural Embodiment of the British Soul

The foundation myth of Britain arises out of The New Chronicles and The Brut’s depiction of the daughters of King Dioclician plotting to murder (or actually succeeding in their plans) their husbands and being banished to sea only to shipwreck on an island they name Albion. The idea of the oppression of women and the manner in which they vindicate themselves, coupled with the idea of the quest and of the search, set the background for William Blake’s elucidation of his theosophical assertions of the divinity of man in his epic poems "Visions of the Daughters of Albion" and "Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion." Though the island was called Albion as a result of Albyna’s unequivocal proclamation' , it is probable that Blake also drew his understanding of the myth from an alternative claim in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (II, x, 11, and IV, xi, 16), that the name Albion was bestowed "in honor of an ancestral giant who conquered the British Isles" (Blake 68), but was later killed in France by Hercules (Spenser 261). In spite of the fact that Blake's mythology is totally recreated, as he did not want the associations that his readers would usually draw from common mythological names to interfere with the world he was trying to establish through his poetry, Blake’s dealings with Albion are rooted fundamentally in the historical tradition of which he is most indelibly a part.

The myth upon which Blake draws is binate, in that it relies on two separate foundation myths that must converge into one another to achieve their resolution. Upon arriving in this new land, the thirty (or thirty-three) sisters under the leadership of the eldest, called Albyna, are deceived into mating with devils in the shape of men and spawn from these unions a race of giants who rule the island of Albion until they are overthrown by Brutus, the great-grandson of the Trojan Aeneas. In his "Visions of the Daughters of Albion," Blake proposes a rape that "takes place quickly…(while) the rest of the work is devoted to tracing its causes, consequences, and implications—for the victim, Oothoon, her fiance, Theotormon, and the rapist, Bromion" (69), where the culmination of the tragedy lies in Oothoon’s achieving "psychological liberation" from the consequences of the rape, and is able to enlighten her ‘sisters,’ the daughters of Albion, who "hear her woes, & eccho back her sighs" (plate 8, 13). Similarly, the sisters of Albion in The New Chronicles, and also in The Brut, are just as oppressed as Oothoon in their being ‘raped’ by devils and eventually subsumed by the wild giants they spawn. These children are punished for the sins of their fathers (and mothers) by Brutus, who invades Albion, renames it Briton, and slays the giants—thus redeeming the island and destroying the monstrous progeny of the sisters. In this way, Brutus becomes both hero and savior—a prophet who, like Moses, can lead his people into the promised land and conquer it for them with the strength of his god behind him. In "Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion," Blake makes Britain itself the hero in hopes of reuniting it with its spiritual center, in much the same way as Brutus tries to invoke his homeland by naming his capital New Troy (which later becomes London). The evolution of this myth develops into such that "by the time Caxton prints the legendary history of Britain, one of the giants will be named Albion—as if the land, the founding woman, and the monster were all one and the same, and all equally opposed to patriarchal imprintation" (Cohen 50). It is from the emanation of the mythic consciousness that Blake may have found an important source in forming the idea of Albion as a fallen part of God that has yet to awaken to its divine potential.

The author of the New Chronicles as catalogued under the American Council of Learned Societies’ British Manuscripts Project makes a dramatic detour from the author of The Brut as edited by Friedrich Brie under the Early English Text Society in the telling of the origin myth of Albion. The story in the New Chronicles reads that a Grecian king married his thirty daughters to lesser kings within the sphere of his influence and that these daughters conspired against their husbands’ lives, were found out before they could commit their crime by the waxing courage of one of the daughters who loved her husband more than she despised his power over her, and were exiled to wherever the sea would carry their vessel. In the Brie version, however, the number of King Dioclician’s daughters changes to thirty-three, who were able to successfully carry out their murderous intentions and were only afterwards condemned to exile. Their motives, nonetheless, do not change in the telling between the two authors, but Brie’s version is more explicit and comprehensive.

The daughters are led, according to Brie’s transcription, by the eldest, Albyna, who, having been married against her will, "bycome so stoute & so sterne, at sche told litel prys of her lord, And of hym hadde scorne and dyspite, and wolde not done his wylle, but wolde haue here owne wyll in diuerses maners" (2). She would rather they slay their husbands under their father’s roof after receiving his chastisement for disobeying them than return to their marital exile and be chastened into submission. Regardless of how the tale of their success is told, all are guilty of conspiracy to treason, a crime for which King Dioclician had the power to put his daughters to death. Yet, above all other considerations, these traitors were still born of his blood, and were therefore given the opportunity of exile with provisions for six months at sea. This served the dual purpose of ridding the land of Greece of their rebellious presence and of ridding themselves of the patriarchal power structure that had for so long oppressed them. This exile eventually leaves them on an island at the other end of the world where they are given the opportunity to start anew. Once on this island, in both renditions, the women become independent creatures capable of governing their own affairs in a grotesque reversal of the traditional hierarchy of power—they have already made a strong statement of their desire for independence through their actions against the male establishment under which they had once been condemned. Once left to their own devices, however, they never establish a civilization, but continue to live wild. After surviving for some time off the wild herbs and wild animals with which the island was populated, they ironically come to sexually desire the company of men. Because nature abhors such role reversals, the daughters are made to pay for their insolence by demons that spawn of them giants who reconsummate themselves upon their mothers’ own flesh. Thus, the land of Albion, named after Albyna, becomes a land filled with giants until the coming of the age of Brutus.

The founder of Briton, who conquered the island and rid it of Albion’s monstrous sonsa , brings forth a new era in the cultural identity of the island by reinstituting the Eastern patriarchy that Albyna and her sisters had fought so hard to overcome. It could be argued that the sons of Albion had already reasserted male dominance in their sexual empowerment over their mothers were they only human. Instead, they outlive their mothers by eight centuries and live as wild and uncivilized as brutes during their tenure on the island. Aside from the greater length and development of Brie’s transcription, there is no major deviation between the two versions on this account. Brutus was the great-grandson of Aeneas, who had fled Troy after its defeat at the hands of the Greeks with his father, Anchises, and son, Ascanius. In Italy, Ascanius beget Silvius, who fathered Brutus, the child who was destined to kill both his mother and father and reconstitute the kingdom of Troy in a land that would one day conquer the world. It happened that Brutus’ mother died in the bearing of him and he accidentally shot his father with an arrow while hunting fifteen years beyond that. For the death of his father, Brutus was sent into exile, whereupon he helped free four generations of Trojan slaves from their Greek masters and prevailed against the Greek king in battle.

The Brutus myth parallels the Albion myth in this respect, as this second Trojan war began with a cry from Brutus against the Greek King Pandrasus that the enslaved Trojans under his leadership "hold it better far to live in the wilderness, and to feed like animals on raw flesh and herbs, with freedom, than amid feasting and luxury under slavery," because "it is both nature and duty that every slave should struggle to win back his ancestral dignity and his freedom" (Monmouth 226-7). It was for those very reasons that Albyna and her sisters had rebelled against the tyranny of their husbands. In this reversal, however, the rebels defeat the Greek king and his lords and take off with his only daughter, Innogen, as wife to Brutus. They leave as the victors instead of as the vanquished. Just as Albyna’s rebellion against male dictatorship was a sign of liberation, the conquest of the female will by Brutus is a sign of male potency and superiority. After taking his leave of Greece with all the spoils of war he can carry, Brutus withdraws with his men to a deserted Aegean island where stands a temple of Diana, the goddess of the hunt. After performing his ablutions, Brutus receives from the goddess a prophecy of his future, which directs him to the island at the corner of the world inhabited by the beast-like descendents of Dioclician’s daughters. On his way to this island, Brutus lands in Africa and joins forces with another group of displaced Trojans under the leadership of Corineus, the giant slayer. Together, they invade France and come away with riches on a scale that the least among them was dressed in embroidered gold. These successes behind them, they land on Albion and rename it Briton, whereupon Brutus consecrates a new temple to Diana and defeats the giants who dwell there. After all the giants are slain save the leader, named Gogmagogb , Corineus engages in a wrestling match with him and throws him over a cliff to be smashed on the rocks beneath. Upon this occurrence, Briton is freed of giants and is ruled by the descendents of Brutus till the coming of the Romans about seven-hundred years later under Julius Caesar in 47 B. C. (5215 years from the beginning of the world, according to Nennius [23]), following whom, about half a millennium later, came the Saxon Angles, after which the island was renamed. The greatest difference between the Roman tenancy in Briton and the Anglo occupation is that the Romans did not permanently settle the land, which afforded the British a great deal of latitude in their daily affairs, while the Angles moved in and their cultures were merged. The legacy that Brutus created, therefore, was one that provided continuity through the invasions and even up to the present day.

The progress of this foundation myth has been traced extensively in various editions of The Brut, though, as stated in the New Chronicles, the Albion myth is one of which almost no other chronicle makes mention. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, written in Latin around 1125 A. D., which is the original source drawn upon by La3amonc through an 1136 A. D. French translation by Wace, and was used by Blake as one of his sources, begins not with the Albion foundation myth, but with that of the fall of Troy and the legend incumbent on Brutus’ origins. It mentions the giants in Albion that Brutus had to conquer, but does not explain how they came to be there. Wace himself begins about 1500 years after Brutus’ acquisition of the land, starting his Brut around the time of King Arthur and the reign of his father, Uther Pendragon. It is from this that La3amon, writing about a century later, is forced to extrapolate, which might be the reason why he also leaves out the Albion myth though he starts at Brutus’ heritage. Even so, he doubles the length of Wace’s text, managing to translate, according to Tatlock, "not only his language and style, but also his cultural background, from those expected among mid-twelfth century Normans to those of more primitive people" (Le Saux 27). Sir Frederic Madden adds to this the fact that "we find preserved in many passages of La3amon’s poem the spirit and style of the earlier Anglo-Saxon writers" (Le Saux 184), suggesting that La3amon tried to recreate a time before the Norman influence interposed itself unto the English mythology. To this, Henry Cecil Wyld asserts that "La3amon is thus in the true line of succession to the old poets of his land. His vocabulary and his spirit are theirs. His poetry has its roots, not merely in the old literary tradition but also…in the essential genius of the race" (Le Saux 187, ellipses his). Le Saux adds, "that even though the Brut scrupulously follows the order of events of Wace’s Roman de Brut, the poem has a different inner structure through the shifting of weight from one episode to another" (32). Instead of the sections being uniformly expanded or compressed, La3amon followed his own cultural identity as a Briton over Wace’s comparable subjectivity as a Frenchmand . That La3amon is able to still consider himself British half a millennium after the Anglo conquest is shown in his "harmonious passage from Briton to English rule," which "contrasts strongly with the antagonism La3amon expresses towards the Normans," to which extent, "the Brut may read as an attempt to kindle a spirit of solidarity between the Welsh and the English, the legitimate inhabitants of Britain, against the invaders" (Le Saux 227). This shows not only a form of nationalism on the part of La3amon, but also continuity from the original lineage of Brutus into the Middle Ages, which is something that will, in half a millennium beyond the cultural fusion of the Anglo-British and the Normans, be resurrected by Blake as an unbroken chain of cultural tradition. In response to La3amon, however, came the publication of the Anglo-Norman prose Brut in 1272, which was followed by the Middle English and Latin prose Brut in 1415, and the Middle English New Chronicles in 1437, from the last of which comes the counter-myth to Brie’s translation of the Bodleian manuscript. It is in these final two versions that the first recordings of the Albion myth preceding the arrival of Brutus to the island are found.

None of these editions might have been possible were it not for the early recordings of Nennius, a "pupil of the holy Elvodug" who undertook in the late eighth and early ninth century "to write down some extracts that the stupidity of the British cast out" (Nennius 1). Nennius, however, records Brutus’ title in one account as being a Roman consul, though other myths point to his having founded his nation on British soil three hundred years before the foundation of the city of Rome (18). He finds another myth that places Brutus as the great-grandson of Noah, who was born of Hessitio, son of Japheth, the one to whom Noah gave Europe after the flood (22). A third myth places Brutus in the lineage of Aeneas through Ascanius’ grand-daughter Rhea Silvia, who had a son named Alanus, who sired Hessitio, who beget Brutus (22). Furthermore, Nennius records in one place that Silvius, the father of Brutus, was not the son of Ascanius but of Aeneas himself, making Brutus the grandson, and not the great-grandson, of Aeneas (19-20). In another place, he records the genealogy correctly, noting Ascanius as Silvius’ proper sire (19). He records nothing at all about Albyna and her sisters. This early confusion as to specific dates and genealogies arises from the paucity of reliable information translated into A. D. dating, most of the early research of which was laboriously and blindly done by scholars like Nennius. The difficulties historians like him had to overcome should be readily understandable to an age that has such difficulty placing even La3amon’s work in a specific period with all the advances of our technology at our disposal. The problems of dating aside, Nennius was transferring everything he find into what he intended to be a comprehensive volume that would promulgate the hero worship of Brutus into a reflection of his own era. As Cohen states,

From the reign of Augustus in imperial Rome to late medieval historiography, an obsession with tracing patrilineage back to the heroes of fallen Troy flourished, so that the Trojans became an entire race of founding fathers…[the cause being that] invoking Trojan descent was an easy way to legitimate newly established regimes as well as to glorify existing orders by attaching to them long precedent and the weight of classical tradition. (33)

Nennius’ immediate reasons for doing so seem to be patriotic, as he was, after all, Welsh, and therefore a descendent of the Britons in general, and of Brutus, in particular. The fragmentation of these collective myths show the importance the British have placed in not only trying to grasp a historical understanding of their own foundations, but also in their continuing redevelopment of a functional myth.

The fact that there are conflicting myths surrounding the biographies of these early principals lends credence to the idea that the myth itself is not as important as the message that the myth is trying to convey. That it has exceeded the boundaries of plausibility while still maintaining a credible thematic and plot structure proves that it can still serve as the legendary beginnings of a particular race of people. It does not matter, therefore, that an adherent to the myth is forced to believe that a boat with neither rudder nor oars would find as its first natural landing point on being set loose in the Aegean an island that lay at a right turn beyond the coastlines of Italy, North Africa, France, and the Iberian Peninsula. The gods could have guided it there without its having to be some magic boat. It also does not matter that once on the island the sisters of Albyna would suddenly find themselves attracted by demonic spirits of the air and impregnated with demigod giants who later mate with them. Throughout the mythology of the ancient world, there are similar stories of gods and goddesses coupling with humans and siring or bearing children by them. After creating his gods in his own image, mankind then turned around and tried to recreate himself in the image of his gods—hence the genealogy of Brutus as having been descended from Jupiter. As a function of myth, therefore, these stories need not show literal truth, but serve to illustrate an allegorical one in order to perpetuate the teleology of the race and the anagogical importance of the statement being made.

Seen in this light, Albyna and her sisters are revolutionaries seeking liberation from an oppressive patriarchal hierarchy through active involvement in their own destinies. It is for these same reasons, moreover, that Brutus’ Trojans withdraw from the Grecian peninsula—to them, living in Greece amongst their enemies and former masters is tantamount to being dependent upon the beneficence of a dominant race. The British people who pride themselves on their independence of spirit in the modern age, therefore, can reflect happily on that spirit as an innate birthright. An explanation of their character, thus, reaches beyond the structure of an impossible plot into thematic justification for the self. The theme, which is larger than the plot, and which subsumes it, carries the myth into the imagination and makes it part of the imaginative fabric of the English mind in much the same way as the myth of Adam and Eve is a part of the collective consciousness of Jews, Christians, and Moslems, regardless of how implausible it is under literal scrutiny. The fact that the myth can sustain a people’s sense of purpose also lends credence to the message it is trying to convey, for such a legacy as one in which the goddess Diana bequeaths the descendents of Brutus the leadership of the world’s peoples not only endorses, but also demands, future British colonialism on a global scale. That the sun never set on the British Empire becomes as much a manifest destiny to the cultural descendents of Brutus as reaching the Pacific Ocean had been to the cultural descendents of the American Revolution. The cultural impact of this myth on the world that the British endeavored to create is one of righteous aggression and settlement—a people who can rid a land of giants with their bare hands are a people who are themselves giants—both giant killers and descendents of giants, as the dual foundation myths of Albyna and Brutus would make them.

Given this call to redeem the world in its own image, a call for self-determination that necessarily includes the determination of the destiny of others who affect that sense of self, poets like William Blake find moral justification for invoking the sons and daughters of Albion towards the recreation of the world in the British cultural image. Blake himself is regenerating the myth in his image and creating for an entirely new system founded upon the fragments of the old. In "Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion," for instance, Blake asserts the responsibility of the wanderer to create a homeland in his place of exile and to spread the values of his adopted culture throughout the world—that the culture to be disseminated is British is a given, for it is therein that the promise of a chosen people lies. In this case, Blake is specifically referring to the Jewish people, the original chosen of God, who are

addressed not as sinister devotees of a mistaken faith but as fellow believers in one religion, now divided, who need to be instructed in the connection between Jewish tradition and primordial Christianity as it developed mythically among the ancient Britons. (Blake 308)

The rationale behind this is the tie Blake makes between Jewish Cabalism and New Age theosophy, where the Jew’s "own Cabalistic myth of cosmic man ought to be understood as applying to Albion, the traditional ancestral personification of England" (308). If Albion, in Blake’s cosmography, is the amalgam of pieces broken off from the part of God that fell, or, according to Frye, is "all the humanity that we know in the world of time and space, though visualized as a single Titan or giant" (125), then mankind taken holistically is God’s other half. This half of God, therefore, has been asleep since its fall, and it will remain asleep until the Last Judgment, whereupon mankind will find himself redeemed through the resurrection of Albion. In the interim, "the yet unfallen part of God," that which fragmented mankind continues to worship, has "made seven attempts to awaken him, and in the seventh Jesus himself descended into the world of Generation and began his final redemption" (125). While the Bible does not make mention of this myth, the Cabala does in the person of Adam Kadmon, "the universal man who contained within his limbs all heaven and earth" (125), and it is to him that Blake refers when introducing Albion.

What connection this has with the giants on Albion can be found in the biblical narrative of the Jews entering the land of Canaan under the direction of Moses and encountering, once there, the giant race called Anakim. Cohen writes, "the inhabitants of Canaan are imagined as gigantic in order to convey the difficulty of the ensuing settlement" (34). Blake, relying considerably, though not overtly, on Old Testament mythology to advance his own mythic creation, can apply the giants of Jerusalem to the giants of Albion, and, through a process of transference, he can recreate the original man in the person of Albion. As to his connection with the heroine of the New Chronicles, it lies in Albyna’s resemblance to Lilith, the first wife of Adam, who rebelled against his authority and escaped into the world to mate with demons (again, according to the Cabala). The female will is thus born out of Albion to balance and thwart him, turning him into a house divided against itself. While the ‘submissive’ Eve was created to succor Adam, Lilith spawned thousands of devils that were later killed by the Archangel Gabriel in retribution for her infidelity to her true husband and her salacious behavior with the fallen angels, whereupon Lilith declared war against the sons and daughters of Adam which her future progeny, the Lilim, continue to carry out in the form of the sexually lascivious Incubi and Succubi, to confuse mankind from his awareness of the divinity within himself and keep him, like Albion the Giant, asleep. The world then passed through seven great periods, each representing one of the attempts of the unfallen nature of God to awaken the fallen portion, which will culminate in the eighth attempt, or the Apocalypse, when Albion actually does awaken. Albyna’s progeny, like Lilith’s, is conquered by a god-sent messenger in the person of Brutus, who promises to bring forth a new order in the world. This "conquest of England by the Trojan Brutus symbolizes the final collapse of the great Druidic civilizations of antiquity" (Frye 132), civilizations that had begun with the first druid Adam, which then precipitated the beginning of Albion’s restoration.

As every age requires a new myth to sustain it, the gods of the old religions become the devils of the new systems. Even though Blake, writing in Jerusalem, states: "I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s./ I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create" (plate 10, 20-1), he still remained firmly rooted in the cultural semantics of his language, so that whenever he evoked a new being out of his poetry, he necessarily called into being all the old associations incumbent upon its attributes. In "Visions of the Daughters of Albion," Oothoon, who is betrothed to Theomorton, is raped by Bromion, after which fact her kinswomen, the Daughters of Albion, can do nothing but "hear her woes and eccho back her sighs" (plate 2, 20). On the historical level of analysis, the daughters of Albion can imply merely any Englishwoman bemoaning the injustice of one of their sex; on the allegorical level, however, these Englishwomen are still struggling against patriarchal oppression that seeks to dominate their gender and force it into submission. The difference here is in the reaction of the kinswomen—rather than its being one of outrage and action, it is one of pathetic resignation, as if in the slaughtering of the sons of Albyna and her sisters, Brutus and his men were symbolically killing the monstrous product of the independent female will—in effect, killing that will altogether, so that there is nothing the mourners for Oothoon’s forced submission can do to redress it. Frye states that "the poem represents a conflict between the tyranny of convention and an emancipated female’s demand for free love" (240), hence Albyna’s own rebellion against the authority of the Grecian lords and her embrace of the demon lovers. The only difference is in how it is received by the society—that Oothoon finds pleasure in the rape damns her by convention, that Albyna, living long before British convention is established by the patriarchal Brutus, finds pleasure in it affirms her independence of spirit. In either case, the received truth does not become the standard for the culture, but is judged by the standard already created by the culture out of which these myths arise. That Blake is indeed drawing parallels can be affirmed in the names he gives to his daughters of Albion, which include Cambel, Gwendolen, Ignoge (also Innogen), Cordella, Mehetabel, Ragan, Gonorill, Gwinevere, Estrild, Sabrina, and Conwenna, which Frye notes seem to be taken at random from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum (370). The retelling of these myths in a creation Blake asserts to be of his own making illustrates the process by which the myth is adapted from the social mores into which the poet has been born.

The function of mythology as the ontological and ontic recreation of truth, therefore, is its ultimate impact on the world, for each age must recreate for itself a critical awareness of that truth through a process of the rediscovery of its genesis. Robert Graves, in his collection of Greek myths, tells the story of Belus and the Danaids, where King Belus, upon his death, left his twin sons, Aegyptus and Danaus, control over his empire of Arabia and Libya. When it happened that they quarreled, Aegyptus proposed a mass marriage between his fifty sons and Danaus’ fifty daughters, his plans being that his sons would kill Danaus’ daughters on their wedding night. The latter, however, having agreed, equipped his daughters with hairpins wherewith they could stab their husbands on their wedding night, and this succeeded, with the exception of one daughter who spared her husband because he had spared her maidenhead (200-3). The similarity of this legend to the foundation of Albion helps prove the ubiquitous nature of mythology and the deep role it plays in the cultural identity of a people, that the same tropes representative of human nature and instinct can be created and recreated to suit the developing needs of the society that is constantly recreating itself. Blake’s cosmography of Albion, therefore, is not so much a recreation of the myth as it is a reconceptualization of his cultural identity and the role of that identity in the greater world in which it resides. It is for this reason that Albion has survived three-thousand years and continues to be subdued by the descendents of Brutus, for they are forever representative of the new man carrying the old man’s baggage, regardless of how many pieces he drops along the way.

' "For-as-mich…as I am eldest suster of all is cumpanye, & ferst is land haue takyn, & for-as-meche as myn name is Albyna, y wil at is land be called Albyon, after myn owne name" (Bodleian 4).

a According to Cohen, this occurrence takes place 800 years after these giants are spawned unto the island.  Albyna and her sisters are "wholly replaced by—subsumed within" these beasts (49).

b According to Cohen, this name is lifted either from the Hebrew bible or from the Book of Revelation, "where Gog and Magog are nations led by the devil to war against the kingdom of God" (35).

c (cited by Le Saux as circa 1185-1216 A. D. (10) [which Le Saux further cites the placement of J. S. P. Tatlock’s Legendary History of Britain as dating it between 1189-99 (4) and E. G. Stanley’s "The Date of La3amon’s Brut" as somewhere around 1250 (7)])

d For an in-depth rendering of La3amon’s cultural expansions and contractions beyond Wace, see Le Saux’s La3amon’s Brut: The Poem and Its Sources, Chapter 3.


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