By: John Milton (1608-1674)
A reader of this history, encountering the frequent references to “my author,” meaning the current source, will be reminded of DON QUIXOTE and of THE MORTE D'ARTHUR, for Milton employs a style that might be called dissertational rather than novelistic; he carefully identifies his sources and often quotes from them. However, much of the scholarly documentation has been omitted from the reading—all except footnotes indicating the years—to avoid cumbersome interruptions.
What will be obvious to a listener, though, is that Milton uses earlier chronicles with discretion. He doubts the very existence of Arthur and proposes an ingenious explanation of the origin of his supposed father's name, Uther. When obliged to cite George Buchanan, the world-renowned neo-Latin author and tutor of Mary Queen of Scots, he regularly uses more than a grain of salt, in view of that scholar’s Scottish bias.
And as he carefully weighs the reliability of his sources, so he offers his candid opinion of the wisdom and integrity of historical figures. He sneers at the story of King Canute’s famously commanding the rising tide of waves to retire, but not for the reason one might suppose. Boadicea gets low marks, Alfred high ones—but not without some reservations. And in a long digression comparing the government of Britain, newly freed from Roman domination, to the British republic under Cromwell , his criticism is so frank and savage that the passage had to be suppressed during his lifetime. Such personal opinions are what make this book entertaining and useful for the serious study of the author’s thought and personality.
The endearingly affectionate life of the author, written by his elder nephew, Edward Philips, offers much first-hand information although its facts are not always accurate and its coverage spotty. One learns nothing, for example, about Milton’s visit to the home of Galileo, but Philips's discussion of the role his cousins played in their father’s scholarly pursuits is detailed and affords no basis to the myth that he ever dictated his poetry to his daughters.