Merlin (poem)

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by Robert de Boron
Merlin (illustration from middle ages).jpg
Merlin dictating the story for Blaise to write down in a 13th-century illustration for the prose version, Estoire de Merlin
WrittenEst. 1195–1210[1]
CountryKingdom of France
LanguageOld French
SeriesLittle Grail Cycle
Subject(s)Arthurian legend, Holy Grail
Preceded byJoseph of Arimathea
Followed byPerceval

Merlin is a partially lost epic poem in which Robert de Boron reworked Geoffrey of Monmouth's material about the legendary figure of Merlin, writing in Old French sometime in either the late 12th[2] or early 13th century.[3] Merlin tells the stories of the origin and early life of Merlin, his role in the birth of Arthur, and how Arthur became the king of Britain. It emphasises Merlin's power to prophesy as well as his connection to the Holy Grail.[4] Merlin introduced a number of new motifs that later became popular in medieval and later Arthuriana,[5] also ensuring the lasting place of Merlin as a key character in the legend of King Arthur.[1]

The story of Merlin is related to Robert's two other reputed Grail poems.[1] Its medieval prose retelling and its continuations, collectively known as the Prose Merlin,[2] have been incorporated directly into the Vulgate and the Post-Vulgate cycles of chivalric romances during the early 13th century.

Merlin and the Little Grail Cycle[edit]

Writing Merlin, the French knight-poet Robert de Boron seems to have been influenced by Wace's Roman de Brut,[6][7] an Anglo-Norman adaptation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. It is an allegorical tale, relating to the figure and works of Christ.[8] Only 504 lines of Merlin in its original poem form have survived to this day, but its contents are known from the prose version.[7]

Together with the other poems attributed to Robert de Boron, the surviving only in prose Joseph d'Arimathie [fr] and the perhaps completely lost Perceval, it forms a trilogy centered around the story of the Holy Grail.[1] In this "Little Grail Cycle", Merlin's part and role in the Arthurian legend becomes much greater than it was before (especially when compared to his only one minor appearance within all five Arthurian works of Chrétien de Troyes[1]), as it tells the story of the Arthurian myth as completely rewritten for the Holy Grail: brought from the Middle East to Britain by followers of Joseph of Arimathea, the Grail is eventually recovered by Arthur's knight Percival as foretold in one of the prophecies in Merlin.

In an alternate theory postulated by Linda Gowans, going against the widely accepted conventional scholarship, the prose text is actually the original version of Merlin, and the poem is unfinished because its author has simply given up on it. She furthermore put in doubt Robert's authorship of either of these (as well as of Perceval), attributing only Joseph to him.[9]


Note: All names and events as in the later Middle English anonymous prose version.

The first part introduces the character of Blaise [fr], a cleric and clerk who is pictured as writing down Merlin's deeds, explaining how they came to be known and preserved. The text claims that it is actually only his translation of a Latin book written by a Blaise as dictated to him by Merlin himself.[10]

Merlin begins with the scene of a council of demons plotting to create the future Merlin as their agent on Earth to undo the work of Christ, but their plan is foiled and the mother names the child Merlin after her father. It continues with the story of the usurper king Vortiger (Vortigern) and his tower, featuring the seven-year-old Merlin with amazing prophetic powers. Following Vortiger's death, which Merlin also predicted, he assists the new king Pendragon and his brother Uter (Uther Pendragon, soon himself the king as Uterpendragon after the death of the original Pendragon at Salisbury) in their bloody war against Saxon invaders, later erecting Stonehenge as burial place for the fallen Britons and eventually inspiring the creation of the Round Table.

This is followed by the account of Uter's war with the Duke of Tintagel (here unnamed, Gorlois in general Arthurian tradition) for the latter's wife Ygerne (Igraine), during which Merlin's magic, including many instances of shapeshifting, enables Uter to sleep with Ygerne and conceive Arthur, destined to become the Emperor of Rome. After Uter kills his rival and forcibly marries Ygerne, the newborn Arthur is given into the foster care of Antor (Ector), while Ygerne's daughters from the previous marriage are wed to King Lot and King Ventres (Nentres), and her illegitimate daughter Morgan is sent away to a nunnery and becomes known as Morgan le Fay (the first account of Morgan being Igraine's daughter and learning magic in a convent[11]).

The poem seems to have ended with the later "sword in the stone" story, in which Arthur proves he is to become Britain's high king by a divine destiny. This has been the first instance of this motif to appear in Arthurian literature; it has become iconic after being repeated almost exact in Thomas Malory's popular Le Morte d'Arthur.[2]

The following is the complete text of the mid-15th-century English translation (medieval English versions replaced the Anglo-Saxon enemies of Britain with the Saracens, the Danes, or just unidentified heathens), with modern conventions for punctuation and capitalization, of the prose version (sans the sequels):

  1. The Birth of Merlin
  2. Vortiger's Tower
  3. Vortiger's Demise; The Battle of Salisbury; and The Death of Pendragon
  4. Uther and Ygerne
  5. Arthur and the Sword in the Stone

Prose and continuations[edit]

Merlin is regarded as having been followed by the third part in Robert's Grail cycle, Perceval, however this poem is either entirely lost or perhaps was never even really written. It is nevertheless uncertainly associated with the anonymous romance known as the Didot Perceval [fr] (Perceval en prose). It might be either a reworked prose 'translation' of Robert's poem or just another author's unofficial attempt to complete the trilogy, and was found in only two of the many surviving manuscripts of prose rendition of Merlin.[12][13]

The poem Merlin itself was recast into prose c. 1210 as the Prose Merlin by authors unknown (highly possibly a single author,[14] perhaps Robert himself[15]). It was then (as Merlin Proper) extended with a lengthy sequel sometimes known as the Suite du Roman de Merlin to become the early 13th-century romance Estoire de Merlin (History of Merlin), also known as the Vulgate Merlin. The Estoire de Merlin constitutes one of the volumes of the vast Vulgate Cycle (Lancelot-Grail) as probably late addition to it.[14] The later Post-Vulgate Cycle also begins with material drawn directly from Joseph and Merlin.[16] The writer of the Post-Vulgate manuscript known as the Huth Merlin in fact attributed the authorship of the entire cycle to Robert.

The first of these prose sequels to Merlin, included in the Vulgate Estoire du Merlin, is the Merlin Continuation also known as Vulgate Suite du Merlin,[17] a 'historical' sequel about the various wars of Arthur and the role of Merlin in them, also focusing on Gawain as the third main character.[2] The second, included in the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin (Suite-Huth or the Huth Merlin[18]), is a 'romantic' sequel that includes elements of the Vulgate Lancelot.[7][14] The third is an alternative version known as the Livre d'Artus (The Book of Arthur), which too was written after the Vulgate Cycle had been completed.

Today, the Post-Vulgate Suite is best known as the primary source of Malory for the first four books of Le Morte d'Arthur. It also served as the basis for the Merlin sections of Castilian Demanda del Sancto Grial and Galician-Portuguese Demanda do Santa Graal.[2][16][19] Prior English translations and adaptations have included Henry Lovelich's verse Merlin and the romance Of Arthour and Merlin,[7] each based on different manuscripts of the Vulgate Merlin.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Echard, Sian; Rouse, Robert (2017). "The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain". John Wiley & Sons – via Google Books.
  2. ^ a b c d e John Conlee (1998). "Prose Merlin: Introduction". Robbins Library Digital Projects.
  3. ^ "Arthurian legend". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  4. ^ Morgan, Giles (2015). "The Holy Grail: From antiquity to the present day". Oldcastle Books – via Google Books.
  5. ^ Cartlidge, Neil (2012). "Heroes and Anti-heroes in Medieval Romance". DS Brewer – via Google Books.
  6. ^ Lacy, Norris J. (2010). "The History of the Holy Grail". Boydell & Brewer Ltd – via Google Books.
  7. ^ a b c d Lacy, Norris J. (1996). "The New Arthurian Encyclopedia: New Edition (Page 373)". Routledge – via Google Books.
  8. ^ "Medieval prose romances - literature and performance". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  9. ^ Field, P. J. C. (2004). Arthurian Studies in Honour of P.J.C. Field. DS Brewer. ISBN 9781843840138.
  10. ^ Kibler, William W. (2010). The Lancelot-Grail Cycle: Text and Transformations. University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292786400.
  11. ^ Carolyne Larrington, King Arthur's Enchantresses, p. 41.
  12. ^ Pickens, Rupert T. (1984). "« Mats de çou ne parole pas Crestiens de Troies... » : A Re-examination of the Didot-Perceval". Romania. 105 (420): 492–510. doi:10.3406/roma.1984.1722.
  13. ^ "The prose romance of Perceval". Retrieved 2019-06-07.
  14. ^ a b c Dover, Carol (2003). "A Companion to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle". DS Brewer – via Google Books.
  15. ^ "BnF - The legend of King Arthur". (in French). Retrieved 2018-10-07.
  16. ^ a b Lacy, Norris J. (1996). "The New Arthurian Encyclopedia: New Edition (Page 435)". Routledge – via Google Books.
  17. ^ Kibler, William W. (2010). The Lancelot-Grail Cycle: Text and Transformations. University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292786400.
  18. ^ Lacy, Norris J. (2010). Lancelot-Grail: Introduction. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. ISBN 9781843842385.
  19. ^ Zoë Enstone. "Malory Project - Vulgatemerlin Intro".
  20. ^ Goodrich, Peter H. (2004). Merlin: A Casebook. Routledge. ISBN 9781135583408.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]