Merlin (poem)

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by Robert de Boron
Merlin (illustration from middle ages).jpg
Merlin dictating the story of his life for Blaise 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 partly lost French epic poem: Robert de Boron reworked Geoffrey of Monmouth's material on the legendary Merlin in Old French in the late 12th[2] or early 13th century.[3] Emphasising Merlin's power to prophesy and link to the Holy Grail,[4] it tells of his origin and early life, his role in the birth of Arthur, and how Arthur became King of Britain. Merlin's story relates to Robert's two other reputed Grail poems, Joseph and Perceval.[1] It introduced motifs that became popular in medieval and later Arthuriana,[5] ensuring him a lasting place in the legend of King Arthur.[1] The poem's medieval prose retelling and continuations, collectively the Prose Merlin,[2] became parts of the 13th-century Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles of prose chivalric romances. The Prose Merlin was versified in two English poems: Henry Lovelich's Merlin and Of Arthour and of Merlin. Its post-Vulgate version was one of the main sources for Thomas Malory in writing Le Morte d'Arthur.


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]

Along with the poems attributed to Robert de Boron – the romance Joseph d'Arimathie [fr], which survives only in prose, and Perceval, perhaps completely lost – Merlin forms a trilogy centered around the story of the Holy Grail.[1] This "Little Grail Cycle" makes the role and part of Merlin in the Arthurian legend much greater, especially when compared to only one brief mention in all of the five earlier Arthurian poems by Chrétien de Troyes.[1] It also had the Arthurian myth rewritten as completely around the Holy Grail, here for the first time presented as a thoroughly Christian relic dating from the time of Christ. The Grail, brought from the Middle East to Britain by followers of Joseph of Arimathea, is eventually recovered by Arthur's knight Percival, as foretold in one of the prophecies in Merlin.

An alternative theory postulated by Linda Gowans goes against the widely accepted conventional scholarship in deeming the prose text to be the original version of Merlin. She argues that the poem version is unfinished because its (unknown) writer has simply given up on it. She also doubts Robert's authorship of either of these works or 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, but known as 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), which 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 the 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 a 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 Post-Vulgate 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 the 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 (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 poem Merlin and the verse romance Of Arthour and of Merlin,[7] each based on different manuscripts of the Vulgate Cycle's version of 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. ISBN 9781118396988 – 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. ISBN 9781843447900 – via Google Books.
  5. ^ Cartlidge, Neil (2012). Heroes and Anti-heroes in Medieval Romance. DS Brewer. ISBN 9781843843047 – via Google Books.
  6. ^ Lacy, Norris J. (2010). The History of the Holy Grail. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. ISBN 9781843842248 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ a b c d Lacy, Norris J. (1996). The New Arthurian Encyclopedia: New Edition (Page 373). Routledge. ISBN 9781136606335 – 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 7 June 2019.
  14. ^ a b c Dover, Carol (2003). A Companion to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. DS Brewer. ISBN 9780859917834 – via Google Books.
  15. ^ "BnF - The legend of King Arthur". (in French). Retrieved 7 October 2018.
  16. ^ a b Lacy, Norris J. (1996). The New Arthurian Encyclopedia: New Edition (Page 435). Routledge. ISBN 9781136606335 – 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]