Merlin is a partially lost epic poem of the Arthurian legend in which the French knight-poet Robert de Boron reworked Geoffrey of Monmouth's material about the wizard Merlin, writing in Old French sometime in either the late 12th or early 13th century. Together with Robert's other works, Joseph and Perceval, Merlin forms a trilogy centered around the Holy Grail.
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 introduced a number of new motifs that later became popular in medieval and later Arthurian literature, also ensuring the lasting place of Merlin as a key character in the story of King Arthur. The poem's medieval prose retelling and its continuations were also incorporated into the French chivalric romances during the early 13th century, collectively known as the Prose Merlin.
Writing Merlin (c. 1195-1210), Robert de Boron was inspired by Wace's Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman adaptation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. The poem is an allegorical tale, relating to the figure and works of Christ. In all of Robert's works, Merlin's part and role in the Arthurian legend becomes much greater than in previous texts, especially when compared to only one minor appearance among all five (and also influential) Arthurian works of Chrétien de Troyes. Robert lays great emphasis on Merlin's power to prophesy and shapeshift, as well as on his connection to the Holy Grail. Only 504 lines of Merlin in its original poem form have survived to this day, but its contents are known from the prose version.
The first part of the text introduces the character of Blase, a cleric and clerk who is pictured as writing down Merlin's deeds, explaining how they came to be known and preserved. In Robert's account, as in Geoffrey's Historia, Merlin is begotten by an incubus demon on a virgin as an intended Antichrist. This plot is thwarted when the expectant mother informs her confessor, Blase, of her predicament; they immediately baptize the boy at birth, thus freeing him from the power of Satan and his intended destiny. The demonic legacy invests Merlin with a preternatural knowledge of the past and present, which is supplemented by God, who gives him a prophetic knowledge of the future.
The story of Merlin is related to Robert de Boron's two other poems that also feature Merlin as an integral character. First recast into prose c. 1210, the three poems (Joseph, Merlin, and Perceval) can also form the trilogy known as Le Roman du Graal, which 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.
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 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).
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 was the first appearance of this now-iconic motif in Arthurian literature after being repeated almost exact in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.
Prose and continuations
The poem was rewritten in prose and extended with a lengthy sequel to become the early-13th-century romance Estoire de Merlin (History of Merlin), also known as the Vulgate Merlin or Prose Merlin, by authors unknown (highly possibly a single author). Estoire de Merlin constitutes one of the five volumes of the Vulgate Cycle / Lancelot-Grail as a probably late addition to it. The later Post-Vulgate Cycle also begins with material drawn from the poem.
The first of the two sequels to Merlin are known as the Vulgate Suite du Merlin, 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. The second is the later Suite du Merlin (or a Merlin Continuation), also known as the Suite-Huth or Huth Merlin; a 'romantic' sequel in the Post-Vulgate. Today, the Suite du Merlin is best known as the primary source of Malory for the first four books of Le Morte d'Arthur; the previous Vulgate Suite also served as a minor source for Malory's Roman War episode (Book II).
The following is the mid-15th-century English translation, with modern conventions for punctuation and capitalization, of the poem's prose version (also reworked into the romance Arthour and Merlin), sans the sequels:
- The Birth of Merlin
- Vortiger's Tower
- Vortiger's Demise; The Battle of Salisbury; and The Death of Pendragon
- Uther and Ygerne
- Arthur and the Sword in the Stone
- John Conlee (1998). "Prose Merlin: Introduction". d.lib.rochester.edu. Robbins Library Digital Projects.
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- Bryant, Nigel (ed., trans.), de Boron, Robert, Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval: The Trilogy of Arthurian Prose Romances attributed to Robert de Boron, Boydell and Brewer, 2005.
- Laura Chuhan Campbell, "The Medieval Merlin Tradition in France and Italy: Prophecy, Paradox, and Translatio". Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017.
- Le Roman du Saint-Graal, an 1861 edition of Robert de Boron's gathered poems, available at Wikimedia Commons
- Prose Merlin (including both continuations) in the Middle English version, a 1998 edition by John Conlee, available on the website of the University of Rochester