Merlin (poem)

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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 legendary figure of Merlin, writing in Old French sometime in either the late 12th[1] or early 13th century.[2] 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 on Merlin's power to prophesy as well as on his connection to the Holy Grail.[3]

Merlin introduced a number of new motifs that later became popular in medieval and later Arthuriana,[4] also ensuring the lasting place of Merlin as a key character in the story of King Arthur.[5] The story of Merlin is related to Robert's two other poems that also feature Merlin as an integral character.[5] Its medieval prose retelling and its continuations, collectively known as the Prose Merlin[1] were later incorporated directly into the Vulgate and the Post-Vulgate cycles of French chivalric romances during the early 13th century.


Writing Merlin (c. 1195-1210[5]), Robert de Boron seems to have been by Wace's Roman de Brut,[6][7] 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.[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 Joseph and the completely lost Perceval, it forms a trilogy centered around the Holy Grail.[5] 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.[5] His "Little Grail Cycle" 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 against the widely accepted conventional scholarship of Merlin, prose version is actually the original one and the poem is unfinished because its author has simply given up on it. She furthermore doubted Robert's authorship of either, attributing only Joseph to him.[9]


Note: All names and events as in the later Middle English anonymous prose version.
Merlin dictating the story for Blaise to write down in a 13th-century illustration for the prose version, Estoire de Merlin

The first part introduces the character of Blaise, 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.[1]

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 was to be officially followed by Perceval but the latter is either entirely lost or perhaps just never have been written. It is nevertheless uncertainly associated with an anonymous romance known as Ditot Perceval, which contains elements from Chrétien de Troyes' own unfinished Perceval and its Second Continuation. It might be a reworked prose 'translation' of Robert's poem or just an unofficial attempt to complete the trilogy, appearing in only two of the many surviving manuscripts of the prose renditions of Merlin, one of which claims it was actually the work of Blase as dictated by Merlin himself. It also includes a separate section known as the Mort Artu (The Death of Arthur), effectively a further continuation, and seems to have in turn served as a source for such later works as Perlesvaus.[12][13]

The poem Merlin itself was recast into prose c. 1210 as the Prose Merlin (or Merlin Proper) by authors unknown (highly possibly a single author,[14] perhaps Robert himself[15]) and then 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 Vulgate Cycle (Lancelot-Grail) as a probably late addition to it.[14] The later Post-Vulgate Cycle, also begins with material drawn directly from Merlin.[16]

The first of the sequels to Merlin that led to 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.[1] The second involved the later Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin, also known from its surviving original French parts (the entire cycle being known mostly from translations) as the Suite-Huth or Huth Merlin,[18] a 'romantic' sequel that includes elements of the Vulgate Lancelot.[7][14] The writer of the Huth Merlin manuscript in fact attributes the entire story of the Post-Vulgate Cycle to de Boron. The third is an alternative version known as the Livre d'Artus (The Book of Arthur), which too was written after the Vulgate Cycle was 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.[1][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 John Conlee (1998). "Prose Merlin: Introduction". Robbins Library Digital Projects.
  2. ^ "Arthurian legend". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  3. ^ Morgan, Giles (2015). "The Holy Grail: From antiquity to the present day". Oldcastle Books – via Google Books.
  4. ^ Cartlidge, Neil (2012). "Heroes and Anti-heroes in Medieval Romance". DS Brewer – via Google Books.
  5. ^ a b c d e Echard, Sian; Rouse, Robert (2017). "The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain". John Wiley & Sons – 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]