Prose Merlin: Introduction


1 Given the fact that the Middle English Prose Merlin is a close translation of the Old French Vulgate version, when I speak of the Prose Merlin here and elsewhere in the Introduction, the remarks apply both to the ME and OF texts.


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Prose Merlin: Introduction

by: John Conlee (Editor)
from: Prose Merlin  1998

The Middle English Prose Merlin survives in a single manuscript text, Cambridge University Library MS Ff.3.11. This late medieval Arthurian work was written, scholars believe, near the middle of the fifteenth century, not long before Thomas Malory was composing his Morte D'Arthur. Because it pre-dates Malory's work, the Middle English Prose Merlin is considered the earliest piece of Arthurian literature written in English prose. In contrast to Malory's work, however, which draws upon a wide variety of sources and combines them in a unique fashion, the Middle English Prose Merlin offers a straight-forward and fairly accurate translation into English of a single source, the Merlin section of the Old French Vulgate Cycle, an interconnected set of Arthurian works composed during the first half of the thirteenth century. One of the real values of the Middle English Prose Merlin is that it gives students of medieval Arthurian literature access, though at one remove, to this important Old French work. But the value of the Prose Merlin goes far beyond that, for the work is a treasure trove of Arthurian characters, incidents, and motifs - many of which are found nowhere else in Arthurian literature. Perhaps its greatest potential value for students of English medieval literature, however, lies in the dramatic literary counterpoint the Middle English Prose Merlin provides to Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur. A careful examination of these two nearly contemporaneous texts, in their relationships to each other, can do much to illuminate each of them.

The Prose Merlin: An Overview

The Middle English Prose Merlin is, first and foremost, the history of Merlin. Just as Malory's Morte D'Arthur begins with the events leading up to Arthur's birth and concludes with those occurring shortly after his death, the Prose Merlin does much the same for the figure of Merlin, providing its readers with a complete account of Merlin's life. The initial episode in the Prose Merlin describes the events surrounding Merlin's birth, and the final episode, occurring after Merlin has said farewell to those dearest to him, provides a clear indication of the fate he must endure henceforth - a kind of living death.

In addition to presenting a full account of the life of Merlin, the Prose Merlin also presents a detailed account of the initial phase in the evolution of Arthurian civilization, a phase which may be called the Rise of Arthur. This is the segment of the Arthurian story that extends from Arthur's birth through his coronation and marriage and the pacification of Britain. It describes at great length the several threats to the land the young king must address - particularly the baronial revolt and the Saxon invasion - before peace and stability can be returned to Britain. This early phase in the larger story also includes Arthur's courtship of Gonnore (Gwenyvere) and their subsequent marriage, Merlin's intense emotional involvement with his protégé Nimiane (Nyneve), as well as several events contributing to the initial development of a code of knightly conduct. In this last matter Gawain (Gawayne) and his brothers and cousins - a group known collectively as the Young Squires - figure prominently. This important early phase in the larger narrative concludes shortly after Merlin's departure, with the implication that Merlin has fulfilled his function and Arthur must now proceed without his mentor's guiding hand.

In its larger structure, scholars believe, the Prose Merlin consists of two principal sections. The first, which begins with the story of Merlin's birth and continues through Arthur's coronation - the first five sections in this volume - is probably derived from the Old French poem Merlin by the late twelfth-century writer Robert de Boron. The remainder of the Prose Merlin is thought to be based on a lengthy sequel to Robert's poem that was written during the first half of the thirteenth century, when a Merlin section was needed to complete the overall design of the Old French Vulgate Cycle. This sequel section of the Prose Merlin accomplishes several things: it fleshes out the story of Arthur's rise to his apogee; it describes the manner in which many important characters first became a part of the story; it lays the groundwork for many later events in the Vulgate Cycle, most importantly those having to do with the Holy Grail; and it provides a smooth transition into the next major phase in the larger story which will focus on the figure of Lancelot.

These two sections of the Prose Merlin are merged without fanfare, however, and there is little in the Middle English text to indicate that a structural division even exists. And yet as one moves from the Robert de Boron section to the so-called Sequel, it becomes clear that the basic approach to the handling of the narrative has been altered. In the Robert de Boron section the narrative is relatively simple, straightforward, and single-stranded; in the Sequel it becomes far more digressive and diffuse, and more importantly, it becomes multi-stranded. The Sequel clearly manifests the interlacing pattern - that of pursuing one strand of the narrative for a few pages, then a second strand, and then a third, before returning to the first - that typifies the works belonging to the Vulgate Cycle.

The Robert de Boron Section

The Robert de Boron section of the Prose Merlin opens dramatically upon a council of devils. Dismayed and aggrieved by Christ's Harrowing of Hell, an event in which the Old Testament patriarchs have been freed from Satan's bondage, the fiends of hell seek a means by which to undo the work of Christ. The plan they hit upon is to create their own demonic agent - a kind of antichrist - who will go into the world and do their bidding in the cosmic struggle between good and evil. This plan is put into effect, and such a being is soon fathered upon a virtuous woman by one of the fiends. But their scheme goes awry, in part because of the advice the woman receives from her religious advisor, a holy man named Blase (Blaise), in part because of the purity of her own heart. And thus it comes about that the special powers with which the fiends have endowed the child - who is christened Merlin, after the woman's father - will be used for benevolent ends rather than malevolent ones. And yet, although Merlin has been snatched from the service of Satan and entered into the service of God, reminders of his demonic origins persist throughout the work, most obviously in Merlin's impish sense of humor and his childish delight in playing pranks.

The second episode in the Robert de Boron section relates the story of Vortiger (Vortigern) and his ill-fated tower. This episode provides the boy Merlin, now aged seven, with ample opportunities to display his astonishing prophetic powers. When the tyrant Vortiger - who has usurped the British throne and who now lives in fear of the rightful heirs, Pendragon and Uther - attempts to build himself a great tower, his efforts prove futile for the tower continually collapses. Vortiger's sages claim the foundations will not hold unless they are sprinkled with the blood of a fatherless boy; the fatherless Merlin is soon discovered and brought before the tyrant. The boy saves himself by revealing what Vortiger's sages can not, the true reason for the tower's collapse, which is the shaking of the foundation caused by a pair of red and white dragons who struggle in a pool buried beneath the tower. That struggle, the youthful prophet tells them, signifies the struggle which will soon be taking place between Vortiger and the brothers Pendragon and Uther. (This is in contrast to other works, where the fighting dragons are said to be emblematic of the conflict that is going to occur between the Saxons and the Britons.) The pool is drained and Vortiger's tower is completed, only to become the site of Vortiger's fiery death, which Merlin had also predicted.

After Vortiger's death, Merlin assists Pendragon, who is now the British king, and his brother Uther in their struggles against the invading Saxons. Just as Merlin has foreseen, a great battle is fought near Salisbury in which Pendragon meets his death. Uther then ascends the throne and adopts the name "Uterpendragon" to honor his brother, and Merlin erects the great stone ring (Stonehenge) on Salisbury Plain as a memorial to the fallen Britons. With Uther now firmly established as Britain's king, Merlin advises him on the creation of the Round Table - one of the most significant events in the Prose Merlin. The table he will construct, Merlin tells Uther, is a replica of the table of the Grail that was first fashioned by Joseph of Arimathea, which was itself a replica of the table used at the Last Supper. Together, the three tables represent the Holy Trinity. Moreover, the Round Table that Merlin creates for Uther's knights comes to represent a bonding between the ideals of worldly chivalry and the transcendant spiritual mysteries represented by the Holy Grail.

In the fourth episode of the Robert de Boron section, King Uther becomes enamored with Ygerne, the wife of the Duke of Tintagel, and he soon begins waging a civil war against his Cornish liegeman. With the aid of Merlin's shape-shifting abilities Uther, in the likeness of the Duke, sleeps with Ygerne at the castle of Tintagel, and Arthur is conceived. Following the Duke's death in battle, Uther and Ygerne are wed, thus ensuring Arthur's legitimacy; and after Arthur is born, he is given into the foster care of Antor (Ector), who raises him as his own son. Great emphasis is placed throughout this episode on Ygerne's virtue and on her fidelity to her husband. She is shown to be entirely blameless in Arthur's having been conceived out of wedlock, and much the same thing occurs later in the Prose Merlin in the episode concerning the begetting of Mordred, when the wife of King Lot is similarly exonerated from any moral wrong-doing. (Perhaps we are meant to see a "trinity" of virtuous women in the three somewhat parallel episodes involving the conceptions of Merlin, Arthur, and Mordred.)

The final episode in the Robert de Boron section relates the famous story in which Arthur draws the sword from the stone, thus proving that he is Britain's king by divine election. The recalcitrant barons force Arthur to perform the feat repeatedly at every high feast from New Year's to Pentecost, but eventually they capitulate - at least for the time being - and the episode culminates in Arthur's coronation. This episode should seem very familiar to most readers since the version of the "Sword in the Stone" story told here closely resembles the account contained in Malory's Morte D'Arthur. Although Malory's rendition of these events is more abbreviated, the two versions accord with each other in almost every significant detail - which is rarely the case for this pair of contrastive works.

The Sequel Section

Following Arthur's coronation, the narrative tapestry becomes far more complex. Numerous plot lines are introduced, as well as a huge cast of characters. Also, medieval warfare becomes very much at the center of things in this section of the Prose Merlin, with the narrative focusing on five distinctive sets of military conflicts: Arthur's civil war against his rebellious barons; Britain's war against the invading Saxons; the war King Rion wages against King Leodegan; the war in France that Claudas de la deserte wages against King Ban and King Bors; and finally, Arthur's European campaign against the Romans. The text includes a great many extended descriptions of battles which, it must be said, are not likely to have much appeal for most modern readers. For the purposes of this volume, therefore, much of this material has been summarized. But military events vital to the larger story have been retained, along with enough battle description to capture the flavor of this central feature of the work.

The most important wars in the Prose Merlin are those involving the rebellious barons and the invading Saxons. The least important is Arthur's European campaign, which seems to receive a rather half-hearted treatment and which is greatly inferior to accounts such as those found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain or the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure. It does preserve a spirited description of Arthur's fight with the Giant of St. Michael's Mount, however, and it also contains the curious though extraneous episode in which Arthur fights the gigantic devil cat of Losane. The war in France, which occurs late in the work and which is mostly summarized in this volume, is important in demonstrating Arthur's commitment to repaying King Ban and King Bors for supporting him in his struggle against the barons. The war between King Rion and King Leodegan provides the opportunity for Arthur to meet and fall in love with Gonnore and for the re-introduction into the story of the Uther's Round Table, which had been placed in Leodegan's care after Uther's death.

The two vitally important conflicts in the Prose Merlin, though, are Arthur's struggle with his unruly barons and Britain's war against the Saxons, both of which threaten to destroy Arthurian society before it has had a chance to take root. Following Arthur's coronation the Eleven Kings, a large group of Britain's most powerful barons, renew their refusal to accept Arthur as their liege lord. Assembling a huge military force, they rise against him and his loyal supporters, intending to remove Arthur from the throne. This civil war reaches its climax in the Battle of Bredigan Forest - the first of the many lengthy battle descriptions in the Prose Merlin. Merlin plays a major role in the battle, both as military strategist and as a direct participant in the action. Merlin also arranges for Arthur's secret rendezvous with the French forces led by King Ban and King Bors, who become Arthur's close friends and allies. With the help of Ban and Bors, to say nothing of Merlin's special powers, Arthur's outnumbered army inflicts a humiliating defeat upon the rebels. In the meantime, the Saxons have entered Britain in vast numbers and are overrunning the rebel barons' own homelands. Many of the barons now regret having opposed Arthur. It is not until much later, however, that they actually become reconciled with the king, an accord that comes about through the brave deeds of young Gawain (Gawayne), whose noble instincts have led him to side with Arthur against his own father.

Gawain is by far the most impressive figure among the many young heroes who are first introduced in the Prose Merlin. He is the leader of a group of noble youths who become known as the Young Squires, a group that includes Gawain's brothers Agravain, Gaheriet (Gaheris), and Gaheris (Gareth); his cousins, including Ewain (Uwayne), Galashin, and Dodinell; and others, including a daring young knight from Constantinople named Sagremor. All of these "children" (i.e., youths) leave their homes to seek out Arthur, whom they wish to serve and by whom they wish to be knighted. They perform many illustrious deeds against the Saxons, and at one point Gawain achieves a daring rescue of his mother and baby brother Mordred from their Saxon kidnappers. With his mother and baby brother now under his protection, Gawain uses them as leverage in persuading his father King Lot, one of the leaders of the rebels, to make peace with Arthur and swear allegiance to him. By the end of the Prose Merlin, Gawain has emerged as the pre-eminent young knight in Arthur's court. The final episode in the Prose Merlin focuses on Gawain and his partially successful quest to find Merlin, and it provides an explanation - one very different from that provided by Malory - for the great courtesy with which Gawain treats women from that time on.

One of the intriguing things about the Prose Merlin is the way in which it provides explanations for details and motifs commonly encountered in other Arthurian works. Numerous examples of this characteristic occur throughout the Prose Merlin, such as the explanation it offers for Kay's habit of rude speaking and for Arthur's tolerance of it; the explanation it offers for the great enmity that develops between Morgan le Fay and Queen Gonnore; and the explanation it offers for why Arthur will not eat on important feast days until a special adventure has presented itself. Also explained is how Gawain comes into possession of his wonderful horse Gringolet, and how Gawain comes to be the possessor of Arthur's sword Calibourne (Excalibur).

The Prose Merlin 1 not only attempts to explain how things came about, but it also attempts to explain away some aspects of the narrative that are potentially unsavory. The account of the begetting of Mordred - in which all parties are exonerated from any serious wrong-doing, in stark contrast to Malory's account - is an especially good example of this; the writer states explicitly that his intention is to set the record straight about the matter, since many people seem to have erroneous notions about what actually happened. Indeed, a strong element of Christian morality permeates the Prose Merlin, normally working to shield characters from criticism or censure, especially the women characters, and the work reflects a very generous view of almost every well-known Arthurian figure. That includes several major characters - e.g., Gawain, Gonnore, and King Lot - whose weaknesses and flaws are much more openly revealed in Malory's work. While a few characters in the Prose Merlin remain ambiguous and enigmatic - Nimiane is perhaps the best example - none of the familiar Arthurian characters is seriously vilified. The closest the work ever comes to doing that is with Agravain and Morgan le Fay, whose hot tempers and vengeful, malicious natures are briefly glimpsed.

The great triumvirate of heroic figures in the Prose Merlin, clearly, is comprised of Merlin, Arthur, and Gawain. Merlin is the central unifying figure in the entire work, virtually ever-present and constantly moving about between the various sets of characters; he is frequently involved in prompting the actions of the other characters, orchestrating events, and heading off catastrophic situations, and he himself participates in events to a degree rarely, if ever, encountered elsewhere in Arthurian literature. In contrast to Malory, where Merlin operates primarily behind the scenes, here Merlin is a character of great vitality who does not hesitate to ride in front of Arthur's troops as they go into battle, personally carrying Arthur's fire-spewing-dragon battle standard, an emblem (and weapon) of Merlin's own devising.

Arthur, of course, performs many heroic deeds throughout the work, several of which have already been mentioned, such as his defeat of the Giant of St. Michael's Mount and his killing of the devil cat of Losane. Arthur's most glorious deed in the Prose Merlin, though, is his great triumph over King Rion in single-combat. Arthur's victory means, among other things, that his beard will not be used to complete the trimming of King Rion's beard-lined mantle; but its greater significance is that the last external threat to Britain has been extinguished, and Arthur has succeeded in bringing peace to the land of Britain, which he now firmly controls. But it also signals another significant change, for as Arthur completes his final heroic deeds in the Prose Merlin, his active role is nearing its end, and Arthur is about to assume a more passive and regal role, as the focus shifts toward the adventures of the more youthful figures of Arthur's court, young knights such as Sir Gawain - and before long, Sir Lancelot - who will be the main figures in the dazzling array of knightly adventures that lie ahead.

The Old French Vulgate Cycle

After the appearance in the second quarter of the twelfth century of Geoffrey of Monmouth's great Latin work The History of the Kings of Britain, the work which contained the first full-scale account of King Arthur's life, Arthurian literature experienced a remarkable burgeoning in popularity throughout western Europe. By the early thirteenth century, an ever-expanding number of Arthurian lays, romances, and chronicle accounts were being recorded in a great many vernacular literatures, and a highly diverse body of new materials, drawn from various literary sources and from folklore, had been brought into association with King Arthur and his court. Among the most significant additions to the Arthur story were narratives concerning the Holy Grail and tales involving the famous lovers Tristan and Isolde. By the early decades of the thirteenth century, Arthurian literature had evolved to such a point that Geoffrey's original account had long since been swallowed up in a sprawling and fairly amorphous body of narrative materials. It was perhaps for this reason that during the first half of the thirteenth century certain writers in France undertook an ambitious project designed to bring order and coherence to Arthurian literature by culling and sorting these materials and arranging them into a single sustained narrative sequence. What emerged from this project was the monumental set of Old French prose works generally known as the Vulgate Cycle.

The Vulgate Cycle - which has also been called "The Pseudo-Map Cycle" and the "Lancelot-Grail Cycle" - is an expansive set of interconnected narratives that traces the Arthurian story in chronological order from its beginning, in apostolic times, to its end, which occurs in the aftermath of Arthur's death. The Vulgate Cycle was probably written during a twenty- to thirty-year period, from around 1210 until perhaps the middle of the 1230s. Scholars believe that the long section dealing with Lancelot was probably the first part of the Vulgate Cycle to be written. That section led logically and directly into a section concerning the quest for the Holy Grail, which led in turn into a section dealing with the events surrounding Arthur's death. Those three parts having been completed, the writers then turned their attention to the very beginnings of the story, first writing the section that deals with the earliest history of the Grail, its initial guardians, and how it came to Britain; and then writing the Merlin section, which filled in the last remaining segment of the larger narrative sequence. When it was finished, then, the completed Cycle contained five major sections: 1) The History of the Grail; 2) Merlin; 3) Lancelot; 4) The Quest for the Holy Grail; and 5) The Death of Arthur.

At the time the Vulgate Cycle was being composed, the romances of the late twelfth-century writer Chrétien de Troyes had already become extremely popular and influential. But the Vulgate Cycle reflected two important attributes that set it apart from Chrétien and the writers influenced by him. For the sequence of works in the Vulgate Cycle were presented as being historical works, not romances, and at their center they possessed a serious religious purpose. They also convey a strong sense of the importance of preserving and recording all of the deeds and adventures surrounding their religious center - primarily, matters pertaining to the Holy Grail. This is done initially through Merlin's reporting of all the events to his mentor Blase, who has the responsibility of recording them for posterity. Religious prophecies and miracles are interspersed throughout the parts of the Vulgate Cycle, most of which are directly or indirectly concerned with the story of the Holy Grail. Thus in the works of the Vulgate Cycle a great effort is made to bestow upon the events of the Arthur story a fundamentally religious purpose, and also to suggest that the ultimate achievement of Arthurian society, for which only a few would be worthy, is the attainment of a transcendent spirituality.

Before concluding these remarks on the Old French Vulgate Cycle, it is important to mention two other thirteenth-century prose works that are closely associated with it. One of them is the prose work commonly known as the Prose Tristan, which was probably written as a sequel to the Vulgate Cycle. The importance of the Prose Tristan for students of English medieval literature stems from the fact this work provided the principal source for the Tristan material found in Malory's Morte D'Arthur. While this work has no special pertinence for the Prose Merlin and no bearing on the question of the relationship between Malory's Morte D'Arthur and the Prose Merlin, another thirteenth-century prose work that is closely connected to the Vulgate Cycle certainly does. This is the work known as the Suite du Merlin.

In the overview of the Prose Merlin presented above, it was pointed out that the Prose Merlin contains two major sections, a Robert de Boron section and a Sequel section. The Suite du Merlin, like the Sequel section of the Prose Merlin, is a continuation of the Robert de Boron material, but its contents differ substantially from the material contained in the Prose Merlin. In order to distinguish between them, these two works are often called the historical continuation (the Prose Merlin Sequel) and the romantic continuation (the Suite du Merlin). (The Suite du Merlin has also been called the "Huth Merlin" because it is contained in British Library Addit. MS 38117, which is known as the Huth MS.) The narrative contents of the Suite du Merlin, though, may seem rather familiar to students of Arthurian literature, since this is the work that Malory drew upon for the first major section in the Morte D'Arthur - the section titled "The Tale of King Arthur" in the Vinaver edition of Malory (Works, pp. 3-110). Malory handled this material very freely - condensing it, rearranging it, and sometimes altering it - but all in all, the ground covered in the two works is much the same. Both Malory and the Suite du Merlin not only describe Arthur's war with the rebels and his later marriage, but they also include the tragic tale of Balin, the triple quests of Gawain, Tor, and Pellynore, Morgan's plots against Arthur, and the triple adventures of Gawain, Ewain, and Marhaus - none of which occurs in the Prose Merlin. The Suite du Merlin is only preserved in a few manuscripts, two of which are the Huth MS of the British Library and Cambridge University Library Addit. MS 7071.

The Prose Merlin and Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur

The Middle English Prose Merlin and Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur have much in common: both are lengthy Arthurian works in prose, both were written in England near the middle of the fifteenth century, and both are derived in part (Malory) or in full (the Prose Merlin) from thirteenth-century French sources. And, while Malory's work presents a "romance-biography" of the life of King Arthur, the Prose Merlin does the same for the life of Merlin. The two works also contain a few very similar episodes within their larger narratives, such as their depictions of the episode in which Arthur removes the sword from the stone. But despite the existence of such similarities, the two works are in fact extremely different. The Prose Merlin is much more narrowly focused than Malory's work, being concerned only with the initial phase in the evolution of Arthurian society; at the same time, it is far more diffuse and detailed, and treats this phase of the story in a very drawn-out fashion. Malory's Morte D'Arthur is much broader in the overall design of its narrative, and yet his tendency throughout is to simplify, reduce, and disentangle the narrative threads of his sources. Thus it is not surprising that the Prose Merlin's depiction of the rise of Arthur is roughly six times longer than the equivalent section in Malory's Morte D'Arthur.

But as striking as the differences between the two works are in regard to their structures and the presention of their narratives, the differences in their thematic concerns and tonal qualities are even more striking. One of Malory's chief concerns throughout the Morte D'Arthur, for example, is with human frailty and human fallibility. As a result, his work carries strong tragic overtones and is imbued with an overriding sense of pessimism. In the playing out of the larger story, almost all of Malory's characters are morally compromised by their choices and actions. There are extreme examples of this - e.g., Morgan, Margawse, and Gawayne - but even the characters Malory most admires - Arthur, Merlin, and Lancelot - prove unable to exert much control over their actions or their hearts. Only Malory's trio of Grail Knights (Galahad, Percivale, and Bors) and Gawayne's brother Gareth remain essentially untainted by the darker undercurrents of human nature that surface in his other characters.

The Prose Merlin, on the other hand, is brimming with optimism, and the intention of this work is to portray Arthur and his fledgling court in the most favorable possible light. While Arthur's external enemies - the Saxons, the Romans, and King Rion - are portrayed as being out-and-out villains, the British never are, not even the rebellious barons; although they are seriously misguided for much of the narrative, they eventually see the error of their ways, are forgiven, and are welcomed back into the fold. Perhaps a telling example of this fundamental difference between the Prose Merlin and Malory's Morte D'Arthur may be seen in the way each of them depicts King Lot, Gawain's father. In the Prose Merlin King Lot, even though he strenuously opposes Arthur's kingship, is consistently portrayed as a courageous and noble figure. He is also a loving husband and father, and he is a man who, when he realizes his mistakes, tries to atone for them. Malory's King Lot, however, is shown to be jealous and brooding and malicious. He nurses a personal hatred for Arthur (which is not entirely undeserved), and he and Arthur never reconcile. In contrast to what occurs in the Prose Merlin, in Malory King Lot is slain in battle before the rebellion has been put down; and his influence on events does not end there, for Lot's death drives a wedge between two factions of Arthur's knights and contributes directly to several vengeful deeds that occur later in the story.

There are many aspects of the Prose Merlin and Malory's Morte D'Arthur that are worth considering in relation to each other - the contrasting roles played in the works by Merlin, their treatments of the relationship between Arthur and Gonnore, their treatment of the relationship between Merlin and Nimiane, to list only a few of particular significance. But this is not the place to do that, and so we leave such undertakings to students of Arthurian literature who might wish to pursue them on their own.


The Middle English Prose Merlin is recorded in Cambridge University Library MS Ff.3.11. The text in the Cambridge MS is nearly complete, and is flawed only by the lack of its final three MS leaves; a summary of the missing material has been provided here, based upon an analogous Old French text. No other significant Middle English texts of the work survive, although MS Rawlinson D.913 of the Bodleian Library in Oxford preserves a small fragment of the work on a single MS page (fol. 43). Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 802, which dates to the second half of the sixteenth century, contains a prose rendition of the opening section of the Merlin, but this material, which is probably the work of Simon Forman, M. D., has no direct relationship to either of the Middle English texts.

A Note on the Text

Modern conventions for punctuation and capitalization have been followed throughout this edition of the Prose Merlin. The paragraph divisions contained in this text result from editorial decision, though they often coincide with divisions in the MS text indicated by small capital letters; however, the MS divisions are usually much longer than would be normal for modern paragraphs, and at times, too, they also seem rather idiosyncratic. The MS text does not contain many contractions or abbreviations, but the few it does contain have been silently expanded. The MS text does contain a great many instances of Roman numerals; for the convenience of modern readers, those numerals have been written as words. In several places I have supplied words to clarify the sense of the text. The author often omits the subject within a series of clauses. In some instances words have been left out or are obliterated by blemishes in the MS. All such additions or emendations are set off by brackets. If I have emended a word that is found in the MS, that emendation is cited in the notes.

The MS spelling of words has been preserved, and spelling has not been normalized; the only the exception to this is in the case of words containing u/v, where modern conventions have been followed; for example, the name Vter in the MS has been printed as Uter. In the few cases where archaic letters occur, they have been modernized; e.g., "thorn" is printed as th. Word division and spacing have also been modernized in some instances; for example, the word togethir is printed as a single word, as in modern English, not as two words as it appears in the MS. Also, hyphens have occasionally been inserted into words to make them more immediately understandable: the syllabic final -e, I have marked ; to indicate the long vowel of the second-person familiar pronoun, I have transcribed thee where the MS has the.

Emendations have been made sparingly and only when it appears obvious that there is an uncorrected error in the MS text; in all such instances, the actual MS readings are recorded in the Textual Notes. Words or phrases contained in square brackets in the text have been editorially supplied. This occurs when the words in the MS were indecipherable; and it also occurs in some sentences where a verb or pronoun is required to make the sentence grammatically complete according to modern usage. This has been done only to make the text more immediately understandable to modern readers.

Go To The Birth of Merlin


Select Bibliography


Cambridge University Library MS Ff.3.11. [This nearly complete text provides the basis for this edition.]

Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson D. 913. [This MS contains only a very small fragment of the Middle English Prose Merlin, found on a single MS leaf (fol. 43).]


Wheatley, Henry B., ed. Merlin, or the Early History of Arthur: A Prose Romance. EETS o.s. 10, 12, 36, 112. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1865-98.

Cranmer-Byng, Lancelot, ed. Selections from the Prose Merlin. London: Sedgwick & Jackson, 1930.

Studies and Related Materials

Ackerman, Robert W. "Arthur's Wild Man Knight." Romance Philology 9 (1955-56), 115-19.

Bogdanow, Fanni. "The Suite du Merlin and the Post-Vulgate Roman Du Graal." In Arthurian Romance in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History. Ed. Roger Sherman Loomis. London: Oxford University Press, 1959. Pp. 325-35.

Boron, Robert de. Fragment of Merlin poem. In Le Roman de l'Estoire dou Graal. Ed. William A. Nitze. Paris: H. Champion, 1927. Appendix, pp. 126-30.

Burns, E. Jane. Arthurian Fictions: Rereading the Vulgate Cycle. Columbus: Ohio State University, 1985.
Carman, J. Neale. A Study of the Pseudo-Map Cycle of Arthurian Romance, to Investigate Its Historico-Geographic Background and to Provide a Hypothesis as to Its Fabrication. Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1973.

Dean, Chistopher. A Study of Merlin in English Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present: The Devil's Son. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.

Frappier, Jean. "The Vulgate Cycle." In Arthurian Romance in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History. Ed. Roger Sherman Loomis. London: Oxford University Press, 1959. Pp. 295-318.

Kibler, William W., ed. The Lancelot-Grail Cycle: Text and Transformations. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Kölbing, E., ed. Arthour and Merlin nach der Auchinleck-Hs, nebst zwei Beilagen. Altenglische Bibliothek, IV. Leipzig: O. R. Reisland, 1890.

Lacy, Norris J., ed. The Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991. Pp. 373-74; 496-99.

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