Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > The Arthurian Legend > Merlin
  Subsidiary Legends Gawain  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XII. The Arthurian Legend.

§ 12. Merlin.


Of all such legends, the mostintimately connected with Arthur himself is the story of Merlin. In Welsh tradition, Merlin, or Myrdin, is a figure very similar to Taliesin—a wizard bard of the sixth century, to whom a number of spurious poetical compositions came, in course of time, to be ascribed. His first association with Arthur is due to Geoffrey of Monmouth, who identifies him with the Ambrosius of Nennius and makes of him both a magician and a prophet; to his magic arts, as we have seen, the birth of Arthur was largely due. His character is further developed in a Latin hexameter poem, Vita Merlini, composed, probably, about the year 1148 and attributed by several competent authorities to Geoffrey. This poem, however, presents us with a conception of the mage which is not easy to reconcile with the account given of him in Geoffrey’s History, and suggests many points of analogy with certain early Welsh poems in which Merlin figures, and with which Geoffrey could hardly have been acquainted.  65  Merlin makes his first appearance in French romantic poetry in a poem of which only a fragment has been preserved, supposed to be by Robert de Borron, and dating from the end of the twelfth century. Upon this poem was based the French prose romance of Merlin, part of which is assigned to Robert de Borron, and which exists in two forms—the first known as the “ordinary” Merlin, and the other as the Suite de Merlin. For Robert de Borron the enchanter’s arts are but so many manifestations of the powers of darkness; Merlin himself becomes the devil’s offspring and most active agent. From the Suite de Merlin, of which Malory’s first four books are an abridged version, was derived one of the minor offshoots of Arthurian romance, the striking story of Balin and Balan. The earliest romance of Merlin in English is the metrical Arthour and Merlin, translated from a French original at the beginning of the fourteenth century. This work, however, is not so well known as the great prose Merlin, a translation from the French made about the middle of the fifteenth century.   36

Note 65. These resemblances are pointed out in what is the fullest account of the Merlin saga in English, Outlines of the History of the Legend of Merlin, by W. E. Mead (Part IV of H. B. Wheatley’s edition of the prose Merlin in the E.E.T.S. series.) [ back ]

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  Subsidiary Legends Gawain  
 
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