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Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin) by Geoffrey of Monmouth

The life of Merlin by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Overview

Even though skepticism has been voiced about this work’s true authorship, Vita Merlini is now generally accepted to have been written by Geoffrey of Monmouth.  This Vita gives us the tale of Merlin’s insanity, his existence as a madman of the forest, and his prophecies and conversations with his sister, Ganieda, and with the poet Taliesin.  Vita’s plot comes from the legends of the bard Myrddin Wyllt and the madman (wild man) Lailoken (Lailocen, Laloecen).  Vita Merlini includes an early account of King Arthur’s final journey to Avalon and also includes pseudo-scientific learning drawn from earlier authors.  Even though its popularity was never remotely comparable to that of Historia Regum Britanniae, Vita Merlini did have a solid influence on mediæval Arthurian romance.  Vita Merlini was written between AD 1148 and 1150/1151.

The Story that Vita Merlini Tells

Geoffrey briefly addresses Bishop Robert of Lincoln, the person to whom the poem is dedicated, then begins his story.  Merlin (Merlinus in the poem) is introduced as a prophet and the King of Dyfed, who takes part in an unnamed battle alongside King (or Prince) Peredur (Peredurus) of Gwynedd, and King Rhydderch (Rodarchus) of Alt Clut (Ystrad Clud, Strath-Clota, now Strathclyde), against King Gwenddoleu (Guennolous) in what is now southwest Scotland and northwest England (centred in Armterid, Arfderydd, now Arthuret).  Peredur is perhaps the forerunner of Perceval.  Basil Clarke relates that Gwenddoleu is defeated, but three brothers of Peredur (or possibly of Merlin – the poem is ambiguous on this detail) are amongst the slain, and Merlin so grieves at their deaths that he goes mad and runs off into the Caledonian Forest.  News of Merlin’s location eventually reaches his sister Gwenddydd (Ganieda), wife of Rhydderch, and she sends an emissary into the forest to find her brother.  He finds Merlin lamenting the harshness of winter, and reacts by singing about the grief of Gwenddydd and Merlin’s wife Gwendolen (Guendoloena).  This sweetness of song soothes Merlin so effectively as to bring him back to lucid thought, and he is persuaded to visit his sister at Rhydderch’s court.  Once he is there, the strain of facing crowds brings on a relapse, and Merlin has to be chained to prevent him from returning to the forest.  When Merlin spies a leaf in Gwenddydd’s hair, he laughs.  Merlin refuses to explain his laughter until he is freed.  Once unfettered, he tells Rhydderch that the leaf got into Gwenddydd’s hair when she was lying down outdoors with her lover.

Gwenddydd attempts to discredit Merlin.  She presents a boy to him on three separate occasions.  Each time, the boy is disguised in a different costume.  Gwenddydd asks her brother each time how the boy will die.  The first time Merlin says that the boy will die in a fall from a rock, the second time that he will die in a tree, and the third in a river.  Rhydderch is persuaded that Merlin can be fooled and that his judgement is untrustworthy.  Merlin is asked if his wife can remarry.  He consents to this but warns any future husband to beware of him.  Geoffrey of Monmouth explains that in later years the boy fell from a rock, was caught in the branches of a tree, and being entangled there (upside down) with his head in a river he drowned.  Returning to the woods, Merlin reads in the stars that Gwendolen is remarrying, so he attends her wedding mounted on a stag.  Wrenching the antlers off his stag he throws them at the groom and kills him.  Merlin is captured and taken back to Rhydderch’s court.  There he sees a beggar and a young man buying leather to patch his shoes.  Merlin laughs at them.  If he will explain why he laughed, Rhydderch will free Merlin.  He answers that the beggar was unknowingly standing over buried treasure and that the young man’s destiny was to drown before he had a chance to wear his repaired shoes.  Merlin is then released.

Basil Clarke says that in the forest Merlin watches the stars in an observatory Gwenddydd had made for him and prophesies the future history of Britain.  Rhydderch dies and Gwenddydd grieves for him.  Rhydderch’s visitor Taliesin (Telgesinus) goes to the woods to see Merlin, and there he talks to him at length on a variety of learned subjects: cosmogony, cosmology, fishes, and of the world’s islands, including the island of apples where Morgen tends to King Arthur.  Merlin prophesies more, then reminisces about the history of Britain from Constans’ reign to Arthur’s.  Miraculously, a fresh spring of water appears.  When Merlin drinks from it, his madness dissipates.  Taliesin expounds on noteworthy springs around the world.  On hearing that Merlin has been cured, several princes and chieftains visit him in the forest and attempt to persuade him to resume the reign over his kingdom.  Merlin claims that his old age and the pleasure that he derives from nature are reasons enough for refusing their persuasion.  A flock of cranes appears in the sky, prompting Merlin to teach them about the habits of the crane, and then those of many other kinds of birds.  A lunatic appears, and Merlin recognises him as one of the friends of his youth, Mældinus, who had become mad by eating poisoned apples that were intended for Merlin.  Mældinus is cured by drinking from the new spring, and it is resolved that he, Taliesin, Merlin, and Gwenddydd will remain together in the woods, in retirement from the secular world.  Clarke tells us that the poem ends with a prophecy from Gwenddydd detailing events in the reign of King Stephen, and renunciation by Merlin of his prophetic gift.

Composition and Manuscripts

Lewis Thorpe and Julia Catherine Crick relate that Geoffrey of Monmouth (c AD 1100 – c 1155) was a churchman and writer of uncertain ancestry (Welsh, Breton, and Norman have all been suggested) who lived in Oxford from AD 1129 to 1152.  During the 1130s, Geoffrey wrote his first two works: Historia Regum Britanniae (History of Kings of Britain), or De Gestis Britonum (Of Deeds of Britons); and Prophetiae Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin).  According to Julia C Crick, both works were wonderfully successful and had the effect of making Arthur and Merlin into internationally known figures of legend.  Pat Rogers tells us that both were written in prose, though Historia included two short poems that John Milton was to praise for their smoothness, and which both Milton and Alexander Pope translated into English verse.  The last work generally attributed to Geoffrey was a much longer poem, Vita Merlini.  The attribution rests partly on the last lines of the poem, which have been translated by John Jay Parry, thusly: “I have brought this song to an end.  Therefore, ye Britons, give a wreath to Geoffrey of Monmouth.  He is indeed yours for once he sang of your battles and those of your chiefs, and he wrote a book called The Deeds of the Britons which are celebrated throughout the world.”

In the only complete manuscript of the poem, these lines are followed by a note in a later hand identifying the author of the poem as Geoffrey of Monmouth.  There is also the evidence of Vita’s dedication to a Bishop Robert of Lincoln, usually identified as Robert de Chesney, in which the poet says that he had formerly dedicated another work to the former Bishop of Lincoln.  Because Geoffrey dedicated his Prophetiae Merlini to Bishop Alexander of Lincoln, Robert de Chesney’s immediate predecessor, the evidence for Geoffrey’s authorship of Vita Merlini is indeed strengthened.  According to J C Crick and John J Parry, some 19th and early 20th-Century critics doubted or denied that Geoffrey was the author, alleging differences in style between that poem and Historia, pointing out that some late 12th-Century commentators on the Merlin legend do not mention Vita, and interpreting the poem as alluding to events that happened after Geoffrey’s death.  However, as stated by Julia C Crick, John S P Tatlock, and Michael Curley, Geoffrey’s authorship is now widely accepted.  Assuming that this view is correct, the date of the poem can be estimated, since Robert de Chesney became bishop of Lincoln in December AD 1148, while Geoffrey died in 1155.  Vita Merlini survives in seven manuscripts, now held by the British Library.  The only complete text is in Cotton Vespasian E iv, of the late 13th Century.

Sources and Comparable Texts to Vita Merlini

In Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey presented Merlin as a south Welsh prophet who advises the 5th-Century AD kings Vortigern, Aurelius Ambrosius, and Uther Pendragon.  The Merlin of Vita Merlini is a different character.  He is still a prophet, but he is also a warrior-king turned madman (wild man) active in the 6th-Century Old North (Hen Ogledd).  Geoffrey explicitly identified the two Merlins by making the hero of this Vita a king of Dyfed in south Wales and having him reminisce about his career in the previous century as recorded in Historia.  The poem gives the impression that two different legends have been joined together, a south Welsh one and a north British one.  The “Celticist” Alfred Owen Hughes Jarman proposed in the 1950s that the south Welsh legend concerned a prophet called Myrddin, associated with the town of Carmarthen (Cærfyrddin) and named after it, while the northern legend was about a wild man called Lailoken who took part in the battle of Arfderydd in AD 573.  These two stories, argued Alfred O H Jarman, became fused into one legend long before Vita Merlini was written.  Geoffrey simply used different parts of the story in Historia and Vita.  This theory was accepted by most late-20th Century scholars but has been challenged by Rachel Bromwich and Oliver James Padel who have each proposed the possibility that Geoffrey himself was responsible for uniting the southern legend of Myrddin and the northern legend of the wild man.  Regardless of who united the legends, the “two Merlins” are now inexorably intertwined.

Amongst the most important analogues of Vita Merlini are four Middle Welsh poems (all from Llyfr du CærfyrddinBlack Book of Cærmarthen).  Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei Chwaer (Conversations of Myrddin and his Sister Gwenddydd) contains mostly questions by Gwenddydd and responding prophecies by the madman Myrddin.  The poem mentions Rhydderch and the battle of Arfderydd.  Yr Afallennau (The Apple()Trees, or The Apple Tree Stanzas) contains a goodly amount of prophecy and a lamentation by the narrator over his circumstances.  Merlin survives the battle of Arfderydd and spends fifty years wandering in the Caledonian Forest.  There are references to Gwenddolau, Rhydderch, and Gwenddydd.  In Yr Oianau (The Greetings, or The Little Pig Stanzas), the narrator, mourning the death of Gwenddolau, lives in the wilderness with a little pig.  Both suffer from the persecution of Rhydderch.  According to A O H Jarman, Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin (Colloquy of Merlin and Taliesin) includes a prophetic description of the battle of Arfderydd.

Susan Marshall tells us that Lailoken appears in three Latin sources: Vita Sancti Kentigerni (Life of Saint Kentigern) written by Jocelin (Jocelyn) of Furness at some point between 1175 and 1199 (or as late as AD 1214); and two short undateable narratives labelled as Lailoken A and Lailoken B.  An Irish analogue to Vita Merlini, written in the 12th Century, exists in the tale of Buile Shuibhne (The Madness of Sweeney, or Sweeneys Frenzy).  The warrior Suibne (Sweeney) becomes a wild man during the battle of Moira and runs away into the forest.  Jarman states that although Suibne is cured and re-enters society he relapses and returns to the wilderness, and his wife remarries.  Both Basil Clarke and John S P Tatlock tell us that Vita Merlini names Barinthus as the helmsman of the ship that took Arthur to Avalon.  Barinthus has been identified as the Barrintus who told Saint Brendan of a wonderful island in the western ocean, but it is uncertain which version of the Brendan story Geoffrey encountered.  The name Morgen appears in Vita Merlini as the eldest of nine sisters who tend King Arthur in Avalon.  Though this is the first explicit appearance of Morgan le Fay in literature there have been many attempts (notably by Basil Clarke, Raymond Harris Thompson, Stephen Knight, and Roger Sherman Loomis) to trace her origins to various “Celtic” goddesses.

The Nature of the Poem and the Figure of Merlin

Tatlock, A O H Jarman, Robert Huntington Fletcher, and Basil Clarke tell us that Vita Merlini is written according to mediæval ideas as to the proper structure and purpose of a poem, and is seen as presenting difficulties to the modern reader.  Geoffrey invoked the “playful muse” (musa jocosa) in the first lines of Vita.  This has led most critics to see it as being intended as a light, entertaining poem, written, as Jarman and Frederic James Edward Raby say, solely for the delight of the reader.  Siân Echard has suggested that it might be “a cerebral game”, sometimes grotesque but not light.  Michael J Curley considered it a reaction to the horrors of the period in which the poem was written, the Anarchy of King Stephen’s reign, a picture of austerity and renunciation of the world undertaken for learning’s sake.  Penelope Doob called it a “profoundly religious” poem, but Arthur George Rigg found its religious outlook to be unconventional: “Historians such as Gildas or Henry of Huntingdon imposed moral patterns on their material, usually of guilt or retribution or at least of good and evil, but Geoffrey, in creating his own material, has brought the mysterious into harmony with nature, with no reference to Christian morality.”

The figure of Merlin has been interpreted variously by different critics.  Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz saw him as a priestly figure, a kind of druid or medicine man who “in complete independence and solitude, opens up a direct and personal approach to the collective unconscious for himself and tries to live the predictions of his guardian spirit, … of his unconscious”.  Nikolai Tolstoy found him to be delicately balanced between insanity and prophetic genius.  Carol E Harding compared Merlin to a Christian saint, learned, withdrawn from the world, a worker of healing miracles, a hermit who becomes an example to others, resisting worldly temptations and possessing supernatural knowledge and powers of prophecy; the end of Merlin’s life, she wrote, is “a holy one in the sense any monk’s is”.  For Jan Ziolkowski, Merlin alternates between a shaman and political prophet, ending up “as ascetic and holy as a biblical prophet”.  Stephen Knight’s view was that Geoffrey makes Merlin relevant to mediæval churchmen, a voice “asserting the challenge that knowledge should advise and admonish power rather than serve it”.  Mark Walker writes that Merlin is a figure at home in the romantic and humanist atmosphere of 12th-Century AD thought, so sensitive that the death of his companions can bring on a mental breakdown, who eventually becomes “a kind of Celtic Socrates”, so enamoured of scientific learning that he sets up an academic community where he can discourse with scholars of his turn of mind.

Influence of Vita Merlini

According to Julia C Crick, Basil Clarke, John J Parry, and Robert A Caldwell, Geoffrey intended Vita Merlini for a small number of friends rather than a general readership.  It neither reached the same wide audience as Historia nor exercised a comparable influence.  Although a library catalogue written in Le Bec, Normandy, in the AD 1150s, distinguishes between Merlinus Silvester and Merlinus Ambrosius, showing that the compiler had read both Historia and Vita and could not reconcile the Merlins depicted in them.  Tatlock and Padel tell us that Gerald of Wales, in Itinerarium Cambriae (Journey through Wales), made the same point, demonstrating a similar knowledge of Geoffrey’s two works.  Mildred Leake Day states that Étienne de Rouen’s Draco Normannicus (Norman Dragon) gives details of King Arthur’s departure to Avalon which do not appear in Historia.  Stephen Knight says the same of Layamon’s Brut.  It shows knowledge of Morgan’s role in Arthur’s survival, and Merlin as a man living in the wilderness.  Hendricus Spaarnay echoes similar sentiment concerning Hartmann von Aue’s Erec, as does Jean Frappier of Mort Artu (in the Vulgate Cycle), and Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan of a Welsh fragment known as The Birth of Arthur; all of which connect Morgen with Avalon.  Alexandre Micha tells us that the Vulgate Suite du Merlin displays knowledge of Vita Merlini in its depiction of Merlin as a trickster.

Conclusion

In the past, doubts were raised about Vita Merlini’s authorship.  It is now widely accepted to have been written by Geoffrey of Monmouth.  This poem tells the tale of Merlin’s madness, his life as a wild man of the forest, and his prophecies and conversations with his sister, Ganieda, and the poet Taliesin.  Vita’s plot comes from legends of Myrddin Wyllt and the wild man Lailoken.  Vita Merlini includes an early account of King Arthur’s final journey to Avalon.  Even though its popularity was never comparable to that of Historia Regum Britanniae, Vita Merlini did have a solid influence on mediæval Arthurian romance.  It was written between AD 1148 and 1150/1151.  The poem survives in seven manuscripts, all of them now held by the British Library.  In Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey presented Merlin as a south Welsh prophet who advises 5th-Century AD kings.  The Merlin of Vita Merlini is still a prophet, but he is also a warrior-king turned madman active in the 6th-Century Old North.  Geoffrey explicitly identified the two Merlins by making the hero of this Vita a king of Dyfed in south Wales and having him reminisce about his career in the previous century as recorded in Historia.  The poem does give the impression that two different legends have been joined together.  Amongst the most important analogues of Vita Merlini are four Middle Welsh poems: Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei Chwaer, Yr Afallennau, Yr Oianau, and Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin.  Lailoken appears in three Latin sources: Vita Sancti Kentigerni, Lailoken A, and Lailoken B.  An Irish analogue to Vita Merlini exists in Buile Shuibhne.

Most critics see Vita as being intended as a light, entertaining poem, written solely for the delight of the reader.  Others see it as sometimes grotesque but not light, a reaction to the horrors of the period in which the poem was written.  Merlin himself is seen variously as a priestly figure, a kind of druid or medicine man; delicately balanced between insanity and prophetic genius; learned, withdrawn from the world, a worker of healing miracles; and alternating between a shaman and political prophet, so sensitive that the death of his companions brings on a mental breakdown.  This Vita names Barinthus as the helmsman of the ship that took Arthur to Avalon.  Barinthus has been identified as the Barrintus who told Saint Brendan of a wonderful island in the western ocean.  Morgen appears in Vita Merlini as the eldest of nine sisters who tend King Arthur in Avalon.  Although this is the first explicit appearance of Morgan le Fay in literature, there have been many attempts to trace her origins to various “Celtic” goddesses.  Draco Normannicus gives details of King Arthur’s departure to Avalon which do not appear in Historia.  Similar accounts occur in Layamon’s Brut, Hartmann von Aue’s Erec, Mort Artu of the Vulgate Cycle, and in The Birth of Arthur; all of which connect Morgen with Avalon.  Vita Merlini has also influenced the Vulgate Suite du Merlin.  Even though the poem did not have a large initial readership, nor has it survived in many manuscripts, Vita Merlini does show a “behind-the-scenes” influence on the Arthurian Romance that was to follow in its wake.