Several decades later, Robert de Boron retold and expanded on this material in his poem Merlin written around 1200. Only a few lines of the poem have survived, but a prose retelling became popular and was later incorporated into chivalric romances. In Robert’s account, as in Geoffrey’s Historia, Merlin is begotten by a demon on a virgin as the intended Antichrist. This plot is thwarted when the expectant mother informs her confessor Blase (or Blaise) 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 the boy a prophetic knowledge of the future. Robert lays great emphasis on Merlin’s power to shapeshift,[note 1] on his joking personality, and on his connection to the Holy Grail, the quest for which he foretolds. Robert was inspired by Wace’s Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman adaptation of Geoffrey’s Historia. It was originally attached to a cycle of prose versions of Robert’s poems, which tells the story of the Grail that gathered the blood of Christ: brought to Britain by followers of Joseph of Arimathea, the Grail is eventually recovered by Arthur’s knight Percival.
Robert’s poem was rewritten and continued in prose in the 13th century as the Estoire de Merlin, also called the Vulgate Merlin or Prose Merlin. It is a part of the vast Lancelot-Grail, also known as the Vulgate Cycle, where (in the Prose Lancelot) it is said that Merlin actually was never baptized. It was further expanded with the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin (also known as Merlin Continuation or the Huth Merlin), which describes King Arthur’s many early wars and the role of Merlin in them. Another continuation, written after the Vulgate Cycle, is the Livre d’Artus where Merlin’s shapeshifting powers are also featured prominently. These works were adapted and translated into several other languages. Notably, the Post-Vulgate Suite was the source for the early parts of Sir Thomas Malory’s influential English language Le Morte d’Arthur.
Later medieval works also deal with the Merlin legend. One, Les Prophéties de Merlin (c. 1276) contains long prophecies of Merlin (mostly concerned with 11th to 13th-century Italian history and contemporary politics), some by his ghost after his death, interspersed with episodes relating Merlin’s deeds and with various Arthurian adventures in which Merlin does not appear at all. The earliest English verse romance concerning Merlin is Of Arthour and Merlin, which drew from the chronicles and the French Lancelot-Grail.
As the Arthurian myths were retold and embellished, Merlin’s prophetic aspects were sometimes de-emphasised in favour of portraying him as a wizard and an elder advisor to Arthur. His role could be embellished and added to that of Aurelianus Ambrosius, or he could be made into just one of old Uther’s favourite advisors.
Merlin’s apprentice is often Morgan le Fay (in the Prophéties de Merlin along with Sebile and two other witch queens), Arthur’s half-sister and sometimes Merlin’s lover. Contrary to the many modern works, Merlin and Morgan are never enemies in any medieval tradition. In fact, Merlin loves Morgan so much, that he even lies to Arthur (in the Huth Merlin, which is the only instance of him ever doing such a thing) in order to save her. In the Lancelot-Grail and later accounts, Merlin’s eventual undoing came from his lusting after Nimue (or Nymue, Nimue, Niviane, Niniane, Nyneue, Viviane, Vivien among other names and spellings), another female student of his and an unrequited love interest. Merlin’s downfall and demise or imprisonment is recounted differently in various versions of the narrative. The enchanted prison can be a cave (as in the Lancelot-Grail), a large rock (as in Le Morte d’Arthur), an invisible tower, or a tree; in one version, Nimue confines him in the enchanted forest of Brocéliande with walls of air, visible as mist to others but as a beautiful tower to him. In some texts, including in Le Morte d’Arthur, Nimue then replaces Merlin in the role of Arthur’s court mage and adviser as a Lady of the Lake.
In the Prophéties de Merlin, his tomb is unsuccessfully searched for by various parties, including by Morgan and her enchantresses, but cannot be accessed. The legendary Brocéliande is often identified as the real-life Paimpont forest in Brittany. Other purported sites of Merlin’s burial include Drumelzier in Tweeddale in Scotland and Carmarthen on Ynys Enlli off the coast of Wales. Both of these locations are also associated with Merlin more generally, including in the 13th-century manuscript known as the Black Book of Carmarthen and in the local lore of Merlin’s Oak in the latter case.
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