If you’ve seen any of the many movies about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, you probably think you know the basics of the story … until you see another one. Throw in Monty Python and the whole legend and/or possible true account starts to get blurry. While the battles and loves of the Arthurian mortals are somewhat believable, the tales of the magician/wizard Merlin stretch the credibility of the stories. Now, some newly discovered manuscript pages dating back to the 13th century add a little more detail to the wizard who all future movie wizards are based on.
“These fragments of the Story of Merlin are a wonderfully exciting find, which may have implications for the study not just of this text but also of other related and later texts that have shaped our modern understanding of the Arthurian legend.”
Dr. Leah Tether is the President of the International Arthurian Society (British Branch) in the Bristol University Department of English and a leading scholar in the field, which explains why she was the person Michael Richardson, a colleague from the university’s Special Collections Library, called when he found seven odd parchment fragments among the pages of the works of the French scholar and reformer Jean Gerson which were printed in Strasbourg, France between 1494 and 1502. According to the Bristol University press release, Richardson recognized the name “Merlin” on the fragments and took them immediately to Tether.
The Gerson books, while published in the late 15th century, were not bound until the 16th century when they somehow were transferred from Strasbourg to Bristol. It’s believed the older pages were considered to be waste paper and were being reused as “pastedowns” – the sheets stuck to the inside of the covers used to connect the pages to the binding. That could explain why the pages are in fragments and an eighth is missing.
Tether recognized the pages as belonging to a 13th century Old French sequence of texts known as the Vulgate Cycle or Lancelot-Grail Cycle. The seven pages or leaves are continuous and come from a section of the Estoire de Merlin narrative known as the ‘Suite Vulgate de Merlin’ (Vulgate Continuation of Merlin). They recount the narrative of the Battle of Trèbes in which Merlin gives a speech to motivate the knights and then leads them into battle using a special sword belonging to Sir Kay (Cai), a superhuman knight whose sword radiated heat from his hands (or breathed fire) and whose inflicted wounds would not heal. They defeat the forces of King Claudas and then stay in the kingdom of Benoic where Merlin interprets dreams and falls in love briefly with a woman named Viviane before rejoining Arthur.
The fragments add some meaty details to this tale and some differ from previously discovered accounts. A number of names of the battle leaders have been changed and the wounds King Claudas suffered are different. Otherwise, it’s similar enough that Tether recognizes it as an important early account of the part Merlin played in the Arthurian legend.
“There are many more differences, too, but because of the damage to the fragments, it will take time to decipher their contents properly, perhaps even requiring the use of infra-red technology. We are all very excited to discover more about the fragments and what new information they might hold.”
What more will they find? The truth about whether Merlin really was a cambion – the child of a human mother and an incubus father? Was he really killed by the Lady of the Lake? The location of the Holy Grail? Details on the Knights who say “Ni!”? The real story of the Rabbit of Caerbannog?
Why did Merlin break up with Viviane … or did she dump him for a younger wizard?