Life of Merlin

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9780708305201: Life of Merlin

Vita Merlini, or The Life of Merlin, is a work by the Norman-Welsh author Geoffrey of Monmouth, composed in Latin around AD 1150. It retells incidents from the life of the Brythonic seer Merlin, and is based on traditional material about him. Merlin is described as a prophet in the text. There are a number of episodes in which he loses his mind and lives in the wilderness like a wild animal, like Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel. It is also the first work to describe the Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay, as Morgen. Geoffrey had written of Merlin in his two previous works, the Prophetiae Merlini, purported to be a series of prophecies from the sage, and the Historia Regum Britanniae, which is the first work presenting a link between Merlin and King Arthur. The Vita Merlini presents an account of Merlin much more faithful to the Welsh traditions about Myrddin Wyllt, the archetype behind Geoffrey's composite figure of Merlin. Whereas the Historia had Merlin associating with Arthur, his father Uther Pendragon, and his uncle Ambrosius in the 5th century, the Vita's timeframe is during the late 6th century, and includes references to various figures from that period, including Gwenddoleu and Taliesin. Geoffrey attempts to synchronize the Vita with his earlier work by having Merlin mention he had been with Arthur long before.

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About the Author:

Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100–1155) was a Welsh cleric and one of the major figures in the development of British history and the popularity of tales of King Arthur. He is best known for his chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain"), widely popular in its day, credited uncritically well into the 16th century and translated to various other languages from its original Latin. Geoffrey wrote several works of interest, all in Latin, the language of learning and literature in Europe during the medieval period. The earliest one to appear was probably the Prophetiae Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin), which he wrote at some point before 1135, and which appears both independently and incorporated into the Historia Regum Britanniae. It consists of a series of obscure prophetic utterances attributed to Merlin, which Geoffrey claimed to have translated from an unspecified language. In this work Geoffrey drew from the established Welsh tradition of prophetic writing attributed to the sage Myrddin, though his knowledge of Myrddin's story at this stage in his career appears to have been slight. Many of its prophecies referring to historical and political events up to Geoffrey's lifetime can be identified – for example, the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, when William Adelin, son of Henry I, died. His major work was the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), the work best known to modern readers. It relates the purported mythical history of Britain, from its first settlement by Brutus, a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, to the death of Cadwallader in the 7th century, taking in Julius Caesar's invasions of Britain, two kings, Leir and Cymbeline, later immortalized by William Shakespeare, and one of the earliest developed narratives of King Arthur. The third work attributed to Geoffrey is another hexameter poem Vita Merlini ("Life of Merlin"). The Vita is based much more closely on traditional material about Merlin than are the other works; here he is known as Merlin of the Woods (Merlinus Sylvestris) or Scottish Merlin (Merlinus Caledonius), and is portrayed an old man living as a crazed and grief-stricken outcast in the forest. The story is set long after the timeframe of Historia's Merlin, but the author tries to synchronize the works with references to the mad prophet's previous dealings with Vortigern and Arthur.

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Text: English, Latin

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