Robert de Boron, Merlin

Last year in winter I found myself engrossed in a Middle-Ages novel, The Knight with the Lion, and it had been a hit for me and my son. So this year, same time, I’m once again in front of the same shelf at the library: I chose Merlin.

First: it’s waaay longer that the Knight with the Lion! 200 pages!

This in effect means that the construction of a book of this size needs to be much more robust than a novella’s. The problem is, medieval plots don’t seem exactly matured… yet. Merlin feels to a modern reader like a patchwork of scenes loosely woven together, without much arch development or even connection to one another. And repetition was not seen as a problem for grown-up literature back then.

Some (smaller) parts of the novel are the same as my popular knowledge of Merlin, which is, I’m sorry to say, a mix between vague remembrance of the movie Excalibur  and the Walt Disney’s version: namely that Merlin pulls tricks and transforms himself (but not into cute animals), and that he’s a bit ambivalent.

But some other parts were totally new to me, namely that Merlin was born from the Devil who seduced a pure young woman after destroying much of her family. Being pregnant without knowing the father of her child, the young woman was tried for that crime (a bit of a legal procedural à la Law and Order, anyone?). But her priest-cum-confessor’s intervention proved her innocence and freed baby Merlin from the devils. It explains why Merlin is endowed with gift of foresight, while insisting heavily on the Christian content of the book.

This heavy anchor into Christianity was unexpected to me, because it had been rather light in the Knight with the Lion novel. But I guess that so much witchcraft needed to be justified. And I’d totally forgotten that there’s a Christian reason why the Holy Grail is supposed to be Holy.

The whole “Sword in stone” episode was a bit of a surprise too despite the well-known Disneyed scene, because it’s not only the boy taking the sword by chance because he has to bring one to his half-brother Kay. It’s the boy taking the sword, then putting it back into the stone, and out again, and back in again, and so much and so forth during a whole year, until every single lord of the kingdom is convinced that Arthur is “the one” (and it takes much convincing, since they each believe they might have a chance to the throne). I found this repetition really hilarious, but I doubt this scene was supposed to make a 21C woman laugh out loud.

Overall, I probably missed quite a lot of cultural background to properly understand the book. But I don’t mind, because it was instructive and fun enough.

By the way, I can’t believe I spent two weeks in Wales without having encountered much of the King Arthur paraphernalia. Was I blind?


2 thoughts on “Robert de Boron, Merlin

  1. Funny. The way you describe this as a “patchwork of scenes loosely woven together” is exactly how I’d describe the Bible. Years ago, I read Le Morte d’Arthur and loved it, but I haven’t read Merlin. You’ve got me interested in The Knight with the Lion, though. I’ve never even heard of that. Must go do some investigating…

  2. Pingback: Chretien de Troyes, Perceval (1181?) | Smithereens

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