Arthour and Merline

General Information

(N)IMEV: 1162
Form: Short couplets
Date of Composition: 1250-1300
Place of Composition: Kent
Keywords: Bedchamber, Conquest, Conversion, Disguise, Dreams, Education, Exile, Forest, Friendship, Hunting, Marriage, Military Combat, Mistaken Identity, Rape, Religious Figures, Religious Spaces, Sacrament, Secular Spaces, Sexual Encounters, Siege, Steward, Supernatural, Travel, Treachery, Urban Spaces

Plot Summary

Plot summary image

Constance, King of England dies, leaving his realm to his son, Constantine or ‘King Monk’. When Angus of Denmark invades, the treacherous steward Vortigern arranges the weak king’s death and takes over the kingdom. Constantine’s brothers, Aurilis Brosias and Uther Pendragon, too young to rule, flee the country. Vortigern banishes the Danes, but his rule is marked by unrest and violence, and when the English rebel he joins forces with Angus to defeat them. Afraid that Aurilis and Uther will return, Vortigern begins to build a stronghold at Salisbury, but the work mysteriously collapses every night. On the advice of his clerks, he sends messengers to seek a child conceived by no man, planning to smear the walls in its blood.

This child, Merlin, is conceived when a virtuous woman is raped by the devil. Christened by her guardian, the hermit Blaise, the child is not evil but has mysterious powers and prodigious wisdom. Merlin is five when Vortigern’s men find him, and, after witnessing his powers, present him to the king. Under Merlin’s guidance, Vortigern unearths two dragons from the foundations of his castle, who fight to the death. Merlin explains that the victorious dragon represents the righteous heir of England then, refusing to help Vortigern further, he returns to Blaise, who records his prophecies in a book.

Aurilis and Uther arrive in Winchester, where Vortigern’s men turn against him. He retreats into his castle, which Uther burns to the ground. Then, while Uther seeks Merlin in the forest, Aurilis kills Angus. Uther is crowned and with Merlin’s help defeats the Danes, but Aurilis is slain, fulfilling Merlin’s prophecy. Uther reigns successfully, conquering many kingdoms and establishing the Round Table. He falls in love with Ygerne, wife of Heol, Duke of Cornwall, and, after Merlin has disguised him as her husband, they conceive a child: Arthur. When her husband is slain, Uther and Ygerne marry, while her daughters are given to his knights.

As soon as he is born, Merlin takes Arthur to Sir Antor, who raises him alongside his own child, Kay. Years pass and when Uther dies, his subjects cannot choose a new king. After they pray for a sign a sword appears embedded in a stone, its inscription stating that only the true king can draw it. No one succeeds until Antor, Kay and Arthur attend a nearby tournament and Arthur, looking for a sword for Kay, pulls it out. Antor and Merlin reveal Arthur’s parentage and present him to Uther’s men: he is crowned in a lavish ceremony, but some kings, including those married to Ygerne’s daughters, refuse to accept him. With Merlin’s help Arthur and Kay fight the rebels, who flee vowing vengeance. Arthur travels to London, where Merlin advises him to summon his father’s old allies, Kings Ban and Bohort [Bors]. They help him wage a ferocious battle against the rebellious kings, who eventually retreat again. Merlin predicts difficult times ahead, and urges Arthur to help King Leodegan of Carmalide against his enemy Rioun.

After his departure the Danes return, causing strife throughout the land. The sons of the rebellious kings (including Galaheit, Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris and Gareth) discover that Arthur is their uncle and pledge to be knighted by him, bringing peace between the king and their fathers. They travel to London, where they find the pagans wreaking havoc. Learning of Arthur’s absence, the young men engage the pagans in battle, and eventually, with the help of London’s constable and aldermen, drive them away. While this is happening, Arthur and a select band of knights arrive at Carmalide, where Leodogan has preserved Uther’s Round Table. Keeping their identities secret, they join Leodogan’s knights in battle, killing many pagans in a lengthy sequence of battles. Arthur and Guinevere, Leodogan’s daughter, fall in love.

With Arthur remaining away, the Danes continue to harass his kingdom. Over a series of skirmishes, and with Merlin’s intervention, the various kingdoms become united against them under Gawain’s command. As more of Arthur’s future knights, including Ywain, join the cause, Merlin returns to Arthur to tell him the news. Realizing the status of his guests, Leodogan betrothes Guinevere to Arthur and, when the king reveals his identity, delightedly pays him homage. They re-gather their troops and set out to defeat Rioun, which they finally achieve after many bitter battles, helped by Merlin’s enchantments.

From: O. D. Macrae-Gibson, ed., Of Arthour and of Merlin, EETS o.s. 268, 279. London: Oxford University Press, 1973 and 1979.
Manuscript: Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.2.1 (Auchinleck)


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Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.2.1 (Auchinleck) (folio: 201r-256v)c. 1330, London. 9938 lines. The last 6774 lines of the poem are extant only in this MS. Lacks one leaf (about 176 lines) after f. 254.
London, British Library, MS Additional 27879 (Percy Folio) (folio: pp. 145-178)c. 1650, Lancashire. 2378 lines, corresponding to lines 1-2160 of Auchinleck.
London, British Library, MS Harley 6223 (folio: 2r-v)c.1560, London, written by John Stow. Opening 62 lines.
London, Lincoln's Inn Library, MS 150 (folio: 13r-27v)Late 14th (Kyng Alisaunder) and 15th centuries, Midlands, Shropshire. Text corresponds to lines 1-1902 of Auchinleck.
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 124 (folio: 1r-141v)Transcript of Auchinleck, made c.1800 for Sir Walter Scott.
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 236 (folio: 1v-36v)Late 15th century, Dorset. Text corresponds to lines 28-1834 of Auchinleck.

Early Editions

1510. 'The Byrth and Prophecye of Marlyn'. London: Wynkyn de Worde. STC (2nd ed.), 17841. 88pp. Complete. New York, Pierpont Morgan Library.
1529. 'The Byrth and Prophecye of Marlyn'. London: Wynkyn de Worde. STC (2nd ed.), 17841.3. Colophon leaf only. British Library, Lincoln Cathedral Library.

Modern Editions

E. Kölbing, ed., Arthour and Merlin, Altenglische Bibliothek, 4 (Leipzig: Reisland, 1890)Edited from Auchinleck text: 1-262; Lincoln's Inn and Douce 236 in parallel columns: 275-370.
John W. Hales and Frederick J. Furnivall, eds., Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript: Ballads and Romances, 3 vols. (London: N. Trübner, 1867–68)Volume 1. Pp. 401-96. Edited from the Percy Folio.
O. D. Macrae-Gibson, ed., Of Arthour and of Merlin, EETS o.s. 268, 279 (London: Oxford University Press, 1973, 1979)Auchinleck, Percy and Lincoln's Inn texts. Selections from de Worde print at Vol. 2. Pp. 270-276.
W. B. D. D. Turnbull, ed., Arthour and Merlin, A Metrical Romance, Abbotsford Club (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Printing Company, 1838)Edited from Auchinleck MS; Harley 6223 fragment.


French Vulgate Cycle, Lestoire de Merlin