Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Life of Merlin, Vita Merlini

Book Review: The Life of Merlin, Vita Merlini by Geoffrey of Monmouth translated from the Latin by John Jay Perry in 1925 (Forgotten Books 2008)

Geoffrey of Monmouth first composed this book around 1150 A.D. based on oral traditions. The time period of the Vita Merlini is thought to be the late 500’s A.D. Geoffrey of Monmouth made two previous works that are related: “The Prophecies of Merlin” and “The History of the Kings of Britain.” I have another recent book by R. J. Stewart called, “The Mystic Life of Merlin” which presumably references all these works and more and so is surely a more complete picture than this work alone. The notes to the English text given in the book are invaluable as references to events and sources.

This book appears to be a mish mash of lore from various sources with Celtic-style Christian notions thrown in here and there. It starts out with Merlin being grief-stricken due to endless bloody wars and skirmishes. He goes mad and decides to live alone in the woods as a mad hermit. His madness seems to breed his prophetic abilities. Merlin’s madness as well as other incidents in the story show a strong similarity to the Irish story of Suibhne who wanders the woods in frenzied madness as a bird. Both tales occur and deal with the time period where Christianity is becoming established. The difference is that in Ireland there was no Roman period as in Britain. Indeed both tales also revolve around mythic history to some extent.

There is a part of the story where Merlin’s prophecies are being challenged and they try to trick him by letting him predict how a boy will die then disguised the same boy twice more and then had Merlin predict the manner of his death. They thought they had him as he predicted three different deaths but it turns out all three occurred to the one boy. This motif is a recurring Celtic theme called the three-fold death and may relate to the three-fold level of Celtic societies.

Much of the book involves local British history of the early Middle Ages and historical predictions. Later in the book is a dialogue of Merlin and the bard Taliesin. During this dialogue it was announced that a spring had broken free in the mountains and made a fountain and when Merlin drank from the spring he was freed from his madness. Taliesin then speaks of the natures of waters, river, springs, and lakes – some he says are healing and others poisonous but several he notes have specific effects. Also another madman appears that was previously afflicted by poison apples. He drinks of the fountain and is healed. I am thinking that the healing waters may be some symbolic representation of a healing paradigm, or the healing effect of merely looking at things in a different way or with a different perspective.

Now an old man Merlin chooses not to go back to the life of a king but to remain living in the woods – now in a small cotttage – with his sister and his friend Taliesin, a man named Mauldinus, and Merlin’s sister Ganieda, whose husband, the king Rydderich had died.

The last prophesy is made by Merlin’s sister Ganieda who predicts that wars will come forcing people to cross the water and the Normans will depart – these prophecies appear to be about the 1100s and 1200s. In any case, Merlin, now unable to prophecy, then formally passes on this task to Ganieda.

While this is an interesting book by itself for traditions treated it would likely be more satisfying to read it with more clarifying commentary and comparison with other texts derived from Celtic oral and bardic traditions. In this light I look forward to reading R. J. Stewart’s book.

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