Translating the Life of Merlin

By Callum Seymour

This essay analyses three of the most prominent translations of the Life of Merlin, in order to discern how the translator’s differing methods have resulted in subtle, yet important, changes in meaning.

There have been three academic translations of the Life produced since 1925, and each of these translations has a distinct feel and way of approaching the text. This essay first examines in depth the approach in each translation, it then focuses on four particular sections of the Life: the opening passage, Merlin’s fall into madness, his first awakening from madness and finally his subsequent capture at court after his madness returns. These sections form the first third of the poem, and establish the major narrative themes involving the wilderness and madness that recur throughout the remainder. By closely examining each translation of these sections of the poem, it can be demonstrated that each is not only distinct, but also influenced by factors such as the translator’s context, and how previous editors have presented the Life.

The Life of Merlin was written be Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey was a Latin author writing in Oxford in the twelfth century. Originally educated in Monmouth, Wales, Geoffrey was influenced by the history and traditions of the Celtic and British peoples.[1] His most famous work, The History of the Kings of Britain, introduced the figures of King Arthur and Merlin to Western Literature, and consequently Geoffrey is considered an influential figure of the Middle Ages. Although his Arthurian material was accessible to such a wide audience because it was written in Latin, during his text’s cultural diffusion the stories were also translated into other European languages.[2] In translation, these characters were influenced by the cultures which became interested in them, and so adapted to different purposes in the hands of translators from as early as the time Geoffrey was writing. Over time, these stories continually changed and this is evident in how different they are today from the original texts that Geoffrey produced.[3]

For the purposes of this essay, I am specifically focusing upon translation from Latin to English, but it is important to keep in mind that the evolution of these stories is one of the key factors that affects how a modern translator or reader might approach a text such as the Life. It is difficult not to have preconceptions about how a character such as Merlin might behave, or what characteristics he might have. One of the most interesting aspects of these translations is that they were produced at least forty years apart, the first in 1925, then 1973 and then in 2011, and so the context in which the translator works is different in each case. Even the Merlin material to which each commentator has been exposed is different, and these may also have influenced their ideas about the figure going into the translation. The translators each acknowledge the influence of their predecessors upon their work, but they are also influenced by their context regarding their work; especially because each acknowledges that his translation takes some liberties in order to relate the complex Latin of the poem better to their audience.[4]

The Life is Geoffrey’s second and last work. He decided to return to the figure of Merlin, and not any other of the well-known characters from the History, which speaks of the author’s personal interest in the sources from which he drew Merlin, and perhaps of the interest of his patrons and immediate audience as well. Geoffrey wrote in a learned community, and much of the material in the second half of the Life is devoted to discourse on medieval ideas about the natural world.[5] The first half of the Life, however, is devoted to synthesising a considerable amount of Celtic tradition into the character of Merlin. This material, important to Geoffrey but perhaps thought inappropriate for the History, creates a complex story that is perhaps easily misunderstood when not viewed in light of the tradition Geoffrey has used. To read the Life as a work about a single character is problematic, because by presenting so many disparate Celtic figures combined into Merlin it seems Geoffrey’s most difficult task was to create a consistent character, and in this regard he is not always successful. It is important to keep in mind, when reading the character, that where a modern reader might look for a consistent personality, Geoffrey perhaps had less interest in that aspect of the story; rather, for him the Life was simply a way to tie together many different threads of information into one text.[6] His purpose was different from one that a modern writer’s might have been, simply presenting information that was interesting to himself and his colleagues rather than constructing a character and narrative in accordance with what a modern reader might expect in a story. For Geoffrey, his work was primarily a construct made of popular tales that were likely assumed to be history. The medieval acceptance of past authority in writing could supersede any immediate need for consistency or realistic storytelling.

The Life survives in only one complete manuscript that dates to “the latter part of the thirteenth century.”[7] In addition, there are several surviving fragments of the poem, and the earliest of these dates to 1380.[8] This places the earliest source for the Life close to a century after the supposed date when Geoffrey wrote it, around 1148. When analysing the Latin closely to discern Geoffrey’s intentions, it is important to keep in mind that what is available was not written by his hand, and consequently it is difficult to be certain of any interpretation. The later date and the rarity of the work, when compared with the popular History, has even led to a line of scholarship that questions whether Geoffrey did in fact write the Life. While it is true that there are stylistic differences between the History as a prose chronicle and the Life as a shorter poem focusing on a single character, most modern scholarship seems certain of Geoffrey’s authorship.[9] The difference between the two works seem to exist because Geoffrey wrote the Life for a smaller audience as an exercise in poetry and perhaps as an elaboration on a figure of interest.

Translations of the Life of Merlin

The earliest translation I have approached is by John Parry.[10] It is important to analyse his edition and translation because his Latin work was influential and used extensively by each of the subsequent translators. His 1925 book, including an edition and translation of the Life, has become the benchmark for those that followed, because it was the first to use both the early complete text and the fragments to produce an edition of the Life. In addition, his English translation is certainly the most literal of each of the three. In editing the Latin, Parry has not “knowingly departed in any way, either in spelling or punctuation” except to expand upon abbreviations, and he believes that this has led to occasional “absurdities” in the text.[11] Each of the variant readings from the other manuscripts is included in footnotes, so it is easy to discern other possibilities should these absurdities arise in the Latin. While cautious in his editorial principles, in translation Parry allowed himself a “considerable amount of latitude.”[12] This results in a translation that does not correspond exactly with the Latin, even though it is the most literal of the three, a fact that Parry acknowledges.[13] In short, Parry’s edition of the Latin is accurate enough that it still forms the basis for study into the Life, but his translation into English at times is necessarily interpretive rather than literal.

Merlin - Royal 20.A.II, f.3v British Library
Merlin – British Library MS Royal 20.A.II, f.3v

In 1973, Basil Clarke produced an edition and English translation similar to Parry’s in approach and style. He used Parry’s Latin for his own text with little alteration, although he did consult editions that had come before Parry to help verify his edition.[14] Where the Latin in the manuscripts was corrupted or difficult, Clarke made mention of this in his text and deferred to Parry’s earlier judgement in each case. Again, in many parts the translation is “ad sensum rather than ad litteram.”[15] It is less literal than Parry’s, though it makes little attempt at embellishment, because it makes a more considered attempt to relate the language to a modern context. This is especially evident in the use of English idioms to replace Latin ones, or where some of the Latin structures have been shortened in translation.[16] The intent of Clarke’s translation appears to have been to produce a reading less focused upon literal interpretation, poetic form or specific authorial intent, but rather one that is relatable to modern English readership. Although he is largely successful in this regard, there are elements of the text evident in Parry’s translation that are lost in an approach that tries to modernise the text. The subsequent translation by Mark Walker in 2011 seems heavily influenced by this emphasis on readability over precision in translation, and several of the additions and embellishments made in Clarke’s translation to the text are continued in Walker’s. Due to the age of his edition, many of the English idioms Clarke used are now themselves out-dated, and so their usage over a literal translation is now problematic.[17]

Walker produced the most recent translation of the Life in 2011.Although he worked closely with Parry and Clarke’s editions, his differed significantly in translation because Walker aimed to reproduce the Latin poetic style that Geoffrey used in his own English translation. This is a different approach from Parry and Clarke, who both instead decided to write their English translations in a prose style without any emphasis on, or regard for, the poem’s hexameter form. In approaching the translations, this most recent edition and the choice to translate in Geoffrey’s poetic form has made Walker’s translation the key focal point in this essay at most points where the translations differ. In each case one is left to consider how this new approach to translation compares with its predecessors when relating the meaning intended by Geoffrey’s Latin. It should be noted that Walker favoured the style and tone of Geoffrey’s work over the literal meaning of his words, stating that he has not aimed to produce a scholarly edition, but rather one that is pleasurable to read.[18] The hexameter style used by Geoffrey is reproduced faithfully in Walker’s translation of the text, and he goes to great lengths to explain his methodology and rationale regarding why he believes this stylistic approach a more accurate representation of the text than one more focused upon a literal interpretation.[19] In the medieval manner of producing literature that was performative, in that it was often intended to be read aloud, reading a rhythmic poem as opposed to a prose format theoretically enables a more authentic rendition of the text. Walker took the previous ideas of an interpretive translation, like Clarke and Parry, and liberally used his own understanding of a particular passage in order to make the poetic form consistent in English. In certain areas of the translation, he also omitted sections of the original work from the body of the text and reduced them to a brief note in the preface to each chapter. This has disadvantages for the reader trying to get a feel for Geoffrey’s structure and certain medieval conventions such as the referencing to Greco-Roman literature.[20] So while this gives a more readable version of the text to a modern audience, and it keeps the Latin poetic structure, this is at the expense of certain medieval conventions in literature. It is then debatable how authentic such a reproduction truly is.

There are certain advantages to Walker’s translation choices, as noted above, and some deductions he makes in interpreting the text I believe are more appropriate than Clarke’s or Parry’s. As he notes in his introduction, the English hexameter is slightly odd or unnatural to read, but in some respects this aspect of the translation serves to give the Life an eccentricity that suits the poem and its mysterious subject quite well.[21] It is interesting that the poem’s tonal accuracy provides a better reading of the text and a feel for Geoffrey’s Latin that is otherwise difficult to convey. The more performative, lilting tone of the metre suits a text that likely was read aloud in the medieval fashion, rather than in silence. Given the potential for loss of accuracy in the Latin through the reliance upon a manuscript written much later than Geoffrey’s time, a point could be made that a more accurate style to the translation better conveys the poem to a modern audience than one that obsesses over the exact wording. The disadvantage, however, is evident when one interpretation in translation disagrees with another significantly.

Geoffrey’s opening and the establishment of the text’s intentions

In the first line of the Life a distinct tone is set by Geoffrey, which has been interpreted differently by each translator: “Fatidici uatis rabiem musamque jocosam Merlini cantare paro.”[22] The poem opens with the line: “I am preparing to sing the madness of the prophetic bard, and a humorous poem on Merlin.”[23] In Parry’s translation, the madness of a prophet and bard is emphasised as the focal point of the forthcoming narrative, and the addition that it will be a humorous poem about Merlin is an afterthought.[24] This emphasis on madness is repeated in Clarke’s translation, except that he prefers “entertaining” to “humorous,” a subtle distinction that nonetheless has further ramifications for how Clarke reads the text later on: “I set myself to sing of the madness of the bard of prophecy, an entertaining tale of Merlin.”[25] Merlin, however, is the most important part of Walker’s introduction, adding the madness he suffers from as the secondary consideration to what immediately strikes the reader.[26] His second key change to the translation is in the use of the word “poet” rather than “bard,” which is of importance when relating an immediate understanding of Merlin and his characteristics. Although one might consider a bard as a performer in the modern definition, a bard in Celtic tradition is a figure of wisdom and prophecy that advises kings and does not compose music or read poetry.[27] These small differences set three different tones to the story.

Walker changed the order and emphasis of the sentence to place Merlin’s name first and foremost at the beginning of the Life, contrary to what Geoffrey himself did. The first emphasis in Geoffrey’s Latin seems to be on the “madness” of a “prophet bard,” rather than the specific figure of Merlin as the bard in question. The addition in Walker’s translation of “mischievous muse” seems to be an alternate reading of “musamque jocosam.” This change seems to stem from a modern interpretation of the text that is less interested in a literal translation of the sentence than Parry or Clarke were. While a modern  translator might understand the now famously mischievous character of Merlin as the main subject of the tale, I think that it is just as likely Geoffrey was more concerned with the Celtic Wild Man tradition which he drew upon for his text. [28] In omitting and changing what he has, Walker’s translation ignores the Celtic sources compiled by Geoffrey for the Life.

That Merlin was a bard, and not a poet is an important indication of his literary roots in the Celtic figure of Myrddin.[29] The use of “vatis” by Geoffrey likely refers to the work of Isidore of Seville, a Latin scholar who is heavily paraphrased later in the Life.[30] Isidore used the term “vates” to distinguish a prophetic individual of pagan origin, in other words one such as Merlin.[31] The emphasis on madness, rather than on Merlin, in the opening links the text to the Celtic tradition of the Wild Man, which provided a great deal of inspiration for the Life. Most specifically, this refers to the figure of Lailoken, whose story is adapted to become part of Merlin’s in the Life.[32] This introduces a well known story which is the emphasis of the first part of the Life, rather than the character Merlin whose name is simply attached to the story. Merlin as a character was less important to Geoffrey than the story he wished to begin his text with, and that is why he is not emphasised in the opening. Conversely, a modern audience more familiar with Merlin than the obscure Lailoken tales expects the character itself to be the most important part of Geoffrey’s tale. In Walker’s translation is the establishment of modern expectations upon the story, which perhaps obscures the intent of the medieval author.

Merlin’s Madness

After the opening passage and dedication, the Life begins with Merlin witnessing battle and lamenting the death of close friends in the fighting. Driven mad by the futility of war, Merlin flees into the forest to live like a beast: an archetype of a tradition of wild men in Celtic literature. In the forest of Caledon, Merlin lives happily until winter falls and he is left in deprivation. He laments again, this time upon his condition and the capriciousness of nature, and here in the Life the translations differ further in their interpretation of the Latin. In Parry’s translation, Merlin is confused and clearly mad. He panics and questions the loss of fruit and leaves from his apple trees, seeming to believe them stolen and suddenly gone.[33] When he then goes on to discuss the “fates,” he sees them fighting against him: allowing him to perceive the future on the one hand, and yet not to see his apple trees.[34] This bumbling man in his madness is a extension of Parry’s translation of the opening, which introduces the poem as a comedic one. Here Merlin humorously wanders about speaking nonsense, and a performative aspect of the poem is detectable in the translation as Merlin rushes about looking for his apples and a leaf to cover himself up.

In Clarke’s translation, he has changed the “fates” to “Fate” as though a recognisable being is acting to thwart Merlin.[35] In the Life Merlin is shown to be in some form of contact with a spirit being that provides him with his prophetic knowledge.[36] Clarke’s translation therefore is mindful of such active beings working with Merlin on this occasion.

Walker’s translation agrees with Clarke’s on the translation of “fata,” although the passage is different again in his interpretation. In his translation, for example, Merlin initially loses sight of the apple trees, but then finds them. He then thanks “Fortune” who allows him to see the trees even though she has taken fruit and leaves from them.[37] He seems to search for the trees in the winter, find them with Fortune’s aide, but then lament when he sees that they are fruitless. Thus he perceives the punishment of Fate. This is a concept found in Lailoken, because, just like Clarke, Walker recognises Fate as a distinct entity.

Although not evident in Parry’s translation, the notion of a spirit being tormenting the Celtic Wild Man is only realised in the later two translations, perhaps because of the translations of the Lailoken material presented in the appendix to Clarke’s work. In short, Lailoken is tormented by a demon who drives him in to the wild and forces him to live like a beast.[38] It would appear that Clarke and Walker have translated the passage in order to reflect the origins of this story and the spirit that torments Lailoken does so again to Merlin in their translations. The Latin, however, does not seem to agree with their translations, but rather, with Parry’s. The plural forms of “repugnant,” “concordant” and “dant” each seem to imply that “fata” should be taken as a plural form.[39] The change made by Clarke has been furthered in Walker’s translation, and he also translated “fata as a singular not plural. Even if this was not intended by the translators, in a passage where Merlin begins by addressing Christ in lament, but is guided by Fate, it is likely that one might read pagan tones into the text where there are none, especially in a modern context where one might see Merlin as a magician and pagan figure. One can see how a reading of the more recent translations can give what appears to be an appropriate interpretation, even though the strict translation from the Latin might not agree.

Return from Madness

In the forest of Caledon, Merlin is eventually brought from his madness by a servant of his sister. As Merlin contemplates the seasons, the man plays his instrument and sings of how Merlin is missed at court by his family and of their misery. Surprised, Merlin springs up to address the messenger, but does so differently in each translation.

Parry’s translation relates that “quickly the prophet arose, addressing the young man with pleasant words” and compelled him to repeat his song about Merlin’s sister and wife.[40] Clarke’s translation is even more lively and positive reading that Merlin  “accosted the young man with a lively greeting,” and sprang up “suddenly.”[41]  This accords a little better with Clarke’s understanding of the poem as a text designed to entertain, as evidenced in his translation of the opening. Walker instead translated that Merlin addressed the “youthful singer” in “mischievous tones.”[42] Here in Walker’s edition is a reflection of his own translation of the opening, recalling Merlin as a “mischievous muse.” This is perhaps prompted by Geoffrey’s use of the words “iocosis” in this passage and “iocosam” in the opening, the latter of which Walker translated as “mischievous.”[43]

In Parry’s and Clarke’s translations, the tone of a humorous, or simply entertaining, poem is maintained. The use of mischievous as an adjective in Walker’s translation gives the passage a different tone. It presents Merlin more as a manipulator or trickster, a role that is consistent with his ties to Lailoken who is also a trickster.[44] One might now view the pleasant lively words that Merlin suddenly accosts the young man with as indicative of a now famously persuasive personality. Here, I think that “mischievous” maintains the entertaining tone of the poem while adding a further element not immediately apparent in the previous translations, giving Merlin a more nuanced character while maintaining faithfulness to Geoffrey and his source material.

Merlin at Court

When Merlin returns to court, temporarily cured of his madness, the translations differ more significantly than in the previous sections. In this section of the Life, Merlin returns to society, but is immediately confronted by the large amount of people, and longs to flee back into the wild. When he attempts to do so, he is chained by the King, Rydderch. Unable to understand Merlin’s state,  he tries to reason with the bard and offers him riches and his political power back. Each gift he presents is rejected by Merlin, as all he wants is to return to his adopted forest home, and so Merlin remains imprisoned. In Parry’s more literal translation of the events, Merlin is reduced to a sad and simple figure, much like the wild beasts he strives to emulate, trapped away from nature.[45] In Clarke’s translation,  Merlin seems more complex and pointed in his motives.[46] In Walker’s translation, which furthers interpretations found in Clarke’s, the character takes on more motivation than that of a bestial instinct. Merlin becomes a considered, ascetic figure who is consciously attempting to be like a wild beast, rather than simply being a wild beast due to his madness.[47] What seems to have occurred in each translation is an increasing sense of modern character motive. Where the literal translation seeks to do no more than present Merlin as a mad wild man, the later translations try to give purpose to a character that is better known as cunning or intelligent.[48]

Rydderch offering gifts to Merlin is essential to understanding the character and Geoffrey’s intentions. In Clarke and Parry, Merlin is offered rulership over a “warlike” people.[49] Merlin’s rejection of this offer is easily understood in light of his recent horror in the midst of battle that first drove him mad and into the woods. In Walker’s translation, in place of “warlike” is the word “arrogant.”[50] The translation anticipates the next part of the text in which Merlin explains why he has rejected the king’s gifts. It allows Merlin to judge the people he would rule as inferior to his ascetic ideals, rather than reacting instinctively against any notion of war.

Merlin speaks out twice to the king about why he rejects his gifts and offers of power. In Parry’s translation, Merlin says that Rydderch’s expensive gifts should be given to those dukes not satisfied with poverty and who do not want a “moderate amount but desire a great deal.”[51] The Latin appears to be reflected most accurately in Parry’s translation, and could be read simply implying that those nobles that are poor, but would prefer to be richer should have the gifts because they will enjoy it more than Merlin would. As the bard goes on to say: “I prefer the groves and broad oaks of Calidon… Those are the things that please me, not these of yours.”[52] Although one might read an ascetic purpose into Merlin’s reply to the king, it is not made explicit in the translation. Merlin smiles in understanding of a prophetic truth shortly afterwards and Rydderch again offers him gifts to reveal what he knows. When Merlin again rejects Rydderch’s gifts, insisting that he values his freedom more, Parry translates that Merlin responds simply out of annoyance at the constant pestering of Rydderch to tell him the things that he has prophesied.[53]

Clarke’s translation of Merlin’s first rejection differs with a stronger emphasis upon the noble’s greed, with Merlin saying that they “covet everything.”[54] Merlin as a personality with distinct ascetic values is more easily recognised in this case, where before it was not as clear. It is not the case that Merlin is simply mad and not interested in what Rydderch is offering, instead he is making a choice not to be covetous like the other nobles in his society by choosing the wild. In the second rejection, Merlin’s choice is made even clearer when he, instead of relenting to Rydderch’s pestering, “grew angry at his generosity” rather than at the king’s actions.[55]

Clarke’s interpretation of Merlin’s actions as a considered choice, rather than an instinct of bestial madness, is furthered in Walker’s translation. In his translation, Merlin’s asceticism is the most important aspect of his character, and his state as a madman is all but forgotten. In Walker’s translation of the opening passage, it is clear that in his approach the madness is considered a secondary aspect of the Merlin character. His translation of the first rejection is heavily embellished to reflect this: “Nobles who think they are needy should have such delicate morsels, For moderation means nothing to them, and they revel in excess.” Here the translator’s own interpretation of the scene and consequent translation has left no room for an alternative reading. The rejection of a noble life and society is plain, and the reader can clearly see that Merlin is making a conscious choice and judgement, not merely acting on madness. The character has an idealism beyond the Lailoken material that inspired Geoffrey’s original passage, in which the wild man instead makes efforts to disrupt the clergy’s ascetic retreats into the wild for prayer.[56]

Merlin, through Clarke and then Walker, develops a more nuanced human motivation in translation. This aspect of the character seems contrary to Geoffrey’s original intentions for the character, but the differences between Merlin and Lailoken are such that one cannot rule out the possibility that Geoffrey also intended Merlin to have this ascetic quality. Where Merlin delights in the forest, for example, Lailoken as previously mentioned was driven to it by a demon for the purposes of his own punishment. In Merlin’s second rejection of Rydderch’s gifts, Walker’s translation reads that Merlin “assented” to “explain his refusal.”[57] He does not simply wish to reject the offer anymore, but rather to provide a reason for his actions to Rydderch and perhaps even to teach the king instead of simply showing no interest in his offer. Merlin now speaks to Rydderch because he is “hurt by the offer of gifts” from a “dear friend” to whom he is trying to explain himself.[58] Walker’s translation provides a more personal interaction between Merlin and Rydderch, emphasising their friendship and Merlin’s moral decision to break free of his old life. This is a modern reading of the text that does not necessarily exist in Geoffrey’s Latin, and one that seeks to explain Merlin’s actions as more consciously motivated than the mad actions of Lailoken.


Although it is difficult to touch upon all of the differences between the three distinct translations of the Life, even when covering such a small section, this essay demonstrates that at several places in the poem alternative translations based on individual interpretation create very different readings of the same text. Each translator decided to take an approach that avoided a completely literal interpretation of the text for the sake of constructing a better English rendering of the Life. Beginning with the opening line of their translations, each translator established a different tone and emphasis in his approach to the work. Parry’s more literal translation best preserved the original Latin, although at points the difficulties in the manuscripts prompted him to take liberties with interpreting the text. Clarke was the first to make significant assumptions in his translation based on his perception of authorial intent. In several cases these additions or changes to the text in translation, whether or not they were accurate, influenced Walker’s later work, such as his understanding of Merlin’s retreat to the woods as an ascetic choice rather than the actions of a wild man. Walker’s verse translation at times moves quite far from the original Latin, because of the translator’s interpretation of Geoffrey’s authorial intent. In presenting Merlin as a trickster and a man of cunning, it is at times closer in tone to Geoffrey’s source material than the literal translation. While the manuscript available may be faithful to Geoffrey’s original work, it is impossible to say with certainty what Geoffrey’s original Latin might have been. Any approach to translating the text should not just be concerned with the literal meaning of the Latin, but also with the sources that influenced it, their tone and the poem’s form.

With thanks to Dr Juanita Ruys for editorial feedback on early drafts.


  • Barney, Stephen A. (ed. & trans.), The etymologies of Isidore of Seville (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, Basil Clarke (ed. & trans.), Life of Merlin (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1973).
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, John Jay Parry (ed. & trans.), The Vita Merlini (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1925).
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, Michael D. Reeve (ed.), Neil Wright (trans.), The History of the Kings of Britain: an Edition and Translation of De Gestis Britonum [Historia Regum Britanniae] (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007).
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, Mark Walker (ed. & trans.), Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin: a New Verse Translation (Chalford: Amberley Publishing, 2011).
  • Knight, Stephen, Merlin: Knowledge and Power through the Ages (London: Cornell University Press, 2009).
  • Robert de Boron, Nigel Bryant (trans.), Merlin and the Grail : Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval : the trilogy of prose romances attributed to Robert de Boron (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer 2001).
  • Tatlock, J.S.P., “Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini” in Speculum, 18, (1943), pp. 265-287.
  • Thomas, Neil, “The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Vita Merlini”: Madness of “Contemptus Mundi?” in Arthuriana, 10, (2000), pp. 27-42.


[1] Stephen Knight, Merlin: Knowledge and Power through the Ages (London: Cornell University Press, 2009), pp. 20-22.

[2] One of the most famous of these examples is Robert de Boron’s Merlin, which follows Geoffrey’s work directly, adapting the character and embellishing his characteristics to suit his audience. Details such as Merlin’s demonic heritage, form a far more important role in Robert’s work, for example, as he wrote to further Christianise difficult concepts from Geoffrey’s work. Robert de Boron, Nigel Bryant (trans.), Merlin and the Grail : Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval : the trilogy of prose romances attributed to Robert de Boron (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer 2001), pp. 45-55; Geoffrey of Monmouth, Michael D. Reeve (ed.), Neil Wright (trans.), The History of the Kings of Britain: an Edition and Translation of De Gestis Britonum [Historia Regum Britanniae] (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007), pp. 136-139.

[3] Knight, Merlin, pp. 216-223.

[4] John Jay Parry (ed. & trans.), The Vita Merlini (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1925), p. 26; Basil Clarke (ed. & trans.), Life of Merlin (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1973), p.49; Mark Walker (ed. & trans.), Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin: a New Verse Translation (Chalford: Amberley Publishing, 2011), p. 33.

[5] Clarke, Life of Merlin, pp.91-127; Walker, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, pp. 86-113; Parry, The Vita Merlini, pp. 74-111.

[6] The sources for the Life are extensive and not yet clearly defined. For the first half that draws upon Celtic tradition, see: Knight, Merlin, pp. 1-42. For the Latin sources that Geoffrey drew upon for the second half of the Life, see: J.S.P. Tatlock, “Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini” in Speculum, 18, (1943), pp. 265-287, (p.271) and Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 20.

[7] Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 21.

[8] Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 44.

[9] Knight, Merlin, p.32; Tatlock, “Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini,” pp. 265-268.

[10] For previous editions of the Life, see Parry, The Vita Merlini, pp. 22-25 and Clarke, Life of Merlin, pp. 45-47. These editions were produced in the nineteenth century and, aside from being perceived as less advanced than Parry’s, were also unavailable for this essay due to their rarity. The only exception to this is Edmond Faral’s edition, which is in French and therefore also unable to be approached for this essay.

[11] Parry, The Vita Merlini, pp.25-26.

[12] Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 26.

[13] “For several short passages my translation is merely conjecture as to the authors meaning, since I was unable, within the limits of the metrical scheme, to supply an emendation that would be satisfactory although the author’s meaning seemed to me to be clear.” Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 26.

[14] Clarke, Life of Merlin, pp. 48-49.

[15] Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 49.

[16] Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 49.

[17] For example, Clarke’s use of the word “vouchsafe” is now tending towards obsolescence as a usage, and the  translation of “cithar” as “guitar,” despite that fact that they are two different instruments, shows the difficulty in changing medieval concepts to modern ones in translation. Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 65.

[18] Walker, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, p. 33.

[19] Walker, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, pp. 33-38.

[20] Walker, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, pp. 45-46.

[21] Walker, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, p. 38.

[22] Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 52.

[23] Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 31.

[24] Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 31.

[25] Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 53.

[26] “Merlin, his madness, the mischievous muse of the poet prophetic I am preparing to sing.” Walker, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, p. 45.

[27] Knight, Merlin, p. 14.

[28] Neil Thomas, “The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Vita Merlini”: Madness of “Contemptus Mundi?” in Arthuriana, 10, (2000), pp. 27-42.

[29] Knight, Merlin, pp. 7-20.

[30] Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 20.

[31] “Those whom the pagan world call bards (vates) we call prophets (propheta)…” Stephen A. Barney (ed. & trans.), The etymologies of Isidore of Seville (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 166. Here Isidore makes a clear distinction, and given Geoffrey’s usage of Isidore it seems that “bard” or “prophet” is the most likely translation, rather than “poet.”

[32] Clarke, Life of Merlin, pp. 227-234.

[33] “Here once stood nineteen apple trees bearing apples every year; now they are not standing. Who has taken them away from me? Whither have they gone all of a sudden? Now I see them – now I do not!” Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 35.

[34] “Thus the fates fight against me and for me, since they both permit and forbid me to see.” Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 35.

[35]  Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 57. Clarke’s translation is otherwise the same as Parry’s.

[36]  Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 135.

[37] “Thanks be to Fortune who gives with one hand and yet takes with the other, Gone are the leaves from the trees, I am punished by Fate without mercy, Since I cannot wear leaves for my clothes nor partake of the fresh fruits. ” Walker, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, p. 51.

[38] Clarke, Life of Merlin, pp. 227-229.

[39] “Sic fata repugnant sic quoque concordant cum dant prohibentque videre.” Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 56.

[40] Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 43.

[41] Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 63.

[42] Walker, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, p. 57.

[43]  Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 62 & 52.

[44] Knight, Merlin, p. 36.

[45] Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 45.

[46] Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 65.

[47] Walker, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, p. 60.

[48] “Merlin consistently transforms into a figure of knowledge…” Knight, Merlin, p. xvii.

[49] “…et in populos jus exercere feroces. Clarke, Life of Merlin, pp. 64-65; Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 43.

[50] “…give laws to an arrogant people.” Walker, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, p. 59.

[51] “Jsta duces habeant sua quos confundit egestas nec sunt contenti modico set maxima captant.”Parry, The Vita Merlini, pp. 44-45.

[52] Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 45.

[53] “Rydderch continued to urge him with riches and with entreaties until at length the prophet, vexed at him, said…” Parry, The Vita Merlini, p. 47. “Tum denique vates indignatus ei pro munere talia fatur.” Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 66.

[54] Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 65.

[55] Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 67.

[56] Clarke, Life of Merlin, p. 228.

[57] Walker, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, p. 61.

[58] Walker, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, pp. 59 & 61.

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