Geoffrey of Monmouth’s extraordinary epic poem Vita Merlini (“The Life of Merlin”, written in Classical hexameters) is a fascinating work set in a semi-mythological era of kings, prophets and madmen. Its eponymous hero is one of the most famous characters in all literature and it is here for the first time that he is brought centre-stage. The poem’s author is also the man who coined the name by which we know his creation today: Merlin.
Written after his famous prose History, the Vita portrays a rather different Merlin than the one familiar from Arthurian lore – here we encounter a figure much more like the mysterious Myrddin of Welsh legend, a war leader who goes mad and wanders the forest uttering complaints and prophecies, and telling, in conversation with the bard Taliesin, of past and future events.
In this extract we witness the beginning of Merlin’s madness as, following the death of ‘three dear brothers’ who were Merlin’s companions, he laments inconsolably. Such is his grief that he becomes mad and runs off to live as a wild man in the Caledonian Forest, a wooded area stretching over much of southern Scotland.
Deplangitque uiros nec cessat fundere fletus,
Pulueribus crines sparsit uestesque rescidit
Et prostratus humi nunc hac illacque uolutat.
Solatur Peredurus eum proceresque ducesque,
Nec uult solari nec uerba precantia ferre.
Iam tribus emensis defleuerat ille diebus
Respueratque cibos, tantus dolor usserat illum,
Inde nouas furias, cum tot tantisque querelis
Aera complesset, cepit furtimque recedit
Et fugit ad siluas, nec uult fugiendo uideri,
Ingrediturque nemus gaudetque latere sub ornis
Miraturque feras pascentes gramina saltus;
Nunc has insequitur, nunc cursu preterit illas.
Utitur herbarum radicibus, utitur herbis,
Utitur arboreo fructu morisque rubeti;
Fit siluester homo quasi siluis deditus esset.
Inde per estatem totam nullique repertus
Oblitusque sui cognatorumque suorum
Delituit siluis obductus more ferino.
At cum uenit hiems herbasque tulisset et omnes
Arboreos fructus nec quo frueretur haberet
Diffudit tales miseranda uoce querelas:
‘Celi Christe Deus quid agam, qua parte morari
Terrarum potero cum nil quo uescar adesse?’ [Vita Merlini, 65-88]
And [Merlin] mourns the men, nor ceasing to pour out tears, he sprinkled his hair with dust and ripped off his clothes and lying flat on the ground he rolls now this way now that. Peredur comforts him, as do the nobles and dukes, but he desires neither solace nor to endure their supplicatory words. By now he had lamented for three days entire and had refused food, such great grief had consumed him. From that time on, after he had filled the air with so many and such great laments, he suffered a new madness and stealthily withdrew and fled to the woods, nor does he wish to be seen while fleeing, and he enters the forest and rejoices to skulk beneath the ash trees and marvels at the beasts grazing on the grass of the glade; now he follows them, now he passes by them at a run. He consumes the roots of plants, he consumes the plants, he consumes the fruit of the trees and the blackberries from the bramble bush; he becomes a man of the woods as though devoted to the woods. From then on during the whole summer he was discovered by no one and forgetful of himself and of his own kindred he hid himself in the woods, clothed in the manner of a wild beast. But when winter came and it had carried off the plants and all the fruits of the trees and he could not enjoy what he had, he poured forth such complaints as these in a pitiable voice: “O Christ God of heaven, what shall I do? In which part of the earth will I be able to remain since there is nothing here that I can eat?”
Chosen and translated by Mark Walker (www.pineapplepubs.co.uk).