Desire, History, Violence: Merlin’s Narratives

  • Catherine Batt
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


John Steinbeck observes of Malory’s world that: “no moral law obtains.”1 Desire and violence drive the Morte’s narrative and Merlin, as an “interstitial,” culturally diverse character, brings their parameters into question, in an ostensibly ordered but locally unsettling text. In the Morte, the urge to order and historicize has to acknowledge the possibility that moral judgment, the legitimization of violence, and historical recuperation are contingent. This chapter traces some late-medieval ideas of the “historical” Arthurian world as context for Merlin’s function in the Morte. In the Suite du Merlin, the prophet outlines the world’s moral and textual boundaries, whereas in the English Prose Merlin, he mediates more immediate and practical concerns with the communication of counsel and good advice. For a fifteenth-century English audience, Arthur’s potentially multiple significance inevitably provokes negotiation with the variety of extratextual associations he commands, from romance heroism to national dynastic pride. Merlin relates historiography and romance differently from Arthur, and is more complicatedly involved in questions of literary authorization and structure. Caxton’s historicizing preface does not address Merlin’s historical role, perhaps because Merlin’s protean literary and political import demand even trickier negotiation of textual and cultural evidence than Arthur’s case presents. Caxton leaves his readers to engage for themselves with the specificities of Malory’s account, and instead elaborates a complex, arguably historically evasive, cultural background for Arthur. If the preface offers us an Arthurian history without Merlin, it also leaves us to speculate on this absence.


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© Catherine Batt 2002

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