The Mystery of the Holy Graal was a mystery of grace behind Arthurian literature till the time came for it to be manifested at the period of the Quests, and among the texts in which it is exhibited as if working from afar and vaguely there is that which I have termed for convenience the Early History of Merlin, being the transcript in prose of another metrical romance by which Robert de Borron proceeded, for want of intermediate materials, from the history of Joseph to the period which just antedated the birth and life of King Arthur. The tradition of the one romance is carried over by the other, and as such it is at once interesting extremely and important for our purpose. With the story itself we are concerned only in the least possible degree. It narrates, in the first place, a conference of demons that seems to have been summoned immediately after the Descent of Christ into hell to consider the best means of reducing to a minimum the opportunity of human redemption which had been inaugurated by the sudden translation of all the just of old from the supposed power of Infernus into the joy of Paradise. The conclusion attained was that if only some emissary of theirs could be born on earth, having for his father one of the evil personæ and for his mother a woman in the flesh, they would recover some part at least of the patrimony which they claimed in souls. There was one in the council, belonging to that averse hierarchy which is termed the Powers of the Air, who had the gift under certain conditions to make earthly women conceive, and he went forth upon this mission. What he did, however, was to surprise a pure maiden, apart from all knowledge of hers, at an unwary moment. After this manner was Merlin born into the world, in the accomplishment of which plot we are translated, with
no suggestion or manifest sense of the intervening centuries, from the days which preceded the Ascension to the reign of Vortigern in Britain. The device of perdition had gone, as usual, astray, and that utterly; for the mother was saved spiritually by her innocence and, on the discovery of her predicament, by recourse immediately to the offices of holy religion. She was accused indeed before the judges of the country, but the child himself saved her, for, being a babe, he yet spoke--now with the cunning which might be ascribed to his father in Sheol, and now with the subtlety and foresight which suggested the intervention of another and higher power, as if this had taken him for its own purpose into its safe custody.
Throughout the story Merlin, in virtue of his dual origin, is in part true steel and in part clay. Robert de Borron borrowed from antecedent materials which we can trace in their larger proportion, but the high spirit of his religious disposition worked upon that which he assumed, and wrought a great change therein. His Merlin has come really as if in the power of a mission which had been imprinted with a Divine seal, and though he is at best an admixture, and though the character of some of his actions is stained enough, he who has created him in literature more even than he has derived, does not weary of saying that God, who spared Merlin's mother in the body of her was able to save him in the soul, or at least contribute thereto, because of her perfect reconciliation with Holy Church. She had indeed sinned not at all, but had once, under great stress, forgotten to pray, and the visitation which came upon her was the hand of a providence rather than a hand which chastised. According to one text, with which we shall deal later, she became at length a nun, and so passed in sanctity. To pass thus also was evidently De Borron's intention as to the son's destiny, and at the end of the Lesser Chronicles we shall see how it was fulfilled. Meanwhile, the expressed mission of Merlin was after an unwonted manner to teach the love of Jesus Christ and the life
everlasting. The note of this intention occurs early in the story, when it is said that God took the fiend-born child to His own use, though the mystery is the manner of that use; his double nature was such and so granted that he might yield to God His part and to the fiend also his own. There are other stories which tell how Merlin dwelt amidst illusion, and how at the end he passed therein, but these are not of Robert de Borron.
The exigencies of intention rather than of the story itself take Merlin to Britain at a period which, according to his years, would be early out of reason for his work, but he who was never a child was more already than a man. There is no need to recite under what circumstances, initial and successive, he became the high councillor and worker of many miracles to four kings, each after the other: Vortigern, Pendragon, Uther Pendragon and Arthur. What remains to be said of his history will best fall under the considerations which now follow.
It is perhaps the Merlin cycle which offers the most curious among what I have termed the Lesser Implicits of the Graal literature. I must put them at a certain length because of their apparent importance, and will say in the first place that on Robert de Borron's part, as on that of certain other and unknown writers, there were two tangible purposes in full view: (1) To connect Merlin with all that Graal Mystery which was antecedent to the ascribed times of the prophet; (2) to identify his function with the termination of the Graal marvels under the pretext of times of enchantment or times adventurous. We are drawn through far tracts of speculation in seeking to understand what sub-surface disposition of mind could have actuated these purposes, but at the moment we are concerned in ascertaining how they are carried out in the story.
There was a hermit named Blaise, to whom the mother of Merlin had recourse in her unexpected difficulties, who had been also her spiritual adviser previously. The
text says that this hermit was an exceeding good clerk and subtle, for which reason Merlin prayed that he would become his recorder-in-chief, not only of all his deeds, but of things heard and seen which he might well think that no creature could express. A consent was obtained only after the holy man had conjured the querent in the Name of the Divine Trinity that he should deceive him in nowise; but Merlin answered that the records would rather keep him from sin than dispose thereto. It is in this way that Blaise is one of its characters even from the beginning of the romance, but his chronicle itself began long prior to the birth of Merlin, for at the instance of him who was to prove himself a prophet in Britain, he wrote first of the great love between Christ and Joseph of Arimathæa, of the lineage of Joseph, the names of those who were to be the guardians of the Graal, of Alain and his companions and whither they journeyed, of the departure of Peter westward, of the transmission of the Holy Vessel from Joseph to Brons, and of the death of Joseph. The history of these things was to be joined with that of Merlin, and the two recitals were to form a single book, complete in respect of everything, save only the Secret Words revealed to Joseph by Christ, whereof Merlin could say nothing--the reason of which is to be inferred from the Quest-matter of the Lesser Chronicles, namely, that he had not received them.
In accordance with the general trend of the earlier history and of the personages concerned therein, Merlin announced his intention to go west--that is, apparently out of Brittany into the land of Vortigern, or Greater Britain, and Blaise was also to follow, betaking himself to Northumbria, where it is said that the guardians of the Graal were then dwelling, though they are not specified by name. The first recompense of Blaise in this life was to be united with these Wardens, but thereafter it was to be joie perdurable. The Graal is the talisman of the whole story, and hereof is the repose of the Graal--that
they who have achieved the search shall have rest in the term thereof. And the book made by Blaise was to be called while the world endured the Book of the Seynt Graal. In this manner did Merlin, though he was not in any sense a custodian of the Hallows, make a certain claim upon them in the dispensation of their graces and rewards. It was not, in the symbolical sense, of an idle I nature, not the artifice of an impostor; rather it was of set purpose and as if the external sign of some secret warrant, in virtue of which the highest branch of the Graal history is connected indissolubly with Merlin. He laid the scheme, and the Hallows conformed thereto, the end being the termination of those dubious times, the dereliction of which we have heard of so often and can as yet understand so little.
Of such is the Graal in the Early History of Merlin. But this is also the first romance which, in the chronological succession of texts, apart from priority in time of literary production, introduces the Third Table and the mystery of the Siege Perilous. It may be held to constitute another side of its particular claim concerning the British prophet. Those who have followed so far the history of the Second Table will perhaps have recalled already that a vacant seat was left of old at the Passover for the unexpected guest, and it is still left by the Jews. There is also that custom, beautiful and piteous, of leaving a vacant seat for the Angel of Peace. I do not know what memories of this kind were present to the mind of De Borron when he borrowed from those who had preceded him the idea of the Round Table and attributed its foundation to Uther Pendragon, not to King Arthur, Merlin, however, being in either case the instigator of its institution. With his reflex of the spirit of sanctity, as conceived by the British prophet, the knightly table was something more than a substitute, and assuredly, in some later aspects, it reflected on earth that I which belongs to heaven.
In the course of his proposal, Merlin told Uther
[paragraph continues] Pendragon the story of Joseph of Arimathæa, and how in the desert places, the sowing of which had become void through the sin of some who went forth, the Second Table had been instituted to separate the good from the evil. The Third was to be established by Uther in the Name of the Trinity, and it was to be set up at Cardoil in Wales for a certain Feast of Pentecost--that is to say, of the Holy Spirit. As there was a place that was void at the Table of Joseph so there was to be one now, which should not be filled in the days of Uther Pendragon, but of the king who was to come after him. The knight who would then fill it was not as yet born, which is colourable enough as a pretence in respect of the Perceval who was to follow as questing knight according to the Lesser Chronicles. But the codices have been edited in variant interests and the English rendering, represented by an unique text and drawing from what source I know not, adds words as follows which could apply only to Galahad: "Ne he that shall hym engendere shall not know that he shall hym engendere." On the other hand, the Huth Merlin says that he will be engendered by him who ought so to engender him, but as yet he has not taken a wife, nor does he know that he ought to engender him--a passage which, after much circumlocution, comes to nothing. The text suggests otherwise that before the predestined hero takes the void seat he must accomplish the adventures of the Graal, which is contrary to all the texts, historical and otherwise. The Vulgate Merlin says in effect that he who fills the one will fulfil the other. And the English version: "And he that shall a-complysshe that sete must also complysshe the voyde place at the table that Joseph made." This seems to create on the surface an almost insoluble difficulty, but the meaning is probably that in the secret and holy place where the Graal abides, the service of the Second Table is held still, as it was in the days of Joseph, that he who enters into the House shall take the seat reserved for him, and that the Table shall be in fine complete.
Of such was the second mission of the prophet Merlin; but the third was the conception of Arthur and the conduct of all those events which should lead to his high coronation as King of Britain. I need not reproduce in this place the familiar story of Ygerne, the faithful wife of the Duke of Tintagel, and of the sorcery by which she received Uther Pendragon in the likeness of her husband and so brought forth the great king who was to come. The circumstances of the imbedded sword which led to his ultimate recognition, though he had been reared as the reputed son of a simple knight, are or ought to be familiar. It was to achieve his prophetic purpose that Merlin assisted Uther over those things which led up to the conception of Arthur, since the latter was to consummate the great intent of the Round Table which was begun by his father. The conception was one of a triad--of Merlin, of Arthur, of Galahad--which all took place under false pretences. Merlin was conscious that he had sinned in respect of this business, and apparently he sought to make amends by assisting the subsequent marriage between Uther and Ygerne and by his arrangements in respect of the charge of Arthur in childhood.
It should be noted in fine (a) that no Keeper of the Graal is mentioned in the Early History of Merlin, though the locality of its abode is indicated; (b) that there is only a covert reference to Moses; (e) that certain sources are obvious for certain texts, but there are important respects in which all the early romances seem echoes from far away of a book that had never been seen by their writers, though it had been heard of by a general report; and (d) that this statement is intended to override all their reference, actual or imaginary, to mysterious sources of information which are not--if they were ever--extant.