Book Review

Geoffrey of Monmouth's Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth's Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Mark Walker is the chief promoter of British Neo-Latin studies. He is founder-editor of the online journal VATES, a roughly bi-annual compendium of original Latin poetry, translations from other languages, and essays, thus answering the TLS's recent enquiry as to whether anyone still writes in the language of Virgil and Horace.

Alongside this, Walker teaches his own bespoke Latin for Everyday Life course through the Buckinghamshire Adult Education programme, an activity that has engendered the volumes Annus Horribilis: Latin for Everyday Life and Annus Mirabilis: More Latin for Everyday Life – annus horribilis is of course the one bit of Latin associated with the Queen. There followed the complementary Britannica Latina: 2000 Years of British Latin, which I reviewed for RSB, also Amida: A Novel, which I have not seen.

Now, Walker is back, offering the first English verse translation of the Vita Merlini, a 1087-line Latin hexameter poem (surviving in a single thirteenth century manuscript) usually attributed to Geoffrey of Monmouth, postluding the earlier Prophecies of Merlin in book 7 of his History of the Kings of Britain, a work that amongst other characters gives us the first version of King Leir (sic) and his three daughters.

It should be said, since Walker does not, that not everyone accepts Geoffrey's authorship; see J.S.P. Tatlock, Speculum 18 (1943), pp. 265-287, a fundamental study of the poem not in Walker's bibliography, to which we may amusedly subjoin R.J. Stewart's Merlin books (details online) linking him with current prophecies of doom for 2012 based on the Mayan calendar, coming on the heels of the recent failed apocalypse of American Pastor Harold Camping.

Most authorities do in fact believe Geoffrey to be the author, an opinion I share. The poem establishes 'Merlin' as the orthodox name, transmuted from the earlier Welsh 'Myrddin' – from 'Taff' to 'Toff'. Here, though, he is not our familar Arthurian wizard, nor (some affinities with Hagrid apart) a mediaeval Harry Potter. This Merlin is depressive, at times mad, craving the hermit life, fluctuating between woods and court, a skilled astronomer but reluctant wonderworker. Walker sees him as exemplifying the dictum of Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic."

The poem ranges widely from battle scenes to erotic intrigues to discourses on strange phenomena involving birds, fish and islands, springs and lakes. These latter (chapters 8, 10, 11 in Walker's divisions) will most interest readers of Fortean Times and cognate magazines. Walker here finds a combination of autopsy (equating Merlin and author) and such literary sources as Isidore of Seville, currently touted as patron saint of the Internet. One may add classical possibilities, notably the elder Pliny's Natural History.

Speaking of which, it is a pity that Walker did not include the Latin text (John Jay Parry's 1925 bilingual edition is available online). Not perhaps his decision – publisher's stinginess is always a doleful possibility. Provision of this would have facilitated expanded discussion of the poem's classical allusions and sometime clever variations. Ovidiain influences are observed, Virgilian and others not so. One example: the opening line's fatidici vatis rings a gender change on Virgil, Aeneid 8. 340, vatis fatidicae.

The other thing to which Walker might have devoted some time is the question of how seriously should we take a poem which consistently insists on its own jocular nature? The first two lines declare Fatidici vatis rabiem musamque iocosam/Merlini cantare paro, rendered by Walker "Merlin, his madness, the mischievous muse of the poet prophetic/I am preparing to sing." The matter is discussed at length in Tatlock's aforementioned article, with this conclusion: "Notably there is a constant recurrence of smiles and laughter, and it abounds in grotesque ironical incidents. Merlin's frequent melancholy is merely a part of his transitory insanity, and the reader is kept in a genial frame of mind. The poet intends a very different work from the serious-seeming and ambitious Historia. We may have here something like a 'command performance, not a spontaneous generation of Geoffrey's own brain. At all events, the phrase 'musamque iocosam' is the most significant thing in the poem for understanding it."

Notwithstanding these reservation's, Walker's readable English hexameter version (no mean feat, technically) along with his erudite, frequently witty historical-literary commentary (replete with usefully far-ranging footnotes) make a very valuable contribution to our understanding of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his world.

-- Reviewed by Barry Baldwin on 08/07/2011

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1445601788
ISBN-13: 9781445601786
Publisher: Amberley Publishing
Publication Date: 06/04/2011
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 192

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