The Robert de Boron Cycle

An Outline of the Cycle’s Contents

The Robert Cycle, or Robert de Boron’s Cycle, is also known as La Grant Estoire dou Graal (The Grand History of the Grail), or Roman du Graal (Romance of the Grail), or Livre du Graal (Book of the Grail), or Le Petit Cycle du Graal (The Lesser Cycle of the Grail), as variously represented by Sian Echard, Robert Rouse, and Norris J Lacy.  Robert de Boron wrote in Old French during the late 12th or early 13th Century AD.  The Robert Cycle is comprised of four texts. The first is Joseph d’Arimath(i)e (Joseph of Arimathea), or the Metrical Joseph, or (Le Roman de l’)Estoire dou Graal ((Li Romanz de l’)Estoire dou Graal) ((The Romance of the) History of the Grail), or Le Petit Saint Graal (The Lesser Holy Grail); written late 12th/early 13th Century AD (1190/1191/1202/1210).  The second text is Merlin, written AD 1191/1195/1202/1210.  Next is Didot(-)Perceval, or Romance of Perceval in Prose from 1220/1230.  Fourthly, there is Mort Artu (Death of Arthur), written AD 1208/1209.

Only Joseph d’Arimathie and Merlin are certainly written (as eight-syllable verse) by the French knight-poet Robert de Boron.  Didot Perceval and Mort Artu, usually found attached to the two certain works of Robert, are attributed to him because they are similar in style and content to Joseph d’Arimathie and Merlin.  In an alternate theory postulated by Linda Gowans against the widely accepted conventional scholarship of Merlin, the prose version is the original one and the poem is unfinished because the author simply gave up.  Gowans doubted Robert’s authorship of either text (prose or poem), attributing only Joseph d’Arimathie to him.  In all of Robert’s works, Merlin’s role in the Arthurian legend becomes much greater than in previous texts, especially (according to Sian Echard and Robert Rouse) when compared to only one insignificant appearance among the five Arthurian works of Chrétien de Troyes.  Robert de Boron’s Cycle tells the story of the Arthurian myth as completely rewritten for the Holy Grail.  Brought from the Middle East to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea’s followers, the Grail is at length found by Sir Percival as predicted by one of the prophecies in Merlin.

 Joseph d’Arimathie

Robert de Boron merged the Grail myth with Christian concepts to produce a history of the Grail.  According to Robert, Joseph of Arimathea used the Last Supper vessel (the Grail) to catch the final drops of blood from Christ’s body as he hung on the cross.  Joseph’s family brought the Grail to the valleys of Avaron (vaus d’Avaron) in the west.  Later writers changed Avaron to Avalon and identified it with Glastonbury, where the Grail was guarded until the ascent of King Arthur and the arrival of Sir Percival.  According to Peter Goodrich and Norris J Lacy, Robert also introduced a “Rich Fisher” variation on the Fisher King and is also credited with introducing Merlin as born of a virgin and a devil.  He is destined to be a redeemed “Antichrist”.  Carol Dover says that Robert de Boron’s works have laid a foundation for, and were eventually incorporated in a reworked form into, the Vulgate Cycle.  Robert’s works were also included in what would eventually become known as the Post-Vulgate Cycle.  That Cycle was formerly known as the “pseudo-Robert de Boron Cycle” due to the Huth Merlin manuscript’s author’s attribution of the entire work to Robert.

Robert de Boron, expanding on stories from the Acts of Pilate (also known as the Gospel of Nicodemus), created the legend that Joseph was given the responsibility of keeping the Holy Grail safe.  In de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie, Joseph is imprisoned much as in the Acts, but it is the Grail that sustains him during his captivity.  Though Joseph himself does not journey to Britain, upon this release from captivity he founds a company of followers who do take the Grail to Britain.  Subsequent romances, such as Perlesvaus, present Joseph making the journey to Britain, bringing the relics with him.  The actual origin of the association between Joseph and Britain is unclear.  In the Vulgate (Lancelot-Grail) Cycle, a vast Arthurian composition that took much from Robert, it is not Joseph but his son Josephus who is considered the primary holy man of Britain.

Merlin

The Robert de Boron Cycle image Merlin survives only in fragments and in later versions rendered in prose since, which originally happened c AD 1210 and possibly was accomplished by Robert de Boron himself.  According to John Conlee, Robert reworked Geoffrey of Monmouth’s material about the fabled Merlin.  This reworking of the story tells of the origin and early life of Merlin, his eventual role in the birth of Arthur, and how Arthur rose to become the King of Britain.  According to Giles Morgan, Merlin emphasises Merlin’s power to prophesy as well as his connection to the Holy Grail.  Neil Cartlidge tells us that Merlin introduced several new motifs that later became popular in mediæval and later Arthuriana, also (according to Sian Echard and Robert Rouse) ensuring the enduring position of Merlin as a significant character in the tale of King Arthur.  Echard and Rouse go on to say that the story of Merlin is related to Robert’s two other poems that also feature Merlin as an integral character.  According to John Conlee, Merlin’s mediæval prose retelling and its continuations, collectively known as the Prose Merlin, were later incorporated directly into the Vulgate and the Post-Vulgate Cycles of French chivalric romances during the early 13th Century AD.

According to Sian Echard, Robert Rouse, and Norris J Lacy, Robert de Boron seems to have had access to Wace’s Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman adaptation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae.  Only 504 lines of Merlin in its original poem form have survived to this day, but (as Norris J Lacy tells us) its contents are known from the prose version.  The first part of Merlin introduces the character of Blaise, a cleric and clerk who is pictured as writing down Merlin’s deeds, explaining how they came to be known and preserved.  William W Kibler tells us that the text claims it is only a translation of a Latin book written by a Blaise as dictated to him by Merlin.  The following is a list of the sections of the text of the mid-15th-Century AD English translation of the prose version of Merlin that represents the content of the poem Merlin: The Birth of Merlin; Vortiger’s Tower; Vortiger’s Demise, The Battle of Salisbury, and The Death of Pendragon; Uther and Ygerne; and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone.

The poem Merlin begins with an assembly of demons scheming to produce the future Merlin as their functionary on Earth to unmake the work of Christ.  Their plan is thwarted and Merlin’s mother names the child Merlin after her father.  The story continues with that of the usurper King Vortiger (Vortigern) and his tower.  This features the seven-year-old Merlin with astonishing revelatory powers.  After Vortiger’s death, which Merlin also foretold, he aids the new king Pendragon and his brother Uter (Uther Pendragon, soon to be the king as Uterpendragon, after the death of the original Pendragon at Salisbury) in their bloodthirsty war against “Saxon” invaders.  Merlin later erects Stonehenge as a burial place for the fallen Britons and in time inspiring the founding of the Round Table.

According to Carolyne Larrington, we next have the story of Uter’s war with the Duke of Tintagel (Gorlois in the overall Arthurian tradition) for the Duke’s wife Ygerne (Igraine).  Merlin’s magic, including instances of shape-shifting, enables Uter to sleep with Ygerne and conceive Arthur, who is destined to become the Emperor of Rome.  After Uter kills his challenger and forcefully marries Ygerne, the newborn infant Arthur is placed into the foster care of Antor (Ector).  Ygerne’s daughters from her previous marriage are wed to King Lot and King Ventres (Nentres).  Her illegitimate daughter Morgan is put in a nunnery and becomes identified as Morgan le Fay.  This is the first account of Morgan being Igraine’s daughter and acquiring magic in a convent.

John Conlee tells us that this poem, Merlin, ended with the “Sword in the Stone” story, in which Arthur proves he is worthy (by divine fate) to become the High King of Britain.  This is the first instance of that motif in Arthurian literature.  The “Sword in the Stone” has become iconic after being repeated almost verbatim in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.  Carol Dover claims that Merlin itself was remoulded into prose c AD 1210 as the Prose Merlin (or Merlin Proper) by unknown authors (possibly by a single author, perhaps Robert himself and then lengthened with an extended sequel sometimes known as the Suite du Roman de Merlin to become the early-13th-Century AD Estoire de Merlin (History of Merlin), or the Vulgate Merlin.  Dover goes on to say that Estoire de Merlin constitutes one of the volumes of the Vulgate (Lancelot-Grail) Cycle as a probable late addition to it.  According to Norris J Lacy, the later Post-Vulgate Cycle also begins with material drawn directly from Robert de Boron’s Merlin.

According to William W Kibler, the first of the sequels to Merlin that led to the Vulgate Estoire du Merlin is the Merlin Continuation also known as Vulgate Suite du Merlin, an ‘historical’ sequel about the various wars of Arthur and the role of Merlin in them, also focusing on Gawain as the third main character (says John Conlee).  Lacy tells us that the second sequel involved the later Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin, also known from its surviving original French parts as the Suite-Huth or Huth Merlin, a ‘romantic’ sequel (according to both Lacy and Dover) that includes elements of the Vulgate Lancelot.  The writer of the Huth Merlin manuscript, in fact, attributes the entire story of the Post-Vulgate Cycle to Robert de Boron.  The third sequel is an alternative version known as the Livre d’Artus (Book of Arthur), which too was written after the Vulgate Cycle was completed.  John Conlee claims that the main source of Malory for the first four books of Le Morte d’Arthur is the Post-Vulgate Suite.  According to Conlee, Lacy, and Zoë Enstone, the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin also served as the basis for the Merlin sections of Castilian Demanda del Sancto Grial and Galician-Portuguese Demanda do Santa Graal.  Lacy tells us that prior English translations and adaptations have included Henry Lovelich’s verse Merlin and the romance Arthour and Merlin, each based (according to Peter H Goodrich) on different manuscripts of the Vulgate Merlin.

Didot(-)Perceval and Mort Artu

The Robert de Boron Cycle image It was thought that Merlin was to be followed by Perceval.  The latter is either entirely lost or was never written.  Nevertheless, it is uncertainly associated with an anonymous romance called Didot Perceval (also known as Romance of Perceval in Prose), which contains elements from Chrétien de Troyes’ own unfinished Perceval and its Second Continuation.  It might be a reworked prose ‘translation’ of Robert’s poem or just an unofficial attempt to complete another text, appearing in only two of the many surviving manuscripts of the prose renditions of Merlin, one of which claims it was the work of Blaise as dictated by Merlin himself.  Named after the manuscript’s former owner, the Didot Perceval is supposedly a “prosification” of Robert de Boron’s sequel to Merlin.

In Arthurian legend, the Perilous Seat (Siege Perilous) is an empty Round Table seat reserved for the knight who would find the Holy Grail.  Originally, this motif about the Seat and the Grail belonged to Perceval, but the Vulgate (Lancelot-Grail) Cycle reassigned it to the new Cistercian-based hero, Galahad.  It appears in Robert de Boron’s Didot Perceval, where Perceval occupies that dangerous seat at Arthur’s court at Carduel.  According to many scholars, the motif of that harmful seat can be further traced to Welsh, Cornish, and Breton mythology.  Roger Sherman Loomis tells us that the Siege Perilous was a half-remembered version of a “Celtic” kingship ritual that has parallels in the Irish Lia Fáil.  Mort Artu (The Death of Arthur), effectively a further continuation, seems to have in turn served as a source for such later works as Perlesvaus, according to Rupert T Pickens.  Mort Artu is divided into three sections: The Conquest of France; the Campaign against the Romans; and Mordret’s Treason & the Death of King Arthur.

Conclusion

The Robert de Boron Cycle is much more influential than most people realise.  In all of Robert’s works, Merlin’s role in the Arthurian legend becomes greater than in previous texts.  Robert reworked Geoffrey of Monmouth’s material about the fabled Merlin by telling of the origin and early life of Merlin, his eventual role in the birth of Arthur, and how Arthur rose to become the King of Britain.  He tells the story of the Arthurian myth as completely centred around the Holy Grail.  Expanding on the Acts of Pilate, Robert created the legend that Joseph of Arimathea was given responsibility for the Holy Grail’s safety.  Merlin’s power to prophesy as well as his connection to the Holy Grail is also emphasised.   Robert introduces a “Rich Fisher” variation on the Fisher King and is also credited with introducing Merlin as the offspring of a virgin and a devil.  Robert de Boron’s works (including Merlin’s mediæval prose retelling and continuations) laid a foundation for and were incorporated into, both the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles.  Robert gives the first account of Morgan le Fay being Igraine’s daughter and acquiring magic in a convent.  He also presents the first occurrence of the “Sword in the Stone” motif, which has since become iconic.  Robert de Boron’s works represent a turning-point in the development of Arthuriana and its Literature.

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