- Madness and Prophecy in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini
While Geoffrey of Monmouth’s De gestis Britanniae (DGB)1 has enjoyed great popularity among readers and scholars alike, his later poem, the Vita Merlini (VM) (c. 1148–1155), is less well-known. Dismissed at times as a literary exercise for Geoffrey’s friends or a mere reworking of “Celtic” material that Geoffrey discovered after writing the DGB,2 the poem is extant in complete form in only one manuscript,3 and it has been the focus of relatively few pieces of scholarship. The poem’s comparative unpopularity may be due to its unwieldiness, as the narrative is rife with allusions and instances of prophecy, which makes following the story somewhat difficult. Prophecy in the VM is an expansive category: Merlin makes prophecies that range from political to astrological to those regarding the deaths of various individuals.4 Geoffrey does not limit Merlin’s prophecies to the future alone; Merlin demonstrates uncanny knowledge of past and present events as well, which Geoffrey presents as equally wondrous as his foreknowledge.
The text’s portrayal of prophecy coheres around what I term “the bridegroom episode” and its frame episodes (lines 215–540). In the bridegroom episode, Merlin breaks out of his role as observer and imparter of knowledge and takes control of the destiny of his wife and her bridegroom (and thus, by extension, the kingdom) by murdering the bridegroom. The narrative frames this act as one that is intentional rather than borne out of pure madness, imbuing Merlin with a measure of both agency and danger. The poem attempts to mitigate the murder and its implications by using the episodes on either side of the bridegroom episode—what I call the framing episodes—of Merlin leveraging his knowledge for his freedom to attempt to reassert the normal order of prophetic utterance. Despite the poem’s efforts, the framing episodes do not entirely quell the disquiet of the bridegroom episode. Scholars have read the bridegroom episode as emblematic of Merlin’s loss of feeling or as Geoffrey creating a puzzle of irony for his learned friends, I [End Page 79] argue that the bridegroom episode is more than simply an odd or entertaining incident. Rather, the bridegroom episode complicates the model of mad prophecy at work in the poem by presenting a complex interweaving of madness, agency, and extra-human knowledge that warrants further attention.
Prophecy and Madness in the Vita Merlini
Before going further, it is necessary to briefly summarize the events of the poem in order to understand better how the bridegroom episode operates. Summarizing the poem is difficult because the Vita Merlini draws on a variety of textual traditions, resulting in a layered and episodic narrative.5 The poem begins by describing Merlin as a king and a prophet in Wales. In the wake of a war, Merlin goes mad with grief at his compatriots’ deaths. He flees to the woods, experiences a temporary cure for his madness, and returns to court. This is when the bridegroom episode and its framing episodes occur: restrained at court, Merlin laughs at the sight of a leaf caught in the queen’s hair and leverages his explanation for his freedom to the woods. Later, Merlin interprets the stars to see that his wife is preparing to remarry; he brings a herd of wild animals as a gift to the wedding but ends up killing the bridegroom-to-be and returning to the woods. He is again captured and held at court until he once again exchanges an explanation for his laughter for his freedom to the woods. Merlin’s sister builds him a tower in the woods, where he makes a series of prophecies. His friend Telegesinus (Taliesin, of early Welsh fame) visits, and he and Merlin talk about the natural world and histories of kings. As they wrap up their discussion, they are told a magical healing spring has appeared. Merlin drinks of it and is cured of his madness and his prophetic ability. He decides not to return to his kingship but rather to live in the woods in a pseudo-eremitic community with Taliesin, a newfound friend...