El Baladro del Sabio Merlin, as published by Juan de Burgos in 1498, represents for modern audiences an extension of the Northern European-dominated Arthurian legend into the Mediterranean region. The work is Juan de Burgos's redaction of an earlier translation of the post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin by one Brother Juan Vivas. Vivas's translation lives in other redactions as well; the Baladro is closely related to the 1535 Seville publication of the Demanda del Sancto Grial, which contains far more material than does the Baladro, Vivas having translated as much of the Post-Vulgate Cycle as he could find.

It is entirely too easy to fall into the trap of viewing the Baladro and its peers as lazy, meaningless calques of the far richer French Arthurian tradition. Maria Lida de Malkiel's well-known essay on Spanish Arthurian literature manifests such an attitude: "Measured by the standards of excellence attained by its models and counterparts in French, English, German, Dutch, and Italian, the Arthurian literature of the Spanish Peninsula is unoriginal and of scant literary value."[1] Others read them not for themselves but for what they reveal about the fragmentary and elusive Post-Vulgate Cycle, as does Aileen MacDonald in her survey of thirteenth-century French literature on Merlin.[2] These are sad and colorless views of the matter; they deny utterly the value and significance of translation as literary activity, relegate an entire nation of eager readers and writers to dusty insignificance, and sweep under the carpet the very real emendations, interpretations, additions, and subtractions made by Juan de Burgos and his contemporaries. To avoid similar damaging attitudes, this introduction will give no more than the briefest of introductions to Merlin legendry, and will actively shy away from comparing Juan's book with other Arthurian works, whether preceding or post-dating it. Significant intertextuality with regard to sources not specifically Arthurian will be noted, however. If the Baladro is to be viewed as those Spaniards who read it viewed it, it must be studied as an independent entity, not a hobbled paraphrase leaning on earlier and supposedly better works.

The Legend of Merlin

Merlin's origins, to use the term loosely, lie in Wales; his name is a Latinization of the Welsh "Myrddin," which is an element in the Welsh place-name "Caermarthen," a place long associated with the diviner. In certain Welsh poems dating from the twelfth century (although the subject material is judged to be several centuries older), Myrddin is portrayed as a Scottish lord; in one, he lives as a wild man for fifty years after the death of his lord in war, whereas another shows him uttering prophecies to his sister. Other possible Celtic sources include the twelfth-century Scottish Life of Saint Kentigern, in which the saint meets a wild man of the woods who asks him for the sacrament because he knows that in a short time he will die a triple death. (This triple death motif is echoed even in the Baladro, although its victim is not Merlin.) At some point, then, the Scottish and Welsh tales became conflated.

Another prototype of the character of Merlin appears first as the Roman general Ambrosius, described by the sixth-century historian and propagandist Gildas. Three centuries later, the historian Nennius transforms this general into a young diviner who serves the kings of Britain. King Vortigern, the first of those to listen to "Ambrosius," has fallen out with the Saxons and tries to build a tower on Mount Snowdon for defense; the tower crumbles and falls three times. Vortigern goes for advice to a group of wizards, who tell him to seek out "a boy without a father," kill him, and sprinkle his blood over the foundations of the tower. Vortigern sends messengers to find this child; one of them sees two boys quarreling and hears one tell the other he would come to no good because he had no father. The messenger drags the boy and his mother to Vortigern, and the boy's mother swears she does not know who the father of her son was. Ambrosius himself, however, tells Vortigern that he is the son of a Roman consul, and then proceeds to solve the problem of the tower by indicating that two worms, one white and one scarlet, have been impeding the construction of the tower.

Without a doubt, the watershed figure in Merlin legendry is Geoffrey of Monmouth, because of his treatment of the character in both the Historia Regum Britanniae and the Vita Merlini. The first of these works treats Merlin in passing, but what is added is extremely significant. Vortigern, according to Geoffrey, has the same problems as Nennius's Vortigern and is given the same advice. The messenger again finds two boys quarreling, but this time one of their names is Merlin. Later, Geoffrey says that Merlin "was also called Ambrosius," a clear tip of the hat to Nennius. The character of Merlin's mother receives some embellishment; she is the daughter of the king of Demetia (a small kingdom in South Wales) and she lives in St. Peter's Church with a community of nuns, although she herself is not explicitly called a nun.

The summoned princess tells Vortigern a strange and interesting tale, that an invisible man came to her in her room and talked to her, eventually making love to her and getting her pregnant. The incredulous Vortigern calls one Maugantius, never mentioned before or since in the work, who says that her story is credible; creatures called demons do exist in "the books written by our sages and in many historical narratives" and take some pleasure in debauching young women. Maugantius cites the De deo Socratis of the second-century Roman writer Apuleius as support for his views on demons. Apuleius, working from Platonic conceptions, defines demons in this short treatise as "divine powers of a middle nature... between the highest ether and the earth below, through whom our aspirations and our deserts are conveyed to the Gods." Apuleius goes on to claim that all actions of prophecy or magic are facilitated by these demons, as they carry messages back and forth between humanity and the gods. These demons are not necessarily evil, although they are subject to the same passions and emotions as human beings; Merlin, then, need not be designated evil and ungodly by his non-human heritage. Merlin, moreover, ought to be believed when he makes prophecies, for half of his heritage is from the race of supernatural beings which carries prophecies from the gods to earth.

Another crucial addition from Geoffrey concerns the conception of Arthur. The well-known story of Merlin's complicity in the seduction of Igerna by Uther has its origin here. Merlin also ensures that Arthur, the product of Uther's desire for Igerna, mounts the throne after Uther's death. [3]

The later Vita Merlini departs completely from this conception of Merlin; Geoffrey evidently became acquainted with the Scottish Myrddin legends after the composition of the Historia. In this work, Merlin is a victim of cuckoldry at the hands of his wife Ganieda, and goes mad because of losing her. The Merlins of the Historia and the Vita are so at variance that the later author Giraldus Cambrensis proposed that there were in fact two Merlins: Merlin Ambrosius of the Historia, and Merlin Silvestris of the Vita. The Vita had rather less influence on later development of the Merlin legend than did the Historia, due to the wider distribution and vast popularity of the latter.

The French romance writer Robert de Boron, who lived and wrote in the beginning of the thirteenth century, next adapted the story of Merlin into a narrative poem called Merlin. Very little of this poem survives; the work was redacted into prose and survives to the present day in its prose form. This work introduces a strong Christian theological element into the legend, replacing Geoffrey's morally ambivalent demons with devils, the greatest enemies of Christian man. These devils create Merlin in a virgin girl in order to avenge their defeat by Christ during the Harrowing of Hell through the creation of an Anti-Christ who will tempt men into sin just as Christ saved them; this Christ/Anti-Christ dualism haunts Merlin in all his later medieval incarnations. Also, Robert emphasizes Merlin's role as kingmaker, both for Arthur and his father Uter, to an extent far surpassing his predecessors. Robert ends somewhat abruptly, however, with Arthur's coronation after the miracle of the sword in the stone, before the birthright of the boy king has been established; he only states that Arthur becomes king and holds his land in peace.

The so-called "Vulgate Cycle" consists of a large number of Arthurian works thought to have been written between 1215 and 1230. They are collected in five works: the Estoire, which is the early history of the Grail, the Merlin, which is Robert's story with a continuation, the Lancelot, the Queste del Saint Graal and the Mort Artu. The continuation of the Merlin deals with the loose ends left in Robert's work; although the Church is solidly behind Arthur when Robert leaves off, the barons have yet to be convinced. Merlin takes an active and surprisingly military role in the conquest of the rebel barons, as well as in the wars with the Saxons, providing strategems and even leading troops into battle. Eventually, the Vulgate Continuation narrates the events leading to Merlin's death: his disastrous affair with Viviane in which the girl learns his magic in order to betray him. [4]

The Vulgate Continuation, however, is not the only continuation of Robert's work. The Huth Continuation, dating from the thirteenth century, differs considerably from the Vulgate, and is the kernel of the nebulous Post-Vulgate Cycle, which only exists in fragments. Robert's prose Merlin and the Huth Continuation together comprise the Suite du Merlin. This Continuation takes a rather less chivalric and military view of Merlin, preferring to give him a loftier (and, perhaps, more consistent with earlier authors) role as omniscient adviser and prophet to King Arthur. It is this Continuation which, originally translated by Brother Juan Vivas, forms the text redacted into the Baladro del Sabio Merlin.

Juan de Burgos and the Baladro

About the publisher Juan de Burgos himself nothing is known except what he himself placed in the colophons to his publications. His first published book dates to 1489; in 1499 or 1500 he moved his press to Valladolid, returning to Burgos in 1502. In 1503, a book clearly from Juan's press bears the name "Andres de Burgos" in the colophon. This Andres evidently took over Juan's press, and it is not unlikely that he was Juan's son; in any case, nothing more is attributed to Juan. Juan's output was largely chivalric and religious, betraying a keen interest in the romance genre; the output of other printers of the time tended to be far more pedagogical in scope.

The Baladro itself provides a few more clues. Juan de Burgos must have had a significant amount of education; that this education was probably clerical may be inferred from his awareness of and concern for matters of theology as they relate to the Merlin legend. This interest is particularly evident in the early parts of the story; Juan adds prayer to the Virgin Mary as part of the safeguard Blaise gives Merlin's mother, evidently quite aware of the correspondences between the two women, and steps out of strict objectivity long enough to tackle the thorny theological question of whether demons have the power to impregnate women:

Some will wish to say that no such power was ever given to a devil: that this devil went to a house where a man slept with his wife, and took from him spermatic material, and took it to the damsel at once and put it in the generative place, and that he incited the damsel, sleeping, to that carnal act, and thus was Merlin engendered.

Juan then says that he does not believe this for an instant. He quotes two authorities, both churchmen, who he says agree with him that Merlin was definitely fathered by a devil. One of these authorities is Vincent of Beauvais, who wrote an ambitious encyclopedia entitled the Speculum Majus in the thirteenth century; the other is Antoninus Pius, archbishop of Florence from 1446 to his death in 1459. The Antoninus Pius citation, from his Summa Theologica, appears to have been garbled; the chapter cited has no mention of Merlin at all. Juan's knowledge of the work, though, indicates that he had access at one time or another to a significant library with quite recent works in it. The Vincent citation Juan uses is actually straight from Geoffrey of Monmouth, whom Juan evidently did not know firsthand; both this second-hand citation and the sadly incoherent state of the prophecies Geoffrey of Monmouth put in Merlin's mouth, as found in the Baladro's ninth chapter, indicate that.

Juan articulates his attitude toward the Baladro in the prologues which are of his own composition. The frame for the Baladro concerns a king who has turned Christian because of the miraculous shield of Joseph of Arimathea -- right away, a tie to the Grail story -- and whose people have imprisoned him for his apostasy. A chamberlain who is loyal to the imprisoned king sends him the Baladro "as a sweet, for the enjoyment of your occupation and knightly condition, compared with those others from the Catholic doctrines and the other sciences that your clear wit has seen." Aileen MacDonald, in her discussion of the Baladro, grants the chamberlain rather too much confidence in the importance of his offering: "He seems to be saying that although the book of Merlin is not strictly speaking on conventionally religious subjects, it has enough in it that is good and worthwhile to supplement the reading material of his good Catholic monarch." [5] On the contrary, the chamberlain treats the Baladro as a bit of fluff, a mere pastime when compared to more edifying works. Of course, this humility on the part of the Baladro's fictitious translator is in one sense the commonplace bowing and scraping of most medieval authors, early and late. However, there is a constant sense that the Baladro, despite the work it cost the chamberlain and his evident desire to please his lord, is not to be read as closely or as dutifully as a religious tract or even a better romance; it is a dessert work, a cake baked of fancy and offered in love, not duty. The clearness with which it is set apart from religious and loftier chivalric works is an indication of its author's attitude toward it.

Another interesting sidelight is the singularly Spanish tone of the prologues. The battles in Britain, according to Juan, occur because "some were Moors, and some idolaters, and some Christian," a rather strange state of affairs for Britain, but quite commonplace for Spain. The gingerly treatment of King Ebalato's conversion to Christianity displays a sensitivity to the issue of religious conversion, which was a phenomenally important issue in 1498, only six years after the expulsion of the Moors and Jews from Spain. This may conceivably indicate some "nuevo cristiano" blood in Juan's lineage -- that is, an ancestry containing Arabs and Jews who converted to Christianity -- or it may simply betray a sneaking sympathy for the converted, whose lives were rarely easy.

The Baladro Itself: Structure, Motifs, and Themes

The structure of the Baladro proper is at the same time open and closed, due to the interaction between the existence of a wealth of Arthurian material and the desire to present a relatively unified tale. There is a concerted awareness in the work that it is part of a larger history; the constant reference to a "Book of the Holy Grail" as a source for tales not dealt with completely in the Baladro clearly exhibits that knowledge. An assumption might be made that the constant redirection of readers stems from a lazy desire not to have to deal with the whole story; this is far from the truth. The references to outside works provide an important benefit to the Baladro, allowing it to concentrate on the life of Merlin. At first glance, much is left unresolved at the story's end. The famous combat between Arthur and Acalon has not occurred, and Morgaina has not gotten her comeuppance from her angry brother for her complicity in that affair. In fact, though, this episode must be left out, for the simple reason that by the Baladro's logic Merlin cannot possibly know about it. The Arthur-Acalon combat will be resolved by Niviana, using magic she learned from Merlin; because of God's decree that Merlin may know nothing about his own death, he cannot know that Niviana is to leave him behind and journey elsewhere. Another plot thread left hanging in this manner concerns Balin and the Dolorous Stroke; this thread drops out because once Balin has left court, Merlin has no further part in his adventures. (The Baladro and the Post-Vulgate Cycle do not contain the episode, present in Malory, in which Merlin writes Balin and Balan's names on their shared tomb.) Balin's further adventures belong to the story of the Holy Grail, far more than to Merlin. Even Bandemagus's adventures after his terrifying experience at Merlin's tomb are dealt with only briefly, and the role of the young knight in the story is clearly that of messenger, to bring the news of Merlin's death to court so that it may be preserved for posterity. The Baladro places the reader in the same situation as Merlin, denying complete resolution of plot threads to leave a sense of incompleteness with regard to the English prophet's life.

The Baladro also unifies itself by the often-used plot device of stories-within-a-story. Merlin frequently narrates stories at the request of other characters, or causes wonderment in those around him by laughing at someone he sees, when he knows more about the scene before him than those with whom he is traveling. Without exception, these vignettes parallel and lend insight into main plot threads. As Merlin travels toward Verenguer's court to establish his legitimacy as a prophet despite his illegitimacy of birth, he passes by the funeral of a child and laughs because the man who is mourning the child is not its father, and the priest who is intoning the service is; this illegitimacy motif is echoed in Merlin's clever liberation of his mother from death through his proof that the judge's mother is even guiltier than she. The man who seeks to mend his shoes to go to Rome, not suspecting that death will cut short his endeavor, is a clear parallel to Verenguer, who goes to great lengths to build a defense tower which will avail him nothing. Much later, Merlin's explication of Arthur's frightening vision of the Ill-Formed Beast relates its begetting to the problem of the incest which Arthur has just committed with his sister Margause, and indirectly compares the Beast itself to Mordred. The story of Diana's Lake foreshadows Merlin's own betrayal by Niviana. And at the last, Merlin himself ties his final story, about the bodies of the lovers in the lovely cave where he himself will be buried forever, into the main action: "Certes, madame, as these left the world for their love, so I left it for your love, since you well know that I was lord of Great and Little Britain, and of King Arthur and all his deeds, and the honor done to me by all peoples; and they believed whatever I said, and guided themselves by my counsel, and all this I left for love of you."

The work also deals in a rather confused and confusing fashion with the question of multiple authorship of the Arthurian saga. The direct source for the information contained in the Baladro, according to the work itself, is the book which Merlin commissions Blaise to write: "So Merlin... told Blaise all these things... and many other things which you will see in his books." This book, however, is by no means the only one mentioned. Uter and Padragon tell Merlin "that they would put what he said in writing," and they do so, rather to the chagrin of Blaise, who seemingly enjoys being Merlin's confidant and chronicler. We are told, however, that the brothers "will put nothing in writing save what they understand, and until it occurs they will not write about it." This may or may not be the same book mentioned two lines later as "the great book of his [Merlin's] prophecies." Yet another book is commisioned by King Arthur himself. Which of these books is the "history" or "story" mentioned whenever an abrupt scene change is made is undeterminable, although it is frequently mentioned that through Blaise's work the present age knows of the doings of Arthur; it appears that the "history" is felt to be a more immediate source than the long-ago writings of Blaise and the kings' scribes. At times, even, "history" is used to refer to the Baladro itself, in a rather meta-literary (or meta-historical) fashion. This multitude of possible sources may well reflect a consciousness of the many variants of Arthurian legendry, and a desire to grant privilege to those used in the Baladro over other tales which might disagree with it. Juan's added prologues and epilogue also deal with the question of translation; Jaquemin the chamberlain mentions frequently that he has translated the work he offers his king from another language, presumably French. Much has been made of Juan's editing and smoothing of the Baladro text as compared to other derivatives of Juan de Vivas's (evidently rather rough) translation; it seems possible that this constant reference to translation is an apology and rationalization for having had to do so much revision in what is supposed to be infallible history.

Despite Juan de Burgos's deprecatory attitude toward the Baladro's theology, the work unquestionably has a strongly religious character. Merlin himself, of course, is the focus of the struggle of the devils to recoup the losses Christ forced on them during the Harrowing of Hell. Merlin, however, is neither wholly devil nor wholly Christ-figure. His conception, as the devils design it, is an attempt to mirror the virgin birth of Christ. The devil Onquevezes besets a family with ills, and orphans the three virgin daughters. In order to be sure that the mother of their creation is as pure as possible, Onquevezes dooms the eldest and the youngest of the girls to damnation through fornication. The third, who resists temptation, is eventually snared through the sin of anger, not lust. As it happens, the very goodness of the middle daughter, so sought-after by Onquevezes, is her salvation and the devils' defeat. God intervenes in the matter because of the swift repentance and penitence of Merlin's innocent mother and the prayers of Blaise, her spiritual father. Merlin is born looking rather devilish, hairiness being a typical trait of the medieval conception of the devil; his godliness may be seen in his precocity and rapid maturity. As quickly becomes clear, Merlin receives two gifts from his dual heritage: the devils allow him to know all that has already happened, and God gives him the gift of prophecy, removing him forever from the devils' sphere. It must be noted that Merlin is a true prophet, not a diviner; divination is the devil's work and must be severely punished, as it is in the case of Verenguer's diviners. A similar case is that of Morgaina, whose harlotries and use of devil's magic turn her old and ugly before her time to all eyes but those she has enchanted. Niviana, however, appears to be untouched by the effects of magic. The reasoning behind that would seem to stem from her virginal innocence, which Morgaina cannot claim, and Merlin's frankly evil designs on her; she learns what he knows -- and possibly even more -- in order to free herself from him, and to fulfill the design of God by killing him.

For those not as gifted as Merlin, dreams, not divination, are the key to prophecy. Arthur and Morgause, for example, both have prophetic dreams about the damage to be caused by their son Mordred. Likewise, an extremely telling touch of irony lies in Merlin's dream about his own death; since God has destroyed his usual foreknowledge, Merlin must receive word of it through the same channels through which prophecy is vouchsafed to ordinary mortals.

Merlin's devilish and godly natures war throughout the work; even faithful Blaise is hesitant to trust him at first because of his paternity. Merlin brings the devil's craft of Verenguer's diviners to an end, however, and proceeds to prophesy the downfall of the usurper. He has Blaise write a book which will bring him honor in Heaven, and instructs him in articles of Christian faith. He aids the good king Padragon to remain in good stead with God, frequently reminding him to confess before going into battle, and ensuring that he will be fully shriven before his death in battle against the Saxons, which Merlin has foreseen. Similarly, Merlin is the guiding force behind Padragon's and Uter's kingships, and his machinations bring Arthur to the throne and keep him on it despite his errors and the revolts of his barons.

Like anyone else, though, Merlin is beset by sin and must guard against it. Merlin's downfall comes from abuse of his powers; he helps Uter seduce the unknowing and innocent Iguerna into adultery. Immediately, his gift from God is abrogated, in a dream which warns him of his coming death and denies him foreknowledge of how it is to take place. That Merlin -- not the kingdom -- is the one being punished is made quite clear; Merlin keeps all his other foreknowledge so that he may continue to help Arthur and Londres while he lives, and he is left with the knowledge that Lanzarote of the Lake has been conceived that very night to replace him in the role of Arthur's protector and confidant. Merlin receives no reprieve because of his heroic efforts to keep Iguerna's shame from being known; reparation cannot efface sin. The birth of the good king Arthur is no excuse; the work leaves the possibility open that Uter might have married Iguerna lawfully after the death of the Duke of Tintagel, and conceived Arthur blamelessly, thus avoiding much of the chaos attending the succession. Even after this debacle, though, Merlin continues to attempt to serve God. He refuses to tell Arthur where his incestuous son Mordred has been born because he would thus aid and abet the murder of an innocent child, and thereby lose his soul.

Nevertheless, doom closes in upon him. After boasting of his unimpeachable veracity throughout the book, he lies to Arthur -- thereby damaging his chances for salvation -- for the sake of the perfidious Morgaina in the matter of the duplicate Excalibur. When he leaves with Niviana, Arthur barely grieves at all, and finds a replacement counselor in King Pelinor, who advises him as to replacement knights for the Round Table. At the last, Merlin is apparently dragged off to Hell by the devils. The scene contains significant ambiguity, however; despite the horrid description of Merlin's death, the later passages contain nothing but praise for him. It cannot be forgotten, too, that Christ's first action after death was to travel to Hell for the Harrowing. The Baladro may well travel full circle, beginning with one temporary visit to Hell and ending with another.

Merlin is not, however, the only object lesson offered by the Baladro. At the very start, Blaise elaborates the work's philosophy with regard to sin and its punishment:

My beloved daughters... you must believe that misfortunes come to sinners because of their sins which merit punishment, and if it befalls at some time that ills and misfortune come to someone who seems just and good to the world, before God he is other than men judge him. And should he be the same before God and man, ill-fortunes come to him for his greater benefit... And, beloved daughters, comfort yourselves in our Lord, since it certainly displeases him greatly when a sinner moves away from Him, and keep yourselves from evil actions and do not even think of them, and He will be on your side. Know, my daughters, that evil actions bring things to evil ends, and it is not unfitting that he who cannot abstain from evil actions has his affairs come to a bad end.

At first glance, these are all-inclusive pious mouthings, but the Baladro consistently puts them in practice. Merlin grandpére receives his greatest punishment after he has vowed all his goods to the devil. His eldest daughter receives a just death for her fornication, and although the youngest of the three sisters and her elderly procuress receive no overt punishment, several exclamatory asides decry their conduct and proclaim that those who do the devil's works receive no reward but death. Verenguer's usurpation ends in his death by fire in the very tower Merlin helped him raise. Arthur's incest with his sister Morgause causes Morgause to have a terrible dream promising retribution, and Merlin immediately informs the king that his act, despite his ignorance of the true relation between him and Morgause, will inevitably lead to the downfall of his kingdom. The ignorance is not necessarily what is punished; the adultery and fornication clearly are. Indeed, the simple awareness that one is committing a sin is key to its punishment; therefore, Merlin's mother and Iguerna can be successfully untouched by punishment, while the real adulterers, such as Morgaina and even Arthur, must eventually find retribution.

In fact, the Baladro is remarkably harsh with the stereotypes of courtly love and courtly lovers so often found in Arthurian romance. The only marriages portrayed -- Merlin grandpére and his wife, Arthur and Ginebra -- end unhappily within the book or are clearly foreshadowed to do so, as when Merlin prophesies about Lanzarote's (and therefrom, Arthur's) downfall through Ginebra. The genesis of the story is a blatant rape, and the seduction of unwilling or unknowing women echoes throughout its pages. Sex is unequivocally portrayed as sinful, as with Merlin's mother's two sisters, or even disastrous, the destroyer of good women and producer of horrors such as Mordred and the Ill-formed Beast. Even when the result of a liaison is good, such as in the births of Arthur and Tor, the consequences for the parents are ill; Uter and Iguerna lose their son to Merlin and Antor, and Pelinor and his shepherdess each miss a crucial part of their son Tor's development. Frank sexuality is the devil's work, as can be seen with the old procuress, the friend of Onquevezes, and Morgaina, the only woman in the work constantly portrayed with an extramarital lover, who conspires against her husband and her king through jealousy and lust for power as well as men. All good women in the work are somehow asexual; Merlin's mother jealously guards her chastity, as does Iguerna, and the wise woman who spares Galvan and Gariete from death after the near-disastrous end of Galvan's quest for the stag and sends them back to court to find penance is alone, without husband or lover to judge in her place.

The Baladro also plays with the variance between appearance and reality introduced by Blaise in his speech to the two sisters. The first victim of this theme is the wayward priest, true father of the judge who is to try Merlin's mother; once his adultery and sin are exposed, he kills himself, and the Baladro's narrator exclaims triumphantly: "And so the devil kills those who do his works, since he can give them no other reward." This theme returns again much later, when a nobleman of Uter's, who, despite being "to the seeming of the world, a man good and intelligent and rich in a great way, and very vigorous and powerful, and well connected" tries to confound Merlin by disguising himself three times and each time asking Merlin to foretell his death. His just reward is to have the three varying answers Merlin gives him come true; his seemings may fool the world, but Merlin's senses are extraworldly and cannot be deceived.

In a strange way, too, Merlin exemplifies the flip side of this coin, since he is far better and more godly than his appearance and paternity would indicate. Perhaps to teach this very same lesson, Merlin consistently makes use of the art of disguise to astound and amaze. He resorts to demonstrations of this art as a method of introduction. Through it, he ensures that Uter and Padragon will be impressed enough by his abilities to trust him implicitly; in the crucial warning he gives Uter about the murderous Anguis, he takes "the form of an ancient, because more credit is given the words they say." Later, though, Merlin confounds poor Uter before his laughing brother Padragon by switching between the forms of an old man and a boy, Padragon meanwhile insisting that the boy is the one who gave the warning. A similar episode happens with Arthur; as he ponders his sin with Morgause before a fountain, Merlin appears to him in the form of a boy and endeavors to tell him his parentage. Merlin must return, however, in the guise of an old man, because Arthur refuses to believe the boy. Merlin himself has not changed a bit, despite these various forms; his arts merely confuse the incredulous and faithless, providing opportunities at times to laugh at their folly. Upon his becoming acquainted with Uter and Padragon, Merlin appears before their noblemen in a guise unfamiliar to them; they, despite their assurances that they know Merlin well and could recognize him immediately, are completely taken in, and Uter remarks acidly, "You do not know Merlin as well as you thought you did."

Another corollary to the question of appearance and reality is the issue of noble birth and noble deeds. The Baladro contains singular contradictions on this issue. Nothing at all is made of the raising of Uter and Padragon by their tutors rather than their parents, but Arthur's very kingship is defined by that problem. Uter and Iguerna cannot raise the boy because he is the product of their shameful adultery; Merlin therefore gives him to Antor's wife to bring up, and she gives away her own son for Arthur's sake. Arthur himself, when Merlin makes his parentage known to him, finds its implications pleasing: "I cannot fail to be a good man, for he [Uter] was so good a man that no evil son could come from him, if it was not by some marvel." On second thought, however, Arthur finds the idea that his parents gave him away extremely disturbing: "You tell me of marvels and I cannot believe you, for, if I was his son, I would not have been raised by such a man as he who raised me [i.e. Antor], nor would I have been so unknown to the people as I am." The damaging effect of foster parentage is exemplified in Arthur's foster-brother Quia. Antor has Arthur make Quia seneschal and begs him to show forbearance for Quia's mishaps because "if he is an ill-bred man, it is because of you, and because of you he is deprived of all the rights of a high-born man, by the nature of the milk of a peasant woman, to whom we gave him so that we could raise you." If Quia has been damaged by his peasant's upbringing, then it is rather odd that Arthur, despite his initial mistrust of the situation, has not been similarly hurt by a non-royal rearing. Moreover, Quia later repays Arthur's trust in the episode of the five kings to which Merlin alludes, killing two of them in order to save his king and queen, and earning an undisputed place at the Round Table thereby; it would seem his upbringing has not contaminated him completely. Yet more contradictory, however, is the case of Tor. Tor is the son of King Pelinor and a shepherdess, so that his birth is in part as lowly as his upbringing with the shepherdess and her peasant husband who thinks Tor his own child. Nevertheless, Tor's nobility cannot be suppressed; despite the peasant's strong disapproval, Tor demands to be made knight, and once he becomes knight he acquits himself admirably, the only knight to succeed without error in the quest given him at Arthur's wedding and coronation. Merlin, then, is not the only character whose birth and upbringing do not indicate his true character.

A notable point of unity in the Baladro concerns the careful correspondence between kings and their chosen advisers. The greedy and conniving Verenguer, who has one king killed and conspires to cheat two princes of their rightful inheritance, has a group of wizards for counselors who endeavor to outwit not only him, but fate itself. Just as Verenguer is ultimately foiled by the rightful king, so too are the wizards brought to their knees by the true diviner Merlin whose gift, as has been mentioned before, comes from God and not from diabolical studies. Padragon's brief and action-filled reign allows for no true guide to emerge; Uter, however, goes to the "wise and loyal" Ulfin in the matter of Iguerna. Like Uter, whose first introduction is in connection with a nameless "ladylove" whom Merlin knows and whom Uter presumably deserts rather ungraciously, Ulfin is wise in the ways of women. Neither king nor adviser, though, has a great deal of regard for them. Ulfin considers them weak and fickle, easily conquered by money and status, and Uter will stop at nothing, neither war nor guile, to sleep with Iguerna. Once the seduction has taken place, poor Iguerna receives little but torment from both Uter and Ulfin; the one takes away her only son before it is even baptized, not even deigning to relieve her anxiety about the child's father, and the other openly accuses her of treason before Arthur's court although he is aware she is wholly innocent of his charges. The most striking correspondence, however, is between Merlin and Arthur. The mothers of both are shamed by their sons; both men must struggle to legitimize their shadowy and suspect births. Both are clearly lords of men, one by royal birth, one by wisdom. Neither has any great luck with women; Arthur seduces his own sister, and Merlin is of course betrayed by both Morgaina and Niviana. Each has his own troubles with court politics, although both survive and triumph over their rivals in court. Finally, both are bound inextricably by unpleasant fates, caused by their own failings.

Merlin's status as kingly adviser requires a great deal of careful machination. Merlin is not of noble birth, so that his high status in court can be a clear threat to the prerogatives of the court noblemen. Indeed, the noble whose three deaths Merlin foretells plots to discredit Merlin through sheer jealousy of his influence. The other nobles convince Uter to test the Perilous Place at the Round Table simply in order to spite Merlin, who they think has entirely too much influence on the king. To counter these petty jealousies, Merlin continually protests his entire devotion to those kings he serves, shows entire humility toward them in public (even if he can be sharp in private), and cites friendship, not ambition, as his reason for service. Merlin also carefully stays out of the way (usually by means of a visit to Blaise) when important decisions are to be made, even when he has been the power behind them, so that the nobles do not suspect that they are being manipulated. When Uter asks him to stay to see him hold court after the completion of the Round Table, Merlin replies, "No, for I do not want the men, when they see the things which are to come, to say that I did them." Similarly, Merlin stays far away from the testing of the Perilous Place, even allowing a rumor of his death to be spread, for "he preferred for them to test it through their evil inclinations and by evil men rather than good ones. 'For if I went there they would eventually say that I only went to prevent them. Because of this I do not want to go.'" Arthur's loyal nobles, probably chastened by these experiences as well as Merlin's successes as regards the various revolts, accept his word without question. This serves Arthur well when he foolishly attempts to rid himself of Mordred by collecting all babies born at that time and dooming them to sail guideless on the sea; Merlin manages to talk down the angry bereaved fathers with skillful sophistry about Arthur's heroic consideration for his kingdom.

These few pages cover only the barest beginnings of this tremendously rich text. It is my hope that some who have idly dismissed the Baladro before will perhaps take a second look at it; just as the women who attend Merlin's mother, despite being terrified to hear him speak at his young age, nevertheless gather courage to wheedle him into speaking again; or as does Bandemagus, who despite his horror eagerly listens for every drop of wisdom and agony from Merlin's dying lips. At the end of his life as at the beginning, Merlin's voice frightens and enlightens all who hear it. May this translation enable that magnificent voice to continue to enthrall its hearers.

Works consulted

Translation text:

Bohigas-Balaguer, Pedro. El Baladro del Sabio Merlin, según el texto de la edición de Burgos de 1498. Barcelona: Selecciones Bibliofilas, 1957-60.


Antoninus Pius. Summa Theologica. Graz: Akademische Drucku. Verlagsanstalt, 1959.

Apuleius. The works of Apuleius : comprising the Metamorphoses, or Golden ass, The God of Socrates, The Florida, and his Defence, or A discourse on magic. London : G. Bell, 1910.

Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Books, 1966.

Gildas. The Ruin of Britain and Other Works, trans. Michael Winterbottom. London: Phillimore, 1978.

Lacy, Norris J. ed. Lancelot-Grail: the Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993.

Menendez y Pelayo, Marcelino ed. Nueva biblioteca de autores españoles: ciclo artúrico. Madrid: Balliere y Hijos, 1907.

Nennius. British History; and The Welsh Annals, trans. John Morris. London: Roman and Littlefield, 1980.

Vincent of Beauvais. Speculum quadruplex; sive, Speculum maius. Graz: Akademische Drucku. Verlaganstalt, 1964-65.


Entwistle, William J. The Arthurian Legend in the Literatures of the Spanish Peninsula. New York: Phaeton Press, 1975.

Lida de Malkiel, Maria Rosa. "Arthurian Literature in Spain." In: Arthurian Literature: A Collaborative History, ed. Roger Sherman Loomis. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.

MacDonald, Aileen. The Figure of Merlin in Thirteenth Century French Romances. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990.

Norton, F.J. Printing in Spain 1501-1520. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Sharrer, Harvey L. A Critical Bibliography of Spanish Arthurian Material. London: Grant and Cutler, 1977.

[1] Maria Rosa Lida de Malkiel, "Arthurian Literature in Spain and Portugal." In Roger Sherman Loomis ed., Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.

[2] Aileen MacDonald, The Figure of Merlin in Thirteenth Century French Romance. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990.

[3] MacDonald, pp. 6-7.

[4] MacDonald, pp. 111-120.

[5] MacDonald, p. 180.