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Long lost, 13th-century Merlin legend discovered in library archive

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Feb 1, 2019

It sounds like something out of The Kid Who Would Be King. A previously undiscovered bit of Arthurian legend, stumbled upon in an unexpected place, which could shift how scholars approach segments of the story.

But this isn’t fiction: according to The Guardian, seven scraps of parchment featuring a handwritten account of the Merlin-centric Battle of Trèbes were found nestled away inside a 15th-century French scholar’s bound tome. The Bristol central library’s archives hold many secrets, apparently. It’s old book-ception, as the Merlin story has been dated to the 13th-century and confirmed to be unlike any other version of the tale known to scholars.

The Old French fragments still get the gist of the legend, explaining how Merlin rouses Arthur’s forces and charges against the enemy equipped with Sir Kay’s fire-breathing dragon standard. No, it really breathes fire in the story. Magic. Now while these details make the fragments fit into the Estoire de Merlin (the story of Merlin) from the Vulgate Cycle (Lancelot-Grail Cycle), there are still a few differences that are of interest to Arthurian experts.

For instance, those leading Arthur’s four armies are different and the enemy at hand, King Claudas, is not wounded in the thigh, which is the traditional location. The latter may not seem important, but when it comes to legends, everything is packed with meaning. The specifics around this edition mean that it could be related to Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur — one of the most famous tellings of the Arthurian legend that serves as the source of most modern takes — but experts aren’t sure yet.

Dr. Leah Tether, president of the British branch of the International Arthurian Society, said, “These fragments are a wonderfully exciting find, which may have implications for the study not just of this text but also of other related and later texts that have shaped our modern understanding of the Arthurian legend. There is a small chance that this could be connected to a version that Malory had access to but we are a long way from proving that.”

But this is exactly the kind of thing that would happen in a movie where those discovering the story began growing long white beards and helping world leaders, right?

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