In Le Morte D’Arthur, from his first appearance right up until his internment in rock at the start of Book IV, Merlin spouts a whole pile of predictions. I’ve counted forty-two of them, in fact! Join us, won’t we, as I go through these predictions and determine which were verified and which were just Merlin spouting nonsense!
Uther will impregnate Igraine the first time they sleep together, and she will bear a son.
TRUE. No doubting this one; it’s the linchpin of Arthur’s origin story.
If Uther gives that son to Merlin, it will ultimately be better for England than if he doesn’t.
PROBABLY TRUE. We don’t get to see the alternate timeline in which Uther tells Merlin to go hang, but it seems reasonable to think that it would be worse. If Uther dies at the same time in that timeline as he does in the actual story, the infant Arthur would be easy pickings for rival kings and warlords.
The man who can pull the sword from the stone (i.e. Arthur) is the rightful king.
TRUE. It is indeed Arthur who pulls the sword from the stone. It’s a basic conceit of the novel that Arthur is rightfully king.
Arthur will be king for many years, wise and successful, unless he dies fighting in a civil war at the start of his reign.
PROBABLY TRUE. Merlin here offers two scenarios: Arthur dying shortly after taking the throne, and Arthur ruling for many decades. One of those scenarios certainly comes to pass.
Arthur will find a treasure in Sherwood Forest.
UNCERTAIN. If Merlin meant Arthur would meet Lionors, the mother of his son Sir Borre, then he might have been more clear about it.
Mordred will eventually ruin everything for everyone.
MOSTLY TRUE. In Book XX, Mordred and his half-brother Sir Agravaine set into motion the events that result in civil war between Arthur and Launcelot, the dissolution of the Round Table, and the deaths of most of the cast.
Arthur will get a fine funeral; Merlin’s body will be tossed in a ditch.
UNCERTAIN. Arthur’s funeral in Book XXI is reasonable, under the circumstances. Merlin does not die during Le Morte D’Arthur, so we don’t know about his funeral.
Sir Griflet will die trying to stop Arthur’s best friend from saving the life of Arthur’s wife.
TRUE. This is exactly what happens, in Book XX.
Arthur will die before Merlin dies.
TRUE. Merlin is alive at the end of Book XXI; Arthur (probably) isn’t.
When Arthur dies he will go to Hell.
UNCERTAIN. Whether Arthur goes to Hell or not is unaddressed anywhere in Book XXI.
Pellinore will do Arthur at least one favor.
TRUE. Pellinore kills King Lot, rescues Nimue, and assists Arthur in deciding which knights to promote to the Round Table.
Pellinore’s sons Percivale and Lamorak will be the second-best and third-best knights.
PROBABLY TRUE. Percivale and Lamorak are both AAA, top-tier knights. Percivale is one of only three knights to achieve the Grail; Lamorak did not participate in the Grail quest as he was murdered beforehand.
Pellinore will warn Arthur about Mordred.
FALSE. Pellinore is slain years before Mordred becomes a problem.
Pellinore will become Arthur’s brother-in-law.
FALSE. None of Arthur’s half-sisters are ever described as marrying Pellinore. Pellinore is not, I’m pretty sure, Guenever’s brother.
The one who will destroy Arthur was born on the first of May.
TRUE. Mordred is included among the innocents Arthur massacres.
Tristram and Launcelot will fight inconclusively at the tomb of Sir Lanceor.
TRUE. This happens!
Because of Columbe’s death, Balin will strike the dolorous stroke.
TRUE. The causal connection to Columbe’s suicide isn’t clear, but certainly Sir Balin strikes the dolorous stroke.
When Sir Tristram is taken with his sovereign lady, then Mark shall learn Merlin’s name, and at that time shall hear tidings that shall not please him.
UNCERTAIN. For my own dramatic satisfaction I put Merlin’s name in Peter’s mouth in Book VIII, but Malory never addresses it.
If Balin doesn’t follow Merlin’s instructions, he won’t find Rience.
UNCERTAIN. While Balin does follow Merlin’s instructions and does find Rience, before Merlin appeared Balin seemed to have an idea where to search for Rience.
Balin won’t live long after turning Rience over to Arthur.
TRUE. He dies later in Book II.
Before Balin dies he’ll do Arthur at least one good turn.
PROBABLY TRUE. Most of Sir Balin’s activities in the back half of Book II don’t affect Arthur one way or another, but he does seek out Sir Herlews specifically at Arthur’s request.
Rience’s brother Nero will attempt to rescue/avenge him.
TRUE. Nero attacks in Book II.
The eternal flames at Lot’s tomb will extinguish when Merlin dies, just before the beginning of the Quest for the Holy Grail.
FALSE. Merlin does not die at any point, certainly not at the onset of the Grail-Quest in Book XIII, and Lot’s tomb is not mentioned again.
Pellinore will reappear after Book II’s battle with Lot.
TRUE. He shows back up once in Book IV.
Balin will be loyal to Arthur until his death.
TRUE. Certainly he doesn’t betray Arthur at any point.
Mordred will be present at a great battle at Salisbury.
PROBABLY TRUE. In Book XXI Malory fails to identify just where the massive battle between Mordred’s army and Arthur’s army takes place, but it could easily be Salisbury.
King Uriens knows Arthur’s distant cousin, King Bagdemagus.
UNCERTAIN. The significance of this is also unclear.
Sir Gawaine will kill King Pellinore in vengeance for Lot’s death.
TRUE. It happens offscreen, but it definitely happens.
Pellam survives the dolorous stroke and the ruination of Castle Corbin; he rebuilds but isn’t whole until Galahad heals him during the Quest for the Holy Grail.
TRUE. We see Pellam and Castle Corbin both again; Galahad does indeed heal him.
Launcelot will eschew the bed at Balin’s tomb.
FALSE. Malory never mentions Launcelot visiting Balin’s tomb.
Launcelot or Galahad will use Balin’s sword to slay Sir Gawaine.
FALSE. Galahad is already dead by the time Gawaine dies, and Launcelot is on another continent. Galahad injures Gawaine with Balin’s sword, but Merlin specifically said ‘slay.’
Arthur should not marry Guenever.
PROBABLY TRUE. Everyone would have been happier if she had still been single when she met Launcelot.
Guenever will have an affair with Sir Launcelot.
TRUE. Hoo-boy, yes.
Merlin “discovers” golden writing on the Round Table, naming the knights who sit there.
TRUE. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the knights see the names and take their seats, but it’s still a prophecy.
Tor, Pellinore’s son, will be a good knight.
TRUE. He’s at center stage only briefly, but he’s a good egg.
Only one man may sit in the Siege Perilous without being smote.
FALSE. Percivale and Galahad both sit at the Siege Perilous at different times.
Arthur must send Gawaine to track down the white hart, Tor to track down the white hound, and Pellinore to rescue Nimue.
UNCERTAIN. Nimue turns out to be crucial to the whole Camelot deal, but whether those particular knights had to be sent on those particular errands, lest everything fall apart? Unclear.
The woman who cut her own head off was Elaine, Pellinore’s illegitimate daughter by way of the Lady of the Rule; she was traveling with a Sir Miles, but then Loraine the Thug murdered him, and thus Pellinore shall one day be in great trouble and his best friend will lead him into peril and then abandon Pellinore just when Pellinore needs him most.
UNCERTAIN. We don’t know much about the circumstances of Pellinore’s death, only that Gawaine ambushed and slew him. Pellinore could have been double-crossed by a trusted friend, as part of that.
Merlin will soon go into the earth.
TRUE. He goes into the earth later that same chapter.
Nimue will trick Merlin into going into a magic cave, and seal him there.
TRUE. Again, it happens straightaway.
Launcelot will grow up, be a terrific knight, and win the war against Claudas.
MOSTLY TRUE. I don’t know that evidence supports Launcelot being especially crucial in Arthur’s defeat of Claudas, but certainly the boy grows up to be a coo-coo super knight.
Launcelot is actually his middle name; his first name is Galahad.
TRUE. To the extent that it matters…
Elaine (2, Launcelot’s mother) lives to witness Launcelot’s glory.
UNCERTAIN. Several women named Elaine die, but none of them are Launcelot’s mother (most are his lovers). Malory does not address how much longer this particular lives.
Total number of predictions: 43
Total number of predictions for which an outcome is known: 34.
Total true or mostly-true predictions: 28 of 34.
Total straight-up false predictions: 6 of 34.
And so Merlin is correct roughly four-fifths of the time. Whether this is good or bad, I couldn’t tell you. I do know that if I ever see him coming I’m going to walk the other way.
Every named knight, in order of first appearance or reference.
Uther Pendragon, King of Logris aka England aka Britain
Arthur, also King of Logris/England/Britain
King Lot of Orkney
King Nentres of Garlot
King Uriens of Gore
Sir Gawain, Lot’s son
Sir Uwain, Uriens’s son
Sir Ector (Arthur’s adoptive father)
Sir Kay (Arthur’s adoptive brother)
King of Scotland
King of Carados
Mister 100, the King with a Hundred Knights
King Bors (senior) of Benwick, Ban’s brother
King Ban of France, Bors’s brother
King Claudas of King Claudas’s Lands
Sir Lucan aka Sir Lucas
Gwenbaus, brother to Ban and Bors
King Brandegoris of Stranggore aka Morgamore aka Brangoris aka Brandegore
King Clariance of Northumberland
King Idres of Cornwall
King Agwisance of Ireland aka Anguish
Sir Borre, Arthur’s eldest illegitimate son
Rience, King of North Wales
King Leodegrance of Cameliard
Sir Balan, Balin’s brother
Sir Mordred, Arthur’s second illegitimate son and also nephew
Sir Percivale, Pellinore’s son
Sir Lamorak, Pellinore’s son
Sir Lanceor, Anguish’s son
King Mark of Cornwall
Sir Tristram, Mark’s nephew
Sir Launcelot de Lake, Ban’s son
Nero, Rience’s brother
Sir Accolon, Morgan le Fay’s lover
Garlon, the invisible murderer
Sir Herlews who just might be the same guy as Sir Hervis
King Pellam of Castle Corbin, who might be the Fisher King
Sir Garnish of the Mount
Sir Gaheris, Gawaine’s brother
Sir Sorlouse of the Forest
Sir Brian of the Forest
Sir Allardin of the Isles
Sir Ablamar of the Marsh
Sir Felot of Landuk
Sir Petipase of Winchelsea
Sir Hontzlake of Westland
Sir Meliot of Logris, Nimue’s cousin
Sir Brian of the Isles
Sir Miles of the Launds
Loraine the Thug
The King of the Lake
Sir Bagdemagus, later King Bagdemagus
Sir Ontzlake, his brother
Sir Marhaus, brother of Lanceor and the lovely Isoud
Sir Pellas the Good, beloved of Nimue
Sir Carados (no relation)
The Duke of the Southern Marches
Sir Edward of the Red Castle
Sir Hue of the Red Castle
Sir Cador of Cornwall
Sir Bedivere, Sir Lucan’s brother
Sir Constantine, Arthur’s heir
Sir Lionel of Benwick
Emperor Lucius Caesar
Sir Gainus, Lucius’s retainer
Caliburn of Pavie
The King of Lyly
Sir Beryl, who suffers a posthumous ice-burn
Sir Wisshard, the worst knight name
The Duke of Dutchmen
Sir Chestaline, Gawaine’s youthful ward
Sir Ector de Maris, aka Ector the Lesser
Sir Mador de la Porte
Sir Peris of the Thuggish Woods
Sir Gaunter or Gauntere
Sir Raynold or Reynold
Sir Sagramour the Lusty aka Sagramour le Desirous
Sir Gilbert the Bastard
Sir Gareth aka Beaumains aka Sir Prettyboy
Sir Percard, the Red Knight of the Red Lands
Sir Pertolepe, the Black Knight of the Black Lands
Sir Perimones, the Green Knight of the Green Lands
Sir Persant, the Indigo Knight of the Indigo Lands
Sir Blamore de Ganis, Launcelot’s cousin
Sir Bleoberis de Ganis, Blamore’s brother
Sir Bors de Ganis aka Sir Bors Junior, Launcelot’s other cousin
Sir Palomides ala Palamides, the Muslim knight
Sir Ironside, the other Red Knight of the Red Lands (not Sir Percard, a different guy)
Sir Grummore Grummursum
Sir Dinas, not the same knight as Sir Dinadan, Sir Dodinas, or Sir Dinant
Sir Dodinas le Savage aka Dodinas the Thug, not the same knight as Sir Dinas, Sir Dinadan, or Sir Dinant
Sir Dinadan, not the same knight as Sir Dinas, Sir Dodinas, or Sir Dinant
Sir Meliaganus aka Meliagrance
Sir Galahault aka Galahad (but not the one you’re thinking of)
Sir Uwain’s brother of the same name
Sir Segwarides, brother of Sir Safere and Sir Palomides
Duke de la Rowse
The Brown Knight without Pity
King Meliodas, Tristram’s father
Howel, king of Brittany
Sir Lambegus, Tristram’s first henchman
Sir Sentraille de Lushon, Tristram’s second henchman
Gouvernail, Tristram’s tutor/henchman
Sir Famous Hebes, aka Sir Hebes le Renoumes
Sir Li’l Gumret, aka Gumret le Petit
Pitiless Bruce, aka Breuse Sans Pity
Sir Kehydius, son of Howel and brother of Isoud the White
Sir Nabon the Black
Sir Nanowne the Short aka Sir Nanowne la Petit
Sir Frol of the Outer Islands
Sir Belliance the Orgulous, Frol’s brother
Sir Gingalin, Gawaine’s son
Sir Fergus, Tristram’s third henchman
Sir Dagonet, Arthur’s jester
Sir Tauleas, a giant
Sir Dinant, not the same knight as Sir Dinadan, Sir Dinas, or Sir Dodinas
Sir “Kid” Pellinore, no relation
Sir Pellounes the elderly
Sir Persides, his son
Sir Daname, Darras’s nephew
Sir Hemison, Morgan’s lover
Sir Alein, Trian’s brother
Sir Trian, Alein’s brother
Sir “Big Heart” Ozanna
Sir “Good Uwaine” Uwaine
Eliot, the harper
Sir Argius, Mark’s cousin
Sir Boudwin, Mark’s brother
Malgrin the knight-ogre
Sir Elias from Gomeret
Sir Cari from Gomeret
Sir Guy from Cameliard
Sir Garaunt from Cameliard
Sir Gerine the Overweight aka Gerine le Grose
Duke Ansirus the Pilgrim
Sir Harsouse of Berbuse
Sir Harvis of the Marches
Sir Perin of Montaine
Sir Bellengerus le Beuse
King Marsil of Pomitain
Duke Chaleins of Clarance
Sir Elis the Black
Sir Corsabrin the Muslim
King of Listinoise
King of the best part of Wales with many other countries
Sir Weird Kainus, aka Sir Kainus le Strange
Sir “Valiant” Helior aka Helior le Preuse
Sir Galleron of Galway
Sir “Rough” Melion aka Melion de Tartare
Sir Plaine the Forceful aka Plaine de Fors aka Plaine de Force
Sir Plaine the Lusty aka Plaine de Amours
Sir Melias of Lile
Tricky Tolleme aka Tolleme la Feintes
King Evelake aka King Mordrains
Earl de Vale
Sir Big Helias, aka Helias le Grose
Sir Pale Elian aka Helin aka Elian le Blanc
The Earl of Plaines
King Solomon the Wise, from the Bible
Josua, Solomon’s nephew
King David, also from the Bible
Lord Earl Hernox
“The truth is, Alisande, these archaics are a little too simple; the vocabulary is too limited, and so, by consequence, descriptions suffer in the matter of variety; they run too much to level Saharas of fact, and not enough to picturesque detail; this throws about them a certain air of the monotonous; in fact the fights are all alike: a couple of people come together with great random – random is a good word, and so is exegesis, for that matter, and so is holocaust, and defalcation, and usufruct and a hundred others, but land! a body ought to discriminate – they come together with great random, and a spear is brast, and one party brake his shield and the other one goes down, horse and man, over his horse-tail and brake his neck, and then the next candidate comes randoming in, and brast his spear, and the other man brast his shield, and down he goes, horse and man, over his horse-tail, and brake his neck, and then there’s another elected, and another and another and still another, till the material is all used up; and when you come to figure up results, you can’t tell one fight from another, nor who whipped; and as a picture, of living, raging, roaring battle, sho! why, it’s pale and noiseless – just ghosts scuffling in a fog. Dear me, what would this barren vocabulary get out of the mightiest spectacle? – the burning of Rome in Nero’s time, for instance? Why, it would merely say, ‘Town burned down; no insurance; boy brast a window, fireman brake his neck!’ Why, that ain’t a picture!”
From a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). As the maiden Alisande tells the narrator the tale of Sir Uwaine and Sir Gawaine’s meeting with Sir Marhaus, in Book IV, quoting Malory verbatim, the narrator provides this critique.