Merlin (Welsh: Myrddin) is a legendary figure best known as an enchanter or wizard[note 1] featured in Arthurian legend and medieval Welsh poetry. The standard depiction of the character first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, written c. 1136, and is based on an amalgamation of previous historical and legendary figures. Geoffrey combined existing stories of Myrddin Wyllt (or Merlinus Caledonensis), a North Brythonic prophet and madman with no connection to King Arthur, with tales of the Romano-British war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus to form the composite figure he called Merlin Ambrosius (Welsh: Myrddin Emrys).
|Matter of Britain character|
|First appearance||Prophetiae Merlini|
|Created by||Geoffrey of Monmouth|
|Significant other||Lady of the Lake, Morgan le Fay,|
Geoffrey's rendering of the character was immediately popular, especially in Wales. Later writers in France and elsewhere expanded the account to produce a fuller image. Merlin's traditional biography casts him as a cambion: born of a mortal woman, sired by an incubus, the non-human from whom he inherits his supernatural powers and abilities. Merlin matures to an ascendant sagehood and engineers the birth of Arthur through magic and intrigue. Later authors have Merlin serve as the king's advisor and mentor until he disappears from the story after having been bewitched and forever sealed or killed by the Lady of the Lake. He is popularly said to be buried in the magical forest of Brocéliande.
Name and etymologyEdit
The name "Merlin" is derived from the Welsh Myrddin, the name of the bard who was one of the chief sources for the later legendary figure. Geoffrey of Monmouth Latinised the name to Merlinus in his works. Medievalist Gaston Paris suggests that Geoffrey chose the form Merlinus rather than the regular Merdinus to avoid a resemblance to the Anglo-Norman word merde (from Latin merda) for feces.
Clas Myrddin or Merlin's Enclosure is an early name for Great Britain stated in the Third Series of Welsh Triads. Celticist A. O. H. Jarman suggests that the Welsh name Myrddin (Welsh pronunciation: [ˈmərðɪn]) was derived from the toponym Caerfyrddin, the Welsh name for the town known in English as Carmarthen. This contrasts with the popular folk etymology that the town was named after the bard. The name Carmarthen is derived from the town's previous Roman name Moridunum, in turn derived from Celtic Brittonic moridunon, "sea fortress".
Geoffrey and his sourcesEdit
Geoffrey's composite Merlin is based primarily on the legendary "madman" poet and seer Myrddin Wyllt ("Myrddin the Wild", sometimes called Merlinus Caledonensis in later sources influenced by Geoffrey), and Emrys (Old Welsh: Embreis), a fictional character based in part on the 5th century, historical war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus mentioned in one of Geoffrey's primary sources, the early 9th century Historia Brittonum. The former had nothing to do with King Arthur: in British poetry he was a bard driven mad after witnessing the horrors of war, who fled civilization to become a wild man of the wood in the 6th century. Geoffrey had Myrddin Wyllt in mind when he wrote his earliest surviving work, the Prophetiae Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin), which he claimed were the actual words of the legendary poet and madman.
Geoffrey's Prophetiae do not reveal much about Merlin's background. He included the prophet in his next work, Historia Regum Britanniae, supplementing the characterisation by attributing to him stories about Aurelius Ambrosius, taken from Nennius' Historia Brittonum. According to Nennius, Ambrosius was discovered when the British king Vortigern was trying to erect a tower. The tower always collapsed before completion, and his wise men told him that the only solution was to sprinkle the foundation with the blood of a child born without a father. Ambrosius was rumoured to be such a child but, when brought before the king, he revealed the real reason for the tower's collapse: below the foundation was a lake containing two dragons who fought a battle representing the struggle between the invading Saxons and the native Celtic Britons. Geoffrey retells this story in his Historia Regum Britanniæ with some embellishments, and gives the fatherless child the name of the prophetic bard Merlin. He keeps this new figure separate from Aurelius Ambrosius and, with regard to his changing of the original Nennian character, he states that Ambrosius was also called 'Merlin'—that is, 'Ambrosius Merlinus'. He goes on to add new episodes that tie Merlin with King Arthur and his predecessors.
Geoffrey's account of Merlin Ambrosius' early life in the Historia Regum Britanniae is based on the tale of Ambrosius in the Historia Brittonum. He adds his own embellishments to the tale, which he sets in Carmarthen, Wales (Welsh: Caerfyrddin). While Nennius' Ambrosius eventually reveals himself to be the son of a Roman consul, Geoffrey's Merlin is begotten on a king's daughter by an incubus demon. The name of Merlin's mother is not usually stated, but is given as Adhan in the oldest version of the Prose Brut. The story of Vortigern's tower is essentially the same; the underground dragons, one white and one red, represent the Saxons and the Britons, and their final battle is a portent of things to come. At this point Geoffrey inserts a long section of Merlin's prophecies, taken from his earlier Prophetiae Merlini. He tells only two further tales of the character. In the first, Merlin creates Stonehenge as a burial place for Aurelius Ambrosius, bringing the stones from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales and Ireland. In the second, Merlin's magic enables the new British king Uther Pendragon to enter into Tintagel Castle in disguise and father his son Arthur with his enemy's wife, Igraine. These episodes appear in many later adaptations of Geoffrey's account. As Lewis Thorpe notes, Merlin disappears from the narrative after this; he does not tutor and advise Arthur as in later versions.
Geoffrey dealt with Merlin again in his third work, Vita Merlini. He based it on stories of the original 6th-century Myrddin, set long after his time frame for the life of Merlin Ambrosius. Geoffrey tried to assert that the characters are the same with references to King Arthur and his death, as told in the Historia Regum Britanniae. Here, Merlin survives Arthur, married a woman named Guendoloena (Gwendolen, inspired by Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio), and spends his time observing stars from his home with seventy windows in the remote woods in the land of Rhydderch, where he is often visited by his beautiful sister Ganieda (based on Myrddin's sister Gwendydd) who has become queen of the Cumbrians.
Nikolai Tolstoy hypothesizes that Merlin is based on a historical personage, probably a 6th-century druid living in southern Scotland. His argument is based on the fact that early references to Merlin describe him as possessing characteristics which modern scholarship (but not that of the time the sources were written) would recognize as druidical—the inference being that those characteristics were not invented by the early chroniclers, but belonged to a real person. If so, the hypothetical Merlin would have lived about a century after the hypothetical historical Arthur. A late version of the Annales Cambriae (dubbed the "B-text", written at the end of the 13th century) and influenced by Geoffrey, records for the year 573, that after "the battle of Arfderydd, between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddolau son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Merlin went mad." The earliest version of the Annales Cambriae entry (in the "A-text", written c. 1100), as well as a later copy (the "C-text", written towards the end of the 13th century) do not mention Merlin.
Later versions of the legendEdit
Several decades later, Robert de Boron retold and expanded on this material in his influential Old French poem Merlin written around 1200. Only a few lines of the poem have survived, but a prose retelling became popular and was later incorporated into chivalric romances. In Robert's account, as in Geoffrey's Historia, Merlin is created as a demon spawn to become the Antichrist and reverse the effect of the Harrowing of Hell. This plot is thwarted when a priest named Blaise immediately baptizes the boy at birth, thus freeing him from the power of Satan and his intended destiny. The demonic legacy invests Merlin with a preternatural knowledge of the past and present, which is supplemented by God, who gives the boy a prophetic knowledge of the future. Robert lays great emphasis on Merlin's power to shapeshift,[note 2] on his joking personality, and on his connection to the Holy Grail, the quest for which he foretells. Inspired by Wace's Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman adaptation of Geoffrey's Historia, Merlin was originally a part of a cycle of Robert's poems telling the story of the Grail over the centuries. The narrative of Merlin includes Geoffrey's episodes of Vortigern's Tower, of Uther's war against the Saxons, and of Arthur's conception, but follows it with the new episode of the sword in the stone, orchestrated by Merlin just as he previously structs Uther to establish the Round Table.
The prose version of Robert's poem was then continued in the 13th-century Merlin Continuation or the Suite de Merlin, describing King Arthur's early wars and Merlin's role in them. Here, Merlin's shapeshifting powers are also featured prominently, with him often appearing as a "wild man" figure evoking that of his prototype, Myrddin Wyllt.[note 3] The extended prose rendering became the foundation for the vast Lancelot-Grail cyclical series of prose works also known as the Vulgate Cycle (the pre-cycle, early versions of the original Prose Lancelot relates that Merlin was born from a consensual union between a woman and a demon, instead of a supernatural rape, and that he was never baptized). Eventually, it was directly incorporated into the Vulgate Cycle as the Estoire de Merlin, also known as the Vulgate Merlin or the Prose Merlin. A further reworking and continuation of the Prose Merlin was included within the subsequent Post-Vulgate Cycle as the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin also known as the Huth Merlin. All these versions have been adapted and translated into several other languages. Notably, the Post-Vulgate Suite was the source for the early parts of Thomas Malory's English-language Le Morte d'Arthur that is an iconic version of the legend today.
Later medieval works also deal with the Merlin legend. One, the Prophéties de Merlin (c. 1276) contains long prophecies of Merlin (mostly concerned with 11th to 13th-century Italian history and contemporary politics), some by his ghost after his death, interspersed with episodes relating Merlin's deeds and with assorted Arthurian adventures in which Merlin does not appear at all. The earliest English verse romance concerning Merlin is Of Arthour and of Merlin, which drew from the chronicles and the French Lancelot-Grail. As the Arthurian myths were retold, Merlin's prophetic aspects were sometimes de-emphasised in favour of portraying him as a wizard and an advisor to the young Arthur. In the Vulgate Merlin, he arranges consumption of Arthur's desire for "the most beautiful maiden ever born," Lisanor, resulting in the birth of Arthur's illegitimate son Lohot from before the marriage to Guinevere. He also appears in other works, such as the final part of Le Roman de Silence. In English-language medieval texts that conflate Britain with the Kingdom of England, the Anglo-Saxon enemies that Merlin aids Uther and then Arthur against tend to be replaced by the Saracens or simply just invading pagans.
Merlin's apprentice is often Arthur's half-sister Morgan le Fay (in the Prophéties de Merlin along with Sebile and two other witch queens), who is sometimes depicted as Merlin's lover and sometimes as just an unrequited love interest.[note 4] While Merlin does share his magic with them, his prophetic powers cannot be passed on. Contrary to the many modern works, Merlin and Morgan are never enemies in any medieval tradition. In fact, Merlin loves Morgan so much, that he even lies to Arthur (in the Huth Merlin, which is the only instance of him ever doing such a thing) in order to save her. In the Lancelot-Grail and later accounts, Merlin's eventual undoing came from his lusting after another of his female students named Viviane (among other names and spellings, including Malory's popular Nimue). Merlin's fate of either demise or eternal imprisonment, along with his destroyer or captor's motivation, is recounted differently in variants of this motif but is usually placed within the enchanted forest of Brocéliande.[note 5] His enchanted prison or grave can be variably a cave, a hole under a large rock (as in Le Morte d'Arthur), a magic tower, or a tree. In some texts, including in Le Morte d'Arthur, she then replaces Merlin in the role of Arthur's court mage and adviser as a Lady of the Lake (the chief Lady in case of Malory's Nimue) following the "last enchantement".
Niniane, as she is known in the Livre d'Artus continuation of Merlin which does not contain a story of how Merlin did vanish, breaks his heart prior to his later second relationship with Morgan. And in a version with a more happy ending, contained in the Premiers Faits section of the Livre du Graal and evoking the final scenes from Vita Merlin, Niniane peacefully confines him in Brocéliande with walls of air, visible as mist to others but as a beautiful yet unbreakable tower to him, where they then spend almost every night; however, his disembodied voice can escape his air prison, as he later speaks to Gawain when the latter happens to come by. In the Post-Vulgate Cycle Suite, King Bagdemagus manages to find the rock under which Merlin is entombed alive by Niviene and talk with Merlin, but cannot lift it. What follows then is supposedly narrated in the mysterious text Conte del Brait (Tale of the Cry).[note 6] In the Prophéties de Merlin version, his tomb is unsuccessfully searched for by various parties, including by Morgan and her enchantresses, but cannot be accessed due to the deadly magic traps around it, while the Lady of the Lake comes to taunt Merlin by asking did he rot there yet. In the Vulgate Lancelot, which predated the later Vulgate Merlin (and the Post-Vulgate), she instead makes Merlin sleep forever in a pit in the forest of Darnantes, "and that is where he remained, for never again did anyone see or hear of him or have news to tell of him."
The legendary Brocéliande is often identified as the real-life Paimpont forest in Brittany. Other purported sites of Merlin's burial include Drumelzier in Tweeddale in Scotland and Carmarthen on Ynys Enlli off the coast of Wales. Both of these locations are also associated with Merlin more generally, including through the 13th-century manuscript known as the Black Book of Carmarthen and the local lore of Merlin's Oak in the latter case.
According to Alan Lupack, since the Renaissance, "numerous novels, poems and plays center around Merlin. In American literature and popular culture, Merlin is perhaps the most frequently portrayed Arthurian character." Sometimes Merlin is a villain, such in Mark Twain's satire of the legend, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889).
- According to Alan Lupack, "Merlin plays many roles in Arthurian literature, including bard, prophet, magician, advisor, and warrior. Though usually a figure who supports Arthur and his vision of Camelot, Merlin is, because of the stories in which he is said to be the son of a devil, sometimes presented as a villain."
- He appears as a woodcutter with an axe about his neck, big shoes, a torn coat, bristly hair, and a large beard. He is later found in the forest of Northumberland by a follower of Uther's disguised as an ugly man and tending a great herd of beasts. He then appears first as a handsome man and then as a beautiful boy. Years later, he approaches Arthur disguised as a peasant wearing leather boots, a wool coat, a hood, and a belt of knotted sheepskin. He is described as tall, black and bristly, and as seeming cruel and fierce. Finally, he appears as an old man with a long beard, short and hunchbacked, in an old torn woolen coat, who carries a club and drives a multitude of beasts before him.
- In the Livre d'Artus, for instance, Merlin enters Rome in the form of a huge stag with a white fore-foot. He bursts into the presence of Julius Caesar (here Arthur's contemporary) and tells the emperor that only the wild man of the woods can interpret the dream that has been troubling him. Later, he returns in the form of a black, shaggy man, barefoot, with a torn coat. In another episode, he decides to do something that will be spoken of forever. Going into the forest of Brocéliande, he transforms himself into a herdsman carrying a club and wearing a wolf-skin and leggings. He is large, bent, black, lean, hairy and old, and his ears hang down to his waist. His head is as big as a buffalo's, his hair is down to his waist, he has a hump on his back, his feet and hands are backwards, he is hideous, and is over 18 feet tall. By his arts, he calls a herd of deer to come and graze around him.
- As summarized by Anne Berthelot, depending on the version of the narrative, "it may be that a lustful Merlin seduces an (almost) innocent Morgue [Morgan], thus pushing her to her déchéance (downfall). Or Morgue may appear as an ambitious and unscrupulous bitch ready to seduce an old tottering Merlin in order to gain the wisdom he alone can dispense."
- In the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin, for example, Viviane (Niviene) is introduced as a young teenage princess. She is about to depart from Arthur's court following her initial episode but, with some encouragement from Merlin, Arthur asks her to stay in his castle with the queen. During her stay, Merlin falls in love with her and desires her. Viviane, frightened that Merlin might take advantage of her with his spells, swears that she will never love him unless he swears to teach her all of his magic. Merlin consents, unaware that throughout the course of her lessons, Viviane will use Merlin's own powers against him, forcing him to do her bidding. When Viviane finally goes back to her country, Merlin escorts her. However, along the way, Merlin receives a vision that Arthur is in need of assistance. Viviane and Merlin rush back to Arthur's castle, but have to stop for the night in a stone chamber, once inhabited by two lovers. Merlin relates that when the lovers died, they were placed in a magic tomb within a room in the chamber. That night, while Merlin is asleep, Viviane, still disgusted with Merlin's desire for her, as well as his demonic heritage, casts a spell over him and places him in the magic tomb so that he can never escape, thus causing his death.
- The Conte referred to in the text is unknown and might have never existed. However, in the Spanish Post-Vulgate manuscript known as the Baladro del Sage Merlin (The Shriek of the Sage Merlin), Merlin tells Bagdemagus that only Tristan could open the iron door to the cave, but Tristan is by then only a baby. He than gives the story's eponymous great cry in a demonic voice, calling for his father to come and take him, and dies amidst a terrific supernatural event.
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- Merlin: Texts, Images, Basic Information, Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. Numerous texts and art concerning Merlin
- Timeless Myths: The Many Faces of Merlin
- BBC audio file of the "Merlin" episode of In Our Time
- Prose Merlin, Introduction and Text (the University of Rochester TEAMS Middle English text series) edited by John Conlea, 1998. A selection of many passages of the prose Middle English translation of the Vulgate Merlin with connecting summary. The sections from "The Birth of Merlin to "Arthur and the Sword in the Stone" cover Robert de Boron's Merlin