Merlin: Character and Legend

By Emily Lozon


The prophet, seer, magician, and wizard of Arthurian legend is the second-best known character from medieval literature, second only to King Arthur himself (Goodrich 1). Merlin is a mix of supernatural, secular, and religious powers, "the epicenter of the supernatural in Arthurian legend...deeply rooted in pre-Christian traditions and molded by the Christian faith," (1).  Beginning as a prophet born of woman and a non-human entity, Merlin evolved through time to become the wizard frequently envisioned today. He is portrayed as a supporting character, the main character, and sometimes the narrator throughout Arthurian literature. The origin and evolution of Merlin can be traced from his beginnings with Geoffrey of Monmouth, through the Vulgate, Post-Vulgate, and Romantic periods, and the following centuries, showing the development, waxing and waning, and eventual popularization of Merlin as a main character of Arthurian literature.

           The earliest mentioning of Merlin is in Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain (Gaster 410). There are many theories on Monmouth's inspiration for the character. Within Celtic lore existed a seer named Lailoken (Lacy 64). He was a warrior who went insane in battle at Arfderydd about the year 574. He ran away to live in the forest and there developed the ability to detect hidden causes and predict the future (Goodrich 3). The Celtic legend was transplanted to southern Wales , where it was added to the story of another seer named Myrddin (4). Myrddin was a Welsh bard (Paton 90). "Myrddin is derived from Moridunum, the old name of Carmarthen in southwest Wales ," and Monmouth made this town Merlin's birthplace. Geoffrey also changed "Myrddin" to the Latin "Merlinus" and shortened it to Merlin. Ignorant of when Myrddin lived, Monmouth made Merlin a youth in the 430s when Vortigern was king (Lacy 45-46).

           Vortigern, failing in attempts to build a tower, was told, "look for a lad without a father, and that, when he had found one, he should kill him, so that the mortar and the stones could be sprinkled with the lad's blood," (Monmouth 167). Merlin at the time was seven years old, and born the son of a non-human entity and a female. His paternal relationship gave him the gift of prophecy (Gaster 413). Merlin revealed the reason the tower cannot be built, an underlying pool and beneath that, two dragons (Monmouth 169). Impressed, Vortigern believed Merlin and listened to his prophecies, which are revealed in Monmouth's The Prophecies of Merlin (170-185).

           Monmouth's creation and development of Merlin introduced a prophet. The gift of prophecy was a respected and faith-filled gift, "By the time of Geoffrey various members of the Norman dynasty were also reputed to have been made the subject of predictions...Supernatural revelation in one form or another was believed to have presaged the death of William, count of Flanders...such reputed vaticination was a valued mans of expressing political or natural partisanship," (Paton 89). In her article, "Notes on Merlin in the 'Historia regum Britanniae' of Geoffrey of Monmouth," Lucy Allen Paton claims that almost one third of Monmouth's sources were prophecies concerning the Britons, which influenced his creation of Merlin's prophecies (89-90). Although many of the prophecies were created by Monmouth, he credits them to the Welsh bard Myrddin (36). Through Monmouth, Merlin became the, "genius of the whole Arthurian scheme of things," (Lacy 37). He resolved the issue with the tower, he prophesized the meaning of the two dragons, he moved Stonehenge to England , and allowed Arthur to be conceived. After Arthur was born, Merlin disappeared from Monmouth's story (Goodrich 2). The character of Merlin was created as a gifted prophet, advisor and helper to the king, and mage with the power to transform appearances. Merlin was directly responsible for the birth of King Arthur, giving him enormous importance in the story. Monmouth played a major role in creating Merlin and popularizing him within Arthurian literature by giving him these powers, "He became the character of Merlin under Monmouth," (4).

           In the Vulgate cycle, Robert de Baron developed Merlin into the son of a devil who aimed to create an evil prophet to serve as the Antichrist. Upon birth however, the child was baptized and thus saved from such a fate (Lacy 336, Goodrich 11). The Vulgate writers placed Merlin chronologically in the fifth century with Vortigern and Uther. De Baron also added the sword in the stone tale.  The roles and abilities of Merlin became greatly elaborated in the Romance cycle begun by de Baron (11). The difference between the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles was the attitude toward the role of religion in chivalry, which reveals itself within Merlin's character. Merlin reached his high point in the Vulgate as a "benevolent mastermind, he succumbs in the end to peaceful circumscription by the woman who loves him. Conversely, he is regarded as irredeemably tainted by his infernal paternity and hypertrophied into a leering ancient feared, hated, and ultimately entombed by the object of his attentions in the Post-Vulgate...thus his character in thirteenth-century French romance suffers a decline equal to that of his one-time amie and pupil Morgan," (12). Due to a popular lessening of tolerance for non-Christian supernatural powers and events, Merlin's character experienced a downfall within the Post-Vulgate (13).

           Influenced by the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate, Romance writers also developed and changed Merlin. In these stories, Merlin caused the Round Table to be built for Uther, he arranged Arthur's fostering, and was responsible for the sword in the stone test (Lacy 336). He was not only responsible for Arthur's birth, but he also played a key role in the early years of Arthur's reign (Goodrich 10). The Romancers also added religion to Merlin's story, by contrasting, "Merlin's and Arthur's beginnings in lust with the new courtly convention of fin' amor or the virtuous romantic attachment between a noble and his lady dimensions of earthly and spiritual love...[Merlin] meets his demise by succumbing to lust, or love, himself. In this way, he remains his father's son and an ambivalent figure who mediates not only many narratives, but many dimensions of spiritual and sexual affiliation," (11).

Merlin developed many powers and abilities during this time, including shape-shifting, the ability to appear and disappear without notice, the ability to control climate, summon darkness, mists, storms, fire, and smoke to aid Arthur, and cast sleep spells (Goodrich 12). He was, as originally, a prophet. Throughout the Middle Ages, late Romance authors added to Merlin's story the aiding Arthur, helping Arthur obtain Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, preparing the way for the Grail Quest, and becoming enamored with Viviane. She learned secrets from him and trapped him in an enchanted prison, which was the version Thomas Malory adapted for Merlin's demise (Lacy 336). As the Middle Ages continued, Merlin admitted his lust was his greatest downfall and was referred to as "a conjurer that is tainted by his demonic nature," (Goodrich 13). In Thomas Malory's Le Morte DArthur, Merlin was subordinate to Arthur and his knights, although he still possessed his magical and supernatural powers. Malory adapted the Post-Vulgate view of Merlin as lusty and relays the tale of Viviane, who entombs Merlin in a stone. During the time of the Vulgate, Post-Vulgate, and Romance periods, Merlin developed a "flawed greatness;" he had many powers and was responsible for several events in Arthur's life. However, his lust for Viviane which contradicts the acceptable, led to his downfall (16).

Throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteen centuries, Merlin's popularity decreased. He became a secondary character, a wise eccentric man who lived in touch with the natural world; "the figure of Merlin dwindled into a literary convention enlivened by the stage and by lingering popular faith in astrology," (Goodrich 18, 21). During this time, the Arthurian legend itself found a place in superstition and popular culture. With the coming of printing, more were reading, and Merlin became more popular, along with the rest of Arthurian literature (18-19). There was also a newfound curiosity with demons and witchcraft; some accounts of Merlin gave him wizard-like powers and the ability to communicate with demons (19). "Merlin's continued fame as a prophetic icon was both a response to contemporary needs and a function of his intermediate nature between the pagan past and the Christian present, spiritual and material realms of being, and magical and empirical ways of reasoning. He incorporates an uneasy amalgam of revelation and rationality, attractively linked, for the English, to a sense of national identity...As the eighteenth century Enlightenment progressed, there no longer seemed to be a place for the mage other than as a fanciful figure of popular superstition in vulgar sideshows," (23). During these three centuries, Merlin's many roles seemed to contradict each other; he was a prophet, a wizard, a demon, and a creation of superstition. He took a secondary role in the writings and lost much of the prestige he had gained during the Middle Ages.

           Merlin's character development in the nineteenth century was inspired by references to Romantic poets and antiquarian collectors (Goodrich 25). Many of the stories written held traditional Arthurian plots with new episodes. Throughout the first-half of the nineteenth century, Merlin was characterized primarily as a magician and secondarily as a prophet (27). Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote Merlin as a wise enchanter in The Idylls of the King. Merlin was a major character, prophet, counselor, wizard, and lover, and became the kingdom's architect (29). It was also during this century that Arthurian literature first entered American literature, in Joseph Leigh's Illustration of the Fulfillment of the Prediction of Merlin (1807) (31). From there, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain also wrote Arthurian stories, "By the century's end, it was clear that the Arthurian legends and character of Merlin in particular had been absorbed into the mythopoeic imagination of North America ," (33). However, in Europe , Arthurian stories remained less popular.

           Merlin became a swaying character between anachronism and an avatar, depending on the role he was placed in, during the twentieth century (Goodrich 36). T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone is considered the most popular and influential picture of Merlin. In this, Merlin's character was born in the future and lived backwards through time; his prophetic power was "backsight" rather than foresight (42). Many stories connected back to traditional English and Celtic roots. After mid-century, more and more novels featured Merlin as the main character (43).

           Throughout Arthurian literature, Merlin proves to be a captivating character. Belief and fascination in the supernatural adds to his popularity (Paton 88). Merlin's complex background is surrounded in mystery, "so many inexplicable incidents are interwoven in the relation of his birth and his further activity," (Gaster 408). He is popular because he is unexplainable. Where did he come from, why can he prophesize, why does he possess so many powers? He is also the orchestrator through much of Arthurian literature. He controlled the political, military, and social order by guiding various characters. He created events as he saw fit and tailored them to fit his needs. Merlin, prophet, seer, advisor, magician, wizard, and semi-demon, left his legacy on the characters of the stories and on Arthurian literature throughout time.



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