Merlin is a legendary figure best known as the wizard of Arthurian legend. The standard depiction of the character first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, finished in 1138, and is based on an amalgamation of previous historical and legendary figures. Geoffrey combined existing stories of Myrddin Wyllt (Merlinus Caledonensis), a North British 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, a prophet with mystical powers.
Geoffrey's rendering of the character was immediately popular; later writers expanded the account to produce a fuller image of the wizard. Merlin's traditional biography casts him as born of mortal woman, sired by an incubus, the non-human wellspring 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 adviser until he is bewitched and imprisoned by the Lady of the Lake.
Geoffrey's composite Merlin is based primarily on Myrddin Wyllt, also called Merlinus Caledonensis, and Aurelius Ambrosius, a somewhat fictionalized version of the historical war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. The former had nothing to do with Arthur and flourished after the Arthurian period. According to lore 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 this individual 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 madman. Medievalist Gaston Paris suggested he altered the name to "Merlinus" rather than the standard romanization "Merdinus" to avoid a resemblance to a vulgar French word for excrement.
Geoffrey's Prophetiae do not reveal much about Merlin's background. When he included the prophet in his next work, Historia Regum Britanniae, he supplemented the characterization by attributing to him stories about Aurelius Ambrosius, taken from Nennius's Historia Brittonum. According to so-called 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 the only solution was to sprinkle the foundation with the blood of a child born without a father. Ambrosius was rumored 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 (or badgers, depending on the translation) who destroyed the tower by fighting. Geoffrey retells this story in 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 to disguise his changing of Nennius, he simply states that Ambrosius was another name for Merlin, or Merlinus Ambrosius. Geoffrey goes on to add new episodes that tie Merlin into the story of King Arthur and his predecessors.
Geoffrey's account of Merlin Ambrosius' early life in the Historia Regum Britanniae is based on the story of Ambrosius in the Historia Brittonum. He adds his own embellishments to the tale, which he sets in Carmarthen, Wales (Welsh: Caerfyrddin). While Nennius's Ambrosius eventually reveals himself to be the son of a Roman consul, Geoffrey's Merlin was begotten on a king's daughter by an incubus. The story of Vortigern's tower is essentially the same; the underground creatures, one white and one red, represent the Saxons and the British, 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. In the second, Merlin's magic enables Uther Pendragon to enter into Tintagel in disguise and father his son Arthur on his enemy's wife, Igraine. These episodes appear in many later adaptations of Geoffrey's account, and in verse and prose romances. After Arthur's birth Geoffrey has Merlin disappear from the narrative; the wizard does not tutor and advise Arthur as in later versions.Geoffrey dealt with Merlin again in his third work, Vita Merlini. He based the Vita on stories of the original 6th-century Myrddin and another, similar figure, Lailoken. Though the historical Myrrdin (and legendary Lailoken) lived (or were portrayed as living) some hundred years after the Arthurian period, Geoffrey tries to assert the character is one in the same, with references to King Arthur and his death as told in the Historia Regum Britanniae.
Several decades later the French poet Robert de Boron retold this material in his poem Merlin. Only a few lines of the poem have survived, but a prose retelling became popular and was later incorporated into two other romances. In Robert's account Merlin is begotten by a devil on a virgin as an intended Antichrist. This plot is thwarted when the expectant mother informs her confessor Blaise of her predicament; they immediately baptize the boy at birth, thus freeing him from the power of Satan. 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 de Boron lays great emphasis on Merlin's power to shapeshift, on his joking personality and on his connection to the Holy Grail. This text introduces Merlin's master Blaise, who is pictured as writing down Merlin's deeds, explaining how they came to be known and preserved. Robert was inspired by Wace's Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman adaptation of Geoffrey's Historia. Robert's poem was rewritten in prose in the 12th century as the Estoire de Merlin, also called the Vulgate or Prose Merlin. It was originally attached to a cycle of prose versions of Robert's poems, which tells the story of the Holy Grail: brought from the Middle East to Britain by followers of Joseph of Arimathea, the Grail is eventually recovered by Arthur's knight Perceval.
The Prose Merlin contains many instances of Merlin's shapeshifting. 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 (Loomis, 1927).
The Prose Merlin later came to serve as a sort of prequel to the vast Lancelot-Grail, also known as the Vulgate Cycle. The authors of that work expanded it with the Vulgate Suite du Merlin (Vulgate Merlin Continuation), which describes King Arthur's early adventures. The Prose Merlin was also used as a prequel to the later Post-Vulgate Cycle, the authors of which added their own continuation, the Huth Merlin or Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin.
In the Livre d'Artus, Merlin enters Rome in the form of a huge stag with a white fore-foot. He bursts into the presence of Julius Caesar 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 Broceliande, 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's hideous, and is over 18 feet tall. By his arts, he calls a herd of deer to come and graze around him (Loomis, 1927).
These works were adapted and translated into several other languages; the Post-Vulgate Suite was the inspiration for the early parts of Sir Thomas Malory's English language Le Morte d'Arthur. Many later medieval works also deal with the Merlin legend. The Italian The Prophecies of Merlin contains long prophecies of Merlin (mostly concerned with 13th-century Italian politics), some by his ghost after his death. The prophecies are interspersed with episodes relating Merlin's deeds and with various Arthurian adventures in which Merlin does not appear at all. The earliest English verse romance concerning Merlin is Arthour and Merlin, which drew from the chronicles and the French Lancelot-Grail.
As the Arthurian mythos was retold and embellished, Merlin's prophetic aspects were sometimes de-emphasized in favor of portraying him as a wizard and elder advisor to Arthur. On the other hand in the Lancelot-Grail it is said that Merlin was never baptized and never did any good in his life, only evil. Medieval Arthurian tales abound in inconsistencies.
In the Lancelot-Grail and later accounts Merlin's eventual downfall came from his lusting after a huntress named Niviane(or Nymue, Nimue, Niniane, Nyneue,or Viviane in some versions of the legend), who was the daughter of the king of Northumberland. In the Suite du Merlin, for example, Niviane is set to depart from Arthur's court, but, with some encouragement from Merlin, Arthur asks Niviane to stay in his castle with the queen. Throughout her stay, Merlin falls in love with her and desires her. Niviane, 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, Niviane will use Merlin's own powers against him, forcing him to do her bidding.
When Niviane finally goes back to her country, Merlin escorts her. However, along the way, Merlin receives a vision that Arthur is in need of assistance against the schemes of Morgan le Fay. Niviane and Merlin rush back to Arthur's castle, but must 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, Niviane, still disgusted with Merlin's desire for her, as well as his demon heritage, casts a spell over him and places him in the magically inescapable tomb, thus causing his death.
Merlin's death is recounted differently in other versions of the narrative, the enchanted prison variously described as a cave (in the Lancelot-Grail), a large rock (in Le Morte d'Arthur), or an invisible tower. In the Prophetiae Merlini, Niviane confines him in the forest of Broceliande with walls of air, visible as mist to others but as a beautiful tower to him (Loomis, 1927). This is unfortunate for Arthur, who has lost his greatest counselor. Another version has it that Merlin angers Arthur to the point where he beheads, cuts in half, burns, and curses Merlin.
Powers and AbilitiesEdit
- Expert Crossbowman
- Expert Swordsman
- Extreme Intelligence
- Extreme Magical Resilience
- Power of Life and Death
- Skilled Physician
- Supreme Magic Powers
The name "Myrddin" (note that double-d in Welsh makes the voiced 'th' sound in English so it is pronounced " Myrthin") might have arisen from the Roman-period Celtic name for a place in Wales, *Mori-dunon, meaning "sea fort". The name became Carmarthen (Caerfyrddin in Welsh), which can be loosely translated as "Fort of Moridunum", since a caer is a fortified, often royal residence. It seems that the name was taken to mean "Caer of [some man called] Myrddin". It's possible that Geoffrey of Monmouth invented the character as a fanciful means of explaining the origin of that placename.
Later fiction featuring Merlin Edit
Much Arthurian fiction includes Merlin as a character. Mark Twain made Merlin the villain in his 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. He is presented as a complete charlatan with no real magic power, and the character seems to stand for (and to satirise) superstition, yet at the very last chapter of the book Merlin suddenly seems to have a real magic power and he puts the protagonist into a centuries-long sleep (as Merlin himself was put to sleep in the original Arthurian canon). C. S. Lewis used the figure of Merlin Ambrosius in his 1946 novel That Hideous Strength, the third book in the Space Trilogy. In it, Merlin has supposedly lain asleep for centuries to be awakened for the battle against the materialistic agents of the devil, able to consort with the angelic powers because he came from a time when sorcery was not yet a corrupt art. Lewis's character of Ransom has apparently inherited the title of Pendragon from the Arthurian tradition. Merlin is a major character in T. H. White's collection The Once and Future King and the related The Book of Merlyn. White's Merlin is an old man living time backwards, with final goodbyes being first encounters, and first encounters being fond farewells. Mary Stewart produced a influential quintet of Arthurian novels; Merlin is the protagonist in the first three: The Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1973) and The Last Enchantment (1979). Merlin plays a modern-day villain in Roger Zelazny's short story The Last Defender of Camelot (1979), which won the 1980 Balrog Award for short fiction and was adapted into an episode of the television series The Twilight Zone in 1986. Additionally, the last five books in Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber star a character named Merlin, with seemingly little to do with Arthurian legend, though other references to the legend seem to hint at a connection.
Nicol Williamson has a large role as Merlin in the 1981 film Excalibur.
Laurence Naismith appears as Merlyn in the film version of the musical play Camelot.
In the 1963 Walt Disney animated film The Sword in the Stone, Merlin is voiced by Karl Swenson.
In the 1988 Doctor Who serial "Battlefield", Merlin is revealed to be a version of the Doctor, then played by Sylvester McCoy, a time traveling alien from an alternate timeline who created much Arthurian mythology as propaganda for Arthur's war against Morgan le Fay, and who hid the sword Excalibur in a magic spaceship underneath Lake Vortigern pending one last showdown between himself and Morgan, and the latter's demon.
In the 1998 miniseries Merlin, actor Sam Neill's Merlin battles the pagan goddess Queen Mab.In 2006 and 2007, the Vancouver-produced television series Stargate SG1 used Merlin and Arthurian legend as major plot points in both Season 9 and 10. Specifically, Merlin is portrayed as an Ancient whose superior knowledge of the universe is the source of many components of the legends.
In 2008, the BBC created a television series, also called Merlin, which deviated significantly from more traditional versions of the myth, portraying Merlin as the same age as Arthur, and Nimueh as an evil sorceress dedicated to his death. Merlin was the protagonist of the 2008 fantasy film Merlin and the War of the Dragons, which was based loosely on the legends of King Arthur. In the film, Merlin was portrayed by Simon Lloyd Roberts.
- Vita Merlini, Basil Clarke's English translation from Life of Merlin: Vita Merlini (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1973).
- Merlin: or the early History of King Arthur: a prose romance (Early English Text Society [Series]. Original series: 10, 112), edited by Henry Wheatly. (1450s) (The complete prose Middle English translation of the Vulgate Merlin. Chapter I to VI cover Robert de Boron's Merlin.)
- Prose Merlin, Introduction and Text (TEAMS Middle English text series) edited by John Conlea, 1998. (1450s) (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).
- Of Arthour and Merlin: Auchenlich Manuscipt (National Library of Scotland) (1330s). (A Middle-English verse adaptation of the Vulgate Merlin combined with material closer to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia. Lines 1-3059 cover approximately Robert de Boron's Merlin).
- The Cry of Merlin the Wise, translated into English by Dorothea Salo from the 1498 Burgos publication of the Portuguese El baladro del sabio Merlin. (The original is essentially a medieval Portuguese adaptation of the Post-Vulgate Merlin. From Prologue 3 to Chapter 18 to the sentence And thus was Arthur king in Londres, and held the land in his power and in peace corresponds to Robert de Boron's Merlin). (not available anymore)
- XIIIth century Merlin manuscript BNF fr. 95 Bibliotheque Nationale de France, selection of illuminated folios, Modern French Translation, Commentaries.
- The Beguiling of Merlin, Edward Burne-Jones
- Merlin: Texts, Images, Basic Information, Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. (Numerous further texts and art concerning Merlin.)
- Merlin : Opera by Ezequiel Viñao with a Libretto by Caleb Carr, (Words and Music. Excerpts from the opera)
- 'Was Merlin an Old Magician or a Young Fortuneteller?' by Nathan Currin.