Merlin is a legendary figure best known as the wizard featured in Arthurian legend. 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 (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). He is allegedly buried in the Broceliande forest, near Paimpont in Brittany.
Geoffrey's rendering of the character was immediately popular, especially in Wales. Later writers expanded the account to produce a fuller image of the wizard. 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. The name of Merlin's mother is not usually stated but is given as Adhan in the oldest version of the Prose Brut. 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 until he is bewitched and imprisoned by the Lady of the Lake.
Name and etymology
The name "Merlin" derives from the Welsh Myrddin, the name of the bard Myrddin Wyllt, one of the chief sources for the later legendary figure. Geoffrey of Monmouth Latinised the name to Merlinus in his works. The 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 faeces.
Clas Myrddin, or Merlin's Enclosure, is an early name for Great Britain stated in the Third Series of Welsh Triads. The Celticist A. O. H. Jarman suggests 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 but false folk etymology that the town was named for the bard. The name Carmarthen derives from the town's previous Roman name, Moridunum, itself derived from Celtic Brittonic *moridunon, "sea fortress."
Geoffrey's composite Merlin is based primarily on Myrddin Wyllt, also called Merlinus Caledonensis, and Aurelius Ambrosius, a mostly fictionalised version of the historical war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. The former had nothing to do with 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 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.
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 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 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 Saxons and the Britons, which struggle suggested that the tower would never stand under the leadership of Vortigern, but only under that of Ambrosius. (This is why Ambrosius is 'given' the kingdom, or the 'tower' -- he tells Vortigern to go elsewhere and says 'I will stay here'. The tower is metaphorically the kingdom, which is the notional ability to beat the Saxons.) 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, 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 into the story of King Arthur and his predecessors, such as the bringing of the stones for Stonehenge from Preseli Hills in south-west Wales and Ireland.
Geoffrey dealt with Merlin again in his third work, Vita Merlini. He based the Vita on stories of the original 6th-century Myrddin. Though set long after his time frame for the life of "Merlin Ambrosius", he tries to assert the characters are the same with references to King Arthur and his death as told in the Historia Regum Britanniae.
Merlin Ambrosius, or Myrddin Emrys
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' 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. The story of Vortigern's tower is essentially the same; the underground dragons, 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 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.
Later adaptations of the legend
Several decades later, the 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, as in Geoffrey's Historia, Merlin is begotten by a demon 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 Percival.
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 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'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. Italy's 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 myths were retold and embellished, Merlin's prophetic aspects were sometimes de-emphasised in favour 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.
A manuscript found in Bath from the 1420s simply records a "Merlyn" as having helped Uther Pendragon with his "sotelness" or subtleness, presumably but not necessarily magic. His role could be embellished and added to that of Aurelianus Ambrosius, or he could be made into one of old Uther's favourite advisors and naught more.
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 about to depart from Arthur's court, 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. 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 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, Niviane, 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.
Merlin's death is recounted differently in other versions of the narrative; the enchanted prison is variously described as a cave (in the Lancelot-Grail), a large rock (in Le Morte d'Arthur), an invisible tower, or a tree. In his book "The Meaning of Trees: botany, history, healing, lore" Fred Hageneder writes on page 149:
According to Breton legend, the legendary wise man Merlin climbed the Pine of Barenton (from bel nemeton, "Sacred Grove of Bel"), just as shamans climb the World Tree. Here, he had a profound revelation and he never returned to the mortal world. In later versions, Merlin's glas tann was mistranslated as a "glass house". It is actually a living tree (from the Cornish glas "(ever)green", and tann, "sacred tree"), and from these words the name of Glastonbury, in Somerset, England is sometimes derived. Hence, according to legend, it is a sacred tree in which the soul of Merlin awaits his return.
In the Prophetiae Merlini, Niviane confines him in the forest of Brocéliande 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.
In modern fiction
Nikolai Tolstoy hypothesizes that Merlin is based on an 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.
Curiously, the Annales Cambriae records, for the year AD 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". He subsequently took to the forest of Coed Celyddon, in what is now southwestern Scotland, and is probably the same person as Tolstoy's candidate.
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- BBC audio file, Radio 4 In Our Time, 45 minutes.
- 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: Auchinleck Manuscript (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).
- XIIIth century Merlin manuscript BNF fr. 95 Bibliothèque Nationale de France, selection of illuminated folios, Modern French Translation, Commentaries.
- 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)