Arthur is a fabled Britishking who figures in many legends. He appears as the ideal of kingship both in war and peace; even in modern times he has been ranked as one of the 100 Greatest Britons of all times. Over time, the popularity of the stories of King Arthur have captured interest far beyond his being the legendary hero of one nation. Countless new legends, stories, revisions, books, and films have been produced in Europe and the United States of America that unabashedly enlarge on and expand the fictional stories of King Arthur.
Geoffrey's version of the character was immediately popular, and later writers expanded the account to produce a fuller image of the wizard. His traditional biography has him born the son of an incubus and a mortal woman who inherits his powers from his strange birth. He grows up to be a sage and engineers the birth of Arthur through magic. Later Merlin serves as the king's advisor 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 highly fictionalized version of the historical war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. The former had nothing to do with Arthur and flourished after the Arthurian period. Supposedly a bard who went mad after witnessing the horrors of war, he was said to have fled civilization to become a Wildman of the Woods in the late 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 the obscene French word merde, meaning "excrement". (read more . . . )
The illegitimacy angle was introduced in the Lancelot-Grail (Vulgate) Cycle, and has been taken up in most subsequent versions. In those versions, the incest is usually accidental; the participants are ignorant of their kinship. In one version Morgause mistakes Arthur for her husband visiting her in the night. In another Arthur rapes his sister, dominated by lust for her. In any case the discovery of the incest is usually disastrous; after hearing a prophecy that a child born on May Day (as Mordred was) will destroy him and his kingdom, Arthur rounds up all the noble babies born during May and sends them away on a rickety ship. The ship sinks, and the only child to survive is Mordred, who is rescued and eventually returned to his parents. (read more . . . )