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Matter of Britain character
Nuremberg chronicles - Merlin (CXXXVIIIr)-cleaned.jpg
Merlin in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)
First appearance Prophetiae Merlini,
Created by Geoffrey of Monmouth
Occupation Wizard
Significant other(s) Lady of the Lake, Morgan le Fay

Merlin (Welsh: Myrddin) is a legendary figure best known as the wizard 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 (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.[1] 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.[2] Merlin matures to an ascendant sagehood and engineers the birth of Arthur through magic and intrigue.[3] Later authors have Merlin serve as the king's advisor and mentor to the knights until he is bewitched and imprisoned by the Lady of the Lake.[3]

Name and etymology[edit]

The name "Merlin" is derived 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. 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.[4]

Clas Myrddin or Merlin's Enclosure is an early name for Great Britain stated in the Third Series of Welsh Triads.[5] 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.[6] This contrasts with the popular folk etymology that the town was named for the bard. The name Carmarthen is derived from the town's previous Roman name Moridunum,[4][6] in turn derived from Celtic Brittonic moridunon, "sea fortress".[7]

Geoffrey and his sources[edit]

Merlin reads his prophecies to King Vortigern in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Prophetiae Merlini (c. 1250-1270)

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.[8] 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.[9] 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. 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 Saxons and the Britons, which 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 bringing 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, set long after his time frame for the life of "Merlin Ambrosius". He tries to assert that 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[edit]

A giant helps Merlin build Stonehenge. From a manuscript of the Roman de Brut by Wace

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 demon. (The name of Merlin's mother is not usually stated, but is given as Adhan in the oldest version of the Prose Brut.[10]) 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 the British king 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.[3]

Later versions of the legend[edit]

Merlin reciting his story to be written down in a 13th-century illustration for the prose version of the poem Merlin

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 Blase (or Blaise) of her predicament; they immediately baptize 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 de Boron lays great emphasis on Merlin's power to shapeshift, on his joking personality, and on his connection to the Holy Grail. 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 13th 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.[11]

Merlin in a 13th-century Lancelot-Grail manuscript

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 many early wars and the role of Merlin in them. 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 is hideous, and is over 18 feet tall. By his arts, he calls a herd of deer to come and graze around him.[11]

The Enchanter Merlin, by Howard Pyle from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903)

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 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 just one of old Uther's favourite advisors.


"Waving her hands and uttering the charm, [she] presently enclosed him fast within the tree." - Merlin and Vivien in a 1912 illustration by Lancelot Speed for James Knowles' The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights

In the Lancelot-Grail and later accounts, Merlin's eventual downfall came from his lusting after Niviane (or Nymue, Nimue, Niniane, Nyneue, Viviane or Vivien in some versions of the legend). She is portrayed as Merlin's apprentice; his other female student (and an actual lover[12]) is often Arthur's half-sister, Morgan le Fay.

In the Suite du Merlin,[13] for example, Niviane, who was the daughter of the king of Northumberland, 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. 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.[13]

Merlin's demise or imprisonment 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 one version, Niviane confines him in the forest of Brocéliande with walls of air, visible as mist to others but as a beautiful tower to him.[11]

Possible historicity[edit]

Nikolai Tolstoy[14] 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's fictional Historia Regum Britanniae,[15] 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.[16]

In modern fiction[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lloyd-Morgan, Ceridwen. "Narratives and Non-Narrtives: Aspects of Welsh Arthurian Tradition." Arthurian Literature. 21. (2004): 115–136.
  2. ^ Katharine Mary Briggs (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, p.440. New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  3. ^ a b c Geoffrey of Monmouth (1977). Lewis Thorpe, ed. The History of the Kings of Britain. Penguin Classics. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044170-0. 
  4. ^ a b "Merlin". Oxford English Dictionary. 2008. Retrieved June 7, 2010. 
  5. ^ Rhys: Hibbert Lectures, p. 168.
  6. ^ a b Koch, p. 321.
  7. ^ Xavier Delamarre, Noms de lieux celtiques de l'Europe ancienne, Errance, Paris, 2012 (French)
  8. ^ Ashe, Geoffrey. The Discovery of Arthur, Owl Books, 1987.
  9. ^ Dames, Michael. Merlin and Wales: A Magician's Landscape, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2004.
  10. ^ Bibliographical Bulletin of the Arthurian Society Vol LIX (2007) p 108, item 302.
  11. ^ a b c Loomis, 1927.
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b Robert de Boron (1994). James J. Wilhelm, ed. Suite du Merlin. Garland Reference Library. 
  14. ^ Tolstoy, Nikolai (1985). The Quest for Merlin. Hamish Hamilton. 
  15. ^ Curley, Michael, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Cengage Gale, 1994, p. 115.
  16. ^ Gough-Cooper, Henry (2012). "Annales Cambriae, from Saint Patrick to AD 682: Texts A, B & C in Parallel". The Heroic Age, Issue 15 (October 2012).


  • "Oxford English Dictionary". 2008. Retrieved June 7, 2010. 
  • Arbrois De Jubainville, H., "Merlin est-il un personage historique?". Revue des questions historiques 5, 1868.
  • Breton-Guay, Neomie, Merlin l'Enchanteur dans les images de la renaissance arthurienne. 2006.
  • Cadieux-Larochelle, Josee, Pour forger un mythe: les avatars de Merlin. 1996.
  • Castleden, Rodney, King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend. London, New-York, G. Routhledge, 2000.
  • Donnard, Ana, Merlin, L'intermediaire des mondes. Minas Gerais Federal University.
  • Dumezil, Georges, Mythes et Dieux des Indo-europeens. Flammarion, 1992.
  • Gaster, M, The Legend of Merlin: A Postscript, Folklore, 1905
  • Gaster, M, "The Legend of Merlin", Folk-Lore, 1905.
  • Gill, N.S., "Who was Merlin and was Merlin Real?". Ancient/Classical History. 2007.
  • Heather, P.J., Divination, Folklore, 1954.
  • Hersart, Theodore, Myrdhin ou l'enchanteur Merlin: son histoire, ses oeuvres, son influence. Paris, Terre de Brume, 1989.
  • Holdstock, Robert, Le graal de fer, Paris, Pocket, 2006.
  • Joe, Jimmy, Timeless Myths: The Many Faces of Merlin. 2007.
  • Koch, John T. (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-85109-440-7. 
  • La Croix, Arnaud de, Arthur, Merlin et le Graal, un mythe revisite, Monaco, Editions du Rocher, 2001.
  • Norris J. Lacy (1991). The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-8240-4377-3. 
  • Loomis, Roger Sherman (1927). Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance. Columbia University Press.
  • Monmouth, Geoffrey. The History of the Kings of Britain. The Romance of Arthur. Ed. James J. Wilhelm. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994. 63–93.
  • Rider, Jeff, The Fictional Margin: The Merlin of the Brut, Modern Philology, 1989, University of Chicago Press.
  • Torregrossa, Michael A. “Merlin Goes to the Movies: The Changing Role of Merlin in Cinema Arthuriana.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 29.3–4 (1999): 54–65.
  • Torregrossa, Michael A. “The Way of the Wizard: Reflections of Merlin on Film." The Medieval Hero on Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy. Eds. Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004. pp. 167–91.

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