Was Merlin an old magician or a young fortune-teller?

Explorations in Arthurian History

Merlin as we know him began in the fertile mind of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose History of the Kings of Britain and Vita Merlini tell us of Merlin's rise to power through the power or prophecy and his continuation of that power through functioning as facilitator of wishes and granter of desires as advisor to Ambrosius, Uther, and Arthur.

Geoffrey's Merlin is thought to be based on the Welsh Myrddin, a wise man who went mad after the battle of Arfderydd and retired to the Celidon Forest.

Merlin is said to have been born in Carmarthen, which means "Myrddin Town." He is said to have been the child of a human mother and an incubus, or demon. As such, he had no father in the traditional sense. This condition came in useful when Vortigern was having trouble building a tower on Dinas Emrys. His seers told him to sacrifice a boy who had no father; Merlin was produced but instead told his own prophecies (Geoffrey's Vita Merlini). He correctly predicted that the tower was built on an underground pool and that underneath the pool were two dragons fighting: one red and one white. This was to symbolize the Red Dragon of the Pendragon (Uther and Arthur) and the White Dragon of the Saxons; Merlin's Prophecies said that the Red Dragon would drive out the White Dragon.

Vortigern died soon after, whether by poison or by flame (both stories presist), and Ambrosius became the power. After a particularly bloody battle, Ambrosius asked Merlin how the dead should be remembered; the seer replied that the Giants' Ring should be built in Salisbury. These stones were, of course, in Ireland; but the Uther-led invasion force brought them home, with a little help from Merlin.

Finally, Merlin was instrumental in the begetting of Arthur, making Uther appear as Gorlois so Igraine would consent to having him in her bed. Out of this union came Arthur.

Geoffrey is vague on whether Merlin used magic: To move the stones, he used "devices"; to change Uther, he used "drugs." One might read into these descriptions physical means of transformation.

Later writers built on Geoffrey's foundation of Merlin as a prophet, seer, or fortune-teller. But the magic part would have to wait.

See also

Historical Literature: Geoffrey of Monmouth

The Importance of Geography: Carmarthen

The Importance of Geography: Dinas Emrys

The Importance of Geography: Stonehenge

Explorations in Arthurian Legends

Robert de Boron, who gave us so many of the Arthurian conceptsthe Sword in the Stone, the Holy Grail, the Round Tablealso gave us the magical conception of Merlin.

Robert repeats Geoffrey's story of Merlin's origin and makes it work for his story of magic infused into the creation of the Round Table and the Holy Grail story. Before Merlin is 3 years old, he tells the story of Joseph of Arimathea and his bringing the Grail to Britain. He saves his mother from certain death and grows up as an odditya prophet with a religious air.

He foresees the need for a Round Table and for Arthur. Robert says Merlin casts a spell on Igraine to make her believe Uther is Gorlois. The baby Arthur is given to Merlin for safe keeping, and the King Arthur is proclaimed when the boy Arthur pulls the sword from an anvil set on top of a stone.

Merlin continues as court magician, assisting Arthur behind and in front of the scenes. He even helps Perceval fulfill the Grail Quest. In Robert, it is Perceval who sits in the Siege Perilous.

In Malory and others, Merlin is the center of the magical aspects of the court at Camelot, fighting off challenges from Morgan Le Fay and other witches.

He also falls under the spell of Nimue or Vivien of the Lady of the Lake, depending on which version you read. The story of how Merlin is locked away depends on the magical aspects of his character: He tells her the words to the spell to make someone invisible to all but one person; and she takes advantage of it. Whether Merlin foresaw this is an open question. Tennyson portrays the magician as a tired old man who almost seems to want to be locked away. (This, of course, is a reflection of the failure of Arthur to uphold the standards in his life and his courta large theme in the Idylls of the King.)

Later writers built on the foundation of Geoffrey and Robert and made Merlin both a prophet and a magician. In The Once and Future King, he is even a funny old man who lives backwards (explaining how he can see into the future). In Marion Zimmer Bradley, he is a priest of the old religion and prophet for the new days ahead. In Mary Stewart, he is both prophet and magician.

See also

Literature of the Legends: Robert de Boron

Literature of the Legends: Sir Thomas Malory

Literature of the Legends: Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Literature of the Legends: T.H. White

Literature of the Legends: Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart

Frequently Asked Questions:

Was Arthur a king or just a battle commander?

Was Guinevere really an adulteress?

Was Lancelot the greatest knight of them all?

Was Gawain a great knight or a royal pain?

Was Merlin an old magician or a young fortune-teller?

Who was the Lady of the Lake?

Was Galahad really so boring?

Did Perceval see the Holy Grail or didn't he?

Was Morgan Le Fay really a witch?

Was Morgause to blame for all of Arthur's troubles?

Was the Sword really in the Stone?

Did the Round Table really seat 1,600 men?

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