Thursday, 20 November 2014

Who Is Merlin?


One of the most important characters within Arthurian legend is Merlin.  However, the Merlin we know today is much changed compared to how he first began.

Merlin first appears in Armes Prydein, an early 10th century Welsh prophetic poem from the Book of Taliesin.  His name is not that which we now use.  Here he is instead called Myrdin or Myrddin.

Myrdin foretells these will meet
In Aber Peruddon, the stewards of kings:
And though there be no right of slaughter they complain.

His role gradually evolves from here into that of a magician, prophet, and adviser of the kings.  He was apparently called Emrys (or Ambrosius) at his birth in Caer-Fryrddin (Carmarthen).  It is only later that his name is changed to Merlin, a Latinized version of the Welsh word, Myrddin.  It is thought that Geoffrey of Monmouth invented this form of his name to avoid the character being associated with the French word 'merde'.


Merlin was the illegitimate son of a Royal Princess of Dyfed and his father is said to have been an angel that visited the Royal nun, leaving her with child.  According to Geoffrey, when introduced into the presence of Vortigern to be questioned about Merlin's father, his mother told him:

My sovereign lord... I know nobody that begot him of me.  Only this I know, that as I was once with my companions in our chambers, there appeared to me a person in the shape of a most beautiful young man, who often embraced me eagerly in his arms, and kissed me; and when he had stayed a little time, he suddenly vanished out of my sight.  But many times after this he would talk to me when I sat alone, without making any visible appearance.  When he had a long time haunted me in this manner, he at last lay with me several times in the shape of a man, and left me with child.  And I do affirm to you, my sovereign lord, that excepting that young man, I know no body begot him of me.

Vortigern and Merlin by Alan Lee
It is through the help of the king's advisers that many then come to the conclusion that Merlin's father was an incubus.

For, as Apuleius informs us in his book concerning the Demon of Socrates between the moon and the earth inhabit those spirits which we will call incubuses.  These are of the nature of partly of men and partly of angels, and whenever they please assume human shapes, and lie with women.  Perhaps one of them appeared to this woman, and begot the young man of her.

Merlin was, however, baptised early in his lifetime; an event which is said to have taken the evil from his nature, leaving his powers intact.  Some believe that this story was invented to save Merlin's mother from the scandal which would have arisen had her liaison with Morfyn Frych (the Freckled), a minor prince from the House of Coel, become public knowledge.

Merlin is first requested by Vortigern when he had tried to build a fortress which, every night, would collapse.  Vortigern's magicians told him that the only way to solve this problem was to sacrifice a child that had no father.  However, before the sacrifice took place, Merlin told Vortigern that a subterranean pool lay beneath the foundations, in which lived two dragons, one red and one white.

A painting depicting a battle in which a red dragon and white dragon fight.
According to Merlin, the red dragon represented Britain, while the white dragon represented the Saxons.  The two dragons fought with the white dragon first having the upper-hand, only to be driven back by the red dragon.  To Merlin, the meaning was clear.  He then prophesised that Vortigern would be killed and followed on the throne first by Ambrosius, then by Uther, and finally by Arthur to whom would fall the responsibility of pushing back the Saxons.  The prophecy was fulfilled and Merlin's role as adviser, prophet, and magician followed.

"I will now unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away ;the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came; but do you depart from this place, where you are not permitted to erect a citadel; I, to whom fate has allotted this mansion, shall remain here; whilst to you it is incumbent to seek other provinces, where you may build a fortress."
                                                                      Frrom Historia Brittonum by Nennius


When 460 British nobles were slain at a peace conference due to Saxon treachery, Ambrosius, who at this time was king, consulted with Merlin about a suitable memorial to mark the men's passing and, as a result, Merlin, along with Uther, procured the stones of the Chorea Gigantum, the Giant's Ring and re-erected them around the mass grave.  We now call this place Stonehenge.

It was through Merlin that Uther lay with Igraine to conceive Arthur by way of turning Uther into the likeness of Igraine's husband, Gorlois.


After Arthur was born, Merlin became his tutor while he grew up with his foster-father, Sir Ector.  Merlin is the one that is said to have arranged for the Sword in the Stone contest, by which Arthur becomes king.  He was also the first to meet with the Lady of the Lake, convincing her to provide a magical sword, Excalibur, for Arthur.  In the romances, Merlin is the one to create the Round Table and is also responsible for aiding and directing the events of the king and of Camelot.

According to Geoffrey, at the end of Arthur's life, Merlin accompanies Arthur to the Isle of Avalon for the healing of Arthur's wounds.


Sir Thomas Malory tells of how Merlin falls deeply in love with the Lady of the Lake, also known as Vivienne or Nimue, to whom he teaches all of his mystical powers.

And so, soon after, the lady and Merlin departed, and by the way Merlin showed her many wonders, and came into Cornwall.  And always Merlin lay about the lady to have her maidenhood...


The Lady of the Lake becomes so powerful that her magical skills outshine even those of Merlin.  Believing that Merlin will enslave her, the Lady of the Lake imprisons Merlin sometimes in a cave, sometimes in a tree and, due to this, Merlin is absent from the Battle of Camlann.

Vivien Encloses Merlin in the Tree
...she was ever passing weary of him, and fain would have been delivered of him, for she was afeared of him because he was a devil's son, and she could not beskift him by no mean.  And so on a time it happened that Merlin showed to her in a rock whereas was a great wonder, and wrought by enchantment, that went under a great stone.  So by her subtle working she made Merlin to go under that stone to let her wit of the marvels there; but she wrought so there for him that he came never out for all the craft he could do.  And so she deported and left Merlin.

So, Merlin begins his journey as little more than a prophet.  He is later transformed by Geoffrey of Monmouth into a character of importance - a prophet, magician and adviser of kings.  In some literature, Merlin is responsible for the creation of the Sword in the Stone and the Round Table.  In some tales he falls in love with the Lady of the Lake and, in doing so, becomes trapped, leading to his absence at the Battle of Camlann.  This absence leads to the fatal wounding of King Arthur.  The centuries have seen Merlin go from minor character to major, with some considering Merlin to be one of the most important characters found within Arthurian literature.

That's all for today.  Next time we will learn about the myth of Flight 19.

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