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Matter of Britain character
Arthur-Pyle The Enchanter Merlin.JPG
The Enchanter Merlin, Howard Pyle's illustration for The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903)
First appearance Prophetiae Merlini
Created by Geoffrey of Monmouth
Occupation Prophet, magician
Spouse Gwendolen
Significant other Lady of the Lake, Morgan le Fay
Relatives Ganieda

Merlin (Welsh: Myrddin) is a legendary figure best known as an enchanter or 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 (or 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).

Geoffrey's rendering of the character was immediately popular, especially in Wales.[1] Later writers expanded the account to produce a fuller image. 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 forever imprisoned or killed by the Lady of the Lake.[3] He is popularly said to be buried in the magical forest of Brocéliande.

Name and etymology

Merlin in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

The name "Merlin" is derived from the Welsh Myrddin, the name of the bard who was 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

Geoffrey's composite Merlin is based primarily on the legendary "madman" poet and seer Myrddin Wyllt ("Myrddin the Wild", sometimes called Merlinus Caledonensis in later sources influenced by Geoffrey), and Emrys (Old Welsh: Embreis), a fictional character based in part on the 5th century, historical war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus mentioned in one of Geoffrey's primary sources, the early 9th century Historia Brittonum.[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 Myrddin Wyllt 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 poet and madman.

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

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 invading Saxons and the native Celtic Britons. Geoffrey retells this story in his 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 with King Arthur and his predecessors.

Giants help the young Merlin build Stonehenge in a manuscript of Wace's Roman de Brut (c. 1325-1350)

Geoffrey's account of Merlin Ambrosius' early life in the Historia Regum Britanniae is based on the tale 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 Britons, 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, bringing the stones from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales and Ireland. In the second, Merlin's magic enables the new British king Uther Pendragon to enter into Tintagel Castle 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]

Geoffrey dealt with Merlin again in his third work, Vita Merlini. He based it on stories of the original 6th-century Myrddin, set long after his time frame for the life of Merlin Ambrosius. Geoffrey tried to assert that the characters are the same with references to King Arthur and his death, as told in the Historia Regum Britanniae. Here, Merlin survives Arthur, married a woman named Guendoloena (Gwendolen, inspired by Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio), and spends his time observing stars from his home with seventy windows in the remote woods in the land of Rhydderch, where he is often visited by his beautiful sister Ganieda (based on Myrddin's sister Gwendydd) who has become queen of the Cumbrians.

Nikolai Tolstoy[11] 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,[12] 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.[13]

Later versions of the legend

The story of Merlin's unholy birth as told in Merlin. A 13th-century prose version illumination by Jean Colombe (c. 1480-1485)

Several decades later, Robert de Boron retold and expanded on this material in his poem Merlin written around 1200. Only a few lines of the poem have survived, but a prose retelling became popular and was later incorporated into chivalric romances. In Robert's account, as in Geoffrey's Historia, Merlin is begotten by a demon on a virgin as the 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 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 lays great emphasis on Merlin's power to shapeshift,[note 1] on his joking personality, and on his connection to the Holy Grail, the quest for which he foretells. Robert was inspired by Wace's Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman adaptation of Geoffrey's Historia. Merlin was originally a part of a cycle of Robert's poems, which tells the story of the Grail that gathered the blood of Christ: brought to Britain by followers of Joseph of Arimathea, the Grail is eventually recovered by Arthur's knight Percival.

Robert's poem was rewritten and continued in prose in the 13th century as the Estoire de Merlin, also called the Vulgate Merlin or Prose Merlin. It is a part of the vast Lancelot-Grail, also known as the Vulgate Cycle, where (in the Prose Lancelot) it is said that Merlin actually was never baptized.[15] It was further expanded with the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin (also known as Merlin Continuation or the Huth Merlin), which describes King Arthur's many early wars and the role of Merlin in them. Another continuation, written after the Vulgate Cycle, is the Livre d'Artus,[16] where Merlin's shapeshifting powers are also featured prominently.[note 2] These works have been adapted and translated into several other languages. Notably, the Post-Vulgate Suite was the source for the early parts of Thomas Malory's influential English-language Le Morte d'Arthur.

Merlin, the Enchanter by Louis Rhead (1923)

Later medieval works also deal with the Merlin legend. One, Les Prophéties de Merlin (c. 1276) contains long prophecies of Merlin (mostly concerned with 11th to 13th-century Italian history and contemporary politics), some by his ghost after his death, interspersed with episodes relating Merlin's deeds and with assorted Arthurian adventures in which Merlin does not appear at all. The earliest English verse romance concerning Merlin is Of Arthour and of Merlin, which drew from the chronicles and the French Lancelot-Grail. As the Arthurian myths were retold, Merlin's prophetic aspects were sometimes de-emphasised in favour of portraying him as a wizard and an advisor to the young Arthur.

Nimue reads from a book of spells while holding the infatuated Merlin trapped in The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones (1874)
Bradamante at Merlin's Tomb by Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard (1820)

Merlin's apprentice is often Arthur's half-sister Morgan le Fay (in the Prophéties de Merlin along with Sebile and two other witch queens), who is sometimes depicted as Merlin's lover[17] and sometimes as just an unrequited love interest.[note 3] Contrary to the many modern works, Merlin and Morgan are never enemies in any medieval tradition. In fact, Merlin loves Morgan so much, that he even lies to Arthur (in the Huth Merlin, which is the only instance of him ever doing such a thing) in order to save her.[19] In the Lancelot-Grail and later accounts, Merlin's eventual undoing came from his lusting after another of his female students, a young teenage girl often named Viviane (among other names and spellings, including Malory's popular Nimue). Merlin's fate of either demise or eternal imprisonment, along with his destroyer or captor's motivation, is recounted differently in variants of this motif.[note 4] His enchanted prison or grave can be a cave (as in the Lancelot-Grail Cycle), a hole under a large rock (as in Le Morte d'Arthur), an invisible tower, or a tree; in one version, Viviane confines him in the enchanted forest of Brocéliande with walls of air, visible as mist to others but as a beautiful tower to him.[14] In some texts, including in Le Morte d'Arthur, she then replaces Merlin in the role of Arthur's court mage and adviser as a Lady of the Lake (the chief Lady in case of Malory's Nimue).[21]

In the Prophéties de Merlin, his tomb is unsuccessfully searched for by various parties, including by Morgan and her enchantresses, but cannot be accessed.[22] In the Post-Vulgate Cycle, King Bagdemagus manages to find the rock under which Merlin is imprisoned and speak with Merlin, but can not lift it. The legendary Brocéliande is often identified as the real-life Paimpont forest in Brittany. Other purported sites of Merlin's burial include Drumelzier in Tweeddale in Scotland and Carmarthen on Ynys Enlli off the coast of Wales.[23] Both of these locations are also associated with Merlin more generally, including in the 13th-century manuscript known as the Black Book of Carmarthen and in the local lore of Merlin's Oak in the latter case.

Modern fiction

See also


Merlin in a medieval manuscript of a compilation of texts of astronomy by Alfonso the Wise (c. 1400)
  1. ^ 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.[14]
  2. ^ 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 (here Arthur's contemporary) 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.[14]
  3. ^ As summarized by Anne Berthelot, depending on the version of the narrative, "it may be that a lustful Merlin seduces an (almost) innocent Morgue [Morgan], thus pushing her to her déchéance (downfall). Or Morgue may appear as an ambitious and unscrupulous bitch ready to seduce an old tottering Merlin in order to gain the wisdom he alone can dispense."[18]
  4. ^ In the Suite du Merlin, for example, Viviane is a 12 years old daughter of the king of Northumberland. She 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. Viviane, 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, Viviane will use Merlin's own powers against him, forcing him to do her bidding. When Viviane finally goes back to her country, Merlin escorts her. However, along the way, Merlin receives a vision that Arthur is in need of assistance. Viviane 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, Viviane, 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.[20]


  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 978-0-14-044170-3.
  4. ^ a b "Merlin". Oxford English Dictionary. 2008. Archived from the original on June 29, 2011. Retrieved June 7, 2010.
  5. ^ Rhys, John: 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. ^ Tolstoy, Nikolai (1985). The Quest for Merlin. Hamish Hamilton.
  12. ^ Curley, Michael, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Cengage Gale, 1994, p. 115.
  13. ^ Gough-Cooper, Henry (2012). "Annales Cambriae, from Saint Patrick to AD 682: Texts A, B & C in Parallel Archived 2013-05-15 at the Wayback Machine". The Heroic Age, Issue 15 (October 2012).
  14. ^ a b c Loomis, 1927.
  15. ^ Cartlidge, Neil (2012). Heroes and Anti-heroes in Medieval Romance. DS Brewer. ISBN 9781843843047.
  16. ^ Chrétien (2014-10-08). Bliocadran: A Prologue to the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes; Edition and Critical Study. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. ISBN 9783111328256.
  17. ^ "Arthur and Gawain - Robbins Library Digital Projects". Archived from the original on 19 November 2017. Retrieved 1 May 2018.
  18. ^ Berthelot, Anne (2000). "Merlin and the Ladies of the Lake". Arthuriana. 10 (1): 55–81. ISSN 1078-6279. JSTOR 27869521.
  19. ^ Goodrich, Peter H. (2004). Merlin: A Casebook. Routledge. pp. 149–150. ISBN 9781135583408.
  20. ^ Robert de Boron (1994). James J. Wilhelm (ed.). Suite du Merlin. Garland Reference Library.
  21. ^ Mangle, Josh (2018-05-01). "Echoes of Legend: Magic as the Bridge Between a Pagan Past and a Christian Future in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur". Graduate Theses.
  22. ^ Larrington, Carolyne. "The Enchantress, the Knight and the Cleric: Authorial Surrogates in Arthurian Romance'".
  23. ^ "The enchanted wood". The Age. March 26, 2005. Retrieved 2018-07-07.


  • Koch, John T. (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-85109-440-0.
  • Loomis, Roger Sherman (1927). Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance. Columbia University Press.

External links

  • Merlin: Texts, Images, Basic Information, Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. Numerous texts and art concerning Merlin
  • Timeless Myths: The Many Faces of Merlin
  • BBC audio file of the "Merlin" episode of In Our Time
  • Prose Merlin, Introduction and Text (the University of Rochester TEAMS Middle English text series) edited by John Conlea, 1998. 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
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