Merlin (wizard)

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Merlin Ambrosius (Welsh: Myrddin Emrys; also known as Myrddin Wyllt (Merlin the Wild), Merlin Caledonensis (Scottish Merlin), Merlinus, and Merlyn) is the personage best known as the mighty wizard featured in accounts of King Arthur starting with Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. Other accounts describe a far different Merlin.

Indeed some texts clearly distinguish two different figures named Merlin. For example the Welsh Triads state there were three baptisimal bards: Taliesin, Chief of Bards, Myrddin Wyllt, and Myrddin Emrys. If these two bards called Myrddin were originally variants of the same figure their stories have become so different in the earliest texts that we have about them that they are best treated as separate characters, even though similar incidents are ascribed to both.


Merlinus Caledonensis, Myrddin Wyllt

This Myrddin had nothing to do with Arthur and flourished after the Arthurian period. The earliest Welsh poems that concern the Myrddin legend present him as a madman living a wretched existence in the Caledonian Forest, ruminating on his former existence and the disaster that brought him low: the death of his lord Gwenddolau, whom he served as bard. The allusions in these poems serve to sketch out the events of the Battle of Arfderydd, where Rhydderch Hael king of Rheged slaughtered the forces of Gwenddolau, and Myrddin went mad watching this defeat. The Annales Cambriae date this battle to AD 573, and name Gwenddolau's adversaries as Gwrgi and Peredur, the sons of Eliffer.

A version of this legend is preserved in a late fifteenth-century manuscript, in a story called Lailoken and Kentigern. In this narrative, St. Kentigern meets in a deserted place with a naked, hairy madman who is called Lailoken, although said by some to be called Merlynum or "Merlin", who declares that he has been condemned for his sins to wander in the company of beasts. He added that he had been the cause for the deaths of all of the persons killed in the battle fought "on the plain between Liddel and Carwannok." Having told his story, the madman lept up and fled from the presence of the saint back into the wilderness. He appears several times more in the narrative until at last asking St. Kentigern for the Sacrament, prophesying that he was about to die a triple death. After some hesitation, the saint granted the madman's wish, and later that day the shepherds of King Meldred captured him, beat him with clubs, then cast him into the river Tweed where his body was pierced by a stake, thus fulfilling his prophecy.

Welsh literature has many examples of a prophetic literature, predicting the military victory of all of the Celtic peoples of Britain who will join together and drive the English -- and later the Normans also -- back into the sea. Some of these works were claimed to be the prophecies of Myrddin; some of it was not, as for example the Armes Prydein.

This wild prophetic Merlin was also treated by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini which looks like a close adaptation of a number of Myrddin poems.

A Scottish example of the legend of Merlin comes from 577 which was the year of the Battle of Arderyth. This was a battle between fierce enemies Rydderych "The Bountiful", King of Strathclyde, and Aeddam "The Perfidious", King of Kintyre. While few have heard of the main protaganists, among Aidan's contingent was the Celtic bard, Merlin. Merlin's patron, Gwenddolan was killed during the battle in which he was awarded for his verses recording the battle.

Merlin Ambrosius, Myrddin Emrys

It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who introduced Merlin into the myths of King Arthur. The name Myrddin is altered to Merlin to avoid a resemblance to the obscene French word merde (meaning excrement). While Geoffrey is remembered most for his character of Arthur, it was Merlin whom he concentrated on, making the prophetic bard a central character of his three books: Prophetiae Merlini, Historiae Regum Britanniae and Vita Merlini. As a result of this second book, where Merlin appears in the tales of the king Vortigern, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon who reigned immediately before Arthur, Merlin in some later works also became a character in tales of Arthur.

Geoffrey tells only two tales of Merlin. Merlin is begotten on a king's daughter by a demon and the episode is now placed at Carmarthen, in Welsh Caer Myrddin. As a young boy was already known for his prophetic abilities, and was consulted by King Vortigern to explain why his castle would collapse every time it was rebuilt. He revealed there was an underground lake, with two sleeping dragons, a white one and red one and explained they, respectively, represented the Saxons and Britons (and portent for things to come).

Nennius had recorded this tale in the Historia Britonum of the 9th century, but attached it to Aurelius Ambrosius rather than Merlin. Geoffrey conflated the two sages and incorporated them into his work, simply and baldly stating that Merlin was also called Ambrosius to cover over his changing of Nennius. A long section of prophecy is added at this point. The first tale tells how Merlin created Stonehenge as a burial place for Aurelius Ambrosius. The second tale tells how by shape-changing magic Merlin enabled Uther Pendragon to enter into Tintagel in disguise and father his son Arthur. These episodes also appear in many later adaptations of Geoffrey's account.

Somewhat later the poet Robert de Boron retold this material in his poem Merlin with many expansions but with details garbled and changed in a way that suggests that the version of Wace, who adapted Geoffrey's account into Anglo-Norman, had entered oral tradition and that this oral tradition was what Robert knew along with some other Merlin tales. 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 Merlin is begotten by a devil from hell on a virgin as an intended Antichrist. But his expectant mother, advised by her confessor and counsellor Blaise who realised what was amiss, had the boy baptized at birth to foil this Satanic plot. However, being half-demon, Merlin still had tremendous magical powers to know what was happening past and present and God himself gave him prophetic knowledge of the future.

Robert de Boron lays great emphasis on Merlin's power to change his shape, on his joking personality and on his connection to the Grail. This text introduces Merlin's master Blaise, who is pictured as writing Merlin's deeds which Merlin dictates to him, explaining how they came to be known and preserved. It also connects Merlin with the Holy Grail.

As the Arthurian mythos was retold and embellished upon, Merlin's prophetic aspects were sometimes de-emphasized in favor of portraying Merlin as a wizard and elder advisor to Arthur. On the other hand in Prose Lancelot it is said that Merlin was never baptized and never did any good in his life, only evil. Medieval Arthurian tales abound in inconsistencies.

In the Prose Lancelot and later accounts Merlin's eventual downfall came from his lusting after a woman named Nimue, who coaxed his magical secrets from him, eventually turning the magic he had taught her against him and imprisoning him either in a cave where he died or in a magical and invisible palace where he may live still. This was unfortunate for Arthur, depriving him of Merlin's counsel.

There are three such accounts of Merlin in Arthur's day which also cover the early days of Arthur's reign. The earliest, known as the Vulgate Merlin, includes Robert de Boron's Merlin. It was intended as a sort of prequel to the three romances of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. An incomplete variant version known as The Book of Arthur also exists. The second is sometimes called the Huth Merlin or the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin. It is part of a long prose romance that has not survived intact but which is now known as The Book of the Grail or the Post-Vulgate Cycle, intended as an entire history of the Grail and of Arthur and his knights. This also includes Robert de Boron's Merlin. The third work is called The Prophecies of Merlin and contains long prophecies of Merlin (mostly concerned with thirteenth 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.

Later fiction about Merlin

Novels and plays

(Many of the novels in the article King Arthur also include Merlin as a character. The following works are either told from Merlin's point of view, or are based on the earlier legend of Merlin.)

  • Mark Twain made Merlin the villain in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
  • C. S. Lewis used the figure of Merlin Ambrosius in his 1946 novel That Hideous Strength, the third book in the Space Trilogy. In it, Merlin has supposedly lain asleep for centuries to be awakened for the battle against the materialistic agents of the devil, able to consort with the angelic powers because he came from a time when sorcery was not yet a corrupt art. Lewis's character of Ransom has apparently inherited the title of Pendragon from the Arthurian tradition. Merlin also mentions "Numinor," a misspelling of Númenor, in a nod to J. R. R. Tolkien.
  • Merlin, by Robert Nye , (1978, Hamish Hamilton, ISBN 0241899524)
  • T.H. White's Arthurian retelling, The Once and Future King, in which 'Merlyn', as White calls him, has the curious affliction of living backwards in time to everyone else.
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon retells the Arthurian legend with Morgan Le Fay as protagonist, in the tradition of John Gardner's Grendel. It includes two distinct characters who, in succession, lead the Druids by taking on the title of "The Merlin of Britain".
  • Stephen R. Lawhead - Merlin (1988) Here, Merlin (Myrddin) is half-Cymric (from his father, the bard Taliesin) and half-Atlantean (from his mother, the Lady of the Lake, an Atlantean princess who escaped its destruction).
  • William Rowley, The Birth of Merlin (play, 1622)
  • Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy. 'Myrddin Emrys' (Merlin Ambrosius) is the protagonist of the first two novels, The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, which are based on earlier traditions of the character, as shown above. The last book of the trilogy, The Last Enchantment, and a related book, The Wicked Day, focus more on Arthur and Mordred, though the former is still told from his viewpoint. Stewart portrays Aurelius Ambrosius (brother to Uther Pendragon) as his father, and thus makes him Arthur's cousin.
  • Nikolai Tolstoy wrote a non-fiction trilogy covering the life of Merlin the Wild as a magnificently over-the-top comic tour-de-force. The books in this trilogy are:
  • René Barjavel's L'Enchanteur.
  • T.A. Barron portrays Merlin as a young man in his Lost Years of Merlin series, and is an adult in its sequel series, The Great Tree of Avalon. Merlin also figures prominently in Barron's book The Merlin Effect, which may be in the same fictional continuity.
  • Merlin—or Merlyn, this time—is the protagonist in many of Jack Whyte's The Dream of Eagles series (known as The Camulod Chronicles outside Canada).
  • Peter David depicts Merlin, Arthur and the familiar cast of characters from the Arthur stories appearing in modern-day America in his King Arthur trilogy, Knight Life, One Knight Only, and the upcoming Fall of Knight. In these stories, David employs T.H. White's idea that Merlin is living backwards in time, as the character appears physically to be a young boy in these stories.
  • Kara Dalkey has written a trilogy called Water for young adults where Niniane and Merlin (known Nia and Corwin respectively) must recover Excalibur to save Atlantis, the underwater city in which lives in. The books are subtitled Ascension, Reunion, and Transformation.

TV and Film

Naturally, Merlin is featured in many Arthurian films, like:


  • Doctor Who's 27th season featured "Battlefield" (by Ben Aaronovitch), a 4 episode story in which Arthur and his contemporaries are revealed to be of extraterrestrial origin, and that the good Doctor and Merlin may be one and the same.

Other media

Merlin has appeared in various comics, usually in stories where King Arthur plays a part. Some examples include:

See also

External links

Wikipedia contributors, 'Merlin (wizard)', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 February 2006, 06:13 UTC, [1]

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