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Merlin

Merlin

A legendary British enchanter who lived at the court of King Arthur. He emerged as a character in Geoffrey of Manmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (completed around 1135 C.E.). Geoffrey later wrote a complete book on Merlin, Vita Merlini (ca. 1150). According to Geoffrey, Merlin's mother was a nun, and he was borne of his mother's intercourse with an incubus. He lived in the sixth century in north Britain. By the end of the century, he was the subject of poems in Wales, where Geoffrey's character was merged with the folklore image of a Wildman in the Wood.

Merlin seems to have been associated with King Arthur in the poem "Merlin" by Robert de Boron. In Boron's account, Merlin is the product of a demon's mating with a young girl. She confesses the incident to her confessor, who puts the sign of the cross on her. The son, Merlin, is born without the demon's evil nature, but with supernatural abilities. He assists Pendragon, the British king who was slain in a battle with the Saxons. Merlin then assists the king's brother, Uterpendragon. He directs the new king's construction of a roundtable, a replica of the one believed to have been used by Jesus at the Last Supper.

Uterpendragon (with Merlin's magical help) seduces the wife of one of the noblemen. From that union, Arthur is born. Though the king married the woman, who was widowed soon after conceiving Arthur, Merlin advises that Arthur be given to foster parents for his own protection. That action set up Arthur's later claiming the throne based upon his pulling a sword from the stone.

From Boron's basic story, Merlin's story grew and developed. By the nineteenth century, he had become the quinessential magician, and in the twentieth century the number of appearances in fantasy novels soared.

Sources:

Lacy, Norris J., ed. The Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1986.

Loomis, Roger Sherman, ed. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.

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Merlin

Merlin

In the legends about King Arthur, the king had the help and advice of a powerful wizard named Merlin. Indeed this magician, who arranged for Arthur's birth and for many aspects of his life, can be seen as the guiding force behind the Arthurian legends*. Many stories about Merlin circulated in medieval times.


medieval relating to the Middle Ages ¡n Europe, a period from about a.d. 500 to 1500

Origins and Sources. The figure of Merlin seems to be based on a magician named Myrddin, who appeared in the pre-Christian mythology of the Celtic* peoples. The writings of Nennius, a Welsh storyteller of about a.d. 800, include tales of a young magician named Ambrosius who became an adviser to Vortigern, a legendary king of early Britain.

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

Some 300 years later, the British chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth told a more elaborate story about the magician in his History of the Kings of Britain (1136). In this account, a sorcerer known as Merlin Ambrosius served as adviser to British king Uther Pendragon and, later, to his son Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth also wrote a work about Merlin that drew on old Celtic legends about a "wild man of the woods" with magical and fortune-telling powers.

Related Entries

Other entries related to Merlin are listed at the end of this article.

Some early legends claimed that Merlin was the son of a demon and of a human woman. Only half human, Merlin was mysterious and unpredictable, sometimes helping the human race but sometimes changing his shape and passing long periods as a bird, a cloud, or something else. He also desired and seduced women. By the 1200s, however, the influence of Christianity was reshaping the Arthurian legends, and Merlin became a more respectable figurea wise old man who supplied moral guidance as well as magic.

Merlin's Life and Works. In the legend of Vortigern, the king was trying to build a temple on Salisbury Plain, but it kept falling down. The boy Ambrosius told the king of a vision in which he had seen a red dragon and a white dragon fighting in a pool under the temple's foundation. From this, he predicted that the red dragon of Wales (King Vortigern) would be defeated by the white dragon of Britain (King Uther Pendragon), which later happened. The magician then built the temple himself, using his magic to bring standing stones from Ireland and to arrange them on the plain on a single night. That, according to legend, was how Stonehenge was built.

Merlin Ambrosius became the ally of Uther and used his magic to enable Uther to spend a night with another king's wife. The child born of that union was Arthur. Merlin predicted that he would be a great king who would one day unite all of Britain.

Entrusted with Arthur's upbringing, Merlin prepared the boy for kingship. Some accounts say that the wizard fashioned the magical sword Excalibur that proved that Arthur was the rightful king. According to other stories, Merlin also created the Round Table around which Arthur's knights sat. He was Arthur's helper and adviser in many things. Yet even Merlin could not prevent the final crumbling of the knights' fellowship and the fall of Arthur, as recounted in every version of the Arthurian legends.

As for Merlin's own fate, accounts vary. Some say that he lost his wits after Arthur's defeat and wandered into the woods. Most versions of the magician's story, however, end with his being tricked by a witch named Nimuë (or in some accounts by the Lady of the Lake), with whom he had fallen in love. Nimuë did not really care for Merlin but simply wanted to learn his secrets. When she had learned enough, she trapped him in an underground cave from which he could never escape.

See also Arthur, King; Arthurian Legends.

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Merlin

Merlin was famous in myth and tradition as the soothsayer and magician at King Arthur's court. Fragmentary evidence of early oral traditions suggests Merlin's earliest incarnation was as the mythical Welsh poet-madman Myrddin. This figure's transformation into Merlin was probably the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1100–54), who welded Merlin onto the Arthurian myth. This process was consolidated in Malory's Morte Darthur (published 1485), and revived with the Victorian reinvention of the Arthurian legend. In the interim, Merlin was regarded as the prototype magician, and his ‘prophecies’ were frequently reworked and republished in the 16th and 17th cents.

J. A. Sharpe

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Merlin

Merlin, in Arthurian legend, magician, seer, and teacher at the court of King Vortigern and later at the court of King Arthur. He was a bard and culture hero in early Celtic folklore. In Arthurian legend he is famous as a magician and as the counselor of King Arthur. In Tennyson's Idylls of the King Merlin is imprisoned eternally in an old oak tree by the treacherous Vivien (or Nimue), when he reveals the secrets of his knowledge to her.

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Merlin

Merlin Legendary magician. His origins may be traced to early Celtic folklore, although his name is usually associated with the Arthurian legends as the mentor of King Arthur.

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Merlin

Merlin in Arthurian legend, the powerful magician who protected Arthur in childhood and was later his chief counsellor; he was eventually entrapped by the enchantress Vivien.

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merlin

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MERLIN

MERLIN (ˈmʔːɑn) Astronomy Multi-Element Radio-linked Interferometer Network (UK)

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Merlin

MERLIN

MERLIN . The origins of Merlin, the magician, prophet, and guardian of the legendary British king Arthur and a central figure in medieval Arthurian romance in both French and English, are to be found in a number of early Welsh poems and related material in Latin. The name Merlin was created by the twelfth-century pseudohistorian Geoffrey of Monmouth, who described the conception of "a fatherless boy" by a nun who had been impregnated by an incubus in the South Wales town of Caerfyrddin (modern-day Carmarthen). The omniscient boy's advice to King Vortigern suggests that Geoffrey modeled his Merlin on an earlier Welsh story of the wonder-child Ambrosius. Although two later exploits, the removal of Stonehenge from Ireland to England and the disguising of Uter Pendragon as Gorlois so that he might sleep with the latter's wife (a ruse that results in the conception of Arthur), are not found in the earlier sources, Merlin's major role as a political prophet in Geoffrey's Historia regum Britanniae is traditional.

The prophet's birth at Caerfyrddin is a sure sign that he is in fact the Welsh Myrddin, whose name is variously spelled Merddin, Merdin, and Myrtin, which Geoffrey changed to Merlin to avoid unfortunate associations with the French merde. There are extant a large number of medieval Welsh poems claimed to have been composed by a fictional Myrddin. The majority of these are post hoc vaticinations and contemporary comments on political events attributed to the famed prophet, who had acquired this role by the tenth century, as the poem Armes Prydein (c. 935) shows, a role he was to retain throughout the Middle Ages. There may also be discerned, however, a substratum of story to which other pre-twelfth-century poems allude and which can be reconstituted from these and other sources. Myrddin, a member of the court of King Gwenddoleu, became insane at the Battle of Arfderydd (fought in 573 in modern-day Cumbria). He fled in terror from King Rhydderch of Strathclyde to the Caledonian Forest (in the Scottish Lowlands), and lived there the life of a wild man (his Welsh epithet is Wyllt, "wild"). He was befriended by his sister, or lover, Gwenddydd, to whom he prophesied events at court. These traditions were used by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his poem Vita Merlini, which is designed to correct the nontraditional elements and to supplement the picture he had earlier given in his Historia. His two Merlins appeared to contemporaries as distinct characters named Merlinus Ambrosius (in the Historia ) and Merlinus Silvestris (in the Vita ), but it is better to regard the distinction as being due to Geoffrey's imprecise knowledge of the genuine tradition at the time of his writing of the Historia.

The northern Myrddin is found under the name Lailoken in the twelfth-century Vita Kentigerni of Joceline of Furness, and he has an analogue in the ninth-century Irish character Suibhne Geilt. Lailoken's tale was relocated in South Wales, and, according to the claims of A. O. H. Jarman, the madman was given a new name derived from Caerfyrddin. Rachel Bromwich, stressing Myrddin's status as a poet in Welsh bardic tradition, suggests that he was a sixth-century historical poet, none of whose work is extant but who developed legendary features, as happened to Taliesin. There is little doubt that the sagas of two characters have influenced one another, and they are linked in a pre-twelfth-century dialogue poem which may have been known to Geoffrey of Monmouth, who used the device of dialogue in the Vita. Although Welsh literature does not show the influence of later Arthurian romance in the character of Myrddin, late medieval Welsh poetry does contain allusions to his imprisonment and death and to erotic elements in the legend.

Bibliography

A good and concise account of the development of the theme of Myrddin/Merlin is presented in The Legend of Merlin (Cardiff, 1960) by A. O. H. Jarman. Consult, also, Jarman's article titled "A oedd Myrddin yn fardd hanesyddol," Studia Celtica 10/11 (19751976): 182197. This article is written in response to Rachel Bromwich's piece, "Y Cynfeirdd a'r Traddodiad Cymraeg," Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 22 (1966): 3037. A thorough review of the important issues is found in Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, 2d ed. (Cardiff, 1978), which was edited and translated by Bromwich. For views on Merlin's historical origins see Nikolai Tolstoy, The Quest for Merlin (London, 1985).

Brynley F. Roberts (1987 and 2005)

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Merlin

Merlin

Nationality/Culture

Romano-British/Celtic

Pronunciation

MUR-lin

Alternate Names

Myrddin

Appears In

Nennius's History of the Britons, Geoffrey of Mon-mouth's Prophecies of Merlin and Life of Merlin

Lineage

Unknown

Character Overview

In the legends about King Arthur, the king had the help and advice of a powerful wizard named Merlin. Indeed this magician, who arranged for Arthur's birth and for many aspects of his life, can be seen as the guiding force behind the Arthurian legends. Many stories about Merlin circulated in medieval times.

Some early legends claimed that Merlin was the son of a demon and of a human woman. Only half human, Merlin was mysterious and unpredictable, sometimes helping the human race but sometimes changing his shape and passing long periods as a bird, a cloud, or something else. He also had many relationships with women. By the thirteenth century, however, the influence of Christianity was reshaping the Arthurian legends, and Merlin became a more respectable figure—a wise old man who supplied moral and magical guidance.

In the legend of Vortigern (pronounced VOR-tuh-gurn), a legendary king of Britain, the king was trying to build a temple on Salisbury Plain, but it kept falling down. The young Merlin told the king of a vision in which he had seen a red dragon and a white dragon fighting in a pool under the temple's foundation. From this, he predicted that the red dragon of Wales (King Vortigern) would be defeated by the white dragon of Britain (King Uther Pendragon), which later happened. The magician then built the temple himself, using his magic to bring standing stones from Ireland and arrange them on the plain in a single night. That, according to legend, was how Stonehenge was built.

Merlin became the ally of Uther (pronounced OO-ther) and used his magic to enable Uther to spend a night with another king's wife. The child born of that union was Arthur. Merlin predicted that he would be a great king who would one day unite all of Britain.

Entrusted with Arthur's upbringing, Merlin prepared the boy for kingship. Some accounts say that the wizard fashioned the magical sword Excalibur that proved that Arthur was the rightful king. According to other stories, Merlin also created the Round Table, around which Arthur's knights sat. Merlin was Arthur's helper and advisor in many things. Yet, even Merlin could not prevent the final crumbling of the knights' fellowship and the fall of Arthur, as recounted in every version of the Arthurian legends.

As for Merlin's own fate, accounts vary. Some say that he went mad after Arthur's defeat and wandered into the woods. Most versions of the magician's story, however, end with him being tricked by a witch named Nimue (pronounced neem-OO-ay), also identified as the Lady of the Lake , with whom he had fallen in love. Nimue did not really care for Merlin but simply wanted to learn his secrets. When she had learned enough, she trapped him in an underground cave from which he could never escape.

Merlin in Context

The figure of Merlin seems to be based on a magician named Myrddin, who appeared in the pre-Christian mythology of the Celtic people. The writings of Nennius, a Welsh storyteller who lived around 800 ce, include tales of a young magician named Ambrosius (pronounced am-BROH-zhuhs) who became an advisor to Vortigern.

Three hundred years later, British writer Geoffrey of Monmouth told a more elaborate story about the magician in his History of the Kings of Britain (1136). In this account, a sorcerer known as Merlin Ambrosius served as advisor to British king Uther Pendragon and, later, to his son Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth also wrote a work about Merlin that drew on old Celtic legends about a “wild man of the woods” with magical and fortune-telling powers. As Christianity spread throughout Britain, Merlin's role within the legend shifted. The re-casting of Merlin as a fatherly advisor may reflect the influence of Christian ideals upon existing myths.

Key Themes and Symbols

An important theme in the myths of Merlin is prophecy, or the ability to see the future. When he meets with Vortigern, Merlin relates his vision of battling dragons , which suggests that Vortigern will be defeated by Uther. Merlin later sees that Uther's son Arthur will unite Britain. Another theme found in the tales of Merlin and Arthur is the dangerous power of passion. For Arthur, Guinevere's affair with the knight Lancelot causes the unity of Camelot to crumble. For Merlin, his love of Nimue blinds him to her plan to imprison him after learning his secrets.

Merlin in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

As an important character in the tales of King Arthur, Merlin has appeared in nearly every major adaptation of the Arthurian legends. This includes Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1485), T. H. White's The Once and Future King (1958), and films such as King Arthur (2004). Merlin has also appeared in many other stories outside the traditional King Arthur myth, including Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) and That Hideous Strength (1946) by C. S. Lewis. The wizard was also the subject of the Broadway musical Merlin that began and ended its run in 1983; the show was designed mainly as a showcase for magic tricks, and starred popular magician Doug Henning in the tide role.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The Lost Years of Merlin (1996), by T. A. Barren, is a tale about Merlin's younger years. In the book, Merlin is initially known as Emrys, a seven-year-old boy who finds himself washed up on the beach at Wales with no memory at all. He eventually discovers that he has magical powers, and the story reveals how Merlin learns to use those considerable powers for good rather than evil.

SEE ALSO Arthur, King; Arthurian Legends

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