The Many Faces of Merlin
The Wizard from Tales of King Arthur
Do you see Merlin as a Disney inspired character, a mentor figure in a spangled cape and magician's hat?
Fifty years after The Sword in the Stone, the image of the wizard in a flowing robe and pointy hat remains.
All the portrayals of Merlin tie him tightly into the stories of King Arthur and that's where he should be, in the realms of legend.
He's not just a foil for developments of the Arthurian stories, he has the powers of a great Druid, for he originates deep in the mythic past of the Welsh.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Where we first learn of Merlin
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a cleric in the 12th century who compiled a history of Britain based largely on his own imagination. But we can thank Geoffrey for our acquaintance with some early Welsh folklore.
He took two characters from Welsh legend and combined them into one. The first character was Myrddin, a bard and seer; the second was Ambrosius, a War Leader of the Romano-British, and he named this composite character Merlinus Ambrosius.
Geoffrey's rendering of the character was immediately popular - this is where public fascination with Merlin began.
Geoffrey tells only two tales of Merlin. One a prophecy for King Vortigern and the other a raising of Stonehenge, but these are just the start of the stories that became attached to our Welsh Wizard over the next one thousand years.
Merlin and the Tower of Vortigern
The Prophecy of Merlin, according to Geoffrey
As a youth, Merlin was already known for his prophetic abilities. So he was summoned by King Vortigen to discover what was wrong with the king's building project. This Vortigern wanted to erect a great Tower but every week the walls would collapse again..
Merlin went into a trance and emerged with a vision of an underground lake which concealed two sleeping dragons, one red, one white.
The two dragons fought a great battle, till the red dragon of Wales was overpowered by the white dragon of the Saxons. A savage portent of things to come.
Merlin and Stonehenge - Merlin raises the Giant's Dance, according to Geoffrey
In another fabulous account from Geoffrey, Merlin transports (magically?) the Giants' Stones from Ireland and raises them as Stonehenge..
Merlin Moves along in the Middle Ages
Merlin gained sudden popularity in the Middle Ages, turning up in French and English romances, such as the works of Chretien de Troyes and in Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur.
Both of these writers gave the magical powers of Merlin a turbo-charge .
Malory wrote 'The Death of Arthur' during 1469 while imprisoned for a series of violent crimes. The chivalry of Arthur's world was a far cry from Malory's own, which was torn by war between the noble dynasties of York and Lancaster.
It's the Morte d'Arthur which gave us the wide range of characters for later Arthurian fiction set, curiously, in a French style royal court..
You can read Le Morte d'Arthur online in the somewhat awkward archaic English of Malory.
Idylls of the King, 1859 to 1885
When Tennyson got his hands on Merlin, the magical aspects were increased once again.
In Idylls of the King Merlin is credited with all sorts of fantastical acts as well as being the architect of Camelot.
In "Merlin and Vivien," the sixth poem in Idylls of the King, the poet describes Merlin's gradual capitulation to the deceitful charms of a malevolent woman. She is described as using rumour and scandal in an attempt to wreak havoc in the court of King Arthur.
This section of the Idylls is quite remarkable for its use of Victorian misogynistic language and assumptions. We've come full circle and return to Geoffrey of Monmouth's views on women.
Classic Mark Twain
Merlin in 1889
In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain gave us a satire against romantic ideas of chivalry.He invented a 19th-century resident of Connecticut who is mysteriously transported through time to 6th-Century England and immediately tries to modernise the population into Truth, Justice and the American Way
Twain made Merlin into a hack magician with the fatal flaw of actually believing in his own sleight of hand. Merlin is portrayed as deceptive, petty and vindictive; an incredibly dangerous person if any of his tricks ever worked.
Merlin on the Silver Screen
Merlin is trained in magic from childhood by the evil sorceress, Mab, but he ultimately rejects her tutelage setting up a war between them which leads to her attack on Arthur. So it's Merlin's fault when the first cracks appear in the walls of Camelot.
Sam Neill plays a sturdy Merlin, more human, one who makes mistakes.
If you don't believe in magic it doesn't work anymore. Helena Bonham Carter fades away after being ignored.
All comes to an end - TV series 2008-2012
An admirable TV series following the lives of a handful of young people who just happen to be Arthurian characters.
Merlin is a young wizard, full of magic and pretty powerful magic too.
But he's out of luck, magic is outlawed!
My Favourite Merlin
My personal favourite is the Merlin created by Mary Stewart in her beautiful and moving Merlin Trilogy. Every couple of years, I pick it up and read it again.
Arthur's Women from Tales of King Arthur
The tales of King Arthur are legendary but we don't hear much about the women in the stories. Geoffrey of Monmouth set the standard for sweeping them under the carpet..
Comment, crit, or curious question? They're all appreciated, you don't have to be a wizard to leave your mark
© 2008 Susanna Duffy