Merlin - Loved by Many and Feared by Most
Merlin and Vivien
Who was Merlin ?
Who was Merlin, really -- more intriguing, what was Merlin? Was he a sorcerer? A Seer? A magician? A prophet? A warrior? A shapeshifter? Was he a trusted counselor and emissary to the High Kings, including Arthur? Merlin was all this and more. He was also the author of "Prophecy" which Geoffrey of Monmouth translated for the world. Merlin was loved by many and feared by most.
He was known by different names (Myrrdin, Ambrosius Merlinus, The Emrys) however, as Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed in the year 1136, “Merlinus qui et Ambrosius dice-batur” (His name is Merlin.) -- and that is the name most people call him.
Most of us know Merlin as King Arthur's trusted advisor and mentor. The first appearance of Merlin seems to appear in the Historia Regum Britanniae (History Of The Kings Of Britain), which was written in 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It is believed that Geoffrey based Merlin's character on earlier figures of both legendary and historical significance.
These figures Geoffrey supposedly drew on were Myrddin Wyllt (Merlinus Caledonensis), and Ambrosius Aurelianus. From these two men, Merlin Ambrosius was created.
Myrddin Wyllt, a historical person, lived in the late sixth century in Britain (c. 540 - c.584). He was a North Brythonic prophet and madman with no connection to King Arthur. Apparently, Myrddin Wyllt fought in the Battle of Arfderydd in Cumberland and lost. After losing the battle, Myrddin went insane and retreated to the forests to live with animals. The battle that Wyllt lost was in the same general area that another person by the name of Lailoken fought.
It is possible that Wyllt is the same person known as Lailoken, who was also a Northern Brythonic seer and prophet of the late 6th century and was considered a fool. The story of Lailoken as a wild man and seer living in the forests of Southern Scotland very closely matches that of Myrddin Wyllt, who was one of Geoffrey's prototypes for King Arthur's Merlin.
The other prototype Geoffrey used for the Merlin of Arthurian legends was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Romano-British war leader. Aurelianus was of aristocratic heritage of high birth and had Roman ancestry. Aurelianus fought against the Saxon invaders and won. In Historia Brittonum (History of Britain), by Nennius, it is the Ambrosius Aurelianus who met with Vortigern to discuss the two dragons beneath Dinas Emrys (the castle Vortigern was trying in vain to build). Geoffrey used this bit of history for one of Merlin's famous adventures.
By combining the stories and characteristics of these two historical figures and possibly others, Geoffrey of Monmouth created a Merlin of very interesting character.
Merlin the Magician
Have you read about Merlin and do you believe he really existed?
Birth and Great Deeds
Geoffrey has Merlin born a cambion of a mortal woman and an incubus (demon in male form). Merlin inherits his supernatural powers and abilities from this demon. A cambion is a being that shows no sign of life yet appears alive. It has no pulse, no breath, and only slightly resembles a human child. By the time the being is around seven years old it is difficult to distinguish from a human. At the age of seven, Merlin had knowledge and abilities far beyond any human.
Geoffrey made Merlin the creator of Stonehenge, which Merlin built with the help of a giant. This circle of stones was the burial place of Aurelius Ambrosius. Merlin, still under Geoffrey's control, then arranges the birth of Arthur. By magic and intrigue Merlin brings together Uther Pendragon with Igraine, the wife of his enemy, so that Arthur becomes the next in line for the High King.
Geoffrey also gave us the great Prophetiae Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin), which he claims to be the actual words of the legendary Merlin during his days of madness in the wilds.
Having created such a fascinating character (what we would today call an overnight sensation) with great and seemingly unlimited power and potential, Geoffrey of Monmouth then leaves Merlin to wander off into obscurity. Was this to be the end of the legendary Merlin?
Merlin Builds Stonehenge
Merlin Returns From Obscurity
So, when Geoffrey abandoned Merlin to obscurity, was that the end of the wizard? No -- for Merlin returns from obscurity without the help of Geoffrey.
This being called Merlin that Geoffrey created could have been an evil monster had he not been brought back by a French poet of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Robert de Boron pulled off a miracle when he had Merlin's mother consult Blaise, a Master Druid. Blaise had Merlin baptized a Christian immediately upon birth, which thwarted any plans for the evil destiny of the child.
Blaise then becomes Merlin's teacher for life. From this frightening beginning in life, Merlin then grows to become a sage who is well known for his powers. Geoffrey did not remedy the demonic potential of Merlin, but Robert de Boron did in his poem, Merlin, several decades after Geoffrey left Merlin to walk off the pages of history.
Merlin Dictating his Prophecies to Blaise
Robert de Boron adds much to the character of Merlin and his legend. Robert adds weight and prominence to Merlin's powers as a shapeshifter and also gives the magician a great sense of humor. Merlin's connection to the Holy Grail (appearing first in works by Chretien de Troyes, another French poet in the 12th century) is expounded upon by Robert.
It is Robert who introduces Blaise as Merlin's master. Blaise takes it upon himself to write down all of Merlin's deeds, and tells of how they came to be known and preserved. Robert's poem was re-written in prose as Estoire de Merlin. It is also referred to as the Vulgate or Prose Merlin. Originally, Robert had the poem attached to a cycle of his poems in which he tells of the Holy Grail.
Robert put great emphasis on Merlin's shapeshifting abilities. Merlin appears under Robert's pen as a woodcutter with an axe dangling from his neck, a ragged coat, bristly hair and bushy beard. In the forest of Northumberland, Merlin was found by one of Uther Pendragon's men. That time Merlin was an ugly man tending a herd of beasts. He was also seen as a very handsome man, a beautiful boy, a peasant who was tall, dark and bristly, cruel and fierce looking, and as a short hunchback with a long beard and in tattered clothing.
Other authors followed Robert's rendition of Merlin and added their own embellishments to the legendary character. The Prose Merlin was like a prequel to the Vulgate Merlin Continuation in which the early adventures of King Arthur come into the legends.
In Livre d'Artus, Merlin appears to Julius Caesar in the form of a huge stag. He tells Caesar that the only one who can interpret the troubling dream Caesar had was the wild man of the woods.
Inspired by these early works, Sir Thomas Malory then took up the Merlin legacy and wrote Le Morte d'Arthur, which became possibly the best-known work of Arthurian literature in the English language. Mallory became the principal source for many modern writers of Arthurian legends. T. H. White used Mallory as a source for his popular The Once and Future King just as Tennyson did for The Idylls of the King.
In 'The Once and Future King', White portrays Merlin (he spells it Merlyn) as a delightful, loving, sometimes confused old wizard who lives backwards in time. Merlyn takes on the duties of tutoring a young boy named Wart (who obviously is Arthur) to prepare him for the use of power and royal life. Using his great sense of humor, Merlyn turns Wart into different animals for some of the lessons in order to learn from specific points of view.
From Geoffrey of Monmouth forward, countless stories, poems, books have been written about Merlin, his legendary and notable deeds. So, our Merlin came back, again and again -- every time another author writes about the Arthurian legends, Merlin returns and lives again. Yet for those who understand and love Merlin, he lives forever.
The Enchanter Merlin
The Lady of the Lake
History of the Kings of Britain
© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns