Merlin's name is derived from the latin 'Merlinus' in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'Historia Regum Britanniae' - "The History of the Kings of Britain" - which he wrote early in the 12th century. Geoffrey based his Merlin partly on on an earlier Welsh literary figure, Myrddin, and partly on the figure of Ambrosius from 'Historia Brittonum' written by the 9th century Welsh monk Nennius. Myrddin and Ambrosius were thus combined into the conception of Merlin as the prophet and wizard who became popularly associated with the Arthurian legend.
The original Merlin (Myrddin) legend is not connected with King Arthur. He is portrayed in various medieval Welsh poems as a prophetic Wild Man living in the Caledonian forest in the 6th century. Other Scottish sources identify such a Wild Man as Lailoken, not Myrddin, but the tale is similar. It has been suggested that 'Myrddin' is a name that was created, in accordance with early traditions, to explain the place name 'Caer-fyrddin' (Carmarthen) and that it subsequently substituted the name Lailoken, in which case the earliest version of the Merlin legend is of Scottish rather than Welsh origin.
In 'Historia Brittonum' Nennius, the self-styled "historiographer of the Britons", wrote that Vortigern, the British king during the mid-fifth century, took refuge from the Saxons in the remote mountains of Heremus where he tried to build a fortified city. Unfortunately the materials gathered for its construction kept disappearing in the night - a problem that soothsayers said could only be solved by sprinkling on the ground the blood of a boy with no father.
Vortigern's messengers found such a boy in Glamorgan, whose name was Ambrosius and whose mother claimed he had been begotten by a spirit who would appear and disappear. The boy was taken to Vortigern to be sacrificed, but he solved the problem of the disappearing stones not by being sacrificed but by detecting an underground pool on Vortigern's chosen site. The pool was emptied and two dragons appeared - one white and one red. The dragons fought each other and at first, the white one (which according to Ambrosius represented the Saxons) was winning, but eventually the red one won (representing the Britons). This foretold the death of Vortigern (for his alledged complicity with the Saxon invaders) and that the current Saxon dominance in Britain would eventually be overcome by the forces of Good. The king subsequently assigned the fortress to Ambrosius, together with all the western provinces of Britain.
It is in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'Historia' that the Arthurian Merlin legend begins to take hold. Here, he takes the Vortigern episode more or less straight from the Nennius version but for a few significant changes: the fatherless youth is now identified as Myrddin/Merlin and not Ambrosius, and the boy is found in Carmarthen, not in Glamorgan. Also, the problem Vortigern faces in building his fortress is sinking foundations, not disappearing materials, and the fatherless boy's blood is to be sprinkled on the stones rather than on the ground.
According to Geoffrey, Merlin was the illegitimate son of a monastic Royal Princess of Dyfed (where lies Carmarthen). The lady claimed that he had been begotten by a spirit who would appear and disappear, an 'incubus' who would intercourse with sleeping women. Other aspects of the Merlin legend were also introduced, such as his involvement in the conception of Arthur at Tintagel Castle, when King Uther Pendragon (one of Vortigern's sons) took one of Merlin's potions which turned him into an exact likeness of Gorlois, husband of Ygerna. Uther was thus able to trick his way into the castle and to Ygerna. Thinking he was her husband, she allowed King Uther into her bed, and Arthur was conceived. Geoffrey also credits Merlin with the transportation of of the stones of Stonehenge from Ireland to England.
After completing the 'Historia Regum Britanniae' Geoffrey's of Monmouth's interest in Merlin continued in his Latin poem 'Vita Merlini' (c.1150), but he reverts to the Myrddin of the Welsh poems - the Wild Man of the Woods sometimes identified as Lailoken. It appears that Geoffrey had become better acquainted with the folkloric tradition of Myrddin as the wild man who gained his prophetic powers but also went mad with grief after seeing the defeat of his lord, Gwenddolau, in the battle of Arfderydd, fought around 574 AD (a similar version of this distinctly non-Arthurian Merlin legend is, incidentally, preserved in a fifteenth century manuscript, in the story of Lailoken and Kentigern). The 'Historia', however, remains the model for the Merlin whose involvement with King Arthur was subsequently developed by the Arthurian romancers.
The 'Prose Merlin' was written in the middle of the fifteenth century and is considered to be the earliest example of Arthurian literature written in English prose. It is, in fact, a translation into Middle English of the Merlin section of the French Vulgate Cycle and not only presents a full account of the life of Merlin himself but also gives a detailed account of the Arthurian legend from Arthur's birth, through his coronation and marriage, to the pacification of post-Roman Britain.
The first section of the prose is probably derived from the romantic French poem 'Merlin' by the late twelfth-century writer Robert de Boron. Merlin's birth and endowment with special powers is described, and the story of Vortigern and his ill-fated fortress appears again, though this time the combat between the white and red dragons signifies a struggle which will follow between Vortigern and his sons, the brothers Pendragon and Uther (before Uther adopted the name Uther Pendragon). Vortigern's fortress is completed but, as predicted by Merlin, it becomes the place of his fiery death.
Pendragon becomes the British king and, with Uther, is assisted by Merlin in their struggles against the invading Saxons. A great battle is fought near Salisbury, where Pendragon is slain (in accordance with Merlin's prediction) and Uther takes the throne. As a memorial to the fallen Britons Merlin builds Stonehenge on the Salisbury plain and, on Merlin's advice, King Uther (now called Uther Pendragon in honour of his brother) creates the Round Table as a replica of the table of the Grail originally built by Joseph of Arimathea and which was, in turn, a replica of the table of the Last Supper.
The 'Robert de Boron' section of the Prose Merlin treats Arthur's conception by Uther and Ygerna at Tintagel in much the same way as Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'Historia'. It goes on to relate the story in which Arthur draws the sword from the stone, and of his subsequent coronation as Britain's king by divine election after he convinces the reluctant barons by repeating the feat at every high feast from New Year to Pentecost.
The prose could be regarded as the heyday of the Merlin legend in Arthurian literature. Here, Merlin is the ever-present central character in the great triumvirate he makes up with Arthur and, in this case, Gawain. In contrast to Sir Thomas Malory's later work 'Le Morte d'Arthur' (in which Merlin is mainly an early behind-the-scenes advisor to King Arthur) in the 'Prose Merlin' he is much more prominently featured as a principal player in the events that take place, even riding into battle at the head of Arthur's army, bearing the king's battle standard.
Sir Thomas Malory's epic work, Le Morte d'Arthur, was completed in 1470, slightly later than the mid-fifteenth century Prose Merlin. Malory's central character is Arthur, not Merlin (who disappears from the story in Book 4 out of 21). Whilst Le Morte d'Arthur draws overall on a wider variety of sources, the first four books are considered to be an abridged version of the 'Suite de Merlin', another thirteenth-century prose work that is closely connected to the Vulgate Cycle.
Despite his early exit, Malory's Merlin plays a crucial role during the early years of King Arthur. We see his now-familiar part in the conception of Arthur by Uther and Ygerna (now Igraine) at Tintagel Castle, followed nine months later by Arthur's birth and removal by Merlin (according to his bargain with Uther) to be fostered by Sir Ector. Thereafter Merlin becomes Arthur's constant advisor, slipping in and out of the narrative as the occasion demands, often in disguise, to dispense foresight, knowledge, and guidance, and Malory uses him as a literary device, foretelling the future in the manner of fate - what Merlin speaks will be fulfilled.
There is little of the Merlin legend in Le Morte d'Arthur that is completely new. The main events include Merlin's kingmaking role, initiated by his advice to the Archbishop of Canterbury to send for all the lords who would be king to assemble in London at Christmas, and to come to mass and pray, after which the great marble stone is seen with the sword stuck into it with the famous inscription that whoever pulls the sword is "rightwise king born of all England." His advice and influence are then crucial in persuading the barons to maintain support to the young king in his wars against the rebel kings, as is his guidance to Arthur in battle - see a summary of Book 1, in which Merlin also saves Arthur's life and how Arthur (by means of Merlin) got Excalibur, his sword, from the Lady of the Lake.
In Book 2, Merlin made further predictions regarding (i) Sirs Balin and Balan (including the "dolorous stroke" that Balin would deal to the truest knight alive, causing a wound that would not heal, making 3 kingdoms poor for 12 years), (ii) Kings Pellinore and Bagdemagus (Arthur's cousin), (iii) Arthur's near killing by Sir Accolon, (iv) Merlin's own death, and (v) the Sangreal.
Arthur's marriage to Guinevere takes place in Book 3. The barons had suggested that it was time Arthur took a wife, and when he confided to Merlin that he loved Guinevere, Merlin warned him that she wasn't wholesome enough to be his wife - Sir Lancelot (Launcelot) would later love her, and she would love Launcelot - but he could see the king's heart was set so he went to inform Leodegrance (Guinevere's father) of Arthur's desire. During the wedding feast a white hart appeared, pursued by a brachet and sixty black hounds - at which point Merlin called for immediate quests on the part of Sir Gawain, Sir Tor, and King Pellinor. Each of the three quests was carried out and when the knights had returned the Bishop of Canterbury was able to ordain the Knights of the Round Table.
Merlin meets his end in Book 4. King Pellinor happened to have brought a lady to the court. Her name was Nimue, known as the Damsel of the Lake. Merlin became besotted with her and was hardly away from her side. She accommodated him until she had learnt from him all the crafts that she could. They went together over the sea to the land of Benwick, where Merlin saw the young Launcelot and predicted that the same child would one day be the most worshipped man in the world. By this time Nimue had become weary of his constant attention. On their travels they came to a cave beneath a great stone, and she saw her chance to be rid of him. She let Merlin go first under the stone so he could lead her to the marvels in the cave, then as soon as he was down she turned his magic against him and he became sealed inside, never to come out. And there, rather unceremoniously, Merlin leaves Malory's story.
The body of Arthurian legend inevitably contains many contradictory references to Merlin. Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, pictures Merlin's presence at the end of King Arthur's life when the king is brought, severely wounded, to the Isle of Avalon to be healed. In a late Welsh legend he is not imprisoned by Nimue but makes a voluntary retreat into an underground glass house on Bardsey Island in North Wales, where he guards the Thirteen Treasures of Britain and the True Throne of the Realm on which Arthur will sit on his return.
In the fifteenth century story of Lailoken and Kentigern, Merlin (the madman Lailoken) prophesies that he is about to die a triple death and asks St Kentigern for the Sacrament. The Saint grants his wish, and the prophesy is fulfilled the same day when he is captured by the shepherds of King Meldred, beaten with clubs, then cast into the river Tweed where his body is pierced by a stake.
Merlin has remained a popular figure since his appearance in early medieval literature, persisting through the Renaissance period into modern times. He is the architect of Camelot in Tennyson's poem 'The Idylls of the King', a figure later parodied by Mark Twain and painted by the American artist N.C. Wyeth. Other than Arthur himself, Merlin is probably the most frequently depicted Arthurian character, being portrayed in numerous poems, novels, and plays.
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