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Matter of Britain character
The Enchanter Merlin, Howard Pyle's illustration for The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903)
First appearanceProphetiae Merlini
Created byGeoffrey of Monmouth
Based onMyrddin Wyllt and Ambrosius Aurelianus
In-universe information
OccupationProphet, magician, bard, advisor, warrior, others (depending on the source)[note 1]
Significant otherLady of the Lake, Morgan le Fay, Sebile (romance tradition)
Home"Esplumoir Merlin", British woods

Merlin (Welsh: Myrddin, Cornish: Marzhin, Breton: Merzhin)[note 2] is a mythical figure prominently featured in the legend of King Arthur and best known as a magician, with several other main roles.[note 3] The familiar depiction of Merlin, based on an amalgamation of historic and legendary figures, was introduced by the 12th-century British pseudo-historical author Geoffrey of Monmouth and then built on by the French poet Robert de Boron and their prose successors in the 13th century.

Geoffrey seems to have combined earlier Welsh tales of Myrddin and Ambrosius, two legendary Briton prophets with no connection to Arthur, to form the composite figure that he called Merlinus Ambrosius. His rendering of the character became immediately popular, especially in Wales.[5] Later chronicle and romance writers in France and elsewhere expanded the account to produce a fuller, more multifaceted image, creating one of the most important figures in the imagination and literature of the Middle Ages.

Merlin's traditional biography casts him as an often-mad cambion, born of a mortal woman and an incubus, from whom he inherits his supernatural powers and abilities.[6] His most notable abilities commonly include prophecy and shapeshifting. Merlin matures to an ascendant sagehood and engineers the birth of Arthur through magic and intrigue.[7] Later stories have Merlin as an advisor and mentor to the young king until his disappearance from the tale, leaving behind a series of prophecies foretelling the events yet to come. A popular version from the French prose cycles tells of Merlin being bewitched and forever sealed up or killed by his student, the Lady of the Lake after falling in love with her. Other texts variously describe his retirement or death.


Merlinus (Merlin) in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

The name Merlin is derived from the Brythonic term Myrddin, a bard who was one of Merlin's chief sources. Geoffrey of Monmouth latinised Myrddin the name to Merlinus in his works. Medievalist Gaston Paris suggests that Geoffrey chose the form Merlinus rather than the expected *Merdinus to avoid a resemblance to the Anglo-Norman word merde (from Latin merda) for feces.[8] 'Merlin' may also be an adjective, in which case we should be speaking of "The Merlin", from the French merle meaning blackbird.[9]: 79  According to Martin Aurell, the Latin form Merlinus is a euphony of the Celtic form Myrddin to bring him closer to the blackbird (Latin merula) into which he could metamorphose through his shamanic powers (notably the case of Merlin's Irish counterpart).[10]

Folklorist Jean Markale proposed that the name of Merlin is of French origin and means 'little blackbird', an allusion to the mocking and provocative personality usually attributed to him in medieval stories.[11] The Welsh Myrddin is also the equivalent of the French name Martin, a Latin anthroponym, and the powers attributed to Saint Martin of Tours are similar to those of Merlin, which led Charles Wilkins to declare the legend of Myrddin was based on that of Saint Martin.[12] However, it might have been actually the other way round.[13]

Other suggestions derive the name Myrddin from Celtic languages, including that of a combination of *mer (mad) and the Welsh dyn (man), to mean 'madman'.[14] It may also mean '[of] many names' if it was derived from the Welsh myrdd, myriad.[15][16] In his Myrdhinn, ou l'Enchanteur Merlin (1862), La Villemarqué derived Marz[h]in, which he considered the original form of Merlin's name, from the Breton word marz (wonder) to mean 'wonder man'.[17] Clas Myrddin or Merlin's Enclosure is an early name for Great Britain stated in the Third Series of Welsh Triads.[18]

Celticist Alfred Owen Hughes Jarman suggested that the Welsh name Myrddin (Welsh pronunciation: [ˈmərðin]) was derived from the toponym Caerfyrddin, the Welsh name for the town known in English as Carmarthen.[19] This contrasts with the popular folk etymology that the town was named after the bard. The name Carmarthen is derived from the town's previous Roman name Moridunum,[8][19] in turn, derived from the Celtic Brittonic moridunon, 'sea fort[ress]'.[20] Eric P. Hamp proposed a similar etymology: Morij:n, 'the maritime' or 'born of the sea'. There is no obvious connection between Merlin and the sea in the texts about him, but Claude Sterckx suggested that Merlin's father in the Welsh texts, Morfryn, might have been a sea spirit.[21] Philippe Walter connected it with the figure of the insular Celtic sea god Manannán.[22]


Selected Merlin episodes Earliest known sources
Birth from a virgin and a demon Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136)
Blaise's intervention redeems Merlin from his intended role of the Antichrist Verse Merlin (c. 1200)
Vortigern seeks a "fatherless child" for a blood sacrifice to strengthen his castle's tower Historia Brittonum (c. 828)
Construction of Stonehenge Historia Regum Britanniae
Uther Pendragon takes on the appearance of the Duke of Cornwall though a spell by Merlin and conceives Arthur with Igraine Historia Regum Britanniae
Merlin chooses the fifty original knights of Uther's Round Table Prose Merlin (after 1200)
Excalibur pulling contest to prove the young Arthur's divine right to the throne of King of the Britons Prose Merlin
Arthur is warned of Mordred's birth and the coming fall of his kingdom Post-Vulgate Cycle (c. 1235)
Merlin sets up the search for the Holy Grail by Arthur's Knights of the Round Table Prose Perceval [fr] (after 1200)
Blaise writes down the story of Merlin Prose Merlin
Entrapment of Merlin by the fairy Viviane Lancelot-Grail (before 1235)

Geoffrey and his sources

See also: Historicity of King Arthur

The young Merlin reading his prophecies to King Vortigern in an illustration for Geoffrey of Monmouth's Prophetiae Merlini (British Library MS Cotton Claudius B VII f.224, c. 1250)
An older Merlin as portrayed in Alfonso the Wise's compilation of texts of astronomy (c. 1400)

Geoffrey's composite Merlin is based mostly on the North Brythonic poet and seer Myrddin Wyllt, that is Myrddin the Wild (known as Merlinus Caledonensis or Merlin Sylvestris in later texts influenced by Geoffrey). Myrddin's legend has parallels with a northern Welsh and southern Scottish story of the mad prophet Lailoken (Laleocen), probably the same as Myrddin son of Morfryn (Myrddin map Morfryn) mentioned in the Welsh Triads,[23] and with Buile Shuibhne, an Irish tale of the wandering insane king Suibihne mac Colmáin (often Anglicised to Sweeney).[9]: 58 

In Welsh poetry, Myrddin was a bard driven mad after witnessing the horrors of war, who fled civilization to become a wild man of the wood in the 6th century.[15] He roams the Caledonian Forest until cured of his madness by Kentigern, also known as Saint Mungo. Geoffrey had Myrddin in mind when he wrote his earliest surviving work, the Prophetiae Merlini ("Prophecies of Merlin", c. 1130), which he claimed were the actual words of the legendary poet (including some distinctively apocalyptic[24] prophecies for the future past the 12th century), however revealing little about Merlin's background.

Geoffrey was also further inspired by Emrys (Old Welsh: Embreis), a character based in part on the 5th-century historical figure of the Romano-British war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus (Welsh name Emrys Wledig, also known as Myrddin Emrys).[25] When Geoffrey included Merlin in his next work, Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136), he supplemented his characterisation by attributing to Merlin stories concerning Ambrosius, taken from one of his primary sources, the early 9th-century Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius. In the latter account, Ambrosius was discovered when the King of the Britons, Vortigern, attempted to erect a tower at Dinas Emrys (City of Emrys). More than once, the tower collapsed before completion. Vortigen's wise men advised him that the only solution was to sprinkle the foundation with the blood of a child born without a father. Ambrosius was rumoured to be such a child. When brought before the king, Ambrosius revealed that below the foundation of the tower was a lake containing two dragons battling into each other, representing the struggle between the invading Saxons (the white dragon) and the native Celtic Britons (the red dragon). Geoffrey retold the story in his Historia Regum Britanniæ, adding new episodes that tie Merlin with King Arthur and his predecessors. Geoffrey stated that this Ambrosius was also called "Merlin", hence Ambrosius Merlinus.

Giants help the young Merlin build Stonehenge in an illustration for a circa 1325—1350 manuscript of Wace's Roman de Brut, an expanded adaptation of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae

Geoffrey's account of Merlin's early life is based on the story from the Historia Brittonum. At the same time, however, Geoffrey also turned Ambrosius Aurelianus into the separate character of Uther Pendragon's brother Aurelius Ambrosius. Geoffrey added his own embellishments to the tale, which he set in Carmarthen, Wales (Welsh: Caerfyrddin). While Nennius' "fatherless" Ambrosius eventually reveals himself to be the son of a Roman consul, Geoffrey's Merlin is begotten by an incubus demon on a nun, daughter of the King of Dyfed (Demetae, today's South West Wales). Usually, the name of Merlin's mother is not stated, but is given as Adhan in the oldest version of the Prose Brut,[26] the text also naming his grandfather as King Conaan.[27]

Merlin is born all hairy and already able to speak like an adult even as an infant, as well possessing supernatural knowledge that he uses to save his mother. The story of Vortigern's tower is the same; the underground dragons, one white and one red, represent the Saxons and the Britons, and their final battle is a portent of things to come. At this point Geoffrey inserted a long section of Merlin's prophecies, taken from his earlier Prophetiae Merlini. Geoffrey also told two further tales of the character. In the first, Merlin creates Stonehenge as a burial place for Aurelius Ambrosius, bringing the stones from Ireland.[note 4] In the second, Merlin's magic enables the new British king Uther Pendragon to enter into Tintagel Castle in disguise and to father his son Arthur with his enemy's wife, Igerna (Igraine). These episodes appear in many later adaptations of Geoffrey's account. As Lewis Thorpe notes, Merlin disappears from the narrative subsequently. He does not tutor and advise Arthur as in later versions.[7]

Geoffrey dealt with Merlin again in his third work, Vita Merlini (1150). He based it on stories of the original 6th-century Myrddin, set long after his time frame for the life of Merlin Ambrosius. Nevertheless, Geoffrey asserts that the characters and events of Vita Merlini are the same as told in the Historia Regum Britanniae. Here, Merlin survives the reign of Arthur, about the fall of whom he is told by Taliesin. Merlin spends a part of his life as a madman in the woods and marries a woman named Guendoloena (a character inspired by the male Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio).[7]: 44  He eventually retires to observing stars from his house with seventy windows in the remote woods of Rhydderch. There, he is often visited by Taliesin and by his own sister Ganieda (a Latinized name of Myrddin's sister Gwenddydd[30]), who has become queen of the Cumbrians and is also endowed with prophetic powers. Compared to Geoffrey's own Historia, his Vita seems to have little influence on the later portrayals of Merlin.[31]

An illustration of Merlin as druid[32] in The Rose (1848)

Mark Chorvinsky hypothesized that Merlin is based on a historical personage, probably a 5th and/or 6th-century druid living in southern Scotland.[33] Nikolai Tolstoy makes a similar argument based on the fact that early references to Merlin describe him as possessing characteristics which modern scholarship (but not that of the time the sources were written) would recognize as druidical, the inference being that those characteristics were not invented by the early chroniclers, but belonged to a real person.[34][35] If so, the hypothetical prototype-Merlin would have lived about a century after the hypothetical historical Arthur.

A late version of the Annales Cambriae (dubbed the "B-text", written at the end of the 13th century) and influenced by Geoffrey,[36] records for the year 573, that after "the battle of Arfderydd, between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddolau son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Myrddin went mad." The earliest version of the Annales Cambriae entry (in the "A-text", written c. 1100), as well as a later copy (the "C-text", written towards the end of the 13th century) do not mention Myrddin.[37] Myrddin furthermore shares similarities with the shamanic bard figure of Taliesin, alongside whom he appears in the Welsh Triads and in Vita Merlini, as well as in the poem "Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin" ("The Conversation between Myrddin and Taliesin") from The Black Book of Carmarthen, which was dated by Rachel Bromwich as "certainly" before 1100, that is predating Vita Merlini by at least half century while telling a different version of the same story.[38] According to Villemarqué, the origin of the legend of Merlin lies with the Roman story of Marsus, a son of Circe, which eventually influenced the Breton and Welsh tales of a supernaturally-born bard or enchanter named Marzin or Marddin.[39]

Later developments

Jean Colombe's circa 1480 illumination of the story of Merlin's unholy birth as told in the Prose Merlin, elaborating on the brief mention by Geoffrey. This was the first popular account of demonic parentage motif in Western Christian literature[40]
Emil Johann Lauffer's painting of Merlin taking the newborn Arthur to be secretly raised by Ector. Merlin is often linked to stag themes in the legend by either riding on it or transforming himself into one in an apparent association with old Celtic pagan beliefs and their Christianisation[note 5]

Sometime around the turn of the following 13th century, Robert de Boron retold and expanded on this material in Merlin, an Old French epic poem presenting itself as the story of Merlin's life as told by Merlin himself to be written down by the "real" author (the actual author claiming having penned merely a French translation). Only a few lines of what is believed to be the original text have survived, but a more popular prose version had a great influence on the emerging genre of Arthurian-themed chivalric romance. In Robert's account, as in Geoffrey's Historia, Merlin is created as a demon spawn, but here explicitly to become the Antichrist intended to reverse the effect of the Harrowing of Hell. The infernal plot is thwarted when a priest named Blaise [fr] (the story's narrator as well as perhaps Merlin's divine twin in a hypothetical now-lost oral tradition[note 6]) is contacted by the child's mother; Blaise immediately baptizes the boy at birth, thus freeing him from the power of Satan and his intended destiny.[47]

The demonic legacy invests Merlin (already able to speak fluently even as a newborn) with a preternatural knowledge of the past and present, which is supplemented by God, who gives the boy prophetic knowledge of the future. The text lays great emphasis on Merlin's power to shapeshift, which is featured prominently,[note 7] on his joking personality, and on his connection to the Holy Grail, the quest for which he foretells. Inspired by Wace's Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman creative adaptation of Geoffrey's Historia, Merlin was originally part of a cycle of Robert's poems telling the story of the Grail over the centuries. The narrative of Merlin is largely based on Geoffrey's familiar tale of Vortigern's Tower, Uther's war against the Saxons, and Arthur's conception. What follows is a new episode of the young Arthur's (who had been secreted away by Merlin) drawing of the sword from the stone,[49] an event orchestrated by Merlin in the role of kingmaker. Earlier, Merlin also instructs Uther to establish the original order of the Round Table for fifty members, following his own act of having created the table itself. The text ends with the coronation of Arthur.

The conception of Merlin as depicted in a circa 1494 manuscript of the Prose Lancelot[note 8]
"Merlin", an illustration in the 1894 Dent edition of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur

The prose version of Robert's poem was then continued in the 13th-century Merlin Continuation or the Suite de Merlin. It features King Arthur's early wars and Merlin's role in them,[52] as the mage both predicts and, wielding elemental magic,[24] influences the course of battles,[note 9] also helping the young Arthur in other ways. The extended prose rendering of Merlin became one of the foundations for the Lancelot-Grail, a vast cyclical series of Old French prose works also known as the Vulgate Cycle, when it was directly incorporated into it as the Estoire de Merlin, also known as the Vulgate Merlin or the Prose Merlin. There, while not identifying his mother, it is stated that Merlin was named after his grandfather on her side. A further reworking and continuation of the Prose Merlin were included within the subsequent Post-Vulgate Cycle as the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin or the Huth Merlin, adding some episodes such as Merlin providing Arthur with the sword Excalibur through a Lady of the Lake. His magical interventions in the Post-Vulgate Merlin are relatively limited and markedly less spectacular (even compared to the magical feats of his own students), and his character becomes less moral; in addition, Merlin's prophecies also include sets of alternative possibilities (future can be changed) instead of only certain outcomes.[24] All these variants have been adapted and translated into several other languages as well as further modified.

Notably, the Post-Vulgate Suite (along with an earlier version of the Prose Merlin) was the main source for the opening part of Thomas Malory's English-language compilation work Le Morte d'Arthur which formed a now-iconic version of the legend. Compared to some of his French sources (such as the Vulgate Lancelot informing that Merlin "was treacherous and disloyal by nature, like his [demon] father before him"[54]), Malory limited the extent of the negative association of Merlin and his powers, relatively rarely being condemned as demonic by other characters such as King Lot,[55] instead presenting him as an ambiguous trickster.[56] Conversely, Merlin seems to be inherently evil in the so-called non-cyclic Lancelot, where he was born as the "fatherless child" from not a supernatural rape of a virgin but a consensual union between a lustful demon and an unmarried beautiful young lady and was never baptized.[57][58] The Prose Lancelot further relates that after growing up in the borderlands between 'Scotland' (i.e. Pictish lands) and 'Ireland' (i.e. Argyll), Merlin "possessed all the wisdom that can come from demons, which is why he was so feared by the Bretons and so revered that everyone called him a holy prophet and the ordinary people all called him their god."[59]

Merlin, the Enchanter by Louis Rhead (1923)

As the Arthurian myths were retold, Merlin's prophetic "seer" aspects were sometimes de-emphasized (or even seemingly vanish entirely, as in the fragmentary and more fantastical Livre d'Artus[24]) in favor of portraying him as a wizard and an advisor to the young Arthur, sometimes in the struggle between good and evil sides of his character, and living in deep forests connected with nature. Through his ability to change his shape, he may appear as a "wild man" figure evoking that of his prototype Myrddin Wyllt,[60] as a civilized man of any age (including as a very young child), or even as a talking animal;[61] his guises can be highly deformed and animalistic even when presenting as a human (or a humanoid).[24][note 10]

In the Perceval en prose (also known as the Didot Perceval and also attributed to Robert), where Merlin is the initiator of the Grail Quest and cannot die until the end of days, he eventually retires after Arthur's downfall by turning himself into a bird and entering the mysterious esplumoir, never to be seen again.[62] In the Vulgate Cycle's version of Merlin, his acts include arranging the consummation of Arthur's desire for "the most beautiful maiden ever born," Lady Lisanor of Cardigan, resulting in the birth of Arthur's illegitimate son Lohot from before the marriage to Guinevere.[63][64] But fate cannot always be changed: the Post-Vulgate Cycle has Merlin warn Arthur of how the birth of his other son will bring great misfortune and ruin to his kingdom, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Eventually, long after Merlin is gone, his advice to dispose of the baby Mordred through an event evoking the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents leads to the deaths of many, among them Arthur. The Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, which sympathizes with Mordred as usual in Scottish chronicle tradition, particularly attributes Merlin's supernatural evil influence on Arthur to its very negative portrayal of his rule.[65]

Many other medieval works dealing with the Merlin legend include the 13th-century Le Roman de Silence.[66] The Prophéties de Merlin (c. 1276) contains long prophecies of Merlin (mostly concerned with 11th to 13th-century Italian history and contemporary politics), some by his ghost after his death, interspersed with episodes relating Merlin's deeds and with assorted Arthurian adventures in which Merlin does not appear at all. It pictures Merlin as a righteous seer chastising people for their sins, as does the 13th-14th Italian story collection Il Novellino which draws heavily from it.[67] Even more political Italian text was Joachim of Fiore's Expositio Sybillae et Merlini, directed against Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor whom the author regarded as the Antichrist.

The earliest Merlin text written in Germany was Caesarius of Heisterbach's Latin Dialogus Miraculorum (1220). Ulrich Füetrer's 15th-century Buch der Abenteuer, in the section based on Albrecht von Scharfenberg's lost Merlin,[68] presents Merlin as Uter's father, effectively making his grandson Arthur a part-devil too. Bauduin (Baudouin) Butor's 1294 romance known as either Les Fils du Roi Constant or Pandragus et Libanor names Merlin's usually unspecified mother as Optima, daughter of King Melias of Demetia (Dyfed), while Paolino Pieri's 14th-century Italian La Storia di Merlino calls her Marinaia. In the Second Continuation of Perceval, the Story of the Grail, a young daughter of Merlin himself, called the Lady of the High Peak of Mont Dolorous, appears to guide Perceval towards the Grail Castle.[69][70]

The earliest English verse romance concerning Merlin is Of Arthour and of Merlin of the late 13th century, which drew from the chronicles and the Vulgate Cycle. In English-language medieval texts that conflate Britain with the Kingdom of England, the Anglo-Saxon enemies against whom Merlin aids first Uther and then Arthur tend to be replaced by the Saracens[71] or simply just invading pagans. The 15th-century English poem Sir Gowther presents the titular redeemed half-demon as Merlin's half-brother. In Britain, Merlin has remained as much as a prophet as a magician up to and including the 16th century, when political content in the style of Agrippa d'Aubigné continued to be written using Merlin's name to guarantee their authenticity.[24]

Welsh works predicting the Celtic revenge and victory over the Saxons would be recast as Merlin's (Myrddin's) prophecies and used along with Geoffrey by the propaganda of the Welsh-descent Henry VII of England (who fought under the red dragon banner) as the House of Tudor, which traced its lineage directly to Arthur, and their Welsh supporters including bards, interpreted the prophecy of King Arthur's return as having been fulfilled after their ascent to the throne of England that they sought to legitimize following the Wars of the Roses.[72][73][74] Before that, prophecies attributed to Merlin have been also used by the Welsh hero Owain Glyndŵr in his fight against the English rule.[75] The vagueness of Merlin's prophecies enabled British monarchs and historians to continue using them even in the early modern period. For example, the King of Scotland and later also of England and Ireland, James VI and I, claimed his unification of Britain into the United Kingdom had been foretold by Merlin.[76]

Merlin's apprentice is often Arthur's half-sister Morgan le Fay. In the Prophéties de Merlin, he also tutors with Sebile and two other witch queens and the Lady of the Isle of Avalon (Dama di Isola do Vallone); the others who have learned sorcery from Merlin include the Wise Damsel in the Italian Historia di Merlino,[note 11] and the male wizard Mabon in the Post-Vulgate Merlin Continuation and the Prose Tristan. While Merlin does share his magic with his apprentices, his prophetic powers cannot be passed on. As for Morgan, she is sometimes depicted as Merlin's lover[77] and sometimes as just his unrequited love interest.[note 12]

Tales of Merlin's end

See also: Lady of the Lake

The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones (1874). The depicted episode in its various tellings became a major inspiration for Romantic authors and artists of the late 19th century

In the prose chivalric romance tradition, Merlin has a major weakness that leads him to his relatively early doom: young beautiful women of femme fatale[79] archetype. However, contrary to the many modern works in which they are archenemies, Merlin and Morgan are never opposed to each other in any medieval tradition, other than Morgan forcibly rejecting him in some texts; in fact, his love for Morgan is so great that he even lies to the king to save her in the Huth Merlin, which is the only instance of him ever intentionally misleading Arthur.[80][note 13]

Instead, Merlin's eventual undoing comes from his lusting after another of his female students: the one often named Viviane, among various other names and spellings (including Malory's own Nyneve that his editor William Caxton changed to Nymue which in turn eventually became the now-popular Nimue). She is also called a fairy (French fee) like Morgan and described as a Lady of the Lake, or the "chief Lady of the Lake" in the case of Malory's Nimue. In Perceforest, the ancestry of both Merlin and the Lady of the Lake is descended from the ancient fairy Morgane (unrelated to Arthur's sister), who had cursed their bloodline when she wrongly believed that her daughter was raped by her daughter's human lover.[81]

Edward Burne-Jones' 1861 Merlin and Nimue using her name popularized by Caxton
Arthur Rackham's illustration for Romance of King Arthur (1917) abridged from Le Morte d'Arthur by Alfred W. Pollard:
"How by her subtle working she made Merlin to go under the stone to let wit of the marvels there and she wrought so there for him that he came never out for all the craft he could do."

Viviane's character in relation to Merlin is first found in the Lancelot-Grail cycle, after having been inserted into the legend of Merlin by either de Boron or his continuator. There are many different versions of their story. Common themes in most of them include Merlin actually having the prior prophetic knowledge of her plot against him (one exception is the Spanish Post-Vulgate Baladro where his foresight ability is explicitly dampened by sexual desire[79]) but lacking either ability or will to counteract it in any way, along with her using one of his own spells to get rid of him. Usually (including in Le Morte d'Arthur), having learned everything she could from him, Viviane will then also replace the eliminated Merlin within the story, taking up his role as Arthur's adviser and court mage.[82]

However, Merlin's fate of either demise or eternal imprisonment, along with his destroyer or captor's motivation (from her fear of Merlin and protecting her own virginity, to her jealousy of his relationship with Morgan), is recounted differently in variants of this motif. The exact form of his prison or grave can be also variably a cave, a tree, or hole either within or under a large rock (according to Le Morte d'Arthur, this happens somewhere in Benwick, the kingdom of Lancelot's father[83]), or an invisible tower of only magic with no physical walls.[48][84] The scene is often placed in the enchanted forest of Brocéliande, a legendary location today identified with the real-life Paimpont forest in Brittany.[85] A Breton tradition cited by Roger Sherman Loomis in Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance (also asserting there that it "seems almost certain that Morgan le Fay and the Lady of the Lake were originally the same person" in the legend) has Merlin trapped by his mistress inside a tree on the Île de Sein.

Niniane, as the Lady of the Lake student of Merlin is known in the Livre d'Artus continuation of Merlin, is mentioned as having broken his heart before his later second relationship with Morgan, but here the text does not tell how exactly Merlin did vanish, other than relating his farewell meeting with Blaise. In the Vulgate Lancelot, which predated the later Vulgate Merlin, she (aged just 12 at the time) makes Merlin sleep forever in a pit in the forest of Darnantes, "and that is where he remained, for never again did anyone see or hear of him or have news to tell of him."[86] In the Post-Vulgate Suite de Merlin, the young King Bagdemagus (one of the early Knights of the Round Table) manages to find the rock under which Merlin is entombed alive by Niviene, as she is named there.[note 14] He communicates with Merlin, but is unable to lift the stone; what follows next is supposedly narrated in the mysterious text Conte del Brait (Tale of the Cry).[note 15] In the Prophéties de Merlin version, his tomb is unsuccessfully searched for by various parties, including Morgan and her enchantresses, but cannot be accessed due to the deadly magic traps around it,[89] while the Lady of the Lake comes to taunt Merlin by asking did he rot there yet.[87]

One notably alternate version having a happier ending for Merlin is contained within the Premiers Faits section of the Livre du Graal, where Niniane peacefully confines him in Brocéliande with walls of air, visible only as a mist to others but as a beautiful yet unbreakable crystal tower to him (only Merlin's disembodied voice can escape his prison one last time when he speaks to Gawain[87] on the knight's quest to find him), where they will then spend almost every night together as lovers.[90] Besides evoking the final scenes from Vita Merlini, this particular variant of their story also mirrors episodes found in some other texts, wherein Merlin either is an object of one-sided desire by a different amorous sorceress who too (unsuccessfully) plots to trap him or it is Merlin himself who traps an unwilling lover with his magic.[note 16]

Bradamante at Merlin's Tomb by Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard (1820)

Unrelated to the legend of the Lady of the Lake, other purported sites of Merlin's burial include a cave deep inside Merlin's Hill (Welsh: Bryn Myrddin), outside Carmarthen. Carmarthen is also associated with Merlin more generally, including through the 13th-century manuscript known as the Black Book and the local lore of Merlin's Oak. In North Welsh tradition, Merlin retires to Bardsey Island (Welsh: Ynys Enlli), where he lives in a house of glass (Welsh: Tŷ Gwydr) with the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain (Welsh: Tri Thlws ar Ddeg Ynys Prydain).[92]: 200  One site of his tomb is said to be Marlborough Mound in Wiltshire,[93] known in medieval times as Merlebergia (the Abbot of Cirencester wrote in 1215: "Merlin's tumulus gave you your name, Merlebergia"[92]: 93 ).

Another site associated with Merlin's burial, in his 'Merlin Silvestris' aspect, is the confluence of the Pausalyl Burn and River Tweed in Drumelzier, Scotland. The 15th-century Scotichronicon tells that Merlin himself underwent a triple-death, at the hands of some shepherds of the under-king Meldred: stoned and beaten by the shepherds, he falls over a cliff and is impaled on a stake, his head falls forward into the water, and he drowns.[note 17] The fulfillment of another prophecy, ascribed to Thomas the Rhymer, came about when a spate of the Tweed and Pausayl occurred during the reign of the Scottish James VI and I on the English throne: "When Tweed and Pausayl meet at Merlin's grave, / Scotland and England one king shall have."[15]: 62 

Modern culture

Further information: Fiction featuring Merlin and Merlin in comics

Merlin and stories involving him have continued to be popular from the Renaissance to the present day, especially since the renewed interest in the legend of Arthur in modern times. As noted by Arthurian scholar Alan Lupack, "numerous novels, poems and plays center around Merlin. In American literature and popular culture, Merlin is perhaps the most frequently portrayed Arthurian character."[94] According to Stephen Thomas Knight, Merlin embodies a conflict between knowledge and power: beginning as a symbol of wisdom in the first Welsh stories, he became an advisor to kings in the Middle Ages, and eventually a mentor and teacher to Arthur and others in the works around the world since the 19th century.[95]

While some modern authors write about Merlin positively through an explicitly Christian world-view,[96] some New Age movements see Merlin as a druid who accesses all the mysteries of the world.[97] Francophone artistic productions since the end of the 20th century have tended to avoid the Christian aspects of the character in favor of the pagan aspects and the tradition sylvestre (attributing positive values to one's links to forest and wild animals), thus "dechristianizing" Merlin to present him as a champion for the idea of return to nature.[98] Diverging from his traditional role in medieval romances, Merlin is also sometimes portrayed as a villain.[94] As Peter H. Goodrich wrote in Merlin: A Casebook:

Merlin's primary characteristics continue to be recalled, refined, and expanded today, continually encompassing new ideas and technologies as well as old ones. The ability of this complex figure to endure for more than fourteen centuries results not only from his manifold roles and their imaginative appeal, but also from significant, often irresolvable tensions or polarities [...] between beast and human (Wild Man), natural and supernatural (Wonder Child), physical and metaphysical (Poet), secular and sacred (Prophet), active and passive (Counselor), magic and science (Wizard), and male and female (Lover). Interwoven with these primary tensions are additional polarities that apply to all of Merlin's roles, such as those between madness and sanity, pagan and Christian, demonic and heavenly, mortality and immortality, and impotency and potency.[4]

HMS Merlin (1796) on a 1948 stamp for the 150th anniversary of the bloodless Battle of St. George's Caye

Since the Romantic period, Merlin has been typically depicted as a wise old man with a long white beard, creating a modern wizard archetype reflected in many fantasy characters,[99] such as J. R. R. Tolkien's Gandalf[24] or J. K. Rowling's Dumbledore,[100] that also use some of his other traits. Things named in honour of the legendary figure have included asteroid 2598 Merlin, the British company Merlin Entertainments, the handheld console Merlin, the literary magazine Merlin, the metal band Merlin, and more than a dozen different British warships each called HMS Merlin. He was one of eight British magical figures that were commemorated on a series of UK postage stamps issued by the Royal Mail in 2011,[101] and one of the three Arthurian figures (along with Arthur and Morgan) commemorated on the gold and silver British pound coins issued by the Royal Mint in 2023.[102] Merlinia, the Ordovician trilobite, is also named after Merlin; the name is given in memory of a Welsh legend in which the broken tail parts of trilobites were identified as butterflies turned to stone by Merlin.[103][104]

See also


  1. ^ As noted by Alan Lupack, "Merlin plays many roles in Arthurian literature, including bard, prophet, magician, advisor, and warrior. Though usually a figure who supports Arthur and his vision of Camelot, Merlin is, because of the stories in which he is said to be the son of a devil, sometimes presented as a villain."[1]
  2. ^ Alternate forms of Merlin's name include the English Merlyn,[2] the Welsh Merddyn and Myrdin, and the Breton Marzin.[3]
  3. ^ Peter H. Goodrich wrote, "According to authorial and cultural interests, [Merlin] assumes seven primary roles: Wild Man, Wonder Child, Prophet, Poet, Counselor, Wizard, and Lover. Most literature about the mage is selective, emphasizing and elaborating one or more of these features and de-emphasizing or even eliminating others. Moreover, Merlin was not always all of these things. Instead, his figure developed by gradually accreting varied capabilities to itself, each one suggesting further capabilities and roles."[4]
  4. ^ The stones, in actuality, came from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales.[28] Unlike in the later accounts since Layamon's Brut,[29] Geoffrey's Merlin actually does not use magic in this episode.
  5. ^ Merlin's connections with stags within his stories may be a shadow of the belief in avatars of the Celtic "horned god", Cernunnos.[41][42] As the Celtic Otherworld-associated "enchanted white stag" motif become increasingly Christianised,[43][44] monastic writers of Arthurian prose romances would even directly equate it with the Christ himself.[45]
  6. ^ Blaise also figures within the text as its supposed original author, decades later writing down Merlin's own words in a third-person narration. According to Philippe Walter, Blaise, whose name resembles bleiz, the Old Breton word for wolf, may have originally been a wolf-man double figure of Merlin in pagan-influenced tales before he was thoroughly Christianized and turned into Merlin's scribe and confidant. This association would explain Merlin's animal-like appearance at birth and the name Lailoken, 'the twin'.[46]
  7. ^ Merlin appears as a woodcutter with an axe about his neck, big shoes, a torn coat, bristly hair, and a large beard. He is later found in the forest of Northumberland by a follower of Uther disguised as an ugly man and tending a great herd of beasts. He then appears first as a handsome man and then as a beautiful boy. Years later, he approaches Arthur disguised as a peasant wearing leather boots, a wool coat, a hood, and a belt of knotted sheepskin. He is described as tall, black and bristly, and as seeming cruel and fierce. Finally, he appears as an old man with a long beard, short and hunchbacked, in an old torn woolen coat, who carries a club and drives a multitude of beasts before him.[48]
  8. ^ As noted by Miranda Griffin, "while demons are often portrayed with quite extraordinary bodies in illuminations in manuscripts of the Merlin," actual descriptions of Merlin's father tend to talk of an airborne spirit, sometimes taking material shape of a handsome man.[50] One version of the Prose Tristan also makes Merlin essentially a "half-brother" of the monster known as the Questing Beast.[51]
  9. ^ In one example of Merlin's interventions, the Vulgate version has him conjure a magical mist that causes the forces of Arthur's enemy King Amant to clash with the Saxon army at Carmelide. On another occasion, Merlin comes to aid Arthur a dragon banner that comes to life and throws fire and flames out of its mouth. Merlin's part in these wars is depicted in more detail in the recently-found Bristol Merlin fragment.[53]
  10. ^ In the Livre d'Artus, for instance, Merlin enters Rome in the form of a huge stag with a white fore-foot. He bursts into the presence of Julius Caesar (here Arthur's contemporary) and tells the emperor that only the wild man of the woods can interpret the dream that has been troubling him. Later, he returns in the form of a black, shaggy man, barefoot, with a torn coat. In another episode, he decides to do something that will be spoken of forever. Going into the forest of Brocéliande, he transforms himself into a herdsman carrying a club and wearing a wolf-skin and leggings. He is large, bent, black, lean, hairy and old, and his ears hang down to his waist. His head is as big as a buffalo's, his hair is down to his waist, he has a hump on his back, his feet and hands are backwards, he is hideous, and is over 18 feet tall. By his arts, he calls a herd of deer to come and graze around him.[48]
  11. ^ The Italian Tristan tradition identifies the Wise Damsel (Savia Donzella / Savia Damigella) as the usually unnamed fairy enchantress who abducted Tristan's father Meliodas to be her lover. In some versions, including the Tavola Ritonda, Merlin (Merlino) first appears as a knight to foretell the death of Meliodas' wife Eliabella, who will search for her husband without success while pregnant with Tristan. He then gathers and leads a group of the knights of the realm Leonis to the Wise Damsel's magically hidden and otherwise unnaccessible tower or castle deep in the wilderness of the forest Dirlantes (the same Darnantes that Merlin sometimes meets his end) so they can kill her, which Merlin explicitly orders them to do, and free Meliodas. Years later, Tristan and Iseult will take refuge in her now abandoned but still enchanted castle while hiding from King Mark.
  12. ^ As summarized by Anne Berthelot, depending on the version of the narrative, "it may be that a lustful Merlin seduces an (almost) innocent Morgue [Morgan], thus pushing her to her déchéance (downfall). Or Morgue may appear as an ambitious and unscrupulous bitch ready to seduce an old tottering Merlin in order to gain the wisdom he alone can dispense."[78]
  13. ^ Merlin also otherwise protects Morgan and continues to aid her when she requests help in some other texts. The Prophéties de Merlin tells of Morgan's reaction to the news of his entombment by the Lady of the Lake, saying she was "at the same time glad and sorry" and "sorry and worried, because if she were to have need of Merlin, she would be ruined for want of him."[51]
  14. ^ In the Post-Vulgate Suite, Viviane (Niviene) is introduced as a young teenage princess. She is about to depart from Arthur's court following her initial episode but, with some encouragement from Merlin, Arthur asks her to stay in his castle with the queen. During her stay, Merlin falls in love with her and desires her. Viviane, frightened that Merlin might take advantage of her with his spells, swears that she will never love him unless he swears to teach her all of his magic. Merlin consents, unaware that throughout the course of her lessons, Viviane will use Merlin's own powers against him, forcing him to do her bidding. When Viviane finally goes back to her country, Merlin escorts her. However, along the way, Merlin receives a vision that Arthur is in need of assistance. Viviane and Merlin rush back to Arthur's castle, but have to stop for the night in a stone chamber once inhabited by two lovers (a king's son Anasteu and a peasant woman in their forbidden affair). Merlin relates that when the lovers died, they were placed in a magic tomb within a room in the chamber. That night, while Merlin is asleep, Viviane, still disgusted with Merlin's desire for her, as well as his demonic heritage, casts a spell over him and places him in the magic tomb so that he can never escape, thus causing his slow death.
  15. ^ The Conte referred to in the story is an unknown, supposedly separate text that might have been just fictitious.[87] However, the Spanish Post-Vulgate manuscript known as the Baladro del sabio Merlin (The Shriek of the Sage Merlin), does describe what happened next. Merlin informs Bagdemagus that only Tristan could have opened the iron door sealing the cave in which Merlin is trapped in, but Tristan is by that time still just a baby. Merlin than gives the story's eponymous great cry in a demonic voice, calling for his father to come and take him, and dies amidst a terrific supernatural event.[88]
  16. ^ In the Italian romance Tavola Ritonda, a fairy enchantress named Escorducarla, the mother of the evil Elergia, falls in love with Merlin and plans to trap him for herself in her purpose-built Palace of Great Desire, but Merlin foils this plot and banishes her to Avalon. Conversely, Gaucher de Dourdan's continuation of Perceval, the Story of the Grail has Merlin magically abducting a maiden who did not want to love him and then building a house for them to live in together.[91]
  17. ^ Merlin is credited with predicting this: "Today I will perish, overwhelmed by stones and cudgels. / Today by body will be pierced through by a sharp stake / of wood, and so my life will expire. / Today I shall end my present life engulfed in the waves."[15]: 67 


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