Merlin Makes It Magic

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s long been fascinated by the character of Merlin, the wizard who’s appeared in various media as everything from a vat-dyed villain to a kindly old man. I’d have to say my favorite portrayal of him is in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King, in which he’s full of knowledge and power, but still rather absent-minded. I tend to like characters like that, perhaps because I can identify with them. Well, aside from the knowledge and power part. Of course, before White’s conception of Merlin came along, he’d already featured in eight centuries of literature. The earliest stories of Merlin had nothing to do with King Arthur, but since both figures belonged to a mythical past for England that would have happened around the sixth century (after the Romans, but before the Saxon kings), it was perhaps inevitable that the two would eventually become tied together.

The character appears to have originated with Welsh legends of a late sixteenth-century bard named Myrddin Wyllt, who was driven mad by witnessing the horrors of war. He also had the power of prophecy, which Geoffrey of Monmouth elaborated on by writing a book that was supposed to be the prophecies of Myrddin. Geoffrey Latinized the name to “Merlinus,” and it’s been suggested that he replaced the D’s with an L so that the wizard’s name wouldn’t resemble the word “merde,” meaning “shit.” No idea if this is true, but it’s kind of an amusing theory.

Geoffrey also went on to attribute some of the deeds of the legendary fifth-century British war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus to Merlin, and came up with the idea that the prophet was the son of a demon and a nun. While not all traditional demons are bad, and I’ve been assured by people who attended Catholic school that not all nuns are good, I get the impression that this was supposed to explain the two sides to his personality and power. In addition, it was Geoffrey who linked Merlin with the Kings Vortigern, Aurelius, and Uther Pendragon; and involved him in the conception of Uther’s son Arthur. Merlin used his magic to disguise Uther as Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, so that he could rape Gorlois’ wife Igraine. It seems that he was taking after his father in this particular episode. Later writers made the wizard a tutor and adviser to Arthur himself. It was in the thirteenth century that the story of Merlin’s death, being lured into a magical prison by an enchantress named Nimue with whom the wizard is in love, seems to have originated.

So just how old was Merlin when he came to advise Arthur? Well, one of the acts traditionally credited to him is the creation of Stonehenge, which would make him pretty damned old.

The problem here is that I don’t think Geoffrey had any idea how old Stonehenge actually was, since he has it created during the fifth-century reign of Aurelius. Yeah, you’re off by about 3500 years there. Indeed, Geoffrey reports that Merlin was discovered as a boy during the reign of Vortigern. There are, however, other hints for a much older Merlin. A thirteenth-century French tale reports that Merlin had earlier interpreted a dream for Julius Caesar. If Merlin was born before Jesus, though, I’m not sure how his mother could have been a nun. A Vestal Virgin, maybe, but not a Christian nun.

White’s view of Merlin might offer a solution to this, albeit a somewhat convoluted one. In White’s work, Merlin lives backwards. I don’t know whether he was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass in this idea, but I wouldn’t discard the idea. Anyway, this explains why Merlin is so skilled at prophecy (he remembers the future), as well as why he’s a bit of an absent-minded bungler (he’s interacting with a world that runs in the opposite direction). The magician recalls events from the twentieth century, and I believe he referred to the Boer War as occurring in his youth. So was he born in the twentieth century or so, and then lived into the past? It’s not entirely clear, but this presumably would allow the wizard to have lived in the BC era, except he would have been older rather than younger at that point. Also, while White does incorporate the account of Merlin’s imprisonment at the hands of Nimue, it’s never stated whether his prison runs backwards or forwards from his perspective. I guess we’ll never fully understand what living backwards is like.

I suppose now is the time to say goodbye for Merlin for now, although I’m sure I’ll have more to say on him later. But then, from Merlin’s perspective, I guess I’ve already said more on him, and now I’m saying hello. Or something like that.

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26 Responses to Merlin Makes It Magic

  1. vilajunkie says:

    I just looked up the “dd” in “Myrddin” thing, which I knew didn’t sound like just two D’s stuck together because it’s a part of the Welsh alphabet. Anyway, the “dd” resembles the “th” in the English “though”. (You make sort of a buzzing motion with your mouth, unlike the other English “th” which is in “think”, where you more breathe out softly with your tongue between your teeth.) So “Myrddin” is basically “Mirthin” phonetically. About the time that Geoffrey was writing down the story of Merlin, English had a letter in the alphabet called a “thorn”, which I can’t type out here but it looked like this: It had two forms as that blog points out, and because of the cramped writing style of medieval scribes, Geoffrey really could have been using a thorn character and not an L, but it ended up being misinterpreted as an L. It might not make any sense for a thorn to turn into an L on paper, but if you’ve ever seen the way medieval scribes wrote books, it takes an expert linguist to determine what the letters and words are supposed to be.

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  4. C. Michael says:

    Awesome article! I’m actually writing on Merlin right now, and have been looking for other instances/references in which Merlin shows up around Julius Caesar’s time (and before).

    • Nathan says:

      Thanks. I can’t recall any other mentions of Merlin being around in Caesar’s time, but I do recall seeing a reference (on Wikipedia, I think) about Morgan le Fay and Caesar being Oberon’s parents. That wouldn’t explain how Oberon could have been an adult in Theseus’ time in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but then, timelines were never really the Bard’s strong point.

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