Known as “Myrddin” or “Myrdhin” in Welsh, “Merzhin” or “Marzhin” in Breton and Cornish, Merlin is generally depicted as a beneficial wizard who deals with the natural elements and animals.
It is particularly associated with British mythology, which covered mainland Britain and present-day Britain (except Scotland).
Photo by Natalia Y on Unsplash
Today, his name is often associated with his role as a “charmer” (magician), especially since the term was used as the title of the French version of a popular cartoon from the 1960s.
The Legend of Merlin
The name Merlin itself has no clearly defined origin. Some say it dates back to the time of the Celtic druids.
What is known is that the names “Merddin”, “Myrddin”, and then “Merlinus” or “Merilun” were successively used to describe the same person. The name “Merlin” was adopted later, probably around the 12th century.
The legend of Merlin, whose name is associated with various qualifiers such as “enchanter”, “wizard” or “man of the woods”, is very complex.
It is not known if this character really existed, since the handwritten sources of the time have disappeared.
The round table
Most of the books that talk about Merlin also evoke Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
These texts date from the 12th to 16th centuries, but the stories about Merlin go back much further.
It seems that a certain Merlinus Ambroisius really existed, of royal ancestry. The Christian influence in the Middle Ages would have transformed the original writings into a legend: Merlin’s mother having given birth to an “antichrist” with great powers.
In addition, some women became witches, taking revenge on men, even on Merlin.
In short, his description varies over time until he became the Merlin we know through stories and cartoons.
Charming, prophet, man of the forest, master of the animals, sage, a pure magician close to nature, quite close to the god Pan of Greek mythology who represents the very incarnation of nature.
On the symbolic level, Merlin represents goodness and sleep, nature in its original power. That is probably why he captivates us, because he is the representation of an eternal archetype.
The best known legend about his origin makes him the son of a virgin and a demon, hence the Christian parallelism and the qualification of antichrist.
However, other legends (reported by Stephen Lawhead in his Pendragon Cycle) link his existence to the legend of Atlantis, where his mother would be a native (Charis, daughter of King Avallach of Atlantis).
While his father would be Breton (Taliesin son of Elphin, king of Caer Dyvi), according to the legend of the Pendragon Cycle.
These original discrepancies stem from the fact that no real history has yet been discovered, and therefore any version is possible.
Merlin, in the Arthurian gesture
His role in the Arthurian cycle is to help fulfill the destiny of the kingdom of Brittany (mythical kingdom that groups together present-day England, Wales and continental Brittany).
Thanks to legendary wisdom, he became the friend and advisor of King Uther Pendragon.
On the death of the latter, he organizes the challenge of the Excalibur sword that allows Arthur, Uther’s illegitimate son, to succeed his father.
He then encouraged Arthur to create the Round Table so that the knights who composed it could carry out missions that were part of the myth, including the famous Grail quest.
At the end of his life and in spite of all his knowledge, Merlin could do nothing against the destiny of the kingdom of Britain and the tragic end of King Arthur.
The legend of Merlin was not originally integrated into the Arthurian cycle.
The character will be somehow “Christianized” later to be able to appear in it, but we can recognize the archetype of the druid: closeness to nature, magical powers, supernatural knowledge, wisdom, long life, role of guide and counselor to the powerful.
In a Christian world then in full expansion, it represented what was left of the old tradition: the dying druidic world.
The end of Merlin
A fortune teller and magician, Merlin fell madly in love, according to legend, with the fairy Viviane, to whom he entrusted the secret to bind a man forever.
The fairy Viviane then set out to perform this magic, drawing the “nine circles” around Merlin in his sleep.
Being the magic powerful, Merlin was locked up for eternity in his prison, to the great regret of the fairy Viviane who did not believe it was possible.
It is also said that even now, he is still locked up. Thus, in the forest of Brocéliande, in a stele it is written: “here Merlin the Enchanter was locked up by the fairy Vivianne”.
Merlin in cultural works
The first literary references to Merlin are Welsh. Different texts clearly distinguish the difference between two characters called Merlin.
The Welsh Triads, for example, mention three bards: Taliesin, chief of the bards, Myrddin Wyllt and Myrddin Emrys
Although the two bards named Myrddin were originally variants of the same character, their stories have become so different in the early texts we have about them that they must be treated separately, although some events belong to both.
Merlinus Caledonensis, Myrddin Wyllt
“This Myrddin has nothing to do with Arthur and appears after the Arthurian period.
The first Welsh poems on the legend of Myrddin present him as a madman who lives a miserable existence in the forest of Caledonia, reflecting on his sad existence and the disaster that brought him so low: the death of his lord Gwenddolau, in whose service he was a bard.
The allusions made in these poems serve to show the events of the battle of Arfderydd, where Rhydderch Hael, king of Rheged, massacres the forces of Gwenddolau, while Myrddin goes mad watching the defeat.
The Cambrys date this battle in 573 and name the opponents of Gweddolau Gwrgi and Peredur, son of Eliffer.
A version of this legend is preserved in a late 15th century manuscript in a story entitled Lailoken and Kentigern.
In this story, Saint Kentigern meets in a desert place a naked and shaggy madman called Lailoken, whom some people call Merlin or Merlin, who declares him condemned to wander in the company of wild beasts for his sins.
In addition, he claims to have been the cause of death of all those killed during the battle “on the plain between Liddel and Carwannok”.
After telling his story, this madman withdrew and fled from the saint’s presence to return to his wild state.
He appears several more times in history until finally he asks the saint for the last sacraments, prophesying that he is about to die a triple death.
After some hesitation, the saint grants the desire of the madman; then the shepherds of the King Meldred capture him, beat him with sticks and throw him to the river Tweed where his body was pierced by a stake, thus fulfilling his prophecy.
There are many examples of prophetic literature in Welsh literature, which predicts the military victory of all the Celtic peoples in Britain who would gather to throw the English – and later the Normans – back into the sea.
Some of these works have been interpreted as “Myrddin’s prophecies”, except the one called “Prydein Weapons”.
Geoffroy de Monmouth also spoke of this wild and prophetic Merlin in his Vita Merlini, which seems to be a very close adaptation of many “Myrddin poems”.
Merlin Ambrosius, Myrddin Emrys
It was Geoffroy de Monmouth who introduced Merlin to the King Arthur cycle. If Geoffroy is better known for his Arthurian character
It is mainly Merlin with whom he dealt, making the prophetic bard of the Welsh tradition a central character in his three books: Prophetiae Merlini, Historia regum Britanniae, and Vita Merlini.
After his second book, in which Merlin appears in the story of King Vortigern, Aurelio Ambrose and Uther Pendragon, whose reign immediately preceded that of Arthur, Merlin also became a character in several later works in the stories of King Arthur.
Geoffroy only tells three stories about Merlin. In the first, the author attributes to Merlin the story of the orphaned boy that Nenius tells about Aurelius Ambrosius.
Merlin is descended from the daughter of a king (perhaps the Queen of Ireland Medb, wife of Ailill mac Máta) and a demon, and the episode takes place in Carmathen in Wales, Myrddin’s homeland.
Geoffroy simply mentions that Merlin was also called Ambrosius, thus hiding the change he makes in the history of Nennius.
Then a long series of prophecies are added. The second story tells how Merlin creates Stonehenge, having the function of being the burial place of Aurelius Ambrosius.
The third story tells how Merlin transforms Uther Pendragon’s appearance, allowing him to enter Tintagel Castle to sire his son Arthur.
Some time later, the poet Robert de Boron reworked this material in his poem Merlin, but added many altered and distorted details in a way that suggested Wace’s version.
He had adapted Geoffroy’s story to French, had now entered the oral tradition and was what Robert de Boron knew, along with other stories by Merlin.
Only a few verses of this poem have survived. But the prose that came out of it became popular and was later incorporated into two other novels.
In Robert de Boron’s story, Merlin is begotten by a demon from hell and a virgin, like an antichrist.
But his mother, pregnant, advised by her confessor Blaise who had noticed the situation, had the child baptized at birth to defeat this satanic plot.
In any case, Merlin, half man and half demon, had extraordinary magical powers like knowledge of the past, present and future, the latter being a gift from God.
Robert de Boron speaks very emphatically about Merlin’s power to transform himself, his jocular character and his relationship with the Grail.
This text also presents Blaise, Merlin’s teacher, who is depicted as transcribing Merlin’s gesture that Merlin himself dictated to him, explaining how this gesture should be known and preserved. This text also connects Merlin to the Grail.
As the Arthurian myth grew in substance and beauty, Merlin’s prophetic aspects sometimes lost their emphasis to make him a magician, mentor and confidant of Arthur.
On the other hand, it is said in Lancelot’s Prose that Merlin was never baptized and that he never did anything good in his life except demonic works. Arthurian medieval tales abound in this regard.
In Lancelot’s prose and in later stories, Merlin’s fall is due to his love for a woman named Nimue, who extorts his magic secrets, turning them against him.
Other texts evoke the name of Viviane, another key character in the Arthurian cycle. It is said that Merlin fell madly in love with her and, at her request, taught her various spells, including that of imprisoning a man forever.
Viviane imprisoned him to keep him close to her, either in a cave where he died, or in a magic palace where he still lived, this palace is sometimes found in the forest of Brocéliande, in Little Brittany.
The three stories
There are therefore three accounts of Merlin in Arthur’s time that also cover the first days of his reign.
The oldest, known as the Merlin of the Vulgate, includes Roberto de Boro’s Merlin.
It can be seen as a kind of prefiguration of the three novels of Lancelot’s Cycle. T
There is also an incomplete variant known as the Book of Arthur. The second is more often called Merlin’s Suite.
It is a long prose novel that has not survived intact but is now known as the Book of the Grail, conceived as the complete history of the Grail and of Arthur and his knights.
This book also includes Robert de Boron’s Merlin. The third is called Merlin’s Prophecies and therefore contains the character’s prophecies (most of them related to political events in 13th century Italy), while others are revealed by his ghost after his death.
These prophecies are interspersed with episodes telling of Merlin’s exploits and various Arthurian adventures in which Merlin does not appear at all.
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