Magic and Merlin
Merlin is arguably one of the most famous wizards in the world. He is a mysterious magical figure who has captured people’s attention for a thousand years and is closely linked to the ever popular King Arthur legend. Nevertheless, despite being the subject of interest for so long and featuring in many versions of King Arthur's tale - from medieval poems to modern films – much mystery still surrounds the character of Merlin. Who exactly was he? Did he really exist? Which period of history does he belong to? When does he first appear in history?
The first person to mention Merlin was a man called Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Brittaniae – an early-twelfth-century work which brought together figures from history, both real and fictional. Geoffrey apparently merged two traditional stories (one about a madman called Myrrddin and the other called Ambrosius) and thus came up with a new version of their stories about a character whom he called Merlin Ambrosius. It has been suggested that Geoffrey could not call his new character Myrrddin Ambrosius because Myrrddin sounded like the French word for excrement although this theory is sometimes questioned because Myrrddin is a Welsh word and the Welsh pronounce ‘dd’ as ‘th’.
Geoffrey of Monmouth contributed two key points to the Merlin legend that survive even today. The first is that Merlin used his magical powers to disguise Uther Pendragon so that he could safely enter Tintagel castle and copulate with the woman he desired: thus the future King Arthur was conceived. The second is that Merlin created the now legendary Stonehenge. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version Merlin made the stone circle as a burial ground, though recent research suggests it was probably connected to the marriage ritual.
Later authors embellished the Merlin story with their own imaginations. The poet Robert de Boron, who lived in the second half of the twelfth century, casts Merlin as a prospective anti-Christ figure before he is even born. Luckily his mother foils the plot by having him baptised at birth. However, Merlin retains special powers due to his unusual start in life. He can change shape, for example, and predict the future. Although Robert de Boron’s poem, Merlin, has not survived in its entirety it does tell us that Merlin had a good, if quirky, sense of humour and was associated in some way with the Holy Grail.
Other versions of the Merlin legend, however, focus more on Merlin’s magical abilities and his wisdom (for example, when he is portrayed as King Arthur’s key advisor) or on the dark side of his magical powers and his weaknesses. Some versions say that he fell in love with the Lady of the Lake and that she used his powers against him to imprison and kill him.
More than one modern writer claims that Merlin is actually based on a god from the Bronze Age. One of the reasons for this is that in the Bronze Age swords were made pouring hot liquid bronze into a specially shaped hole in a mould (which would have been made of clay or stone). Once the metal had cooled it would have been necessary to pull the sword out. This ties in neatly with Arthurian legend in which the future King Arthur pulls the sword from the stone, with Merlin’s help.
Quick Quiz: Read the clues below and write the solutions on a piece of paper. Then take the first letter of each answer and rearrange them to find the hidden word connected with this Talking Point.
1. Despite being the subject of interest for so long, much mystery still surrounds the __________ of Merlin.
2. Geoffrey of Monmouth contributed two key points to the Merlin legend that survive even __________.
3. The poet Robert de Boron, who lived in the second __________ of the twelfth century, casts Merlin as a prospective anti-Christ figure.
4. Some versions say that Merlin fell in love with the Lady of the Lake and that she used his powers against him to __________ and kill him.
5. More than one modern __________ claims that Merlin is actually based on a god from the Bronze Age.