The Merlin; The Origin of a Legend

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This is the Merlin we recognise today, not only in art and literature but also on screen. His earlier forms are less familiar, more remote, but can still be found among the lore and legend of the Dark Ages. Behind them we catch fleeting glimpses of an original figure who perhaps really did exist: a solitary fugitive, tormented by his experience of war, who roamed the hills and forests of southern Scotland long ago.

Tim Clarkson worked in academic librarianship before setting up a business with his wife. He gained an MPhil in archaeology and a PhD in medieval history from the University of Manchester and has written a number of acclaimed history books. Twitter Facebook Blogger. Printable version. Notify me when in stock. Publication Date 28 April Format Paperback also available as an ebook.

One can scarcely recognise the old heroes under the new disguise, and it requires a whole system of reconstruction and rearrangement in order to recognise old acquaintances in the knights of the mediaeval romances. Yet the difference is one of detail and setting, not of incident or motif. And thirdly, what were the literary methods of these authors? A close investigation of the whole romantic literature reveals, side by side with great poetical force, a surprising poverty of invention.

The situations and incidents told of one hero are repeated ad nauseam by every subsequent poet. Nay, whole cycles of romances are bodily taken over and applied to other heroes than those of whom they were originally composed. The old kings and knights gave way to new kings and knights, but only the names were changed, the rest remained almost unaltered. The same tendency prevails everywhere and at every time.

We meet with it at almost every turn in the epical poetry of the East, and of the West. It is one of the constant factors in the development and evolution of the ballads.

Discover King Arthur’s Wales

Sufficient attention has not been paid to this point. Here and there this transfer and change has been admitted, but not recognised as an universal law, only as an exceptional incident. I on the contrary find in this practice of constant substitution, the very key to the problem of the sources from which the ancient writers have drawn their inspiration. Their skill consisted in giving a thorough local character to a tale borrowed from elsewhere and in so changing the colouring as to impress their contemporaries and to win their applause. This, then, is my starting-point in the investigation of the sources of the Merlin legend.

Our earliest authority for it is the Chronicle of Geoffrey of Monmouth. What mass of tradition could be floating about him, to be caught up and fixed in his writings? As for the last there is no limit to either, but as for his learning we must take it as restricted within a very narrow compass.

Primarily his mind must have been saturated with Christian religious literature largely composed of legendary matter; the innumerable lives of saints and holy anchorites, the vast apocryphal literature, were the great storehouse of his information and inspiration. The Golden Legend was not only the first book printed by Caxton, but also one of the earliest with which every cloister was familiar. It must also not be forgotten that the Apocrypha found their earliest home in England long before any other country in Europe.

The oldest poems of Caedmon and the oldest Mysteries written here go back primarily to these apocryphal tales and legends.


The very centre of the Graal legend rests ultimately on these uncanonical writings, modified, no doubt, to some extent by other motives and interpretations of a mystical nature, which again have their root in mediaeval Christian mystical speculation upon transubstantiation and the spiritualisation of the Mass and Sacrament. Can we then find anything in that religious literature which, if stripped of its modern accoutrement and changed into its more primitive form, could be considered as one of the sources for the legends clustering round the name of Merlin?

Vortigern, king of Britain, determined to erect an impregnable castle, in which he might defy all attempts of his enemies.

Merlin the Magician - King Arthur's Knights

Materials were, therefore, procured from all parts a second and a third time, and again vanished as before, leaving and rendering every effort ineffectual. Vortigern inquired of his wise men and astronomers the cause of this opposition to his undertaking, and of so much useless expense of labour.

They replied: "You must find a child born without a father, put him to death, and sprinkle with his blood the ground on which the citadel is to be built, or you will never accomplish your purpose. In consequence of this reply the king sent messengers throughout Britain to search for a child born without a father. After having inquired in all the provinces, three out of seven came to the field of Aelecti, in the district of Glevesing, where a party of boys were playing at ball. And two of them quarrelling, one said to the other, "O boy without a father, no good will ever happen to you.

But Merlin—for he was the boy—after rebuking his companion for his indiscretion, ran to the messengers, and, to their great astonishment, told them the whole circumstances of their mission, assuring them at the same time that Vortigern's wise men were fools, and that all the blood in his veins would not in any way contribute to the solidity of the intended castle. He then conducted them to his mother, who told them the history of his miraculous birth, which is, in short, as follows:—She was one of three sisters, of whom the two first went astray, and she herself was deceived by a devil semi-demon in shape of a man.

As soon as this was found out she was brought before the Judge to be condemned to death. But St. Blaise, her confessor, believed her, and interfered in her favour to postpone the judgment until two years after the birth of the child.

The Legendary Origins of Merlin the Magician

When that event took place St. After a time, when the mother was bewailing her fate, the new-born child opened his mouth, and said to his mother, "Be not dismayed, for you shall never be judged to death for my cause. When the two years were expired, she appeared in court with her child in her arms, when, to the astonishment of all, the infant undertook her defence. He then proceeded to tell that he was the son of a devil of great power, though fortunately rescued by an expeditious baptism from the vicious dispositions of his paternal relations; that he could prove his preternatural descent by revealing all things, past, present, or future.

And at the same time he told the Judge some very unpleasant truths about his own descent, which convinced him of the prophetic power of Merlin and of the innocence of his mother.

Legends of the Isles: Merlin the Wizard

Five years after this, by the advice of Merlin, she assumed the veil of a nun, and spent the remainder of her life in acts of devotion. Merlin was just seven years old when he was met by the messengers, who, at his entreaty not to shed his blood, promised to spare his life, and they decided to bring him alive to Vortigern. The journey lasted three days, and each of these added to the admiration of the messengers for their young companion.

I will mention here only one of his acts. They passed the first night in a market town, the streets of which were crowded by merchants; and here Merlin after a long silence, burst into a sudden and violent fit of laughter. On being questioned about the cause of his mirth, he pointed out to the messengers a young man who was bargaining for a pair of shoes with uncommon earnestness.

And he said: "See you not that young man that has shoon bought, and strong leather to mend them?

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He thinks that he will live them to wear; but, by my soul, I dare well swear he will be dead before he enters his gate. So also, in two other cases, his prophecies came true. When he knew of Merlin's arrival, Vortigern rode forward to meet him in great magnificence.

The following day Vortigern conducted the child to the site of his projected castle. Merlin, before answering, wished to be confronted with the astronomers who had thirsted for his blood, and asked them why they had counselled the King to slay him. At the same time he revealed to them that they dreaded him, and that they feared he might cause their death if he should live, and therefore they had devised to kill him.

He then asked the permission of the King to question them as to the cause of the destruction of the castle, and why it could not be built; and requested that if they should not know it, whilst he did so, he might then do with them what they thought to do with him. The King consented to every thing he asked, and the astronomers felt abashed, and declared humbly that their art had certainly deceived them, but the signs seen in the heavens could not admit another interpretation. They also did not know the cause of the tumbling down of the walls.

Merlin proceeded then to say that immediately below the soil were two deep pools of water; below the water two huge stones, and below the stones two enormous serpents, the one white as milk, the other red as fire; that they slept during the day, but regularly quarrelled every night, and by their efforts to destroy each other occasioned an earthquake which demolished the building. Merlin ordered the workmen to dig away the earth. The water was soon discovered, and, by sinking wells, was wholly drawn out.

The two stones were found at the bottom, and being removed, exhibited the tremendous serpents, which looked like fiends of hell. The struggle between the two began, and ended with the victory of the white serpent, which, however, disappeared after the combat. It was delivered by a child, and remained obscure until to-day.

notes on early medieval Scotland

To start at once with the final result which it will be my duty to prove, Vortigern and Merlin are here the late and somewhat confused outcome of a more ancient Oriental tale which belongs to the cycle of King Solomon and Ashmedai or Asmodeus. The history of Jovinian in Gesta Romanorum , [3] compiled in the thirteenth century, offers us also one side of that same cycle and shows that the series of legends connected with Solomon had already reached Europe some time before and had become completely assimilated by the writers of the Middle Ages, following the principles of transformation I have sketched above.

The differences between the oldest version of the Solomon story and that of Geoffrey show unmistakably that the form only reached Geoffrey after it had undergone many a change in the course of time, for only after the belief in the Incubus had taken deep root in the minds of the people could such an origin as that of Merlin be believed in.