Merlin's origin in literature

Merlin's appearance in the ancient writings is patchy, for although some events later ascribed to him are referred by Nennius in the ninth century, Merlin himself is not named. The story of Merlin was born fully fledged in the writing of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey was a cleric and teacher who lived from about 1100 to 1155, for most of that time being resident in Oxford. He tells us that he was fascinated with the ancient tales of the kings of Britain, but was unable to learn much about them until a friend of his, Walter, the Archdeacon of Oxford, gave him an ancient little book written in Welsh which gave a complete history of the kings of Britain. This Geoffrey chose to translate into Latin. Unfortunately this original book has vanished over the years and it is impossible to know how much Geoffrey derived from that source and how much was either of his own research (probably little) or the product of his own imagination (probably much).

He started his translation around the year 1130. This was a period of much interest in the early tales and legends. A few years earlier William of Malmesbury had produced his Gesta Regum Anglorum, another history of the kings of Britain, which mentioned the deeds of King Arthur, and at the same time Caradoc of Llancarfan was writing his Vita Gildae, the life of S:t Gildas, a monk and contemporary of Merlin. This biography mentions Arthur and Guinevere and makes the first links between Arthur and Glastonbury.

Geoffrey found himself pressured to complete his book, but he was determined to be thorough. In order to satisfy demand, in particular that of Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, Geoffrey hurriedly completed a translation of another text he was consulting, the Prophetiae Merlini, or the Prophecies of Merlin, which he issued in 1134. This text he later incorporated into his major work, the Historia Rigum Britanniae, or the History of the Kings of Britain, which was eventually completed in 1136. It proved instantly popular with a couple of hundred known copies (and probably many more now lost) in circulation before the end of the century. This book, which seeks to give the kings of Britain a pedigree going back as far as 1200 BC and the Fall of Troy, devotes much of its space to the story of King Arthur, which is itself presaged by the story of Merlin. Although throughout the book history and imagination fight for supremacy, the appearance of Merlin seems to have allowed Geoffrey to pull out all the stops and deliver a tale for the telling.

We are in the fifth century Britain. The British king Vortigern, whose name was synonymous with evil and corruption, had invited the armies of the Saxon King Hengist, which had already once been expelled from Britain, back to the island to help fight the Picts. The Saxons took advantage of the situation and Vortigern soon found his kingdom under threat. He fled to the Welsh mountains where he attempted to build a fortress, but no matter how hard he tried the fortress kept crumbling. He consulted his advisers who told him to seek out a boy with no father who should be killed and his blood sprinkled over the site. Vortigern's soldiers sought high and low and eventually, at Carmarthen, found Merlin, a boy of about eight or nine.

Vortigern learned that Merlin's mother, though herself of royal birth, was a nun who had been visited by demons or incubi, leading to the birth of Merlin. Merlin was aware of the threats against him, but he not only revealed to Vortigern the reason why his tower could not be built, but also issued his prophecies of the future of Britain.

Merlin remains, thereafter, a schemer. His prophecies begin to come true. Vortigern had previously usurped the throne from King Constantine whose sons, Uther and Aurelianus, had fled to safety in France. Now mature, they return to Britain, besiege Vortigern in his fortress which is set on fire, and the usurper perishes. In celebration Aurelianus, now king, seeks to establish a monument. Uther is despatched to Ireland with Merlin to bring back a massive stone circle, transport it to Britain and resurrects it on Salisbury Plain - Stonehenge.

Aurelianus dies after a short reign and his brother, Uther, becomes king. Merlin now schemes to arrange the birth of Arthur. Uther desires Ygraine, the wife of Gorlois, duke of Cornwall. Merlin conjures up a glamour which transforms Uther into Gorlois and Ygraine, so decieved, welcomes him to her chamber. Thus Arthur is conceived. In making this arrangement with Uther, Merlin had ordained that he would raise the child. It is Arthur's boyhood with Merlin that forms the basis of T.H. White's humorous and beguiling novel The Sword in the Stone.

During Uther's reign the Saxons recommence their incursions into Britain. After Uther's death, the noble clamour to have Arthur declared king of Britain for, despite his youth, they belive that he is the man to save the island. Geoffrey of Monmouth makes no mention of the incident of the sword in the stone. That appears to be the invention of Robert de Boron who describes how Merlin magically embeds a sword in an envil which is set upon a stone (not in the stone itself) and challenges the nobles to remove it. He who succeeds shall be king. Needless to say, Merlin's magic ensures that Arthur alone succeeds.

This sword is not the same as Excalibur. Merlin later introduces Arthur to Vivienne, the Lady of the Lake, who gives Arthur the sword. She advices him that the scabbard is more important than the sword, and that provided the scabbard is safe, Arthur will not be defeated. The later plotting of Morgan le Fay ensures that the scabbard is lost and thereafter Arthur's fate is sealed.

Throughout the early part of Arthur's reign Merlin is always there, behind the scenes, twisting and shaping events, perhaps to his own advantage, perhaps to Arthur's. Interestingly, the creation of this role was the job of the later romancers, starting from Robert de Boron, and not Geoffrey of Monmouth. After Arthur has become king, Merlin does not feature again in Geoffrey's History.

However, after he had completed that work, Geoffrey discovered more about Merlin, or Myrddin in his own language, and in about 1150 published the Vita Merlini, or Life of Merlin. This is a different Merlin from the one described in the History, and Geoffrey may have regretted his haste in completing the earlier work. His later researches had unearthed the story of the British bard, Myrddin, whose name Geoffrey had taken and linked with other legends. Did Geoffrey realize what he had done, or was he just careless in his research? Rather than contradict his earlier work, Geoffrey fudged some of the facts and timescales, and consequently gave us two different portrayals of the character Merlin: one of the kingmaker and magician, the other the poet who descends into madness. The result amongst his readers, though, was not confusion but fascination.

For this later tale, Geoffrey has drawn upon the Gododdin, a poem by Aneinin, a sixth century British bard. In this poem, Merlin is living long after the death of Arthur. He became allied to King Gwenddalou and, after that king's death at the battle of Arfderydd, Merlin, feeling guilty for not saving his king, suffers bouts of madness, and flees to the Caledonian forest where he lives like a Wild Man.

In the work of the romancers, Merlin's fate is much more exciting. He falls in love with the beguiling Vivienne, the Lady of the Lake. Having learned his magical craft she lures him to a cave (in other legends a tower or a forest) and there imprisons him. Undying, his spirit remains ensnared down through the centuries.

That, then, is the story of Merlin in its simplest outline. We have a magician, born of demons, who shapes the fate of kings but who falls, himself, for the love of a young girl, and is ensnared by his own magic. Perhaps he lives on, but racked by guilt he flees into the forests where he lives like an animal and becomes mad. Merlin appears as both friend and foe, as representative of good and evil, of paganism and Christianity. He may be wise but he is not someone to be trusted, and in the end he becomes a victim of his own schemes.

Such is the fabric of legend and romance. But was Merlin purely the invention of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Robert de Boron, or was there a real man, or men, behind the tales?

See also
- Merlins origin
- Merlin, Uther Pendragon and Arthur's birth
- Merlin's Entertainments
- Merlin - the Necromancer
- The real Merlin?
- Tomb of Merlin
- Literary origins
- The name Merlin