Last week you read the first installment of my fantasy essays about fairies, and you voted that you wanted to read about Merlin this week! I really don’t know a lot about Merlin because I’m not as big a fan of Arthurian Legend as most people are. Still, I know that Merlin’s story was much more extensive than just King Arthur.
Merlin first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, which was written in 1136. He is a character based largely on other historical and legendary people. His name, and most likely the basis of his character, comes from two notable figure: Myrddin Wylit (Merlinus Caledonensis) who was a mad prophet, and a Roman war leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus. Their names merged to create the name we know today: Merlin Ambrosius.
THE LIFE OF MERLIN AMBROSIUS
Merlin Ambrosius was born from the union of a mortal woman and an incubus, which is why he has his magical powers. The name of his mother isn’t known, but it’s thought to be Adhan. When he was born, his mother informed her husband of the union that brought Merlin about. They immediately had him baptized, which broke all Satan’s power over him, but left him with the knowledge of the past and the future. Some of his powers of prophecy were said to be supplemented by God.
Merlin wasn’t well known until the British King Vortigern wanted to build a tower that kept falling. His wise men told Vortigern the only way to stop the tower from falling was to sprinkle the foundation with the blood of a fatherless child. Merlin was thought to be such a child, and so he was brought to the king. However, when Merlin was brought before the king, he revealed the real reason for the tower’s continual collapse. Below the ground, in a great lake, two dragons fought, representing the struggle between the Saxons and the Britons. The struggle suggested that the tower would never stand under the rule of Vortigern, and only while Merlin was there. He convinced Vortigern to make him a leader, and Vortigern gave him the tower. As the battle dragons depicted, Vortigern was later killed by Uther Pendragon, and Merlin became an adviser of the king.
While working close to Uther, Merlin convinced the king to have a child with a rival king’s wife, Igraine. The child was Arthur. Merlin took charge of the child, raising him and teaching him while at the King’s court. It is rumored that Merlin was also the one who fashioned Excalibur, which showed that Arthur was the true king.
Merlin wasn’t always in the court of the King. There are many myths and legends pointing that Merlin was a shape shifter:
“The Prose Merlin contains many instances of Merlin’s shapeshifting. He appears as a woodcutter with an axe about his neck, big shoes, a torn coat, bristly hair, and a large beard. He is later found in the forest of Northumberland by a follower of Uther’s disguised as an ugly man and tending a great herd of beasts. He then appears first as a handsome man and then as a beautiful boy. Years later, he approaches Arthur disguised as a peasant wearing leather boots, a wool coat, a hood, and a belt of knotted sheepskin. He is described as tall, black and bristly, and as seeming cruel and fierce. Finally, he appears as an old man with a long beard, short and hunchbacked, in an old torn woolen coat, who carries a club and drives a multitude of beasts before him” (Loomis, 1927).
There’s many conflicting accounts of how Merlin came to an end. Some say that he went insane when Arthur was killed and wondered into the woods. Some accounts say that he transformed himself into a great oak. The most popular seems to say that Merlin had fallen in love with the Lady of the Lake. While she didn’t love him, she wanted to know his secrets, and lured him to her side. When she was done with him, she imprisoned Merlin in an underground cave that he would never be able to escape from. Still others say that it wasn’t the Lady of the Lake, but instead a huntress named Niviane. Merlin had fallen for Niviane and asked her to stay at the castle with him. She agreed, but only if he would teach her his magic. Merlin did that, but Niviane bewitched him with his own teachings. Later, when Merlin was escorting Niviane home, he had a vision that Arthur needed his help against Morgan le Fay. Niviane and Merlin turned back to help. along the way they stopped to sleep, and that’s when Niviane trapped him in an underground cell where Merlin eventually died.
Merlin is a rather interesting figure. Researching him, I found many conflicting stories and tales, to the point that it was almost like the internet was arguing with itself on which was the most accurate recounting. I am not up on my Arthurian Legend, so there may have been some parts that I missed that you’d like to discuss? Leave a comment below, and let’s talk! Also, don’t forget to vote for next weeks article!