Magician or madman, wily wizard or guardian of the good, Merlin is alive in the minds of schoolchildren today as mentor to the heroic King Arthur. But did he really live at all? The legend of Camelot’s court magician has been scrutinised down the centuries, yet the facts are still few and hazy.
Much of today’s perception of Merlin comes via Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose work includes ‘Vita Merlin’ and ‘The Prophecies of Merlin’.
These were written in the 12th century but are still considered to probably be the most accurate accounts of the famed wizard.
Geoffrey believed Merlin was the son of an Earth-mother who had her end away with an incubus, or devil. The angels who kept guard over Hell put forth a suggestion that the offspring of this coupling would be a force for evil on earth to keep the balance of the good that Jesus Christ had inspired. Unfortunately for those angels, as soon as Merlin made his entrance into the world he was instantly baptised and was destined to lead a goodly life. Luckily, he retained the power of prophecy and miracle-making. Geoffrey goes onto describe Merlin, among other things as a scholar, an alchemist, and a talented engineer.
Vortigern, who was once king of England in the 6th century, tried to build a tower that wouldn’t stand. It constantly kept collapsing. In order to remedy this problem, the king’s advisors suggested that the sacrifice of a boy born to a virgin is what is needed.
Merlin was then produced to Vortigern, his young life hung in the balance. But Merlin kept his cool and stated that there was a lake beneath the tower foundations, and that was the reason why the construction would not stand. In addition, he also declared that there were two dragons, resting in the lake. A red one, symbolising Wales, and a white one for the Saxons.
Merlin went on to tell how the dragons would eventually wake and emerge to fight. The red one would win, proving that one day; the Welsh will overcome the power of the Saxons.
Further investigations soon proved Merlin right about the underground lake.
Also, when Henry VII, a welsh nobleman, took the throne in 1485 it was widely believed to be the fulfilment of Merlin’s prophecy.
According to Geoffrey, Merlin then went on to become advisor to the next king of Britain, Ambrosius Aurelianus.
He advised the king on the subject of a suitable memorial for some treacherously slaughtered followers.
Merlin described that some mighty stones should be taken from Africa to Ireland by a vanished race of giants, which would be ideal if then placed in Wiltshire, close to where the murders had been carried out by the villainous Hengist the Saxon. With the king’s blessing, Merlin went to Ireland, purloined the stones known as the Giants Dance, and flew with them over the Irish Sea to Salisbury Plain (maybe with help from the devil) where they were known thereafter as Stonehenge.
When Ambrosius died and his brother Uther Pendragon came to the throne, Merlin mystically disguised Uther as heroine Ingraine’s husband which then caused the birth of King Arthur.
Following Arthur’s birth, Merlin gradually faded out of Geoffrey’s scribes, having lived for well over two centuries.
In 1485, Sir Thomas Malory published a book by the name of
‘Le Morte d’Arthur’. As a result, the ‘Sword in the stone’ epic was created. Malory describes Merlin as a wizard who raised Arthur and had assisted him to the throne after inspiring him to draw a sword apparently lodged in a boulder at Branstock.
Malory’s Merlin became infatuated by Nimue, also known as Viviane, who persuaded him to reveal his magic secrets.
Merlin foolishly let slip and as a result, some tales tell of him imprisoned forever by a spell cast by Nimue, under a stone, in a hawthorn tree or in a funnel of air. Other stories state that he went mad and spent days, months, even years living as a wild man in the woods.
Further portrayals of Merlin appear in Medieval French poetry and also in many Italian works. With each tale differing and providing a fresh, unique twist to the tale.
Christians have also added a different emphasis.
They depicted Merlin sporting the dark flowing robes of a monk when the pagan Druids were dressed in white; the sword in the stone appeared in a churchyard at Whitsuntide and Merlin was also said to have advised the Archbishop of Canterbury.
All that said, unfortunately, much of it can be discarded, maybe even the tale that tells of Merlin’s ghost which haunts Merlin’s cave at Tintagel.
As surely this just stems from the belief that the court of Camelot was sited there. However, today we know that the castle at Tintagel was built in 1141 by Reginald of Cornwall, an illegitimate son of Henry I.
It now seems likely, and perhaps more believable in today’s society, that Merlin was an ancient god linked to Britain. He was the ‘evening star’,
While his twin sister, Ganieda was the ‘morning star’. A clue to this lies in an early name given to Britain, which translates as ‘Merlin’s Precinct’.
Modern writers now just identify Merlin as a Druid who acted as a shaman in Anglo-Saxon times, while over the years, Merlin has been variously characterised as a god and a magician.
So was he real? did a wizard really exist by the name of Merlin?
Was he just a mere mad-man who believed he had incomparable powers?
Maybe we will never find out the truth for sure. But until that time comes, I’m personally happy to travel down to Cornwall and disappear in the fantasy world of magic, mayhem and dragons.
In : History
Tags: merlin magic wizard conjurer tricks history
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