My favorite literary character is Merlin, the sorcerer and sage of Arthurian legend. I also enjoy watching him on t.v. and in movies. Certainly, he is one of the most familiar and best-known characters from the legend. I’d say most of us feel we could describe him in some detail. At least, we could give a better summary of him than we could of, say, Sir Geheris. However, Merlin can’t be summed up in a paragraph. He’s more complicated than that. Most people probably could describe his physical appearance and list a few of his personality traits. The problem with Merlin is that that description would be completely accurate. Arthurian legend has been around for over a thousand years and, over that time, Arthur’s mentor and chief advisor has been presented in a variety of ways, depending on who’s telling the story. Take a moment to conjure up your image of Merlin, then read on.
What is Merlin Like?
So, what is your Merlin like? Let’s start with the easy part: his physical appearance. Elderly? Long gray beard and pointy hat? Oh, wait. That’s a description of Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. It also could apply to Professor Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books. But that’s not surprising since those characters are so obviously inspired by Merlin.
Fans of the BBC series, Merlin, might immediately picture a young, dark-haired man in his twenties wearing a shirt, pants that bear a tremendous resemblance to jeans, and a red scarf around his neck. As a huge fan of Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave books, I also often picture Merlin as a dark-haired young man (although the original novel cover oddly portrayed him with blond hair). The Crystal Cave, the first book in the series, begins when Merlin is six years old. Have you ever pictured the famous wizard as a child? To muddy the image even further, some movies feature a middle-aged (forty-ish) Merlin.
What about Merlin’s demeanor? Disney’s Sword in the Stone, a movie based on E. B. White’s novel of the same name, presents Merlin as well-meaning, affable, and often befuddled. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’s Merlin comes across initially as evil or, at least, sinister. In the end, he turns out to be a good guy. But he is a considerably scheming and manipulative good guy. The majority of Arthurian legend-based movies I’ve seen have tended to portray Merlin along those same lines: crotchety, sinister, or leaning pretty strongly towards being evil. Since I love merlin to bits, I’ve always resented him being cast as an evil sorcerer. I’m okay with crotchety. He’s a brilliant and gifted man who is surrounded by fools. No, really. Go back and read the legend. Even Arthur can be rather dim-witted at times. I don’t blame Merlin for feeling grumpy.
But sinister or evil? Come on! Merlin’s one of the good guys. Isn’t he? Generally, the answer is yes, but if genetics are an influence on who we turn out to be, Merlin’s parentage is potentially problematic, as you’ll see below.
One of the great stories about Merlin as a child concerns the building of Dinas Emrys. Here is the story. Vortigern, a king of Wales, wanted to build a fort (or a castle, depending on which version of the legend you read). He chose a hill on which to put it. The foundation was laid. The workers put up walls. But, every night, the walls fell down. After a bit, the king got peeved. I’m sure you can understand his frustration. So, he consulted his soothsayers to find a solution. After they did their divination rituals, they told the king the foundation had to be sprinkled with the blood of a fatherless boy. Immediately, Vortigern dispatched servants to find a boy who fit the criterion and they returned with a child from Carmarthen. The boy’s name was Myrddin Emrys.
Turns out, Myrddin was no run-of-the-mill boy without a father. He had the gift of visions and, just as Vortigern commanded his blood be shed, Myrddin proclaimed a prophecy. Sprinkling his blood would do no good. The reason, he said, the walls kept falling was because there was a pool beneath the foundation. In the pool were two dragons, one red and one white. They were engaged in battle. The only way to keep the walls up was to drain the water and release the dragons.
Since Vortigern’s symbol was the White Dragon, he was intrigued and, rather than execute Myrddin, he decided to try draining the pool. The workers dug and found the water. They also confirmed the presence of the two dragons. The red defeated the white and flew away. Following this, the workers were able to build the fort without incident. The king was so pleased, he named it Dinas Emrys after the boy. According to the legend, the boy grew up to be King Arthur’s sorcerer.
The key detail of the Dinas Emrys story is that Myrddin Emrys is a boy who had no father. Now, this can be interpreted in more than one way, but the legend presents it as meaning he had no earthly father. He was conceived supernaturally. The most common version is that Merlin’s father was an incubus, a demon who has intercourse with young women while they are sleeping. According to this version of the legend, Merlin’s father was a demon. This, according to these versions, explains why merlin possessed magic gifts. The problem is, it also means he’s half demon and, therefore, inherently evil. Some stories say that he was baptized, and this nullified the evil.
But being fatherless also could mean that Merlin was illegitimate. In Mary Stewart’s book, Merlin’s mother is a princess who has an affair with a man named Ambrosius. Needing a way to explain her pregnancy to her father, she said a demon came to her in the night and laid with her. In the BBC’s Merlin, the young wizard grew up without a father and with no knowledge of him. After working as an assistant to Uther Pendragon’s court physician for a couple of years, Merlin discovers his father was a dragon lord who had fled Camelot when Uther decided to “purge” the kingdom of magic. Merlin’s mother gave him refuge. They fell in love and conceived Merlin, but he had to leave when the king’s men pursued him, and he wanted to protect Merlin and his mother from Uther’s wrath.
So, what does it mean that Merlin was fatherless? I prefer the second interpretation, but both exist in the variants of the legend. The first interpretation provides a reason to present the sorcerer as sinister.
Lonely Guy or Ladies’ Man?
Arthurian legend is filled with romance and courtly love, but Merlin doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a romantic guy. He’s more the old sage who enjoys spending his Saturday evenings in his tower, reading his books, or contemplating in his crystal cave. However, in medieval versions of the legend—and even a handful of contemporary ones—he is romantically linked to several women. They are Nimue, Niniane, Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, and Morgan le Faye. That list can be a little deceiving because Nimue, Viviane, and Niniane may all be the same woman. They may also be names for the Lady of the Lake. But, to confuse things further, there may have been more than one Lady of the Lake.
The most commonly told story is about Merlin falling in love with (or, at least, being seduced by) Nimue. In the tale, she is his apprentice, and she convinces him to teach him everything he knows about magic. He is so besotted with her he shares all his secrets even though he realizes it’s not a wise thing to do. Once Nimue has gotten everything she wants, she traps him inside an oak tree or, alternatively, the crystal cave. This prevents him from helping Arthur at the Battle of Camlan. As a result, Mordred stabs and kills the king. In a variant of this story, Nimue tricks Merlin into imprisonment earlier then takes his place as Arthur’s chief advisor. In still another variant, Nimue is not so much a femme fatale as a sexually harassed student. She magically locks Merlin up to stop his unwanted advances and protect her virginity.
Many stories romantically link Merlin with the Lady of the Lake. In some, she and he work together to help Arthur. In others, she helps Arthur for the love of Merlin. Many, though, simply portray her as a love interest who breaks his heart. Niniane is particularly associated with this version, but one can hardly blame her for breaking her heart. In this version of the legend, Merlin has an affair with her because he’s on the rebound after a romantic breakup with Morgan le Faye. After Niniane breaks his heart, he returns to Morgan.
Merlin and Morgan le Faye frequently are paired in the legend. Sometimes, it is as magical rivals, but she is his most common love interest. In some variants, his love is unrequited, but in others, she falls for him too. Unfortunately, it never ends well. The BBC series, Merlin, did an excellent and intriguing job portraying their relationship during the course of the show’s five seasons. It begins with a young Merlin having a serious crush on Uther Pendragon’s ward. They become friends but she is never romantically interested in him or even slightly aware of his interest in her. As the series progress, they end up in conflict when Morgana becomes determined to kill Arthur and take his throne. Merlin uses his magic to protect Arthur and Camelot. In the end, he kills her, ostensibly to save the king. Any romantic feelings he might have had for her have vanished. As he stabs her with an enchanted sword, he coldly says, “Goodbye, Morgana.”
So, Merlin’s a more complex guy than the goofy sorcerer from the Disney film. If you’re looking for a summer project, I recommend checking out the numerous personas of Merlin in literature, movies, and television.
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Slan go foil!