Even those who know little about world history have likely heard of Merlin the Magician. The mythology which has been built up around him has endured for centuries, even though most have no idea exactly where the character of Merlin came from. Also, was Merlin benevolent or malevolent?
So where exactly did the legend of Merlin start, and how exactly is he connected to King Arthur?
According to a fascinating article found on the website Ancient Origins, the story of Merlin is a complex one filled with contradictions and mysteries:
“The powerful wizard is depicted with many magical powers, including the power of shapeshifting and is well-known in mythology as a tutor and mentor to the legendary King Arthur, ultimately guiding him towards becoming the king of Camelot. While these general tales are well-known, Merlin’s initial appearances were only somewhat linked to Arthur. It took many decades of adaptations before Merlin became the wizard of Arthurian legend he is known as today.”
The first mention of Merlin can be found in The History of Kings of Britain, which was written in 1136 AD by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Much of the work is a historical record of English kings, Merlin is found, but as a fictional character:
“Merlin was paradoxical, as he was both the son of the devil and the servant of God.”
Son of the devil and servant of God? That certainly makes Merlin an object of fascination, if for no other reason than such a description makes us question his motives and what role he played in Arthur’s kingdom.
Part madman, part warrior
The character of Merlin was actually a composite of several historical figures who were well-known to readers of the time:
“Geoffrey combined stories of North Brythonic prophet and madman, Myrddin Wyllt, and Romano-British war leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus, to create Merlin Ambrosius.”
Notice the dichotomy once again: Merlin was part madman and part warrior. That alone suggests that his “magic” may have been little more than the rantings of a lunatic who was bent on attaching himself to power. And no one was more powerful than a king.
Ambrosius is of particular interest because he shows up in relation to another British king, Vortigern, who wanted to erect a tower. However, each time Vortigern tried to build the tower, it would collapse. The only way the tower would ever stand required a bizarre ritual:
“(Vortigern) was told that to prevent this, he would have to first sprinkle the ground beneath the tower with the blood of a child who was born without a father. Ambrosius was thought to have been born without a father, so he was brought before Vortigern. Ambrosius explains to Vortigern that the tower could not be supported upon the foundation because two battling dragons lived beneath, representing the Saxons and the Britons. Ambrosius convinced Vortigern that the tower will only stand with Ambrosius as a leader, and Vortigern gave Ambrosius the tower, which is also the kingdom.”
Geoffrey, in his telling of the Merlin legend, notes that Merlin was also fatherless, but he also retained the character of Ambrosius.
Another change Geoffrey makes is that in the story with Merlin and King Vortigern, Merlin’s prophecies are included. Those prophecies point directly to the ultimate crowning of Arthur as king of Britain. And in doing so, Geoffrey introduces the notion that King Arthur was the fulfillment of a prophecy, giving him a magical air.
Merlin, Stonehenge, and giants?
One of those prophecies was how Arthur came to be. Another explains Stonehenge’s appearance:
“These include the tale of Merlin creating Stonehenge as the burial location for Ambrosius, and the story of Uther Pendragon sneaking into Tintagel where he fathers Arthur with Igraine, his enemy’s wife.”
Merlin the shapeshifter
The name Merlin is also found in a poem written by Robert de Boron. The poem was written long after Merlin had first been introduced in The History of Kings of Britain. However, Boron’s poem focuses more on Merlin’s magical abilities:
“Boron places special emphasis on Merlin’s shapeshifting powers, connection to the Holy Grail, and his jokester personality.”
Merlin was also shown in some writings as a mentor and tutor to King Arthur, giving him advice on difficult situations facing the kingdom.
Other depictions of Merlin, however, were much less charitable:
“In some tales Merlin was viewed as an evil figure who did no good in his life.”
Today, most of us know Merlin as the benevolent tutor to King Arthur who often used his rapier wit to defuse potentially dangerous situations. Depictions of Camelot almost always place Merlin in a prominent position even though he wasn’t allowed to sit as a Knight of the Round Table.
Over the centuries, Merlin has undergone many manifestations, from good to evil and back again. Despite all of the contradictions found in a close reading of works that deal with Merlin, he remains one of the most fascinating figures in all of mythology.
This informative documentary has more on Merlin:
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