A Ten Minute Guide to: Merlin (2008)


This piece tells gives you a potted rundown of Merlin’s history. Handy stuff, no? It was originally published, in slightly different form, as a “Ten Minute Guide” in Death Ray 16 in 2008, hence its referencing of the now concluded Merlin BBC series. Click on the link for my review of that.

Magic Men

Merlin is back on telly fighting the good fight in the BBC’s all-new action series, where the young Merlin adventures his way through that quasi-historical neverland that is Arthurian Britain.

Merlin is, of course, King Arthur’s magical guide, teacher and advisor, and probably the most famous sorcerer of them all. He’s a firm favourite with fantasy, and, bizarrely, SF writers, who revisit him again and again on screen and in print. His popular description as a man with a big white beard and pointy hat was used by J.R.R. Tolkien as a basis for Gandalf, and he remains popular culture’s default vision for the magicking type. We give you the world’s biggest wizard…

Merlin was inspired by two semi-historical characters. The first was Myrddin Wyllt (or Merlinus Caledonensis), who is depicted in Welsh legend as a bard who went mad after witnessing the destruction of his lord’s armies in battle. He fled into the forests of Scotland where he developed the gift of prophecy. Included in his predictions was one about his own demise. He said he would die a triple death. This came to pass when he was beaten and cast off a cliff by shepherds, fell onto a stake in a river and drowned. The other character was Ambrosius Aurelianus (also Aurelius Ambrosius) a Romano-British leader who fought back against the Saxons.

The new Merlin series makes a major departure from the legend. Most noticeable, for the first time Merlin and Arthur are young contemporaries. Camelot is not founded by Arthur, but exists already and is ruled over by Arthur’s tyrannical father Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head) Arthur (played by Bradley James) is portrayed as arrogant yet brave, while Merlin ( Colin Morgan) is just beginning to learn to use his  powers. Merlin’s mentor is The Great Dragon (voiced by John Hurt), the last of his kind to possess magical abilities. He alone knows the destiny of the wizard. Merlin also learns some of his skills from Gaius (Richard Wilson), the king’s physician.

Ten Questions

Who was Merlin?

Merlin as we know him sprang from the imagination of 12th century bishop and historian Geoffrey of Monmouth. Most of Geoffrey’s writings on Merlin, Arthur, and Arthur’s successors were acknowledged even in the same century as being mostly nonsense. But Geoffrey did establish the basic themes of the Arthurian myth, and Merlin was one of them.

Isn’t he part demon or something?

The French poet Robert De Boron introduced this idea, wherein a virgin is ravished by an incubus who hopes to father the Antichrist. But Merlin’s mother tells this to her confessor, and Merlin is baptised at birth, freeing him from the grip of the devil. His demonic origins gives him his powers, just like something out of a Marvel comic.

Was Merlin ever real then?

Sort of, but no, not really. Geoffrey of Monmouth based his wizard on a number of semi-legendary characters, most notably the wildman Myrddin and post-Roman war chief Ambrosius Aurelianus.

What’s this thing with the dragons then?

This legend was appropriated from a story associated with Ambrosius, who was brought before the legendary Vortigern as a boy. Vortigern was attempting to build a fortress, but it kept collapsing. Ambrosius tells Vortigern that this was because a white dragon was fighting a red dragon in a cave under the tower, a symbolic representation of the Saxon versus Briton struggle. It’s also where the Welsh get their flag from, by the way.

What’s the definitive Merlin story?

Coming up with the “proper” version of anything in Arthurian myth is like sorting out comic continuity, or deciding what’s “real” in the Star Wars expanded universe. But key elements are: His supernatural origins, his friendship and advising of Arthur, his magical powers, and his eventual imprisonment. He is often depicted as having a jokey, mercurial character.

What are his powers?

Prophecy came first, later he was granted the ability to appear after death, commune with beasts, shape-shift… the general wizardy bag of tricks, but large-scale pyrotechnics weren’t his thing.

Didn’t he get younger as he got older?

“Merlyn” lived backwards through time in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the 20th century’s all-encompassing Arthurian novel. Gene Wolfe recently revisited this idea in his short story “The Magic Animal”.

What happened to him?

Merlin was undone by lust. He told his secrets to Nimuë (or Ninive), a handmaiden of The Lady of the Lake, who then turned against him.

Is he dead then?

Not on your Nelly! Thankfully for generations of later fabulists, Merlin was merely imprisoned in a cave/ tree/ tower (take your pick) allowing for numerous reappearances in local legends and fantasy novels.

What’s he been in then?

Ooh, he’s either actually shown up in or been referenced in: The Dark is Rising, The Weathermonger, The Twilight Zone, Harry Potter, Sandman, Stargate, Shrek, Justice League, The Outer Limits, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Robin Hood, TekWar, Mr Merlin, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Knightmare, Sanctuary, That Hideous Strength… And that’s outside various straight adaptations of Arthurian legends.

The Once and Future King

The most influential modern representation of Merlin is to be found in T.H. White’s four-part book, The Once and Future King. White’s story is mostly a modern retelling of Mallory La Morte D’Arthur, though it incorporates many other tales, and contains a few twists of its own. For example, Arthur is idealistic but ineffectual, and Lancelot is an ugly sadist who is full of self-loathing.

White had graduated from Cambridge with a first in English, earned in part through his thesis on Mallory, though he never read the book. When he did finally read Le Morte D’Arthur many years later, he found himself captivated by it, and began his own take on the Arthurian myth.

White’s Merlin, who he called Merlyn, is a dotty figure whose magical skills are somewhat incompetently employed. He is living through time backwards, and is thus party to knowledge from our current day. In The Sword in The Stone, Merlyn tries to teach a young Arthur, the ward of Sir Ector, that there is more to life than wanting to beat his foster-brother Kay and being a knight. Through a series of lessons, in which Arthur is transformed into a number of animals in order to observe their lives, he hopes to instill in the boy the idea that might does not equal right. The problems of dealing with this issue inform the rest of the story, as Arthur attempts to bring peace and order to a violent world. Merlyn’s great tragedy is that as he has already witnessed the fall of Arthur’s perfect kingdom, but that he must train the boy so that the legend will live on to inspire others.

The first book, The Sword in the Stone (1938), was intended as a standalone prequel to Mallory’s work, and is a light, comedic affair, especially in its first edition. But as the Second World War rolled on, the time when White wrote much of his material, the books became darker. Indeed, the later version of The Sword in The Stone, included in the collected The Once and Future King (1958) is somewhat less frivolous than the initial printing. The finished book is quite gloomy, though it is essentially a metaphor for hope against the tyranny of violence.

A follow-up, The Book of Merlyn, was published after White’s death. It was actually completed at the same time as the rest of the book, but White’s publishers would not take it because of wartime paper shortages, so he reused parts of it in his revised The Sword In the Stone, leading to unfortunate duplication in the completed cycle.

In the book, Merlyn appears one last time on the eve of Arthur’s battle with Mordred. By once more  transforming Arthur into various animals, the wizard teaches the king that boundaries and borders,  the cause of many of man’s wars, are but constructs of the mind.

A Brief History

Merlin, as seen through the mists OF TIME!

4-5th Century: The Romans leave Britain, the Saxons move in, the locals aren’t happy. Much war leads to the rise of semi-legendary leaders like Ambrosius.

6th Century: North Welsh Myrddin Wyllt goes mad after the battle of Arfderydd in 573 and hides in the woods, where he develops prophetic powers.

11th Century: At some point before the 1100s, the Welsh make up a lot of heroic legends about Arthur. They feature no Merlin.

12th Century: Geoffrey of Momouth writes a load of old cobblers about British History. His first book, The Prophecies of Merlin, details wizardly sooths. It was incorporated into his History of the Kings of Britain, which contain his tales of Arthur. Monmouth later wrote The Life of Merlin, which amends the story of the titular wiz, but it was not as successful and is mostly forgotten.

Robert De Boron composes an influential poem, now lost, that establishes Merlin’s demonic parentage and his magical downfall.

13th Century: The French five-book epic Lancelot-Grail casts the sorcerer in an evil light.

15th Century: Sir Thomas Mallory finishes his La Morte D’Arthur, bringing together French and English Arthurian tales. Merlin is depicted as the sage yet dangerous magician we know today.

16th Century: The folktale of Tom Thumb comes into being. In the stories, Thumb is created by a mischevious Merlin.

As history becomes more rigorous a discipline, Arthur falls out of favour, Merlin along with him.

19th Century: The Romantic Poets revive chivalry and Arthur. In 1889, Mark Twain Depicts Merlin as mostly a charlatan in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

20th Century: Modern fantasy comes into being, Arthurian Romance among its many parents. T.H. White publishes The Sword in The Stone (1938), in which Merlin plays a major role. Increasingly, the wizard is co-opted for other books, TV shows and films.

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