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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Character Study: Merlin

Geoffrey of Monmouth introduced the character of Merlin (known in Welsh as Myrddin) to Arthurian legend. He is typically portrayed as a sorcerer with the power to see the future. Some accounts, such as the Vulgate Cycle, suggest these are the result of Merlin's birth to a demon and a mortal woman. He is typically seen as King Arthur's protector, mentor, and the very reason for Arthur's legendary status. For example, it is Merlin who is typically portrayed as the one who thrust the sword in the stone which Arthur later pulls out to secure his place as the rightful heir to the throne.

In most tales, Merlin orchestrates Arthur's birth by using magic to let Uther Pendragon take the form of Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall. Uther then sleeps with Lady Igraine and Arthur is conceived.

image from califa.us

Geoffrey adapts a story from Nennius in which Merlin is seen as a child telling the King Vortigern that a castle's walls collapse because of two fighting dragons in an underground pool (see more on that legend here). Geoffrey also tells a story of Merlin being responsible for the creation of Stonehenge.

The Vulgate Cycle says Merlin's death comes at the hands of the Lady of the Lake, also known as Nimue. Merlin falls in love with her and teachers her magic. She then turns on him and traps him for eternity in a crystal cave.

Merlin has been a model for other wizards in history, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and Professor Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

image from crystalinks.com

In the Otter and Arthur stories, Merlin is seen in a positive light as Arthur's tutor. The wizard does see the future and orchestrates events to ensure Arthur’s destiny, but is also ruled by a code of conduct which disallows him to alter what is meant to be - including his imprisonment for eternity at the hands of Morgan. See her character study here.

Otter, the mouse, who lives in Merlin’s cottage and observes the tutoring of the young Arthur, becomes a sort-of secondary wizard. There is an implication that Merlin has gifted Otter with powers that will allow the mouse to change the supposedly pre-determined downfall of Arthur and Camelot even after the wizard is gone. At the time of this writing, the intention is to have Merlin trapped in a cave by Morgan's evil doing at the conclusion of Otter and Arthur and the Round Table. While she is never romantically linked to Merlin, she embodies traits of Nimue in that it will be revealed that Morgan knows magic because the wizard taught her when she was a young child. The Lady of the Lake is treated as a completely separate character who is more powerful than Merlin, but is good.

  • Ronan Coghlan (1993). The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends Barnes & Noble Books.
  • Robert de Boron Merlin (c. 1200)
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136)
  • Justin E. Griffin (2001). The Holy Grail: The Legend, the History, the Evidence. McFarland & Company, Inc.: Jefferson, NC, and London.
  • Sir Thomas Malory Le Morte d'Arthur (1485)
  • Nennius Historia Brittonum (c. 828)
  • Vulgate Cycle: The Estoire de Merlin (c. 1230-1240)
  • Wikipedia.org entry: Merlin

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