Thomas Bulfinch > The Age of Fable > Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry > III. Merlin
Thomas Bulfinch (1796–1867).  Age of Fable: Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry.  1913.

King Arthur and His Knights
III.  Merlin
MERLIN was the son of no mortal father, but of an Incubus, one of a class of beings not absolutely wicked, but far from good, who inhabit the regions of the air. Merlin’s mother was a virtuous young woman, who, on the birth of her son, intrusted him to a priest, who hurried him to the baptismal fount, and so saved him from sharing the lot of his father, though he retained many marks of his unearthly origin.   1
  At this time Vortigern reigned in Britain. He was a usurper, who had caused the death of his sovereign, Moines, and driven the two brothers of the late king, whose names were Uther and Pendragon, into banishment. Vortigern, who lived in constant fear of the return of the rightful heirs of the kingdom, began to erect a strong tower for defence. The edifice, when brought by the workmen to a certain height, three times fell to the ground, without any apparent cause. The king consulted his astrologers on this wonderful event, and learned from them that it would be necessary to bathe the corner-stone of the foundation with the blood of a child born without a mortal father.   2
  In search of such an infant, Vortigern sent his messengers all over the kingdom, and they by accident discovered Merlin, whose lineage seemed to point him out as the individual wanted. They took him to the king; but Merlin, young as he was, explained to the king the absurdity of attempting to rescue the fabric by such means, for he told him the true cause of the instability of the tower was its being placed over the den of two immense dragons, whose combats shook the earth above them. The king ordered his workmen to dig beneath the tower, and when they had done so they discovered two enormous serpents, the one white as milk the other red as fire. The multitude looked on with amazement, till the serpents, slowly rising from their den, and expanding their enormous folds, began the combat, when every one fled in terror, except Merlin, who stood by clapping his hands and cheering on the conflict. The red dragon was slain, and the white one, gliding through a cleft in the rock, disappeared.   3
  These animals typified, as Merlin afterwards explained, the invasion of Uther and Pendragon, the rightful princes, who soon after landed with a great army. Vortigern was defeated, and afterwards burned alive in the castle he had taken such pains to construct. On the death of Vortigern, Pendragon ascended the throne. Merlin became his chief adviser, and often assisted the king by his magical arts.
        “Merlin, who knew the range of all their arts,
Had built the King his havens, ships and halls.”
Among other endowments, he had the power of transforming himself into any shape he pleased. At one time he appeared as a dwarf, at others as a damsel, a page, or even a greyhound or a stag. This faculty he often employed for the service of the king, and sometimes also for the diversion of the court and the sovereign.
  Merlin continued to be a favorite counsellor through the reigns of Pendragon, Uther, and Arthur, and at last disappeared from view, and was no more found among men, through the treachery of his mistress, Viviane, the Fairy, which happened in this wise.   5
  Merlin, having become enamoured of the fair Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, was weak enough to impart to her various important secrets of his art, being impelled by fatal destiny, of which he was at the same time fully aware. The lady, however, was not content with his devotion, unbounded as it seems to have been, but “cast about,” the Romance tells us, how she might “detain him for evermore,” and one day addressed him in these terms: “Sir, I would that we should make a fair place and a suitable, so contrived by art and by cunning that it might never be undone, and that you and I should be there in joy and solace.” “My lady,” said Merlin, “I will do all this.” “Sir,” said she, “I would not have you do it, but you shall teach me, and I will do it, and then it will be more to my mind.” “I grant you this,” said Merlin. Then he began to devise, and the damsel put it all in writing. And when he had devised the whole, then had the damsel full great joy, and showed him greater semblance of love than she had ever before made, and they sojourned together a long while. At length it fell out that, as they were going one day hand in hand through the forest of Brécéliande, they found a bush of white-thorn, which was laden with flowers; and they seated themselves under the shade of this white-thorn, upon the green grass, and Merlin laid his head upon the damsel’s lap, and fell asleep. Then the damsel rose, and made a ring with her wimple round the bush, and round Merlin, and began her enchantments, such as he himself had taught her; and nine times she made the ring, and nine times she made the enchantment, and then she went and sat down by him, and placed his head again upon her lap.
                    “And a sleep
Fell upon Merlin more like death, so deep
Her finger on her lips; then Vivian rose,
And from her brown-locked head the wimple throws,
And takes it in her hand and waves it over
The blossomed thorn tree and her sleeping lover.
Nine times she waved the fluttering wimple round,
And made a little plot of magic ground.”
Matthew Arnold.
And when he awoke, and looked round him, it seemed to him that he was enclosed in the strongest tower in the world, and laid upon a fair bed. Then said he to the dame: “My lady, you have deceived me, unless you abide with me, for no one hath power to unmake this tower but you alone.” She then promised she would be often there, and in this she held her convenant with him. And Merlin never went out of that tower where his Mistress Viviane had enclosed him; but she entered and went out again when she listed.
  After this event Merlin was never more known to hold converse with any mortal but Viviane, except on one occasion. Arthur, having for some time missed him from his court, sent several of his knights in search of him, and, among the number, Sir Gawain, who met with a very unpleasant adventure while engaged in this quest. Happening to pass a damsel on his road, and neglecting to salute her, she revenged herself for his incivility by transforming him into a hideous dwarf. He was bewailing aloud his evil fortune as he went through the forest of Brécéliande, when suddenly he heard the voice of one groaning on his right hand; and, looking that way, he could see nothing save a kind of smoke, which seemed like air, and through which he could not pass. Merlin then addressed him from out the smoke, and told him by what misadventure he was imprisoned there. “Ah, sir!” he added, “you will never see me more, and that grieves me, but I cannot remedy it; I shall never more speak to you, nor to any other person, save only my mistress. But do thou hasten to King Arthur, and charge him from me to undertake, without delay, the quest of the Sacred Graal. The knight is already born, and has received knighthood at his hands, who is destined to accomplish this quest.” And after this he comforted Gawain under his transformation, assuring him that he should speedily be disenchanted; and he predicted to him that he should find the king at Carduel, in Wales, on his return, and that all the other knights who had been on like quest would arrive there the same day as himself. And all this came to pass as Merlin had said.   7
  Merlin is frequently introduced in the tales of chivalry, but it is chiefly on great occasions, and at a period subsequent to his death, or magical disappearance. In the romantic poems of Italy, and in Spenser, Merlin is chiefly represented as a magical artist. Spenser represents him as the artificer of the impenetrable shield and other armor of Prince Arthur (“Faery Queene,” Book I., Canto vii.), and of a mirror, in which a damsel viewed her lover’s shade. The Fountain of Love, in the “Orlando Innamorata,” is described as his work; and in the poem of “Ariosto” we are told of a hall adorned with prophetic paintings, which demons had executed in a single night, under the direction of Merlin.   8
  The following legend is from Spenser’s “Faery Queene,” Book III., Canto iii.:
  “Forthwith themselves disguising both, in straunge
  And base attire, that none might them bewray,
  To Maridunum, that is now by chaunge
  Of name Caer-Merdin called, they took their way:
  There the wise Merlin whylome wont (they say)
  To make his wonne, low underneath the ground
  In a deep delve, far from the view of day,
  That of no living wight he mote be found,
Whenso he counselled with his sprights encompassed round.
  “And if thou ever happen that same way
  To travel, go to see that dreadful place;
  It is a hideous hollow cave (they say)
  Under a rock that lies a little space
  From the swift Barry, tombling down apace
  Amongst the woody hills of Dynevor;
  But dare not thou, I charge, in any case,
  To enter into that same baleful bower,
For fear the cruel fiends should thee unwares devour.
  “But standing high aloft, low lay thine ear,
  And there such ghastly noise of iron chains
  And brazen cauldrons thou shalt rumbling hear,
  Which thousand sprites with long enduring pains
  Do toss, that it will stun they feeble brains;
  And oftentimes great groans, and grievous stounds,
  When too huge toil and labor them constrains;
  And oftentimes loud strokes and ringing sounds
From under that deep rock most horribly rebounds.
  “The cause some say is this. A little while
  Before that Merlin died, he did intend
  A brazen wall in compas to compile
  About Caermerdin, and did it commend
  Unto these sprites to bring to perfect end;
  During which work the Lady of the Lake,
  Whom long he loved, for him in haste did send;
  Who, thereby forced his workmen to forsake,
Them bound till his return their labor not to slack.
  “In the mean time, through that false lady’s train,
  He was surprised, and buried under beare, 1 
  Ne ever to his work returned again;
  Nathless those fiends may not their work forbear,
  So greatly his commandeëment they fear;
  But there do toil and travail day and night,
  Until that brazen wall they up do rear.
  For Merlin had in magic more insight
Than ever him before or after living wight.”

Note 1.  Buried under beare. Buried under something which enclosed him like a coffin or bier. [back]


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