Essay Arthurian Literature: The Evolution of Merlin

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Arthurian Literature: The Evolution of Merlin


In all the long history of literature, some fictional characters have loomed above others, written about again and again by various authors of various eras. Arthurian literature is one area of fiction that has always been popular for writers to recreate in new versions, and one of the most intriguing characters of all Arthurian literature is Merlin, the magician/ prophet who aids Arthur early in his reign. As the Arthurian saga develops, so does Merlin, changing from an aloof, druidical character into a more human, magical being, though always retaining some traces of his Welsh origins.

Merlin gains his first mention in eight ancient Welsh poems attributed to the Welsh
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Here we first meet the character Merlinus ("Merdinus," a more exact Latinization of the original Welsh, was impractical because of its similarity to the Latin or French word for excrement, surely an inappropriate name for a great hero). (Bruce) Yet the Merlin of this story is not the great magician of later works. In his tale, Geoffrey uses not the Latin word "magus," which would imply that Merlin was some sort of sorcerer, but rather the word "vates," commonly indicating a poet or, often, a prophet or seer. (Tatlock) Merlin does exhibit many features of a mystic in Geoffrey's Historia: he uses clairvoyance in the familiar case, borrowed from Nennius, of Vortigern's vanishing tower; he foretells Vortigern's death and prophesies to Aurelius and Uther of Arthur's coming reign, also making several predictions about political events occuring just prior to the publication of the Historia; and he interprets to Uther Pendragon a portent of the death of the king Aurelius Ambrosius. (Bruce) Clairvoyance, prophecy, and the interpretation of dreams are all rather shamanistic actions that would fit Merlin's Welsh character as a druid.

Merlin is not yet a romance magician in Geoffrey's work: the few feats later expanded into mighty demonstrations of magic are not so in Geoffrey. Merlin disguises Uther as Gorlois for his rendevous with Igerne using "medicamenta," which could include…