Merlin the Necromancer
Merlin did considerable traveling on the Continent, most of it, one supposes, during the years when Sir Ector was raising Arthur (although some of it may also have been in the years between Vortigern's death and Pandragon's). One of his continental adventures may be found under Avenable. Surprisingly, Merlin also dabbled in Christian missionary work, converting King Flualis of Jerusalem and his wife; this royal couple had four daughters, who in turn had fifty-five sons, all good knights, and these went forth to convert the heathen; some of them reached Arthur's court. It may also have been during this period that Merlin met Viviane, fell in love with her, and taught her his crafts in return for the promise of her love.
It would be difficult and tedious to list every deed and prophecy of Merlin's; one does not envy Blaise his task. The Great Necromancer could prophecy anything - though fairly early in his career, before Arthur's birth, he decided to phrace his prophecies in obscure terms. He could apparently do anything within the scope of necromancy, except break the spell that was his downfall.
He must have made rather a pest of himself with his disguises, popping up as toddler, beggar, blind minstrel, stag, and so on, and so on, usually for no apparent reason. Indeed he seems to have had the temperament of a practical joker. Some of his prophecies may well have been more mischievous than useful. He entered the battlefield with Arthur and his armies, and does seem to have given them invaluable help, but one of Merlin's pastimes in battle was moving around the field and telling the King and his knights, every time they took a short break from doing realy tremendous deeds of arms and valor, what cowards they were and how disgracefully they were carrying on. (Maybe that was Merlin's style of cheerleading.)
Merlin may not have counseled Arthur to destroy the May babies, Herod-like, but he certainly sowed the seed of that sin by telling Arthur that one of these babies would be the King's destruction, and he appears not to have lifted his voice against the mass slaughter. In all fairness, we must remember that he did warn Arthur against marrying Guenevere, foretelling her affair with Lancelot, and Arthur ignored his advice in that instance. (But did Merlin thus implant the suspicion that finally erupted in Arthur's vengeful rage?)
Merlin engineered Arthur's acquisition of Excalibur, sword and sheath, but in this mage apparently acted in unison with Malory's first British Lady of the Lake, who was later revealed, by the sincere though unfortunate Balin le Savage, to have been very wicked; it is noticable that Merlin, when he learned of Balin's accusation, did not defend his slain cohort by denying the charge, nor rail against Balin for killing her, but only replied with a countercharge against the damsel "Malvis".
For all his foresight, Merlin had a habit of arriving just a little too late to do the most good. We know he was capable of very rapid travel, yet he let Balin lie beneath the ruins of Pellam's castle for three days before coming to rescue him, by which time Balin's damsel (Sir Herlews' lady) was dead. Later he showed up the morning after the deaths of Balin and Balan, just in time to write their names on their tomb. He delivered King Meliodas of Lyonesse from the enchantress' prison the morning after the death of Meliodas' wife - had Merlin arrived a few days earlier, the brave and devoted Elizabeth would not have died.
Although from the above Merlin would appear something of a misogynist, he could hardly have been insensitive to a beautiful face. He did not spend all his time at Arthur's court, and during one of his absences he taught Morgan le Fay necromancy in Bedingran. According to Malory, Merlin became infatuated by Nimue (elsewhere called Viviane), whom he taught magical secrets which she used to imprison him.
Geoffrey, however, has him active after Camlann, bringing the wounded Arthur to Avalon. He then went mad after the battle of Arthuret and became a wild man, living in the woods. According to Giraldus Cambrensis, this was because of some horrible sight he beheld in the sky during the fighting. He had been on the side of Rhydderch Hael, King of Cumbria, who was married to Merlin's sister, Ganieda, and three of Merlin's brothers had died in the battle. After a time, Ganieda persuaded Merlin to give up his life in the forest, but he revealed to Rhydderch that she had been unfaithful to him. Merlin decided to return to the greenwood and urged his wife Guendoloena to remarry. However, his madness once again tookhold of him and he turned up at the wedding, riding a stag and leading a herd of deer. In his rage, he tore the antlers from the stag and flung them at the bridegroom, killing him. He went back to the woods and Ganieda built him an observatory from which he could study the stars.
Welsh poetry antedating Geoffrey largely agrees with this account, though it has Merlin fighting against Rhydderch rather than for him. Similar tales are told about a character called Lailoken, who was in Rhydderch's service and this may have prompted Geoffrey to change the side which Merlin was on. As Lailoken is similar to a Welsh word meaning 'twin brother' and as Merlin and Ganieda were thought to be twins, it is possible it was merely a nickname applied to Merlin. Merlin is not, at any rate, a personal name but a place name - the Welsh Myrddin comes from Celtic Maridunon (Carmarthen) - which was applied to the magician because, according to Geoffrey, he came from that city. Elsewhere it is averred that the city was founded by, and named after, the wizard. Robert has him born in Brittany. Geoffrey makes him King of Powys, and the idea that he was of royal blood is also found in Strozzi's Venetia edificata (1624).
Further snippets of information found elsewhere are that he saved Tristan when he was a baby; that he had a daughter called La Damosel del Grant Pui de Mont Dolerous; that he was not imprisoned by Nimue but retired voluntarily to an esplumeor or place of confinement. At various times, Bagdemagus and Gawaine passed near his tomb and spoke with him; perhaps others did as well. Gawaine seems to have been the last to hear his voice.
Both Welsh poetry and Geoffrey have him speaking with Taliesin, with whom he seemed to be considerably connected in the Welsh mind. Thus one Welsh tradition asserted he first appeared in Vortigern's time, then was reincarnated as Taliesin and reincarnated once more as Merlin the wild man. The idea that there were two Merlins, wizard and wild man, is found in Giraldus Cambrensis (the Norman-Welsh chronicler of the twelfth century), doubtless because of the impossibly long lifespan assigned to him by Geoffrey.
The Italian romances provide yet more tales about him - that he uttered prophecies about the House of Hohenstaufen and that he was charged (unsuccessfully) with heresy by a bishop called Conrad. Boiardo (an Italian poet) said Merlin made a fountain for Tristan to drink from so he would forget Iseult, but Tristan never found it. According to Ariosto his soul was in a tomb. The soul informed the female warrior Bradmante that the House of Este would descend from her. According to Strozzi he lived in a cave when Attila the Hun invaded Italy and, while there, invented the telescope. The historian Godfried of Viterbo claimed he was an Anglo-Saxon.
A modern relic of the Merlin legend was to be found in the pilgrimages made to Merlin's Spring at Barenton in Brittany, but these were stopped by the Vatican in 1853.
Merlin's ghost is said to haunt Merlin's Cave at Tintagel. The wizard is variously said to be buried at Drumelzier in Scotland, under Merlin's Mount in the grounds of Marlborough College, at Mynydd Fyrddin and in Merlin's Hill Cave in Carmarthen.
Byanne | The Legend of King Arthur
- Merlins origin
- Merlin, Uther Pendragon and Arthur's birth
- Merlin's Entertainments
- Merlin - the Necromancer
- The real Merlin?
- Tomb of Merlin
- Literary origins
- The name Merlin