Merlin, Uther Pendragon and Arthur's birth
Vortigern, King of Britain some time after the Roman withdrawal, was haplessly trying to build a new tower for, whenever it was erected, it would collapse. The king's counsellors told he would need to sacrifice a fatherless child to remedy this. Such children were hardly thick on the ground but Merlin, now a youth, was popularly supposed to be sireless so he was secured for this purpose. However, he pointed out that the real reason for the collapse was the existence of a pool beneath the foundations. Digging revealed the truth of this and a brace of dragons emerged, one red and one white; these caused Merlin to utter a series of prophecies. Merlin then left to study magic from Blaise, while Vortigern went on to be killed by the sons of Constans, as per Merlin's prophecy.
Outstripping his master in necromantic learning, Merlin swore never to do Blaise harm and asked him to write a book. Blaise retired into the forest of Northumberland to write down the doings of his former student. Here Merlin used to visit him from time to time.
When Constans' son, King Pandragon, was killed by the Sesnes, Merlin brought the stones of Stonehenge from Ireland to serve as his tomb. (I've read that Aurelius Ambrosius defeated Vortigern and wished to put up a monument. Merlin advised him to make an expedition to Ireland to produce certain stones and these were erected on Salisbury Plain as Stonehenge.) Merlin then became advisor to the new king, Pandragon's brother Uther, now surnamed Pendragon in honor of the late king. To Uther Merlin revealed the mysteries of the two holy tables - the one Christ and His disciples used at the Last Supper and the one Joseph of Arimathea and his followers set up when they came to Britain. Merlin erected the third great table, the Round Table, for Uther at Cardoel in Wales (from where it passed into the keeping of Leodegrance and thence to Arthur).
Uther conceiving a lust for the duchess Igraine of Tintagil, Merlin played his pander, magically giving Uther the appearance of the lady's husband Gorloïs, so that she lay with him unsuspecting. After the apparently coincidental death of Gorloïs, Uther married Igraine.
Soon came Merlin unto the king, and said, Sir, ye most purvey you for the nourishing of your child. As thou wilt, said the king, be it. Well, said Merlin, I know a lord of yours in this land... and he shall have the nourishing of your child,, and his name is Sir Ector... let him be sent for, for to come and speak with you ... And when the child is born let it be delivered to me at yonder privy postern unchristened... Then when the lady was delivered, the king commanded two knights and two ladies to take the child, bound in a cloth of gold, and that ye deliver him to what poor man ye meet at the postern gate of the castle. So the child was delivered unto Merlin.
Those modern romancers who stick to some recognizable variant of this episode have exercised considerable ingenuity to explain Merlin's motives for taking Arthur and giving him to Ector with so much secrecy - not even Igraine was told where her child was taken. Tennyson came up with the most plausible explanation I've yet encountered, but he had to kill off Uther on the same night of Arthur's birth to do it.
Returning to Malory, I cannot help but wonder why and how it should have been for the good of Arthur and the kingdom to raise the heir in such secrecy. Uther married Igraine so soon after Gorloïs' death that by the rules of the milieu Arthur should have been recognized easily as Uther's legal son and heir; at any rate, the whole explanation was accepted by enough of the kingdom to give Arthur a following when Merlin finally gave it years later. Why should it not have been equally well accepted at once? Malory's Uther survived for at least two years after Arthur's birth, and after his death his widow seems to have been left unmolested, even though the realm was thrown into confusion for lack of visible heir. If there had been a visible heir, a son known to be of Uther's marriage, would the child really have run a great risk of assassination, surrounded as he would have been by barons? Would not Igraine or some strong baron simply have been named regent until his majority? Merlin arranged the famous test of the Sword in the Stone and had Arthur crowned king on the strength of this test alone, and the senstiment of the
commons ... both rich and poor.
Under such circumstances, how blameworthy were those rebel kings and barons who refused to yield their allegiance at once to an unknown, unproven youth, the protégé of a devil's son? True, when the rebels gave Arthur their challenge, Merlin made them a bald statement, with no supporting evidence, of Arthur's birth; it seems hardly suprising that
some of them laughed him to scorn, as King Lot; and more other called him a witch.
Nor had Merlin yet told Arthur himself of his parentage, which omission resulted in the incesuous begetting of Mordred on Margawse. Not until after the battle of Bedegraine - a slaughter so bloody it seems to have disgusted Merlin himself, who had helped engineer Arthur's victory by bringing the army of Ban and Bors swiftly and secretly to the place - did Merlin reveal Arthur's parentage, with some supporting evidence, to Arthur and the assembled court, in a scene that suggests a practical joke played by Merlin on Igraine to give her an additional moment of grief before restoring her to her son. In this scene Sir Ulfius, a former knight of Uther's and his companion in the abduction of Igraine at Tintagil, as well as Merlin's seeming accomplice (though perhaps unaware) in the "joke" on Igraine, himself stated that "Merlin is more to blame than" Igraine for the wars of the rebellion.
Perhaps the key to why Merlin wished to arrange Arthur's upbringing lies in the word "unchristened". Was Arthur ever christened, or did Ector, on receiving him, assume that Uther had seen to that point? It seems heretical to suggest it, but did Merlin wish to make of Arthur his own pawn and tool?
- 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