1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Merlin

MERLIN (Welsh, Myrddhin), the famous bard of Welsh tradition, and enchanter of Arthurian romance. His history as related in this latter may be summarized as follows. The infernal powers, aghast at the blow to their influence dealt by the Incarnation, determine to counteract it, if possible, by the birth of an Antichrist, the offspring of a woman and a devil. As in the book of ]ob, a special family is singled out as subjects of the diabolic experiment, their property is destroyed, one after the other perishes miserably, till one daughter, who has placed herself under the special protection of the Church, is left alone. The demon takes advantage of an unguarded moment of despair, and Merlin is engendered. Thanks, however, to the prompt action of the mother's confessor, Blayse, in at once baptizing the child of this abnormal birth, the mother truly protesting that she has had intercourse with no man, Merlin is claimed for Christianity, but remains dowered with demoniac powers of insight and prophecy. An infant in arms, he saves his mother's life and confounds her accusers by his knowledge of their family secrets. Meanwhile Vortigern, king of the Britons, is in despair at the failure of his efforts to build a tower in a certain spot; however high it may be reared in a day, it falls again during the night. He consults his diviners, who tell him that the foundations must be watered with the blood of a child who has never had a father; the king accordingly sends messengers through the land in search of such a prodigy. They come to the city where Merlin and his mother dwell at the moment when the boy is cast out from the companionship of the other lads on the ground that he has had no father. The messengers take him to the king, and on the way he astonishes them by certain prophecies which are fulfilled to their knowledge. Arrived in Vortigern's presence, he at once announces that he is aware alike of the fate destined for him and of the reason, hidden from the magicians, of the fall of the tower. It is built over a lake, and beneath the waters of the lake in a subterranean cavern lie two dragons, a white and a red; when they turn over the tower falls. The lake is drained, the correctness of the statement proved, and Merlin's position as court prophet assured. Henceforward he acts as adviser to Vortigern's successors, the princes Ambrosius and Uther (subsequently Uther-Pendragon). As a monument to the Britons fallen on Salisbury Plain he brings from Ireland, by magic means, the stones now forming Stonehenge. He aids Uther in his passion for Yguerne, wife to the duke of Cornwall, by Merlin's spells Uther assumes the form of the husband, and on the night of the duke's death Arthur is engendered. At his birth the child is committed to Merlin's care, and by him given to Antor, who brings him up as his own son. On Arthur's successful achievement of the test of the sword in the “ perron, ” Merlin reveals the truth of his parentage and the fact that he is by hereditary right, as well as by divine selection, king of the Britons. During the earlier part of Arthur's reign Merlin acts as counsellor; then he disappears mysteriously from the scene. According to one account he is betrayed by a maiden, Nimue or Niniane (a king's daughter, or a water-fairy, both figure in different versions), of whom he is enamoured, and who having beguiled from him a knowledge of magic spells, casts him into a slumber and imprisons him living in a rocky tomb. This version, with the great cry, or 'Brait, which the magician uttered before his death, appears to have been the most popular. Another represents his prison as one of air; he is invisible to all, but can see and hear, and occasionally speak to passers by; thus he holds converse with Gawain. In the prose Perceval he retires voluntarily to an “ Esplumeor ” erected by himself, and is seen no more of man. The curious personality of Merlin is now generally recognized as being very largely due to the prolific invention of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Nennius, upon whose Historia Geoffrey enlarged and “ improved, ” gives indeed the story of Vortigern and the tower, but the boy's name is Ambrosius. Geoffrey calls him Merlin-Ambrosius, a clear proof that he was adapting Nennius' story. He represents the sage in his role of court diviner, his “ Prophecies ” being incorporated in later manuscripts of the Historia. Subsequently Geoffrey enlarged on the theme, composing a Vita Merlini in which we find the magician in the role of a “ possessed” wood-abider, fleeing the haunts of men, and consorting with beasts. This gave rise to the idea that there had originally been two Merlins, Merlin-Ambrosius and Merlin-Sylvester, a view now discarded by the leading scholars. The Vita was so successful that Geoffrey obtained as reward the bishopric of St Asaph.

Welsh vernacular literature has preserved a small but interesting group of poems, strongly national and patriotic in character, which are attributed to Merlin (Myrddhin).

A few years after Geoffrey's death Merlin's adventures were amplified into a romance, the first draft of which is attributed to Robert de Borron, and which eventually took the form of a lengthy introduction to the prose Lancelot and cyclic redaction of the Arthurian legend.

The romantic, as distinguished from legendary or historical Merlin, exists in the following forms: (a) a fragmentary poem preserved in a unique manuscript of the Bibl. nat. (this gives no more than the introduction to the story); (b) a prose rendering of the above, of which a fair number of copies exist, generally found, as in the original poem, coupled with a version of the early history of the Grail, known as Joseph of Arimathea, and in two cases followed by a Perceval and Mort Artus, thus forming a small cycle; (c) the Ordinary or Vulgate Merlin, a very lengthy romance, of which numerous copies exist (see Dr Sommer's edition); (d) and (e) two continuations to the above, each represented by a single manuscript—(d) the “ Huth ” Merlin, which was utilized by Malory for his translation, and also formed a part of the compilation used by the Spanish and Portuguese translators, and (e) a very curious manuscript, 337, Bibl. nat. (fonds Français), which Paulin Paris calls the Livre Artus, containing much matter not found elsewhere.

M. La Villemarqué's “ critical study ” (Myrdhinn, ou Enchanteur Merlin, 1861) cannot be regarded as much more trustworthy than Geoffrey himself. The story of the tower, and the Boy without a Father, has been critically examined by' Dr Gaster, in a paper read before the Folk-lore Society and subsequently published in Folk-lore (vol. xvi.). Dr Gaster cites numerous Oriental parallels to the tale, and sees in it the germ of the whole Merlin legend. Alfred Nutt (Revue celtique, vol. xxvii.) has since shown that Aengus, the magician of the Irish Tuatha de Danaan, was also of unknown parentage, and it seems more probable that the Boy without a Father theme was generally associated with the Celtic magicians, and is the property of no one in particular. Some years ago the late Mr Ward of the British Museum drew attention to certain passages in the life of St Kentigern, relating his dealings with a “ possessed ” being, a dweller in the woods, named Lailoken, and pointed out the practical identity of the adventures of that personage and those assigned by Geoffrey to Merlin in the Vita; the text given by Mr Ward states that some people identified Lailoken with Merlin (see Romania, vol. xxvii.). Ferd. Lot, in an examination of the sources of the Vita Merlini (Annales de Bretagne, vol. xv.), has pointed out the more original character of the “ Lailoken " fragments, and decides that Geoffrey knew the Scottish tradition and utilized it for his Vita. He also comes to the conclusion that the Welsh Merlin poems, with the possible exception of the Dialogue between Merlin and Taliessin, are posterior to, and inspired by, Geoffrey's work. So far the researches of scholars appear to point to the result that the legend of Merlin, as we know it, is of complex growth, combined from traditions of independent and widely differing origin. Most probably there is a certain substratum of fact beneath all; there may have been, there very probably was, a bard and soothsayer of that name, and it is by no means improbable that curious stories were told of his origin. It is worth noting that Layamon, whose translation of Wace's Brut is of so much interest, on account of the variants he introduces into the text, gives a much more favourable form of the “ Birth " story; the father is a glorious and supernatural being, who appears to the mother in her dreams. Layamon lived on the Welsh border, and the possibility of his variants being drawn from genuine British tradition is general] recognized. The poem relating a dialogue between Merlin and, his brother bard, Taliessin, may also derive from genuine tradition. Further than this we can hardly venture to go; the probability is that anything more told of the character and career of Merlin rests upon the imaginative powers and faculty of combination of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

See also G. Paris and Ulrich (Société des anciens textes français, 1886); Merlin, ed. Wheatley (Early English Text Society, 1899); Arthour and Merlin, ed. Kölbing.

(J. L. W.)