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1 (Arthurian legend) the magician who acted as King Arthur's advisor
2 small falcon of Europe and America having dark plumage with black-barred tail; used in falconry [syn: pigeon hawk, Falco columbarius]

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merlin (plural merlins)
  1. A small falcon, Falco columbarius, that breeds in northern North America, Europe and Asia.



Extensive Definition

Merlin is best known as the wizard featured in Arthurian legend. The standard depiction of the character first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and is based on an amalgamation of previous historical and legendary figures. Geoffrey combined existing stories of Myrddin Wyllt (Merlinus Caledonensis), a northern madman with no connection to King Arthur, with tales of Aurelius Ambrosius to form the composite figure he called Merlin Ambrosius.
Geoffrey's rendering of the character was immediately popular; later writers expanded the account to produce a fuller image of the wizard. Merlin's traditional biography casts him as born of mortal woman, sired by incubus, the non-human wellspring from whom he inherits his supernatural powers and abilities. Merlin matures to an ascendant sagehood and engineers the birth of Arthur through magic and intrigue. Later, Merlin serves as the king's advisor until he is bewitched and imprisoned by the Lady of the Lake.

Geoffrey's sources

Geoffrey's composite Merlin is based primarily on Myrddin Wyllt, also called Merlinus Caledonensis, and Aurelius Ambrosius, a mostly fictionalized version of the historical war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. The former had nothing to do with Arthur and flourished after the Arthurian period. According to lore he was a bard driven mad after witnessing the horrors of war, who fled civilization to become a wildman of the woods in the 6th century. Geoffrey had this individual in mind when he wrote his earliest surviving work, the Prophetiae Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin), which he claimed were the actual words of the legendary madman. Medievalist Gaston Paris suggested he altered the name to "Merlinus" rather than the standard romanization "Merdinus" to avoid a resemblance to the vulgar French word merde, meaning "excrement".
Geoffrey's Prophetiae do not reveal much about Merlin's background. When he included the prophet in his next work, Historia Regum Britanniae, he supplemented the characterization by attributing to him stories about Aurelius Ambrosius, taken from Nennius' Historia Brittonum. According to Nennius, Ambrosius was discovered when the British king Vortigern was trying to erect a tower. The tower always collapsed before completion, and his wise men told him the only solution was to sprinkle the foundation with the blood of a "child born without a father". Ambrosius was rumored to be such a child, but when brought before the king, he revealed the real reason for the tower's collapse: below the foundation was a lake containing two dragons who destroyed the tower by fighting. Geoffrey retells this story in Historia Regum Britanniæ with some embellishments, and gives the fatherless child the name of the prophetic bard, Merlin. He keeps this new figure separate from Aurelius Ambrosius, and to disguise his changing of Nennius, he simply states that Ambrosius was another name for Merlin. He goes on to add new episodes that tie Merlin into the story of King Arthur and his predecessors.
Geoffrey dealt with Merlin again in his third work, Vita Merlini. He based the Vita on stories of the original 6th century Myrddin. Though set long after his timeframe for the life of "Merlin Ambrosius," he tries to assert the characters are the same with references to King Arthur and his death as told in the Historia Regum Britanniae.

Merlinus Caledonensis, or Myrddin Wyllt

The earliest (pre-12th century) Welsh poems concerning the Myrddin legend present him as a madman living a wretched existence in the Caledonian Forest, ruminating on his former existence and the disaster that brought him low: the death of his lord Gwenddoleu, whom he served as bard. The allusions in these poems serve to sketch out the events of the Battle of Arfderydd, where Riderch Hael, King of Alt Clut (Strathclyde) slaughtered the forces of Gwenddoleu, and Myrddin went mad watching this defeat. The Annales Cambriae date this battle to AD 573 and name Gwenddoleu's adversaries as the sons of Eliffer, presumably Gwrgi and Peredur.
Some early references name the madman as "Lailoken"; this name especially used in the hagiography of Saint Kentigern. A version of this legend is preserved in a late 15th century manuscript, in a story called Lailoken and Kentigern. In this narrative, Kentigern meets in a deserted place with the naked, hairy madman Lailoken, also called Merlynum or "Merlin", who declares that he has been condemned for his sins to wander in the company of beasts. He adds that he had been the cause for the deaths of all of the persons killed in the battle fought "on the plain between Liddel and Carwannok." Having told his story, the madman leaps up and flees from the presence of the saint back into the wilderness. He appears several times more in the narrative until at last he asks Kentigern for the sacrament, prophesying that he was about to die a triple death. After some hesitation, the saint grants the madman's wish, and later that day the shepherds of King Meldred capture him, beat him with clubs, then cast him into the River Tweed where his body is pierced by a stake, thus fulfilling his prophecy.
Welsh literature has many examples of a prophetic literature, predicting the military victory of all of the Brythonic peoples of Great Britain who will join together and drive the English – and later the Normans – back into the sea. Some of these works were claimed to be the prophecies of Myrddin; some were not, as for example the Armes Prydein. This wild prophetic Merlin was also treated by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini which looks like a close adaptation of a number of Myrddin poems.

Merlin Ambrosius, or Myrddin Emrys

Geoffrey's account of Merlin Ambrosius' early life in the Historia Regum Britanniae is based on the story of Ambrosius in the Historia Brittonum. He adds his own embellishments to the tale, which he sets in Carmarthen (Welsh: Caerfyrddin). While Nennius' Ambrosius eventually reveals himself to be the son of a Roman consul, Geoffrey's Merlin is begotten on a king's daughter by an incubus. The story of Vortigern's tower is essentially the same; the underground dragons, one white and one red, represent the Saxons and the British, and their final battle is a portent of things to come.
At this point Geoffrey inserts a long section of Merlin's prophecies, taken from his earlier Prophetiae Merlini. He tells only two further tales of the character; in the first, Merlin creates Stonehenge as a burial place for Aurelius Ambrosius. In the second, Merlin's magic enables Uther Pendragon to enter into Tintagel in disguise and father his son Arthur on his enemy's wife, Igraine. These episodes appear in many later adaptations of Geoffrey's account.

Later adaptations of the legend

Several decades later the poet Robert de Boron retold this material in his poem Merlin. Only a few lines of the poem have survived, but a prose retelling became popular and was later incorporated into two other romances. In Robert's account Merlin is begotten by a devil on a virgin as an intended Antichrist. This plot is thwarted when the expectant mother informs her confessor Blaise of her predicament; they immediately baptize the boy at birth, thus freeing him from the power of Satan. The demonic legacy invests Merlin with a preternatural knowledge of the past and present, which is supplemented by God, who gives the boy a prophetic knowledge of the future.
Robert de Boron lays great emphasis on Merlin's power to shapeshift, on his joking personality and on his connection to the Holy Grail. This text introduces Merlin's master Blaise, who is pictured as writing down Merlin's deeds, explaining how they came to be known and preserved. Robert was inspired by Wace's Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman adaptation of Geoffrey's Historia. Robert's poem was rewritten in prose in the 12th century as the Estoire de Merlin, also called the Vulgate or Prose Merlin. It was originally attached to a cycle of prose versions of Robert's poems, which tells the story of the Holy Grail; brought from the Middle East to Britain by followers of Joseph of Arimathea, and eventually recovered by Arthur's knight Percival. The Prose Merlin was detached from that shorter cycle to serve as a sort of prequel to the vast Lancelot-Grail, also known as the Vulgate Cycle. The authors of that work expanded it with the Vulgate Suite du Merlin (Vulgate Merlin Continuation), which described King Arthur's early adventures. The Prose Merlin was also used as a prequel to the later Post-Vulgate Cycle, the authors of which added their own continuation, the Huth Merlin or Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin. These works were adapted and translated into several other languages; the Post-Vulgate Suite was the inspiration for the early parts of Sir Thomas Malory's English language Le Morte d'Arthur.
Many later medieval works also deal with the Merlin legend. For example, The Prophecies of Merlin contains long prophecies of Merlin (mostly concerned with 13th century Italian politics), some by his ghost after his death. The prophecies are interspersed with episodes relating Merlin's deeds and with various Arthurian adventures in which Merlin does not appear at all. The earliest English verse romance concerning Merlin is Arthour and Merlin, which drew from chronicles and the French Lancelot-Grail.
As the Arthurian mythos was retold and embellished, Merlin's prophetic aspects were sometimes de-emphasized in favor of portraying Merlin as a wizard and elder advisor to Arthur. On the other hand in Lancelot-Grail it is said that Merlin was never baptized and never did any good in his life, only evil. Medieval Arthurian tales abound in inconsistencies. In the Lancelot-Grail and later accounts Merlin's eventual downfall came from his lusting after a woman named Nimue (or Ninive, in some versions of the legend), one of the maidens serving the Lady of the Lake, who coaxed his magical secrets from him before turning her new powers against her master and trapping him in an enchanted prison (variously described as a cave, a large rock, an invisible tower, etc.) This is unfortunate for Arthur, who has lost his greatest counselor.

Name and etymology

The name "Myrddin" (note that double-d in Welsh makes the voiced 'th' sound in English 'the' and 'this') may have arisen from the Roman-period Celtic name for a place in Wales, *Mori-dunon, meaning "sea fort". The name became Carmarthen (Caerfyrddin in Welsh), which can be loosely translated as "Fort of Moridunum", since a Caer is a fortified royal residence. It seems that the name was taken to mean "Caer of [some man called] Myrddin".
Some accounts describe two different figures named Merlin. For example, the Welsh Triads state there were three baptisimal bards: Chief of Bards Taliesin, Myrddin Wyllt, and Myrddin Emrys (i.e. Merlinus Ambrosius). It is believed that these two bards called Myrddin were originally variants of the same figure. The stories of Wyllt and Emrys have become different in the earliest texts that they are treated as separate characters, even though similar incidents are ascribed to both.

Fiction featuring Merlin

Much Arthurian fiction includes Merlin as a character. Mark Twain made Merlin the villain in his 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. He is presented as a complete charlatan with no real magic power, and the character seems to stand for (and to satirise) superstition, yet at the very last chapter of the book Merlin suddenly seems to have a real magic power and he puts the protagonist into a centuries-long sleep (as Merlin himself was put to sleep in the original Arthurian canon). C. S. Lewis used the figure of Merlin Ambrosius in his 1946 novel That Hideous Strength, the third book in the Space Trilogy. In it, Merlin has supposedly lain asleep for centuries to be awakened for the battle against the materialistic agents of the devil, able to consort with the angelic powers because he came from a time when sorcery was not yet a corrupt art. Lewis's character of Ransom has apparently inherited the title of Pendragon from the Arthurian tradition. Merlin also mentions "Numinor," a nod to J. R. R. Tolkien's Númenor. Mary Stewart produced a quintet of Aurthurian novels; Merlin is the protagonist in the first three: The Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1970) and The Last Enchantment (1979).


See also


  • Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.) (1991). The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.

External links

merlin in Arabic: مرلين
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merlin in Welsh: Myrddin
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merlin in Modern Greek (1453-): Μέρλιν ο Μάγος
merlin in Spanish: Merlín
merlin in French: Merlin (magicien)
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merlin in Hebrew: מרלין
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