Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Probably the most famous of all Wizards; the mage and advisor of Arthur and the architect of his kingship. Not linked to Arthur in the original Celtic tales, Merlin seems to have sprung full-blown from the imagination of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae ["History of the Kings of Britain"] (1136). Geoffrey claimed to be translating an older Welsh text into Latin. While working on this translation or pseudo-translation, Geoffrey brought out a smaller book, Prophetiae Merlini ["Prophecies of Merlin"] (1134), later incorporated into the Historia. In a sequence of now hopelessly obscure statements, Merlin prophesies a Celtic resurgence which will overthrow the conquering Saxons. In the Historia Geoffrey provides more detail about Merlin. As a child Merlin is found by the soldiers of Vortigern, the High King, who is trying unsuccessfully to build a fortress in Wales. Merlin explains why Vortigern is not succeeding and also foretells Vortigern's downfall. His prophecies come to be. Now the advisor of Ambrosius Aurelianus, Merlin erects Stonehenge in celebration of Ambrosius's kingship. Later he helps Uther Pendragon deceive Ygraine, wife of the Duke of Cornwall, and Ygraine bears Arthur. Merlin educates Arthur and raises him for the kingship.

The interest shown in Merlin caused Geoffrey to research further and he produced a third volume, the Vita Merlini ["Life of Merlin"] (?1155). Although Geoffrey had now discovered that the character on whom he had based Merlin, Myrddin Wyllt or Myrddin the Wild, lived over a generation later than Arthur (the latter half of the 6th century), he fudged the references for the sake of continuity, but retained the story that Merlin had been driven wild by the death of his king and roamed the Caledonian Forest like a wild animal. Merlin's story was now taken up by the French poet Robert de Boron (?   -1212) who, in Merlin (?1200), brought in all of the elements with which we are now familiar. Boron makes Merlin the son of a nun and a Demon and links him to the Grail story, introduces the motif of the Sword in the Stone, and makes him the creator of the Round Table. Much of Robert's original poem is now lost, but the anonymous Suite de Merlin (early 13th century) is probably based on it, with some embellishments. This tells of Merlin's enchantment by Niniane (> Lady of the Lake), which results in his imprisonment in an Oak (or, in some versions, a cave). Merlin, therefore, like Arthur, is not dead, only trapped (> Bondage), and this allows his resurrection in later stories.

Merlin was a favoured character in medieval tales because his Magic was a convenience to the storyline. Thus he is the enchanter who arranges the birth of Tom Thumb in The History of Tom Thumb the Little (1621) published by Richard Johnson (1573-1659).

Although Merlin's role is linked to Arthur's, he is sufficiently independent that a separate strand of fiction has developed to explore his character and exploits, and these tales are generally more closely related to Genre Fantasy than some other Arthurian fiction. He is the central character in The Sword in the Stone (1938) by T H White, and White's portrayal of this scatter-brained, white-bearded old magician has become the archetypal image of the fantasy wizard; it is this image upon which J R R Tolkien established Gandalf, especially in The Hobbit (1937). Merlin has a lesser role in the other books that make up White's The Once and Future King (1958), although White did return to him for the less successful The Book of Merlyn (written 1940; 1977), in which Merlin seeks to re-educate Arthur in his final days.

Merlin survives Arthur in "King of the World's Edge" (1966) by H Warner Munn and its sequels, The Ship from Atlantis (1967; fixup with "King of the World's Edge" vt Merlin's Godson 1976) and Merlin's Ring (1974). A stronger historical portrayal was made by John Cowper Powys in Porius (1951), drawing upon the historical Myrddin Wyllt to depict a sinister though sad and ageing shaman. The historically rationalized version was further explored by Henry Treece in The Green Man (1966).

The first major book to tell Merlin's life from his own viewpoint was The Crystal Cave (1970) by Mary Stewart; the tale continued in The Hollow Hills (1973) and The Last Enchantment (1979). Stewart explored Merlin's character in depth, considering him in the traditional Arthurian world but investing him with human traits in addition to his power of Second Sight (> Talents). Books (most but not all Genre Fantasy) in which either Merlin is the lead character or his machinations are widely explored include; Merlin (1978) by Robert Nye, who presents a bawdy interpretation of his life, a viewpoint supported by Robert Holdstock in his Mythago series, but especially Merlin's Wood (1994); The Mists of Avalon (1982) by Marion Zimmer Bradley, the first to investigate the conflict between the old and new Religions and the dilemma between Merlin and Arthur, a subject returned to in Merlin (1988) by Stephen Lawhead; Child of the Northern Spring (1987) by Persia Woolley, and Black Smith's Telling (1990) by Fay Sampson – all books forming part of longer Arthurian sequences. The eccentricities of Merlin are admirably unfolded in Merlin's Booke (coll of linked stories 1986) by Jane Yolen, while his own memories are recounted in Merlin Dreams (coll of linked stories 1988) by Peter Dickinson. The most complete fictional study of Merlin is the sequence by Nikolai Tolstoy, The Coming of the King (1988) and «Merlin and Arthur» (1996), who looks in depth at the Celtic base for the real Myrddin and seeks to rationalize the link between him and the historic Arthur. A children's book exploring the relationship between Merlin and Vortigern is Wizard of Wind and Rock (1990) by Pamela F Service (1945-    ). Merlin is the pivotal character in the movie Excalibur (1981), where he is presented as a quirky, eccentric figure – rather like T H White's version – but also with a chilling sense of otherness about him: we grow aware that his agenda is quite alien from those of the less magical characters around him.

The survival of Merlin to the modern day is a common motif. David H Keller brought Merlin alive with Excalibur to help the Allies in WWI in Men of Avalon (1935 chap dos). Early efforts for the pulp Magazines were rather facile – e.g., "The Enchanted Week End" (1939) by John MacCormac, where Merlin works wonders at a sports' day, and "Wet Magic" (1943) by Henry Kuttner, where Merlin is released and aids the War effort. More serious use was made of Merlin's resurrection in That Hideous Strength (1945) by C S Lewis, where Merlin's powers are unleashed in an apocalyptic climax. There is a humorous portrayal of Merlin in The Elixir (1971) by Robert Nathan, while a more romantic view is depicted in The Enchanter (1990) by Christina Hamlett. In The Return of Merlin (1995) Deepak Chopra interweaves the old world and the new, while Fred Saberhagen twines a post-Arthurian world with that of the 21st century in Merlin's Bones (1995).

Merlin appears as a kindly but secretive old gentleman in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963) by Alan Garner, where he takes the role of Cadellin, and in the Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper, where he figures as Uncle Merriman; in both instances Merlin returns to save the world from rising supernatural Evil. More personalized and introspective narratives of a living Merlin are found in "Merlin's Oak" (1932 Cornhill) by C E Lawrence, The Lastborn of Elvinwood (1980) by Linda Haldeman and Merlin Dreams in the Mondream Wood (1992 chap) by Charles de Lint. A collection is The Merlin Chronicles (anth 1995) ed Mike Ashley. [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.