Merlin is a gray-bearded legendary wizard and mentor of King Arthur, the lord of beasts and forests, who has become on a par with the gods. The British do not skimp on the epithets of Merlin, considering him one of the most important characters in British mythology, which has seriously influenced the English-speaking culture in general.
Already in the Middle Ages, the image of Merlin was loved so much that fanfiction was literally written on it. Although in the XIII century, no one knew a word like that.
Today we will understand the origins of this myth and find out how his image became the association of a wise and bright wizard, although in fact everything is not so rosy in myths.
The birth of the myth of Merlin
Historians almost unanimously claim that the wizard Merlin is a fictional character who never existed. Yes, medieval chroniclers mentioned him in their books, but this legend has a completely understandable author – Geoffrey of Monmouth, who is also called Galfried of Monmouth.
The earliest surviving book that tells about Merlin as a great wizard is “The Prophecies of Merlin” (Prophetiæ Merlini), written between 1130 and 1135.
This is a very remarkable piece of medieval literature, which founded a new genre – “political prophecy”. It was popular for at least another 400 years. One of the most famous works in this genre is considered “Predictions” or “Centuries” by Michel Nostradamus.
Initially, Merlin acts as a prophet who combines the characteristics of Christianity and paganism. And upon detailed analysis, it becomes clear that Merlin is a composite artistic image that had two real prototypes.
The first prototype is the military leader Ambrose Aurelian, who lived in the 5th century, who is mentioned in the work of Gild “On the destruction of Britain”. Indeed, in Geoffrey’s Prophecies, Merlin’s second name was just Ambrose.
Moreover, Ambrose Aurelian himself in the work of Geoffrey appears as the uncle of King Arthur and the brother of his father, King Uther. In later writings, Merlin and Ambrose are often mixed into one character.
“Hiis igitur gestis cleri populique favore
Ambrosio regnumque datur regnique corona,
postmodo quam gessit tractando singula juste.
Emensis autem per lustra quaterna diebus,
proditur a medico moriturque bibendo venenum.
Translation into modern English:
“Thus with these deeds and the favor the clergy and people,
the kingdom and its crown were given to Ambrosius,
and thereafter he ruled by treating everyone justly.
However, with the days improving over a period of twenty years,
he was betrayed by a doctor and died from drinking poison.
Translation into Russian (trans. Bobovich A. S)
After such deeds, with the permission of the people and clergy
The throne and the royal crown were given to Ambrose;
Henceforth he wore it, observing justice in deeds,
But he managed to live only four five years, and after
He died, betrayed by a doctor, having drunk the poison from his hands.
The second really existing prototype of the wizard Merlin can be considered the bard Mirddin Willt – the legendary Welsh fortuneteller who lived in the 6th century.
Mirddin came from a noble family, was a direct relative of King Urien, who ruled the kingdom of Reged in the north of the islands. Bower’s Scottish Chronicle describes that after the Battle of Arvderidd (573), Mirddin went insane, went to live in the forest, and received the gift of foresight.
Merlin is also described as a seer hermit with kinship ties to the ruling family.
The image of Merlin for centuries
Geoffrey of Monmouth took not only the image, but also the name of Mirddin, slightly changing its sound.
The reason is simple. In the 12th century, French culture prevailed in the British Isles, and French was the official language of jurisprudence and industry.
The name “Myrddin” was consonant with the French word “merde”, which meant excrement. The revised “Merlin” was more euphonic: the word “merle” was translated as “blackbird.”
Later, the name Merlin was fixed in the chronicles and works of art, but Mirddin was used quite often in later sources.
It is interesting that the legend of Merlin gradually acquired details in the works of poets and prose writers.
Poet you (Wace) in his work “Romance of Brutus” (Roman de Brut) uses the narrative of The Prophecies of Merlin but adds many details of its own.
The round table, a favorite element of the British romance novel, is just Vasa’s idea. It is in the “Romance of Brutus” that Arthur appears as the head of the knightly order and “the first among equals.”
The most interesting thing is that the work of art begins with the words “Jo ne dis mia fable, ne jo ne voil fabler” (“I never tell fairy tales, I don’t want to compose”). Apparently, even in the Middle Ages, “true stories that once happened” were valued more than fiction.
It was you who expanded the legend of Merlin and added many colorful stories that formed the image of the wizard. If in “The Prophecies of Merlin” he was more of a composite image, then in “The Novel of Brutus” he was an independent character.
And the French poet Robert de Boron completed the creation of the image of Merlin as we know him now. It was he who was the first in the XII-XIII century to make the cyclization of the novels and myths about King Arthur and Merlin. That is, he tried to present disparate stories into one single plot. The second book of his trilogy about the search for the Grail is entitled “Merlin” – and in it he tells the story of a wizard. Unfortunately, only the first 502 verses of the book have survived to this day, but we can judge its content from numerous references, transcriptions and historical lists.
And even then, the image of Merlin was so much loved by the readers that over the next three centuries, whole cycles of novels about him were published, in which the story written by Geoffrey and Vas was altered.
Actually, this is why the legends about Merlin are so contradictory. Whole cycles like the Vulgate Cycle and Post-Vulgate Cycle can be considered the most real fan fiction on Jeffrey’s original story.
For example, in the Lancelot-Grail series of works, Merlin is described as a half-demon, the son of an unbaptized virgin and the devil, had a rather gloomy and cruel disposition.
Merlin possessed all the wisdom that can come from demons, which is why he was so feared by the Bretons and so revered that everyone called him a holy prophet and the ordinary people all called him their god.
Merlin possessed all the wisdom that can only come from demons, which is why the Bretons were so afraid of him and revered as a holy prophet, and ordinary people called him their god.
The story of Merlin developed and expanded by dozens of authors until the 15th century. At the same time, there was a decline in the popularity of the image of Merlin. He became one of the supposedly historical figures, the truth about which has been hidden for centuries.
Merlin and modernity: when the millennial image is still relevant
In the 19th century, the image of Merlin was again “remembered”, and a real boom of literature began, which in one way or another exploits him. And this boom continues to this day.
After spending 20 minutes looking for books about Merlin, we found more than 70 works written over the past 150 years. And over 150 films and TV series in which he is mentioned in one way or another. For the most part, this is fantasy about magic, in which Merlin is portrayed as one of the most powerful wizards of the past.
In the Harry Potter universe, the main state award, the Order of Merlin, is named after Merlin.
As J.K. Rowling herself wrote in her notes:
As often happens with such highly coveted awards, Ministry of Magic favorites seem to receive the Order of Merlin, especially the higher classes, more often than one might expect. While nobody argued when Albus Dumbledore received his OM (First Class) for defeating the Dark wizard Grindelwald, there was a good deal of muttering in the wizarding community when Cornelius Fudge, Minister for Magic, awarded himself an OM (First Class) for a career that many considered less than distinguished.
As is so often the case with prestigious awards of this kind, ministry favorites receive the Order of Merlin, especially the highest rank, more often than you might expect. While no one objected when Albus Dumbledore received his O.M (First Class) for defeating the dark wizard Grindelwald, there was quite a bit of discontent in the wizarding community when Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic, awarded himself an O.M. (First Class) for a career that many considered less outstanding.
And there are also a number of jokes and common phrases like “Merlin’s beard”, “Merlin’s underpants”, which replace emotional expressions.
In the series “Patrols” Lukyanenko Merlin acts as the really existing strongest wizard in the world, who created the artifact “The Crown of Everything”. The whole plot of the story “The Last Watch” is built around it.
Merlin was mentioned by Stephen King in The Dark Tower series. He is the creator of the powerful artifact Merlin’s Rainbow, and is generally described as a rather negative character.
– This Stranger, this Merlin, is a minion of the Tower? Like yourself?
– Much greater than I. It has been given to him to live backward in time. He darkles. He tincts. He is in all times. Yet there is one greater than he.
“Is this Stranger, is this Merlin the Tower’s favorite?” How do you?
– Much bigger than me. He is endowed with the gift of turning back the time of his life. It is constantly changing. He lives in all times. But there is someone else greater than him.
Despite the fact that the image of Merlin is almost a thousand years old, it is actively used not only in literature, but also in films and computer games.
This is much more than an image of British mythology. It has become a “public cultural property” that is mentioned in one way or another in most stories about magic.
High-budget projects that include Merlin’s name are almost doomed to success.
Each episode of the BBC series “Merlin” in 2008-2012 during the premiere gathered about 1.5 million viewers on TV screens. But even 9 years after its graduation, the series is still watched and loved.
By the way, about TV shows. Teachers at EnglishDom often use them as a teaching aid. Learning English from TV shows is the dream of many students. Sign up for a trial lesson and try it yourself.
There are even operas and musicals about Merlin. What other fantastic characters can boast of this?
The very image of Merlin as a powerful wizard from legend is so deeply embedded in the cultural perception of the British that it is tightly associated throughout the nation.
We are sure that Geoffrey of Monmouth had no idea that the character in his book would be known and loved in a thousand years. Forgotten and the name of the author himself, and many others who wrote stories about a powerful wizard. Only historians and specialists in medieval literature know about them. But Merlin himself is the most alive. Even though this is a fictional character.
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