(I am just beginning to read Malory now but want to write as I read, and not only when I have read it all. This is therefore not fully developed and is really just speculative and setting things up for my further wonderings and research.)
The figure of Merlin in the Arthurian tradition is interpreted by readers in many ways and differs in subtle but significant details from one text to another, one language and region and period to another. Most modern readers think of Merlin as a wonderful wizard, the all-knowing and totally devoted counselor. My first encounter with Merlin was in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and I’ve hung on to an attitude of pitying indulgence toward him from that early stage, viewing him as mostly motivated by selfish personal gain but also failing just enough to be pitiable.
The trouble with seeing Merlin as a wholly wise and fatherly figure to Arthur is mostly in his demonic parentage, but also to a large extent, though not overtly addressed in medieval texts his manipulation of magic that does not quite comply with the Christian framework within which Arthur’s court exists.
But is the framework of Arthur’s court always and only Christian? And how exactly does the Merlin figure fit into that historically?
There has of course been plenty of discussion about the origin of Merlin. In a 1995 Arthuriana article, C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor suggest that the Merlin figure entered the Arthurian legend via a trans-Caucasian people, the Alans, who invaded the Roman Empire and settled in what would become France, eventually receiving land in the north of Britain from William the Conqueror, all the while gaining power and prestige as nobility and clerics. Since many of Merlin’s activities, including the Sword in the Stone story, echo Alans rituals, Littleton and Malcor argue fairly convincingly that the Merlin figure may be based on and/or intended to signify a descendant of the Alans people.
Most scholars, though, assume a British Celtic origin for Merlin, and Littleton and Malcor acknowledge this dismissively: “Other scholars see a lingering reflection of the ancient druids, those shadowy priest-magicians who played such a central role in pre-Christian Celtic religion everywhere” (89). These authors raise questions about why the earlier sources are less clear about Merlin’s magic and connection to the Sword in the Stone, and then go on to formulate an argument about Continental origins of Merlin’s earlier manifestations.
I think, though, that an insular origin for Merlin is more plausible and that the earlier sources don’t emphasize this “shadowy priest-magician” aspect because their political purposes and allegiances were different from the later material.
Whether Arthur is a historical figure or not, he did serve as a national hero for the people left in Britain after the Romans left and the Anglo-Saxons invaded, a king who united his people and helped keep the invaders at bay. But the English and Anglo-Normans later claimed Arthur as their own national hero, even as their ancestors were the ones Arthur had supposedly battled against. They tried to insert Arthur into their own national histories, beginning with Brutus fleeing Troy and founding Britain.
The ambiguities inherent in Merlin – his birth, his practices, even his linguistic appellations – are laid out in Gareth Griffith’s chapter on Merlin in Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance. He is not only “shadowy,” he is ambiguous, apparently deliberately so. One of his main ambiguities lies in whether he actually is associated with the devil or is in fact a servant of God. “Robert [de Boron]’s Merlin hovers on the borders between sacred and sinful powers” (100), a detail which has also been greatly discussed, but which I would like to apply to the possible political purposes of the later legends.
Merlin first begins to assume magical powers with Wace’s Roman de Brut, as the Normans attempt to create a chain of succession proving their ancient ties to Britain and their legitimate claim to the throne. Before this, as in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae, Merlin figures as a wise man and a cleric, but he performs his feats with the use of drugs and not magic. Geoffrey was himself Welsh (or at least had a strong connection to Wales), though writing for the Norman court, and Griffith, as do many scholars, points to the Welsh Myrddin as the basis for the Merlin figure, a character whose gift was prophecy – not the same thing as magical abilities. (The pre-Norman Bede and Gildas do not even mention Arthur at all.)
Magic in Arthurian legend has always fascinated me for the way it does not seem to mesh at all with the overt Christian framework and is in fact far more congruent with beliefs of the older religions that Christianity replaced in Britain. Again, this is a topic that has been discussed extensively, but I want to look at Merlin specifically as a part of that and the role he might play in the transition, particularly in Malory’s portrayal.
I am most familiar with the Welsh tales of the Mabinogion and the French romances of Chretien de Troyes, and my observations are based on these though informed by others as well. The difference between these that always struck me in regard to magic was that the Welsh tales have a strong focus on magic involving natural materials like earth and stone while the French, although of course containing magic involving nature, tend to use more magic involving textiles, clothing and armor, etc.
If, as I am positing, Merlin serves as a connection between the people whose national hero Arthur supposedly originally was and the people claiming him now, his trajectory in Malory is in accord with this observation. Much of Merlin’s magic involves natural materials, especially stones. Most notably, Merlin orchestrates the Sword in the Stone episode at the beginning of Arthur’s story, and later Merlin is magically buried under rock, ending his own story.
The rhetoric around Arthur’s success in pulling out the sword is closely aligned to a Christian framework:
“Now,” said sir Ector to Arthur, “I understande ye must be kynge of this land.”
“Wherfore I?” sayd Arthur, “and for what cause?”
“Sire,” saide Ector, “for God wille have hit soo, for ther shold never man have drawen oute this swerde but he that shal be rightwys kyng of this land…”
But in fact, Merlin, the “shadowy druid” figure, is the one who sets this in motion. The Archbishop calls the nobles together to attempt to withdraw the sword only because Merlin tells him to, and Merlin continues to orchestrate every aspect of the unfolding events.
That the natural stone guards the sword which legitimates Arthur’s rule, and that the whole episode is administered by a druid-like figure, creates a link between the earlier times from which Arthur springs and the later kings.
Merlin’s end also comes about through stone, as he is trapped under rock by Nynyve, the Damsel of the Lake, whom Merlin had been trying to sleep with but who managed to simply use Merlin and get him to teach her his craft before using that craft to trap him permanently under rock. Essentially, the main material of the Celtic magic is used against the magician and perhaps signals a possible transition to more clearly Christian tones.
The Damsel of the Lake takes over much of Merlin’s position, which is giving me pause in this particular point of my interpretation. And the tone of the magic in Arthur’s court in the rest of Malory may not change all that much – I will be revisiting this as I continue to read.
The ambiguity surrounding Merlin’s sacred or sinful nature makes sense, then – he needs to be “good” in some sense in order to provide a legitimate link to the past. But that past is being superseded, and so amid his goodness must be hints that while it might have been fine for Merlin to use the old magic to shepherd in the rightful king, once that new era has been secured, the old magic will no longer be good and will be fully replaced by Christianity. That the magic and the Christian God’s providence mingle at times, especially in the Sword in the Stone episode, is not as puzzling with this perspective.
Malory: Complete Works. ed. Eugene Vinaver. 2nd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1971.
Littleton, C. Scott and Linda A. Malcor. “Some Notes on Merlin.” Arthuriana 5.3: (1995) 87-95.
Griffith, Gareth. “Merlin.” Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance. ed. Neil Cartlidge. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2012. pp 99-114.