The character of Merlin has been a recurring figure in Western popular culture ever since the Middle Ages. In his many iterations, Merlin is most often associated with the legendary King Arthur thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain , published in 1135, which was the spark that caused the explosion in popularity for both of these characters. However, in a lesser known text by the same author, the Vita Merlini , Geoffrey reveals the many other faces of the powerful magician.
Over the centuries, Merlin has come to be known as a sorcerer who pulled the strings of fate and masterminded the course of history. He is those things and more in Geoffrey’s History, but his Vita Merlini tells the story of “the madness of the prophetic bard” Merlin. In the Vita, we see another side of the prophet and advisor to kings, who acted as the architect of history – a side that is both mystical and powerful, but all at once more human.
The Vita Merlini tells the sotry of the madness of the prophetic bard Merlin. ( liuzishan / Adobe Stock)
Merlin the Prophet: Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Merlinic Prophecies
The Merlin we have come to know through popular literature was first introduced in Book 6 of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History. Although he is more famous for his role as advisor to King Arthur , his first advisory role was to King Vortigern. In a retelling of the story of Ambrosius, borrowed from an earlier text known as the Historia Brittonum , Geoffrey introduces Merlin as the fatherless son of a princess of Demetia.
In this tale, Merlin is brought before Vortigern to act as a human sacrifice to fortify the foundations of the king’s castle. Instead, Merlin advises the king that his tower would not stand because underneath it lay a pool in which two dragons fought, a red and a white. After his prophetic vision is proven to be true, Vortigern spares Merlin’s life and elevates him to the position of royal advisor.
In this version, Merlin is no mere human but is actually a supernatural being. Far from being a fatherless bastard, Merlin is said to be fathered by one of the “spirits whom we call incubi… part human, part angel, and take on human form at will and sleep with women.” Some more modern interpretations of the story of Merlin’s birth paint him as the son of the Devil, and portray his supernatural abilities as the work of evil, but in the Middle Ages his role as a prophet would have made Merlin a holy figure.
Medieval writers considered prophecy to be direct communication from God. In fact, these prophecies were highly valued by historians as one of the most certain sources of historical information, providing an assured framework for the course of history. The art of prophecy actually has biblical roots, such as the prophecies of King Saul, but in later centuries it came to be seen as something repellent to the Christian faith.
Prophecies were an enormously popular form of literature in the Middle Ages, partly due to their malleability which allowed them to be molded to fit historical events in any era – a vague prophecy was impossible to prove wrong. Prophecy was a useful tool, particularly as political propaganda to glorify a ruler or justify their actions and ideas.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlinic prophecies were actually more popular than the Historia Regum Brittaniae to which they belonged. They were published separately as an individual volume which was translated into several different languages, including Icelandic and French.
Although Geoffrey popularized Merlinic prophecies, he did not invent it but rather borrowed from a much earlier Celtic tradition of prophetiae often attributed to a bard known as Myrddin. It was Geoffrey who merged the Welsh bard Myrddin with the supernatural diviner Ambrosius from the Historia Brittonum in order to create the character of Merlin, messenger of history.
Merlin taking away the infant Arthur. ( Public domain )
Merlin the Architect and Puppeteer in the Story of King Arthur
More than just a messenger of history, the Merlin of Geoffrey’s Historia was also a powerful sorcerer who manipulated the course of history to set in motion the chain of events he himself foretold – the most famous example of course being the birth of Arthur. It is a familiar story: overcome with desire for Igerna, the wife of the Duke of Cornwall, King Uther Pendragon calls on his advisor, Merlin, to seek out a way to reach the object of his desire, stowed away in Tintagel castle by her husband. Merlin advises the king that:
“To accomplish your desire, you must make use of such arts as have not been heard of in your time. I know how, by the force of my medicines, to give you the exact likeness of Gorlois, so that in all respects you shall seem to be no other than himself. If you will therefore obey my prescriptions, I will metamorphose you into the true semblance of Gorlois,… and in this disguise you may go safely to the town where Igerna is, and have admittance to her.”
Thus was “the most renowned Arthur” conceived, and the fulfilment of Merlin’s prophecies began. Merlin remains an important figure in Arthur’s story throughout Geoffrey of Monmouth’s works, but not as a hero who takes part in the action. Instead Merlin stays in the background until he is called upon in his role as royal advisor and sage. Like the puppeteer pulling invisible strings, Merlin is the architect whose guiding hand helps to shape history in the same way Geoffrey himself does as a writer of history.
Merlin’s character takes on even more significance when we see him as the embodiment of the historian himself, within his own story. Merlin as a metafictional construct, placed in the narrative to bring authority and validity to the story, helps the reader interpret events and shapes their perceptions.
In short, Merlin becomes larger than life: more than a man, more than a prophet, even more than a sorcerer. It is this fantastical, superhuman version of Merlin that came to be the dominant version portrayed in later literature, but in the Vita Merlini we see a different portrayal of Merlin. The Merlin of the Vita is less of a metafictional enigma, and instead is a much more physical, emotionally complex, human character.
Illustration depicting Merlin from the Nuremberg Chronicle. ( Public domain )
Merlin – the Wild Man of Vita Merlini
Geoffrey of Monmouth is believed to have written the Vita Merlini around the year 1150, approximately 15 years after his master work, the Historia Regum Brittaniae , was first published. The poem survives to this day in only one complete manuscript from the 13th century, as well as a scattering of partial copies. In some of these copies, Merlin is referred to as Merlini Calidonii , which at once implies that he is a different man from the Merlin of the Historia. However, there is little doubt Geoffrey of Monmouth intended that they be perceived as the same man from the description he gives of his character:
“Merlin the Briton was held famous in the world. He was a king and prophet; to the proud people of the South Welsh he gave laws, and to the chieftains he prophesied the future.”
Merlin inherited rule of the Southern Welsh kingdom of Demetia, which we know from the Historia that he is entitled to through his mother’s line. Although no mention of Arthur is made until later in the poem, it is made clear that Merlin is indeed the same man who served the legendary king and Vortigern before him, as Merlin recalls the famous prophecies he made as a young man:
“All these things I formerly predicted more at length to Vortigern in explaining to him the mystic war of the two dragons when we sat on the banks of the drained pool.”
This version of Merlin is still a powerful diviner and sage, but he is no longer a sorcerer. In fact, the Merlin of the Vita is a war veteran suffering from psychological trauma after the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield and so, seeking sanctuary in the wilderness, chooses to live as a hermit in the woods:
“At this sight, Merlin, you grieved and poured out sad complaints throughout the army, and cried out in these words, ‘Could injurious fate be so harmful as to take from me so many and such great companions, whom recently so many kings and so many remote kingdoms feared? O dubious lot of mankind!’ … He became a silvan man just as though devoted to the woods. For a whole summer after this, hidden like a wild animal, he remained buried in the woods, found by no one and forgetful of himself and of his kindred.”
In this version of the story, Merlin is cast as the traditional Celtic “ wild man ”, taking the character back towards the roots of his origin as the wandering Welsh bard, Myrddin. There are several examples from other cultures in the region of “wild men” bearing similarities to the Vita Merlini , including the Scottish tales of Lailoken and the Irish sage of Suibhne. Stories of traumatized soldiers or simple hermits taking sanctuary in the woods to live as wild men can be found dating back thousands of years, but the idea was so entrenched in the cultures of Celtic peoples that it became part of their languages and literature.
Some of Merlin’s prophecies are directly borrowed from Celtic stories, such as the triple-death prophecy which also appears in the story of Lailoken. Merlin correctly predicts the “three-fold death” of a young man by falling from a rock, in a tree, and in a river:
“Meanwhile it happened, while his impetuosity was leading him on, that his horse slipped from a high rock and the man fell over a precipice into the river, but so that one of his feet caught in a tree, and the rest of his body was submerged in the stream. Thus he fell, and was drowned, and hung from a tree, and by his threefold death made the prophet a true one.”
The difference in this case however, is that unlike the other Celtic wild men stories, Merlin is not a fugitive or social outcast. He is not a madman fleeing his persecutors, nor is he a sinner seeking absolution for the wrongs he has done, he is merely a soldier suffering sadness from being witness to slaughter and he displays his humanity in his suffering and trauma.
The character of Merlin depicted by Geoffrey in Vita is somewhat closer to a holy man or even a saint. ( hikolaj2 / Adobe Stock)
Merlin the Holy Man
Far from being a madman or a sinner, the Merlin character Geoffrey wrote in the Vita is somewhat closer to a holy man or even a saint. Again following in Celtic tradition, Geoffrey’s Merlin follows the same biographical patterns as the hagiographies of several saints – for example, the miraculous nature of his birth as the offspring of a human and an incubus.
While some would choose to interpret Merlin’s parentage as evil and paint him as a sinner, Geoffrey chooses to paint a more saint-like image, giving Merlin other qualities usually attributed to saints including his close relationship with nature and animals, as well as the choice to live a hermit’s lifestyle.
The Merlin of the Vita is a harmonic counterpoint to the heroic traditions that underlie Geoffrey’s Historia, offering a reflection on the human toll of military heroism and suggesting religious spiritualism as a solution to the destruction wrought by the warrior lifestyle. Merlin finds healing and peace through spiritualism, and experiences a religious rebirth the likes of which can be found in most hagiographies of saints.
When Merlin hears of a fountain of water that has burst out of the ground at the foot of the mountain, he rushes to witness this Divine miracle:
“Soon afterward, becoming thirsty, he leaned down to the stream and drank freely and bathed his temples in its waves, so that the water passed through the passages of bowels and stomach, settling the vapors within him, and at once he regained his reason and knew himself, and all his madness departed and the sense which had long remained torpid in him revived, and he remained what he had once been – sane and intact with his reason restored. Therefore, praising God, he turned his face toward the stars and uttered devout words of praise.”
Once again, Merlin is somewhat larger than life, following in the footsteps of legendary saints and holy men that came before, but in this version of the story he remains very much human. The Merlin Geoffrey wrote in the Historia is less a man and more a supernatural being with almost omniscient power, and this is the version of his character that has captivated imaginations for almost a millennium. The version of Merlin seen in the Vita, while far overshadowed by his alternate personality, is much more sympathetic and relatable while also retaining his power and mystery.
While not as popular as the image of Merlin the sorcerer, offspring of Infernal forces, it is the image of Merlin the hermit and holy man that will likely endure the test of time. Rooted in far older traditions and more deeply entrenched in ancient Celtic cultures, the legend of the “mad prophetic bard” Merlin will likely persist quietly in the background for centuries to come.
Top image: The many faces of the famed medieval sorcerer, Merlin. Source: rolffimages / Adobe Stock
By Meagan Dickerson
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Thomas, N. 2000. “The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Vita Merlini’: Madness or ‘Contemptus Mundi?’” in Arthuriana 10, no. 1.