Merlin the magician, between myth and history

Merlin the magician, between myth and history

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Closely related to the Arthurian legend, Merlin the wizard is a central figure in Celtic mythology and folklore, whose character has been the subject of intense and prolific literature from the Middle Ages to the present day. Having become the "enchanting" father with the pointed hat in the guise of Walt Disney, he appears in medieval stories both as a Christ prophet bringing the creation of the Round Table and the Grail Quest as an obscure character, an antichrist, son of a demon and a virgin and considered a savage living in communion with nature and animals. But it is also this mad lover of the fairy Viviane, teaching her how to imprison her, allegory of the poet and his impossible love magnified by Apollinaire in The Rotting Enchanter.

Merlin the magician, according to tradition

Merlin the Enchanter is a character in the legend of King Arthur. He is a being half man, half demon: he is the son of a young woman and of a demon or perhaps of the devil himself. But he is at the service of Good. Merlin's appearance varies: he can be a handsome young man as well as an old man with a long beard. He knows the past and the future. He is endowed with magical powers: he metamorphoses at will and makes prophecies in the forest of Brocéliande.

Merlin is entrusted with Arthur, the illegitimate son of the king of Brittany Uter Pendragon, from his birth. He takes care of the young man's education and teaches him the profession of arms, but hides his royal origins from him. After the death of Uterpendragon, Brittany found itself without a king. One day a block of stone appears in which is stuck a sword, called Excalibur. An inscription carved into this stone announces that whoever is able to draw the sword out of the stone will become the king of the land. It is Arthur who will take up the challenge successfully. When the new king marries Guinevere, Merlin gives him the Round Table as a wedding gift and asks him to create an order of chivalry that will bring together the best knights in the world: it is the Order of the Round Table. Merlin then launches the Knights of the Round Table in the quest for the Grail. It is a sacred cup from which Christ is said to have drunk at his last meal, and which would have contained his blood after his crucifixion.

One day, in the forest of Brocéliande, Merlin meets Viviane. He falls in love with her and makes him his disciple. He offers her a castle, and Viviane becomes the Lady of the Lake. He teaches her everything he knows, including how to hold a man for eternity. So one night, taking advantage of her sleep, Viviane bewitches her and imprisons her in an invisible tower. Since then, Merlin is no longer accessible to the male world.

A prolific myth

The myth of Merlin knew many variations and evolutions throughout the Middle Ages, making the character particularly difficult to define. Merlin is above all attested in the Celtic Welsh tradition where he appears in the form of Myrddin through some poems evoking the Ve and VIe centuries a madman, savage and miserable, living apart from the world in distant Caledonian forests. We also find him in Scottish and Irish literature in an analogous role, a woodman living invisible in the trees.

The introduction of the character of Merlin into the Arthurian cycle comes in the first half of the 12the century with three Latin writings of Geoffroy de Monmouth: the Prophetiae Merlini (The prophecies of Merlin, c. 1135), theHistoria regum Britanniae (The history of the kings of Brittany, before 1140), and the Vita Merlini (Merlin's life, c. 1145), giving the prophet a real biography linked primarily to a political perspective, that for the Normans to rely on the Celts against the Saxons.

This heritage was then reworked by many authors, in particular the Anglo-Romand cleric Wace as well as the Franche-Comté poet Robert de Boron who strongly Christianizes the character of Merlin in his trilogy on the Grail.

We then find a very different Merlin in The Lancelot in prose (anonymous, c. 1215) also called the Arthurian "vulgate" because it is the most widely used version of the Arthurian legend during the Middle Ages as well as in the Vulgate suite (around 1220) or the Post Vulgate Suite (around 1230). These texts mainly address the character of Merlin through his relationship with the fairy Viviane. The character of the enchanter thus appears particularly protean according to the various authors attached to his myth. Let's go back to some of its fundamental features.

From the Antichrist to the Grail Prophet

Unlike Christ, born of a virgin and of God, Merlin was born of a virgin and an incubus (the male equivalent of the succubus), he is an antichrist. His appearance confirms his evil origin: Merlin is very hairy and furry, endowed with supernatural insight and capable of wonders. However, in the writings of Robert de Boron, only his body represents the Devil. Merlin's soul, thanks to the piety of his mother, seems acquired to God even as he is baptized. The character of Merlin then symbolizes the conflict between the Devil and God, ultimately showing the triumph of God. Conversely, in the Lancelot in prose, Merlin leans towards the demonic side, unbaptized, he appears as deceitful and disloyal while his mother took pleasure in the coming of the demon.

The fact remains that Merlin, thanks to his prophetic powers, finds himself advising the kings of Brittany. We naturally think of the future King Arthur whom Merlin guides in the creation of the Round Table and in the Quest for the Grail but also of these predecessors Uter and Uterpandragon. Merlin thus ensures the birth of Arthur by his enchantments by giving Uterpandragon the features of the Duke of Cornwall in order to approach the Duchess. This figure of the diviner, adviser to the king, fits into the medieval representation of the jester or bard guiding and distracting the king, but Merlin also accompanies him by his status as a druid as a strategist and warrior in combat. His gift of prophecy will also allow him to know his own love end.

The poet victim of love

Merlin's romantic feelings appear in the second part of the Lancelot in prose where the enchanter falls in love with the fairy Viviane. He teaches him his secrets knowing that Viviane will turn against him by locking him in a cave where he died. It was for her to take revenge for the attack on her virginity, the fairy then becoming an evhemianist avatar of the goddess Diana, chaste huntress.

In the Vulgate Suite, the author reports the details of Merlin's imprisonment in the continuity of Robert de Boron's story by integrating the different stages of love between Merlin and Viviane. She meets Merlin in her youth under the sign of courtesy and the marvelous. The story is embedded in a very common pattern of courtly love and troubadours: that of the prison of love with the lover prisoner of the lady. This time Merlin is locked up for eternity in a tower and not in a cave to die there. His death is thus euphemized and represented as more luminous. Merlin will only appear in a final smoke vision to Chevalier Gauvain. Thus representing the druidic fog, the smoke materializing his voice, he is no more than a simple breath of air.

Around 1230 appears a dark and macabre rewrite of the end of Merlin. It's about the Post Vulgate Suite. This text presents Viviane's hatred towards Merlin whose diabolical side is put forward and which must be got rid of. Viviane appears as a traitor playing with the naive lover. The character of Merlin is then gradually destroyed: gradually losing his intelligence and his memory, the dying Merlin is thrown into an underground tomb, punished for his guilty desire as Actaeon was in front of Diana.

Merlin, an enigmatic character

Thus, Merlin remains an enigmatic character in which many and different medieval traditions are mixed. From the evil sorcerer to the benevolent wizard, from the madman to the prophet, from the warrior to the poet, the many facets of this character assured him a considerable literary fortune from the 13th century.e century throughout the medieval West where it sometimes became a literary device to attract the attention of the reader but also in the XIXe century with German writers and in the XXe century in France with Apollinaire, Aragon, Cocteau, Barjavel, and many others, thus contributing to perpetuate his myth.

According to a contemporary tradition, Merlin would have his tomb in the forest of Brocéliande.

Medieval texts

- Robert de Boron, Merlin: novel of the 13th century, Paris, Flammarion, 1994. (translation)

- Geoffroy de Monmouth, La vie de Merlin, Climats, 1996.

- Le livre du Graal, Daniel Poirion and Philippe Walter (eds.), Paris, Gallimard, Pléiade, 3 volumes (Estoire, Merlin, Suite Vulgate, Lancelot, Queste, Mort Artu). (original text and translation)

Modern texts

- Guillaume Apollinaire, L'Enchanteur pourrissant, Paris, Flammarion, 1972.

- René Barjavel, L'Enchanteur, Paris, Gallimard, 1987.


- Michel Zink, French literature of the Middle Ages, Paris, PUF, 1994.

- Paul Zumthor, Merlin the prophet: a theme of polemical literature, historiography and novels, Lausanne, 1943.

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