A legendary British enchanter who lived at the court of King
Arthur. He emerged as a character in Geoffrey of Manmouth’s
Historia Regum Britanniae (completed around 1135 C.E.). Geoffrey
later wrote a complete book on Merlin, Vita Merlini (ca.
1150). According to Geoffrey, Merlin’s mother was a nun, and
he was borne of his mother’s intercourse with an incubus. He
lived in the sixth century in north Britain. By the end of the
century, he was the subject of poems in Wales, where Geoffrey’s
character was merged with the folklore image of a Wildman in
the Wood.
Merlin seems to have been associated with King Arthur in
the poem ‘‘Merlin’’ by Robert de Boron. In Boron’s account,
Merlin is the product of a demon’s mating with a young girl.
She confesses the incident to her confessor, who puts the sign
of the cross on her. The son, Merlin, is born without the
demon’s evil nature, but with supernatural abilities. He assists
Pendragon, the British king who was slain in a battle with the
Saxons. Merlin then assists the king’s brother, Uterpendragon.
He directs the new king’s construction of a roundtable, a replica
of the one believed to have been used by Jesus at the Last
Uterpendragon (with Merlin’s magical help) seduces the
wife of one of the noblemen. From that union, Arthur is born.
Though the king married the woman, who was widowed soon
after conceiving Arthur, Merlin advises that Arthur be given to
foster parents for his own protection. That action set up Arthur’s
later claiming the throne based upon his pulling a sword
from the stone.
From Boron’s basic story, Merlin’s story grew and developed.
By the nineteenth century, he had become the quinessential
magician, and in the twentieth century the number
of appearances in fantasy novels soared.
Lacy, Norris J., ed. The Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York
Garland Publishing, 1986.
Loomis, Roger Sherman, ed. Arthurian Literature in the Middle
Ages. Oxford Clarendon Press, 1959.