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The Many Faces of Merlin

The Wizard from Tales of King Arthur

Do you see Merlin as a Disney inspired character, a mentor figure in a spangled cape and magician's hat?

Fifty years after The Sword in the Stone, the image of the wizard in a flowing robe and pointy hat remains.

All the portrayals of Merlin tie him tightly into the stories of King Arthur and that's where he should be, in the realms of legend.

He's not just a foil for developments of the Arthurian stories, he has the powers of a great Druid, for he originates deep in the mythic past of the Welsh.


Geoffrey of Monmouth

Where we first learn of Merlin

Geoffrey of Monmouth was a cleric in the 12th century who compiled a history of Britain based largely on his own imagination. But we can thank Geoffrey for our acquaintance with some early Welsh folklore.

He took two characters from Welsh legend and combined them into one. The first character was Myrddin, a bard and seer; the second was Ambrosius, a War Leader of the Romano-British, and he named this composite character Merlinus Ambrosius.

Geoffrey's rendering of the character was immediately popular - this is where public fascination with Merlin began.

Geoffrey tells only two tales of Merlin. One a prophecy for King Vortigern and the other a raising of Stonehenge, but these are just the start of the stories that became attached to our Welsh Wizard over the next one thousand years.


Merlin and the Tower of Vortigern

The Prophecy of Merlin, according to Geoffrey

As a youth, Merlin was already known for his prophetic abilities. So he was summoned by King Vortigen to discover what was wrong with the king's building project. This Vortigern wanted to erect a great Tower but every week the walls would collapse again..

Merlin went into a trance and emerged with a vision of an underground lake which concealed two sleeping dragons, one red, one white.

The two dragons fought a great battle, till the red dragon of Wales was overpowered by the white dragon of the Saxons. A savage portent of things to come.

Merlin and Stonehenge - Merlin raises the Giant's Dance, according to Geoffrey


In another fabulous account from Geoffrey, Merlin transports (magically?) the Giants' Stones from Ireland and raises them as Stonehenge..

Merlin Moves along in the Middle Ages

Merlin gained sudden popularity in the Middle Ages, turning up in French and English romances, such as the works of Chretien de Troyes and in Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur.

Both of these writers gave the magical powers of Merlin a turbo-charge .

Malory wrote 'The Death of Arthur' during 1469 while imprisoned for a series of violent crimes. The chivalry of Arthur's world was a far cry from Malory's own, which was torn by war between the noble dynasties of York and Lancaster.

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It's the Morte d'Arthur which gave us the wide range of characters for later Arthurian fiction set, curiously, in a French style royal court..

You can read Le Morte d'Arthur online in the somewhat awkward archaic English of Malory.

Idylls of the King, 1859 to 1885

When Tennyson got his hands on Merlin, the magical aspects were increased once again.

In Idylls of the King Merlin is credited with all sorts of fantastical acts as well as being the architect of Camelot.

In "Merlin and Vivien," the sixth poem in Idylls of the King, the poet describes Merlin's gradual capitulation to the deceitful charms of a malevolent woman. She is described as using rumour and scandal in an attempt to wreak havoc in the court of King Arthur.

This section of the Idylls is quite remarkable for its use of Victorian misogynistic language and assumptions. We've come full circle and return to Geoffrey of Monmouth's views on women.

Classic Mark Twain

Merlin in 1889

In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain gave us a satire against romantic ideas of chivalry.He invented a 19th-century resident of Connecticut who is mysteriously transported through time to 6th-Century England and immediately tries to modernise the population into Truth, Justice and the American Way

Twain made Merlin into a hack magician with the fatal flaw of actually believing in his own sleight of hand. Merlin is portrayed as deceptive, petty and vindictive; an incredibly dangerous person if any of his tricks ever worked.

Merlin on the Silver Screen

Merlin is trained in magic from childhood by the evil sorceress, Mab, but he ultimately rejects her tutelage setting up a war between them which leads to her attack on Arthur. So it's Merlin's fault when the first cracks appear in the walls of Camelot.

Merlin 1998

Sam Neill plays a sturdy Merlin, more human, one who makes mistakes.

If you don't believe in magic it doesn't work anymore. Helena Bonham Carter fades away after being ignored.

All comes to an end - TV series 2008-2012


An admirable TV series following the lives of a handful of young people who just happen to be Arthurian characters.

Merlin is a young wizard, full of magic and pretty powerful magic too.

But he's out of luck, magic is outlawed!

My Favourite Merlin

My personal favourite is the Merlin created by Mary Stewart in her beautiful and moving Merlin Trilogy. Every couple of years, I pick it up and read it again.

Two very different approaches to an historical Merlin

Arthur's Women from Tales of King Arthur
The tales of King Arthur are legendary but we don't hear much about the women in the stories. Geoffrey of Monmouth set the standard for sweeping them under the carpet..

Comment, crit, or curious question? They're all appreciated, you don't have to be a wizard to leave your mark

© 2008 Susanna Duffy

Weave a Spell in my GuestBook

Tanya Jones from Texas USA on February 17, 2014:

Merlin is on my list of tv series to stream. I've seen a few episodes but have wanted to watch the whole thing. When I sit down to go through the series, I'll pop back over here to reread this.

mariacarbonara on September 17, 2013:

I think Merlin was probably the most interesting character in the King Arthur stories

moonlitta on August 29, 2013:

Merlin is a much loved character-his journeys and stories are mesmerising.

Ellen Brundige from California on September 26, 2010:

Good heavens, I didn't know Ambrosius was Merlin. And I feel a ping of embarrassment that it immediately reminds me of Merlin/Ambrosius the dog in Labyrinth.

Some of the early Welsh stuff is extraordinary. Poor Sir Kay had a major demotion.

andrasnm lm on June 28, 2010:

The druids had it. Too mad that the ancient arts were lost, all but wiped out with the advent of Christianity. The druids even faced the mighty Roman navy. Great lens....

anonymous on April 21, 2010:

i was wondering if merlin ever married

JoyfulPamela2 from Pennsylvania, USA on February 14, 2010:

All the stories that surround Arthur are so fascinating! Thank you for sharing about them!

Patricia on September 08, 2008:

I love Merlin...

youhavegottobekidding on September 02, 2008:

Very Interesting. I have not herd of those other merlin stories before. I think I have to grab one of those books.

5 stars for your Great Lens.

suzycarpenter on August 25, 2008:

Evolution of Merlin is quite fascinating. I love the sequence you've used. Well done.

Bellezza-Decor from Canada on August 23, 2008:

I heard Merlin or Myrddin might have been a title! 5*

Kerri Bee from Upstate, NY on August 16, 2008:

It is always extrodinary how common figures in todays society are just come from tales told for thousand of years and always taking on a bit from each new teller.

Andrew Po on August 16, 2008:

The only Merlin thing I've seen is the movie. And let me tell you, it was absolutely amazing and epic, despite being old and lacking all those fancy CG effects.

Carol Fisher from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK on August 14, 2008:

I've always loved the story of King Arthur and Merlin. If it's not true, it should be! 5* lens

Carol Fisher from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK on August 14, 2008:

I've always loved the story of King Arthur and Merlin. If it's not true, it should be! 5* lens

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