Merlin’s Pagan Roots

Gustave Dore, Merlin


Continuing my thoughts about my “Wizards and Enchantresses” course, here’s a look at Merlin, who has had remarkable staying power in British literary history, both as Arthur’s counselor and in the various figures he’s inspired. Before tracking his progress through the ages, however, let’s look at his archetypal significance, as least according to Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell.

In Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairy Tales, Jung describes the archetype of the wise old man:

The old man thus represents knowledge, reflection, insight, wisdom, cleverness, and intuition on the one hand, and on the other, moral qualities such as good will and readiness to help, which make his “spiritual” character sufficiently plain.

In Campbell’s journey of the hero, this figure often appears at the start of the hero’s quest, providing the necessary early guidance that the inexperienced hero requires. Merlin counsels the young Arthur when, after pulling the sword from the stone, he confronts a rebellion of British nobles, and we know well the role that Gandalf plays in Bilbo and Frodo’s individuation journeys and that Dumbledore plays in Harry’s.

But if one is to grow, one cannot continue to be dependent on the wise old man, who must drop out of the story. Merlin is imprisoned by an apprentice enchantress (in some versions), Gandalf is presumed to have died, and Dumbledore actually dies. When the mentor leaves, the hero must find inner resources to respond to the challenges. Yet the values affirmed by the old man don’t entirely disappear and appear again in what Campbell calls the moment of atonement, which is when the hero proves him or herself and receives parental validation.

We see Merlin performing versions of the wise old man from at least as far back as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account in the 12th century, and his roots go even further back. Tolstoy speculated that the figure was based on a 6th century Scottish druid, and while the history is dubious, Merlins association with druidic magic is worth exploring in depth.

There has been a lot of interest in recent years in Celtic paganism, but I have it from Sewanee’s medievalist Matt Irvin that such accounts must be treated with skepticism. After all, by the time of Geoffrey’s stories, Christianity had been firmly ensconced in England for close to a thousand years. That there would have been pagan holdouts is very dubious.

That being said, however, Christianity was a far more varied affair that we think of it today, with the religion in places merging with local pagan beliefs. This is indeed how religion works, which explains why one finds figures of the Celtic green man carved into medieval cathedrals all over England.

Merlin having druidic origins is also how fantasy works, which imagines realities outside conventional beliefs. Thus, some of Merlin’s power was seen as arising from his miraculous birth. Here’s Merlin’s mother in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account testifying to how she conceived him:

When they were introduced into the king’s presence, he received the mother in a very respectful manner, on account of her noble birth; and began to inquire of her by what man she had conceived. “My sovereign lord,” said she, “by the life of your soul and mine, I know nobody that begot him of me. Only this I know, that as I was once with my companions in our chambers, there appreared to me a person in the shape of a beautiful young man, who often embraced me eagerly in his arms, and kissed me; and when he had stayed a little time, he suddenly vanished out of my sight. But many times after this he would talk with me when I sat alone, without making any visible appearance. When he had a long time haunted me in this manner, he at last laid with me several times in the shape of a man, and left me with child. And I do affirm to you, my sovereign lord, that excepting that young man, I know no body that begot him of me, ordered Maugantius to be called, that he might satisfy him as to the possibility of what the woman had related. Maugantius, being introduced, and having the whole matter repeated to him, said to Vortigern: “In the books of our philosophers, and in a great many histories, I have found that several men have had the like original. For, as Apuleius informs us in his book concerning the Demon of Socrates, between the moon and the earth inhabit those spirits, which we will call incubuses.These are of the nature partly of men, and partly of angels, and whenever they please assume human shapes, and lie with women. Perhaps one of them appeared to this woman, and begot that young man of her.”

France’s Robert de Boron a few years later provides an even wilder account. Wikipedia has a convenient summation:

Merlin is begotten by a demon on a virgin as the intended Antichrist. This plot is thwarted when the expectant mother informs her confessor Blaise of her predicament; they immediately baptize the boy at birth, thus freeing him from the power of Satan and his intended destiny. The demonic legacy invests Merlin with a preternatural knowledge of the past and present, which is supplemented by God, who gives the boy a prophetic knowledge of the future.

One of Merlin’s accomplishments definitely links him with England’s pagan past. According to Geoffrey, he instructs Arthur father to steal magic stones from Ireland and set them up in England, thereby constructing Stonehenge. His magic makes the transportation possible.

In each period, one can see the Arthurian stories playing an important social role. For Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Norman conquerors were looking for validation of their victory over Saxon Britain 70 years earlier and so reveled in Arthur’s battles against the invading Saxons in the 5th century. (In other words, the roles have been reversed.) It’s important that Merlin shifts from working for the Saxons to working for Arthur and the Britons and that he prophesies Saxon defeat.

And then there’s Sir Thomas Malory, writing 340 years later during the War of the Roses, in which Merlin becomes a voice of reason, seeking to guide Arthur through civil strife.

Between Sir Malory writing in the 15th century and Tennyson writing Idylls of the King, good Arthur stories cease to be written. I’m not clear about the reasons. Milton considers but then rejects the idea of writing an epic about Arthur (he writes Paradise Lost instead), and there are some feeble attempts in the 18th century.

In Tennyson’s epic about imperial Britain, however, the Arthurian tales came back full force and they’ve pretty much remained with us ever since. A particularly excruciating story, given its misogyny, is Tennyson’s account of Vivian entrapping Merlin. T. H. White, meanwhile, taps into the shapeshifting Merlin in Sword and the Stone. But I’ll have to save those for a future blog post.

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