The True History of Merlin the Magician

The True History of Merlin the Magician

by Anne Lawrence-Mathers


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Who was the historical Merlin?

Merlin the Magician has remained an enthralling and curious individual since he was first introduced in the twelfth century though the pages of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae.  But although the Merlin of literature and Arthurian myth is well known, Merlin the "historical" figure and his relation to medieval magic are less familiar. In this book Anne Lawrence-Mathers explores just who he was and what he has meant to Britain.

The historical Merlin was no rough magician: he was a learned figure from the cutting edge of medieval science and adept in astrology, cosmology, prophecy, and natural magic, as well as being a seer and a proto-alchemist. His powers were convincingly real—and useful, for they helped to add credibility to the "long-lost" history of Britain which first revealed them to a European public. Merlin’s prophecies reassuringly foretold Britain’s path, establishing an ancient ancestral line and linking biblical prophecy with more recent times. Merlin helped to put British history into world history.

Lawrence-Mathers also explores the meaning of Merlin’s magic across the centuries, arguing that he embodied ancient Christian and pagan magical traditions, recreated for a medieval court and shaped to fit a new moral framework. Linking Merlin’s reality and power with the culture of the Middle Ages, this remarkable book reveals the true impact of the most famous magician of all time.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300253085
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 05/26/2020
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 589,672
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.75(h) x (d)

About the Author

Anne Lawrence-Mathers is professor of medieval history at the University of Reading.

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Copyright © 2012 Anne Lawrence-Mathers
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14489-5

Chapter One

The Discovery of Merlin

Merlin the Magician, like his name, was a creation of the twelfth century. This is no attempt to deny the existence of earlier Welsh sources, but Myrddin the princely bard of the Cymry, driven mad by a disastrous battle and expressing himself in cryptic poetry, needs to be separated from the twelfth-century Merlin. The latter is the shape changer, star reader, prophet and creator of King Arthur who is still familiar to modern audiences. The story of the search for the 'original' Myrddin has been told in other books. Merlin, the magus of the high Middle Ages, deserves one of his own. This mediaeval Merlin was not a figure of legend but an apparently documented, long-lost maker of British history. This Merlin's impact has been such that, despite his gradual move from the pages of history to those of literature, the key elements of his magical powers have not changed significantly. The name of Merlin is still instantly recognizable, and is still associated with that of the great and tragic King Arthur. The events of this Merlin's life, as first told by a cleric who called himself Geoffrey of Monmouth, are both familiar and fascinating.

Geoffrey's Merlin was the semi-human child of a Welsh Christian princess and a demon. He could see into the depths of the earth, and could interpret the motions of the stars; he could also, if he chose, reveal his knowledge to powerful kings, although he was never under their control. Merlin was the great, magical engineer who brought Stonehenge from Ireland to England, and his skill with potions was so great that he could transform his protégés from one shape to another. He could communicate with animals and birds, and could make them do his will. Like a biblical prophet he was also an infallible interpreter of dreams. In other words, he was master of all the forces, and of all the languages and meanings, of the earth and of the stars above it. But his powers went even beyond this, for as a prophet he had knowledge of the distant past and of the whole of the future, at least for Britain. His prophecies were an instant sensation: copies were in high demand, and commentaries and interpretations multiplied rapidly.

This is the Merlin who became the archetype of the great magician, in control of superhuman knowledge as well as power. Unlike shaman figures, he does not merge into the natural world – instead he interprets and dominates it. His enormous appeal derives from bringing together the magical traditions of the ancient world, the Christian Church, and the Celtic past as re-imagined in the mediaeval court. Even in the nineteenth century, this Merlin remained a potent and remarkably unchanging figure, although he had moved from history to the realm he still occupies: that of literature.

This power as a symbolic figure is inseparable from his historical complexity – from the fact that he was discovered, during the twelfth-century renaissance, as a real person who had lived just as classical civilization was dying. Merlin was not an alien figure from a wild, Dark-Age past. Rather, he was a prophet-magician who had helped to shape a world of great empires, and was master of both natural forces and advanced technology. Merlin had an immediate impact in mediaeval Europe. He was accepted as a genuine historical figure, and he brought together key themes in both magic and politics. His powers of prophecy were perhaps of greatest importance in the Middle Ages. But he was also an embodiment of forms of magic that remained serious and real throughout the renaissance as well as the mediaeval period. This enduring power could not have been achieved without two necessary conditions. The first was the fact that he was accepted as real for over four hundred years. The second was his capacity to offer examples of all the major forms of magic practised down to the seventeenth century. His impact is demonstrated by his extraordinary longevity as an archetype of a great magician. It is this unique status which makes Merlin so important as a subject for historical study.

The first puzzle is what made this mediaeval Merlin so completely convincing when he was first revealed to scholars and political leaders in England, Normandy and France in the 1130s. What was it that made him both so compelling and so apparently factual? Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of Merlin needs to be given particular attention, since this launched Merlin into his career that still continues to the present day, and that makes it something very special. Geoffrey was clever enough to start from an older Welsh historical work, the History of the Britons attributed to Nennius, and to make sure that his additions had classical and biblical parallels. Moreover, he claimed that his work was simply a translation of a long-lost 'ancient book in the British tongue' discovered by his patron, Walter the Archdeacon of Oxford. He also kept his information on Merlin tantalizingly brief, whilst making it deeply sensational in content. It is placed towards the middle of Geoffrey's long, historical account of the Britons, so that the reader has to work through many centuries' worth of material, all carefully cross-referenced with biblical and classical events, before coming to Merlin.

Book Six, chapter 16 of the History of the Kings of Britain tells how the tyrant-king, Vortigern, traitor to his own British people, was himself betrayed and defeated by the Saxons. Forced to hide in the mountains of Wales, he ordered his subjects, under the instruction of his magi, to build him a fortress. But they laboured in vain, since every night the solid stone walls were swallowed up by the earth. Confronted with this, Vortigern's magicians showed their true wickedness, by advising the king to find a boy who had never had a father, to sacrifice him and to use his blood to hold the fortress together. The tyrant saw nothing amiss with this plan, and sent his soldiers out to scour the country for such a boy. At 'Kaermerdin' they found Merlin, and took the boy and his mother to Vortigern. Merlin's mother was of high birth, being the daughter of the king of Demetia, and of impeccable piety, being a nun. Her account of Merlin's birth was troubling, since she swore on her immortal soul that she had never slept with a man. She had become pregnant inside the nunnery itself, in its most private apartments, and without the other nuns perceiving anything. A mysterious being, in the form of 'a very handsome young man', had materialized beside her at will, had engaged her in conversation, and had made love to her. More shockingly still, this had happened not just once but 'often'. And this being, clearly no human, had made the royal nun pregnant.

The boy Merlin then showed his own power by questioning the king, and by challenging his court magicians to a sort of magical trial. Vortigern was so impressed that he summoned his magi and allowed Merlin to shame them. Merlin's first question to these murderous magicians was: What is it that is hidden under the foundations of the tower and prevents it from standing? Merlin's own answer to this problem was that a subterranean pool would be found under the foundations, and when the king ordered his workmen to dig, the hidden pool was duly found. However, the revelations did not end there. Merlin next challenged the magicians to say what lay under the pool – and once again they did not know. Sensationally, what Merlin could see was that at the bottom of the pool there were two stones; and inside the stones there were two dragons. This also was proved there and then to be true, and it is hardly surprising that Vortigern's courtiers 'realized that there was something supernatural about Merlin'. This forms the conclusion to Book Six. Still more impressively, the next whole section of the History, Book Seven, tells of how Merlin, having had the hidden dragons released to fight one another in the pit excavated in front of the king, went into a prophetic trance and recounted the whole future of Britain from the fifth century down to the end of time.

It was the success of the great series of prophecies that established Merlin immediately as a trustworthy figure for almost all patrons and scholars. The importance of prophecy as a direct revelation from God was enormous (and continued to be so at least into the sixteenth century). The Book of Genesis provides a visionary, prophetic account of how God brought the universe, the world and humanity into being. The Book of Revelation gives an equally visionary description of the wars, sufferings and supernatural events that will precede the Second Coming of Christ. Merlin's prophecies, as presented by Geoffrey of Monmouth, rival these great prophetic accounts and are expressed in language nearly as rich and strange. For readers in the twelfth century the sudden availability of Merlin's prophecies was a sensation. Copies of the prophecies themselves, accompanied by commentaries and interpretations, began to spread very fast. Merlin offered knowledge of the future, and his revelations, like Geoffrey's History, gave the people of Britain a central position in world affairs.

Merlin's prophecies are now regarded as an obvious deception, written in deliberately obscure language of a particularly otiose sort, and providing proof of nothing but Geoffrey of Monmouth's impudence. But they achieved immediate fame, and were crucial in establishing Merlin's reputation as a great historical figure. Geoffrey himself interrupted his historical narrative to boast: 'I had not yet completed work on my narrative when Merlin began to be talked about very much, and from many different places people urged me strongly to publish his prophecies.' Chief amongst them, it seems, was Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, and Geoffrey inserts his letter to that powerful churchman at the same point. This begins: 'Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, my admiration for your nobility compels me to translate the Prophecies of Merlin from the British language into Latin for you, before finishing the history of the deeds of the kings of the Britons.' What could be more effective? Geoffrey seems at the time to have been living in Alexander's diocese, and working for one of Alexander's archdeacons, whose name he also brought into the History. The power and reputation of the diocese of Lincoln is thus brought to bear in supporting Merlin, his history and his prophecies.

After this triumphant demonstration of Merlin's credentials as a prophet, Geoffrey then recounted how Merlin fearlessly foretold Vortigern's downfall and death, and outlined the reigns of the next kings of Britain. Book Eight proceeds to bear out Merlin's words. Merlin reappears in person only after long years of war, when Aurelius Ambrosius has become king and has embarked on the post-war reconstruction of his kingdom. Aurelius's desire to build a fitting memorial to the British war dead was the occasion for this return to the public gaze. His courtiers advised him that only Merlin, 'the prophet of Vortigern' had sufficient knowledge and sufficient skill with 'inventive mechanisms' to create something both unprecedented and everlasting. Merlin, by this time adult, did consent to come to court but refused Aurelius's requests for prophecies on demand, and made it clear that he had no desire to become a royal adviser or entertainer. His own suggestion that Aurelius have the great stones of the 'Giants' Ring' brought all the way from Ireland and re-erected on Salisbury Plain was in turn treated with sarcasm, but was accepted when Merlin revealed that the stones had been brought from Africa long ago by giants, and retained magical healing properties. The result was that Merlin himself travelled to Ireland with Aurelius's brother, Uther Pendragon, and used his skill in magic and technology to move the stones and to construct the memorial (which commentators have unhesitatingly identified as Stonehenge).

After this triumph, Merlin once again withdrew from court, but consented to advise Uther Pendragon at the next time of great British need. The occasion was the treacherous poisoning of Aurelius at Winchester, whilst Uther was on campaign. A terrifying portent in the form of a dragon-spewing star appeared in the sky one night, and led Uther to summon all his wise men, Merlin included. Merlin was once again possessed by his prophetic spirit, and revealed that Aurelius had been assassinated, and that Uther must become king as well as beget a son who would be one of the greatest kings of all. Once again Merlin then vanished, and his prophecies were borne out by events, until the next crucial and fated moment arrived, the story of which also appears in Book Eight.

This moment was when Uther fell in love with Ygerna, wife of the Duke of Cornwall. Uther's desire was so fierce, and the duke's sense of honour so strong, that the result was civil war. Even this did nothing to lessen Uther's passion, and he confided to his advisers that he feared he would suffer a physical breakdown, or even die, if he could not possess her. Once again at such a point of crisis the king was advised that only Merlin could offer a solution, and once again Merlin summoned spectacular powers to bring about the necessary conclusion. This time Merlin used 'potions' to transform Uther into the likeness of the Duke of Cornwall and himself into the appearance of the duke's faithful companion. The magic succeeded so well that the faithful Ygerna had no suspicion that she had spent the night with Uther rather than with her husband – and the result was the conception of Arthur. During the night the duke was killed in battle, and Uther was thus able to marry the widowed duchess and to ensure the legitimacy of his son, Arthur. And this is Merlin's last actual appearance in the History. The great prophet-magician is referred to later, but bringing about the conception of Arthur is his last recorded act in Geoffrey's narrative, and by the time of Uther's death at the end of Book Eight he has effectively disappeared.

Merlin was thus revealed as a long-lost historical figure from the fifth century, who had moulded the British past and predicted the Anglo-Norman future. And what is perhaps most striking in all of this is that the astonished early readers of Merlin's story and of his prophecies were so eager to accept both as genuine. Geoffrey of Monmouth showed consummate skill not just as a writer of persuasive history and stunning prophecy, but also as a creator of convincing provenance for both. Moreover, Geoffrey chose his moment with equivalent skill, for he revealed both the History and Merlin to the world in the 1130s. This was a time when churchmen across Europe were writing up histories in a new, scholarly style, and the Anglo-Norman realm was in need of a new narrative to replace Bede's account of the Anglo-Saxons. Even so, it is surprising that Merlin managed to be accepted almost without discussion. His integration was so fast that it almost appeared as if he had always been there – but this still requires an explanation.

It must have helped that the 1130s, when this transformation of British and European history took place, also saw a period of high political tension in both England and the northern and western parts of France. The writing of history always has a political dimension, but this was especially true when the conquering Norman dynasty was in danger of disintegrating. The 1130s were a time of the potential fall (and rise) of dynasties, when any insight into the future would be welcome – especially in England. Henry I had been king of England since 1100, when his brother, William Rufus, was mysteriously shot by an arrow. From 1106 Henry had also maintained a contested rule over Normandy, whilst holding his other brother, Robert, prisoner. In England itself, Henry's status as youngest son of a foreign invader was doubly insecure. He took steps to make himself more acceptable to the Anglo-Saxons by marrying Edith-Matilda, a nun and princess, and one of the last to claim membership of the Anglo-Saxon royal dynasty. Their marriage took place on 11 November 1100, at the very start of Henry's reign, and succeeded, within three years, in producing a legitimate son and daughter. The daughter, Matilda, was married to the Emperor Henry V, whilst the son, William, was educated as his father's heir.

However, this dynastic security was suddenly destroyed in 1120 when William was drowned. Edith-Matilda had died in 1118 but Henry, the acknowledged father of more than twenty illegitimate children, had not remarried. After the loss of his heir, he married Adeliza of Louvain within a matter of weeks. This marriage, unfortunately, remained notably childless, something which must have placed the young queen under enormous pressure, given Henry's large number of illegitimate children. Unlike the kings of France when facing similar problems, Henry did not repudiate his queen. But neither could he legitimate one of his bastards. He schemed in other ways to secure a safe succession and to ensure that Robert of Normandy's son could not become heir to Normandy and England. These schemes created political factions both at court and across Henry's realm as potential successors built rival groups of supporters, and as the king grew older the tensions rose ever higher.

A leading figure at the court of the ageing king during this troubled time was his nephew, Stephen of Blois, son of Henry and Robert's sister Adela. Stephen had been brought up at Henry's court, was allowed to marry a niece of Henry's first wife and was poised to be Henry's heir. However, in 1125 Henry's daughter Matilda was left a childless widow. Henry summoned her back to England and required his supporters to take oaths that they would accept Matilda as his successor. In 1128 came a further shock, when Henry married Matilda to Geoffrey, the fifteen-year-old heir of the Count of Anjou. Henry brought Matilda back to England in 1131, for renewed oaths of acceptance as her father's successor. Matilda proceeded to give birth to three sons in three successive years. However, they were all small children when Henry I died in 1135. These, then, were the very dangerous times which led up to the revelation of Merlin and his prophecies.


Excerpted from THE TRUE HISTORY OF MERLIN THE MAGICIAN by ANNE LAWRENCE-MATHERS Copyright © 2012 by Anne Lawrence-Mathers. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Introduction 1

1 The Discovery of Merlin 15

2 Writing the History of Merlin 40

3 The British Merlin 70

4 The Curious Career of Merlin the Astrologer 95

5 Merlin's Magic 117

6 A Demonic Heritage 141

7 Merlin in Europe 170

8 Love and Death 192

Conclusion: The Measure of Merlin 216

Notes 222

Bibliography 238

Index 247

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