Merlin: Supporting Hero of Myth

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— Scott Allison and George Goethals

11 thoughts on “Merlin: Supporting Hero of Myth

  1. There is not a “myriad” of literature about Merlin written over the centuries. There is a small number of works, mostly written in medieval French, some of them translated into other languages.

    Myrddin Emrys does not appear at all in the “Mabinogion”. You are either misinformed or misremember.

    As to Mordred. What “stories” are you talking about? In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Historia Regum Britannia” and in the “Mabinogion” and in an other early surviving tales, Mordred is Arthur’s nephew only. It is only in the later “Prose Lancelot” and in works derived from it in part that Mordred is not only Arthur’s sister’s son but also fathered by Arthur.

  2. The Merlin story fascinates me. I have a question about his magic. Other superheroes have super powers, and so is Merlin any different from, say, superman?

    Also, usually heroes have a love interest. In the original legend, does Merlin have romantic involvements? Does he have a unique vulnerability like other superheroes have?

    Thanks for this post!

  3. This was a great essay. I love the selfless nature of his heroism: “He will be there to help.” He is very powerful and could probably take just about anything he wants, but he only uses his powers on behalf of others. No wonder he has become an icon– he embodies that admirable trait of service. 🙂

  4. Dylan, you could say that Merlin and older heroes of lore were prototype superheroes. In the original legends though Merlin is rarely connected to any one of the opposite sex. In some later works of fiction he is linked romantically with Viviane (also called Niniane or Nimue), but in the legends Viviane is usually cast as a fairy and seems to have a more predatory relationship with Merlin, eventually robbing him of his powers in some stories. And that leads us to the idea of unique vulnerabilities. While I know of no Merlin Kryptonite, Merlin’s powers do seem to be linked in myth to his virginity- which is how presumably Viviane is able to steal his powers.

  5. That’s why I love to read this blog.
    Every post a new knowledge, a new conception about heroism.
    Until now I hadn’t heard about Merlin. But reading it here. I earned a wish to searching more about him.
    In the way of my search I’ve found other things I didn’t know yet.
    King Arthur is a popular movie in Brazil but I don’t see it. And this legend is older than that. Turns around century X.
    And I have to confess I always loved literature. And now I’m learning more about foreign literature in this blog.
    Thank you.

  6. I always thought of Merlin as a hero’s guide much more than a hero. I am unfamiliar with the wizard’s full background so I have only had a limited exposure to him as King Arthur’s mystical guide and guardian. I wounder if all of Campbell’s hero guides are heroes at an earlier stage in their life. It seems to be the case with Star Wars, Zorro and a number of other epic tales of heroism. It is like a subtle form of reincarnation where the guide trains a protege and then the guide dies and then the protege becomes the hero and then becomes the guide when he is no longer able to keep the world safe.

  7. @Geoff -I understand where your coming from on the idea of is Merlin as a supporting role instead of the day hero. But the question that I would like to pose is would there be Luke Skywalker without Obi Wan, Batman without Robin ? You might be able to say that the side-kicks develop separately –but ultimately the two depend on one another so much their faiths are intertwined.


  8. Are you intending to talk about the medieval Merlin traditions/inventions or also include modern inventions?

    The year 426 is just one of the date’s assigned to Vortigern and Vortigern, in any case, is hardly historical. Maybe Vortigern really existed and maybe he didn’t.

    In the earliest surviving account of Vortigern and the supposed fatherless boy, the fatherless boy is named Ambrosius, not Merlin, and seems to be identified with the historical Ambrosius Aurelianus. See , section 41 and following.

    According to all accounts before Robert de Boron’s “Merlin” the white dragon represents the Saxons and the red dragon represents the British. Robert de Boron is the first to associate the dragons with Uther Pendragon and his brother whom Robert calls Pendragon but earlier accounts name Aurelius Ambrosius.

    No medieval account connects Merlin at all with the young Arthur between Merlin handing Arthur over to his foster-faster and Merlin first meeting Arthur again after Arthur has been chosen king.

    Merlin’s conduct is ambiguous in medieval romances. Sometimes Merlin is a force for good and sometimes a force for evil. For the evil Merlin see , section X. See also the medieval “Prose Lancelot” ( , chapter 6, for a version of the story of Merlin in which it is said of Merlin: “He was of the same nature as his father, deceptive and disloyal, and he possessed all the false and perverted knowledge that an individual could have.”

    In some medieval accounts Merlin still lives. In others Merlin died after being imprisoned by the Lady of the Lake. In Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” Malory follows a source in which Merlin dies and goes to hell, but Malory so much shortens his source that it is not clear, if you know the alternate tradition that Merlin did not die, that Merlin’s death is to be understood. Malory’s publisher Caxton in his heading to that story says clearly that Merlin “there died”.

  9. Great reply there, Jallen. The purpose of the blog to regard the nature of heroism and how we perceive it be it myth or history. Particularly interesting is the mention of the fatherless boy meeting Vortigern being Ambrosius not Merlin. Actually this isn’t inconsistent as Merlin’s full name was in some accounts Merlin Ambrose- which would be Romanized as Merlinus Ambrosius. Being that the legend of Merlin was passed down as folklore over the centuries there will be differing interpretations of his nature and features to the myth have been added over that time. In fact in two of the references you provided (and thanks for that. They’re fascinating) there’s mention of Lancelot who actually doesn’t appear in the earlier myths and it a later addition.

  10. I think the problem may be in attempting to use a character for your discussions who is has been interpreted differently by so many different medieval writers. In some accounts Merlin appears almost saintly, in some Merlin is a evil wizard, and in some Merlin is ambiguous. It is possible to use the Merlin of a particular work or particular works as an heroic example but not Merlin in general as medieval texts disagree on Merlin.

    As to Merlinus Ambrosius, the general belief is that he was invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his “Historica Regum Britanniae” based on the Ambrosius fatherless by story in the “Historia Brittonum” combined with some little knowledge that Geoffrey had of the Welsh folklore figure Myrddin Wyllt. Myrddin Wyllt supposedly lived mostly after the time of Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth in his “Vita Merlini” ( ) explicitly identifies the two but later sources make them two separate characters, both being prophets named Merlin or Myrddin.

    Lancelot is indeed first mentioned in sources later than Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace but it is not known that Lancelot is actually the older character (especially if Merlin is really an invention by Geoffrey of Monmouth). That Lancelot had not yet been invented when Geoffrey of Monmouth first wrote of Merlin is only unprovable guesswork.

    What is not guess work is that the story of Merlin meeting a fay and being imprisoned by her, the fay whom you call Vivane, first appears in the passage I pointed out in the “Prose Lancelot”. Also the story of Merlin founding Stonehenge is not one of the “later stories” as you claim, but one of the earliest, being one of the tales told by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

    The “Prose Lancelot” is also the earliest tale in which Mordred is, as you also claim, Arthur’s “own son” rather than only Arthur’s nephew.

    If you include details in your summary that are first found in the “Prose Lancelot” then you cannot viably attempt to dismiss the details in the “Prose Lancelot” as a “later tradition”.

  11. None of this is actually “my claim”, it’s all in the myriad of literature about Merlin written over the centuries. You are correct that Myrddin Wyllt (or Merlin the Wild) likely lived after the time of Arthur but Myrddin Emrys (Merlin Ambrose) is indeed mentioned in Welsh Mabinogeon. As for Mordrid he is, in the stories, both Arthur’s son AND nephew as he is a product of the union of Arthur with his half-sister.

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