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Merlin [Myrddin] (supp. fl. 6th cent.), poet and seer, is a figure whose historicity is not proven. He is known in Welsh sources as Myrddin and from the twelfth century also as Merlinus or Merlin. No definite conclusion can be drawn from Myrddin's absence from tenth-century Welsh genealogies and from the list included in the Historia Brittonum, written in 829 or 830, of five Brittonic poets renowned in the sixth century. On the other hand, approving references to him by twelfth- and thirteenth-century Welsh court poets do not necessarily signify that he was a flesh-and-blood early medieval poet. The possibly sixth- or seventh-century poem Y Gododdin, gwenwawt Mirdyn (‘The fair [or “blessed”] song [possibly “inspiration”] of Myrddin’) is said to have been ‘defended’ by a hero, Morien, but it is uncertain whether this line was part of the original composition or a later addition. Similar uncertainty surrounds an interpretation, based on the evidence of a single line, that Myrddin was regarded as a vaticinatory authority by the tenth-century south-west Walian author of the political prophecy, Armes Prydein.

The biographical strands of what is regarded as the native Welsh, pre-Geoffrey of Monmouth, tradition about Myrddin can be pieced together from six poems which also contain prophetic material: the eleventh-century Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin (‘The dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin’), and the twelfth- and thirteenth-century poems, Yr afallennau (‘The apple trees’), Yr hoianau (‘Greetings [to a pig]’), Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei chwaer (‘The prophecy of Myrddin and his sister, Gwenddydd’), Gwasgargerdd Myrddin yn y bedd (‘Myrddin's diffuse poem from the grave’), and Peirian faban (‘Commanding youth’). The first of these connects Myrddin with Dyfed, as well as with the north-British battle at Arthuret (Arfderydd), dated 573 in the Annales Cambriae. From the other poems it can be gathered that Myrddin was the son of Morfryn, that his lord, Gwenddoleu, fell in the battle at Arthuret (near Carlisle) fought against King Rhydderch of Strathclyde, that Myrddin was responsible for the deaths of two of the children of his sister Gwenddydd, and that four of his own brothers were also killed. Guilt and confusion caused him to lose his reason and flee to Coed Celyddon (the Caledonian forest), where he lived in fear of Rhydderch, communed with trees and wild animals, and gained the prophetic powers that are displayed particularly in the last three poems mentioned. The colloquy with Gwenddydd suggests that brother and sister were eventually reconciled.

The words llallogan and llallawg used here in addressing Myrddin may simply represent a term of affection (‘friend’ or similar), or a pet name, but there is undoubtedly a close connection with the name and the story of the Strathclyde seer Lailoken (orthographical variants Lalochen, Laloecen, Laloicen) who lost his reason after inciting battle, according to two fragments, one or both of which may have formed part of the anonymous life of Kentigern composed for Bishop Herbert of Glasgow in the mid-twelfth century (Lailoken plays a much smaller part in the later twelfth-century life by Jocelin of Furness). It has been suggested that Llallogan was the Myrddin original, and that relocalization of the tradition to Welsh soil involved taking on a new name, perhaps derived from a false interpretation of the place name Caerfyrddin (Carmarthen) as caer (‘fortress’) and myrddin (which, in the place name, really derives from the British moridunon, ‘sea-fortress’). There are other possibilities, however: Myrddin may have been the real name of Llallogan, or there may have been two or more poets or seers, northern or Welsh, or both, whose traditions contaminated one another or were conflated—witness the similarity to the Irish Suibhne Geilt who supposedly went mad and took to the woods after the battle of Mag Roth in 637.

The influential Historia regum Britanniae, written in the 1130s by Geoffrey of Monmouth, makes no mention of the northern figure: it draws on the account in the Historia Brittonum of a fatherless wonder-child, Ambrosius (in Welsh, Emrys), who interpreted an omen of warring white and red reptiles as representing the struggle between the Saxons and the people of Vortigern. Geoffrey renamed the youth as Merlinus, an acceptable Latinization of Myrddin, fashioned him into a wizard associated with Dyfed and Carmarthen in particular, and included a selection of his prophecies, which appear to be mostly the author's own invention. By 1148–51, when he wrote his life of Merlin (Vita Merlini), Geoffrey had access to more Merlin material. This may have included some of the Welsh poems already mentioned, and perhaps poems no longer extant in which the Lailoken element used by Geoffrey (such as the motif of the triple death, by falling, hanging, and drowning in his version) may have been more evident. In the life, Merlin is depicted as a king of Dyfed, drawn into northerly events through his sister, Ganieda (Gwenddydd), wife of Rodarchus (Rhydderch), here friend rather than foe. But Merlin's grief and madness after battle accord with the Welsh poems, as does his conversation with his sister, and to a lesser degree, his extended debate with the poet Taliesin.

Geoffrey of Monmouth's identification of Myrddin–Merlin with , who apparently flourished some one hundred years earlier than the Myrddin connected with the battle of Arthuret, created a problem of chronology that appears to have been resolved first by Gerald of Wales. He differentiated between two Merlins: one, Merlinus Ambrosius, from Carmarthen, who prophesied in the time of Vortigern, while a northern Merlinus Celidonius (or Silvester), contemporary with Arthur, was, like Lailoken, driven mad by a monstrous apparition seen in battle. According to Gerald's account in his Itinerarium Cambriae, both foretold the destruction of the kingdom of Britain and the advent of the Saxons and the Normans; Gerald records his discovery at Nefyn in 1188 of a manuscript of the prophecies of the latter, more prolific Merlin. Welsh poets from the fifteenth century onwards occasionally make a similar distinction between Myrddin Emrys and Myrddin Wyllt (Merlin the Wild), but most references are simply to Myrddin, above all to his prophetic and bardic powers (often coupled with those of Taliesin), to an obscure tradition about him being ‘on a pole’ (which has been connected with the death of Lailoken who was skewered on a pole in a fish pond), and to his reputation as a lover who went into a house of glass for the sake of his mistress.

Merlin is first brought into contact with in the late twelfth-century French verse romance Merlin by Robert de Boron. This was adapted in the early thirteenth-century prose Merlin, and continued in Le livre d'Artus and Suite du Merlin. Merlin arranges for the round table to be made, and is responsible for the test of the sword in the anvil which establishes Arthur's right to kingship. The thirteenth-century vulgate Merlin continuation develops Merlin's role as Arthur's mentor and describes how the maiden Viviane consigns him to an enchanted prison in the Forest of Broceliande. Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory drew on these French texts, and was to be an important source for the mid-nineteenth-century Arthurian revival, in particular Tennyson's treatments of Merlin in Enid and Nimuë (1857), Vivien (1859), and Idylls of the King (1869), which inspired Pre-Raphaelite portraits such as the Oxford Union mural Merlin being Imprisoned beneath a Stone by the Damsel of the Lake (1857) by Edward Burne-Jones and the same artist's The Beguiling of Merlin (1873–7).

The prominence of Merlin is a striking feature of modern Arthurian fiction in Britain and America. Particularly influential works include A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur (1898) by Mark Twain (who portrayed Merlin as a fraud who is unmasked when he is confronted with modern technology), and T. H. White's series of novels, The Once and Future King (1958), and The Book of Merlyn (1977). A resuscitated Merlin acts as deus ex machina on behalf of Christian morality in That Hideous Strength: a Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups by C. S. Lewis (1945). He is a central character in Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy (1970–79), the first novel of which was the basis for the BBC1 television series Merlin and the Crystal Cave (1991). He appears as the benign Professor Merriman Lyon in The Dark is Rising series (1965–77) by Susan Cooper. From the early nineteenth century onwards Merlin has had a powerful appeal to German writers including Dorothea Schlegel, Christoph Martin Wieland, Ludwig Uhland, Heinrich Heine, and Gerhart Hauptmann. German translations of T. H. White and Mary Stewart led to a number of works in the 1970s and 1980s (notably Tankred Dorst's play Merlin, oder, Das wüste Land (1981)) which coincided with a spate of French Merlin adaptations and novels such as L'enchanteur by René Barjavel (1984).

Merlin appears in musical works from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, in masques, operas, choral works, and musicals. The best-known is Camelot (1960), the stage musical based on White's The Once and Future King, which was made into a film in 1967. Several of the numerous Arthurian films made in the twentieth century give prominence to the figure of Merlin: Walt Disney's animation The Sword in the Stone (1963), also based on White's work, had a wide popular appeal. More ambitious was John Boorman's Excalibur (1981) in which Merlin, curiously, talks in Old Irish.

M. E. Haycock

Sources  

Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin, ed. A. O. H. Jarman (1982) · J. G. Evans, ed., The poetry in the Red Book of Hergest (1911) · Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin, ed. A. O. H. Jarman (1951) · A. O. H. Jarman, ed., ‘Peiryan Vaban’, BBCS, 14 (1950–52), 104–8 · Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini / Life of Merlin, ed. and trans. B. Clarke (1973) · The Historia regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth, ed. N. Wright, 1: Bern, Bürgerbibliothek, MS 568 (1985) · I. Williams, ed., Canu Aneirin (1938) · Taliesin, Armes Prydein / The prophecy of Britain, ed. I. Williams, trans. R. Bromwich (1972) · I. Williams, ed., ‘Y cyfoesi a'r afallennau yn Peniarth 3’, BBCS, 4 (1927–9), 112–29 · Nennius, ‘British history’ and ‘The Welsh annals’, ed. and trans. J. Morris (1980) · Gir. Camb. opera · R. Jarman, Trioedd ynys Prydein, 2nd edn (1978) · A. O. H. Jarman, ‘The Merlin legend and the Welsh tradition of prophecy’, The Arthur of the Welsh, ed. R. Bromwich, A. O. H. Jarman, and B. F. Roberts (1991), 117–45 · P. Goodrich, ed., The romance of Merlin: an anthology (1990) · N. J. Lacy, G. Ashe, and D. N. Mancoff, The Arthurian handbook (1997)