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The Prophet Merlin

The prophet Merlin, a clever synthesis based on far more ancient characters, first appears c. 1135 in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regnum Britanniae or History of the Kings of Britain; Geoffrey also wrote a Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin) and added a sequence of "Merlin's Prophecies" to later versions of his Historia.
Geoffrey blended two older story-strands: a long-lived British folkloric tradition of a "Wildman of the Woods," sometimes called Lailoken and, later, Myrddin, and a story from Nennius' Historia Brittonum or History of the Britons of a fatherless boy called Ambrosius who prophesies the doom of King Vortigern. This composite character Geoffrey called "Merlin Ambrosius" is the source for the Merlin the Magician we know today.

Merlin & the History of Britain

In Geoffrey's conception, Merlin is the son of a nun of royal birth, engendered by a demon; this half-human origin becomes over time the source of Merlin's prophetic powers. In Robert de Boron's old French verse Merlin, he "plays a redemptive role as mediator between earthy chivalry and the heavenly plan of salvation: he oversees the conception of Arthur, creates the symbolism of the Round Table, and prepares Perceval for the Grail quest" (William W. Kibler, The Arthurian Encyclopedia, Garland Press 1986).

Merlin's position in the popular imagination as a great seer was secure from Geoffrey's time onward; political "prophecies of Merlin", tuned to the times, were still being published well into the seventeenth century, the best known perhaps being The Life of Merlin, Sirnamed Ambrosius. His Prophesies, and Predictions Interpreted; And Their Truth Made Good by Our English Annalls. Being a Chronographically History of All the Kings, and Memorable Passages of This Kingdome, from Brute to the Reigne of our Royall Sovereign King Charles, written by Thomas Heywood in 1651.


Geoffrey of Monmouth

By Charles H. Dudley

Geoffrey of Monmouth was born sometime around the year 1100 tradition has placed Monmouth birth in southeast Wales. To contemporaries, Geoffrey was known as Galfridus Artur, Arturus, or variants thereof. The "Arthur" in these versions of his name may indicate the name of his father, or maybe a nickname based on Geoffrey's scholarly interests. Geoffrey refers to himself as Galfridus Monumetensis, "Geoffrey of Monmouth", which indicates a significant connection to Monmouth, Wales, and which may refer to his birthplace. Geoffrey's works attest to some acquaintance with the place-names of the regions of southwest Wales. However Geoffrey's knowledge of the Welsh language appears to have been slight. He is likely to have sprung from the same French-speaking elite of the Welsh border country as the writers Gerald of Wales and Walter Map, and Robert, Earl of Gloucester, to whom Geoffrey dedicated versions of his Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain, completed in 1138). It has been argued, by Frank Stenton among others that Geoffrey's parents may have been among the many Bretons who took part in William I's Conquest and settled in the southeast of Wales. Monmouth had been in the hands of Breton lords since 1075 or 1086 and the names Galfridus and Arthur were more common among the Bretons than the Welsh.

Of his early life little is known, except that he received a liberal education under the eye of his paternal uncle, Uchtryd, who was at that time archdeacon (The archdeacon acted as the bishop's representative with the duty of supervising parish churches.), and subsequently bishop, of Liandaff. By his late twenties, Geoffrey certainly seems to have travelled eastwards to become a secular Austin canon at the Collegiate Church of St. George at the castle in Oxford. He was a member of the college community there, and a tutor of some kind, for at least the next twenty years and between 1129 and 1151 his name appears on six charters (A document issued by a sovereign, or other authority, creating a public or private corporation, such as a college defining its privileges and purposes.) in the Oxford area, sometimes expressed as magister or teacher". He was probably a secular canon (a secular canon was a cleric or priest not bound by religious vows to a monastic or other order) of St. George's College, Oxford castle, All of the charters signed by Geoffrey were also signed by another canon (priest) of that church, his name was Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford,. Another frequent co-signatory (signatory is one that has signed a treaty or other document.) of Geoffrey was Ralph of Monmouth, and he was a canon of Lincoln.

Geoffrey turned to writing not long after his arrival. The 'Prophecies of Merlin' appear to have been a series of ancient Celtic prophecies which, at the request of Alexander of Salisbury, the Bishop of Lincoln, Geoffrey translated into Latin, perhaps with some additions of his own. Whether they had previously been attributed to the Northern British bard (poet) , Myrddin is unknown. As with all his works, Geoffrey hoped the prophecies might bring him a lucrative preferment (higher position or office) in the Church, and he used its dedication to ingratiate (to bring oneself into the favor or good graces of another) himself with Alexander who was Bishop of his local diocese. While at St. George's, Geoffrey made a more appreciative acquaintance in the person of Walter the Provost, who was the Archdeacon of the city. In his writings, Geoffrey tells us that Walter gave him "a certain very ancient book written in the British language" and, while Walter was unable to read Welsh himself, he encouraged Geoffrey to translate the book into Latin.

In about 1136, the Welshman set about to translate the book and writing his 'History of the Kings of Britain' dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and Waleran, Count of Mellent. The Prophetiae Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin), which he wrote at some point before 1135, appears both independently and incorporated into the Historia Regum Britanniae. It consists of a series of obscure prophetic utterances attributed to Merlin, which Geoffrey claimed to have translated from an unspecified language. In this work Geoffrey, drew from the established Welsh tradition of prophetic writing attributed to the sage Myrddin, although his knowledge of Myrddin's story at this stage in his career appears to have been slight. Many of its prophecies referring to historical and political events up to Geoffrey's lifetime can be identified - for example, the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, when William Adelin, son of Henry I, died.

Geoffrey introduced the spelling "Merlin", which is derived from the Welsh "Myrddin". Geoffrey gave his character the name Merlinus rather than Merdinus (the normal Latinization of Myrddin) because the latter might have suggested to his Anglo-Norman audience the vulgar French word "merde" (French vulgar expression of the excrement from humans and animals.).Geoffrey's book which was the first work about this legendary prophet in a language other than Welch, was widely read - and believed - much as the prophecies of Nostradamus were centuries later and even up to today; John Jay Parry and Robert Caldwell note that the "Prophetiae Merlini" (Prophecies of Merlin) were taken most seriously, even by the learned and worldly wise, in many nations", and list examples of this credulity even as late as 1445.

It is not known for sure if Geoffrey translated straight from the 'Ancient book' or added some considerable embellishments, if not worse, made up parts of what is written in the book. Geoffrey himself has been the subject of heated debate for many generations. At the time, the work was taken at face value and accepted by most as a true history of the Welsh nation from around 1100 BC to around AD 689. In the book Merlin appeared, as an advisor to Kings Ambrosius and Uther, but Geoffrey's work was most notable for its extensive chapters covering the reign of the great King Arthur. Since the 1600's, however, Geoffrey has been largely vilified as a forger who made up his stories "from an inordinate love of lying". Most modern historians tend to be more sympathetic toward Geoffrey's translations. Parts of Geoffrey's work certainly seem to have their origins in ancient Celtic mythology; but other parts of his work could have come from works by authors such as Gildas, Nennius, Bede and also the Mabinogion. But there are also hints that he had access to at least one other work unknown to us today. His 'King Tenvantius of Britain,' was otherwise unknown to historians until archaeologists began to uncover Iron Age coins struck for a tribal leader in Hertfordshire named Tasciovantus. At the end of 1150, Geoffrey appears to have come into the possession a further source of documents concerning the life-story of his original subject, the bard, Myrddin (alias Merlin). Unfortunately, these did not line up terribly well the information he had given about this man in his 'History of the Kings of Britain' - perhaps indicating that this part was either invented or, more probably, that Merlin's name had been rather over-eagerly attributed to an otherwise unknown Royal adviser. Keen to put across the true story, without losing face, Geoffrey wrote the Life of Merlin,' correctly placing its events after the reign of Arthur, but thus giving his title role an impossibly long lifespan. It was dedicated to his former colleague at St. George's, Robert de Chesney, which was the new Bishop of Lincoln. The following year, Geoffrey's constant attempts to win favor by flattering the influential people around him at last paid off. He was elected Bishop of St. Asaphs, for good service to his Norman masters; and was consecrated by Archbishop Theobald at Lambeth Palace in February 1152. As a Welsh-speaker, he was probably chosen in an attempt to make the diocesan administration of this part of Whales more acceptable to the Welch, in an age when Normans were not at all popular in the areas of Wales which they controlled. However, this strategy seems to have been unsuccessful in trying to prevent a revolt against the Normans, because the Qwain Gwynedd's rebellion was in full swing and it also appears that Geoffrey may have never even visited his diocese. After Geoffrey was appointed and was consecrated bishop of St. Asaph he died just a short three years later in 1155.

Geoffrey's political influence, regardless of whether or not he wrote good history, was immense. He succeeded in weaving together threads of history and legend and his own imagination to create a cultural myth which the British people enthusiastically embraced. Geoffrey's history gave the Britons a distinguished origin (Brutus), established their reputation as a force to be reckoned with in Europe (Belinus and Brennius as well as Arthur), and trivialized the notion of good Saxon government by "demonstrating" that Alfred's much-touted law was nothing more than a translation of ancient British law. But most importantly of all, Geoffrey put the Britons on an even mythological footing with the Norman conquerors, who also claimed Trojan ancestry.

The Plantagenet monarchs also found Geoffrey's History useful. More than once his fictitious Trojan lineage was used to justify various regal claims. The Tudor and Stuart monarchs also cited Geoffrey's history to support their dynastic successions. The last documented claim of this nature was made by James VI of Scotland. When it became apparent that Elizabeth I would produce no heir, James VI claimed the right of inheritance based on the fact that he could trace his pedigree to Brutus the Trojan and to Llewellyn, the last native Prince of Wales. Eventually, after nearly five hundred years, Geoffrey's "social utility" came to an end with the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, which ushered in a preference for history over legend. Yet Geoffrey lives on as the focus of an academic controversy which he planted eight hundred and sixty years ago with his bold manuscript, and in the literary works of art which his History has inspired.

Over 200 manuscripts of the Historia survive (for a list of which see: Julia C. Crick, The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth III: A Summary Catalogue of the Manuscripts [Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1989]). In addition, it influenced numerous vernacular works, including translations into Welsh, Old Norse, and the French and English verse versions by Wace (the Roman de Brut) and Layamon (the Brut).

Geoffrey also wrote a Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin) in verse in about 1150.

A convenient bibliography of works by and about Geoffrey can be found in Michael J. Curley's Geoffrey of Monmouth (New York: Twayne, 1994).
© copyrighted 2010 - 2011 by C. Dudley

MERLIN, Arthur's adviser

MERLIN, Arthur's adviser, prophet and magician, is basically the creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in his twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain combined the Welsh traditions about a bard and prophet named Myrddin with the story that the ninth-century chronicler Nennius tells about Ambrosius (that he had no human father and that he prophesied the defeat of the British by the Saxons). Geoffrey gave his character the name Merlinus rather than Merdinus (the normal Latinization of Myrddin) because the latter might have suggested to his Anglo-Norman audience the vulgar word "merde." In Geoffrey's book, Merlin assists Uther Pendragon and is responsible for transporting the stones of Stonehenge from Ireland, but he is not associated with Arthur. Geoffrey also wrote a book of "Prophecies of Merlin" before his History. The Prophecies were then incorporated into the History as its seventh book. These led to a tradition that is manifested in other medieval works, in eighteenth-century almanac writers who made predictions under such names as Merlinus Anglicus, and in the presentation of Merlin in later literature. Merlin became very popular in the Middle Ages. He is central to a major text of the thirteenth-century French Vulgate cycle, and he figures in a number of other French and English romances. Sir Thomas Malory, in the Morte d'Arthur presents him as the adviser and guide to Arthur. In the modern period Merlin's popularity has remained constant. He figures in works from the Renaissance to the modern period. In The Idylls of the King, Tennyson makes him the architect of Camelot. Mark Twain, parodying Tennyson's Arthurian world, makes Merlin a villain, and in one of the illustrations to the first edition of Twain's work illustrator Dan Beard's Merlin has Tennyson's face and numerous novels, poems and plays are centered on Merlin. In American literature and popular culture, Merlin is perhaps the most frequently portrayed Arthurian character.


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