Arthurian Annotations: ‘Once And Future’ #19 And The Origins Of Merlin

by Olly MacNamee

With the return of Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora’s Once and Future this past week one of the major players I have yet to tackle in my frequent ‘Arthurian Annotations’ is Merlin. A half-man, half-demon that is a figure at the heart of most retellings and re-imaginings of the legend.

Like so many other Arthurian elements, Merlin was introduced by Geoffrey of Monmouth into his 12th century work, The History of the Kings of Britain – clearly one of the major texts from which Gillen is drawing inspiration – but there is evidence that Merlin exited in tales long before that. And in real life.

But, one should never forget that this character has his roots firmly planted in Wales. Especially as later versions of King Arthur often lean heavily on a very Anglicised version of the legend. As someone brought up in Wales, and a huge fan of the Arthurian stories, this is something I am most proud of. After all, Welsh contributions to “English” Literature can often be overshadowed. There’s more to this ancient land than just Dylan Thomas you know.

The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones

Go back as far as the 6th century and there was a Welsh poet, and a character called Mryddin Wyllt, who seeps into Welsh legends of the time and may have been a madman. A side of the Arthurian mentor often explored in legend too. He is proclaimed a chief bard and appears – and narrates – poems of the Black Book of Carmarthen and Red Book of Hergest alongside other periphery Arthurian characters such as the shape-shifting Taliesin. Interestingly, the Welsh town of Carmarthen – an old Roman town, possibly the oldest in Wales – roughly translating as the “Merlin’s fort” and often thought to be the birthplace of the sorcerer. Or at least one of them. After all, legends have a tendency to shift, change and remain fluid, as Gillen explores as a major theme in this contemporary fantasy series.

Merlin – clearly a composite figure like so many others in the Arthurian canon – also has his roots in the stories of the Roman, Ambrosius Aurelianus, another noted figure in the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who evolves in later years into Merlin Ambrosius. Amalgamated as one, we get the recognisable character of Merlin the magician, and one of the literary forefathers Gandalf and Ob-Wan Kenobi. 

Merlin by Aubrey Beardsley

Merlin, as you may well know, is integral to the birth and upbringing of Arthur. In many ways the Merlin of the past is altruistic. He gives Arthur an upbringing as a commoner, a servant and squire to his adopted brother Kay. In his deal with Uther Pendragon – allowing Uther to lay with Igraine and beget Arthur, only for him to be turned over to the magician – we get a taste of Merlin’s darker side. Even if it is framed as in the best interest of both the infant king and the country.

It is this darker side that we have witnessed in Once and Future. The half-demon DNA in his make-up that many writers play down, or have Merlin overcome, seems to be something Gillen is wholeheartedly embracing in his depiction of the sorcerer. This is a more evil, Machiavellian mage who is not easily swayed by women as he is in many reiterations of his downfall; trapped in a tree by the enchantress Nimue. No, he is more likely to exploit women, as we have seen him do with the tragic character of Elaine, Bridgette’s daughter and Duncan’s mother. And someone who has also been recast as Nimue in recent issues. This idea of Merlin as the spawn of the Devil was first introduced by the French poet Robert De Baron. In this story – of which only fragments remain- Merlin is saved from becoming the Antichrist by being baptised. If only someone had told Gregory Peck that was all it took in the ’70s classic, The Omen.

The Boy’s King Arthur by N.C. Wyeth

Whether or not Elaine/Nimue fulfils her role in this story too – and something tells me she might, given Merlin’s comments in Once and Future #17 about not being able to defy the story –  Gillen and Mora’s Merlin, like so many other reiterations of the Arthurian legend, is far darker and far more horrific. And back once more to wreck havoc on contemporary Britain.

Of course, like all elements of the Arthurian legend, after 1,500 + years, many creators have left their mark on Merlin. Some of my favourite stories featuring Merlin are T.H. White’s The Once and Future King trilogy, Nikolia Tolstoy’s unfinished saga, The Coming of the King, Stephen Lawhead’s Arthur trilogy and John Boorman’s fabulous film, Excalibur. All highly recommended reads and all great places to start on your journey into the magical world of King Arthur. Merlin is a highly complicated – and composite – character and as I read back through this briefest of summations, even now I feel I could write far, far more. But, I do hope I have at least shed a good deal of light on this fascinating figure’s origins in history and literature.

You can catch up on all previous ‘Arthurian Annotations’ here for more on the source material of Arthurian characters and iconography

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