Merlin

By Stephanie Blackburn

The Merlin from Arthurian legends fascinates scholars and students alike. The mystery of Merlin has stimulated many novels, poems, and movies throughout history. Authors inspired by the appeal of Merlin have created characters in Merlin‘s resemblance, such as the popular wizard Gandalf from Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The year 1998 revealed a three hour miniseries that was later made into a movie with the simple name of Merlin. Steve Barron directed Merlin, which stars Sam Neill as Merlin. The movie starts with Merlin’s birth, goes through his youthful years and his adulthood, and ends with Merlin as an old man. The movie appeals to a variety of audiences, because many people can relate to love and loss, as Merlin loves and loses Nimue; to the misjudgment of a friend, as Merlin misjudges Uther; to the frustrations of a student and the overbearing teacher, as Queen Mab tries to teach Merlin magic; and to finding that person who can change a life forever, as Merlin teaches Arthur how to become a good king. However, the movie includes some inconsistencies with the older versions of the Merlin legend. The 1998 movie Merlin contains both parallels to and conflicts with some of the oldest legends of Merlin, relating to his birth, character, prophecies, the appearance of Excalibur and Stonehenge, and to his relation with Vertigern, Nimue, Uther, and Arthur.

The character of Merlin in the movie deviates from his character in the legends. In the movie Merlin, Merlin appears as a serious man who carries the burdens of a kingdom in peril. Merlin’s rebellion against Queen Mab and his mistakes in judging the characters of men contribute to the struggle of those around him and lead to his misery. Merlin, though he encounters violence and deception from tyrants and from people who matter to him, continues to believe in the goodness of men, and to act in the way he believes would benefit the people. Merlin centers and releases magic from his hands, and can see the future. In Blake and Lloyd’s The Keys to Avalon, Merlin not only sees the future, but changes his appearance and the appearance of others. In Thomas Malory’s poem Morte Darthur, from the compilation of stories in Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin, Merlin incorporates jokes and pranks into his daily life and the lives of others, often appearing as a ragged child who claims he is a child of fate. Merlin of the legends does act for the good of all people, but in a way unlike the serious Merlin of the movie.

The reason for Merlin’s birth in the movie is in conflict with the reason underlying his conception in the legends. In the movie Merlin, Queen Mab creates Merlin to save Britain from Christianity and to bring the people back to the pagan ways. However, Tolstoy writes in his book The Quest for Merlin of many different sources for the creation of the legend of Merlin, and in none of those is Queen Mab ever mentioned. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, an incubus visits a woman and impregnates her with Merlin. This event corresponds with the account of the conception of Merlin in Barber’s King Arthur. In Robert de Boron’s poem Merlin, (late 12th century) the devil seeks revenge on God by corrupting a family, impregnating the youngest daughter with a half-demon child who would act as the antithesis of Christ. The woman seeks refuge with the priest Blaise, who blesses the newborn Merlin. The priest tells Merlin that though Merlin has powers, his mother’s faith saved him from becoming the devil’s pawn. Lupack, in The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend, details what happens to each member of the girl’s family. Though Merlin can exercise the devil’s power, he is saved by his baptism. Lupack associates the ordeal of the devil and the woman with the Vulgate Cycle of King Arthur.

In the movie Merlin, an adolescent Merlin falls deeply in love with the lady Nimue and rescues her from quicksand near his house that he shares with his aunt Ambrosia in the woods. Merlin will not see Nimue again until years later, when the tyrant Vertigern demands that Merlin appear before him. Nimue’s father has pledged his allegiance and his men to Vertigern. Vertigern, who cannot trust anyone, keeps Nimue as a hostage to ensure the loyalty of Nimue‘s father. If Nimue’s father defects to the side of Vertigern’s enemies, then Vertigern will kill Nimue. Nimue saves Merlin from dying in the dungeon, and Merlin saves Nimue from the dragon. Years later Nimue makes a deal with Queen Mab that Nimue will take Merlin away to live the rest of their lives together in a place of Queen Mab’s making. Nimue gets trapped behind the stone by herself when Merlin rushes away to find the wounded Arthur. Queen Mab dies, and the stone reopens. Merlin then joins Nimue to live the rest of his life with her. In Tolstoy’s compilation of the old stories of Arthur and Merlin in The Quest for Merlin, Thomas Malory mentions Nimue, whose name is spelled as Nyneve, in his poem Morte Darthur. In the poem, an elderly Merlin falls for a young woman named Nyneve. Nyneve cannot love Merlin because she finds out that he is the son of a devil, and as a good Christian, she cannot love the son of a devil. Nyneve deceives Merlin into teaching her the way of his magic, and she uses it against him. Nyneve tells Merlin that she is curious about the space underneath a large rock, so Merlin goes to look under the rock for her. When Merlin checks under the rock, Nyneve uses the magic she learned from Merlin to trap Merlin for eternity under the rock, thus fulfilling a prophecy Merlin had made to Arthur in the years before he met Nyneve that he would die a shameful death, while Arthur would die a glorious death.

In the movie Merlin, King Vertigern, whose crest bears the white dragon, attempts to build a structure on the top of rocky hill. However, every time a new architect tries to build on the hill, the structure collapses, and Vertigern, outraged by the constant failure, orders the death of each architect who fails to build a sturdy structure. Vertigern demands his magi to tell him why his structure keeps collapsing. The magi goes to Stonehenge, where he summons Queen Mab who tells him that he must find a child who was conceived without a father and spill his blood in the mortar of the walls. Vertigern’s men find Merlin, who was conceived without a father, and bring him to Vertigern. Vertigern orders Merlin’s execution so that he may use Merlin’s blood, but before the order can be carried out, Merlin makes a prophecy. Merlin sees a sleeping dragon in the rocks, and under the rocks runs a stream. Merlin then sees two flags, one of a white dragon and one of a red dragon, fighting each other. What he sees is the defeat of Vertigern by Uther Pendragon, whose forces are gathering near Vertigern’s location. Uther Pendragon’s crest is the red dragon. In Tolstoy’s compilation in The Quest for Merlin and in Blake and Lloyd’s The Keys to Avalon, the story of Vertigern seeking Merlin remains the same. Vertigern attempts to build a structure on the hills of Snowdonia, and the structure falls every time, or the equipment and building materials disappear in the night. The magi in each story tells Vertigern that he needs to spill the blood of a man without a mortal father upon the rocks of the hill in order to build his structure successfully. Vertigern’s men bring him Merlin. Here, the story changes. In Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin, Geoffrey of Monmouth in "History of the Kings of Britain" writes that Merlin sees under the rocks a spring where two dragons lay sleeping, instead of the one, as the movie suggests. Merlin makes the prophecy that the Saxons will win, and then the Britons will rise again. Merlin continues his prophecy to include many kingdoms which will war with each other, one defeating the other, until the universe itself descends into war and chaos. In Blake and Lloyd’s The Keys to Avalon, Vertigern uncovers the spring and the two dragons, who begin to fight. Merlin makes the prophecy that the Saxons will triumph over the Britons. Merlin never fights either of the dragons in the older legends as he does in the movie to save Nimue when Queen Mab tells Vertigern to sacrifice Nimue to the dragon.

After Merlin advises Vertigern, he finds himself in the service of Uther, Vertigern’s enemy. The movie and the stories differ from each other in explaining how he comes to Uther’s aid. In the movie Merlin, after rescuing Nimue from the dragon by use of magic, Merlin seeks to aid Uther against Vertigern, believing that Uther will be a more noble king than Vertigern. So, Merlin goes directly to Uther after finding help for Nimue’s wounds at a convent. In Blake and Lloyd’s The Keys to Avalon, Emrys, Uther’s brother, sends men to the spring of Galabes in search of Merlin. Merlin advises Emrys relating to a monument that Emrys wishes to build to commemorate those who died in the war. When Merlin and Uther are away, Uther sees a comet in the sky. Merlin tells him that the comet symbolizes Uther. Merlin tells Uther of Emrys‘ death, which makes Uther Pendragon king. Merlin makes the prophecy that Uther’s son will dominate over many areas (81-85). In Tolstoy’s compilation in The Quest for Merlin, Geoffrey of Monmouth tells of Aurelius’ summons for Merlin in History of the Kings of Britain. A Saxon poisons Aurelius, and Aurelius’ brother Uther Pendragon becomes king. However, also in Tolstoy’s compilation, Robert de Boron speaks of Pendragon and Uther as two different people in his poem Merlin. After the death of Pendragon, Uther becomes king.

The stones of Stonehenge appear in both the movie and each of the separate stories. In the movie Merlin, the stones symbolize Queen Mab‘s power and the old pagan religion. Queen Mab answers and helps those who go to Stonehenge asking for help from the old goddesses. As for the building of Stonehenge, in Blake and Lloyd’s The Keys to Avalon and in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, from Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin, Merlin advises Uther’s brother to use the stones from the “Circle of the Giants” in Ireland on the Killaraus Mountain for the monument. However the soldiers cannot lift nor move the stones. Merlin, with magic, lifts and relocates the stones to use for the monument.
In the movie Merlin, Merlin receives Excalibur from Queen Mab‘s sister, the Lady of the Lake. Merlin fights in battle alongside Uther, and after Uther wins, Merlin presents Uther with Excalibur. Unfortunately for Merlin, Uther becomes a man overtaken by passion, and willing to cause another war in order to take another man’s wife. Merlin takes Excalibur from Uther and stabs it into a stone on the hillside, where it would be kept until a man worthy of the sword and the kingship would arrive and pull the sword out. According to Tolstoy in The Quest for Merlin, neither the sword in the stone nor a sword named Excalibur are mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, or in his later work Vita Merlini. In Robert de Boron’s poem Merlin, Merlin tells the people that God will choose the rightful king. Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and becomes king. Merlin does not mention the name of the sword, nor does the sword make an appearance before this point, unlike in the movie when first Merlin and then Uther had possessed the sword. In Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, Merlin coordinates the test for Arthur to prove himself by pulling the sword from the stone. Later on Merlin gives Arthur the Excalibur, which he receives from the Lady of the Lake. The sword in the stone and Excalibur are two different swords. However, in Blake and Lloyd’s The Keys to Avalon, Merlin places a marble stone with a sword stuck in it outside of the church and tells the men that whoever takes the sword out of the stone would be the king chosen by God. During a jousting tournament in the town, a man by the name of Cai enters the tournament and breaks his sword. Cai orders Arthur to fetch him another sword from his tent. Arthur, too far from the tent to retrieve the sword in time for the tournament, comes across a sword in stone and pulls it out. The sword is Excalibur, and the church crowns Arthur as the new king after he proves multiple times for disgruntled nobles unwilling to accept a lower class male as king that he can pull the sword from the stone and they cannot.

In the movie and the legends, Uther falls in love with another man’s wife. Merlin devises a plan to disguise Uther as Ingraine’s husband so that Uther can bed Ingraine without her knowing. Ingraine conceives Uther’s child, Arthur. Merlin tells Uther that neither Uther nor Ingraine should raise Arthur due to the illegitimacy of his birth, so Uther sends Arthur to someone else. In the movie Merlin, Merlin raises Arthur, teaching Arthur ethics and morals so that he would not make the same mistakes as his father Uther. However, when Merlin visits Nimue at the convent, Arthur beds his sister Morgan, unaware of her identity. Morgan gives birth to Arthur’s son Mordred, who matures with a violent disposition towards Arthur and Merlin. Merlin continues to advise Arthur until Arthur dies from a wound his son Mordred gives him. In Tolstoy’s compilation The Quest for Merlin, Geoffrey of Monmouth does not mention Merlin ever corresponding with Arthur in History of the Kings of Britain, or in his later work Vita Merlini. In Robert de Boron’s Merlin and Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, Merlin sends Arthur to a nobleman’s castle to be raised, where Arthur meets Cai. Merlin does not see Arthur again until Arthur pulls the sword from the stone. In Malory’s Morte Darthur, Merlin prophesies to Arthur that Arthur’s child, conceived by his sister, will kill him and destroy his men.

Despite the discrepancies between the movie Merlin and the older legends, Merlin remains as an engaging movie. The movie was nominated for four Golden Globes awards, and in 1999 won four Emmy Awards (Outstanding Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, and Special Visual Effects for a Miniseries or a Movie), and was nominated for another eleven separate Emmy Awards. The movie went on to win or be nominated for more awards on the international and national levels (IMDb). The movie excels in making Merlin, not as an indestructible and infallible being, but as a man to whom people can relate. Merlin’s true character shows when he chooses to use his powers, not for his own gain, but to help the people around him. Not just in movies, the legend has inspired many modern novels, usually with the later legends that involve Merlin with Arthur. Such titles include Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, Stephen Lawhead’s five book series Taliesen, Nikolay Tolstoi’s Merlin and Arthur, and many more. Due to the controversies within the legends concerning Merlin, the wizard remains a mystery that continues to fascinate children, students, and adults, and inspire many artists and writers.

Bibliography

Barber, Richard W. King Arthur. Ipswich [Eng.]: Boydell P, Rowman and Littlefield, 1974.
Blake, Steve, and Scott Lloyd. Keys to Avalon the true location of Arthur's kingdom revealed. Shaftesbury, Dorset ; Boston, Mass: Element Books, 2000.
Lupack, Alan. Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.
Merlin. Dir. Steve Barron. Perf. Sam Neill. DVD. Hallmark Entertainment, 1998.
"Merlin (1998/II) (TV) - Awards." The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 09 Feb. 2010.
"Modern Arthurian Novels." MDC Faculty Home Pages - Miami Dade College. Web. 09 Feb. 2010.
Tolstoy, Nikolai. Quest for Merlin. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.