It’s a while since I thought about Merlin, that mystagogue wild man.  There is a good (to my mind) outline of the legends and sources on Wikipedia. There’s already surprise magic. Maybe it’s time to look at the ageing, failing Cole Hawlings and Merriman Lyon. Mention of Susan Cooper’s Old Ones and the confederacy – brilliantly unexplained by Masefield- of the opponents of Abner Brown, makes me think about these patriarch/matriarch mages, the Solomons, the Moseses, wisdom and power opposing the greedy destroyers and dispensing justice, dilexisti iustitiam… It is what messiahs are for. 

Melchizedech is one of the more complex of these to ponder. He has a cameo role in Genesis 14 where he greets Abraham. He is a king, maybe attesting (for the early audience) to a particular set of cultic practices, whose placatory actions assume a significance picked up (via the apocalyptic literature that also feeds much of the images of Jesus as Messiah) by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews. By now he is a curious figure, “without father or mother, without lineage, without end.” His homage to Abraham, offering bread and wine, is an attestation of the Messiah to be born of Abraham. C S Lewis, who knows his mythic history, places him in his adult science fiction with Arthur, assumed, undying, to the planet Perelandra.

With these mages maybe we have to place the great saints of  early Western monasticism, people like Ss Martin and Benedict: sages, counsellors, priests, demon-defeaters. And since it’s Christmas, we have to bring another thaumaturge in here, with his reindeer prancing and pawing, his gifts, his rescues. Maybe in the collapse of the great Pax Romana, people looked for rescuers. My Medievalist daughter Lizzie reminds me of the categorisations that come at the end of the Middle Ages, of the Nine Worthies: Arthur is there, with Alexander. Merlin has faded from sight.

But here for us is Merlin, himself, or rather Merlin I and II, Myrddin, at times the companion of Arthur, the fallible and complex magician, druid. For me, this is the Merlin portrayed so brilliantly in C S Lewis’ adult fantasy That Hideous Strength,  a “real” Merlin, maybe one we can construct precariously from later stories and images. Maybe we discern here Merlin II,  although I am not sure who comes first really, in Welsh legend, in the creation of Stonehenge, one of the many attempts to site Merlin in something concrete, from Tintagel to Roslin.

And then another set of creations: via T H White’s magician living backwards through history and therefore privy to all its follies and tragedies, to his comic (but diminished) role in the Disney version of the Sword in the Stone, and then into  more recent versions, and the one I’m trying to explore, the Old One, Merriman Lyon, in Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence, a sort of Merlin IV, if Masefield’s Cole Hawling is Merlin III.

Maybe this taxonomy doesn’t work. What we have is a magic patriarch, not always the omniscient rescuer we might want, but a rescuer nonetheless. I need to draw this, and if I can manage the graphics and put something here, I hope to do so, but it becomes very clear that the rescuing patriarch is a cultural meme, replicating, transforming as a society has need. The Man in Boneland sings the seasons round in Ludcruck: Colin explicitly watches the stars with MERLIN, the “multi-element-radio-linked-interferometer-network.” Ur-Merlin and Merlin V?

And as Cole fades with that final, beautiful Christmas Folk-carol in salute, and Merriman climbs the hill, we have not got to forget Gandalf, ageing and fallible and passing into the West, or his more modern counterpart, Albus Dumbledore – and we have to acknowledge the sudden swerve into the younger Merlin, whose secret magic powers and attachment to his master Arthur are a cover for an undisclosed and unrequited gay love. Merlin VI and VII? And more?



One thought on “Merlins

  1. “The magic patriarch.” A perfect title, one to reorientate my many views of Arthur. Merlin, I feel, is more problematical than Arthur — if the king is all things to all people then Merlin is even more a shapeshifter, like Menw in the Mabinogion tale of Culhwch and Owen. Much to consider here with all these Merlin’s, including Cole.


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