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The figure of Merlin in English literature from the beginnings to 1740

Merlin dictating his prophecies to his scribe, Blaise; French 13th century minature from Robert de Boron's Merlin en prose (written ca 1200).

Merlin dictating his prophecies to his scribe, Blaise; French 13th century minature from Robert de Boron’s Merlin en prose (written ca 1200).

The figure of Merlin in English literature from the beginnings to 1740

Gillian A. Sandeman

Master’s Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1968

Abstract: This thesis deals with some of the major appearances in English literature of Merlin, the British wizard, and attempts to show how change s in political conditions, historical and quasi-historical research and literary fashions have modified the traditional figure. Merlin’s first appearance in early Welsh poetry as prophet and seer was considerably expanded by Geoffrey of Monmouth who was the first to associate him with the saxon and British kings of England, particularly Arthur. The French romancer, Robert de Boron, and his successors completed the traditional outline of the history of the wizard, which culminated in English with the prose Merlin.

After this crystallization of the legends the wizard’s two chief attributes, his gift of prophecy and his magical powers, were accepted and used by many later writers. His prophetic gifts, originally the vehicle for predictions about the history of the nation, continued to appear in this traditional context in Tudor and early Stuart works in both prose and verse; simultaneously purveyors of popular almanacs and prophetic pamphlets were using Merlin’s name in a wide variety of contexts. Contemporary political considerations influence the Wizard’s activities in the works of writers as diverse as Ben Jonson and William Blackmore. The most obvious deviations from the early legends in which Merlin is portrayed as a dignified, wise and all-powerful magician can be seen in 17th and 18th century drama in which he becomes on several occasions little more than a buffoon – but it is in this period, too, that Rowley wrote a play in which traditional and new material blend to produce one of the most memorable portraits of Merlin in English literature.

The thesis discusses chronologically the material studied from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Fielding. The study closes at a point at which the Arthurian romances and legends were out of favour and the pattern which emerges is therefore one which leads up to a high point, for the portrayal of Merlin, in the romances and then, with some exceptions which are noted, shows a steady debasement of the traditional figure.

Click here to read this thesis from Memorial University


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