By Kathryn Walton
Merlin is one of the most important characters in the Arthurian legend. He secures the throne of England for King Arthur and plays a fundamental role in Arthur’s early years. Merlin, however, is not the simple hero that he might seem. In the medieval tradition, Merlin was created by demons to bring about the downfall of Christianity.
Merlin the magician is one of the most famous and longstanding characters in the Arthurian legend. He appears in almost every text that Arthur does and is almost as important as the king himself.
Here is a brief outline of his story. Merlin was born well before Arthur. He is brought to the court of the evil Vortigern and plays an important role in ensuring the downfall of Vortigern’s kingdom. He later uses his prophetic knowledge and extensive magical skills to enable Arthur’s conception and birth. He then helps foster and educate the young king and helps Arthur win his place on the throne of England. He helps him establish the round table and fight off the many people who threaten the young king.
Merlin fundamentally shapes the kingdom that King Arthur develops. Arthur would not be king without Merlin.
In contemporary versions of the legend, Merlin is almost always depicted as good. T.H. White makes him a bumbling but wise teacher in The Once and Future King. BBC turns him into a young, foolish, but lovable magician who constantly defeats the forces of evil that plague Camelot in their series Merlin. Even fictional characters like Gandalf and Dumbledore who are painted in his image are also almost always depicted as powerful but righteous and out to defeat any forces of evil that threaten the world.
Merlin’s origins in the Middle Ages, however, tell quite a different story.
The Origins of Merlin
The character of Merlin originally came from pagan mythology. Scholars have traced his origins back to various figures from the Celtic tradition, but he is most closely associated with the early Welsh Myrddin. Myrddin was a prophet who eventually fled to the woods to live as a wild man. When Merlin transitions to the Christian tradition, he retains these roots in evil, unchristian forms.
Merlin first appears in the form familiar to readers today in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the King’s of Britain. There he takes shape as a powerful prophet and sorcerer who enables King Arthur to take the throne of England.
After Geoffrey, Merlin becomes a fixture of the Arthurian legend and appears in all kinds of different versions of the story across the Middle Ages. There is a sequence of romances in both French and English dedicated to telling his story specifically. The 13th century French Vulgate The Life of Merlin, which was adapted into English in the late 13th or early 14th century, tells the complete life of Merlin.
It is these medieval authors who establish Merlin’s demonic heritage.
Merlin was first given demonic parentage by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey calls Merlin a “fatherless boy” because his mother is a nun who swears that she has never been with any man. When questioned about Merlin’s origins his mother does say that she remembers being visited on occasion by something that took the form of a handsome young man who used to hold and kiss her and eventually caused her to become pregnant. This something is identified in the narrative as an incubus-demon. These were a kind of demon that medieval people believed could impregnate women. Geoffrey is not really all that worried about these origins, so he does not dwell on that particular demon. But he establishes a direct connection between Merlin and the demonic.
Merlin’s demonic heritage is made more severe and more evil by the early French and English writers of his life who suggest that Merlin was created by demons to be the literal antichrist.
These texts begin their stories of Merlin’s birth with a conversation about demons. The stories tell how Lucifer was cast out of heaven with a bunch of demons and how after the demons had fallen, they heard about Christ and decided that they wanted their own representative on earth. They wanted someone who can tell humans of their deeds and ways of life and goals so as to draw people into their way of thinking. They also decided that this person should have their extensive powers so as to better convince humanity of their message. Their hope is that this child will make the world full of woe and eventually destroy Christendom.
The child they create to fulfill their evil plan is Merlin. After this conversation, the demons destroy a harmless family and impregnate the youngest daughter. Merlin is born shortly thereafter to act as the antichrist.
Merlin’s Demonic Powers
Merlin’s magical powers are given to him to help him fulfill his role as an antichrist. Merlin was most famous in the Middle Ages as a seer. He is a prophet who can see everything that has happened in the past, that is happening in the present, and that will happen in the future.
His ability to see what has happened in the past and everything that is happening in the present come from his demonic father, and some of his most impressive/important bits of magic arise from this demonic source. He saves his mother from wrongful persecution, for example, by revealing the lustful origins of the justice who persecutes her. He tells the evil Vortigern that his tower keeps toppling over because there are a couple of dragons living underneath it. He ensures Arthur’s victory in battle over and over again by making sure his troops are in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Merlin is able to be the wonderful magician that he is because his dad was a demon.
The fact that Merlin’s powers come directly from demonic sources should make him an incredibly evil character. There were different attitudes towards different kinds of magic in the Middle Ages, but magic done through the intervention of demons was absolutely the worst kind. Evoking and using the power of demons to perform magic was basically heresy and any who tried to call on demons was thoroughly denounced by the church.
The fact that Merlin’s magic is quite literally demonic (not to mention that he was created as the antichrist) should mean that Merlin was condemned as an evil character. But he was not: not at all.
In the Middle Ages, Merlin’s demonic origins did not hurt his reputation. He remained a good, righteous, and Christian hero even though he was born to be the antichrist.
Merlin as Christian Hero
As I said at the beginning, Merlin was a really important hero in the Middle Ages. His role in ensuring that the legendary King Arthur became king meant that he held a great deal of both historical and cultural weight in medieval England. The idea that he was an evil antichrist intended to tear down the Christendom didn’t really work with this reputation.
And so, the moment he is born in the French and English versions of his story he undergoes a series of Christian rituals to ensure he is on the side of right. The poets spend lots of time emphasizing that he is immediately baptised and brought into Christian legitimacy. He denounces the demons who fathered him and lives his life as a good Christian hero. He even calls himself God’s messenger on earth.
What is kind of interesting is that he retains the demonic powers of his father even despite renouncing them. And on renouncing the demons, he is also given powers from God: his ability to see the future comes from God.
So, Merlin ends up with powers from both demons and from God. He is basically all-powerful as a result. He can see everything in the past, everything in the present, and everything in the future. He draws his extensive magical abilities from both sources and is able to perform extraordinary magic as a result.
Merlin gets the best of both worlds. He gets to draw on magical powers from demonic sources but is never condemned as evil. He becomes, as a result, a kind of paradox. He is both demonic and Christian. He is both hazardous and heroic.
This seeming contradiction is often missing from contemporary versions of his story, but I think it is part of what made him such a compelling character to medieval audiences. He walked a fine line between goodness and evil and one never knew if he might fall off.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
Top Image: Merlin depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel