By Kathryn Walton
Today Merlin is most famous as a magician. In the Middle Ages, however, he most famous as a prophet, and the prophecies he made anticipated many of the events that would happen over the course of England’s history.
When Merlin first emerges in the history and literature of England, he shows up not as a magician, but as a prophet – as someone who can read omens and predict the future.
The first rendition of Merlin can be found in Welsh mythology where he appears as Myrddin, a prophet and wild man of the wood. As the story goes, Myrddin is a warrior in the court of the 6th century Welsh chieftain Gwenddolau. During the battle of Arfderydd Gwenddolau is slain, and Myrddin is so traumatized by this loss and guilt-ridden over his inability to help that he loses his mind and flees to the forests of Caledonia. There he lives for the next fifty years as a wild man amongst the animals and trees. In this state of madness, he acquires the gift of prophecy.
Another version of Merlin appears in a historical text written around 830 – Nennius’s Historia Brittonum. Called Ambrose by Nennius, Merlin is described as a fatherless boy with the gift of prophecy. He is found by the evil usurper Vortigern when Vortigern seeks to discover why the castle he is attempting to build keeps falling over. Ambrose reveals that Vortigern is trying to build his castle on top of a pool in which two dragons live – a white one and a red one. The dragons are revealed, and they get into a fight. The white one seems to have the upper hand and three times drives the red one almost to the point of defeat. But eventually, the red dragon rallies and drives off the white one. Ambrose declares that this fight is an omen. He says it foretells of a defeat of the Saxons at the hands of the Britons. You can read the full text here.
These early accounts shape the way Merlin is characterized by his earliest biographer when he appears fully formed in the Arthurian legend.
Merlin in Early Medieval History
When Merlin emerges in a form recognizable to readers today his prophetic ability remains central. Merlin first appears as Merlin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, written in the first half of the 12th century. In Geoffrey’s text, Merlin does perform a few of the magical acts for which he is most famous. He moves a gigantic circle of rocks from its place in Ireland to Salisbury plain where it stands as Stonehenge. He also helps Uther Pendragon seduce Ygerna and conceive Arthur by magically transforming Uther’s appearance.
But Geoffrey does not dwell on Merlin’s magical acts. In fact, both of these instances of magic are rendered somewhat less fantastic because Geoffrey makes them look a bit more like manipulations of natural forces. In the first instance, Merlin uses marvellous mechanisms to move the rocks and in the second he uses drugs to change the king’s appearance. Geoffrey was not interested in Merlin as a magician because Geoffrey was trying to write history, and so he created an image of Merlin that felt and looked at least somewhat real/historical.
But Geoffrey was interested Merlin’s prophetic abilities, and so Merlin’s most significant act in Geoffrey’s text is to predict the future of England. Geoffrey dedicates an entire section of his text to recording Merlin’s somewhat bizarre but compelling prophecies.
Merlin’s prophecies come when he is first introduced into Geoffrey’s story. Geoffrey drew on Nennius in his initial portrayal of Merlin as a prophetic fatherless boy, but in this case, Merlin is the son of an incubus demon. For more on Merlin’s birth story check out my feature on THe Story of Merlin and the Demons who Made Him.
In Geoffrey’s version, Vortigern orders his court magicians to tell him why it is that his castle keeps falling over. They cannot, but they tell him that he can prevent it falling by sprinkling the blood of a fatherless boy in the foundation. Messengers search the kingdom for such a boy and find Merlin. Once he’s in Vortigern’s court, the boy Merlin scolds the magicians for their incompetence, calls them “lying flatterers,” and reveals that the reason the tower keeps falling is because they’re trying to build it on a pool in which two dragons live.
In the same way as in Nennius, the dragons are revealed, they fight, but then something a little different happens. Merlin goes into a prophetic trance and proceeds to predict the entire history of England.
He begins by reading the dragon’s fight, which he says tells of how the demise of the Red Dragon (which symbolizes the native Britons) is near because “its cavernous dens shall be occupied by the White Dragon, which stands for the Saxons whom you have invited over. The Red Dragon…will be overrun by the White One: for Britain’s mountains and valleys shall be leveled, and the streams in its valleys shall run with blood.”
In this prophecy Merlin is essentially predicting the early days of the Arthurian narrative. He predicts that the Saxons will seem to dominate the Britons but then “the Boar of Cornwall shall bring relief from these invaders, for it will trample on their necks beneath its feet.” The Boar of Cornwall, who “shall be extolled in the mouths of its peoples” and whose “deeds shall be as meat and drink to those who tell tales” refers to King Arthur.
You would think that Merlin would stop his predictions at those people who are going to be most relevant in his life (the Saxons and those involved in the establishment of Arthur’s kingdom). But no. Merlin goes on not only to depict Arthur’s dominance, but the course of English history for an indeterminate amount of time.
He goes on to offer a huge number of prophecies. Here is a small sample of some of his prophetic statements.
“A shower of blood shall fall and dire famine shall afflict mankind”
“The Red Dragon will revert to its true habits and struggle to tear itself to pieces”
“The Lion of Justice shall come next, and at its roar the towers of Gaul shall shake and the island Dragons tremble. In the days of this Lion gold shall be squeezed from the lily-flower and the nettle, and silver shall flow from the hoof of lowing cattle”
“The Hedgehog will hide its apples inside Winchester and will construct hidden passages under the earth”
“In that time the stones shall speak.”
“In the days of the Fox a Snake shall be born and this will bring death to human beings. It will encircle London with its long tail and devour all those who pass by.”
“A man shall wrestle with a drunken Lion, and the gleam of gold will blind the eyes of onlookers.”
“The winds shall do battle together with a blast of ill-omen, making their din reverberate from one constellation to another.”
These are just a few of the hundreds of prophecies made by Merlin randomly selected. It is of course impossible that Merlin actually made these prophecies; he’s a fictional character. It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who invented them. But their attribution to this legendary seer, and the way in which they are constructed made them very compelling to his medieval audience and relevant all the way into the early modern period.
How Merlin Predicted the Future of England
People in the Middle Ages and early modern period took these prophecies very seriously. There was an extensive interest in prophecy and astrology in the Middle Ages and early modern period, and people came up with all kinds of ways of determining one’s future and the future of the kingdom. These prophecies were ready-made predictions from the mouth of a well-established legendary prophet.
There are also a few things about these prophecies that ensured their believability and appeal in the medieval world. First, they make use of animal symbolism. Medieval England when Geoffrey of Monmouth was writing was a feudal society and many of the great houses associated themselves with symbols – animal or otherwise. It was easy then to relate a ruler or family to a boar or lion named in the prophecies. Second, the prophecies are extremely vague. That made it possible to apply all kinds of historical events to them. And finally, the prophecies are kind of nonsensical. On their own, they really don’t mean much. But that also means that they can mean anything and everything.
That made it possible for medieval historians and rulers to apply the prophecies in whatever way best suited them.
When King John imposed English coinage on the Irish, for example, medieval chroniclers thought that Merlin’s prophecy that “the balance of trade shall be born in half, and the half that is left shall be rounded off” was fulfilled. Marginalia in a fourteenth-century Latin copy of the text identifies Henry I as “The Lion of Justice,” King Stephen (whose reign was marked by anarchy and civil war) as the crab who brings suffering and war, and Henry II as a heroic tusked boar. Thijs Porck’s examines this manuscript and identifies some other ways that medieval kings connected themselves to the prophecies – click here to read his piece on Royal Boar Prophecies.
Rulers and historians continued to make these connections well into the early modern period. Even James VI said his coming had been foretold by Merlin when he took over the throne from Elizabeth I.
So, in a way, Merlin really did predict the future of England. The keenness with which rulers and historians applied themselves and historical events to his prophecies ensure each came true in some form or another.
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 by Howard Pyle from the 1903 edition of The Story of King Arthur and His Knights.