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The True History of Merlin the Magician

The True History of Merlin the Magician

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The True History of Merlin the Magician
    Book Description:

    Merlin the Magician has remained an enthralling and curious individual since he was first introduced in the twelfth century though the pages of Geoffrey of Monmouth'sHistoria Regum Britanniae. But although the Merlin of literature and Arthurian myth is well known, Merlin the `historical' figure and his relation to medieval magic are less familiar. In this book Anne Lawrence-Mathers explores just who he was, and what he has meant to Britain.

    The historical Merlin was no rough magician: he was a learned figure from the cutting edge of medieval science and adept in astrology, cosmology, prophecy and natural magic, as well as being a seer and a proto-alchemist. His powers were convincingly real-and useful, for they helped to add credibility to the 'long-lost' history of Britain which first revealed them to a European public. Merlin's prophecies reassuringly foretold Britain's path, establishing an ancient ancestral line and linking biblical prophecy with more recent times. Merlin helped to put British history into world history.

    Lawrence-Mathers also explores the meaning of Merlin's magic across the centuries, arguing that he embodied ancient Christian and pagan magical traditions, recreated for a medieval court and shaped to fit a new moral framework. Linking Merlin's reality and power with the culture of the Middle Ages, this remarkable book reveals the true impact of the most famous magician of all time.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18929-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Merlin the prophet-magician is a figure in whom superhuman power and tragic loss are always in tension. His powers have fascinated audiences from the Middle Ages to the present day, and have emphasized his difference from ordinary humans, yet the tragedy which always hangs over him means that he evokes as much sympathy as fear. His most familiar incarnation is that of a ‘mage’ of great power, who can appear and disappear at will, read minds and change physical appearances. These powers, together with apparently unlimited knowledge of past, present and future, enable him to guide the destinies of kings,...

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Discovery of Merlin
    (pp. 15-39)

    Merlin the Magician, like his name, was a creation of the twelfth century. This is no attempt to deny the existence of earlier Welsh sources, but Myrddin the princely bard of the Cymry, driven mad by a disastrous battle and expressing himself in cryptic poetry, needs to be separated from the twelfth-century Merlin. The latter is the shape changer, star reader, prophet and creator of King Arthur who is still familiar to modern audiences. The story of the search for the ‘original’ Myrddin has been told in other books. Merlin, the magus of the high Middle Ages, deserves one of...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Writing the History of Merlin
    (pp. 40-69)

    Merlin, the great magician and ‘prophet of Vortigern’, was established as real in the 1130s and remained so until the 1530s. Moreover, excited discussion of the magician and his prophecies spread rapidly, both amongst the political class and in the Church. It was never likely that such a major discovery would be ignored by commentators, and another chapter will look at the interpretations of Merlin’s prophecies which were produced by numerous writers. But first, the extent of further work on Merlin himself needs to be established. Did other historians and chroniclers find more on Merlin – and if so, what...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The British Merlin
    (pp. 70-94)

    The speed with which news of Merlin spread has now been demonstrated, as has the length of time for which research into the history of Merlin continued. Merlin’s powers were established as unmatched since classical times, but he was very much more than an ancient British magician suddenly rediscovered. One of the most exciting things of all was the discovery of Merlin’s prophecies. No good twelfth-century Christian could doubt the reality of prophecy, since it was central to the revelation of Christ as the promised Messiah and Saviour. Theologians from the Fathers of the Church onwards had also accepted that...

  9. CHAPTER 4 The Curious Career of Merlin the Astrologer
    (pp. 95-116)

    Merlin was by far the greatest political prophet of mediaeval Britain, and even in Europe he had very few rivals, but he was much more than a seer. As a prophet he could reveal the secrets of the future, but as a magician he himself made things happen on a national and international scale. He possessed an enormous range of powers within the field of natural magic – and one of the most potentially exciting was in astrology, a ‘growth area’ of magic from the twelfth century onwards, despite disapproval by the Church. He demonstrated his mastery of astrology, together...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Merlin’s Magic
    (pp. 117-140)

    The idea of Merlin the Magician has been increasingly dominated by fictional portrayals of Merlin as a member of the court of King Arthur, which began to be developed in the thirteenth century. But from the twelfth to the sixteenth century Merlin was a real historical figure first and foremost, whose magic and prophecy were both also real. This, however, did not make him unproblematic. The reality of magic might be established by the Bible, as well as by law, but those same authorities treated it as something very dangerous. To take just one example, the account of Pharaoh’s magicians,...

  11. CHAPTER 6 A Demonic Heritage
    (pp. 141-169)

    One of the most sensational mysteries about Merlin was the fact that his father was an incubus. This provided an explanation for his superhuman powers in both prophecy and magic – but it was also very troubling. Could the son of a demon have access to a genuine spirit of prophecy? If not, then Merlin’s prophecies could not be accepted. No one in mediaeval Europe dismissed the story as a physical impossibility, since no one questioned the existence of demons or their capacity to have contact with humans. One commentator did point out that it was possible that Merlin’s mother...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Merlin in Europe
    (pp. 170-191)

    So far, Merlin has appeared very much as a British figure. Despite his enormous knowledge and his terrifying powers, his travels, as reported in both theHistory of the Kings of Britainand theLife of Merlin, were very limited. Merlin may have known about the gigantic peoples and the distant lands of ancient history, and he may have seen the very heavens fall into chaos in the distant future, but he physically left Britain only once. This was on the expedition to Ireland which captured the stones for Stonehenge, when Merlin seems to have been able to lead Uther...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Love and Death
    (pp. 192-215)

    From the 1130s on, the name of Merlin spread fast across mediaeval Europe as that of one of the greatest ever prophets and magicians. It is scarcely surprising that he became also a hero of romance, but what is much less known is that Merlin in mediaeval fiction was much more than simply a major figure in stories about King Arthur. Merlin was the hero in a cycle of romances of his own, in which his connection to demons and his supernatural powers made him a major figure in the legendary history of Christianity. This evolution took a certain amount...

  14. CONCLUSION: The Measure of Merlin
    (pp. 216-221)

    For some five hundred years, the existence of Merlin as an actual historical personage was not only widely accepted but also exerted a very powerful effect. No fictional, or even legendary, character could have had anything like the impact that Merlin achieved in the real world.

    Along with King Arthur, Merlin made British history not only widely known but also exciting and memorable. Merlin’s magic gave the story of Britain a combination of mystery and power that rivalled or even outstripped the histories of other European kingdoms, and his prophecies guaranteed the survival and the significance of Britain until the...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 222-237)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 238-246)
  17. Index
    (pp. 247-258)