A Short History of Merlin

a whizz through who did what

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver,
Here the fountain runs forever,
Here I am not wise, nor clever,
as in Camelot so grand.
Here the oaks and here the holly,
Here the summer cloudburst's volley,
Turn my learning into folly;
Here in green Broceliande.

The church at Tréhorenteuc
The church at Tréhorenteuc

If you drive from St Malo down towards Vannes in Brittany, after about 90 minutes you will find yourself on the D766 between the towns of Mauron and Ploërmel. Look for the sign to Néant-Sur-Yvel and turn off to the left, driving through the sleepy village toward Tréhorenteuc on the edge of the Forêt de Paimpont. Park anywhere, but better near the church. We'll come back to that church but, for now, turn your back to it and walk under the tree from which hang songs and ballads from across the world, into the tiny tourist centre and ask for the maps to the places where Merlin walks Broceliande: the Valley of No Return; the Fairies' Looking Glass and Barenton, where Merlin met Vivien.

If you visit the museum in Rennes, the capital of Brittany, you will learn that the area, then part of Armorica, was settled by peoples from Wales and Cornwall between the 5th and 7th centuries, and it became Brittany : Little Britain. They brought with them their mythologies, and, seemingly, ties to Great Britain that remained sufficiently strong to bind them into a mythology that was created long after that original settlement.

In another part of Rennes another museum will tell you that the city suffered a great fire during the late medieval period and had to be rebuilt. The city was made of wood and so they took wood from the great forest of eastern Brittany to rebuild: the forest of Broceliande. Broceliande was the setting of many great medieval Arthurian romances, such as Chrétien de Troyes's Yvain, the Knight of the Lion. Now it is shrunk down to the forest of Paimpont, which might, indeed, have been all it ever was, save for the reference in Rennes that it was once greater. Certainly, it is in the remaining forest that Barenton and other places familiar in the medieval stories about Merlin are found.

Barenton spring
Barenton spring, where Merlin met Vivian

It is easy now to find the Valley of No Return and the Looking Glass lake, where Vivien lived. Just turn out of the tourist centre, walk up the road, climb up and then down, all the way down, into the valley. Once one had to go the long way round but now there is a car park and the road extends from that to the valley head. There was a lot of fuss about that car park; the people who live in Tréhorenteuc and the surrounding villages believe the forest is sacred territory, and protect it, even from tourists. For example, the spring of Barenton is attractive not merely as the spot where Merlin met and fell in love with Vivian, who later imprisoned him, but where the stone still stands over the spring where Merlin conjured rain. The local people would organise a procession to this spot to conjure rain in times of drought, right up until 1954, and the stream here bubbles with nitrogen. But the map to find it supplied by the tourist centre in Tréhorenteuc is deceptive and misleading. It is better to accept its guidance and pray to the gods of the forest and, if they like, you might have a chance of finding the spring. And if – when – you do, you have found the heart of Broceliande and its legends.

As you get to know the people who live in the forest they will tell you of the places of power that are not on the maps: the quiet chapel built beside a nemeton and designed as though it were a defensive fortress keeping out the power of the trees, or the strange open ground, fringed with trees, that lies behind a roadside shrine to a saint. If you go there, it's best to go with someone who knows its creatures, or be prepared to ask permission of them to stand there in the moonlight. And then there is the strange tale of the church of Tréhorenteuc; but first let's consider how Broceliande came to be Merlin's, and the tales that came out of France about him.

If you're unaware of the sources for the various stories about Merlin, you may be surprised to know that most of the information about the character we think we know as 'Merlin' arises from medieval French literature, and did not return to these shores in any work written here until the 15th century.

Yes, I did say 'return'. There were some references to a Myrddin earlier than Geoffrey of Monmouth's ground breaking work in the early 12th century, but most of us would not recognise the figure found in those early Welsh texts, who is driven mad by war and lives the life of an outcast. About the only recognisable similarity between this Myrddin and the later Merlin is the gift of prophesy, and many of the early Welsh poems claim to be prophecies from Myrddin. Some of these are to be found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, the remaining few are scattered elsewhere.

It's clear that Geoffrey was aware of these Welsh sources, as one of his three books featuring Merlin at least in part, the Vita Merlin, includes adaptations of the poems. However, this is his last work and it's possible he was not well acquainted with all the aspects of the figure of Myrddin in the earlier Welsh poems when he wrote his earlier works, which draw a very different picture of the man.

His first work, Prophetiae Merlini drew on the popularity of the Welsh prophet and was essentially a number of apocalyptic prophecies Geoffrey attributed to Merlin. By all accounts it was a best seller and continued to be believed into the 15th century. However, Geoffrey didn't approve of the name Myrddin and changed it to Merlin (Myrddin was too close to a French word for 'crap'). He was also the first person to draw Merlin into Arthurian romance. The figure of Arthur had existed for some years in various Welsh works, including the Mabinogian and the Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius in the 9th century, but Geoffrey's cod history Historia Regum Britanniae was the first major popularisation of the myth. Even at the time it was debunked – writing about 50 years later, one William of Newburgh stated "it is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors, or indeed about his predecessors from Vortigern onwards, was made up, partly by himself and partly by others, either from an inordinate love of lying, or for the sake of pleasing the Britons." One reason for the popularity of the History might have been that William the Conqueror was a quarter Breton.

Merlin's vision
Merlin's vision of two dragons fighting. Medieval illustration.

Geoffrey changed quite a few things in his History. For one thing, it was he who was responsible for giving Merlin the name 'Ambrosius'. Nennius had previously recorded the tale of Vortigern and the prophesy of the two dragons, but attributed this to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a war leader who appears in Gildas' 6th century work, De Excidio Britanniae. Geoffrey simply attached the name Ambrosius to Merlin, presumably to gloss over that change. He also associated Merlin with the building of Stonehenge and the magical help to Uther Pendragon at Tintagel in changing Uther's shape to aid his wooing of Igrain and so the birth of Arthur.

This is where the tale of Merlin slips over the Channel. Sometime in the next 60 or so years Wace translated Geoffrey's work into Anglo Norman and it seems to have entered the French oral tradition. Like Geoffrey, his Roman de Brut includes sections on Merlin's ancestry, Vortigern's tower, Stonehenge, Uther, and the begetting of Arthur. Then, within 20 years or so of William of Newburgh's crushing dismissal of Geoffrey's work, Robert de Boron composed a long poem about Merlin, now mainly lost except in a prose form. This was to form the basis for later French works, written over the next 40–50 years. Arthurian romance took off in the popular imagination, and Merlin with it.

Robert De Boron formed Merlin into a shape changing, witty prophet involved with the Grail. He also changed the interpretation of the fight between the two dragons from the struggle between the British and the Saxons, to one of family infighting between the brothers 'Uther' and 'Pendragon'. De Boron either misunderstood the sources he was drawing on or freely invented to create a variation on the myth that, when his elder brother died, Uther took his brother's name as part of his own, becoming UtherPendragon.

one of the pictures inside the church at Tréhorenteuc
Arthurian legend - one of the pictures inside the church at Tréhorenteuc

And when at least, she'd all my Art,
So her false fears might now depart,
Instead she used my bewitched heart
To confine me in this cold rampart
So far from Camelot so grand.
and when the moonlight trails its wake,
The world I see upon the lake,
As men make war and kingdoms shake
Far from the wood Broceliande.

Shortly after De Boron's work the Prose Lancelot was written. Merlin was presented as being a person who achieved no good, but who was tied in with Arthur. It was this work that introduced his capture by Nimue. The interesting thing about Nimue (or Vivian as she is known in France) was that she was obviously a water goddess of some kind. One ingenious attempt to trace the derivation of the various names of Nimue, Vivian and Morgana suggests that the latter name relates to water in the Breton and Welsh languages, while Nimue may be a corruption of Mneme, the shortened form of Mnemosyne, one of the nine water-nymph Muses of Roman and Greek Mythology who gave weapons, not unlike Arthur's sword, to the heroic Perseus, and Vivian of Coventina, a Celtic water goddess. In the early Welsh poetry the name of Merlin's wife, Gwendoloena, could also be a corruption of Coventina. Curiously, the only evidence we have for the worship of Coventina is at Hadrian's Wall, extreme Southern France and Spain. She may, of course, have been known elsewhere but, on this basis, it's difficult to see how the name might be known to the early Welsh. However, the link between mysterious water goddesses plays through the Arthurian legends with the queens who rescue the dying Arthur and take him to Avalon, and the Lady of the Lake, who, apart from giving Excalibur to Arthur, seems also to be claimed to be the foster-mother of Sir Lancelot and raised him beneath the murky waters of her Lake.

According to French myth, Merlin met Vivian at the Fountain of Barenton and fell so deeply in love with her that he agreed to teach her all his mystical powers. She became Merlin's scribe, who recorded his prophecies, as well as his lover. Unfortunately however, over the years, she became so powerful that her magical skills outshone even her teacher and she imprisoned him in Glass Tower (or similar dungeon). To some extent she stepped into Merlin's role at King Arthur's side, but the old man's removal contributed considerably to the great monarch's downfall. One of the myths has it that Vivian's palace lay below the lake (the Fairies' Looking Glass) in the Valley of No Return in Broceliande. The Lady of the Lake was eventually obliged to reclaim her sword when Arthur was fatally wounded at the Battle of Camlann and Excalibur was hurled back to misty waters.

But I get ahead of myself. We are now into the early 13th century.

Holy Grail stained glass window inside the church at Tréhorenteuc
Holy Grail stained glass window inside the church at Tréhorenteuc

By then a number of Arthurian prose and poetic accounts were being recorded in 'vulgar' or ordinary languages (i.e. not Latin). Among the most significant additions to the Arthur story were narratives concerning the Holy Grail and tales involving the famous lovers Tristan and Isolde. By the early decades of the 13th century, Arthurian literature had evolved to such a point that Geoffrey's original account had long since been swallowed up in many stories. Then writers in France tried to bring order and coherence to Arthurian literature by rewriting this material into one the Vulgate Cycle, so called because they were written in vulgar language, and so were accessible to ordinary people who had no Latin.

Also called the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, the Vulgate Cycle is a series of interconnected narratives that traces the Arthurian story in chronological order from its beginning, in apostolic times, to its end, which occurs in the aftermath of Arthur's death.

It was probably written during a twenty- to thirty-year period, from around 1210 until perhaps the middle of the 1230s or 1240s. It features three works: the Prose Lancelot, Quest of the Holy Grail and Death of King Arthur. When it was composed, the romances of the late 12th century writer Chrétien de Troyes (who had sited his work in Broceliande) had already become extremely popular and influential. The Christian purpose of the Vulgate Cycle is exemplified in recording all of the deeds and adventures surrounding the Holy Grail, and imparting to them attainment of a transcendent spirituality.

The next work to be written featuring Merlin was the Vulgate Merlin. In the best Hollywood style, this was a prequel to highly successful Lancelot-Grail cycle that contains Robert de Boron's work in a prose form. This is how De Boron's work comes to be known to us. This was written shortly after the Prose Lancelot. In the same century the Book of Arthur was also written, which was an incomplete variant form of Vulgate Merlin. Getting confused yet? If so, what we have so far is:

  • Gildas - mention of Ambrosius
  • Nennius - association of Ambrosius with the prophecy to Vortigern
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth - translation of Ambrosius and Myrddin into Merlin
  • Wace
  • Robert De Boron's poem Merlin
  • The Vulgate Cycle = Lancelot Grail Cycle, which includes the Prose Lancelot, Quest of the Holy Grail & Death of King Arthur
  • Vulgate Merlin = prequel to Vulgate Cycle but written after it.
  • Book of Arthur = variant Vulgate Merlin

Between 1230 and 1240 the post vulgate cycle or Book of the Grail was written. This was a long prose romance intended as an entire history of the Grail and of Arthur and his knights, and which swept into it parts of some of the works mentioned above, including Robert de Boron's Merlin. It comprised several sections:

  • The Estoire del Saint Grail, which did not differ significantly from the Vulgate version. It tells the story of Joseph of Aramathea and his son Josephus, who brings the Holy Grail to Britain.
  • The Estoire de Merlin (also called the Vulgate or Prose Merlin), which also bears few changes from the Vulgate. It concerns Merlin and the early history of Arthur. To this section is added the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin, also known as the Huth-Merlin, the first departure from the source material. It adds many adventures of Arthur and the early Knights of the Round Table, and includes details about Arthur's begetting of Mordred receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake that are not found in the Vulgate. The author added some relevant material from the Vulgate's Lancelot Proper (=Prose Lancelot) section and the Prose Tristan.
  • The Queste del Saint Graal. The Post-Vulgate 'Queste' is very different in tone and content from the Vulgate version, but still describes the knights' search for the Holy Grail, which can only be achieved by the worthy knights Galahad, Percival and Bors.
  • The Mort Artu, concerning Arthur's death at the hands of Mordred and the collapse of his kingdom. It is closely based on the Vulgate 'Mort' but was written with greater connectivity to the previous section.

During the same period the The Prophecies of Merlin was also written. This included long prophecies of Merlin (mostly concerned with 13th century Italian politics!), some by his ghost after his death. The prophecies are interspersed with episodes relating Merlin's deeds and with various Arthurian adventures in which Merlin does not appear at all.

There was then a long interlude until the Prose Merlin was written in the mid 15th century. During this period the next mention of Merlin in a new work shifts the tale to England for the first time (acknowledging Geoffrey was Welsh – though educated in England - and wrote primarily for a Welsh audience, despite the popularity of his works in England), with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This is brief enough, though it brings back the name of the fay who captured Merlin to Morgan:

Morgan le Fay by Anthony Frederick Sandys
Morgan le Fay by Anthony Frederick Sandys
"That will I truly," quoth the other. "Bernlak de Hautdesert am I called in this land. Morgain le Fay dwelleth in mine house, and through knowledge of clerkly craft hath she taken many. For long time was she the mistress of Merlin, who knew well all you knights of the court. Morgain the goddess is she called therefore, and there is none so haughty but she can bring him low. She sent me in this guise to yon fair hall to test the truth of the renown that is spread abroad of the valour of the Round Table. She taught me this marvel to betray your wits, to vex Guinevere and fright her to death by the man who spake with his head in his hand at the high table. That is she who is at home, that ancient lady, she is even thine aunt, Arthur's half-sister, the daughter of the Duchess of Tintagel, who afterward married King Uther."
Translation Jessie L Weston, Camelot Project.

One other interesting mention relating to Merlin around the 14th or early 15th century is the tale of True Thomas, or Thomas the Rhymer. The tale is based on an historical figure: a 13th century man who lived on the borders of Scotland and England in what is modern Earlston, near Galashiels: Thomas of Ercildoune or Erceldoune. There are deeds bearing his name: Thomas Rymour de Erceldoune. He was supposed to have been carried off by the Queen of Elfhame for seven years and then returned, but blessed (or cursed) by her with a tongue that could only tell the truth. He was well known for his prophecies concerning Scotland, which were widely circulated until the 19th century. According to Scott, Thomas continued to live in Erceldoune after his return but one night was summoned by a hind and doe and left, following them, never to return. He appears in a number of tales as counsellor to fairies or buying horses for the sleeping warriors. True Thomas was widely believed to have some connection with Merlin, even if only a play on the myth.

The publication of the Prose Merlin about a half a century after Gawain in the mid-15th century, brought the Merlin story to England in a major form. It survives in a single manuscript text, Cambridge University Library MS Ff.3.11. Scholars believe it was written near the middle of the 15th century, not long before Thomas Malory was composing his Morte D'Arthur. Because it pre-dates Malory's work, the Prose Merlin is considered the earliest piece of Arthurian literature written in English prose (Gawain is in verse form). In contrast to Malory's work, however, which draws upon a wide variety of sources and combines them in a unique fashion. It offers a straight-forward and fairly accurate translation into English of the Merlin section of the Old French Vulgate Cycle.

But here imprisoned fast am I,
And here I stay until I die,
Or else she rue this ill-made tie;
For only she can send me hie
to go to Camelot so grand.
Until that day I am here bound,
And only in the lake may sound
Events elsewhere, the whole world round,
beyond the wood Broceliande.

This is a history of Merlin. Just as Malory's Morte D'Arthur begins with the events leading up to Arthur's birth and concludes with those occurring shortly after his death, the Prose Merlin does much the same for the figure of Merlin, providing its readers with a complete account of Merlin's life. It describes the events surrounding Merlin's birth, and the final episode, occurring after Merlin has said farewell to those dearest to him, provides a clear indication of the fate he must endure henceforth - a kind of living death.

In addition to presenting a full account of the life of Merlin, it presents a detailed account of the initial phase in the evolution of Arthurian civilization, a phase which may be called the Rise of Arthur. This is the segment of the Arthurian story that extends from Arthur's birth through his coronation and marriage and the pacification of Britain. It describes at great length the several threats to the land the young king must address - particularly the baronial revolt and the Saxon invasion - before peace and stability can be returned to Britain. This early phase in the larger story also includes Arthur's courtship of Gonnore (Guinivere) and their subsequent marriage, Merlin's intense emotional involvement with his protégé Nimue (Vivian), as well as several events contributing to the initial development of a code of knightly conduct. This important early phase in the larger narrative concludes shortly after Merlin's departure, with the implication that Merlin has fulfilled his function and Arthur must now proceed without his mentor's guiding hand.

The Prose Merlin consists of two principal sections. The first, which begins with the story of Merlin's birth and continues through Arthur's coronation - the first five sections in this volume - is probably derived from De Boron's Merlin. The remainder is thought to be based the Vulgate Merlin. These two sections of the Prose Merlin are merged without fanfare. However, in the Robert de Boron section the narrative is relatively simple, straightforward, and single-stranded; in the rest it becomes far more digressive and diffuse, and more importantly, it becomes multi-stranded.

In Robert de Boron's work Merlin is presented as the agent of a council of devils who are dismayed by Christ's Harrowing of Hell who will go into the world and do their bidding in the cosmic struggle between good and evil. This being is fathered upon a virtuous woman by one of the fiends. But the woman receives advice from her religious advisor, a holy man named Blase (Blaise) and so the special powers with which the fiends have endowed the child - who is christened Merlin, after the woman's father - will be used for benevolent ends rather than malevolent ones.

The second episode in the Robert de Boron section relates the story of Vortiger (Vortigern) and his ill-fated tower. When Vortigern - who has usurped the British throne and who now lives in fear of the rightful heirs, Pendragon and Uther - attempts to build himself a great tower, his efforts prove futile for the tower continually collapses. Vortigern's sages claim the foundations will not hold unless they are sprinkled with the blood of a fatherless boy; the fatherless Merlin, now aged seven, is soon discovered and brought before the tyrant. The boy saves reveals the true reason for the tower's collapse, which is the shaking of the foundation caused by a pair of red and white dragons who struggle in a pool buried beneath the tower. That struggle, the youthful prophet tells them, signifies the struggle which will soon be taking place between Vortigern and the brothers Pendragon and Uther. (This is in contrast to works where the fighting dragons are said to be emblematic of the conflict that is going to occur between the Saxons and the Britons.)

an Arthurian picture in Tréhorenteuc church
Arthurian legends in a picture in Tréhorenteuc church

After Vortigern's death, Merlin assists Pendragon, who is now the British king, and his brother Uther in their struggles against the invading Saxons. Just as Merlin has foreseen, a great battle is fought near Salisbury in which Pendragon meets his death. Uther then ascends the throne and adopts the name "Utherpendragon" to honour his brother, and Merlin erects the great stone ring (Stonehenge) on Salisbury Plain as a memorial to the fallen Britons. With Uther now firmly established as Britain's king, Merlin advises him on the creation of the Round Table - one of the most significant events in the Prose Merlin.

In the fourth episode of the Robert de Boron section, King Uther becomes enamored with Igrain, the wife of the Duke of Tintagel, and he soon begins waging a civil war against his Cornish liegeman. With the aid of Merlin's shape-shifting abilities Uther, in the likeness of the Duke, sleeps with Igraine at the castle of Tintagel, and Arthur is conceived. Following the Duke's death in battle, Uther and Igraine are married.

The final episode in the Robert de Boron section relates the famous story in which Arthur draws the sword from the stone proving that he is Britain's king by divine election. Following this the story becomes more complex, with Arthur's coronation and various wars in Britain and France. This preserves a spirited description of Arthur's fight with the Giant of St. Michael's Mount and the curious though extraneous episode in which Arthur fights the gigantic devil cat of Losane. One of the intriguing things about the Prose Merlin is the way in which it provides explanations for details and motifs commonly encountered in other Arthurian works, such as Kay's habit of rude speaking and for Arthur's tolerance of it; the explanation it offers for the great enmity that develops between Morgan le Fay and Queen Guinivere and how Gawain comes to be the possessor of Arthur's sword Calibourne (Excalibur).

While Malory's work presents a 'romance-biography' of the life of King Arthur, the Prose Merlin does the same for the life of Merlin. Merlin is the central unifying figure in the entire work, virtually ever-present and constantly moving about between the various sets of characters; he is frequently involved in prompting the actions of the other characters, orchestrating events, and heading off catastrophic situations, and he himself participates in events to a degree rarely, if ever, encountered elsewhere in Arthurian literature. In contrast to Malory, where Merlin operates primarily behind the scenes, here Merlin is a character of great vitality who does not hesitate to ride in front of Arthur's troops as they go into battle, personally carrying Arthur's fire-spewing-dragon battle standard, an emblem (and weapon) of Merlin's own devising.

To give you a taste of part of the work, this is part of the section about Merlin and Vivian/Nimue/Morgan (or Nimiane as she is called in the work). Although the language is still recognisably middle English, it's also changing sufficiently into modern English to be understood without a dictionary:

"Certes, yesse," seide Merlin. "Now sey than what ye will."
"I will," quod she, "ye teche me a place feire and covenable that I myght enclose by art in soche wise that never myght be undon; and we shull be ther, ye and I, in joye and disporte whan that yow liketh."
"Madame," seide Merlin, "that shall I well do."
"Sir," quod she, "I will not that ye it make, but lerne it to me that I may it do, and I shall make it than more at my volunté."
"Well," seide Merlin, "I will do youre plesire."
Than he began to devise the crafte unto hir, and she it wrote all that he seide; and whan [he] hadde alle devised, the damesell hadde grete joye in herte. And he hir loved more and more, and she shewed hym feirer chere than beforn.
And so thei sojourned togeder longe tyme till it fill on a day that thei wente thourgh the foreste hande in hande, devisinge and disportinge, and this was in the Foreste of Brochelonde, and fonde a bush that was feire and high of white hawthorne full of floures; and ther thei satte in the shadowe.
And Merlin leide his heed in the damesels lappe, and she began to taste softly till he fill on slepe. And whan she felt that he was on slepe, she aroos softly and made a cerne with hir wymple all aboute the bussh and all aboute Merlin, and began hir enchauntementez soche as Merlin hadde hir taught, made the cerne nine tymes and nine tymes hir enchauntementes. And after that she wente and satte down by hym and leide his heed in hir lappe and hilde hym ther till he dide awake.
And than he loked aboute hym, and hym semed he was in the feirest tour of the worlde and the moste stronge, and fonde hym leide in the feirest place that ever he lay beforn. And than he seide to the damesell,
"Lady, thou hast me disceived but yef ye will abide with me, for noon but ye may undo this enchauntementes."
And she seide, "Feire swete frende, I shall often tymes go oute, and ye shull have me in youre armes, and I yow. And fro hensforth shull ye do all youre plesier."
And she hym hilde wele covenaunt, for fewe hours ther were of the nyght ne of the day but she was with hym. Ne never after com Merlin oute of that fortresse that she hadde hym in sette, but she wente in and oute whan she wolde.

Gawain eventually tries to find Merlin:

whan he hadde serched the reame of Logres [England] up and down and saugh that he cowde not finde Merlin, he thought to passe the see and go into the Litill Breteigne. And so he dide, and serched it fer and nygh, but never cowde he here no tidinge of Merlin…. he returned bak for to come to courte; and fill as he rode thourgh the Foreste of Brocheliand.

Which brings us onto the great work of Thomas Malory, which eventually inspired the modern English cycle written by T H White: The Once and Future King. Merlin plays an incidental role in Malory, appearing mainly as the deus ex machina by which Arthur is found, made King and wins a few early battles. He is the advisor who explains Arthur's heritage and various other secrets, utters prophecies, enables Arthur to find Excalibur and then goes off with Nimue (as she is named in this work). Malory is mainly concerned with Arthur rather than Merlin, although he is clearly aware of the earlier sources as he mentions Blaise as Merlin's mentor and that Merlin is descended from a demon. By book 4 (out of 21) Malory has had Nimue imprison Merlin under a rock in Cornwall. We hear nothing of Vortigern or Merlin's early life, and the work commences with a prologue that carries the tale of Merlin's disguise of Uther to enable Arthur to be born.

So, finally, we come to White's great work, published in 1958. The first work in the cycle, The Sword in the Stone centres upon Merlin and his education of the young Arthur. He re-introduces some of the earlier themes, such as the shape changing mentioned in De Boron's poem. Merlin turns Arthur into various animals - fish, hawk, ant, goose, and badger – to teach him how to be a good king. This part of the work was later turned into a Disney film. White introduced one novel and compelling feature to the Merlin myth: that the magician lived his life backwards. Though, like Malory, the work is centred on Arthur, not Merlin, it is still a great read, and easily accessible as it is in modern English, as well as containing a lot of humour in the characterisation of Merlin.

Why, I wonder, once the romances came to England from the 15th century, did so much of the Merlin myth drop away to be focussed so entirely on Arthur and his knights? The old romance of Merlin was not entirely lost, as Tennyson's poetry recalled the imprisonment of Merlin by Vivian in Broceliande. Though he sites the poem, at least initially, in England, and then has to find the means to return to Britanny, as though retracing the way the tales had come over the centuries:

"So leaving Arthur's court he gained the beach;
There found a little boat, and stept into it;
And Vivien followed, but he marked her not.
She took the helm and he the sail; the boat
Drave with a sudden wind across the deeps,
And touching Breton sands, they disembarked.
And then she followed Merlin all the way,
Even to the wild woods of Broceliande.
For Merlin once had told her of a charm,
The which if any wrought on anyone
With woven paces and with waving arms,
The man so wrought on ever seemed to lie
Closed in the four walls of a hollow tower,
From which was no escape for evermore;"

And so we are back in Broceliande.

Vivian (Morgan le Fay) in a religious icon 
			in Tréhorenteuc church
Vivian (Morgan le Fay) in a religious icon in Tréhorenteuc church

So what was the strange story of the church at Tréhorenteuc? In the 1920s a priest came to the village called l'Abbe Gillard. He was sent by the church to sort it out, as the people were not properly instructed. Reading between the lines, it seems there was too much paganism in the forest. Rather than instructing his people in the ways of Christianity, the people educated him in the ways of Broceliande, and he succumbed entirely to its magic. He filled the church with Arthurian motifs and its stained glass windows and pictures are of knights and kings, of round tables and grails. Though some windows feature the story of the local saint and each year there is a procession in her honour from the church, led by a goose, to the local spring, not all those present regard the spring as mere water and, at other times and seasons, less Christian offerings are made. Even the 'stations of the cross', a series of pictures displaying Christ's last hours that are strictly delineated and used as part of formal Easter devotion, have been subverted to include one picture of Morgana (Vivien) le Fay.

Eventually the church removed l'Abbe Gillard and sent him elsewhere. After that he returned to Broceliande each year to visit his people, his church and the forest, until he died. Then the people put up a statue to him in front of the church, and still regard him as their true priest. The priest of Broceliande.


Morgan Le Fay painting: Frederick Sandys [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The dragons fighting is courtesy Wikimedia, and is in the public domain.

© text and photos, where not otherwise attributed Alexa Duir 2004. All rights reserved.