Merlin


Merlin
   A figure from Welsh legend, who entered English literature via *Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (1136). There, he is a 'fatherless' youth, conceived by an incubus and gifted with prophecy, who becomes counsellor first to the British king Aurelius (for whom he transports and builds *Stonehenge) and later to Aurelius's brother Uther Pendragon, whom he magically helps in an illicit love-affair which results in the birth of *Arthur. In Geoffrey's History he plays no further part, but a Burgundian poem c.1200 has him continue as young Arthur's protector and adviser, a role later made familiar by Malory. Another strand of tradition, Welsh and Scottish rather than English but reflected in Geoffrey's poem The Life of Merlin (c.1150), shows Merlin as a tragic figure unconnected with Arthur, a crazed forest-dwelling recluse uttering mysterious verses and foretelling his own death. Medieval, Elizabethan, Victorian, and modern writers further elaborate Merlin's story.
   Folk tradition stressed Merlin's prophecies. Geoffrey had previously composed the Proph-ecia Merlini, a series of obscure symbolic utterances, some alluding to political events of his own times, which he incorporated into his History; they were so vague that later generations easily found new applications for them. A later anonymous text in the same style, The Last Kings of the English, was also alleged to be Merlin's prophecy. Both were widely known, adapted, and used as propaganda in many medieval wars and rebellions, and in Reformation controversies (Thomas, 1971: 389-422). Compilers of almanacs, astrologers, and pamphleteers continued to exploit Merlin's name till the end of the 18th century.
   Surprisingly, Merlin rarely features in English local lore, apart from his link with *Stonehenge. The town of Marlborough (Wiltshire) claims that its name means 'Merlin's Barrow' and that he rests under a mound in the grounds of the public school there; James I granted the town the motto Ubi nunc sapientis ossa Merlini.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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  • merlin — (n.) small, strong European falcon, early 14c., from Anglo Fr. merilun, an aphetic form of O.Fr. esmerillon merlin, small hawk (12c., Mod.Fr. émerillon), from Frankish *smiril or some other Germanic source (Cf. O.H.G. smerlo, Ger. Schmerl merlin… …   Etymology dictionary

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