The Sinister Merlin

Reading Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur through for the first time has been a thoroughly rewarding experience. I’ve made several discoveries, not so much in the content, but in my own understanding of the themes and characters of Arthurian literature. Malory, by condensing and connecting the vast assortment of romances he had access to, gives context to isolated incidents narrated in other sources. His approach is not all inclusive, but he succeeds in giving a satisfying individuality to his knights, largely by providing their histories and following them through to the end. As mentioned in my last post, I am particularly interested in his use (or sometimes avoidance) of the supernatural and this brings me to Merlin. I found Malory’s Merlin a sinister figure. This has made me aware of the fact that I have never really liked Merlin and that my dislike of him has prevented me from appreciating his reincarnations, including T. H. White’s Merlyn, Tolkien’s Gandalf and Rowling’s Dumbledore. While these latter figures are much more wholesome, they retain something of Merlin’s manipulative character, a negative trait that is startlingly apparent in Malory.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, Merlin is only present in person in the first four books, where he arranges the circumstances of Arthur’s birth and ascension, interferes briefly in the tale of Balin and Balan and is eventually imprisoned by Nenive at the start of book 4:

Then soon after the lady and Merlin departed. And by ways he showed her many wonders, and so came into Cornwall. And always he lay about to have her maidenhood, and she was ever passing weary of him and would have been delivered of him, for she was afraid of him for cause he was a devil’s son, and she could not be shift of him by no mean. And so on a time Merlin did show her in a rock where as was a great wonder, and wrought by enchantment, that went under a great stone. So by her subtle working she made Merlin to go under that stone to let her wit of the marvels there, but she wrought so there for him that he came never out for all the craft he could do. And so she departed and left Merlin. (IV.1)

This passage is one of the most revealing, I feel, of Malory’s own attitude to Merlin. Nenive, rather than a seducer of Merlin who steals his magical knowledge and tricks him into the cave, is portrayed as a victim of Merlin’s lust. She is afraid of him, and this is significant, because no woman in Malory is afraid of a man who is anything but a villain. Several of Merlin’s achievements in the first four books are unexpectedly dark, Merlin:

  • Engineers the rape of Igraine by Uther by disguising him as her husband
  • Takes Arthur from his mother, who does not see him again until he is a man
  • Prophecies the birth of Mordred leading to Arthur’s own ‘massacre of the innocents’

For these acts he is accused by other Kings of witchcraft and several references are made to his paternity; according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Merlin’s father was an incubus. The fact that Arthur respects and ‘worships’ Merlin is contrasted with the suspicion other men have of him. His infernal parentage, while lending weight to his magical abilities, seems to taint his behavior towards women, and the treatment of noblewomen is a primary indicator of nobility throughout Malory. The very fact that Merlin is punished for his lust by imprisonment suggests a moral judgement on his character.

It could be argued that Merlin also does some good in Malory. His fostering out of Arthur could be read as protecting him until he was old enough to rule, and he does advise Arthur at one point to cease killing his enemies when he has already won the battle. However, his almost omniscient knowledge of events to come is highly problematic. He uses his foreknowledge to achieve his own goals, such as establishing Arthur as king, but does not prevent the tragedies he foresees. Even his awareness of his own downfall at Nenive’s hands is submitted to, rather than averted, a weakness that deprives Arthur of his counsel and assistance in the troubles to come.

Malory’s ordering of events in the cycle gets rid of Merlin fairly quickly, possibly because his prophecies make him something of a nuisance and because he does not fit into the new morality of courtly love that concerns much of the book. However, his role as magical intercessor is soon filled by Nenive herself, who becomes a sort of fairy-godmother character who arrives at the end of a tale to reward or punish, or reveal hidden information. She does not prophecy or involve herself in state affairs, like Merlin, but in the personal relationships between men and women, who are upheld to the codes of courtly love. Like Tryamour, she becomes the otherworldly patron of a worthy knight, Sir Pelleas, and when she arrives to insist on the innocence of Guinevere, Malory tells us; ‘for ever she did great goodness unto King Arthur and to all his knights by her sorcery and enchantments.’ (XVIII.8) A statement that is nowhere mirrored in descriptions of Merlin.

Although modern interpretations of Merlin have more frequently cast him as benevolent, affable character, they cannot escape the problem of his foreknowledge. The fact that Merlin knows Arthur and Camelot’s fate is central to his involvement in the story. When he uses this knowledge to interfere, it often brings up questions of consequentialism; are the means Merlin uses to bring about the Arthurian ‘golden age’ worth the ends? When Merlin fails to use his knowledge, such as informing Arthur of his incest only after it has occurred, is he equally guilty? Any interpretation of the Matter of Britain that includes Merlin has to deal with these questions and, in my opinion, he casts a very long shadow.

Skye M. W.

All quotes from Helen Cooper’s edition of the Winchester Manuscript for Oxford World’s Classics (1998)

Image: Detail of Merlin, Alan Lee


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