Will the real Merlin please stand up? … We’re gonna have a problem here

Tracing the ‘real’ Merlin is, of course, an impossible task; his origins are buried so deep in Welsh legend that there is no more possibility of finding a beginning, a single starting place, than there is for Arthur himself. But my blog title is not merely gratuitous. As Peter Salus (1990) reminds us, Merlin ‘comes to us as an unnatural being: born in a miraculous birth of a nun, a virgin. His paternity depends on the tale we like best. He is able to see into the earth and into the future. He was a shapechanger and a child-stealer. He was much more Mephistopheles than kindly mage’. In many ways this earlier, ‘unnatural’, uncanny Merlin is the Slim Shady to our later, safer version: the potentially demonic shadow self who combines power and danger and who, despite his prophetic role, remains entirely unpredictable in himself.

Salus characterises our revised Merlin as ‘a mediator, an educator, an explicator, a facilitator. He is rarely (never?) a participant.’ The ‘never’ can certainly be queried; while the grey-bearded tutor is necessarily part of the preparation rather than the events of Arthur’s life, there have been recent approaches that push Merlin back into the spotlight, situating him as the main character in his own drama and reworking the tales of his eventual fate in various directions. In Merlin’s Wood, Robert Holdstock’s Merlin is complex and ambiguous, as much a threat as an aid to Martin and his family, more of a tale-teller than an educator, and impossible to pin down in any one version of the world. In this Holdstock is beginning to shape a Merlin whom he developed and expanded in his Merlin Codex trilogy – which somehow managed to combine Merlin with Jason (of Argonaut and Golden Fleece fame) in a way which was not only plausible but persuasive! This is certainly a ‘participating’ Merlin, but also one who is both threatened and threatening; he is much closer to the earlier ‘shapechanger’ and a far less comfortable read.

Adding to our discomfort in Merlin’s Wood is Holdstock’s use of ‘intersubjectivity [which] presupposes the absence of a single fixed subject in a literary text, instead suggesting that the complex “subject” of a narrative has to be assembled by the reader from several individual consciousnesses’ (Nikolajeva 2003, p.149). In this case the reader deals mainly with the consciousness of Martin and Merlin, although at times they seem to be combined and at other times there is a narrative which uses neither of them as subject. When, in addition, both Merlin and Vivien change shape, the viewpoint shifts again. This dislocating effect forces the reader into actively constructing a reading while simultaneously dealing with a series of (at times conflicting) perspectives.

Holdstock also makes use of a ‘specific motif in fantasy literature that has caused some scholars to view the texts where this motif occurs as a special subcategory of fantasy: the motif of time distortion’ (Nikolajeva 2003, p.142). Merlin’s traditionally strange and strained relationships with time make his story an obvious candidate for this category – but not all Merlin-centric fantasy makes anything of this. Holdstock makes it central to his exploration of what Merlin is or might be, with his invention of the ‘bone in every human body which, when broken, begins the passage of time’ (1994, p.182). The breaking of this bone for Merlin, and his subsequent entry into time, is both disastrous and inevitable, as much a part of him as the inscriptions on his bones that contain the secrets of his power.

Stewart’s trilogy, by contrast, takes a very different approach. Her Merlin first appears as a child, and his first-person narration serves to familiarise his point of view to the reader and militate against the potential for the uncanny. The most magical of events from other stories – Uther’s change of appearance to deceive Igraine, for example – become natural and unsurprising as explanations are offered up for them. These locate Merlin somewhere between a showman whose sense of performance and sleight of hand deceive those around him and a scientist whose superior knowledge allows him to achieve things which appear magical to others. In this way, though, the text offers us another fantasy of the past: a rationalised, enlightened Merlin who can be ‘real’ to us, and by definition cannot therefore also be magical. That this too is an illusion appears in our occasional glimpses of Merlin’s gift: his ‘seeings’ and prophecies often creep in at the moment when he appears to be at his most rational. The pretence of explanation is merely a veneer; in the end, Merlin is still a strange presence, the knowledge of whom constantly slips away from the reader, and there are things which cannot be explained away.

In these different versions of Merlin, so far from the harmless old man which has become his modern stereotype, we find not a ‘real’ Merlin, but certainly one who challenges our assumptions about his role in the legend. These are useful in that they help us think beyond our commercialised, neatly packaged wizard, giving us the opportunity to confront and consider the darker side of the story. Whether Merlin’s father was a demon, or Ambrosius, or whether (like Grendel) he appears to have had no father at all, the alternatives remind us that fantasy can fully engage with the complexities of morality which we face outside the text. And this is one of the reasons why we should choose to read fantasy, but also choose our fantasy carefully. As Jack Zipes puts it, ‘fantasy involves a certain amount…of conscious choices and citizen responsibility, not censorship and conformity or even consensus’ (2009, p.90). Not just escapism then…

Works Cited

Nikolajeva, Maria (2003). ‘Fairy Tale and Fantasy: From Archaic to Postmodern,’ Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies 17.1, 138-56

Salus, Peter H. (1990). ‘Merlin and Myth,’ The American Journal of Semiotics 7.4, 131-48

Zipes, Jack (2009). ‘Why Fantasy Matters Too Much,’ Journal of Aesthetic Education 43.2, 77-91

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One Response to Will the real Merlin please stand up? … We’re gonna have a problem here

  1. theninthword says:

    I found a very interesting interview with Mary Stewart from 1989 linked from the University of Rochester’s ‘Camelot Project’. Some interesting stuff about Stewart’s use of the older sources, and a particularly interesting thing is that she dictated her novels first (a connection with the oral tradition of storytelling pehaps?).


    There’s also some other interviews with Arthurian authors, including Robert Holdstock.


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