Merlin the Enchanter by Thomas Wentworth
In one of the old books called Welsh Triads, in which all things are
classed by threes, there is a description of three men called "The Three
Generous Heroes of the Isle of Britain." One of these—named Nud or
Nodens, and later called Merlin—was first brought from the sea, it is
stated, with a herd of cattle consisting of 21,000 milch cows, which are
supposed to mean those waves of the sea that the poets often describe as
White Horses. He grew up to be a king and warrior, a magician and prophet,
and on the whole the most important figure in the Celtic traditions. He
came from the sea and at last returned to it, but meanwhile he did great
works on land, one of which is said to have been the building of
This is the way, as the old legends tell, in which the vast stones of
Stonehenge came to be placed on Salisbury Plain. It is a thing which has
always been a puzzle to every one, inasmuch as their size and weight are
enormous, and there is no stone of the same description to be found within
hundreds of miles of Salisbury Plain, where they now stand.
The legend is that Pendragon, king of England, was led to fight a great
battle by seeing a dragon in the air. The battle was won, but Pendragon
was killed and was buried on Salisbury Plain, where the fight had taken
place. When his brother Uther took his place, Merlin the enchanter advised
him to paint a dragon on a flag and bear it always before him to bring
good fortune, and this he always did. Then Merlin said to him, "Wilt thou
do nothing more on the Plain of Salisbury, to honor thy brother?" The King
said, "What shall be done?" Then Merlin said, "I will cause a thing to be
done that will endure to the world's end." Then he bade Utherpendragon, as
he called the new king, to send many ships and men to Ireland, and he
showed him stones such as seemed far too large and heavy to bring, but he
placed them by his magic art upon the boats and bore them to England; and
he devised means to transport them and to set them on end, "for they shall
seem fairer so than if they were lying." And there they are to this day.
This was the way in which Merlin would sometimes obtain the favor and
admiration of young ladies. There was a maiden of twelve named Nimiane or
Vivian, the daughter of King Dionas, and Merlin changed himself into the
appearance of "a fair young squire," that he might talk with her beside a
fountain, described in the legends as "a well, whereof the springs were
fair and the water clear and the gravel so fair that it seemed of fine
silver." By degrees he made acquaintance with the child, who told him who
she was, adding, "And what are you, fair, sweet friend?" "Damsel," said
Merlin, "I am a travelling squire, seeking for my master, who has taught
me wonderful things." "And what master is that?" she asked. "It is one,"
he said, "who has taught me so much that I could here erect for you a
castle, and I could make many people outside to attack it and inside to
defend it; nay, I could go upon this water and not wet my feet, and I
could make a river where water had never been."
"These are strange feats," said the maiden, "and I wish that I could thus
disport myself." "I can do yet greater things," said Merlin, "and no one
can devise anything which I cannot do, and I can also make it to endure
forever." "Indeed," said the girl, "I would always love you if you could
show me some such wonders." "For your love," he answered, "I will show you
some of these wondrous plays, and I will ask no more of you." Then Merlin
turned and described a circle with a wand and then came and sat by her
again at the fountain. At noon she saw coming out of the forest many
ladies and knights and squires, holding each other by the hand and singing
in the greatest joy; then came men with timbrels and tabours and dancing,
so that one could not tell one-fourth part of the sports that went on.
Then Merlin caused an orchard to grow, with all manner of fruit and
flowers; and the maiden cared for nothing but to listen to their singing,
"Truly love begins in joy, but ends in grief." The festival continued from
mid-day to even-song; and King Dionas and his courtiers came out to see
it, and marvelled whence these strange people came. Then when the carols
were ended, the ladies and maidens sat down on the green grass and fresh
flowers, and the squires set up a game of tilting called quintain upon the
meadows and played till even-song; and then Merlin came to the damsel and
asked if he had done what he promised for her. "Fair, sweet friend," said
she, "you have done so much that I am all yours." "Let me teach you," he
answered, "and I will show you many wonders that no woman ever learned so
Merlin and this young damsel always remained friends, and he taught her
many wonderful arts, one of which was (this we must regret) a spell by
which she might put her parents to sleep whenever he visited her; while
another lesson was (this being more unexceptionable) in the use of three
words, by saying which she might at any time keep at a distance any men
who tried to molest her. He stayed eight days near her, and in those days
taught her many of the most "wonderful things that any mortal heart could
think of, things past and things that were done and said, and a part of
what was to come; and she put them in writing, and then Merlin departed
from her and came to Benoyk, where the king, Arthur, rested, so that glad
were they when they saw Merlin."
The relations between Merlin and Arthur are unlike those ever held
towards a king even by an enchanter in any legend. Even in Homer there is
no one described, except the gods, as having such authority over a ruler.
Merlin came and went as he pleased and under any form he might please. He
foretold the result of a battle, ordered up troops, brought aid from a
distance. He rebuked the bravest knights for cowardice; as when Ban, Bors,
and Gawain had concealed themselves behind some bushes during a fight. "Is
this," he said to King Arthur and Sir Bors, "the war and the help that you
do to your friends who have put themselves in adventure of death in many a
need, and ye come hither to hide for cowardice." Then the legend says,
"When the king understood the words of Merlin, he bowed his head for
shame," and the other knights acknowledged their fault. Then Merlin took
the dragon banner which he had given them and said that he would bear it
himself; "for the banner of a king," he said, "should not be hid in
battle,—but borne in the foremost front." Then Merlin rode forth and
cried with a loud voice, "Now shall be shown who is a knight." And the
knights, seeing Merlin, exclaimed that he was "a full noble man"; and
"without fail," says the legend, "he was full of marvellous powers and
strength of body and great and long stature; but brown he was and lean and
rough of hair." Then he rode in among the enemy on a great black horse;
and the golden dragon which he had made and had attached to the banner
gave out from its throat such a flaming fire that the air was black with
its smoke; and all King Arthur's men began to fight again more stoutly,
and Arthur himself held the bridle reins in his left hand, and so wielded
his sword with his right as to slay two hundred men.
There was no end to Merlin's disguises—sometimes as an old man,
sometimes as a boy or a dwarf, then as a woman, then as an ignorant clown;
—but the legends always give him some object to accomplish, some work to
do, and there was always a certain dignity about him, even when helping
King Arthur, as he sometimes did, to do wrong things. His fame extended
over all Britain, and also through Brittany, now a part of France, where
the same poetic legends extended. This, for instance, is a very old Breton
song about him:—
MERLIN THE DIVINER
Merlin! Merlin! where art thou going
So early in the day, with thy black dog?
Oi! oi! oi! oi! oi! oi! oi! oi! oi! oi! oi!
Oi! oi! oi! oi! oi!
I have come here to search the way,
To find the red egg;
The red egg of the marine serpent,
By the seaside, in the hollow of the stone.
I am going to seek in the valley
The green water-cress, and the golden grass,
And the top branch of the oak,
In the wood by the side of the fountain.
Merlin! Merlin! retrace your steps;
Leave the branch on the oak,
And the green water-cress in the valley,
As well as the golden grass;
And leave the red egg of the marine serpent
In the foam by the hollow of the stone.
Merlin! Merlin! retrace thy steps;
There is no diviner but God.
Merlin was supposed to know the past, the present, and the future, and to
be able to assume the form of any animal, and even that of a
menhir, or huge standing stone. Before history began he ruled in
Britain, then a delightful island of flowery meadows. His subjects were
"small people" (fairies), and their lives were a continued festival of
singing, playing, and enjoyment. The sage ruled them as a father, his
familiar servant being a tame wolf. He also possessed a kingdom, beneath
the waves, where everything was beautiful, the inhabitants being charming
little beings, with waves of long, fair hair falling on their shoulders in
curls. Fruits and milk composed the food of all, meat and fish being held
in abhorrence. The only want felt was of the full light of the sun, which,
coming to them through the water, was but faint, and cast no shadow.
Here was the famous workshop where Merlin forged the enchanted sword so
celebrated by the bards, and where the stones were found by which alone
the sword could be sharpened. Three British heroes were fated to wield
this blade in turn; viz., Lemenisk the leaper (Leim, meaning leap),
Utherpendragon, and his son King Arthur. By orders of this last hero, when
mortally wounded, it was flung into the sea, where it will remain till he
returns to restore the rule of his country to the faithful British race.
The bard once amused and puzzled the court by entering the hall as a
blind boy led by a greyhound, playing on his harp, and demanding as
recompense to be allowed to carry the king's banner in an approaching
battle. Being refused on account of his blindness he vanished, and the
king of Brittany mentioned his suspicions that this was one of Merlin's
elfin tricks. Arthur was disturbed, for he had promised to give the child
anything except his honor, his kingdom, his wife, and his sword. However,
while he continued to fret, there entered the hall a poor child about
eight years old, with shaved head, features of livid tint, eyes of light
gray, barefooted, barelegged, and a whip knotted over his shoulders in the
manner affected by horseboys. Speaking and looking like an idiot, he asked
the king's permission to bear the royal ensign in the approaching battle
with the giant Rion. The courtiers laughed, but Arthur, suspecting a new
joke on Merlin's part, granted the demand, and then Merlin stood in his
own proper person before the company.
He also seems to have taught people many things in real science,
especially the women, who were in those days more studious than the men,
or at least had less leisure. For instance, the legend says of Morgan le
fay (or la fée), King Arthur's sister, "she was a noble clergesse (meaning
that she could read and write, like the clergy), and of astronomy could
she enough, for Merlin had her taught, and she learned much of egromancy
(magic or necromancy); and the best work-woman she was with her hands that
any man knew in any land, and she had the fairest head and the fairest
hands under heaven, and shoulders well-shapen; and she had fair eloquence
and full debonair she was, as long as she was in her right wit; and when
she was wroth with any man, she was evil to meet." This lady was one of
Merlin's pupils, but the one whom he loved most and instructed the most
was Nimiane or Vivian, already mentioned, who seems to have been to him
rather a beloved younger sister than anything else, and he taught her so
much that "at last he might hold himself a fool," the legend says, "and
ever she inquired of his cunning and his mysteries, each thing by itself,
and he let her know all, and she wrote all that he said, as she was well
learned in clergie (reading and writing), and learned lightly all that
Merlin taught her; and when they parted, each of them commended the other
to God full tenderly."
The form of the enchanter Merlin disappeared from view, at last—for the
legends do not admit that his life ever ended—across the sea whence he
The poet Tennyson, to be sure, describes Nimiane or Vivian—the Lady of
the Lake—as a wicked enchantress who persuaded Merlin to betray his
secrets to her, and then shut him up in an oak tree forever. But other
legends seem to show that Tennyson does great injustice to the Lady of the
Lake, that she really loved Merlin even in his age, and therefore
persuaded him to show her how to make a tower without walls,—that they
might dwell there together in peace, and address each other only as
Brother and Sister. When he had told her, he fell asleep with his head in
her lap, and she wove a spell nine times around his head, and the tower
became the strongest in the world. Some of the many legends place this
tower in the forest of Broceliande; while others transport it afar to a
magic island, where Merlin dwells with his nine bards, and where Vivian
alone can come or go through the magic walls. Some legends describe it as
an enclosure "neither of iron nor steel nor timber nor of stone, but of
the air, without any other thing but enchantment, so strong that it may
never be undone while the world endureth." Here dwells Merlin, it is said,
with nine favorite bards who took with them the thirteen treasures of
England. These treasures are said to have been:—
1. A sword; if any man drew it except the owner, it burst into a flame
from the cross to the point. All who asked it received it; but because of
this peculiarity all shunned it.
2. A basket; if food for one man were put into it, when opened it would
be found to contain food for one hundred.
3. A horn; what liquor soever was desired was found therein.
4. A chariot; whoever sat in it would be immediately wheresoever he wished.
5. A halter, which was in a staple below the feet of a bed; and whatever
horse one wished for in it, he would find it there.
6. A knife, which would serve four-and twenty men at meat all at once.
7. A caldron; if meat were put into it to boil for a coward, it would
never be boiled; but if meat were put in it for a brave man, it would be
8. A whetstone; if the sword of a brave man were sharpened thereon, and
any one were wounded therewith, he would be sure to die; but if it were
that of a coward that was sharpened on it, he would be none the worse.
9. A garment; if a man of gentle birth put it on, it suited him well; but
if a churl, it would not fit him.
10, 11. A pan and a platter; whatever food was required was found therein.
12. A chessboard; when the men were placed upon it, they would play of
themselves. The chessboard was of gold, and the men of silver.
13. The mantle of Arthur; whosoever was beneath it could see everything,
while no one could see him.
It is towards this tower, some legends say, that Merlin was last seen by
some Irish monks, sailing away westward, with a maiden, in a boat of
crystal, beneath a sunset sky.
In later years Merlin was known mainly by a series of remarkable
prophecies which were attributed to him and were often said to be
fulfilled by actual events in history. Thus one of the many places where
Merlin's grave was said to be was Drummelzion in Tweeddale, Scotland. On
the east side of the churchyard a brook called the Pansayl falls into the
Tweed, and there was this prophecy as to their union:—
"When Tweed and Pansayl join at Merlin's grave,
Scotland and England shall one monarch have."
Sir Walter Scott tells us, in his "Border Minstrelsy," that on the day of
the coronation of James VI. of Scotland the Tweed accordingly overflowed
and joined the Pansayl at the prophet's grave. It was also claimed by one
of the witnesses at the trial of Jeanne d'Arc, that there was a prediction
by Merlin that France would be saved by a peasant girl from Lorraine.
These prophesies have been often reprinted, and have been translated into
different languages, and there was published in London, in 1641, "The Life
of Merlin, surnamed Ambrosius, His Prophesies and Predictions interpreted,
and their Truth made Good by our English Annals." Another book was also
published in London, in 1683, called "Merlin revived in a Discourse of
Prophesies, Predictions, and their Remarkable Accomplishments."