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Merlin

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 30 June 2005

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the legendary wizard Merlin. He was sired by an incubus and born of a virgin; he was a prophet, a shape-shifter, a king-maker and a mad man of the woods. Before Gandalf there was Merlin: the power behind Arthur and a literary sensation for centuries. In a literary career spanning 1500 years, Merlin, or originally Myrddin, put the sword in the stone, built Stonehenge, knew the truth behind the Holy Grail and discovered the Elixir of Life. "Beware Merlin for he knows all things by the devil's craft" say the poisoners in Malory's Morte D'Arthur; but he is also on the side of the good and is almost Christ-like in some of the versions of his tale, and his prophesies were pored over by the medieval Church.

Who was Merlinus Ambrosius, as he is sometimes known? Where does his legend spring from and how has it been appropriated and adapted over time?

With Juliette Wood, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Welsh at Cardiff University, Stephen Knight, Distinguished Research Professor in English Literature at Cardiff University, Peter Forshaw, Lecturer in Renaissance Philosophies at Birkbeck, University of London.

  • Further Reading

    ORIGINAL WORKS:

    Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe, Penguin, London, 1966, and many reprints
    (The text that creates Merlin from varied Welsh sources and links him to Arthur)

    Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, ed. and trans. Basil Clare, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1971
    (The rare medieval Latin recreation of the Welsh Myrddin/Merlin tradition)

    Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D'Arthur, Caxton, London, 1485, ed. Helen Cooper, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998
    (The classic and very influential English version of the `Merlin in service of Arthur’ – but not for long - tradition)

    Thomas Heywood, The Life of Merlin, Surnamed Ambrosius, His Prophecies and Predictions Interpreted, Okes, London, 1641
    (Merlin’s fame frames a digest of chronicles to glorify English royalty – up to Charles I)

    Alfred Tennyson, `Merlin and Vivien’; in The Idylls of the King, Macmillan, London, 1859 (and many reprints)
    (The modern recreation of the `Merlin in service of Arthur’ – but not for long - tradition, with special emphasis on his sexual fallibility)

    Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, Macmillan, London, 1889 (and many reprints)
    (Merlin, Arthur’s supporter, survives through the whole text, but as a hostile figure to the modernising Yankee)

    T.H.White, The Once and Future King, Collins, London, 1954
    (Merlin is Arthur’s wise supporter throughout the whole story)

  • .

    ANTHOLOGIES:

    Peter Goodrich, ed., The Romance of Merlin, Garland, New York, 1990
    (A good selection of texts from the earliest times to the twentieth century, including selections from the elusive French medieval texts, with scholarly introductions)

    R.J.Stewart and John Matthews, Merlin Through the Ages: A Chronological Anthology and Source Book, Blandford, London, 1995
    (An interesting selection from the earliest times to the present, with some emphasis towards magic and mystery)


    SCHOLARSHIP AND CRITICISM:

    A.O.H.Jarman, `The Merlin Legend and the Welsh Tradition of Prophecy’ in R.Bromwich etc ed., The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1991, pp. 117-145.
    (The classic scholarly analysis of the early Welsh Myrddin/Merlin material)

    N.Tolstoy, The Quest for Merlin, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1985
    (A scholarly though sometimes fanciful exploration of the early tradition: includes translations of the early Welsh Myrddin/Merlin poems)

    Jean Markale, Merlin L’Enchanteur, ou L’Eternelle Quête Magique, Retz, Paris, 1981
    (A study by a major French specialist on Celtic medieval myth, with a philosophical-anthropological emphasis)

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