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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Age Of Chivalry - A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS - Chapter III. Merlin
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The Age Of Chivalry - A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS - Chapter III. Merlin Post by :mxthree Category :Nonfictions Author :Thomas Bulfinch Date :January 2011 Read :1173

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The Age Of Chivalry - A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS - Chapter III. Merlin

Merlin was the son of no mortal father, but of an Incubus, one of
a class of beings not absolutely wicked, but far from good, who
inhabit the regions of the air. Merlin's mother was a virtuous
young woman, who, on the birth of her son, intrusted him to a
priest, who hurried him to the baptismal fount, and so saved him
from sharing the lot of his father, though he retained many marks
of his unearthly origin.

At this time Vortigern reigned in Britain. He was a usurper, who
had caused the death of his sovereign, Moines, and driven the two
brothers of the late king, whose names were Uther and Pendragon,
into banishment. Vortigern, who lived in constant fear of the
return of the rightful heirs of the kingdom, began to erect a
strong tower for defence. The edifice, when brought by the workmen
to a certain height, three times fell to the ground, without any
apparent cause. The king consulted his astrologers on this
wonderful event, and learned from them that it would be necessary
to bathe the corner-stone of the foundation with the blood of a
child born without a mortal father.

In search of such an infant, Vortigern sent his messengers all
over the kingdom, and they by accident discovered Merlin, whose
lineage seemed to point him out as the individual wanted. They
took him to the king; but Merlin, young as he was, explained to
the king the absurdity of attempting to rescue the fabric by such
means, for he told him the true cause of the instability of the
tower was its being placed over the den of two immense dragons,
whose combats shook the earth above them. The king ordered his
workmen to dig beneath the tower, and when they had done so they
discovered two enormous serpents, the one white as milk the other
red as fire. The multitude looked on with amazement, till the
serpents, slowly rising from their den, and expanding their
enormous folds, began the combat, when every one fled in terror,
except Merlin, who stood by clapping his hands and cheering on the
conflict. The red dragon was slain, and the white one, gliding
through a cleft in the rock, disappeared.

These animals typified, as Merlin afterwards explained, the
invasion of Uther and Pendragon, the rightful princes, who soon
after landed with a great army. Vortigern was defeated, and
afterwards burned alive in the castle he had taken such pains to
construct. On the death of Vortigern, Pendragon ascended the
throne. Merlin became his chief adviser, and often assisted the
king by his magical arts.

"Merlin, who knew the range of all their arts,
Had built the King his havens, ships and halls."


Among other endowments, he had the power of transforming himself
into any shape he pleased. At one time he appeared as a dwarf, at
others as a damsel, a page, or even a greyhound or a stag. This
faculty he often employed for the service of the king, and
sometimes also for the diversion of the court and the sovereign.

Merlin continued to be a favorite counsellor through the reigns of
Pendragon, Uther, and Arthur, and at last disappeared from view,
and was no more found among men, through the treachery of his
mistress, Viviane, the Fairy, which happened in this wise.

Merlin, having become enamoured of the fair Viviane, the Lady of
the Lake, was weak enough to impart to her various important
secrets of his art, being impelled by fatal destiny, of which he
was at the same time fully aware. The lady, however, was not
content with his devotion, unbounded as it seems to have been, but
"cast about," the Romance tells us, how she might "detain him for
evermore," and one day addressed him in these terms: "Sir, I would
that we should make a fair place and a suitable, so contrived by
art and by cunning that it might never be undone, and that you and
I should be there in joy and solace." "My lady," said Merlin, "I
will do all this." "Sir," said she, "I would not have you do it,
but you shall teach me, and I will do it, and then it will be more
to my mind." "I grant you this," said Merlin. Then he began to
devise, and the damsel put it all in writing. And when he had
devised the whole, then had the damsel full great joy, and showed
him greater semblance of love than she had ever before made, and
they sojourned together a long while. At length it fell out that,
as they were going one day hand in hand through the forest of
Breceliande, they found a bush of white-thorn, which was laden
with flowers; and they seated themselves under the shade of this
white-thorn, upon the green grass, and Merlin laid his head upon
the damsel's lap, and fell asleep. Then the damsel rose, and made
a ring with her wimple round the bush, and round Merlin, and began
her enchantments, such as he himself had taught her; and nine
times she made the ring, and nine times she made the enchantment,
and then she went and sat down by him, and placed his head again
upon her lap.

"And a sleep
Fell upon Merlin more like death, so deep
Her finger on her lips; then Vivian rose,
And from her brown-locked head the wimple throws,
And takes it in her hand and waves it over
The blossomed thorn tree and her sleeping lover.
Nine times she waved the fluttering wimple round,
And made a little plot of magic ground."

--Matthew Arnold.

And when he awoke, and looked round him, it seemed to him that he
was enclosed in the strongest tower in the world, and laid upon a
fair bed. Then said he to the dame: "My lady, you have deceived
me, unless you abide with me, for no one hath power to unmake this
tower but you alone." She then promised she would be often there,
and in this she held her covenant with him. And Merlin never went
out of that tower where his Mistress Viviane had enclosed him; but
she entered and went out again when she listed.

After this event Merlin was never more known to hold converse with
any mortal but Viviane, except on one occasion. Arthur, having for
some time missed him from his court, sent several of his knights
in search of him, and, among the number, Sir Gawain, who met with
a very unpleasant adventure while engaged in this quest. Happening
to pass a damsel on his road, and neglecting to salute her, she
revenged herself for his incivility by transforming him into a
hideous dwarf. He was bewailing aloud his evil fortune as he went
through the forest of Breceliande, when suddenly he heard the
voice of one groaning on his right hand; and, looking that way, he
could see nothing save a kind of smoke, which seemed like air, and
through which he could not pass. Merlin then addressed him from
out the smoke, and told him by what misadventure he was imprisoned
there. "Ah, sir!" he added, "you will never see me more, and that
grieves me, but I cannot remedy it; I shall never more speak to
you, nor to any other person, save only my mistress. But do thou
hasten to King Arthur, and charge him from me to undertake,
without delay, the quest of the Sacred Graal. The knight is
already born, and has received knighthood at his hands, who is
destined to accomplish this quest." And after this he comforted
Gawain under his transformation, assuring him that he should
speedily be disenchanted; and he predicted to him that he should
find the king at Carduel, in Wales, on his return, and that all
the other knights who had been on like quest would arrive there
the same day as himself. And all this came to pass as Merlin had

Merlin is frequently introduced in the tales of chivalry, but it
is chiefly on great occasions, and at a period subsequent to his
death, or magical disappearance. In the romantic poems of Italy,
and in Spenser, Merlin is chiefly represented as a magical artist.
Spenser represents him as the artificer of the impenetrable shield
and other armor of Prince Arthur ("Faery Queene," Book I., Canto
vii.), and of a mirror, in which a damsel viewed her lover's
shade. The Fountain of Love, in the "Orlando Innamorata," is
described as his work; and in the poem of "Ariosto" we are told of
a hall adorned with prophetic paintings, which demons had executed
in a single night, under the direction of Merlin.

The following legend is from Spenser's "Faery Queene," Book III.,
Canto iii.:


"Forthwith themselves disguising both, in straunge
And base attire, that none might them bewray,
To Maridunum, that is now by chaunge
Of name Caer-Merdin called, they took their way:
There the wise Merlin whylome wont (they say)
To make his wonne, low underneath the ground
In a deep delve, far from the view of day,
That of no living wight he mote be found,
Whenso he counselled with his sprights encompassed round.

"And if thou ever happen that same way
To travel, go to see that dreadful place;
It is a hideous hollow cave (they say)
Under a rock that lies a little space
From the swift Barry, tombling down apace
Amongst the woody hills of Dynevor;
But dare not thou, I charge, in any case,
To enter into that same baleful bower,
For fear the cruel fiends should thee unwares devour.

"But standing high aloft, low lay thine ear,
And there such ghastly noise of iron chains
And brazen cauldrons thou shalt rumbling hear,
Which thousand sprites with long enduring pains
Do toss, that it will stun thy feeble brains;
And oftentimes great groans, and grievous stounds,
When too huge toil and labor them constrains;
And oftentimes loud strokes and ringing sounds
From under that deep rock most horribly rebounds.

"The cause some say is this. A little while
Before that Merlin died, he did intend
A brazen wall in compas to compile
About Caermerdin, and did it commend
Unto these sprites to bring to perfect end;
During which work the Lady of the Lake,
Whom long he loved, for him in haste did send;
Who, thereby forced his workmen to forsake,
Them bound till his return their labor not to slack.

"In the mean time, through that false lady's train,
He was surprised, and buried under beare,
He ever to his work returned again;
Nathless those fiends may not their work forbear,
So greatly his commandement they fear;
But there do toil and travail day and night,
Until that brazen wall they up do rear.
For Merlin had in magic more insight
Than ever him before or after living wight."

(Footnote: Buried under beare. Buried under something which
enclosed him like a coffin or bier.)

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