Vita Merlini

The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The life of the wizard Merlin has been a matter of interest to legions of people for over fifteen hundred years.   He was the magician who played an important part in the legends of Arthur and the knights of the roundtable.     It was his magic that allowed Uther Pendragon to bed Igraine and beget Arthur as his son.    

Merlin’s early years are steeped in mystery.    There are many surviving accounts of what could possibly have been his origins.   One of the most famous is the story of Merlin being brought to court as a boy and using his innate abilities he is able to ascertain that two dragons (one white and one red) were doing battle beneath the castle.    This story of dragons foreshadowed a great battle and made Merlin famous in the kingdom and prized as a court seer.    Some others think he was a soldier who went mad and took to the woods as a healer before becoming a great master of magic (the real Merlin who inspired the legends, so to speak).    Yet others theorize that he was from the land of Avalon where he learned his craft and became a master.   

In nearly all tellings of the legends Merlin falls in love with Vivian (or Nimue depending on the telling) who was the Lady of the Lake.    Merlin is the one who teaches Vivian magic and allows her to become the famed Lady of the Lake in the first place.   It is also Merlin’s love for Vivian that proves his downfall.

The painting at the top of this post is The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.    Burne-Jones was a great Pre-Raphaelite painter, and was inspired by the Arthurian Legends immensely in his works.     The Beguiling of Merlin shows the story of Vivian’s betrayal of Merlin.    Vivian trapped Merlin in a cave using the very magical techniques taught to her by the wizard himself.   

The downfall of Merlin by being magically trapped is also a way to explain his disappearing from the later tales within the legends.   In early tales he is the protector of Arthur, and later an advisor to the young king.   As the legends wear on Merlin makes less appearances, and there needed to be a legend to explain why, and the tale of his entrapment was used as such.

The title of this post is taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini.   This book is a biography of the wizard Merlin, with whom Geoffrey of Monmouth was fascinated.    In fact he actually wrote more about Merlin than he had about Arthur himself in The History of the Kings of England.   

Merlin has become an endless source of inspiration for centuries.    He is the archetypal wizard figure, and a wise mentor to the hero of the legends.    This figure has inspired countless characters written by many authors.   Fantasy fiction would not exist in its current form, if not for the tales of Merlin!

  • Image was found on Wikipedia and is The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.  The original painting resides at Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Further Reading/Watching

Below are listed some books and documentaries learn more about Merlin.

  • Vita Merlini by Geoffrey of Monmouth
  • Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
  • Once and Future King by T.H.White 
  • The Age of Chivalry by Thomas Bulfinch
  • The Real Merlin (1998) (documentary can be found currently on Amazon Prime Video!)