Merlin

A book about magic and spells doesn't seem complete without a discussion of Merlin, the most enigmatic figure in magical lore. Like most legendary figures, Merlin, Arthur, and the rest of the colorful cast of Camelot were probably a blend of fact and fiction. Few other legends, however, have captured the collective imagination in quite the way this one has.

In the romantic version of Merlin's life, his mother was raped by an incubus and sequestered in a tower for the duration of her pregnancy. When Merlin was born, he was covered completely in thick, black hair. His mother supposedly pleaded with the midwives to let him be baptized immediately and named for his maternal grandfather, Merlin (or Mellin). This baptism apparently negated the evil influence of his nonphysical father, from whom he inherited his gift of prophecy and magical powers.

From the moment he drew his first breath, Merlin was precocious, a prodigy of unimagined talent. At the age of eighteen months, speaking in full sentences, he assured his mother that she wouldn't be burned at the stake because of him. When the judge at her trial condemned her for not naming Merlin's father, Merlin himself argued with the judge, claiming that he knew his father was an incubus. But God, he said, had granted safety to his mother by giving Merlin himself the ability to see the future. His mother was subsequently released into the custody of her confessor and became a nun.

Merlin's association with Arthur began even before Arthur's birth, when Merlin prophesied that Arthur would rise to power and become Britain's greatest leader. He served as Arthur's tutor, arranged for the sword-in-the-stone contest that confirmed Arthur's noble bloodline, and convinced the mystical Lady of the Lake to present King Arthur with Excalibur, the legendary magical sword. Some versions of the legend also say that Merlin created the Round Table and advised Arthur throughout his reign in Camelot.

“Merlin was the great ‘guru’ of the Arthurian world. He had the whole program in mind.” — Joseph Campbell, Transformations of Myth Through Time

Even the death of Merlin is shrouded in mystery. One account tells that when Arthur was wounded in his last battle at Camlann, Merlin accompanied him to the Isle of Avalon to heal his wounds. There the magician supposedly fell so deeply in love with the Lady of the Lake that he taught her all his magic. She became so powerful that Merlin became no match for her and she imprisoned him in a crystal cave to prevent him from enslaving her.

If Merlin did die, where is he buried? No one seems to know, a fitting end to such a legendary figure. One popular belief about Merlin is that he never died — that he is, in fact, alive and well and living in the forest of Brocelinade. In this account, Merlin looks like a young man because he knows the secret of the elixir of life. He lives with the beautiful fairy, Vivien, the legendary Lady of the Lake. Supposedly the enchanted forest of Broceliande still exists, but it is only visible to those who believe in magic.

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