Designing From Bones ~ Unearthing Merlin’s Bones

Vivian and Merlin; painting by Gustave Dore, 19th-century, France.

Son of woman. Spawn of hell. Blessed with inner sight. Cursed with demonic unlife. One trades the things one loves to gain the powers one desires. His names are many. His deeds – more. From mad woods to the round tables of kings he is ever following the future. After the death of beloved Arthur, desire led him to new lands and new loves. But, the lust for knowledge was ever greater in him than the lust of flesh. He abandoned his love and only progeny to climb the sacred tree of Barenton, seeking knowledge meant only for the gods. And there the mists consumed Merlin, and he was seen no more in the realm of Man. (Quote: Gene Lempp)

Merlin Ambrosius

Most of us have heard tales of Merlin. Wizard. Advisor to King Arthur. Insipid tyrant against time travelers. Lies. Fabrications of a fabrication.

When considering a legendary fictional character, the only thing that truly matters is the concept its original creator imbued it with. The archetypical root. Everything after that, is a re-imagining by a fiction writer – and, as fiction writers, we are not obliged to include anything other than the original concept in our own re-imaginings. With me so far. Excellent (smiles).

The Origin of Merlin

Merlin is the creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. Geoffrey based, and liberally “borrowed” material from, the legends of two historical figures to create the prophet. Yes, I said prophet, because Merlin was not born a wizard.

You know the crazy guy in some end-of-the-world movies that runs around chanting doom and delivering dark prophecies? Well, that, is what the original Merlin was as imagined by Geoffrey. Let’s look at the two figures he merged to create his prophet of damnation.

The first was Myrddin Wyllit, a bard driven mad after living through a horrific battle. He wandered the woods of central England in the 6th century prophesying and living with beasts. One final thing, Myrddin translated into old English is Merlin.

The second was a legendary Roman British warlord named Ambrosius Aurelianus – of noble birth he organized the survivors of a Saxon invasion and gave the Britons their first victory. And the prophets full name comes together as “Myrddin” Ambrosius.

Merlin’s Bones

Four character traits stand out in Geoffrey’s creation: Hero. Warlord. Prophet. Insane. And there is the archetype. Everything else about Merlin – is another fiction writers view, built off of this pattern.

However, that is not to say ignore it all. But, be sure to choose the Merlin “additions” that fit your story without compromising the core elements. Then the archetype becomes a powerful tool. And – just to say it – the type is not solely for fantasy.

Traveling with Merlin

Toss an insanely heroic warrior prophet into a starship and drop that starship into the middle of a war between two planetary cultures, neither of which is the “people” of the hero. Then have one of those peoples living on a world that used to belong to the heroes people. They don’t want to let him on their world because of trust. Their enemies are vile cannibals that would eat the hero and then hear his request. See where this is going.

Katherine Hepburn as Antiope the Amazon Warrior Princess in the 1932 The Warrior’s Husband. Not a Zulu, but she does have great greaves.

The type does not have to be male. Heroism is, and never has been, gender based. Men would be wise to remember that. Women are considered to have intuition naturally, i.e. prophecy. Read about the Zulu Amazons that were more fierce and brutal than most men can even think – Warrior. And insane, heck, who isn’t, life is simply a matter of degrees of insanity. And there is the female version of the type.

Drop a group of “random college victims” into a Haunted House style story and have their “Spirit Guide” (that always shows up in these things) be the Merlin Archetype. He isn’t the antagonist – but, he isn’t really an Ally either, more like a catalyst of damnation for all. A bit of fun, if that is your cup of tea.

Merlin’s Other Bits

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a couple of, what I consider, “lesser elements” of the type that appear in most of the Merlin stories.

  • His point of origin is generally unknown and his parentage questionable.
  • He typically is only present during times of conflict and cloaked in shadow during times of peace. Perfect for fiction writers.
  • He always has two powers: Foresight and Premonition. Everything else varies by author.
  • He has his own motivations that are often beyond normal understanding and counter to those of almost all other “actors.” Thus, the type is a natural conflict catalyst. What Vogler refers to as a Shadow.

Precise machinations, like this wood geared clock, require foresight, knowledge and planning – yet can be undone by a single well-placed stick.

The real magic of Merlin lies in the precision of his machinations and intrigues, not in bending the elements to his will.

He sees ahead. He plans to the future. He ensures his own destiny.

This archetype has been used for almost every major wizard character for the past thousand years. I wonder what else it can do?

What are your thoughts on the Merlin archetype? Can you see the potential? Plot Bunny much? What is your favorite incarnation of Merlin? I’d love to chat with you!

Peaceful Journeys.

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About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. β€œOnly the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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13 Responses to Designing From Bones ~ Unearthing Merlin’s Bones

  1. lucewriter says:

    This is excellent research and information! I lean more to CNF than fiction, but it’s good info for poetry, too. Is Dumbledore a Merlin character?

  2. You have described Merlin perfectly. His character in the movie Arthur was one of my favorites. The movie is early 80s but still worth watching. Have you seen it?

  3. Great insight into origins of Merlin and how to use him as an archetype in your stories. I’m getting ideas….

  4. Debra Eve says:

    One of my favorite mythological characters! I think Merlin as a general archetype can be useful. In Joseph Campbell’s terms, he’s the hero’s mentor or guide. I have to say Obi-Wan Kenobi is my favorite Merlin character, but the mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be old, or a man. And crazy is just one degree of separation from wise and prescient. One intriguing Merlin is the Terminator cyborg, so the archetype does have some good updates. Fascinating post, Gene!

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  6. No hero’s journey would be complete without the “human compass” that not only points the way, but enables the way beyond the knowledge and the skills of the teacher. Remember “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”? How about “The Karate Kid”? “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” Lest we start thinking cliche, we need to remember that no one was born knowing everything. Everyone needs a trainer. The trick is to imbue your trainer with the elements that make his tutelage possible and credible. Give him the credibility and he’ll teach you how to write him.

    Oh, by the way? The caption of the wooden clock photo? A well-placed stick can wreck every machine. It’s the human birthright.

    Magical post, bud. Keep up the good work.

  7. Cate Russell-Cole says:

    Great post Gene! I love putting warlord and prophet together with insane. You cannot write anything boring with that combination going.

  8. Marcia says:

    Love this research on Merlin. He’s one of my favorite characters in old films. His description, hero,warlord, prophet, insane could fit so many of today’s fiction characters…lots of ideas circling. Awesome post, again, Gene!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Luce: J.K. Rowling, in Harry Potter, says that Merlin was one of the greatest of all time and that he was placed in the House of Slytherin. She also suggests that Merlin was trained by the Patriarch Slytherin personally. As for Dumbledore – wizard, spider in the center of the web of intrigue, manages and manipulates the hero – yep, Merlin archetype for sure.

      MaryJo: I believe the movie you refer to is “Excalibur.” Excellent choice and Merlin acts as a guide to both the rise and fall of Arthur in this movie, showing both sides of the personality. Thanks πŸ™‚

      Reetta: Thanks – hope the plot bunnies are hopping for you πŸ™‚

      Debra: While I agree that Merlin is often depicted as a Mentor, I firmly believe that is only a segment of his potential. He is an often a master of intrigue without a moral compass (the ends justifies the means). Merlin can be both Mentor and Shadow. He can also turn from Mentor to Dark Mentor quite easily. Obi-Wan is a favorite for sure, old or young πŸ™‚

      John: Truly, every journey needs a compass, although if you’re using Merlin for that remember that he often has his own agenda and isn’t that concerned about playing nice. LOL on the stick – very true, my friend – humans are great with sticks πŸ™‚

      Cate: Everything is better with a dose of insane. Glad you enjoyed the post πŸ™‚

      Marcia: Merlin has always been one of my fav’s as well – what is that mysterious wizard really up to? Enjoy the swirl of ideas and thanks, my friend πŸ™‚

  9. I.J.Vern says:

    Hi Gene.

    Merlin is one of my favorites too. Quote: “Merlin is the creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century.” Who guarantees that? πŸ˜€ There is a possibility that he really existed. After all, magic existed (still exists) and we have a long way towards managing to explain many things. Since there is not enough evidence to prove pro or against, I adopt the physicists credo that everything is possible and nothing is absolute.
    After all, in every legend and myth, there is a quantity of truth, larger or smaller.

    Interesting post :D.

  10. Love this post, Gene! Great background information, analysis of the archetype and a terrific launch for lots and lots of plot bunnies! The ideas are churning . . . and the plot . . . thickens. πŸ˜€

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