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)
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.
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.
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.
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!