The origins and the nature of Merlin’s powers are obscure in the Morte and Malory seems to intentionally avoid any deeper probing of its roots. He demonstrates his ability of rapid movement resembling teleportation when he travels great distances in an instant: “With that Merlin vanished away, and came to King Arthur”39 and “whereof they had great marvel, that man on earth might speed so soon, and go and come,”40 but there is no explanation given nor is there any discussion among the characters. He also possesses the power of shape-shifting: “Right so came by him Merlin like a child of fourteen year of age ... and came again in the likeness of an old man of fourscore year of age.”41 His subtle crafts allow him a little game-playing with the characters, and he often conceals his intentions and tests the knights. When Merlin takes Balin’s
sword after his funeral and sets it in an enchanted pommel that shall be handled only by Lancelot or Galahad, he bids a knight to handle it and laughs at his unsuccessful attempt.42 On another occasion he casts a spell on King Pellinor that puts him to sleep43 and later uses another enchantment to prevent Pellinor from seeing Arthur while they pass around him.44
For his diverse abilities he appears sometimes as a powerful practitioner of natural magic, sometimes as an enchanter using marvellous technologies and sometimes as a divine messenger for his striking knowledge of the future which seems to be authorised by God himself: “‘ ... but God will have his will.’”45 His power of divination and the foreknowledge he possesses are the core of his powers and the most characteristic of his abilities.
He appears on the scene naturally without any previous discussion when Uther Pendragon lusts for beautiful Lady Igraine. Uther’s despair when he cannot have her inspires one of his men to seek Merlin who shall provide “remedy” for Uther’s state. This episode is a perfect example of the main characteristics of the medieval narrative theme of “Priest vs. Magician”. Thomas McAlindon, while theorizing about magic in medieval narrative, lists some principal forms and characteristics of this theme and states:
The idea that magic is one of chastity’s worst enemies finds its
most obvious expression in the familiar narrative pattern where
a Christian woman and asks a magician to help him to satisfy his
desires. The chaste Christian is miraculously saved from her
King Uther serves as an example of this lusty (pagan) man and his desire for beautiful Igraine cannot be fulfilled because she is “a passing good woman, and would not assent unto the king.”47 Therefore he invites the idea of Merlin helping him to get his own way. He welcomes the help of magic because it represents “man’s autonomous power of creating desired ends,”48 which characteristic is one of the most powerful enticements for the exploitation of magic. It gives a person an idea of escaping the divine power of destiny. The reason for the Church to oppose such activities becomes obvious once one realizes that it might be viewed as an act of defying God and opposing his will.
“ ... ‘if king Uther will well reward me, and be sworn unto me to fulfil my desire, that shall be his honour and profit more than mine; for I shall cause him to have all his desire.’”49 Merlin offers his services to the king for a price arousing wonder and suspicion: “‘The first night that ye shall lie by Igraine ye shall get a child on her, and when that is borne, [that] it shall be delivered to me for to nourish.’”50 This is a borderline characteristic of the “magician”, because medieval churchmen were, at least in principle, supposed to provide guidance, even some sort of leadership, to help and exercise public service for free and without any veil of secrecy and of course without use of magic. This is reflected in the Morte on many occasions when the hero is in distress and seeks help or shelter, the place he directs his steps toward is usually a church, abbey or hermitage. In contrast everything marginal and foreign, everything swathed in mystery, aroused deep suspicion and therefore the magician working in private, serving only his own ends and his clients was often seen as dangerous. Magicians were not expected to set any moral example or function as leaders, and the private and obscure character of their work and life ignited both fear and marvel. Therefore “magicians in many if not most cultures are feared and distrusted even by those who employ them, and there is little reason for surprise if officialdom casts a suspicious eye on such practitioners.”51 Then the suspicion that their practices involve demon invocation might easily arise. And such a suspicion was the main reason for condemnation of magical practices in medieval society. “When they branded rituals as magical, it was because they saw these rites as relying on demonic causality.”52 Therefore Merlin’s character arouses biased feelings among the other characters and some of them are aware of the possibility of the demonic intervention which is reflected upon their conduct: “‘Beware’ said the other knight, ‘of Merlin, for he knoweth all things by the devil’s craft.’”53 He is sought for his powers by the king himself and he serves as the head advisor to the crown, but those very same powers make him a suspicious, enigmatic character with unclear intentions.
Some of the kings had marvel of Merlin’s words, and deemed
To appropriately conclude the pattern presented by McAlindon, it has to be described how lady Igraine receives the rescue from the defiling act of adulterous intercourse. Here it is not in terms of preventing the events, but more in the act when Uther marries her and reveals to her the true nature of her baby’s conception. So even though it does not change the simple facts, she is now married to the father of her child and therefore redeeming the previous events. “Then the queen made great joy when she knew who was the father of her child.”55 And Merlin finishes this consecration when he proves Arthur “no bastard.”56
Though the pact with a sorcerer alone would seem as a classic example of condemned witchcraft, the fact that it produced the prophesised greatest king of England provides a redemption; the intention (of Merlin) here justifies the means.
So where the theory normally says that “In this duel there is a clear antithesis between miracle and magic, prophecy and divination, the beneficent wonders of Providence and the silly, immoral or fraudulent marvels of the devil’s henchmen,”57 there the case of Merlin proves to be much more complicated and biased. Because, as McAlindon also states, the pact stories similar to the one of Merlin and Uther, traditionally served as a demonstration of the Christian rejection of fatalism.58 The magician creates an illusion of the inescapability of one’s doom which eventually leads to the hero’s voluntary subjugation to the false claims. This traditional view of the magicians as sinister procurers of despair raises doubts about Merlin’s authority as God’s servant. But the circumstances of his pact with Uther absolves him from the worst accusations – even though his claim is odd he does not deceit Uther and takes only what they both agreed on and his actions secure the stability of the realm for the future years.
The political motivation might contribute to the overall affirmative attitude towards his character. In her discussion about prohibitions and laws concerning witchcraft, Corinne Saunders states that “Political or religious implications considerably increased the severity with which the practice of magic was treated” and she also describes a case of a certain hermit who was hanged in 1213 for prophesying the end of King John’s reign.59 This association with historical experience might have contributed to the popularity of Malory’s work in the 15th century when various accusations motivated by political reasons were common. And also the social taboo of divination was certainly of great interest to the readers. “Attempts to foretell the future could threaten social and religious order, and call into question divine authority.”60 Merlin as the great prophet would certainly faced grave danger as a real person in the medieval society. But on the pages of the Morte he was allowed to attract positive interest. And because his intentions were good his actions were justified enough to allow the audience to see him as a positive character.
No matter how many enemies assailed him, “ ... Arthur overcame them all, for the most part the days of his life he was ruled much by the counsel of Merlin.”61
Because Merlin intended to help the king, he was tolerated and appreciated. Arthur is well aware of Merlin’s contribution: “‘Ye know well that he hath done much for me, and he knoweth many things.’”62 Merlin seems to be indispensable on many occasions, directing the steps of the king and his knights. He often serves as a moral guide for the knights of Arthur’s realm and an important unifying element of the narrative. He intervenes on many occasions, advising on success or warning from danger. He sometimes dramatically enters the action when for example he gives Balin a horse63 or places Balin’s sword in a great marble stone to await Galahad.64 Sometimes his character seems crucial for the further development of the story.
All that did Merlin, for he knew well that and King Lot had been with his body there at the first battle, King Arthur had been slain, and all his people destroyed.65
So despite the threatening possibility of magic being connected with demons, Merlin is globally perceived as a character with positive intentions and therefore accepted as belonging on the side of “the good”.
In this sense his power of divination seems to be legitimate and authorised by God himself. This is further reflected upon the nature and treatment of his prophecies and his presenting of God´s will: “ ... ‘it is time to say ‘Ho!’ for God is wroth with thee.’”66 He resembles a divine messenger who has the power of knowledge but who does not intend (or is not allowed) to intervene. This notion corresponds with the usual approach of the authorities toward the probing of divine plans that can be summarized as “study was licit, intervention was not.”67 Therefore especially astrology was allowed as long as one did not cross a crucial boundary. The ultimate manifestation of the subordination to destiny is Merlin's prediction of his own death: “So on a time he told King Arthur that he should not dure long, but for all his crafts he should be put in the earth quick.” As a reader might question this logic, Arthur does too: “Ah, since ye know of your adventure, purvey for it, and put away by your crafts that misadventure,” but Merlin responds with a fatalistic “‘Nay, it will not be,”68 and thus renders magic a subordinate instance to God’s will. He becomes the ‘victim’ of his own crafts. This fact further supports the argument that Merlin is God’s servant and not involved with the Devil, because he accepts his “shameful death”69 with unavoidable certainty instead of active attempt to prevent this destiny, which he would certainly do if he were a malevolent sorcerer with no regard for God’s will.
Even though the methods of enacting God’s will are facilitated by magic, the final result is positive. Merlin confers the shape-shifting ability on Uther, allowing his non-ethical conduct but the result is the birth of Arthur whose person is definitely presented as approved by God and whose goodness is undisputed. “The idea that Merlin enacts divine providence in setting Arthur on the throne is underlined by an emphasis on the observation of Christian ritual.”70 Uther swears upon “the four Evangelists,”71 Merlin requires Arthur to be christened by a ‘holy man’,72 the sword in an anvil that can only be pulled out by the “rightwise king born of all England” appears in London on Christmas because Merlin predicts that Jesus will show a miracle to reveal the new king,73 and Uther’s death, upon which he confirms Arthur’s right to the throne, is presented as God’s will: “‘There is no other remedy, but God will have his will’.”74 Therefore they “all see that it is God’s will that [Arthur] shall be [their] king.”75
The same pattern can be traced in the story of Galahad’s conception.76 Sir Lancelot on his adventures comes to the Castle of Corbin ruled by King Pelles. Instead of Merlin the scene is here dominated by an enchantress Brisen, who offers King Pelles her services. She tricks Lancelot into coming to the Castle of Case where he hopes to be united with Guinevere, but where instead he is offered enchanted wine and in combination with other subtle crafts of Brisen he believes to sleep with Guinevere who is in fact Lady Elaine, King Pelles’s daughter. This whole scheme is orchestrated on Pelles’s wish because he
knew well that Sir Launcelot should get a child upon his daughter, the which should be named Sir Galahad, the good knight, by whom all the foreign country should be brought out of danger, and by him the Holy Grail should be achieved.77
But because of his love for Guinevere, Elaine had to be disguised as her to fulfil the prophecy. Once again magic was used as an essential mean of fulfilment of the destiny. The whole story is also accompanied by various instances of divine approval. For instance King Pelles is said to be in Joseph of Arimathea’s bloodline, strongly connecting himself and Galahad especially with a character associated with the Holy Grail in the Christian tradition. Also upon Lancelot’s coming to Corbin, there comes a dove with a golden censer and with her a beautiful girl appears holding the Holy Grail and a marvellous feast is set in front of them.78 The same scene repeats when Sir Bors visits Corbin and sees Galahad, and the girl with the Grail speaks to him:
‘Wit you well, Sir Bors, that this child is Galahad, that shall sit in the Siege Perilous, and achieve the Sangrail, and he shall be much better than ever was Sir Launcelot du Lake, that is his own father.’79
This revelation has a miraculous potential and the sudden appearance and disappearance seems in this context more divine that magical. Therefore this episode is yet another example of cooperation of magic and destiny. The prophecies can only be fulfilled with the aid of magic.
Merlin prophesies the greatness of Arthur and other knights on one hand but on the other he also seals their endings in less favourable prophecies that often include treachery and misfortune. Therefore the majority of Merlin’s prophecies carry a notion of fatalism, because they seem to come true no matter what, with the good parts as well as the bad ones. He regrets the unfortunate development but does not provide even the slightest suggestion that there might be another way. These prophecies are often preceded by a seemingly just reason for the destiny falling upon the characters. Not only Balin’s close death,80 but also his great misfortune on the journey is prophesised by Merlin. When Balin is not able to prevent the death of a certain lady, Merlin comes as a sad executioner and reveals the forthcoming punishment:
Because of the death of that lady thou shall strike a stroke most dolorous that ever man struck, except the stroke of Our Lord, for thou shalt hurt the truest knight and the man of most worship that now liveth, and through that stroke three kingdoms shall be in great poverty, misery and wretchedness twelve year, and the knight shall not be whole of that wound for many years.81
Despite the fatalistic character of the prophecies, people do not give up the chance to affect the course of their lives. Arthur tries to avoid his own death by killing the babies born in May “for Merlin told King Arthur that he that should destroy him should be born in May-day.”82 But almost as a proof of the inescapability of God’s will Mordred miraculously survives. But the lords of Arthur’s country are very disturbed and angry because their children were slaughtered in vain. The danger of foreknowledge becomes obvious because Arthur acts only because Merlin tells him that: “‘Ye have done a thing late that God is displeased with you, for ye have lain by your sister, and on her ye have gotten a child that shall destroy you and all the knights of your realm.’”83
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the same fear of impending death makes Gawain accept the magic girdle as the only possible salvation – a decision that brings more harm than benefit, as Arthur’s attempt to save himself does.
On another occasion Merlin scolds King Pellinore because he refused help to lady Elaine who then killed herself. “And that penance that God hath ordained you for that deed, that he that you shall most trust to of any man alive, he shall leave you there ye shall be slain.”84 Merlin again presents God’s punishment for violating knightly rules and his prophecy is fulfilled as any other. King Pellinore reacts to Merlin’s words with a hypothesis that such a prophecy can be prevented: “Me forthinketh, that this shall me betide, but God may fordo well destiny.”85 This episode echoes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where the enactment of free will is what in fact saves Gawain from terrible death.86 The act of defiance epitomizes the Christian opposition toward fatalism. Pellinore accepts the possibility of a punishment awaiting him but suggests that God has the power to change what was predicted. Hence he probably does not believe Merlin to such an extent that he would accept his words as equal to God’s. The predicted destiny is nevertheless fulfilled. But still, the possibility of an untruthful authorization of the prophecies remains among the ambiguities encompassing Merlin’s character.
In the same manner of defiance Arthur ignores Merlin’s warning that Lancelot will love Guinevere “and she him again”87 and in spite of the usual trust in Merlin’s powers he marries her anyway.
The trust that it will be God who will have the final word in deciding human fate despite any prophecy is also characterized by Balin. His response to every warning and prediction is always the same: “‘I shall take the adventure ... that God will ordain me.’”88 The whole story of Balin and Balan is shadowed by misfortune and tragic prophecies, and the fulfilment of these dark predictions shows the inevitability of destiny.
Despite the fact that Merlin is presented as a wise man and even functions as a moral guide and always comes to announce God’s punishment for rash actions of the knights, he is eventually unable to counter with his own desires and lusts and fulfils the tragic prophecy about his own end. He falls in love with Nimue and “he [is] assotted upon her, that he [may] not be from her.”89 She learns the magic craft from him but is unable to be rid of him as he follows her everywhere, and thus uses these powers to trap him under an enchanted stone where she leaves him.90 Therefore in contrast with his great powers, his supernatural origin and his important role in the lives of many Arthurian heroes, he is defeated by profoundly human emotions, and unable to control his sexual desire, he follows the path of his destiny to his early grave.
But of course the destiny does not disappear with Merlin. The whole narrative is filled with anonymous prophecies and adventures awaiting each hero. Before Lancelot encounters a dragon he reads letters inscribed on a tomb prophesying his killing of the dragon and fathering of Galahad:
HERE SHALL COME A LEOPARD OF KING´S BLOOD, AND HE SHALL SLAY THIS SERPENT, AND THIS LEOPARD SHALL ENGENDER A LION IN THIS FOREIGN COUNTRY, THE WHICH LION SHALL PASS ALL OTHERS.91
This kind of prophetic inscription suggest some supernatural or divine intervention. The prophecy is always intended for a particular person and awaits the moment the knight takes up the adventure and finds his destiny. The same pattern applies for oral prophecies transmitted from generation to generation or created within the time span of the book (although time and space is rather relative in romantic fiction) which are also intended for particular knight and often concern some malevolent powers that has to be defeated by a chivalrous hero of great virtues.
The entire narrative is veiled with a sense of predestined action, whether it is spoken aloud in the form of prophecy or it is only hinted in the atmosphere and circumstances of a situation, the reader can sense a supernatural orchestration on almost every page. The situation when Sir Gawain and his two companions find three ladies waiting for them in the middle of the forest with an adventure prepared for each of them92 is only a sample of higher narrative structure that interconnects all the episodes into one predestined adventure.