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Approaching a subject such as lore about Merlin the Magician is to engage an old, old story that has been cast in poetry, history, music, art, and literature. Through it all is woven a story that has stood the test of time. A poet, an artist, and a musician engaged in an esoteric, enlightening discussion that offers them all a transcendent vision of the human condition may all see the world and humanity's place in it in a new way that seems somehow transforming. Not having the prosaic language to quite put their insight into words, they may all resort to their own particular medium. The poet writes a poem. The artist paints a picture. The musician composes a song. The poem, the picture, and the song are totally different from one another, but they all produce similar feelings in their respective audiences because they are all based on the same, shared, transformative theme. They hope to convey an important insight.
Celtic/Gallic Druid Antiquity & Middle-Ages ( Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe Stock )
Merlin is More
Is the myth about Merlin based on a historical figure? Maybe. But probably not. Is Merlin a composite formulated from several people who lived in different geographical locations and different historical times? Maybe. Are his actions based on actual events? Maybe. Could he really produce magic simply by being Merlin? Maybe. But probably not.
Over the course of time Merlin's importance has grown far beyond the motivations, methods, and deeds of any one man. It's his story that is of eternal importance, not the historical relevance of his deeds. Sometimes religion is not enough. People need more. Sometimes scientific explanations are insufficient. Sometime mythological relevance doesn't quite satisfy. Sometimes psychological motivation doesn't do it anymore. Sometimes philosophical discussion falls short. Merlin has become the "more."
Evil future ( Anneke/ Adobe Stock )
Merlin vs Materialism
Today people live in a maddeningly literal age. Many have accepted the idea that if a character isn't historical, he or she isn't ‘real’. People have come to believe that if a historical Buddha didn't live in India 2,500 years ago, Buddhism is simply an intellectual structure. If it could be proved that a historical Jesus did not walk the paths of ancient Galilee, Christianity would cease to be deemed viable.
The good and bad sides of consumerism
Singapore's many sales could benefit the economy by increasing production and in turn increasing employment, but excessive consumerism also puts a strain on the planet's natural resources. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Satanism and Magic in the Age of the Moulin Rouge
How did some of the most illustrious names of fin de siècle French literature end up in a newspaper battle over witchcraft and evil spirits?
In January 1893, the reputable Parisian newspaper Gil Blas published a letter to the editor by best-selling author Stanislas de Guaita. In it, de Guaita denies rumors that he is a sorcerer and a Satanist, describing in lush detail what others have said about him:
[It is said that] I, personally, from a distance, have felled a number of my enemies, who have died under spellcraft, naming me as their assassin… that I dose [them] with the most subtle poisons, with an infernal art… toxic vapeurs [waft] to the nostrils of those whose faces I dislike… !
De Guaita’s letter appeared a week after the death of occultist Abbé Boullan, whom de Guaita is rumored to have killed with magic. In his defense, de Guaita accuses two fellow writers—Jules Bois and Joris-Karl Huysmans—of spreading rumors about his role in Boullan’s death and publishing them in newspapers. (De Guaita’s letter to Gil Blas is his response to these accusations.)
Goat pentagram, from La Clef de la Magie Noire by Stanislas de Guaita (1897).
In a scathing rebuttal that appears in the same issue of Gil Blas, Bois accuses de Guaita of using the controversy to hawk his new book, of lacking the intellectual rigor to discuss occultism in any depth, and of protesting suspiciously vociferously against accusations of Satanism.
“We are not political men,” he concludes of himself and Huysmans, “who fight him in some shabby war in the small presses.”
The two arranged to duel: Several of the Decadent movements’ literary luminaries, including Maurice Barrès and Gustave Guiches, were conscripted as seconds. Although the duel never took place—Huysmans published a hasty apology—the damage to de Guaita’s reputation was done.
How did some of the most illustrious names of fin de siècle French literature—particularly that of Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose novel À rebours was famously crowned “the breviary of the Decadence” by Arthur Symons—end up in a newspaper battle over witchcraft, magic, and assassination by evil spirits?
In fin de siècle Paris—the age of the Moulin Rouge, the cancan, and absinthe—the burgeoning world of scientific positivism, sensational journalism, and celebrity culture intersected with a shadowy underworld that existed both in opposition to and inextricably part of “modern Paris.” The Parisian intelligentsia’s fascination with Satanism, magic, and the occult in the waning days of the 19th century represented the apex of that era’s intellectual conflicts: science versus religion, positivism versus mysticism, commercialization versus esotericism, forward-looking optimism versus cloistered nostalgia.
For literary-minded Parisians, the world of the occult—Black Masses, spell-casting, the pagan-Christian syncretic rituals of someone like the late Abbé Boullan—embodied this contradiction. Writers like Huysmans and Bois were drawn to the esotericism of the occult—to the idea that it made them special or set them apart in an era of mass production—even as the mechanisms of that modernity (i.e., popular media including papers like Gil Blas) brought that world into mainstream consciousness for mass consumption.
* * *
The late 19th century saw a craze for books about Satanism, often purporting to be scientific or anthropological studies of Satanic cults in the present day. Bois’s 1895 Le Satanisme et la magie was a major best seller, as was de Guaita’s 1890 Au seuil du mystère, and Bataille’s 1892 Le diable au XIXe siècle.
Satanic ritual as illustrated by fin de siècle French illustrator Martin van Maële.
Other writers, like Papus (real name Gérard Encausse), sought to defend occultism against accusations of outright Satanism. In 1895, Papus published Le diable et l’occultisme, an apology for occultism as a means by which “occultists sought to bring back France’s intellectual elite to a belief in the Beyond.” Occultist or Satanic novels, too, drew public interest. Huysmans’s Là-bas, a novel set in a very slightly fictionalized Satanic underworld based on the circles of Boullan and his associates, was likewise a controversial success. Even the Catholic Church published the La revue du diable to keep churchgoers apprised of potential dangerous Satanic influence. The occult captured the national imagination it was not merely scandalous, but saleable.
As Matthew Beaumont notes in Victorian Review, writing about the analogous occult craze in London, it would be a mistake to see popular interest in Satanism and magic as merely reactionary responses to an increasing bourgeois, materialist society. Rather, Beaumont says, “It was perhaps closer to what Freud called a ‘reaction-formation,’ a compensatory response that represses its complicity with the phenomenon that it constitutes as its opposite.…” In other words, the Parisian intelligentsia’s obsession with Satanism could be seen as a manifestation of its love-hate relationship with modernity. By creating a false dichotomy between an imagined, quasi-Medieval world of occultism (in contrast to some mercantile, mechanized present), many writers were in fact able to explore and capitalize on that present’s most alluring elements.
After all, it is telling that occultists and theosophers of all stripes used the language of scientific inquiry: seeking “proof” for such spiritual and spiritualist concepts as telepathy and the afterlife. Figures like the famous neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot—whose treatment of female hysteria, by stimulating women before male audiences in an operating theater, embodies the era’s performative sensationalism—simultaneously cast themselves as scientific heroes and quasi-magicians. Charcot’s interests, for example, ranged from neurology to mesmerism.
And the worlds of the occult and “new science” often intersected. In a January 1893 article for the British Medical Journal—the same month as the de Guaita duel—British doctor Ernest Hart describes his visit to Paris to investigate some of these new sciences: mesmerism—quasi-mystic hypnotism—central among them.
Hart’s withering description of Charcot’s work—which was accepted as legitimate scientific practice at the time—also highlights how it doubled as public entertainment. Its legitimacy, like the world of Satanism, was contingent upon spectacle. Hart writes:
I am persuaded that they [Charcot’s treatments] are artificial, that I even venture to predict they will cease to exist when the succession, so to speak, of M. Charcot’s trained patients is broken, and when the habit of performance in the wards and theatre of the Salpêtrière is given up….Already there are, happily, signs of a reaction within the school of the Salpêtrière itself. I believe that journalists and the public are now excluded from these performances the grande hystèrie, with all its stages, is much more rarely seen, and there is reason to hope that it will die out now that the first excitement of this scenic display has weakened, and the performance is felt to be monotonous and wearisome.
Hart is dubious, adding, “I am disposed to think that it is rather the picturesque eccentricity of the phenomena and the striking mise-en-scène to which human automatism lends itself, which has attracted so much attention, than any real medical or physiological importance of the subject.” What is most striking about Hart’s account is how inextricable the world of Charcot—for all its showmanship, considered by Parisians to be real science—is from the world of Satanism and magic.
Hart’s research into mesmerism took him into the orbit of one “Madame W,” who introduces him to “the headquarters not only of a profound hypnosis and the grand hypnotism, but also of the new magic [where he] was introduced to the literature of occult science.” That headquarters, it turns out, is headed by the self-styled “Dr.” Papus (soon to become the author of 1895’s Le diable et l’occultisme). This “occult science”—practiced not in an operating theater, but in a private club—existed alongside, and in dynamic tension with, science that identified itself as mainstream.
Such tension, it turns out, often brought together individuals recognized by the French intellectual establishment with those firmly outside its boundaries. In one passage, Hart details his meeting with one Madame S., a self-styled healer with “a number of black cats…who were her familiars.”
Baphomet, the Sabbatic goat, whose arms bear the Latin solve (separate) and coagula (join together).
Yet Madame S. had recently crossed paths with someone deemed “legitimate,” the Colonel de Rochas, who is not merely a leading French historian, but also someone whose research in the field of parapsychology was considered by the academy to be a legitimate science. Madame S. told Dr. Hart that de Rochas “came to me to explain my power but he was not at all satisfied. I do it without magnetism, and that does not please him.” Certain methods of magic—in other words—are understood as scientifically valid (along with its male practitioners) others, like those of Madame S., are dismissed by scientists like Hart as “crude and suitable to her rank in life.”
Yet Hart’s account—published in a place as reputable as the British Medical Journal—provides us with a snapshot of how the “mainstream” and the “occult,” the “scientific” and the “sensationalistic” intersect in fin de siècle Parisian (and to a lesser extent, London) life. Purportedly respectable academics like Charcot and de Rochas were experimenting with processes that we might now associate with magic, while some magicians—like Papus—explained their findings with reference to science. Charcot and Papus alike built their reputations by whetting the public’s appetite for the macabre and the surreal: Charcot, with his medical, often sexualized “performances” and Papus with his inclusion in a long list of scandalous—and best-selling—tomes about occultism in the contemporary world. Far from being opposites, they are two sides of the same coin.
In a passage in Huysmans’s 1891 novel Là-bas, the mystic des Hermies reflects on the prevalence of occultism in Paris. “Magic flourishes when materialism is rife”. But the reality is far more complex. Occultism in Paris was less a counter-cultural movement than an utterly cultural one, one that reflected Paris’s profoundly ambiguous relationship with the technologies and scientific discoveries propelling it onward.
Understanding the “Satanic craze” of Paris might even help us understand similarly seemingly strange phenomena, like the Satanic child abuse scandals that rocked America in the 1980s, when an increasingly widespread belief that day care providers were sexually abusing children in Satanic rites led to a media frenzy.
There, too, we find examples of moral panic as a response to a shifting, modernizing social landscape (e.g., the increasing number of women in the workforce, the outsourcing of child-rearing to day care centers). So, too, do we find a genesis of this panic in a sensationalism made possible by an analogous landscape of media discourse that transforms the diabolical into the celebrity: popular obsession with Satanic sexual abuse began with the bestselling Michelle Remembers, a psychiatrist’s account of helping his patient retrieve false memories.
In 1980s California, no less than in 1890s France, we find that the Satanic, the mystical, and the strange become the battleground over which wider questions of culture, tradition, and modernity are fought. What seems at first glance to be one of fin de siècle Paris’s strangest subcultures tells us, in the end, about Paris itself.
Water [ edit | edit source ]
Water is the element of purification, regeneration, and healing. Water drawn from the Cup of Life, for example, has the power to heal any injury, and the Vilia, spirits of the brooks and streams, possess powerful healing magic (Le Morte d'Arthur, The Darkest Hour).
Water is also associated with intuition and divination. One of the most common types of scrying is hydromancy, which allows Seers to view events through a water medium. The Disir, for example, were said to divine the will of the Triple Goddess in an ancient pool (The Disir). Its opposing element is fire (The Mark of Nimueh).
This element is typically manipulated with the use of water spells, which can be used to summon storms and clouds of mist conjure a jet of water from thin air and even to write messages (Le Morte d'Arthur, The Nightmare Begins, The Fires of Idirsholas, Arthur's Bane).
What is the Historical Study of Science and Magic Good for?
Christian Jarrett, an editor at Aeon magazine, approached me after reading my response to a Japanese newspaper query on ghost beliefs in the West last year to commission a short article on a similar topic. I was happy to comply, and my Aeon piece on the hidden history of hallucinations and visions went online in January.
Click the image for my Aeon article, “Reasons not to scoff at ghosts, visions and near-death experiences” (Image credit: J.R. Korpa/Unsplash).
Even though I was explicitly writing as a historian, I was perhaps a little light on actual history, at least concerning the periods we typically look at here on Forbidden Histories. In fact, I only gave a couple of examples to illustrate typical Enlightenment responses to reported ‘spirit-seership’ and briefly mentioned studies of hallucinations and apparitions of the dead in non-pathological populations by William James and English colleagues in the outgoing nineteenth century.
The remainder of the short piece is mainly concerned with relatively recent medical findings concerning constructive functions of certain hallucinations and ‘mystical’ experiences. Whereas previous generations of medics have regarded hallucinations, apparitions of the dead and similar experiences as inherently pathological and undesirable, these views began to be drastically modified in the early 1970s with new research on so-called ‘hallucinations of widowhood’.
From then on, it seemed like friendly ghosts and otherworldly visions were gradually making an entry into the mainstream medical literature not only in the shape of comforting visitations from the departed in widowhood, but also in often profoundly moving end-of-life experiences in palliative and hospice care. At around the same time, mystical experiences sometimes occurring during close brushes with death began to be recognized by mainstream medicine as often having constructively transformative effects. Not least, similar but psychedelically induced (rather than spontaneously occurring) experiences have been shown to be effective in the treatment of severe conditions including treatment-resistant depressions and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Following a summary of these clinical revisions, I touched a point that’s not usually raised: Questions of the ultimate reality of spirits and ‘magic’ aside, if otherworldly experiences can have constructive and even therapeutic functions at least for a part of humanity, could it be harmful to follow blindly the outdated historical standard narrative of Western modernity (to quote myself),
“according to which ‘materialism’ is not only the default metaphysics of science, but an obligatory philosophy of life demanded by centuries of supposedly linear progress based on allegedly impartial research?”
“Sure, the dangers of gullibility are evident enough in the tragedies caused by religious fanatics, medical quacks and ruthless politicians. And, granted, spiritual worldviews are not good for everybody.”
Still, neither the fundamental shift in pragmatic medical views on ‘weird’ experiences in mainstream medicine nor the professional historical scholarship on science-magic links discussed here on Forbidden Histories are widely known. In fact, both have equally failed to inform ongoing debates over science and the ‘supernatural’. I therefore concluded my short article by implying that rather than exclusively focusing on the undisputed harm caused by uncritical approaches to ‘magic’,
“it might be time to restore a balanced perspective, to acknowledge the damage that has been caused by stigma, misdiagnoses and mis- or overmedication of individuals reporting ‘weird’ experiences. One can be personally sceptical of the ultimate validity of mystical beliefs and leave properly theological questions strictly aside, yet still investigate the salutary and prophylactic potential of these phenomena.”
Another potential opportunity to air these thoughts outside Forbidden Histories arose a couple of days ago, when members of the History of Science Society (HSS) received an email from its Executive Director, Jay Malone, ahead of his visit to Washington, D.C., next week. These are times of crisis for historical research as state funding has severely declined not only in the US. Hence, during his visit to Capitol Hill, Malone will try to persuade legislative aides of the importance for Congress to fund the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Library of Congress, and other US American humanities programmes and initiatives.
As an example of the concrete relevance of history, Malone is planning to use a letter to the New York Times by Hannah Marcus at Harvard, which was recently published online as “What the plague can teach us about the coronavirus”. Addressing recent instances of discriminations and violence against Asians in the wake of the coronavirus scare and COVID-19-related anxieties in expressions of hatred against Syrian and other migrants in Italy, her letter is a reminder of how outbreaks of disease have led to persecutions in the past, such as anti-Jewish pogroms in late-medieval Europe during the plague.
The main purpose of Malone’s email to HSS members, however, was to invite us to submit missives explaining why we think our work matters, and, as he put it, “how it helps us better the human condition”. Malone is planning to use some of our missives to support his discussions at Capitol Hill and to post a selection on the HSS site. Since I don’t know if my input will make the cut, I thought it may not hurt to post the main part of my message to Jay here regardless:
I think one area in which history of science & medicine scholarship can make a difference is by informing ongoing controversies over science and religion, and the related area of science/medicine and ‘magic’.
By demonstrating the vast complexities in historical debates over these issues, and drawing on historical scholarship exploring the concrete reasons for the ‘decline of magic’ in Western science & medicine, historians can make an instructive contribution to the teaching of critical thinking.
In terms of practical relevance, critical appreciations of science/medicine-magic relationships should be symmetrical if they want to prevent not only damage caused by charlatans and quacks, but also some rarely addressed but real clinical and social harm resulting from widespread confusions of methodological with ontological naturalism.
I concluded with a reference to my Aeon piece and mentioned that I have since developed these thoughts more fully in an article manuscript. Entitled “Conflicts and complexities: Medical science, exceptional experiences, and the perils of simplistic history”, it will appear in Spirituality and Mental Health Across Cultures, an interdisciplinary volume co-edited by the current chair of the Section on Spirituality of the World Psychiatric Association and a former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London, and published as part of the Oxford Cultural Psychiatry series.
I hope to get permission from Oxford University Pres to post a PDF of my chapter here once it’s published. In the meantime, some of you might find it useful to have a list of some of the studies which I used for the empirical and clinical part of both my Aeon article and the forthcoming chapter. After all, historians of, say, climate science or ‘scientific racism’ are expected to be up to date on directly relevant current empirical studies and scientific debates. And I think the same requirement should hold for historians of other scientific controversies that are still ongoing, including debates concerning medical science and its relations with the ‘supernatural’.
Needless to say, these references are not supposed to be exhaustive, but merely meant as possible starting points. Some of this literature is hidden behind paywalls of academic presses. However, most can be freely downloaded and I provided links to articles whenever open access PDF files were available.
The (somewhat creepy-looking) cover of an important edited volume published by the American Psychological Association, whose chapters survey the empirical and clinical state-of-the-art of ‘weird’ experiences. Chapters include relatively common experiences like synaesthesia and lucid dreams, but also much more controversial problems including near-death and mystical experiences as well as alleged reincarnation memories and ‘alien abduction’ experiences.
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‘Hallucinations of widowhood’ & apparitions
Olson, P. R., Suddeth, J. A., Peterson, P. J., & Egelhoff, C. (1985). Hallucinations of widowhood. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 33, 543-547.
Rees, William Dewi. (1971). The hallucinations of widowhood. British Medical Journal, 4, 37-41 [open access PDF].
Stevenson, Ian. (1983). Do we need a new word to supplement “hallucination”? American Journal of Psychiatry, 140, 1609-1611 [open access PDF].
Streit-Horn, Jenny. (2011). A Systematic Review of Research on After-Death Communication (ADC). (Ph.D. dissertation), University of North Texas, Denton, TX [open access PDF].
Death-bed visions & related experiences in hospice and palliative care
Devery, K., Rawlings, D., Tieman, J., & Damarell, R. (2015). Deathbed phenomena reported by patients in palliative care: Clinical opportunities and responses. International Journal of Palliative Nursing, 21, 117-125 [open access PDF].
Fenwick, P., Lovelace, H., & Brayne, S. (2010). Comfort for the dying: five year retrospective and one year prospective studies of end of life experiences. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 51, 173-179 [PDF at academia.edu – registration may be required].
Kerr, C. W., Donnelly, J. P., Wright, S. T., et al. (2014). End-of-life dreams and visions: A longitudinal study of hospice patients’ experiences. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 17, 296-303.
Renz, D., Reichmuth, O., Bueche, D., Traichel, B., Schuett Mao, M., Cerny, T., & Strasser, F. (2018). Fear, pain, denial, and spiritual experiences in dying processes. American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Medicine, 35, 478-491 [open access PDF].
Transformative near-death experiences
Greyson, Bruce. (1983). Near-death experiences and personal values. American Journal of Psychiatry, 140, 618-620 [open access PDF].
Greyson, Bruce. (2014). Near-death experiences. In Etzel Cardeña, S. J. Lynn, & Stanley Krippner (Eds.), Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence (second ed., pp. 333-367). Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.
Klemenc-Ketis, Zalika. (2013). Life changes in patients after out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 20, 7-12.
Psychedelic inductions of mystical experiences
Carhart-Harris, R. L., Bolstridge, M., Day, C. M. J., Rucker, et al. (2018). Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: six-month follow-up. Psychopharmacology, 235, 399-408 [open access PDF].
Griffiths, R. R., Johnson, M. W., Carducci, M. A., et al. (2016). Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 30, 1181-1197 [open access PDF].
Mithoefer, M. C., Wagner, M. T., Mithoefer, A. T., Jerome, L., & Doblin, R. (2010). The safety and efficacy of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy in subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder: the first randomized controlled pilot study. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25, 439-452 [open access PDF].
Merlin's eyes glow when using magic.
One of the most powerful creatures in the world of magic, Merlin's abilities went far beyond those of normal sorcerers. Though most had to study and perfect their skills over many years, Merlin's magic developed from brith with no training and grew at a remarkable rate.
During his first year in Camelot, Merlin was able to defeat numerous opponents far more experienced than himself. After two years, he'd gained enough control over his powers to use them in a fight without anyone noticing, and after three years he was able to defeat four Knights of Camelot with relative ease (The Tears of Uther Pendragon, A Servant of Two Masters).
When he first arrived in Camelot, Merlin was able to use his magic to instinctively perform techniques such as slowing down an object's movement, possibly extending to time itself, and moving objects with telekinesis (The Dragon's Call). Over time, his powers grew to the point where he could generate telekinetic blasts powerful enough to stun, wound, or even kill his enemies. He could also project these blasts over a wide range to strike several opponents simultaneously, on one occasion killing six men and momentarily stunning another (The Sword in the Stone).
Merlin later exhibited other instinctive abilities such as telepathy, which he could use to communicate with other magic users and even to learn spells, and the ability to see the future in the Crystal of Neahtid and the crystals of Crystal Cave (The Beginning of the End, The Curse of Cornelius Sigan, The Witch's Quickening, The Crystal Cave). He was also able to sense sources of powerful magic, including artifacts such as the Mage Stone and the Cup of Life spirits like the Druid boy who possessed Elyan and spells such as the one Morgana used to transform Gwen into a deer (To Kill the King, The Coming of Arthur, A Herald of the New Age, The Hunter's Heart).
Merlin was also adept in the use of elemental magic. He was particularly fond of fire and could use it a variety of ways, including lighting torches conjuring rings of fire to surround an opponent heating his enemies' weapons so they became too hot to hold on to and creating an inferno to cover his escape when he, disguised as Dragoon, was to be executed (Excalibur, The Moment of Truth, Queen of Hearts). He was even able to manipulate a fire spell cast by Morgause, a High Priestess of the Old Religion, and cause it to explode (The Castle of Fyrien).
Though he didn't use them quite as often, Merlin was equally skilled with the other three elements. Examples include creating a cloud of mist to escape Arthur and his men conjuring a jet of water to revive Gaius casting lightning and whirlwind spells and triggering rockfalls and earthquakes (The Nightmare Begins, The Fires of Idirsholas, Le Morte d'Arthur, The Moment of Truth, A Servant of Two Masters, Another's Sorrow).
His command of his magic was shown to be particularly effective when his emotions were heightened. For example, after breaking off his alliance with the Great Dragon, Merlin was able to generate a magical shield strong enough to withstand his fire (a feat made more notable by the fact that he had not yet inherited his father's Dragonlord powers), and later mastered the power over life and death to destroy Nimueh and revive Gaius (Le Morte d'Arthur). He was also able to resist Cornelius Sigan's attempt to possess him and force his soul back into the jewel it had been released from, and decimate Morgana's army during the Battle of Camlann (The Curse of Cornelius Sigan, The Diamond of the Day).
Merlin creates a butterfly with his magic.
Upon inheriting his status as the last Dragonlord, Merlin began to realize several new abilities. He was able to command any Dragon (including their cousins the Wyvern) to do whatever he wished by speaking to them in their language, even if they were separated by a great distance force multiple enemies away from him with a dragon-like roar and call a hatchling forth from its egg (The Last Dragonlord, The Tears of Uther Pendragon, The Eye of the Phoenix, Aithusa).
Merlin could also use his magic to influence creatures besides dragons and wyverns. Examples include transforming a statue of a dog into an actual dog revealing the snakes on Valiant's shield sharing a brief moment with a Unicorn summoning a frog from the Witchfinder's mouth and commanding a snake to startle Morgana's horse (Valiant, The Labyrinth of Gedref, The Witchfinder, The Castle of Fyrien). Merlin was also able to establish a rapport with Freya while she was in her Bastet form, though the reasons for her docility are uncertain and may have been unrelated to his magic (The Lady of the Lake).
Merlin uses his magic to throw a spear.
Merlin was very skilled in magical combat, as he was able to defend himself from numerous sorcerers and creatures of magic with far more experience than himself. For example, he was able to not only stop Edwin Muirden's attempt on his life, but repel his attack back at him (A Remedy to Cure All Ills). He was also able to defeat Tauren's men before he was overpowered by the Mage Stone, and to destroy both Nimueh and the Sidhe Elder (To Kill the King, Le Morte d'Arthur, The Changeling).
Merlin's success against Nimueh is particularly notable due to her status as a High Priestess, a powerful and important figure in the Old Religion. Merlin later defeated another High Priestess, Morgause, with the help of his mentor Gaius (The Coming of Arthur). Though often handicapped by the need to keep his magic a secret, Merlin also proved capable of overpowering Morgana after she became a High Priestess in situations where he was able to use his magic freely, incapacitating her with a whirlwind spell on one occasion and decimating her army with lightning on another (A Servant of Two Masters, The Diamond of the Day).
He was also proficient in the use of magical weapons such as Sophia's Sidhe staff, which he could use to fire blasts of raw magical power (The Gates of Avalon). Merlin later learned to fire similar blasts of energy with his bare hands. However, these blasts could be deflected by powerful sorcerers such as Nimueh, or endured by creatures with a natural resilience for magical attacks such as pixies (Le Morte d'Arthur, The Changeling).
Merlin faced and defeated many magical creatures over the years, including an Afanc, a Griffin, and the Questing Beast (The Mark of Nimueh, Lancelot, Le Morte d'Arthur). He also helped kill a Troll who was disguised as the Lady Catrina outmatched a Goblin, though he was unable to kill it while it was possessing Gaius defended himself against a Lamia and overpowered the Dochraid with Excalibur (Beauty and the Beast, Goblin's Gold, Lamia, With All My Heart).
Magical Resilience & Immortality
Merlin was shown to possess considerable magical resilience. He was able to survive a number of attacks meant to kill him, both magical and otherwise. Examples include withstanding the effects of Nimueh's magically accelerated poison long enough for Arthur to return with an antidote the force of his own killing spell when it was reflected back at him by the Mage Stone and the touch of a Dorocha, though he was still badly injured and likely would've died if the Vilia hadn't healed him (The Poisoned Chalice, To Kill the King, The Darkest Hour).
Merlin also possessed some degree of immortality, as evidenced by his survival into the modern age, and could only be killed by a sword forged in a dragon's breath. His immortality appears to be intrinsic to his magic, a view supported by Balinor's remark that he had always been and always would be, though it's also possible that he discovered or created some kind of immortality spell to stop himself from aging. If so, Merlin may not have discovered or created this spell until he was around 80 years old (The Diamond of the Day).
Proficient Swords & Crossbowman
Merlin fights off one of Kanen's men.
Merlin was shown to be a fairly proficient swordsman. Though initially clumsy and unskilled, after months of training with Arthur, he improved to the point where he was able to defend himself against Kanen and his men when they attacked Ealdor, even managing to kill a few (The Moment of Truth).
During the siege of Camelot, Merlin was shown to possess enough skill to both hold his own against a skeleton warrior and temporarily fend off Morgana, though he was disarmed twice by the latter. However, it should be noted that his main goal was not to defeat Morgana, but to get past her to destroy the Rowan Staff (The Tears of Uther Pendragon).
Merlin was shown to have become fully competent with a sword when he wielded Excalibur against Morgause and Morgana's immortal army (The Coming of Arthur). He later used a sword to fight alongside Arthur and their allies during the second retaking of Camelot, and wielded Excalibur twice more to fend off the Dochraid and kill Morgana (The Sword in the Stone, With All My Heart, The Diamond of the Day).
In addition to his swordsmanship, Merlin was also handy with a crossbow, as shown when he and Arthur covered Tristan and Isolde while they were running away during Agravaine's attack on their camp (The Sword in the Stone).
Surprisingly, despite his skill in combat, Merlin proved to be a very incompetent assassin when Morgana enchanted him to kill Arthur. However, many of his failures had more to due with luck than lack of skill, and the fact that he never once attempted to use his magic may suggest that he had only limited control of his faculties (A Servant of Two Masters).
Merlin tries to heal some villagers.
When Merlin first went to live in Camelot, he had no knowledge of the healing arts and little interest in learning. In fact, Gaius once confessed he feared Merlin found physician work boring (Love in the Time of Dragons).
As he matured, however, Merlin developed more of an interest in the subject and began making more of an effort to hone his knowledge and skills. After serving as Gaius's assistant for several years, Merlin had learned enough for the physician to recommend sending him to help a village stricken with illness when he himself was unable to go (Lamia). He also remembered that honey was needed to fight infection sewed up Leon's injuries after he fought with Gwaine and treated Isolde's injured arm (Gwaine, Lamia, The Sword in the Stone).
Curiously, though skilled in many types of magic, Merlin did not possess much of a talent for healing spells. He failed to heal Arthur on numerous occasions, including when he was bitten by the Questing Beast, shot by bandits, and received a poisoned wound (Le Morte d'Arthur, The Crystal Cave, The Coming of Arthur). He was also unable to heal the villagers of Longstead from the Lamia's effects, and failed to heal himself after Morgana attacked and poisoned him (Lamia, The Hollow Queen).
However, Merlin's healing skills greatly improved over time. He was able to heal Gwen's father after he was stricken by a plague heal Morgana's skull fracture with Kilgharrah's assistance cure Arthur and the Knights after they were poisoned by Julius Borden treat Gwen's leg after she was shot by Princess Mithian during a hunt and save Arthur from Gwen's poisoning attempt (The Mark of Nimueh, The Crystal Cave, Aithusa, The Hunter's Heart, A Lesson in Vengeance).
Secrets & Intrigue
Though infamous for his clumsiness and lack of coordination, Merlin was capable of surprising stealth. He frequently followed and spied on people he suspected of being enemies of Camelot, such as Morgana when she snuck away to meet with Tauren and Alvarr (To Kill the King, The Witch's Quickening). Other examples include the Sidhe Aulfric, the Lady Catrina, the pixie Grunhilda, and the Shade Lancelot (The Gates of Avalon, Beauty and the Beast, The Changeling, Lancelot du Lac).
Merlin was usually able to observe people without being detected. However, there were times where his activities were discovered, such as when he tried to spy on Morgause and Morgana, or when he tried to follow Arthur to both his meeting with Queen Annis and to the Druid Shrine (The Tears of Uther Pendragon, His Father's Son, A Herald of the New Age). He was also caught trying to use a mirror to spy on Catrina (Beauty and the Beast).
Merlin was also very talented at keeping secrets. He was able to keep his magic hidden from everyone in Camelot except Gaius, and though his secret was almost exposed on several occasions, he always managed to prove his innocence in the end (The Witchfinder, Goblin's Gold). Merlin was also good at keeping the secrets of others, including Morgana's magic, Gwen and Arthur's romance, and Gwaine's noble heritage (The Nightmare Begins, Lancelot and Guinevere, Gwaine).
The people who knew about Merlin's secret include Hunith, Gaius, Kilgharrah, Lancelot, Mordred, Will, Freya, Balinor, Grettir, Gilli, Iseldir, Aithusa, Alator, Daegal, and Finna. Of these people, Will, Freya, Balinor, Lancelot, Daegal, Alator, Finna, and Mordred are dead.
Merlin in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur
Sir Thomas Malory’s epic work, Le Morte d’Arthur, was completed in 1470, slightly later than the mid-fifteenth century Prose Merlin. Malory’s central character is Arthur, not Merlin (who disappears from the story in Book 4 out of 21). Whilst Le Morte d’Arthur draws overall on a wider variety of sources, the first four books are considered to be an abridged version of the ‘Suite de Merlin’, another thirteenth-century prose work that is closely connected to the Vulgate Cycle.
Despite his early exit, Malory’s Merlin plays a crucial role during the early years of King Arthur. We see his now-familiar part in the conception of Arthur by Uther and Ygerna (now Igraine) at Tintagel Castle, followed nine months later by Arthur’s birth and removal by Merlin (according to his bargain with Uther) to be fostered by Sir Ector. Thereafter Merlin becomes Arthur’s constant advisor, slipping in and out of the narrative as the occasion demands, often in disguise, to dispense foresight, knowledge, and guidance, and Malory uses him as a literary device, foretelling the future in the manner of fate – what Merlin speaks will be fulfilled.
There is little of the Merlin legend in Le Morte d’Arthur that is completely new. The main events include Merlin’s kingmaking role, initiated by his advice to the Archbishop of Canterbury to send for all the lords who would be king to assemble in London at Christmas, and to come to mass and pray, after which the great marble stone is seen with the sword stuck into it with the famous inscription that whoever pulls the sword is “rightwise king born of all England.” His advice and influence are then crucial in persuading the barons to maintain support to the young king in his wars against the rebel kings, as is his guidance to Arthur in battle – see a summary of Book 1, in which Merlin also saves Arthur’s life and how Arthur (by means of Merlin) got Excalibur, his sword, from the Lady of the Lake.
In Book 2, Merlin made further predictions regarding (i) Sirs Balin and Balan (including the “dolorous stroke” that Balin would deal to the truest knight alive, causing a wound that would not heal, making 3 kingdoms poor for 12 years), (ii) Kings Pellinore and Bagdemagus (Arthur’s cousin), (iii) Arthur’s near killing by Sir Accolon, (iv) Merlin’s own death, and (v) the Sangreal.
Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere takes place in Book 3. The barons had suggested that it was time Arthur took a wife, and when he confided to Merlin that he loved Guinevere, Merlin warned him that she wasn’t wholesome enough to be his wife – Sir Lancelot (Launcelot) would later love her, and she would love Launcelot – but he could see the king’s heart was set so he went to inform Leodegrance (Guinevere’s father) of Arthur’s desire. During the wedding feast a white hart appeared, pursued by a brachet and sixty black hounds – at which point Merlin called for immediate quests on the part of Sir Gawain, Sir Tor, and King Pellinor. Each of the three quests was carried out and when the knights had returned the Bishop of Canterbury was able to ordain the Knights of the Round Table.
Merlin meets his end in Book 4. King Pellinor happened to have brought a lady to the court. Her name was Nimue, known as the Damsel of the Lake. Merlin became besotted with her and was hardly away from her side. She accommodated him until she had learnt from him all the crafts that she could. They went together over the sea to the land of Benwick, where Merlin saw the young Launcelot and predicted that the same child would one day be the most worshipped man in the world. By this time Nimue had become weary of his constant attention. On their travels they came to a cave beneath a great stone, and she saw her chance to be rid of him. She let Merlin go first under the stone so he could lead her to the marvels in the cave, then as soon as he was down she turned his magic against him and he became sealed inside, never to come out. And there, rather unceremoniously, Merlin leaves Malory’s story.
The Lady of the Lake in Context
The British Isles are soggy places surrounded by water and covered with lakes, ponds, rivers, and springs. Naturally, water featured prominently in the mythology of the early inhabitants of England and Ireland.
The Lady of the Lake, though later adopted by French authors of Arthurian legend, appears to be based on older Celtic goddesses associated with water. There are many Celtic water spirits and goddesses, most of them women. Ceridwen (pronounced kuh-RID-wen) was a Celtic goddess who possessed a magic cauldron or kettle. She made a brew with herbs and water that would grant wisdom to whoever drank it. Even more notably, Brigid (pronounced BREED) was a goddess who kept watch over a well (or many wells) from which a prospective king had to drink in order to earn his place on the throne.
The Magical Message of Merlin Versus Modern Materialism - History
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Why Merlin should return to the screen
Kirsten appeals to Merlin's creators, arguing that the BBC fantasy show deserves a film or television revival.
Contains spoilers for the Merlin series 5 finale.
Normally, I’m not a TV kind of person. I prefer books, and the longer the better! True storytelling is what I love, and in a time where narrative culture is more and more determined by the length of a Twitter message, the spinning of a grand old-fashioned tale has become a rare thing on television. Such a rare exception was the BBC series Merlin – until it was announced late in 2012 that the show wouldn’t be continued after the end of series five. When I read that in an interview, my first thought was that it seemed quite a daunting task, if not even an impossible one, to tie up all the loose threads that were glaringly left hanging about in the few episodes that were left, let alone to provide the series with an ending that would remain faithful to its trademark genial tone, and live up to all the expectations that had been raised over the years by constantly reminding us that it was Merlin’s destiny to build Camelot’s Golden Age with Arthur and return the magic to the land.
Sadly, my apprehensions turned out to be justified. The evening of the Merlin finale – Christmas Eve, of all things! – left me sitting stunned in front of my TV, tears streaming down my face, only vaguely aware what had just happened to me, although it occurred to me what it was later that night: emotional trauma at the hands of a television series! Ever since then I have been searching the internet for Merlin related sites like this one, where I could voice my disappointment at how this series I loved was ended: much too rushed, without real closure, sporting at least one gaping plot hole (the fact that Merlin dragged the gravely injured Arthur all over Albion on horseback instead of calling Kilgharrah to help immediately), leaving many storylines unexplored and the main promise, that of Camelot’s Golden Age – implying a new level in the Merlin/Arthur relationship, with a fully recognized Merlin finally being on equal footing with Arthur, getting credit for his deeds at last, and their friendship being renewed and strengthened so they’ll be able build the new Camelot – remaining unfulfilled.
At this point, I’d like to stress that I’m no giggling fangirl. I’m a 39-year-old English teacher from Germany, mother of four (who all love Merlin just as much as I do, if not more), and freelance writer. For me this is not about “Merthur” swooning – I leave that to my daughter – but the blossoming friendship between the prince and his servant is undeniably one of the high points of the show, even the force that gives it momentum, an incredibly sweet, innocent, and touching bond of brotherhood that we can relate to on a basic human level. I firmly believe that it was this fusion of a timeless tale of true friendship with one of most famous and fascinating subject matters of the Western literary canon, transforming it into a story that allows glimpses of the familiar Arthurian legend while developing a strong and original take on it, that strung a chord with viewers around the globe.
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When I stumbled upon Merlin, I was immediately intrigued, and never have missed an episode since. At first I was convinced that I liked the show for its many obvious endearing features – the simply told stories, the teasing banter between prince and servant, the young cast’s sheer enthusiasm, the epic fights against evil witches and magical beasts, so beautifully and tastefully rendered, in short, its classic fantasy setting. But soon I realized that for me – and apparently for many others too, as the numerous blog entries and forum posts throughout the internet show – that beyond this heroic, romantic surface there was much more to it than that.
Merlin has resonated deeply with my imagination. This series, which cheerily disguised itself as a lighthearted family show, in truth explored the archetypal leitmotifs of European literature, and of human nature itself, within a charming and enthralling fantasy frame that made it easy and a fun experience to follow these explorations. Honour, love, duty, friendship, betrayal, the rocky relationship between fathers and sons, the attempt to live up to a destiny one did not choose, being torn between different loyalties, the demons that wait to be fought every day, all these are basic human concepts that are still as valid and important today as they were when the medieval and Renaissance authors wrote their Arthurian romances. Granted, Merlin was first and foremost intended as a fun fantasy drama, and rightly so, as it is one of the very few TV series that can be watched and enjoyed by the whole family, without falling flat for the older generation. But while my children fell for Merlin’s perfect sword-and-sorcery approach, with its gorgeous costumes, magic, dragons, classic villains, and beautiful, sometimes ethereal settings, it was the characters’ confrontation with the pitfalls of human nature and their consequent development, conveyed so brilliantly by the cast’s outstanding performance, what really caught my attention.
Ever since J.R.R. Tolkien laid down the basic framework and rules that have shaped the fantasy genre, it has been clear that the true magic of a good fantasy story is never to be found in the magical power that is wielded – or the Dark Lords of the trade would always triumph. The true magic in fantasy lies, in fact, in the heroes’ strength of character, their courage, their perseverance in the face of insurmountable difficulty, and in the friendship and love that prompts them to their brave deeds.
It’s no coincidence that the great fantasy champions are more often than not simple people whom fate puts in a position they haven’t actively sought out, unlikely heroes who, as J.K. Rowling put it in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, “take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well”. In precisely this spirit, the series made Arthur and Merlin young contemporaries rather than an old Merlin being advisor to a young king Arthur, which probably was its most important and ingenious diversion from the Arthurian sources, because this plot device allows us the pleasure of getting to know our heroes before they have fully come into their own.
Notwithstanding his astonishing magical powers, Merlin appears as a simple peasant boy who wears his heart on his sleeve and whose refusal to be daunted by rank or physical superiority is constantly getting him into trouble Prince Arthur is already a skilled warrior and courageous knight when we meet him, but as yet lacking such virtues as modesty or consideration for others, hiding his deep-rooted fear of not being able to live up to his father’s high expectations behind a tough “save-the-world” attitude, as Gwen phrases it when she first talks to Merlin.
Although we know from earlier takes on the legend what kind of men Merlin and Arthur will grow into, Merlin portrays them as young boys who have yet to overcome their only too human flaws, who are not legendary yet but still have a great deal to learn. Following Arthur’s progress from somewhat self-centred, secretly insecure and pampered “prat” to truly kingly material, and Merlin’s transformation from naïve prodigy-cum-country bumpkin into the wise and powerful but unswervingly compassionate mage who’s invisibly pulling all the strings from behind his humble disguise was pure joy. By embarking with them on their journey to legendary status, we began to care deeply about them as characters, and became emotionally involved in their classic coming-of-age story.
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As much as we enjoyed the ever present tease of Merlin’s magic being eventually discovered (a moment we all simultaneously dreaded and yearned for), it was the development of Merlin’s and Arthur’s characters, and of their unlikely friendship, which cast the true spell of Merlin and made soon seem the many turrets of beautiful Pierrefonds Castle as the legendary Camelot feel like home to everyone who accompanied the heroes on their weekly adventures. As we followed the progress of this friendship, feeling sorry for Merlin’s ordeals, being angry at Arthur’s unfairness, rejoicing when it became obvious that the duo had started trusting each other with their lives, we were drawn into the age-old questions of human nature they had to deal with as the events unfolded, and drawn into the legend itself.
There has never been any TV series, movie, or book before where the ending has left me so heartbroken, and with such a sense of having been cheated. What is really tragic is that it didn’t have to be like that, not even if it was important to the authors to stay “true to legend” – which is in itself impossible, as there is no such thing as “the” legend where Arthurian writing is concerned. For literally a thousand years, from twelfth century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth (to whom the Merlin writers tipped their hat by assigning him a permanent cameo role in the series as a grumpy court librarian of the same name), to Renaissance writer Thomas Malory, and finally to modern fantasy authors like T.H. White and Marion Zimmer Bradley, the king and his sorcerer have inspired writers throughout the Western world to use the existing material and do with it whatever they wanted, depending on their respective time, their targeted audience and intentions. There is not a single other subject matter in the history of European literature that had such an impact or inspired such a sheer mass of writing, both in prose and poetry and in every major European language, than the story of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. None of the Arthurian authors ever had any scruples about employing poetic licence whenever it suited their needs. From the very beginning, the Arthurian cycle has been a legend in progress.
Obviously, the Merlin writers were aware of this practice and have employed it themselves countless times throughout the series. It was always fun to meet a well-known character in a way that differed slightly or, in many cases, greatly from the other familiar versions of the story, and find out how they would eventually “get there”: Guinevere is a serving girl?! But wasn’t she supposed to be the queen? – Lancelot is such a nice guy, and Gwen could never betray Arthur, so how do we reach their legendary betrayal? – Merlin is supposed to be a Gandalf-style old man with long white hair and a beard, not a young guy, so why do the legends describe him as old?! The series played with our preconceived notions about the legend, and brought them home to us with a twist. That was the secret that made the series so deliciously plot-driven in spite of the fact that the Arthurian plot has been known for centuries. And this, too, explains why its ending has been felt to be so upsetting and incongenial by so many fans.
What is truly jarring about the final episode of Merlin is not the fact that Arthur dies. Arthur’s death at the hands of the traitor Mordred has been a central motif since the beginning of Arthurian literature. Everyone who is familiar with Malory’s take on Arthuriana, or has read White’s The Once and Future King, knows that Arthur is, eventually, going to die, and that Camelot will perish. It’s the essentially British version of the biblical lament of “how are the mighty fallen”, and we wouldn’t really expect any Arthurian tale to change that.
What he indeed have come to expect from Merlin, however, is a respectful treatment of our beloved characters’ growth, and the above-mentioned plot twist that does justice to the characters while still capable of being seen in accordance with legend. These two concepts have, time and again, formed the backbone of countless Merlin episodes, but tragically the final one, which should by rights have revelled in every aspect that made Merlin the series it had become, failed miserably on both counts. While the eagerly anticipated magic reveal, though something of let-down where plot is concerned (why come out now, when innocent lives could have been saved by doing so much earlier?), was a beautiful and heart-rending piece of acting – so kudos to Colin Morgan and Bradley James for their amazing achievement – and while Arthur’s gradual acceptance of Merlin’s true nature was everything fans had been hoping for, it came much too late, and robbed us of the chance to see Merlin recognized by the whole of Camelot as the world’s greatest sorcerer at last, and, above all, accepted and respected by Arthur for what he is.