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Merlin is the legendary fictional wizard, made famous by his presence in tales about King Arthur. Depending upon the source, Merlin may have actual magic powers, be gifted with foresight or psychic ability, and may owe his powers to being the son of a demon and a woman. He is generally credited with arranging Uther Pendragon's seduction of Arthur’s mother, Tigraine, by disguising Uther as Tigraine’s husband.
Though Uther was able to thereafter marry Tigraine after defeating Lot in battle, Arthur’s conception occurred at too early a date to suggest anything but adultery. Therefore, Merlin spirited Arthur away to be raised by Sir Ector. Some accounts hold that Merlin may have directly raised King Arthur, producing him at the appropriate time to gain the title of King of England, and other accounts say Merlin later worked as a court advisor for Arthur.
Most accounts of Arthur’s upbringing include the fact that Arthur did not know his parentage until after he became king. This led to the tragedy that would culminate in Arthur’s death. Since Arthur was not aware Tigraine was his mother, he easily succumbed to the seduction of his half-sister Morgause. Their affair produced Mordred, who would later kill Arthur. If Merlin did raise Arthur, his failure to inform Arthur of this vital fact was certainly a matter of extreme neglect, particularly if he was gifted with foresight.
The character of Merlin is based on several sources — one is the Welsh Myrddin, who appears in stories as far back as the 6th century. Another influence for Merlin was taken by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who based his Merlin primarily on the real person, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a 5th century war leader. Geoffrey’s account fictionalizes Ambrosius to the extreme.
Through the later part of the middle ages, many authors put their own interpretation onto Merlin and his importance in the Arthurian cycle. Emphasis was placed on his salvation from being the Anti-Christ through baptism, his ability to change forms, and his task as advisor to the king. Accounts of his death are varied but generally fall into a few forms. He was either enchanted by the Lady of the Lake, or the sorceress Nimue, and was thus held captive for the rest of his life. His absence when Mordred attacked Arthur is often thought at least a portion of the reason why Arthur died at the hands of his son.
Numerous Merlin tales continue to proliferate, some drawing closely to early Arthurian sources and others taking a far leap away from them. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court makes Merlin the antagonist. Mary Stewart’s novels The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills make Merlin the protagonist and are told mostly from his point of view. One of the most interesting concepts in Merlin writings is T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.
In White’s version, Merlin is gifted with foresight because he lives backward. Instead of aging through the telling of Arthur’s tale, Merlin gets younger. His birth occurs at some point in the future. White’s version is a lovable and humorous one, and encouraged more recent wizards in fiction like the famous Dumbledore of the Harry Potter series.