Marvellous Merlin: Knowledge and Power

I went to a seminar given by Stephen Knight on Merlin a few weeks ago, and it was great. I’ve liked Knight ever since I did an essay on Robin Hood, in about third year, and I read bits of his book on said bandit. I didn’t realise that he was Australian! – I should have, since my lecturer Stephanie knew him, but it just didn’t occur to me that someone so prestigious could be an Aussie. Dreadful, no?

The focus – my take-home message, if you like, which might not have been the intended theme, but was talked about a lot – was Merlin’s relationship to power. He doesn’t often hold it, but he relates to it and talks to or at it; sometimes it’s a positive, sometimes negative, relationship.

The seminar started by talking about the Myrddin (‘Welsh’, or original at least, name for Merlin). From 493, in Cumbria, comes a poem that talks of a man who was traumatised by a battle, who consequently lives in a forest and mocks his own culture, and particularly the court. He becomes, a few centuries later, something of a prophet: in the poems of 1000 or so, he is speaking for Welsh power – where before he had been challenging that power. Interesting…

He went on to mention Merlin in Geoffrey of Monmouth (only helps with Arthur’s conception, no other involvement – he also collapses Merlin with Ambrosius. He’s also the one to coin Merlin, since merdinus in Latin means shitty!); various French poems, Robert de Boron and Layamon… Merlin, as knowledge, speaks to power, in the person of Arthur or similar. He might be an archbishop or grand vizier-type figure. But knowledge doesn’t always speak of truth, or share its knowledge; often, he’s just telling power to shut the hell up and get on with it already.

There’s a great picture from the Renaissance, in which the cave is more like a grand hall, and it shows Merlin as an artificer and an artist. Playing, of course, on contemporary desires and wishes and preferences.

Knight continued by talking about Dryden – King Arthur: The British Worthy – and other C18 plays and poems. Merlin is used in various ways in these places, but generally to do with power. In fact, the name ‘merlin’ comes to mean little almanacs – full of knowledge, of course. Merlin hasn’t always been portrayed as old, as those of us who are fans of The Sword in the Stone will always regard him; this is a relatively late development. The wrinkles, the beard – they’re all code for knowledge. This, by the way, led to an interesting discussion about whether figures such as Gandalf – also with white beard etc – are incarnations of Merlin, or if they’re just using the same codes.

It was a really fascinating talk, and I’m really glad I went. It was after this that I decided I would start reading more academic stuff, because really, it was so much fun stretching my brain! Apparently Knight went on to talk at a medieval conference, and talked about similar things; my friend AB went to the conference, but I haven’t caught up with her to talk about it.

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