Tag Archives: Merlin

Izzy Wizzy Let’s Get Busy

If I say “Wizard” what is the picture that comes to mind? A thin man with grey hair and beard hanging down over his long robes whose eyes twinkle with kindly mischief and deep wisdom while he gently leans on his simple staff? How about sorcerer? Although the beard and robe probably remain I expect the image you have is of a much darker, less benevolent man. I’m also fairly sure that the word “witch” will conjure visions of an ugly crone in a pointy hat whose intentions are largely evil. A wizard who practices his art to cause harm is denoted with the adjective “dark”, otherwise it is generally assumed he is a good guy. Witches on the other hand have to have “white” added before one can be sure they are on the side of good and although “wicked” is often employed for the baddies it tends to be just for emphasis.

The popularity of tales such as Hansel and Gretel is probably part of the problem. A greater familiarity with a broader range of folk tale shows that witches are just as likely as wizards to use their power for the benefit of the ordinary people, and where there is a wicked witch there is usually a wise woman who knows enough about magic to counteract their spells, which surely makes them a witch too, doesn’t it?

Now this is interesting because the term “Wizard” was originally “wise-art” and could refer to any gender. It was applied to those who had a knack for predicting events, or seeing in to the future and only later came to include workers of magic and enchantment. “Witch”, also originally an androgynous term, started its journey in the verb “wiccian”, meaning to use spells, and apparently travelled the other way, incorporating foresight, until the two words achieved parallel meaning in the late fifteen hundreds when Reginald Scot wrote that “At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch,’ or ‘she is a wise woman.’ ”

So what went wrong? Whilst it would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of the medieval church and its witch hunts of the sixteen hundreds, our Saxon and Viking ancestors both held a belief in the value of physical skills in swordplay and sheer brute strength. This gave them a deeply ingrained distrust of magic users who were seen as somehow cheating, it might be acceptable to slip on a shirt one had enchanted to deflect spears but a true warrior wouldn’t be seen taking a sorcerer into battle with them; rather like the nineties attitude that “nerds” were fine when people wanted their computer fixed but generally considered a bit too weird to invite down the pub after work. The religious persecutions of the middle ages, although a hideous abuse of power to eliminate the competition, were also merely an inverted popularity contest playing on the deeply rooted prejudices of the populace.

How wizards survived the propaganda is, I believe, down to a story: the myth of a strong, skilled, honourable king who gathered a band of knights, each with great prowess of arms, and fought for fairness. Through many re-writes the story was progressively christianised which helped it keep its popularity over several centuries and avoid censure from the church. It is a story which would not work without a key character, king Arthur’s friend and adviser, the wizard Merlin, who set the template for all the great wizards who have come since.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.



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The Secrets of Wizards and Kings

Last Month a friend passed on a request from a Swedish radio programme asking for someone to talk to them about King Arthur on location at Glastonbury and Tintagel. Nice work if you can get it (which I did and it was), but it wasn’t without difficulty. The problem with the Arthurian cycle is that there is so much of it. The initial tale carried sufficient weight and gravity that it began to pull other stories to it, some remain distinct, merely orbiting the Arthuriad, like Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight. Others, like the pre-Christian celtic hunt for the magic cauldron of rebirth, are pulled through the atmosphere and spread over the surface in a highly altered form as the quest for the Holy Grail.

Tectonic forces bend and fold the accreted layers of legend so that Morgan Le Fey, who is originally the Lady of the Lake and on Arthur’s side, becomes twisted in to his most vociferous opponent; the romance of Tristan and Isuelt slides over and is impressed upon the characters of Lancelot and Guinevere; the victorious but truncated campaign against Rome is buried so deeply that all that remains is a trip to France.

infront of a distant medieval tower, a vast host of armed men and an anvil, a young man holds aloft a shining sword

Arthur draws Excalibur from an anvil

Somehow the underlying myth survives. The tyrannical King Uther Pendragon uses Merlin’s art to commit adultery with the beautiful Igraine, wife of Gorlois and mother of Morgause, whilst Gorlois is simultaneously killed in battle by Uther’s men. Uther marries Igraine and as payment for his help Merlin takes the offspring of this union and heir to the throne, Arthur, placing him in fosterage with Sir Ector. Merlin sets a challenge to any would be kings that they have to pull a sword from a stone. Arthur grows up as a poor person of no consequence until he accidentally achieves the test and is proclaimed king. War ensues because he is not of noble birth. He meets and adulterously sleeps with his half sister, Morgause, while he is unaware of the family connection. Merlin tells everyone that Arthur is Uther and Igraine’s son, thus putting an end to the conflict but making Morgause and Arthur somewhat uncomfortable. Arthur, having been brought up without privilege, sets up the Round Table, instituting an ideal of equality and promoting the code of chivalry to put an end to the abuses of power previously enjoyed by knights and kings. So far, so much in line with Merlin’s plan and a Golden Age ensues. This is the point at which knights go on quests and the various tales set “in the time of King Arthur” happen. Unfortunately Morgause had a son as a result of her fling with Arthur and she tells the boy, Mordred, that he should be King in his turn. Embarrassed by the incestuous circumstances, Arthur does not recognise Mordred as his son but treats him as his nephew. When Arthur takes his army out of the country on campaign, Mordred is left in charge but takes things too far by claiming that Arthur has died and he is now King. Arthur returns to reclaim his throne and both armies are destroyed while father and son kill each other.

The apparently inevitable tragic ending can leave one feeling the whole thing is rather pointless, but Merlin’s plan to raise an empathic and caring monarch actually works! Where he goes wrong is that Morgause never forgives Merlin or Uther for the rather callous way they use her mother and dispose of her father. This resentment is extended to Arthur and transferred to Mordred. Merlin’s second mistake is in not telling Arthur about his parentage soon enough to prevent his fateful dalliance with Morgause. Arthur then has a chance to diffuse the impending doom by acknowledging and nurturing Mordred… which he fails to do.

So, this myth’s lessons are: 

1. Deception carries a cost even when used to “do good” if anyone gets hurt, the good gets cancelled out; secrets are like explosives, the longer they are kept the less predictable the results.

2. (and most importantly), our deepest regrets, fears or sins, our inner darkness, must be acknowledged, loved, integrated… or it will destroy us.

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