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Mention Merlin, and most people think of the period of King Arthur, or round tables and Excalibur. To many the image will come to mind of an older man with considerable wisdom, and magical abilities.

We are now to get another perspective, in the BBC dramas series 'Merlin', and so in future some may come to think of this version, which is going to depart considerably from previous stories we have.

I have, previously, in the article King Arthur, did he exist, and who was he, looked at the historical information behind both King Arthur and Merlin, where they may fit into real history and how I think these stories came about. In another article, King Arthur,  we looked at some of the background and at the locations that you can visit that could be connected with them, and have a load of locations linked with location guides on each.

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Above - The BBC young Merlin 

Right - Old image of a young Merlin and a king. 

There are similarities in appearance with the image on the right.

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The BBC adaptation, creates a drama series around some of these characters, but both places Merlin and Arthur the same age as friends, and puts them into a parallel world where magic is banned and you can be executed for practicing it. This continues a pattern of borrowing historic characters and making up dramas around them, and some feel this was what the various monks and others have done with historic figures throughout history. We may discover some older information moves into the BBC drama, but are more likely to find a completely fictional drama, which I am sure many of us will enjoy.

Merlin was of course young at the beginning of the legends about him, so the fact that he starts out young is no problem, for many however starting out as the same generation as Arthur may be more of a difficulty, though we may discover more as the story progresses.

Magic through the ages

In our age, most perhaps think of magic as conjuring, and therefore not in any way real, where through most of history they had a different perspective on magic, it meant something different to them and in order to understand the magic of Merlin we need to look at this.

Magic a long time back, and to some today who practice some types of witchcraft, is not generally the wiz, bang flash, instant miracle, but could be explained as a section of a line, where at one end you had common facts, and the other miracles, in between you have a range of zones, including emerging knowledge being discovered, knowledge that was only available to specific people such as healers and stone masons, and knowledge that was very much the understanding of one or a small number of people, and of course miracles, various people practiced these different 'crafts'. 

Today what may appear magic, tomorrow could be understood and become a part of science, and many scientists extend conversation in their areas, and of the possibilities into science fiction, in order to get sponsorship and grants. There would appear often little difference between the 'craft member' who practices and seeks to understand, and the person who understands and experiments to expand this knowledge. In many cases they are the same individual who presents the same information in several ways, and over history this has been necessary, or we would still be believing the world was flat.

One of the largest promoters of magic was the church, monks had herbal gardens and were healers, and visit any ancient cathedral and you see images of miracles of their time happing everywhere. Although early saints were just Christians who had died, later a number were reduced to martyrs and by the time of the majority of the writings on Merlin, only those who performed miracles became saints. While some of these  miracles were minor others are beyond our belief today. Take for example Winchester cathedral, here we find in the lady chapel, a series of screens covering and reproducing copies of old wall paintings, in each of the squares you see a miracle being performed in this case all by the same person. Look at the story carved onto the font and you see yet another miracle, and others will be discovered around the cathedral.  Pictures of both of these are in the image rotator at the top of the location guide. The story on the font relates to three boys having their heads chopped off and being restored to again, while the panel is only one small section of the entire room covered in these images, each one shows four miracles occurring. The church at this time were involved in miracles, spells, curses, talisman and of course had saints bones and other remains everywhere. This made their abbeys places of pilgrimage, and we can assume that many of these people did fully believe in the magic portrayed.  The monk who wrote a great deal of what we now call the matter of Britain, concerning King Arthur, Merlin, the grail quest and more did so as a series project and was respected and promoted to as Bishop as a reward.

Far later on through the period of Henry VIII, and later we have Dr John Dee, known as the queens conjuror, from his later relationship with Elizabeth I who referred to him as 'my philosopher'. Dee practiced just about every form of magic, from areas of science to areas that even today fiction has not yet rediscovered. Later others reading his work and publishing it were able to have made major discoveries themselves.

Within the periods of Elizabeth I  and James I, witchcraft acts were passed, but these are very specific in their wording, magic, miracles and expanding knowledge are not included.

Witchcraft historically was not permitted, but what they took as witchcraft and was not allowed, was foretelling the death of the King and taking over a person and making them do something that they would otherwise not have done, or calling up spirits in any form. Herbal cures, miracles, and scientific invention providing it did not challenge the teachings of the church was not witchcraft. There was a period in history when being accused of being a witch was fatal, and across Europe hundreds of thousands of people died, most having nothing to do with the craft in any form, but an excuse to steal peoples wealth. Although many think of witches as being female in many areas the majority of the victims were male.

Throughout history a number of kings found the concepts around King Arthur, Merlin and the rest suited their purpose, and if we dig a little into a variety of sources we find a range of wizardry going on across all parts of Britain throughout time. a lot of it connected with water and healing.

Later when we were in a period when everyone had to go to church by law, you had the local wise person, herbal healers, midwives and other specialities that were among the congregation, and viewed themselves as Christians in the full sense of that time. Later the English and other churches over a period chattered into a vast number of denominations, some of these today may be very much against witchcraft while others have many craft skills at their core.

The last convictions for witchcraft in the UK were Helen Duncan in 1944 who was sent to prison and Jane Rebecca Yorke age 72 who was not, she was fined £5 and bound over to keep the peace, later the same year. Several were later threatened with prosecution, but were not.

The Witchcraft Act in the UK was repealed in 1951, and is still legally in force in the Republic of Ireland today, and possibly other European countries and with the situation that has developed, where a person in any European country can be called to stand trial in any other, on the order of any magistrate, you can see many who 'dabble' in 'the craft'  do so without being too open about it. In other countries a number of people have been killed after being accused of witchcraft in recent years. Also over recent years there have been occasions when the media has made a big thing of someone being connected with or a member of a witchcraft group, and so even today most involved in traditional, rather than Wicca groups, do not feel they can do so openly.  Those who see it as a religion, don't have a  need to preach or convert others, and the 'traditionalists' don't see it as a conflict with other religions.

In its initial form, magic and 'the craft' is still very much alive and believed by many people in Britain. Some areas such as alternative medicine, and therapies, and some areas of philosophy are also a part of what would have been considered magic.

What would have originally been illegal, conjuring spirits, sťances, fortune telling, 'the stars' columns in newspaper and magazines, have become common place, although not a part of the craft.

The Grail

Some of the matter of Britain, is connected with the grail, and this tends to tie together Christianity and the magic of Merlin and the time of King Arthur. The grail starts out as a bowl/cup that arrived with Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, and we can track it from there to the container that the Celtic Christian order has that exists today, which is perhaps a story for another day. The legend probably combines Christian lore with a Celtic myth of a cauldron endowed with special powers, so like much of early history is a wrapping together of Celtic and early Christian ideas and beliefs. Like many such areas if you believe in it enough perhaps it does posses powers.

Special places

Lourdes, sacred springs, places of pilgrimage, all offer hope to some and perhaps help some people. The non believer may say that if enough people go anywhere some will get better, while those who have a faith will take any cure as a proof. Today more people visit sacred places and seek out magic in its various forms than at any point in history.

Merlin over time

Some think that many legendary historical characters was not a single person but a number of people, in some cases where history has confusingly wound them together by mistake as a single character, some times where this is a handing on of a role and in some cases the occasional re-emergence of a title throughout time. In films we often see the handing on of titles as in 'Zorro' and 'Pirates of the Caribbean', and in the same way those with hereditary titles have handed them on or with land based 'lord of the manor of.....' titles,  sold them, some feel that many other sections of society will have copied, or done the same.

Several groups have a role of Merlin within their organisation or ceremonials, and while some may see this as recent adaptations others claim that its a long time tradition going back over many centuries and some even to the time of the original Merlin. Perhaps you will become Merlin at some time.

Back to the BBC version - Of course its a fun drama, we can expect plenty of magic (special effects) and as perhaps you won't know how they are done, it could be a form of real magic to you. It hasn't claimed to be a real interpretation in any form, they have just borrowed the character names and in the style of Dr Who, or Robin Hood, just woven some good entertainment around them. It may also have the affect of interesting a few more people to discover more of the background, how and by who the original version was created and to look at the places  that could have originally been connected with him.

See Also:

King Arthur and the locations connected to him.

King Arthur, did he exist, and who was he. 


By: Keith Park Section: Heritage Section Key:
Page Ref: merlin Topic: Heritage  Last Updated: 06/2010

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