A magician, prophet and advisor, active in all phases of the administration of Arthur's kingdom. According to legend, Merlin was begotten by an incubus, an evil spirit that has intercourse with sleeping women. The evil child was supposed to provide a counterweight to the good influence of Jesus Christ on earth. Merlin, fortunately, was baptized early on in his life, an event which negated the evil in his nature, but left his powers intact.
Legend then tells us that after the Roman withdrawal from Britain and the usurpation of the throne from the rightful heirs, Vortigern was in flight from the Saxon breakout and went to Snowdonia, in Wales, in hopes of constructing a mountain fortress where he might be safe. Unfortunately, the building kept collapsing and Vortigern's house wizards told him that a human sacrifice of a fatherless child would solve the problem. One small difficulty was that such children are rather hard to find. Fortunately for Vortigern's fortress, Merlin was known to have no human father and happened to be available.
Before the sacrifice could take place,Merlin used his great visionary powers and attributed the structural problem to a subterranean pool in which lived a red and a white dragon. The meaning of this, according to Merlin, was that the red dragon represented the Britons, and the white dragon, the Saxons.
The dragons fought, with the white dragon having the best of it, at first, but then the red dragon drove the white one back. The meaning was clear. Merlin prophesied that Vortigern would be slain and followed on the throne by Ambrosius Aurelianus, then Uther, then a greater leader, Arthur. It would fall to him to push the Saxons back.
True to the prophecy, Vortigern was slain and Ambrosius took the throne. After 460 British nobles were massacred at a peace conference, as a result of Saxon trickery, Ambrosius consulted Merlin about erecting a suitable memorial to them.
Merlin, along with Uther, led and expedition to Ireland to procure the stones of the Chorea Gigantum, the Giant's Ring. Merlin, by the use of his extraordinary powers, brought the stones back to a site, just west of Amesbury,and re-erected them around the mass grave of the British nobles. We now call this place Stonehenge.
After his death, Ambrosius was succeeded by Uther, who, during his pursuit of Gorlois and his irresistable wife, Ygerna (Igraine, in some texts), back to their lands in Cornwall, was aided by Merlin. As a result of a deception made possible by Merlin's powers, Uther was transformed into the image of Gorlois. He entered their castle, managed to fool Ygraine into thinking he was her husband, had his way with her and in the course of things,conceived a child, Arthur.
Poor Gorlois, not knowing what was going on, went out to meet Uther in combat, but instead, was slain by Uther's troops. Sometime after Arthur's birth, in the defining moment of his career, Merlin arranged for the sword-in-the-stone contest by which Arthur became king.
In the romances, Merlin is the creator of the Round Table, and is closely involved in aiding and directing the events of the king and kingdom of Camelot. He is pictured by Geoffrey of Monmouth, at the end of Arthur's life, accompanying the wounded Arthur to the Isle of Avalon for the healing of his wounds.
Merlin, whose name is a Latinized version of the Welsh word, Myrddin, is an invention of Geoffrey of Monmouth (as is so much else). According to Geoffrey's "Vita Merlini" (c. 1150),Merlin/Myrddin is a sixth century prophet living in the north of Britain.
Merlin may have had his conceptual origin in one of the wild-man-in-the-woods motifs common to the ancient folklore of the British Isles, such as the tale of another seer named Lailoken, who may be the original for Geoffrey's character.
Merlin's career extended beyond Arthur and, according to Gerald of Wales, apparently ended in his madness and subsequent wandering in the woods, after seeing some horrible sight in the sky, during the Battle of Arthuret.
His burial place is said to be beneath Merlin's Mound at Marlborough College in Marlborough, Wiltshire, at Drumelzier, Tweeddale in Scotland, and in Merlin's Hill Cave in Carmarthen, Wales.