The Death of Merlin
Friday, November 17, 2023
In the 15th century, a knight named Thomas Malory set about to record an organized account of the life of the legendary King Arthur, taken from various sources. The story is so long that it is almost always published in two volumes. And yet, the work is titled after only one event in the story. It is called "Le Morte d'Arthur"--the death of Arthur.
It seems the title is a classic mistake, and not the one Malory intended at all. It was meant to be the title of only the final section of the whole, but when Malory ended that portion, "Thus endeth this... book [meaning "section"] entytled le morte Darthur..." it was taken as the name of the entire book.
But it is not entirely wrong. From his conception through his birth, testing, kingship, and final battle, Arthur's whole life seems to have been aiming for that one moment. And Malory's account of his death and the disposition of his remains is certainly one of the most stirring in the entire story.
But Malory's is only one of a myriad of accounts of Arthur's life. And the same is true of his wizard and advisor, Merlin. The only point the various accounts of Merlin's death have in common is that he was trapped by a female student.
Was she his lover? Was it requited? Was she a woman, or an adolescent girl? Was it in England, Brittany (a peninsula on the northwest coast of France), or Wales?
What was her name? Morgan le Fay? Nyneve, Nymue, or Nimue? Viviane? Niniane? Was she a Lady of the Lake?
And in what was Merlin trapped? In a tree? In a cave? Under a large stone? In a pit in the ground? Or in a crystal tower, which through magic appeared only as a mist to passersby?
Was Merlin truly deceived? Or did he allow it to happen? Or knowing what was happening, did he somehow lose the power to stop it?
The only outline we can derive from the many, many stories is this: Merlin had a talented female student. Whether out of possessive love or vaunting ambition, she decided to set him aside--but not kill him. Using the powers he had given her, she eternally suspended him in either a natural or supernatural state. Some say she could still visit him, and that his voice could still be heard after he was gone.
But some say it was just the wind in the trees.
Practice: Match the term to its definition:
Answers are in the first comment below.
Answers to the Practice: 1. j; 2. f; 3. i; 4. e; 5. g; 6. d; 7. h; 8. a; 9. c; 10. b