Purdue University Graduate School

The Consolidation of the British Merlin's Identity

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The Consolidation of the British Merlin's Identity from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Malory: From a Foreign Iuvenis sine Patre to the Powerful Advisor of King Arthur

posted on 2022-12-08, 14:01 authored by Tzu-Yu LiuTzu-Yu Liu


     When it comes to advisors in Arthurian legends, Merlin is likely the first name that quickly comes to mind. However, few have recognized that Merlin is more than a supplementary character. Far beyond simply giving counsel, the prophet-mage actually makes a huge contribution to creating and governing the so-called Arthurian world. This project aims to examine the creation and consolidation of the British Merlin’s identity in Arthurian literature (primarily from the twelfth to the fifteenth century), arguing that Merlin is more than a powerful counselor of King Arthur—the prophet-mage is occasionally depicted as a racial “Other” when contrasted with Arthur and his British subjects; at other times, he is a doppelgänger of the legendary monarch who rules the kingdom; and at still other times he is a prophetic builder constructing a future that he envisions in the name of God. The kaleidoscopic representations of Merlin and his identities in Arthurian literature during this period reflect how Others—racial and otherwise, especially those who make temporary appearances at the center of the power structure—are perceived, treated, and exploited to help the British audience establish their common identity as an independent social group living in Britain. This project analyzes and compares, primarily through the lens of critical race theory and analysis of identity construction (both individual and communal), Merlin-texts composed and circulated in Britain from the twelfth century to the fifteenth century. The findings are supported by textual evidence and analyses of contemporary historical, political, and cultural context.

     The project begins with a review of current scholarship in Merlin studies and the application of critical race theory in medieval studies. It demonstrates that previous scholarship on Merlin has mostly focused on analyzing what his extraordinary powers represent in the texts and how his prophetic ability was used for various political purposes, such as uniting a fractured community and providing a hopeful outlook to people under oppression. However, no satisfactory attempt has been made to explain how and why such an important character as Merlin only makes limited appearances in Merlin-texts and how his importance is continuously—even more profoundly—felt after his early removal from such texts. The mage’s apparent characteristics of Otherness and his abrupt removal from many Merlin-texts have provided ample grounds for the application of critical race theory. This theoretical approach, though relatively new in medieval studies, allows us to recognize that Merlin, as a racial Other in the center of a power structure, is paradoxically crucial but undesirable for the dominant group that has always perceived him as an outsider.

     To highlight Merlin-figures’ much overlooked identity as an outsider, Chapter 1 traces the identities of the pre-Galfridian Merlin-figures in two traditions: Merlinus Ambrosius and Merlinus Caledonius. It demonstrates that while these pre-Galfridian Merlin-figures make hopeful prophecies for a community, they are also estranged from that particular community in different aspects. Their varied outsider identities—like wild man in the forest, warrior in political exile, mad prophet, and mixed-raced child living in the margins of society—constitute fertile grounds for kaleidoscopic portrayals of Merlins to come.

     Chapter 2 then focuses on the first Merlin(s) introduced by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Through the lens of critical race theory, this chapter argues that Geoffrey’s Merlin(s) is already racially nuanced in aspects like religion and social status. His newly acquired identity as the son of an incubus endows him and his clan with extraordinary qualities that gradually become essentialized traits marking their identity as racial Others. This paves the way for Merlin’s further alienation and dehumanization in later Merlin-texts in which the abstract quality of Otherness begins to be visually and physically apparent on Merlin’s body. 

     After establishing Merlin as a racial Other, Chapter 3 proceeds to read Merlin as a doppelgänger of King Arthur—mainly in the Vulgate Estoire de Merlin. Focusing on Merlin’s much debated roles of prophet and architect, this chapter explores how (unlike most prophets in Arthurian literature) Merlin is often heavily—and intimately—involved with the future that he foretells, which makes his prophetic words appear more like personal prophetic blueprints in which he envisions what his world could be like instead of what it ought to have been. Since Merlin and Arthur share almost all traits of their identity except their blood, and Arthur, in many Merlin-texts, could only rule by closely following Merlin’s instructions, texts featuring a powerful Merlin often function as commentaries concerning issues like kingship and political powers of racial Others who “officially” cannot be recognized as holding significant power in communities in which their identities construct them as marginal or secondary. This is manifest in episodes like the disaster of May babies in the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin and Thomas Malory’s Morte, in which Arthur takes the action but Merlin takes the blame.

     Finally, Chapter 4 examines Thomas Malory’s consolidation of the identities of the English Merlin towards the end of the fifteenth century. Through comparing the different depictions of Merlin among Malory’s Morte and three Middle English Merlin-texts circulating in the English-speaking community during this period, this chapter argues that Malory’s omission of Merlin’s early history is a crucial factor that allows the author to make his Merlin more adaptable to the needs of his contemporary English audience. That is, Malory’s Merlin can be God’s mouthpiece, the son of a devil, a trusted mentor, and an incredulous dream-reader all in one text. By leaving out Merlin’s early history, Malory consolidates the various Merlins into a familiar yet foreign face in the English Arthuriad, a meme-like character that evolves each time we encounter him in the texts. 


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • English

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Dr. S. Dorsey Armstrong

Additional Committee Member 2

Dr. Shaun F.D. Hughes

Additional Committee Member 3

Dr. Michael Johnston

Additional Committee Member 4

Dr. Paula Leverage