February 12, 2021
King Arthur was one of the most illustrious legendary warriors, and his legend is still very much alive. When we read the stories of King Arthur and his knight’s of the Round Table, we constantly find ourselves coming across the character of Merlin, the magician. This strange and enigmatic figure features so prominently in the tales that it is almost impossible to think of one without the other.
Merlin was Arthur’s teacher, mentor, advisor and friend, and played a big part in Arthur getting his mighty sword and the British throne.
It was Geoffrey who invented the episode of Arthur’s magical conception and birth. King Uther fell in love with Igerna, wife of his ally Gorlois of Duke Cornwall. Merlin casts a spell which makes Uther look like Gorlois, and he sleeps with her, thus conceiving Arthur. Gorlois dies in battle and Uther marries Igerna and then sometime later dies from drinking from a spring poisoned by his Saxon enemies. Arthur becomes king, avenges his father and uncle, and drives the Saxons from Britain.
Merlin taking away the infant Arthur, illustration by N.C. Wyeth in The Boy's King Arthur, 1917. Illustration by N.C. Wyeth
Some historians suggest that Merlin was involved in Arthur’s education. According to the French writer, Robert de Boron, at Arthur’s birth, Merlin gave the infant to Sir Antor (Malory called him Sir Ector) to raise the child in obscure fosterage. Antor was the father of Kay, later a knight who served as his foster brother’s seneschal.
Excalibur is the legendary sword of King Arthur, sometimes also attributed with magical powers or associated with the rightful sovereignty of Britain.
In Robert de Boron’s Merlin, the first tale to mention the “sword in the stone” motif, Arthur obtained the British throne by pulling a sword from an anvil sitting atop a stone that appeared in a churchyard on Christmas Eve. In this account, as foretold by Merlin, the act could not be performed except by “the true king,” meaning the divinely appointed king or true heir of King Uther.
When Arthur broke this sword that had named him king in a fight with King Pellinor (Pellehen), Merlin brought Arthur to the lake where he received a new sword from the Lady of the Lake. This sword was the true Excalibur. As with many other magical or powerful swords in legend or mythology, it is identified with a single hero and should not be allowed to fall into the hands of an enemy owing to its inherent power. In the case of Excalibur, when Arthur is dying of his wounds following his battle with Mordred, it must be returned to its source, the Lady of the Lake, rather than being entrusted to whichever knight – no matter how noble – might succeed Arthur as king.
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