I decided to start a series of analyses of specific characters in the Arthurian legend and, by extension, how they appear in the novels of The Swithen series. Since my series must remain faithful to the events as they are put down in the Medieval source material, I have to retain what they say and do, but luckily the sources are vague enough that they offer wide room for interpretation of their characters and personalities.
I decided that the best place to start with this series would be with the character that all of it revolves around; Merlin. Here we’ll discuss how he is portrayed in the Middle English sources, then go into my process in fleshing him out into a living, breathing character. Note that for not wanting to spoil any upcoming events, this analysis only considers Merlin’s actions up to the forthcoming Book 5: Wonderly Wroth, which brings us to the moment when Arthur is crowned as king.
In the sources
The early Welsh sources portray Merlin as a madman, driven insane by the horror of seeing so many brave young men killed by war. Later he is a wild man of the woods, insane but eerily accurate and prescient. Geoffery of Monmouth provides the first account of Merlin being the spawn of a demon (an incubus) and a human woman. In this account he sees the future, and provides prophecies, but he is not instrumental to Arthur’s reign. The Post-Vulgate Cycle provides the model that my novels take for Merlin’s creation and where I get the story of his mother and the basic shape of the narrative.
Beginning Arthur with a coup by the devil
Now, the main thing the Post-Vulgate, which is the first explicitly Christian telling, adds is that Merlin was created in direct response to Christ, was redeemed through baptism, and gets his powers of foresight directly from God. This narrative was added to the existing story after the majority of it—including Lancelot’s adventures, his affair with Guinevere, the entire first half of Arthur’s story and the tale of Arthur’s death—were already laid down. So they slapped a new beginning on an already-written story, which results in this strange disconnect; by adding this beginning, it casts the entire Arthurian legend as the result of the devil’s failed attempt to claim dominance. Yet the rest of the legend never deals with this—it is simply dropped.
Say it without saying it
The Post-Vulgate is vague on all of its characters’ thoughts and feelings; we mostly hear what they do and have to wonder ourselves about their motivations. This is especially true in the case of Merlin. The writing is vague at times, and at other times absolutely contradictory. For example, we hear that Merlin and Uther had great love for each other, while at the same time Merlin refuses to speak to Uther after a while. The legend also never explicitly states that Merlin went about creating Arthur on purpose, but at the same time, all of his actions tend to point in this direction. The text just never actually says it.
The text will also have him do or say things and then completely sidestep any larger implications around it. For example, he tells Uther that he will be king in front of Pendragon, his brother and current king. Does he do this to mess with their minds? Does he mean to imply that Pendragon will die? None of that is even mentioned. He just says it, no one comments, and we move on.
For these reasons I had to decide that if I am going to be faithful to what Merlin said or did in the text, I then had free rein to expand on the implications of it, as we’ll discuss below.
In The Swithen
Not the nice guy we’re used to
One of the first things people notice about Merlin in The Swithen novels is that he is far from perfect, and he’s not at all the kindly old man we’re used to. The main reason for this is, of course, that a character who is perfect is simply not interesting, and has no room to develop.
In the earliest novel I had the idea that because Merlin sees across all of history, he would have no sympathy for individual people, and be emotionally blind to their feelings. I also decided early on that because all of Merlin’s knowledge is received, not earned, he knows everything, but has no actual life experience to temper his judgments or create sympathy toward others. This idea, that he had little lived experience, gave rise to the idea explored in Book 2: The Sons of Constance, that he is actually quite young in terms of years, at that time only ten years old.
All of these things were incredibly helpful in opening Merlin up as a character, giving him some vulnerability and helping him connect to the other characters. I definitely wanted his mother to have a big influence on the development of his morality, I wanted him to be devoted to Blaise, warm toward Pendragon and Ulfius, cool toward Uther… all of these things. And of course, all of this is leading, in some way, to his connection with Arthur.
That little devil
Also initially, I was going to take the lead of the Medieval sources and have Merlin’s devil side be completely controlled and put away, never to be mentioned again. But the sources keep mentioning that there are times when Merlin has to be away from people—although they don’t say why. And as I continued, I realized that this is another way to make him interesting as a character, and take him away from his perfect, imperturbable incarnation (I imagine this is the same reason that Spock becomes ever-more emotional in each progressive Star Trek property).
As the series progressed, however, I knew that Viviane, the first Lady of the Lake, was going to intersect with Merlin, and she was going to call him out on some of his assumptions—most notably his idea that his devil side is completely gone and God (the Christian one) is just totally cool with this creation of the devil now being on His side. She does this in Book 5: Wonderly Wroth. So when I went back to revise the first book, I purposely made sure that we see Merlin as a devil before he is baptized and I emphasized that when he is deeply angry, his devil side comes to the fore. This offers a little tension in his character and creates a point at which he might totally lose it.
What humans have never dealt with
As I mentioned, in the source literature, Merlin often says quite shocking things that are just dropped and never mentioned again. I decided early on that not only did I have free rein to expand on what these comments might mean to the humans, but this could be a great source of drama and opening up the relatable aspect of these stories.
To expand on the example I gave earlier, in Book 2: The Sons of Constance, Merlin is mad at Pendragon and says, right in front of him: “I will see Uther as king before I depart this realm.” The text just moves on and the comment is forgotten. But what does that mean? Does he mean that Pendragon will die? If so, how soon? After a lot of thought about how to deal with it, I decided that this could be something that sends the brothers into an emotional tailspin. For Pendragon, his death was just prophesized, although without any details on the when or how. For Uther, he now has to hold this idea that he will one day be king, but if he is excited about that, does it mean that he is looking forward to his brother’s death? And Merlin—is this how he wields his powers when he gets angry?
I didn’t intend it when I started the series, but as I write these scenes I am continually writing about human beings having to face something they have never encountered before; a supernatural being in their midst. The different ways in which people respond to Merlin create a lot of the drama and intrigue that fills out the scenes and brings them out of legend and into relatable situations.
The Post-Vulgate is typically cagey on whether, or to what degree, Merlin actually creates Arthur to fulfill his purposes. On the one hand, he certainly puts together the circumstances, he certainly helps out at just the right time, but the writing stops short of downright saying that he does it all on purpose.
I really like the somewhat sci-fi idea that Merlin actually creates Arthur as a massive social engineering experiment. It’s both interesting as a concept, and generates a lot of drama and conflict that I can use to turn into scenes that flesh out the legend. It gives us much of the action in Book 3: The Void Place, in which the entire background drama is that Merlin is manipulating Uther into fathering Arthur, while poor Uther himself knows that Merlin is up to something, but doesn’t have enough information to put together quite what—until it’s too late. Merlin’s ruthlessness and obliviousness to human emotion bring him to probably the lowest moral point he will ever hit in the series. I have Uther explicitly turn against Merlin, largely in part to create tension looking forward to Merlin’s relationship to Arthur: What if Arthur rejects Merlin?
In Book 5: Wonderly Wroth Arthur hears a great deal about the wizard and is warned that Merlin will definitely be coming for him. You can bet that my Arthur is in for some serious existential questioning as he has to face that this person both had him created for an explicit purpose and created the circumstances that thrust him into the role of king, all without any input of his own. Exploring the struggles that both of them go through to form a bond will be the focus of Book 6. Because I am do stay faithful to the legend, we know that they will eventually find a way to work together, but because I am trying to give these relationships depth, it certainly won’t be an easy road to get there.
In a lot of ways, the first five novels bring Merlin from the Christian enforcer of the Post-Vulgate to the Pagan wizard that we know from our most popular versions of the legend. As you can see from the above, most of my work has been to make him more complicated, give him more depth and make him a character we can relate to—even if it’s only how strange and inscrutable he is.