Merlin and Vortigern: Or, Why Merlin is the Way He Is

Welcome to Year of the Quest! Throughout 2020 I will be exploring some of the key legends in the Arthurian tradition, starting this month with Merlin’s origin story – at least, one of them. His mother was a mortal woman, named Aldan in Welsh tradition, and his father was an incubus. To quote Bulfinch’s Mythology, incubi are ‘a class of beings not absolutely wicked, but far from good, who inhabit the regions of the air’ because that’s where we’re at in terms of moral high-handedness. Listen, I can name a dozen Arthurian characters who are a hundred percent human and absolutely the worst. (Spoilers: Uther, right up there on the list). Anyway, Merlin’s mother had him baptised with all possible speed, but he grew up with a range of unusual abilities courtesy of his supernatural father.

Meanwhile, there is Vortigern. According to The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, his original name in Welsh is Gwrtheyrn and he was a British king in the fifth century. When the Saxons invaded, the Welsh blamed Vortigern, which is sort of understandable if he really did trade Kent for a Saxon wife. But we are not here to join the argument on which bits of Arthurian legend are based on history and which bits are not, we’re for drama and judgement.

So, this is the situation: for the purposes of this legend, Vortigern is an anxious usurper living in fear that the rightful heirs, brothers Uther and Pendragon, will come storming back and reclaim the kingdom. To prevent this, he is trying to build a fortress in the Welsh mountains. Emphasis on ‘trying’. It is not going well. Three times his workmen have built it up, and three times it has fallen down, and instead of taking that as a sign to build his fortress somewhere else, Vortigern goes to his astrologers for a solution to the problem. They advise him to find a child born without a mortal father and bathe the foundation stones in that child’s blood. I am sure the architect was absolutely thrilled with this insight into structural stability.

Vortigern sends out messengers to find a child that fits the bill and they return with little Merlin, who stands in front of the king and tells him he is absurd. Does he even know why the fortress keeps collapsing? Does anyone know? Vortigern’s advisors admit they do not. Merlin tells them that the site of the fortress is really the den of two dragons and when they fight, the walls above collapse. Vortigern has his workmen dig deep beneath the foundations and Merlin is proven entirely correct: two dragons rise from a pool of water, one white and one red, already lunging at one another. The onlookers wisely flee, all except for little Merlin, who gleefully claps his hands and cheers at the violence. The red dragon falls dead; the white dragon vanishes into the mountain.

Merlin declares that the dragons are living metaphors for the return of Uther and Pendragon, who soon bring an army to Vortigern’s doorstep. They burn down the fortress with him inside it. Pendragon is crowned king and takes Merlin as his advisor, a position that he retains when Pendragon dies and Uther succeeds him. A talent inherited from his incubus father allows Merlin to transform his physical appearance, which is both entertaining and very useful to the monarchs he has chosen to serve. In time, when Uther desires the beautiful Igraine, Merlin will use his power to disguise the king as her husband Gorlois even as Gorlois himself lies dead. This leads to the birth of Arthur and the rise of Camelot.

With an adviser like Merlin standing at Arthur’s elbow, is it any wonder everything went to hell?

There are of course multiple versions of this story, with variation on the details, but I like the imagery in this one. Young Merlin surrounded by men who would kill him for the sake of a castle but without hesitation taking charge; and later, this child standing on the edge of a pit, clapping his hands while two enormous dragons fight to the death. It is a fittingly grisly and powerful beginning to one of the greatest sagas ever told.

Sources: Bulfinch’s Mythology – Thomas Bulfinch (Gramercy Books, 2003), The New Arthurian Encyclopedia – ed. Norris J. Lacy (Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996)

4 thoughts on “Merlin and Vortigern: Or, Why Merlin is the Way He Is

  1. This is so cool! I’ve heard of this story before, but I’ve never really looked into it very much. How many retellings use the idea of Merlin being the son of an incubus? I love Arthurian legends a lot, but for some reason I’ve never really gone out of my way to read retellings, so I wouldn’t know. It’s such a cool idea!
    Merlin is a bit creepy to me. I’ve never really understood the hype for him, but I do think he’s a very interesting character. I don’t get interpreting him as a good guy in all this, though. I’m not over Igraine. Or Merlin telling Arthur to murder children. Yeah.

  2. NEVER over Igraine, AGREED. And the whole King Herod re-enactment is, in my opinion, the weakest point in the entirety of Arthurian legend, to the point that I rarely acknowledge its existence. The retellings I’ve read have mostly cast Merlin as the mysterious mentor figure rather than going into any detail about his past – the only one I recall mentioning Merlin’s supernatural heritage was a story about Nimue and Merlin’s (creepy) influence on her life. I would say Merlin is not and never has been a good guy, in any iteration; he is a manipulative, morally dark grey entity pursuing his own agenda, and what’s so interesting about this story is the glimpse at how he became that way. The child who cheered on death became the architect of his own destruction.

    • Igraine deserved so much better, smh.
      How come you don’t like the story where Arthur killed the children? I actually kind of do, probably because I grew up on Chinese dramas where that sort of thing happened a lot–the emperor always had done some horrible thing in the past that the family never really spoke of but that affected the whole family dynamic and that eventually brought the family down. But Arthur killing the children is a really weird moment in the story, and I get why you wouldn’t like it. Is it because it’s just dropped there with no followup?
      I find the manipulative, morally grey version of Merlin to be a much more interesting idea than how he’s portrayed in some retellings, tbh. The wise old mentor being a very negative influence on the main character’s life is something I’m not sure I’ve seen very much in stories (though that could be because I don’t tend to read a lot of the fantasy books that have wise old mentors, for some reason).

      • The killing of the children is an act that should haunt Arthur throughout the rest of the story, affecting his relationship with Morgause in particular after he did his level best to murder her son. If it fitted in the narrative, there would be real consequences. Instead Mordred survives, grows up, never brings it up as a grievance when he’s trying to take Arthur down. Arthur gets to be a beloved and noble king whose fall is generally blamed on his wife’s infidelity (which is a separate source of fury, I am firmly Team Guinevere). The deaths of those children never fit anywhere in the story structure, it just happens and then everyone moves on. That is not a Once and Future King we’re talking about, that’s a murderer who got what was coming to him, which is a much less compelling story to me. I want an Arthur I can at least respect, you know?

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