Merlin Goes to the Movies: The Changing Role of Merlin in Cinema Arthuriana
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 29, Numbers 3-4, 1999
- pp. 54-65
- Additional Information
Torregrossa | Merlin Goes to the Movies: The Changing Role of Merlin in Cinema Arthuriana Michael Torregrossa University of Connecticut Merlin Goes to the Movies: The Changing Role of Merlin in Cinema Arthuriana Portrait ofMerlin in his lab holding a book. From The Sword in the Stone. 54 I Film & History The Medieval Period in Film | Special In-Depth Section The legend ofMerlin is like a medieval tapestry. Each creative artist who seeks to work with the character ofMerlin pulls several strands from the rich tapestry that composes his legend. Each then places those strands upon the wonderful loom ofimagination and sets about to reweave the story ofMerlin from a unique perspective. From this reweaving and reinterpretation ofthe character come the seemingly infinite variations on the figure ofMerlin in the modern era. Although the legend ofMerlin has existed for more than a thousand years, the current perception of the character is based predominantly on his portrayal in the Walt Disney film The Sword in the Stone (1963) and in its source, the eponymous novel by Terence Hanbury White, originally published in 1938. Both versions of The Sword in the Stone have had a definite impact on subsequent versions ofMerlin in literature, art, poetry, drama, film, and television . However, just as each new work ofArthuriana is unique, so, too, is each author's, artist's, or director's depiction ofMerlin. In this article, I will focus on three of the most important roles ofMerlin in the corpus ofcinema Arthuriana:1 teacher, king-maker, and lover. Each of these roles is rooted in the medieval tradition of Merlin and reflects some ofthe earliest versions ofhis legend in connection with the narratives of King Arthur and the Knights ofthe Round Table. Merlin as Teacher The role ofMerlin as teacher appears to originate in the figure ofthe "Merlin ofthe Romances,"2 who first appears in the Old French and Middle English Arthurian romances of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. However , earlier portrayals ofMerlin, such as the figures of the wild man Merlin Calidonius (based on the Welsh prophet Myrddin Wyllt mab Morfryn) and the prophet Merlin Ambrosius, display some aspects ofthe pedagogue in their legends. For example, Merlin Ambrosius from Geoffrey ofMonmouth's Historia Regum Britanniaê (1136) possesses the wisdom of the ages, perhaps in homage to the Awen-inspired4 prophet Merlin Calidonius. Geoffrey's Merlin displays his learning both by using machines to reconstruct the Irish Giant's Dance as the British Stonehenge and in his knowledge ofherb lore, which is essential to the conception ofKing Arthur. Both Merlin Calidonius and Merlin Ambrosius instruct others through their prophetic powers and clairvoyant abilities. The Merlin ofGeoffrey's Vita Merlinf (1150) merges the legends of these two Merlins, and in this later work, Merlin and Taliesin (Telgesinus in Geoffrey's Latin) have several long discussions from Merlin's observatory in the Caledonian woods on the medieval concepts ofthe heavens and present several learned catalogs offish, birds, islands, springs, and lakes. In the Arthurian romances (especially in the Old French Estoire de Merlin, Suite du Merlin, and the Didot Perceval and in the Middle English Prose-Merlin and OfArthour and ofMerlin, ), Merlin acts as a teacher to Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. He takes on a variety of guises and either offers advice or leads the knight upon the proper path toward his destiny. Le Morte Darthur of Sir Thomas Malory (1485) continued the traditions of the Merlin of the Romances, and for the most part, it was Malory's version of the Arthurian legend that the Victorians revived in the nineteenth century. Following Malory's narrative, T. H. White composed The Sword in the Stone, the tetralogy entitled The Once and Future King (1958), and The Book ofMerlyn (published posthumously in 1977). It is in White's work that Merlyn as teacher comes to the attention of the modern world, including the world of cinema.6 In 1963, Walt Disney released a film adaptation of The Sword in the Stone and further spread the image of Merlin as teacher. Two recent films also involve Merlin in the role of teacher. In A Kid in King Arthur's Court (1995), Merlin helps young Calvin...