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Merlin: Prophet and Magician

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Ever since his appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Merlin has remained one of the most popular characters of the Arthurian cycle.

However, this great magician is also something of a paradox. He has been described as a powerful wizard, a mythic poet and a shaman who was ultimately defeated by his own magic.

As with so much associated with the Arthurian legend, to understand Merlin, one must look behind the tales and traditions attached to his name. He may have been a purely fictitious figure who addressed poems to a piglet in the shade of an apple tree, or a real Welsh poet.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that he was a Celtic shaman linked to a tradition which survived into the medieval world.

These differing views have influenced depictions of Merlin in film and popular culture. This many-faceted figure now inhabits the neo-medieval worlds of Lord Tennyson and T.H.

White as well as being the cosy magician of Disney cartoons and Broadway musicals. His influence has been felt on the darker figures of fantasy literature like Gandalf and Dumbledore.

What was the ‘authentic’ Merlin really like? Our quest for Merlin will take us through literature, folklore, archaeology, and art.

Learning and teaching

The module will be delivered through ten 2-hour sessions. These sessions will consist of a lecture followed by class discussion and group work on specific topics relating to the module.

The discussion and group work will enable students to think critically and contribute to the debates and topics presented during the lectures.

The discussion-led sessions and the lectures will be supplemented by resources available to students via Learning Central.

Syllabus:

  1. The World of Magic and Medieval Romance
  2. The Birth of Merlin
  3. Myrddin in Wales
  4. The Medieval Life of Merlin
  5. Merlin and Viviane
  6. Merlin as Prophet
  7. Merlin’s Books: the Renaissance and Beyond
  8. Shamanic Dreams - Merlin and the Druids
  9. Transforming Merlin: Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Friends
  10. Merlin in Fiction, Fantasy, and Art

Coursework and assessment

You will be expected to complete two pieces of assessed work:

  • a short critical review
  • a 1000-word essay.

There will be lots of help and support available for both assignments.

Reading suggestions

  • John Bollard, ‘The earliest Myrddin poems’, in Arthur in the Celtic Languages: The Arthurian Legend in Celtic Literatures and Traditions, edited by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan and Erich Poppe (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2019).
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, trans Lewis Thorpe (Hardmondsworth: Penguin, 1966).
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, Life of Merlin, trans Basil Clarke (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1973).
  • A.O.H. Jarman, ‘The Merlin legends and the Welsh tradition of prophecy’, in The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature, ed. Rachel Bromwich, A. O. H. Jarman, and Brynley Roberts (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991).

Library and computing facilities

As a student on this course you are entitled to join and use the University’s library and computing facilities. Find out more about using these facilities.

Accessibility

Our aim is access for all. We aim to provide a confidential advice and support service for any student with a long term medical condition, disability or specific learning difficulty. We are able to offer one-to-one advice about disability, pre-enrolment visits, liaison with tutors and co-ordinating lecturers, material in alternative formats, arrangements for accessible courses, assessment arrangements, loan equipment and dyslexia screening.