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Figure who casts a spell

by
23 November 2012

We once had space for him, says Jane Stemp

© VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON

Romantic Merlin: a photograph, Vivien and Merlin, com­missioned by Tennyson in 1874 from Julia Margaret Cameron, and later published by Cameron with extracts from Tennyson's poems. It is reproduced in Anne Lawrence- Mathers's book. This is the moment when, Tennyson wrote, Vivien "put forth the charm of woven paces and of waving hands", leaving Merlin "lost to life and use, and name and fame"

Romantic Merlin: a photograph, Vivien and Merlin, com­missioned by Tennyson in 1874 from Julia Margaret Cameron, and later published by Cameron with...

The True History of Merlin the Magician
Anne Lawrence-Mathers
Yale University Press £25
(978-0-300-14489-5)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT517 )

UNRAVELLING the relationship between history and story is a hard task at the best of times; when it comes to a character such as Merlin, that task is further complicated by the difficulty, from the 21st-century viewpoint, of closing the divide between supernatural and natural, which was so much narrower 800 years ago.

Anne Lawrence-Mathers acknowledges that medieval readers were able to distinguish between the two sides of the divide: they did not believe in the existence of Merlin because they were stupid or credulous, but because theirs was a world with a history that had a place for him, even as late as William Lilly's Merlinus Anglicus of 1680. How, then, did this world operate, and what was the space in it that had room for Merlin? Lawrence-Mathers answers these questions, and, incidentally, teaches the reader much about medieval history and medieval theories of astrology and magic.

The chapters are thematic, including, for example, Merlin as astrologer, magician, and - a late development - lover. Lawrence-Mathers is particularly effective when describing the powerful combination of reality and danger which accompanied him, even at a time when he was believed to be a genuine historical figure.

In passing (it is perhaps something that could have been enlarged on), she associates him with the classic scholar-astrologer-magician group of which Pope Sylvester and Michael Scot were also members, they themselves eventually occupying a space in folklore as well as in reality. Merlin moved in the other direction, from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae to the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes.

The book is written in an astringent, witty style, and is a stimulating and informative read without being too abstruse. So large is the collation of facts about Merlin and his history that some points, inevitably, are made more than once, but this does not detract from the book overall.

Perhaps the illustrations could be crisper: medieval illuminations are remarkably uninteresting in monochrome. The reproduction of a Julia Margaret Cameron photograph, however, comes out very well.

Jane Stemp is librarian of the historic collections of the Institute of Naval Medicine, and a children's author.

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