Vivien: The Lady of the Lake

Vivien and Merlin

“For Merlin, overtalked and overworn,

Had yielded, told her all the charm, and slept”

(Alfred Lord Tennyson)

Most Arthurian legends feature Merlin’s love-interest, Vivien.  She usually appears as The Lady of the Lake and ruler of Avalon, but sometimes she is described by other names such as Nimue – Niviane – the daughter of a vavasor named Dionas – a princess of Northumberland – or the Queen of Sicily.  And like the great magician himself, her character has undergone several important changes throughout history.

In the majority of early versions Vivien meets Merlin by a spring in the Forest of Broceliande, Brittany.  They fall in love, share a relationship, and exchange supernatural knowledge.  The Lady of the Lake is associated with water, the essential essence of life, and she quenches the lonely old man’s thirst for companionship.  She also gives King Arthur the magic sword Excalibur, and raises Lancelot in Avalon after the death of his father.  Then she takes Merlin away from Camelot and he is never seen again.

In Thirteenth Century Pre-Vulgate French mythology, Vivien is a fairy.  She appears as Merlin’s adoring student and he falls in love with her youth, intelligence, and beauty.  When Vivien uses one of her mentor’s spells to create a magical tower that locks them both away from the rest of the world, she does so to preserve their happiness together.  She acts out of genuine love without any deception or malice.

But when the Catholic Church adopted King Arthur as a champion of Christianity, Vivien was transformed into an evil sorceress and witch.  She is thereafter portrayed as another Eve-like temptress who seduces a good man and brings about his downfall.  In these tales she uses her feminine wiles to uncover Merlin’s most powerful spell and ultimately uses it against him.  Then she locks him in an enchanted tree – or prison made of air –  or tomb covered with a stone that no one can move – rendering him invisible from the outside world until he falls asleep forever.

In the post-feminist era, however, this fascinating character has evolved yet again and  Vivien emerges as the New Woman.  No longer is she portrayed as a dependent fairy or malicious witch.  Instead she has become a strong force in society – a free thinker –  someone in charge of her own destiny.  She lives with Merlin as a lover and equal.   She could survive perfectly well without him, but chooses not to.

The modern Lady of the Lake tale now suggests that mutual love is the greatest magic of all and the strongest power on earth.

Do you agree?

Sources:

Brunel, Pierre.  Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Collier’s Encyclopedia (15).  Macmillan, 1974.

Wikipedia, “Lady of the Lake”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_of_the_Lake

(Picture: Julia Margaret Cameron)

Merlin: Madman or Magician?

merlin

There are many contradictory legends surrounding the famous magician, Merlin.  Tolstoy suggests he was a real Druid who lived in Sixth Century Scotland, though it is more likely that the sorcerer was actually a composite created from several mysterious literary figures.

Most stories agree that Merlin was the son of a nun who was impregnated by an incubus in her sleep.  This means he was born of a devil and a virgin.  The demon gave him knowledge of the past – but the nun had the child baptized at birth to protect him from Satan – and in order to create a natural balance in the universe God granted the child a prophetic knowledge of the future.  His life was thereafter spent on the threshold of good and evil.

The Welsh claim Merlin as one of their own Celtic prophets and magicians.   In British mythology he was the protector of the young King Arthur.  Merlin was often portrayed as a princely figure who was overcome by madness.  He ran off to live in the forest and there acquired the supernatural powers that made him famous.

Some tales claim that a disguised Merlin slept with the Duchess Igerna and fathered the future King Arthur.  In other versions Merlin helped King Uther Pendragon to seduce Igerna, whom he married a short time later.  Either way, Arthur was protected by the wizard until the time was right for him to step forward and be crowned the king.

Merlin made the Round Table for King Uther.  It is also said that he created Stonehenge, in memory of Uther’s brother who was massacred at the Battle of Salisbury.  The wizard was said to control the wind, foresee the future, and transform his shape at will.  He once made a dragon on a banner breathe real fire, and enchanted a bed so that those who slept on it lost all sense and memory.

The magician’s most famous saying is, Who aims to cheat a friend / Gets cheated in the end.  Yet his wisdom did not stop him falling into the clutches of Vivien – the Lady of the Lake who brought about his end!

Sources:

Brunel, Pierre.  Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Collier’s Encyclopedia (15).  Macmillan, 1974.

Wikipedia, “Merlin.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merlin.