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King Arthur and Merlin Wizard - The Eternal Saga

Excalibur sword of King Arthur

Although firmly rooted in popular culture for a long time, Arthur and Merlin are still mysterious characters. There is no certainty as to their actual existence, let alone where they would have lived. The legend tells that after seizing Excalibur, the sword planted in the rock by Uther Pendragon, Arthur accedes to the throne. Now king, young and totally foreign to the local nobility, Arthur subjugates the last nobles still opposing his coronation.

King Arthur quickly becomes an enlightened ruler and his people adore him. He took up residence in the castle of Camelot that he built and surrounded himself with twelve noble knights whose mission is to uphold the law and justice according to principles of irreproachable morality. He also built a huge round table to gather the advice of these knights. This metaphorical image is reminiscent of that of Jesus and his twelve apostles.

The magic sword of King Arthur

Two legends are spread around Excalibur, the legendary sword of King Arthur that would give him fabulous powers. The first tells that Excalibur was planted in stone by Uther Pendragon so that only the one who was predestined to the throne could extract it when the time came, thus taking possession of the sword and the crown at a time.

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But when the sword breaks, Arthur begs Merlin to give him another with the same powers. Merlin then proposes to go to the Lady of the Lake, which, having recognized Arthur, gives him a new sword. This would be, according to some, the real Excalibur that will be returned to the Lady of the Lake at the death of King Arthur. The sheath of the sword also has special powers, such as protecting the owner from any injury. Finally, a poem of around 1400 states that Arthur had possessed two different swords: Excalibur and Clarent. It is with this last that the king was wounded to death by his son Mordred who had managed to seize it.

The protagonists of the saga

The legend of King Arthur also includes two other main figures: his wife, Queen Genever, as well as Merlin the Magician, a character endowed with fabulous powers. The judicious advice of these two characters allows the king to govern with justice and win the many conflicts he is confronted with, the first being the one who opposes him to the Saxons.

But over the years, the Knights' thirst for adventure led them obsessively to the search for the Holy Grail, to the point that they neglected the principles they had subscribed to, respect for the law and justice, and ended up finding the ruin and death. Arthur himself, now old and bitter, loses control of his land, while Wizard Merlin falls into the trap of Morgane who takes away his powers to seduce King Arthur. From their union will be born Mordred who will fight against his father to rob him of the throne.

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From legend to reality

This is the legend in its most common version. But as we said, it is the very existence of Arthur and his court that is still the subject of controversy. The oldest texts never cite Arthur as King, but only as "Lord of War". Would he have been a simple warrior in the service of a sovereign? The name of Arthur would be attributed to several people - a bit like the title of Caesar among the Romans - which would also explain its longevity, quite exceptional for its time, as claimed by some books.

Some say he would have lived in the late fifth century: British or Roman, he would have governed the current regions of Wales and Cornwall. According to other sources, Arthur is actually Riothamus, a Breton king who lived in the time of Anthemius, who reigned over the Western Roman Empire from 467 to 472 BC. Still others identify Arthur with Ambrosius Aurelianus or Lucius Artorius Castus, two Roman prefects who won many battles against the British. But the hypotheses are very numerous on this subject since one even traces the history of King Arthur to 2,300 BC. In any case, the fact that several people have borne the same name at a given time may have helped to create legends that would be superimposed or intertwined later.

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Questions about his real existence

Some people say that Arthur never existed. The character would be derived from the legends of one or more Celtic deities, which would have changed at the time of the evangelization of the British peoples. Arthur's name appears for the first time in an ancient Gaelic poem, the Gododdin, where the bard Aneurin slips this sentence: "He fed the black crows on the ramparts, although he was not an Arthur." Most often, we date the first version of this work of the year 594, we have no certainty to the extent that the work was modified several times over the centuries. Other literary works about Arthur are attributed to the bard Taliesin, often identified with Merlin.

In the Historia Brittonum attributed to the Welsh monk Nennius, around 830 CE, Arthur is again described as a warlord. Note that the very etymology of the name Arthur is the subject of different hypotheses. According to one of them, this name comes from two Celtic words: art (rock) or art gwyr (the bear man). Now, if Arthur's person appears in several works, he owes his popular success to Geoffroy de Monmouth, who, at the request of the bishop of Lincoln, translated certain legends and prophecies from Gaelic into Latin. In his Historia Regum Britannie, which dates back to around 1135, Monmouth develops and articulates in a coherent manner the repertory of the Arthurian cycle. Vita Merlini is another work of the first importance in spreading the legend.

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Enchanter Merlin, wizard or charlatan?

Merlin is a central figure in the Arthurian tale. Arthur himself would have been conceived thanks to the spells of the famous magician who would then have raised him to allow him to seize Excalibur and to accede to the throne.

To the figure of Merlin is opposed that of Morgane which, if it has excellent relations with the magician in the work of Monmouth, is rather portrayed as a malevolent being in later writings. Merlin owes Geoffroy de Monmouth his presence in the epic, as well as the change of his name from Gaelic Myrddin to Merlin. According to Monmouth, Merlin, son of a spirit and a princess, shows up from his childhood provided with the gift of clairvoyance and, moreover, capable of transforming humans and objects. It is thanks to these powers that Arthur will be conceived: Merlin gives the appearance of Gorlois of Cornwall to Uther Pendragon to allow him to break into the castle of Tintagel and to unite with Queen Ygerne, who will be pregnant of the future sovereign. Once the child is born, Merlin delights him in the maternal arms to raise and educate him. In other words, we have two different versions of the figure of Merlin: sometimes a magician and counselor at the court, sometimes skilful manipulator, even demonic character, who ends up being defeated by the fairy Morgane, whose avowed purpose is to acquire the knowledge of his spells by pure desire for power.

But beyond legends, we know that the historic Merlin probably lived in the sixth century AD and can be identified with the Welsh bard Taliesin. In his case too, as for Arthur, the chronicles of the time evoke a character who lived many, many years, which suggests the existence of several characters of the same name.

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In the footsteps of Avalon

The legendary island of Avalon is closely linked to the myth of King Arthur, as the home of the Thuatha Dé Dânann, deities of Irish Celtic mythology. According to legend, Arthur is buried in Avalon; for example, from the Monmouth era, efforts are being made to discover the geographical location of the site. In 1190, the monks of Glastonbury claim to have identified it in their own abbey, an assertion that will be accepted. However, the events of the Arthurian epic also lead us to Italy where the figure of San Galgano shows a number of similarities with that of the Celtic ruler. The Italian legend also evokes a sword planted in the rock and a dream where Jesus appeared with his twelve apostles gathered around a round table. What is the link - if there is one - between Galgano and Arthur? And also, how can one not notice the resemblance between the name of Galgano and that of Gauvin, one of King Arthur's knights?

But the origins of King Arthur and Merlin the Wizard are lost in the mists of time and we will probably never know where the story ends and where the legend begins.

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