Kirkus Reviews QR Code


by Ann Lawrence-Mathers

Pub Date: Nov. 27th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-300-14489-5
Publisher: Yale Univ.

A finely hewn portrait of the wizard Merlin from the 12th to the 16th centuries, when, in the eyes of the times, he was very much a real historical personage.

In the early years of the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a book known as the History of the Kings of Britain. It was a hoax, but it was a book very much of its time, a huge best-seller, writes Lawrence-Mathers (Medieval History/Univ. of Reading) in this deeply satisfying survey of the famed magician. The author discusses Geoffrey and the other contemporary or near-contemporary historians at work, and she notes that one of the things that gave Geoffrey’s book such instant popularity was the fact that the emerging political entity known as Britain needed a history with substance, lineage and heroes, something to shore up its many dynastic insecurities. Merlin was just the man to deliver: an omniscient magician yet fallible and vulnerable, reader of the stars and the flights of birds, and, most of all, a prophet. Yet Merlin was a figment of Geoffrey’s imagination. He was not a figure at court, but arrived when needed; there is no intimation he was bedecked in pointed cap and astrological robes, but lived simply in near hermitlike circumstances deep in the woods. Thanks to Geoffrey's book, Merlin became a fixture in the popular, theological, political and romantic imagination. He was the right man in the right place, and other historians tapped into his popularity to buttress their work; his deeds didn’t stop with Geoffrey, but were embellished for another 400 years. Out of Merlin and his many gifts and prophesies, Geoffrey et al. made a history of a place, and there also emerged a dangerous theological and political edge comprised of fusing the magical tradition of the ancient world, the early Christian Church and the Celtic past. Lawrence-Mathers nimbly brings readers into the Middle Ages, during which most people believed in prophecy and magic as real, active things, when the Merlins of the world surely walked the land and saw what most did not.

Sharp and enchanting.