“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!
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)