Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Merlin: Knowledge and Power through the Ages

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Merlin: Knowledge and Power through the Ages

Article excerpt

Stephen Knight, Merlin: Knowledge and Power through the Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010). xvii + 275 pp. ISBN 978-0-8014-4365-7. £18.95.

Each era creates its own Merlin: a figure for mysticism and magic, or a guardian of dangerous knowledge about the future and the past. In this ambitious and attractive book, Stephen Knight traces the literary history of Merlin from the Myrddin of early medieval Welsh poetry, and the sage in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae, to the magician's twenty-first-century avatars. Knight constructs a developmental account of the Merlin tale, organizing his material into four geographically distinct and chronologically consecutive sections, each characterized by a different element of Merlin's legendary knowledge. In this way, for Knight, the Merlin of early Celtic Britain incarnates Wisdom; the medieval western European Merlin dispenses Advice; the early modern English Merlin demonstrates Cleverness; and the Merlin of globalized modernity embodies Education. (In his introduction, Knight claims that it is entirely coincidental that the felicitous acrostic of these four qualities spells out Wace'.) It would be remiss in a review for Medium ¿Evum not to point out that in medieval representations, Merlin, the semi-demon prophet and shape-shifter, displays wisdom, cleverness, and education just as much as he gives advice. Nevertheless, the variation of approach taken by each of Knight's chapters gives the book an appealing structure.

Knight's work is raised above the level of a simple survey not just by the organization of his material: his central argument concerns the way in which knowledge both succumbs to and resists attempts by the ruling power to exploit it. Merlin is repeatedly read as a figure whose knowledge is desired by the establishment, and yet withheld by the sage until such time as he sees fit. Knight suggests that throughout his representation in western art, Merlin stands for the knowledge that those in power crave and yet will be denied. …

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