Although many summaries mention that Merlin's shapeshifting was a prominent part of several arthurian stories or myths, the only specific mention of which shapes he assumes is that of a bird (in Perceval en prose), and a vaguer description that he could assume the shape of 'a wild man'. I've tried to find a listing of what shapes he assumes (and where), but I can't find one, just further descriptions of the origins of his shapeshifting or that it's a prominent part of the role he plays in the legends.

A good answer would involve a list of all the shapes he is described as assuming in the historical tales/legends, ideally also citing which specific stories he assumes that shape in.

1 Answer 1


The chronology of the main Arthurian text ranges from the 6th to the 15th century, the older ones rarely as complete texts. The Myrrdin myths appear for the first time in a rather unrelated way in the 12th century, and then become more intertwined with the Arthurian legends. The main textual sources regarding shapeshifting in this chronology have been marked in bold. The shapeshifting stories that stem from these source texts are often adapted and aggrandized in later texts.

  • Y Gododdin, probably originally sixth century (Old Welsh)

  • Gildas, De excidio et conquestu Britannie [Concerning the Ruin and Conquest of Britain], c. 530-40 (Latin)

  • “Nennius,” Historia Brittonum [History of the Britons], c. 800 (Latin) Names Arthur, says he was the dux bellorum [leader of battles] of the British, and gives a list of 12 battles; elsewhere, refers to Arthur’s dog Cavall and to his son Amr

  • Annales Cambrie [The Welsh Annals], c. 960-980 (Latin) Gives 518 as the date of the battle of Mount Badon, and gives 539 as the date of the battle of Camlann, “in which Arthur and Medraut fell” ; historians now suggest date closer to 490 and 511 for these battles

  • Early Welsh poetic references, 10th century on (Middle Welsh). Stanzas of the Grave calls Arthur’s grave “difficult,” “troubling”. Spoils of Annwn tells of a raid by Arthur and his men on Caer Sidi in the otherworld, to bring back a mysterious cauldron; only 7 men return. Arthur and the Porter names some of Arthur’s companions, including Cei (Kay) and Bedwyr (Bedivere), and lists battles at Edinburgh, and against witches and a “clawing cat”

  • The Porta della Pescheria of Modena Cathedral, c. 1120-1140. Also called the Modena Archivolt, this sculpted archway shows characters labelled Artus de Bretania, Isdernus, Galvagin, and Che, among others, attacking a tower in which are figures labelled Winlogee and Mardoc

  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia regum Britannie [History of the Kings of Britain], c. 1136 (Latin). A history of the kings of Britain, starting from the founding of Britain by Brutus and continuing to the completion of the Saxon conquest; the story of Arthur takes up about a third of the book. Geoffrey is the first to provide a whole story for Arthur; events include his conception by Uther Pendragon and Ygraine, Duchess of Cornwall, through the machinations of Merlin (Geoffrey also wrote a poem called the Vita Merlini, which has little to do with the Arthurian story); his great reputation; his marriage to Guenevere; his defeat of Lucius, Emperor of Rome; Mordred’s usurping of the throne and marrying of Guenevere; the final battle in which Arthur and Mordred die; Arthur’s being taken away to the Island of Avalon

  • Wace, Roman de Brut, c. 1155 (Anglo Norman). A verse translation (c. 15,000 lines) of Geoffrey, which expands on its source by adding details such as the Round Table and the “messianic hope,” the idea that Arthur is not dead and will return when his country has need of him

  • The Tree of Life Mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, c. 1163. A huge mosaic on the floor of the nave of Otranto Cathedral, which includes a king riding on a goat; the figure is labelled Rex Arturus

  • Layamon, Brut, late twelfth century (early Middle English). A verse translation (c. 32,000 lines) of Wace, cuts some of the more “courtly” portions of Wace, adds more battle detail; gives the story of the origins of the Round Table

  • Chrétien de Troyes, writing last half of the twelfth century (Old French). In his five romances, Chrétien involves knights of Arthur’s courts in various adventures, usually motivated by their desire to win (or win back) the love of a lady; Arthur himself becomes peripheral. Lancelot tells the story of an event in the relationship between Lancelot and Guenevere. Perceval introduces the grail, but is not very specific about its significance, and is in any case unfinished

  • Thomas d’Angleterre, Tristan, c. 1175 (Anglo-Norman). A now fragmentary, courtly version of the story of Tristan and Iseut

  • Arthur’s tomb is “discovered,” c. 1190 (Latin). Gerald of Wales reports that Arthur’s tomb was discovered at Glastonbury Abbey; Arthur is buried with Guenevere, described as his “second wife” ; his bones are huge and show the signs of many wounds

  • Robert de Boron, Joseph d’Aramathie, Merlin, the Didot-Perceval, c.1191-1202 (Old French). Much of this does not survive in its original form, but there is an adaptation of these three texts which then itself became the basis for the so-called Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian romance, a huge, thirteenth-century collection. Robert’s work is a continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval; it provides a history for the grail

  • Béroul’s Tristan, late twelfth century (Anglo-Norman). A long fragment of the Tristan and Isolde story

  • The Vulgate Cycle, c. 1215-1235 (French). A huge prose cycle which attempts to incorporate the whole of Arthurian story; its parts are the Queste del Saint Graal, the Mort (le roi) Artu, the Lancelot, the Estoire del Saint Graal, and the Vulgate Merlin [these two carry the name of Robert de Boron]

  • The Prose Tristan, second and third quarters of the thirteenth century (French). The first romance to bring the story of Tristan and Iseut completely into the Arthurian world

  • Stanzaic Morte Arthur, fourteenth century (Middle English). Verse romance based on the French Mort le roi Artur.

  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, last quarter fourteenth century (Middle English). Major alliterative poem featuring Gawain as the focus of a complex test of his knighthood

  • Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyn, late fourteenth century (Middle English). Alliterative poem based in part on a popular sermon story

  • Alliterative Morte Arthure, near end of fourteenth century (Middle English). Major alliterative poem in the chronicle tradition

  • Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, c. 1470. Massive prose compilation/ adaptation of Arthurian chronicle and romance.

From this chronology it is clear that the myrrdin stories do not enter into the Arthurian legends until the 12th century. However, Myrddin Wyllt (Welsh: [ˈmərðɪn ˈwɨɬt]—"Myrddin the Wild", Cornish: Marzhin Gwyls, Breton: Merzhin Gueld) is a figure in medieval Welsh legend. A prophet and a madman, he was introduced into Arthurian legend by Geoffrey of Monmouth as Merlin the wizard, associated with the town of Carmarthen in South Wales.

In Middle Welsh poetry he is accounted a chief bard, the speaker of several poems in The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest. He is called Wyllt—"the Wild"—by Elis Gruffydd, and elsewhere Myrddin Emrys ("Ambrosius"), Merlinus Caledonensis ("of Caledonia") or Merlin Sylvestris ("of the woods").

The earliest (pre-12th century) Welsh poems about the Myrddin legend present him as a madman living an existence in the Caledonian Forest. There he ruminates on his former existence and the disaster of the death of his lord Gwenddoleu, whom he served as bard. The poems sketch the events of the Battle of Arfderydd, where Riderch Hael, King of Alt Clut (Strathclyde) slaughtered the forces of Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio, and Myrddin went mad watching this defeat. The Annales Cambriae date this battle to 573. For half a mi;llenium, the Arthurian and Myrrdin stories developed independently, and we can see that many of his later shapeshifting abilities (like a "wild man") can be traced to the original bard going mad and living in the forest in recluse.

It's not until Geoffrey of Monmouth & Robert de Boron's work that these fragments of the original story are transformed into magical abilities, and apparitions in other forms are written:

  • Merlin appears as a woodcutter with an axe about his neck, big shoes, a torn coat, bristly hair, and a large beard.
  • He is later found in the forest of Northumberland by a follower of Uther disguised as an ugly man and tending a great herd of beasts.
  • He then appears first as a handsome man and then as a beautiful boy.
  • Years later, he approaches Arthur disguised as a peasant wearing leather boots, a wool coat, a hood, and a belt of knotted sheepskin. He is described as tall, black and bristly, and as seeming cruel and fierce.
  • Finally, he appears as an old man with a long beard, short and hunchbacked, in an old torn woolen coat, who carries a club and drives a multitude of beasts before him

The reason for this are several developments in medieval literature in the 12th century, when Western Europe saw an increase in the production of Latin texts and a proliferation of literate clerics from the multiplying cathedral schools. At the same time, vernacular literatures ranging from Provençal to Icelandic embodied in lyric and romance the values and worldview of an increasingly self-conscious and prosperous courtly aristocracy. These two trends contributed to a sweeping revival of letters with a lasting influence on the development of literature in the following centuries. It is in this period that many romanticized stories of chivalry are (re)written:

  • c. 1100 Culhwch and Olwen
  • c. 1155–60 Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure
  • c. 1170 Érec et Énide by Chrétien de Troyes
  • c. 1175–1200? Roman de toute chevalerie by Thomas de Kent
  • c. 1176 Cligès by Chrétien de Troyes
  • 1177–80 Khosrow and Shirin by Nizami Ganjavi
  • c. 1177–81 by Chrétien de Troyes: Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette & Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion c. 1180s
  • Ipomedon by Hue de Rotelande
  • Protheselaus by Hue de Rotelande
  • Der arme Heinrich by Hartmann von Aue
  • c. 1181–91 Perceval, le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes
  • c. 1190 Gregorius by Hartmann von Aue
  • c. 1191–92? Erec by Hartmann von Aue
  • 1192 Layla and Majnun by Nizami Ganjavi
  • c. 1194? Eskandar-nameh, an Alexander romance, by Nizami Ganjavi
  • 1197 Haft Peykar by Nizami Ganjavi

The common themes in all these works is the idealization of chivalry & romantic/platonic love, and less explicit, but not to a lesser extent, the belief that Christianity trumps pagan magic. Nowhere is the latter more elaborated on than in Thomas Mallory's work. Malory’s work is one of Christian thought, adventure, courage, loyalty, romance, and, most importantly, magic. In Le Morte D'Arthur Malory’s use of magic is the bridge between the paganism of the past and the future of Christianity. It provides the balance counter to the Christian thought present through the various stories found throughout the romance. Without magic present, the concept of Christianity would be less successful. These two opposing forces must both be present in medieval romance for either to work. A medieval romance with only magic and no Christian underlying principle would be considered blasphemous – dangerous and morally corrupt. Likewise, a romance with strong Christian anecdotes and no mention of magic would be ineffective. There would be no devil to fight – no pagan thought to overcome and triumph against. The practice of magic is an essential part of this text. Whether for benefic or ill ends, magic appears in almost every book of Le Morte Darthur. Magic shapes the text and its characters.

Myrrdin's shapeshifting abilities (stemming from mostly natural story parts in the Welsh literature) in this 12th-century renditions become increasingly equated with paganism, mostly due to the role of Morgan Le Fay. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, we read:

"Morgne the goddess

therefore hit is hir name:

Weldez non so hyze hawtesse

that ho ne con make ful tame”

This presents Morgan as a Celtic goddess, using inspiration from pre-Christian Celtic sources, especially when taking into account Morgan’s powers of shape-changing and magic, all of which are powers prescribed to Celtic goddesses.

Myrrdin is the only male magic user in the Arthurian legends who does not rely on Christian miracles. He is posed as a central male figure standing between a pagan realm, which is distinctly feminine, and the Christian realm, which is chiefly masculine. While Merlin is a sorcerer gendered as male and thus is presented in a positive way, the female magic users are portrayed in a very different light.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.