chapter  14
20 Pages

Spenser’s Merlin


In describing the “strange occasion” by which Britomart comes to see Artegall in Merlin’s magic mirror, Spenser leads his reader to believe that he is following an earlier story “as it in bookes hath written bene of old.”1 While this is in a sense true of the account of Merlin’s glass-we know similar devices in medieval literature-it is somewhat misleading in regard to Merlin himself. A comparison of Spenser’s Merlin with the Merlin of chronicle and romance suggests that, in creating his magician, Spenser made use of the tradition he inherited without allowing himself to be bound by that tradition. Before Spenser, Merlin is a prophet, a magician, an artificer; he is all those things in The Faerie Queene, but he is also something more: a figure for the poet, and so of central importance to the treatment of art in the entire poem. This is what really engages Spenser about the Welsh magician; whatever else he is and does in the poem, whatever relation he bears to other magicians, Merlin is really of paramount interest as a poet-figure. As such, he illuminates the aesthetic and philosophical questions which are a central concern of The Faerie Queene, and so the explanation of Spenser’s Merlin is to be found, not in old books, but in his function in the poem in which Spenser chose to place him.