“merlyn’s beard!”

if you, like me, grew up watching disney’s “the sword in the stone,” we all know merlyn as a bumbling, lovable, sagacious, kooky old man.  (with a lot of dumbledore vibes, if you ask me!)

in college, i was nerd enough to take an arthurian legends course for an english credit during my summer session, and was exposed to just a small snippet of Just How Many authors have been inspired by the legends of king arthur, his knights of the infamous round table, and the love stories of lancelot and guinevere and company.

so needless to say, i may have spent too long trying to read all the merlyn books i wanted to (over the course of two and a half years) before starting this faerie tale feet piece.  BUT, even if i did paint before i finished the entire stack of books and recommendations, i at last present to you:  “merlyn’s beard!”

have a peek at my process and study habits below, and then after all the pictures, i’ll tell you what all lurks in the background from merlyn’s adventurous life!

(and title note:  no, you can’t see his beard in this painting.  but he had one.  and it makes me laugh anytime a harry potter character says “merlin’s beard!” as a euphemism, so there ya go.  it’s going to be our title.  fair enough?)  🙂

merlin blog 1
so after you read “the once and future king” by t.h. white in high school (or perhaps it was my own nerdy independent reading?), naturally you scurry off to the book store for this unfinished manuscript that t.h. white apparently wanted as the final chapter. it’s a lot of government philosophies told through merlyn changing arthur into various animals, but it’s merlyn. so i don’t argue.
merlin blog 2
here is (most of) the stacks of books i read and took notes and quotes from before beginning this piece. i borrowed other movies and tv shows not shown here, and found a few more books about the house with bookmarks partway through that didn’t make it into the photo. needless to say, i did not lack for reference material or story inspiration!
merlin blog 3
so when i finally had no more NEW notes or snippets of the story i’d missed, i compiled all of my icon drawings from my sketchbook and transferred them to a piece of tracing paper to make sure they all fit nice & snug how i pictured them in my head!
merlin blog 4
i got this amazing piece of handmade watercolour paper from india, and used the previous day’s coffee leftovers to pour over it and stain it to look like antiqued parchment you’d find in an archival library or a dusty old dungeon full of magical books and paper.
merlin blog 5
all of the brown tones in this piece were painted with layers of dr. p.h. martin’s radiant water color in antelope brown. (i can’t help but tell you the full name of the product mostly because they used the word RADIANT and it humours me.) so the ink bled a bit on the coffee-paper, so i learned to control density and water in my brush to let it look aged, but not lose the forms.
merlin blog 6
i think at this point, all of the browns were down and it was time to add some solid gouache bits and pray the painting would turn out like it looked in my head!
merlin blog 7
and voila!! i used solid gouache on the banner, moons, and stars, some details on his hat, and also on the leaves of the hawthorne tree.
merlin blog 8
i just love this “legends of the middle ages” book i got at an antique book store. copyright 1896, this edition published in 1924. the name written on the inside cover is “minnie e. mckinney.” it’s just lovely. and yes, it has that antique book smell, you book*sniffers!! 🙂
merlin blog 9
& ta-da! here’s the final painting all framed up in this beautiful walnut frame. isn’t he handsome?!

so what all is in this image?

  • the dragons:  the red and white dragons that kept vortigen’s tower from being built. vortigen’s magicians/wise men told them he had to find a fatherless child and spill his blood before he could build his tower on the hill; he found merlyn, rumored to be the son of a virgin and a demon (a non-human father).  merlyn foretold the sleeping dragons under the lake beneath the hill, sparing his own young life, the dragons fought, and the white prevailed.
  • stonehenge:  merlyn was builder and architect.  he designed/created (according to legend, of course) stonehenge, uther pendragon’s castle, arthur’s camelot, magic fountains (referenced in spencer’s faerie queen), the infamous round table, and more.
  • the merlin egg:  merlin is also the name of a bird, and of course being ye olde english, the spelling of his name can vary.  i put a bird’s egg in there, as merlyn could also have come from “myrddin” a welsh name, meaning “many,” as in many talents.  his mother was the granddaughter of king constantine, therefore merlyn was of royal birth, and according to one book i read, the second cousin of arthur.  his mother was a nun visited by demons or incubi, and merlyn was raised and tutored by blaise, a hermit monk.  (again, so says the books i read!)  🙂
  • the magic book:  because he was wise, also because nimue stole it when he was old (more on that later)
  • his horn-rimmed spectacles (with no ear pieces, according to white)
  • his wand of lignum vitae (a type of wood)
  • the bear:  arthur was known as the bear of the west, or the great bear.  not only did merlyn bring about arthur’s birth by disguising uther pendragon to bed the duke of cornwall’s wife igraine while the duke was off in battle, but merlyn placed arthur with sir ector to be raised as a commoner until it was time for him to pull….
  • the sword in the stone:  the sword was on an anvil on a stone in the churchyard with gold letters:  “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is the rightwise King born of all England.”  of course arthur grabbed it for sir kay’s sword he’d left behind at the inn, and arthur was the only one who could get it back out of the stone, and merlyn up until that point was the only one who knew arthur was the son of king uther.  fun fact:  this sword was NOT excalibur.  i’ll spare you That story, but excalibur (& its more-powerful scabbard) was handed to arthur by the lady of the lake after he lost this sword.
  • holly berries & leaves:  because the sword in the stone incident happened during a Christmas/New Year’s Day tournament in town

(see, i told you:  SO MUCH MERLYN/Arthur information!!)

  • merlyn’s pipe:  his meerschaum pipe made him look like he breathed fire
  • the three queens in the boat:  the three queens who took arthur to avalon after the great battle with mordred
  • the round symbol:  a combined reference to the round table (designed by merlyn, possibly a wedding present from guinevere’s dad to arthur) which depending on the telling, could seat anywhere from twelve to 250 knights; also a reference to merlyn being the change/gateway from the olde religions to Christianity in England.  and merlyn magically selected the knights, according to some accounts.
  • the goblet:  merlyn created a cup that would reveal the drinker’s pure life  (but probably also looks like the holy grail, a famous incident/quest in arthur’s life)
  • the castle:  again, merlyn designed uther pendragon’s castle as well as camelot
  • the plumbline:  another reference to merlyn as architect
  • the heart-studded ring near the tree:  vivian (also vivienne or nimue or the lady of the lake) and merlyn may or may not have been in love; he loved her and taught her all of his magic, which she then used to trap him in a tree for all of eternity.  (or possibly an underground palace where only she could visit him.  or a cave.  pick a preference.)
  • the hawthorne tree:  possibly the prison where merlyn remains to this day, growing in wisdom, but not in age.
  • oh, and archimedes!  his tawny owl.
  • and his hat, a pointed cap like a dunce’s cap full of spider webs and bones and insects and all sorts of stuff.  which i made pretty with some metallic gouache.  🙂


there are eleven pages of my tiny-scrawled handwriting in my moleskin notebooks i tried to condense into this painting.  there are six pages in my sketchbook trying to find the best shapes and objects to use.  i hope you enjoyed your magical (if brief, compared to merlyn’s lifetime, possibly lived backwards) journey through his tales.

the original framed painting is available for $560.

limited edition prints now available on my halthegal etsy site and greeting cards have just landed!!

added BONUS, here are a few of my favorite merlyn quotes i found in various readings:

“it makes no difference if you are a dream or not, so long as you are here.” [from t.h. white’s “the book of merlyn.”]

“unless you had lived this, you would not have known it. one has to live one’s knowledge.” [same as above]

“the Stars which taught the Sun to rise must agree with him at noon– or vanish.” [same]

“there is a thing about Time and Space which the philosopher Einstein is going to find out. some people call it Destiny.” [from t.h. white’s “the once and future king.”]

“the most famous man of all those times, Merlin, who knew the range of all their arts, had built the king his havens, ships, and halls, was also Bard, and knew the starry heavens; the people call’d him Wizard.” [from tennyson’s “merlin and vivien.”]

“who are wise in love
Love most, say least.” [same]

“what does any man seek, but his destiny?” [from the short story, “the temptations of merlin,” by peter tremayne.]

“merlin travels the world, from kingdom to kingdom, forest to forest. he brings news, he recaps the past and foretells the future. so i am not surprised that Arthur knows him.” [from the short story “excalibur” by anne e. crompton.]