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In The Once and Future King it is clear that Merlyn was "born backwards in time", but I cannot determine exactly what that means.

In The Sword in the Stone, chapter three, Merlyn says:

“Now ordinary people are born forwards in Time, if you understand what I mean, and nearly everything in the world goes forward too. This makes it quite easy for the ordinary people to live, just as it would be easy to join those five dots into a W if you were allowed to look at them forwards, instead of backwards and inside out. But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind. Some people call it having a second sight.”

...

“Have I told you this before?”

...

“You see, one gets confused with Time, when it is like that. All one’s tenses get muddled, for one thing. If you know what is going to happen to people, and not what has happened to them, it makes it difficult to prevent it happening, if you don’t want it to have happened, if you see what I mean? Like drawing in a mirror.”

In The Queen of Air and Darkness, chapter four, Merlyn mentions the Mafeking Night and the Boer War, which happened 1899-1902. Merlyn also mentions Victorian fox hunting and Henry the Third. King Arthur says, “I wish [Merlyn] had been born forwards like other people.”

How does T. H. White’s Merlyn experience time?

  1. Does Merlyn age in reverse? Does he physically grow younger as time advances like Benjamin Button?

  2. How does Merlyn experience memory? Does he see both the past, present, and future like an oracle or prophet? Or does he only see the present and future and not the past? The above passage makes me think that Merlyn "remembers" the future but does not remember the past.

  3. How does Merlyn experience time? Does he live backwards literally (i.e. if I spoke a sentence to him, he would hear it backwards)? Or does he go to sleep every night and wake up on the previous day with knowledge of all following days (like a twist on Groundhog Day)?

I would be interested in any additional passages in T.H. White’s books or interviews given that explain this concept in clearer terms. I am only looking for sourced answers to this question.

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    Does Merlyn age in reverse? Does he physically grow younger as time advances like Benjamin Button? If you want to be technical, from Merlyn's point of view time would be regressing rather than advancing. – Xantec Apr 19 '12 at 20:08
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    Didn't Piers Anthony describe this form of time experience in his Bearing An Hourglass? – OghmaOsiris Apr 19 '12 at 21:23
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This view of Merlin is canonical with the original written translation of the Arthurian cycle, "Le Morte d'Arthur" . In it, Merlin is said to "remember what is in our future", and to "have no knowledge of what is in our past".

He physically does not age, and this is never explained, only mentioned. There is never any reference to his perception of speech and motion being backwards as well.

All in all, there is no reason to think that T. H. White’s Merlyn is any different from canonical Arthurian myth. Merlin living backwards is mentioned in "Excalibur", "Camelot", and "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" and a number of other stories.

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    That is a modern version of Merlin. If it is in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur from c. 1480 that is still a modern version of a story about events allegedly 900 to 1,000 years before then. So being in Malory does not make something Arthurian canon any more than being in a Dan Brown book makes something part of Biblical canon. – M. A. Golding May 25 '17 at 19:00
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Agree with Nathan C. Tresch's answer, but in XKCD format:

Obligatory answer from xkcd

XKCD #270

Transcribed:

[Cueball and Megan standing by a train on a platform.]
Megan: I'm bad at goodbyes. At some level I never think they're for real.
Cueball: They make me think of T. H. White's Merlin.

[They are still standing at the edge of the platform, but the train is no longer in the frame.]
Megan: Oh?
Cueball: He lived backwards, remembering the future and not the past. To him, final goodbyes meant nothing, while first hellos were tearful and bittersweet.

[Zooming out, the rail closest to the platform becomes visible.]
Megan: Huh - so over the years he'd forget all his friends.
Megan: Must've been lonely.
Cueball: Yeah. He ended up just sitting around at home watching DVDs all day. The best was the time he rented 'Memento'...

[Merlin with pointy hat and long white beard is sitting in a couch with the remote, watching TV which emits light and is clearly hooked up to a device (a DVD player).]
Merlin: Well, that was straightforward.

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I don't have any proof to back it up, but I always believed it was like your option 3-B: he goes to sleep every night and wakes up on the previous day with knowledge of all the following days.

I just assumed it, from the statement you listed about knowing what will happen to people, but not what has already happened to them. I also assumed that he must be living each individual day "normally", since otherwise he really wouldn't be able to carry on a conversation with anyone, or even speak a sentence properly.

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I dint think Merlyn is exactly "living backwards" otherwise he'd see people like the Wart and not remember them. Rather, like I believed someone else has mentioned, he is someone who experiences/ sees the future but lives in the past. What grants him his poses, for this reason, I think that Merlyn has a kind of omnipotence, or meaning that he lives both in the past and future.

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I think it’s a simple case of Merlyn being a forward thinker. Kind of similar to savants who understand things better than those around them. It would, especially during that time, be something that separates him from those around him. He understands technologies as well as how to make them better and more efficient.

Also, his understanding of the magical world is along the same lines. He understands things that only those in a future sense would understand them.

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Merlyn is a real time-traveler from the distant future. A temporal anthropologist, he traveled back in time to study early (relative to himself) human civilization.

However, upon arrival he was greeted by someone who knew him quite well, calling him by the name Merlyn. This breaches a fundamental tenant of time travel - to be anonymous so as to not disrupt the timeline and alter events resulting in the creation of a new reality.

As this person knows him, "Merlyn" is now in a causality paradox - he now has to assume this identity and work backwards through time, learning of the things he has done in their past (his future) and recreating them because failure to do so will create a paradox which will destroy his reality.

Only after he has traveled from end to beginning and become again unknown will he be free to return to his own time.

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    Is there a source for this answer? – BennyMcBenBen Jul 22 '15 at 9:02
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    The sources I think you're looking for would not be chronicled in the present. And if you were to go back in time to such an era and tried to explain to a native how your iPad worked, they would relay such information to others as magic. Subatomic particles are also equally unobservable when we try to look at them directly. Instead, we must observe how they affect the universe around them, and deduce the answer that fits all of the known data. We know Merlyn remembers the future but has no knowledge of the past. The mechanism by which this occurs is the question being posed. more to follow... – Temporal Adept Jul 24 '15 at 6:18
  • I want to downvote this answer as fantheory, but I've actually read at least three distinct different fictions in which "Merlin was a time traveller" was cannon. One was by Terry Pratchett, one was a web comic, and the third was... Uh.. I think it had a prince who shot a bear and was kind of a jerk, and bracelets were used to walk through portals? Science fiction, sorta. – user867 Feb 1 '16 at 5:35
  • I was hoping @TemporalAdept was also admitting to being a time traveller, returning to us with this information discovered in the distant future. – BlackVegetable Jul 28 '17 at 15:35
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    Another one flagged as "not an answer". OP wasn't wanting fantheory about Merlin, but referenced answers relating to TH White's novel/s – Valorum Apr 25 '20 at 10:45
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I had one theory I took from Sliders where they visit the parallel universe where time travels backwards and what would happen would be that they would live an hour and then time would jump back two hours and repeat. They were forward (relative to us) in a universe that was backwards (relative to us).

But when I read your post, I got to thinking that maybe Merlyn is completely backwards. If he hears everything backwards, he would also have learned to speak backwards. His speech would be backwards to us but since he is also backward so to speak we hear it forwards. The only issue with this theory is that when he is walking he would have to have eyes on the back of his head.

I don't know but I just received renewed interest when watching the Disney adaptation The Sword in the Stone, and I had a moment of fridge brilliance. When Merlin wakes up the next morning in the tower at the castle in the movie, he doesn't remember who Arthur is or what they are doing in that castle. I blamed it on him being a bit... off-track when he first wakes up in the morning, but this noncanon (unless it also happens in the book) event would seem to loosely support the Groundhog Day idea (though that wasn't the last day he was in the tower so I don't know...).

If only we had eyes behind our head it would be easy to say he just does everything completely backwards. From speech to walking. Unless being a wizard makes up for that.

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I believe Merlyn sees all time simply as a function of all possible state change within the third dimension, at least in a very localized area. Whereas most people see a certain derivative state change within their local area, Merlyn is able to see the integrals of 3D space-time, which quite simply involves a truly infinite amount of instantaneous calculations to happen at once... or something of higher dimensionality at work. The forwards and backwards is simply derivatives vs infinite integrals.

I think this is what makes him a wizard and not normal. But it sort of also seems to be a curse, nothing could ever excite you...

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