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

14 Answers 14


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

Agree with Nathan C. Tresch's answer, but in xkcd format:

Obligatory answer from xkcd


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.


Answer: Merlin 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 Merlin. 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, "Merlin" 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
  • @user867 We can add this book to the list. It features Merlin as a time-traveler from the distant past who time traveled forwards past a Big Crunch and a Big Bang to the literary present. – Zenon Feb 4 '18 at 18:55

I found this question because I was thinking about that. I had one theory I took from Sliders where they visit the parellel universe where time travels backwards and what would happen would be that they would live an hour and then time would jump back 2 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 Merlin 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 Sword in the Stone disney adaptation. 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 happens in the book also) event would seem to loosely support the groundhog day idea (though that wasn't the last day he was in the tower so idk...)

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. This one is going to keep me awake at night for weeks.


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.


I think it’s a simple case of Merlin 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.


Try Deepak Chopra's 'The Return of Arthur'. The question of wizards living backwards in time is fully explained. My Brittany Spaniel, Merlin, is about to be joined by another Brittany, Nimue. Living backwards in time might well warn him and enable him to survive her enchantment... I hope.

  • I'm not familiar with The Return of Arthur or The Once and Future King but as far as I can tell the two works aren't connected. Are they connected and I'm just missing something? If not though this isn't really an answer to the question. – TheLethalCarrot Jul 10 at 12:01

It works like this:

You experience time in reverse, so you remember what most people consider "the future", and, in order to not freak out everyone around you, you get very good at sort of "predicting the past" (which seems like an unknown future from your perspective).

Now, being fictional is of course the key to solving this problem, and at that point you are aware of your entire existence as one moment, which simply has different "states" that you move in and out of somewhat seamlessly. Each state is a repeated set of actions and decisions, some of which change slightly during any given iteration (alternate dimension).

Once you've been through an entire life-cycle, the iterations form a recognizable pattern, and those become obvious decision points, or fixed points in time, whereas you can still perceive many untried options, which are sort of like paths in the forest you might want to explore.

If you care to, you can experience all the iterations of a given existence/series of life-cycles, or, if you feel you've understood the purpose of that series of cycles, you can move on to some more challenging ones (a la Groundhog Day).

any questions before i proceed?

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    Yeah, I've a question: have you any source to back this up or is this just a theory of your own? – user8719 Feb 12 '14 at 19:01
  • You seem to be describing how Trance Gemini, from Andromeda, experiences time (which has nothing to do with the whole "aging backwards" thing). And you use a phrase that is very strongly correlated with Doctor Who. So I'm with JimmyShelter: What are your references? – Izkata Feb 12 '14 at 23:50

I believe Merlin sees all time simply as a function of all possible state change within the 3rd dimension, at least in a very localized area. Whereas most people see a certain derivative state change within their local area Merlin is able to see the integrals of 3d spacetime 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... os Also, some people have semi-chaotic but functional integral calculators that let them approximate the future with far more accuracy than others. I bet those smarter than me could come up with this and if others even smarter could come up with a way to improve this functionality... we could solve any question, the true genius test. It is the only think that can keep us organics permanently ahead of the created; that being our fortuitous access higher dimensional infinite storage.


It may be that he is an extra-dimensional being. Perhaps he exists in all times simultaneously. However, because he is part human he can only perceive the future. Perhaps his perception of spacetime is limited to future events.

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    You should try adding why you think that way or adding some quotes or link to strenghten your answer – Rocket Jan 12 '15 at 6:02

No, I think you've misunderstood Merlyn's predicament here. Being in the same state, I believe I can elucidate. Moving in the reverse direction in time in one's existing mind merely creates the opposite illusion that most people live under. Merlyn of course is well aware that time as perceived in this reality is just one perspective on a more complex force, and he of course has experienced alternate realities, such as the one where Gravity is very strong while Time is very weak, just the contrary to what most people experience here in this dimension.

So while he remembers the future and must attempt to predict the past, he experiences all of Time at once. Each moment lasts ostensibly forever, and one finds one-self "stuck" or "un-stuck" in Time (as Vonnegut would call it) in the same way most people would be "in motion" or "waiting". Being ageless and immortal, Time is no different than any other force, and only effects him so much as he must always exist in one moment or another. After he "dies" (in a manner of speaking) he is then able to exist in more than one place simultaneously, and thus entered the realm of "fiction".

I myself am nearly fictional. As Shakespeare put it, "'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished."

And (I'm adding this in the future, so I came up with this part first you see), keep in mind that remembering the future is no more reliable than remembering the past. The equivalent of when you remember something totally differently than how someone else remembers it is when you remember one possible future that in fact will never happen in this reality.

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    Personal experience is generally not as well received as evidence from a book or author. – S. Albano Sep 29 '12 at 20:51

Perhaps he exists in all times simultaneously. However, because he is part human he can only perceive the future. Perhaps his perception of spacetime is limited to future events.


Merlin had already been thru time from a far distant past to a distant future. He had freed himself from the constraints of time and space thru alchemy which allows one to biolocate and translocate. Thus. finding ones essence can merge with the whole.. like conscious atoms. But this dosnt mean that he has lived Thu every time. as let's say you or I were enlightened and we could choose to visit different times we could know the stories told of the times but not necessarily what actually happened. Then there are customs and language which can be absorbed from the geometric reserves of collective coincidences / archaic records .Merlin,you find him earlier as Toth/Hermes.

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