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I was reading some ten-year-old comments on a Q&A about owls in Harry Potter and learned that some versions of the Arthurian legend have the wizard Merlin possessing an owl which is called Archimedes. One comment by user PLL claims:

Archimedes wasn’t a Disney creation — The Sword in the Stone was originally a novel by T. H. White (it’s great fun), and Archimedes certainly appears in that. As far as I know he’s original to that book though, not in any older Arthurian legends.

Is this true? Where does the idea of Merlin having an owl originate from? And where did the name Archimedes for said owl first appear? (It's a hard one to search for on the internet, because web searches for Merlin owl lead mostly to pages about the merlin bird of prey.)

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White’s primary source for the characters and plot in The Once and Future King (of which The Sword in the Stone is a part) is Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur which in turn derives from the earlier prose Merlin.

As far as I recall, there was no owl in those books. Furthermore, T.H. White was an amateur falconer (an interest displayed in many ways throughout The Sword in the Stone) so it would seem that the owl would be original to White.

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    Possibly worth noting that as well as well caring for hawks, THW nursed an injured owl back to health. Don't know if he named it though ;) Aug 22 at 19:33
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    This answer is quite likely correct, but there's a bit too much supposition and guesswork for me to accept it. If you can find a quote from White where he said that he created the owl, that would do it. If you did a more exhaustive search of pre-White Arthurian literature to see if there was an earlier mention of Merlin having an owl, that would also be great.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 23 at 10:39
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    It seems he kept (at least) three owls, one of which was called Archimedes (and one of the others was called "Silvia Daisy Pouncer".) Aug 23 at 12:27
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    It's quite a big leap from Malory in the 15th century to White in the 1930s, and a lot of retellings of Arthurian myth appeared in the interim, especially in the 19th century. So saying "it wasn't in Malory" can hardly be considered proof it was original to White.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 24 at 9:52
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As noted in D.A. Hosek's answer, Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur was the primary source for White. In the Morte d'Arthur there is no mention of Merlin having an owl, or indeed any pet/familiar at all. Even physical descriptions of the wizard are very brief. Instead the character of Merlin in the Once and Future King, was not based on Arthurian legend, but on another source - White himself. As White's biographer, Sylvia Warner, noted, the character and eccentricities of Merlin are clear images of White. He had recently been a schoolteacher at Stowe school, and took the opportunity to make Merlin what he considered to be an ideal schoolteacher, operating in an ideal educational environment:

he gave himself an ideal old age, free from care and the contradiction of circumstances, practising an enlightened system of education on a chosen pupil, embellished with an enchanter's hat, omniscient, unconstrainable and with a sink where the crockery washed itself up. As Merlyn, White had the time of his life: the brief dazzle of being head of the English Department at Stowe was a farthing candle to it.

Apart from furnishing Merlin with many of his most prized possessions - his beard, his knitting, his opinions - he also gave him possession of his pet owl. White kept quite a menagerie of animals, and at the time it consisted of his beloved red setter and some birds:

He went on keeping Cully [a goshawk] and two sparrowhawks and presently added an owl, whom he called Archimedes

[A hawk called Cully is also familiar to readers of The Sword in the Stone.]

As to why he chose the name Archimedes, Warner does not give any mention, nor is it mentioned in any of White's published letters (The White - Garnett Letters, and Letters to a friend : the correspondence between T. H. White and L. J. Potts). But I think the association of owls with wisdom and Athena, and thence to Greek culture, makes the choice of the name of a Greek philosopher fairly natural.

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  • Ah, I would have called Archimedes (the man, not the owl) a mathematician or even a physicist rather than a philosopher, but you are using the word appropriately in its older sense.
    – user14111
    Sep 13 at 8:34
  • Though since Merlyn lived backwards, maybe it would make more sense to have named Merlyn's owl after a future (from our point of view) scholar? (Not that Merlyn wouldn't have heard of Archimedes)
    – Kimball
    Oct 17 at 6:02

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