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Merlin and the Men Behind His Legend

Updated on December 15, 2015

Of the many characters in Arthurian Legend, Merlin stands out as a driving force. Not only does he play a crucial role in the life of Arthur, but his character's own life is rife with adventure and drama. Much research and speculation has been conducted on an “historical Arthur.” Books, movies, and documentaries abound on theories about who might be the man behind the mythic king. But what of Arthur's mage? What of the magician who made Arthur the great king of legend? Is there a historical basis for the character we know as Merlin? As it happens, there is some truth to this legend. But, it is a rather twisted Celtic knot. So let us begin to unravel it.

The major source for Arthurian Legend as we know it is Le Morte d'Arthur, published in 1485 by Sir Thomas Malory. Though Malory did not create the legends, he collected existing versions and compiled them into a single volume, perhaps adding some of his own invention. The stories of King Arthur and his Round Table, the romance of Lancelot and Gwenyvere, the epic battle between Arthur and Mordred, and other chapters of the drama with which we are so familiar are recounted in detail. Malory's text is the springboard that most subsequent authors based their works on Arthur upon.

However, three centuries before Sir Thomas Malory penned his masterpiece, Geoffrey of Monmouth was hard at work with his ambitious Historia Regum Britanniae, otherwise known as History of the Kings of Britain (circa 1136). In order to appreciate his work, we must remember that the standards of Medieval historians were somewhat less scrupulous than standards of today. Like many historians of his era, Geoffrey mixed true history with legend, perhaps peppered with his own inventions that no doubt seemed like excellent enhancements at the time.

Geoffrey's History is an ambitious work in the vein of Bede's The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (circa 731). Both authors attempted to fill in the blanks of British history and give a sense of national identity to the people of the British Isles. However, “historical” works of this period were typically clouded by bias and personal editting of the facts. Geoffrey of Monmouth mixed figures who are known to have existed (or thought by scholars to probably have existed) with characters of folktale and local legend. Being from Wales himself, Geoffrey added local Welsh legends to his historical work. King Arthur is grafted into English history right alongside documented kings and rulers. Beyond this history volume, Geoffrey of Monmouth also published two works strictly on Merlin; The Prophecies of Merlin and The Life of Merlin. Geoffrey was, of course, influenced by earlier writers; and there are other works of substantial influence. But, due to space constraints we shall move on.

Wild Man by Holbein the Younger
Wild Man by Holbein the Younger

We have established that literature about Merlin spanned centuries, but can we go back in time even further to discover the figure who spawned the legend? In his book The Quest for Merlin, historian Nikolai Tolstoy asserts that Merlin is a true historical figure, but that he lived apart from the speculated time of Arthur. Tolstoy argues that Arthur's Merlin is based on a Welsh Bard known as Myrddin Wyllt who lived in the mid-6th century A.D., approximately fifty years after the supposed death of Arthur. Myrddin Wyllt is Welsh for “Merlin the Wild.” Born in Wales, Myrddin Wyllt appears to have been a bard in the service of one of the last great Celtic pagan kings, Gwenddoleu of Arfderydd, located in Southwest Scotland and Northwest England, near Carlisle. (That Myrddin was born in Wales, transplanted to Scotland, yet his tale was recorded and preserved in Welsh is a testament to the unity of Celtic peoples despite distances). Legend has it that Myrddin went mad when King Gwenddoleu was defeated in battle by the Christian Rhydderch Hael. This event was the catalyst that drove Myrddin to the woods, hence the name Merlin the Wild.

Tolstoy believes that Myrddin was one of the last remaining druids of the Celtic tradition. Although little is known of druidic practice, it is known that druids thrived in Ireland until the introduction of Christianity in 4th century. Further, he cites evidence of druidic revival in Celtic areas of Britain after the departure of the Romans and continuing into the 5th and 6th centuries. Tolstoy also believes that druidic practices were likely to have continued in the Scottish Highlands, as these areas were outside the reach of Roman influence.

In the flame was born a babe
In the flame was born a babe

That he was referred to as “Myrddin the Wild” is itself further evidence of ties to druidism, and/or shamanism. Shamanic religion was animistic. As such, there was a deep connection with animals and nature. Author Jay Hansford C. Vest explores the connection between Northern Europeans, including Celtic druids, in his article Will-of-the-Land: Wilderness among Primal Indo-Europeans. Vest cites linguists who break down the etymology of the word “wilderness” to its Old English roots “wild-deor-ness.” (The article citation is in the bibliography for those interested in the full break down of the word). The gist of meaning is this: wild = will as in self-willed or uncontrolled, deor = animal, ness = land or place → Place of Self-willed Animals (i.e. non-domesticated animals). Although this is a Germanic word, Vest explains that these concepts were universal among Northern European peoples.

The etymology of this word is important in understanding the world view of pre-Christian Northern Europe. Vest explains that the descendants of the Indo-Europeans (including the Celts) maintained a world view that respected the Will-of-the-Land. As such, their places of worship were not in temples constructed in towns and villages apart from nature, but were in sacred groves deep within Nature herself. Further evidence for pre-Christian people's connection with nature are the terms “heathen” and “pagan.” As Christianity spread in Northern Europe, it was first practiced in the cities and towns. The country-folk were the last to convert and held on to their ancestral ways. This pattern is true of conversion periods in all areas of Europe. The word “pagan” comes from the Latin “paganus” which referred to a “rural or rustic person” (Vest, 326). Similarly, “heathen” derives the Germanic root for “heath.” Therefore, a “heathen is one who worships on the heath: moor, glade, grove, or wilderness” (Vest, 326). So, here we have established a firm connection with practitioners of Celtic religion and the wilderness.

Merlin and Vivian Repose
Merlin and Vivian Repose

There is further reason to relate “the wild” with druids. In her book Merlin, Medieval scholar Norma Lorre Goodrich explains that in subsequent generations “violent anti-Celtic prejudice” associated “the Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish” with being “wild” (Goodrich, 19). This was primarily political propaganda, as the Celtic people were both the retainers of the old religion in their rural lands, but also difficult to assimilate into the new society of whichever invader was conquering the Isles at any given time. Druids were not only the carriers of ancient wisdom and religion, but they are known to have played a political role. Roman historian Tacitus “tells how the Gauls were invited to revolt by their druids” (Tolstoy, 85). This is consistent with Myrddin Wyllt acting alongside King Gwenddoleu to fight the invading Rhydderch Hael. And, of course, the legendary Merlin was adviser to King Arthur.

Further evidence of the role of the the druid/bard as adviser to Celtic kings can be found in life of Taliesin. Although Taliesin himself drifted into the realm of legend, with many poems later falsely attributed to him, the evidence seems to support his existence. An unnamed contributor to the 19th century publication The Cambro-Briton describes the life of Taliesin in their column “Bardic Portraits”. The author explains that “Taliesin, as a bard, was necessarily initiated in the Druidical mysteries [which his writings] prove him to have been strongly attached” (The Cambro-Briton , Vol 1, No. 1, page 12). It is confirmed in various other sources that Taliesin was in the service of several Celtic kings during his lifetime. Taliesin is often conflated with Merlin (Tolstoy, 136 and Goodrich, 288) and is considered by many to one of the influences forming the composite character of Merlin that we know today.

However, just to complicate matters, it should be mentioned that Goodrich believes there were two separate Merlins. She clearly respects Tolstoy's theory, as she calls his work “a book of admirable scholarship” (Goodrich, 18), but she believes that Myrddin Wyllt was not the figure represented in Geoffrey of Monmouth's works. Goodrich asserts “there probably are two separate Merlins, the first being King Arthur's Merlin, born about 450[A.D] and died in 536” (Goodrich, 18). However, although her scholarly credentials are formidable, Goodrich seems to be the only scholar espousing this view, and it is not generally accepted that Geoffrey of Monmouth was describing a truly historical figure.

Whether Merlin existed as a sole individual, as a legend growing from glimmers of truth, or as a composite of numerous influences seems of little consequence to what he came to symbolize. Perhaps the only certainty we can deduce from this exploration is that Merlin stands for something profound. He lived, whether literally or figuratively, during a tumultuous time in British history. It was a frightening and transitory time. With the abandonment of Gaul by the Romans, the British Isles were left undefended. The Celts rose again to reclaim their land and their ancestral ways, only to face the onslaught of new invaders. The figure of Merlin was a symbol of strength and reliance on the old ways. As time marched on, however, the new Christianized society of Britain viewed the people of the heath with suspicion and fear. And, thus, Merlin became a figure shrouded in magic and mystery.

Perhaps the fear of change, transition, and the unknown is the timeless thread tying us to this legend. Indeed, contemporary society is experiencing uncomfortable and frightening transitions of our own. It is fair to say these changes are eternal and ongoing. And, thus, the legend of Merlin, nearly two millennia later, still resonates with us today.

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Works Cited

Bardic Portraits: Taliesin (1819). The Cambro-Briton, Vol. 1 Issue 1, pp 10-13.

Goodrich, Norma Lorre. Merlin. New York: Franklin Watts, 1987.

Tolstoy, Nikolai. The Quest for Merlin. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1985.

Vest, Jay Hansford C. (1985). Will-of-the-Land: Wilderness among Primal Indo-Europeans. Environmental Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 323-329.

Other Works Consulted:

Pluskowski, Aleksander (2007). The beast within? Breaching human-animal boundaries in Anglo-Saxon paganism. The Newsletter of the Sutton Hoo Society, No. 45, pp. 1-4.

The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester.

© 2013 Carolyn Emerick

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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Carolyn, this was another one on your interesting mythological hub. I've learned a lot about pagans and Merlin. Thanks for sharing, Voted up!

    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 2 years ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      The origin of the word "pagan" also reflects the early Christian missionaries' targeting of cities where, apart from the rhythms of nature & closeness to the earth instilled by agricultural life, people then as now often feel adrift and rootless, which the Church's intimate sub-community (back then, when the Church in each city was still rather small) helped alleviate.

      The Romans pulled out of Britain--leaving it undefended--well before they pulled out of Gaul. Many think King Arthur is based on some Celtic chieftain who migth have arisen to fill the power vacuum in England caused by the Roman withdrawal.

    • melissae1963 profile image

      Melissa Reese Etheridge 2 years ago from Tennessee, United States

      Your articles are well-written and researched. It is interesting how historians learn so much about legendary figures. he resources you use are excellent.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 2 years ago from East Coast, United States

      I enjoyed this look into the legendary character, Merlin. While someone like him would be rather frightening what with his magic and so on, I love how he has become a loveable figure. Just as we romanticize our past, people of the past must have recalled their veiled history with some nostalgia.

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      William Steven Keene 2 years ago

      Thank you for this excellent article. Does anyone know where I might find a source for a "Round Table built of Rowan Oak"?

      Many Blessings.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image

      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      I really enjoyed the read. Merlin is fascinating, and it's fun to see so many places with a claim in the legends. Shared and voted up!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Not only are you a fine writer but also a fountain of information and knowledge. This was a wonderful read about one of my favorite subjects.

    • Fiorenza profile image

      Fiorenza 2 years ago from UK

      Interesting article. Merlin has been such an enormous influence on writers through the ages. Am just reading Kevin Crossley-Holland's trilogy which links Merlin in the legends with a character in the 12th century who is mentoring a boy called Arthur ....

    • Maximum A profile image

      Jee Ann G 2 years ago

      Amazing hub! I've always liked the Arthurian legends, and Merlin has always been my most favorite character. Mysterious, mystical, and magical, Merlin embodies the dichotomy and marriage of pre-Christian and Christian Britain (I think). It's just awesome. I'm so glad I stumbled upon your hub!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Very well done, Carolyn. I never tire of reading or writing about Merlin and all the legends/theories about him.

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      doug lucchetti 3 years ago

      Very interesting perspective. I had never heard the etymology for the English word 'wilderness' before. I lead tours across the Alaskan wilderness, the land of wild animals still, and frequently draw attention to people in my tours that the people of the wild lands of the north, whether in Finland, Siberia, or North America had much in common, shamanism prominently among those cultural attributes, and a deep connection to the ebb and flow of the wild migratory patterns observed by the creatures (caribou and salmon especially) that lived there and gave them sustenance. Cheers.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
      Author

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Suzette, I totally agree with you, they are such fascinating characters that they are real on some level even if they never existed!

      Sage, I was also an English major who was almost a Medieval Studies major and took classes like Medieval Lit, Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc! No wonder you have so many articles I find interesting! ;-)

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Beautiful hub. As an English major in college, Medieval Lit was my area of concentration and I remember reading (ahem, struggling through? LOL) Le Morte D'Arthur but it's been so long ago. Great info here... it's amazing to think there could have been some truth to any of the legends or characters, particularly Merlin. Excellent read, thanks for another great hub!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Great hub! I have written a hub on the question of King Arthur being legend or historical accuracy. Your research is wonderful and whether King Arthur and Merlin are real or not we have been left with some wonderful stories. We have built our whole justice system on King Arthur and his round table not to mention Camelot. Real or not they have adds to our lives as much as any true king. I so enjoyed reading this.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
      Author

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      phdast7, Thanks for reading and commenting :-) Nope, never read that triliogy but it sounds fun/interesting. Thank you for sharing, and I love your articles too :-)

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Carolyn - What a great, interesting and informative Hub. I have always been interested in Arthur and Merlin and the questions and suppositions about the root truth of their existence inside of all the myth and story.

      Are you familiar with CS Lewis trilogy, space fantasy. Althought not he main focus of the work, but in the third volume a Dr. Ransom (scholar and etymologist) is revealed as the Pendragon - I believe in a line of descent from Arthur. Merlin is awakened from deep deep sleep to assist the Pendragon, because there is need for his arts and skills to help set things right in mid twentieth century Europe.

      Great stuff. And I loved your hub. And I am not making this up, but this evening I took my granddaughter to a playground. Well I had paper with me and the place was built with turrets and bridges and balconies for the children to play on, very like castles. and I jotted down the skeleton of a poem with "Merlin" in it. :) Sharing.

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      Deryn 3 years ago

      Just a nitpick, but I'm quite sure it's Tacitus rather than Tacticus. Tacticus is from the Discworld novels. :)

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
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      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Hi Giordano, thank you so much for stopping by and for the kind words.

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      Giordano Cevallos H. 3 years ago

      I love to read about ancient civilizations , celts, druids and history of religions . I think you work is great , thank so much por this article , there are too much literarture in internet but the most don't have scientific or academic basis . Can you write something about the runnes? . It's very interesting the references about serious books . Thanks again.