Merlin and the Men Behind His Legend
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.
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.
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.
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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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