The Legend of Merlin

The legend of Merlin

The theme of Merlin was a strand in the vast mass of material, loosely known by the name of the Arthurian Legend, which constituted the major contribution made by Welsh and Celtic tradition to the European culture of the middle ages. In France the Arthurian legend was known as the “Matter of Britain” la Matiere de Bretagne, and flourished alongside of the Matter of France and the Matter of Rome. French literature on Arthurian subjects divides naturally into two periods.

The second period is that of the great cycles of prose romance, which began to be written at the turn of the thirteenth century. The most important of these, known as the Vulgate Cycle, contains five lengthy texts: L’Estoire del Saint Graal; L’Estoire de Merlin; L’Estoire de Lancelot; Le Queste de Saint Graal; and Le mort Artu. Together these tales form an enormous epic narration of the Arthurian story.

It is with the second of them the ‘Story of Merlin’ that we are now concerned, its basis or original form was a poem by Robert de Boron, probably written before the end of the twelfth century, but which only some five hundred lines survive. The entire poem however was rewritten in a prose form and the prose version, together with a continuation by an unknown author, which is very much longer than the original poem, constitutes the ‘Estoire de Merlin’ of the Vulgate Cycle.

The Estoire de Merlin begins with an account of the birth of Merlin. His conception is stated to have been the result of a deliberate conspiracy by the devils in revenge for the Harrying of Hell by Christ during the three days between His Crucifixion and Resurrection. Their aim was to bring into the world and Antichrist by whose supernatural powers and evil activities mankind would be ruined. Accordingly a fiend cohabited with a virgin while she was asleep and a child was conceived, part human, part fiend. The great virtue of the mother, however together with the ministrations of her confessor, brought the schemes of the devils to nought, for when the child Merlin was born he inherited his father’s supernatural powers but had none of his wickedness. The great gifts which the magician was subsequently able to use both for the king’s benefit and for the general good are thus rationally accounted for.

Immediately he was born Merlin was able to speak and in a very short time he successfully defended his mother at her public trial for un-chastity. He soon developed prophetic powers and his prognostications were recorded by a learned clerk, Blaise, There follows the story of the first more famous exploits. King Vortigern was building a tower to protect himself against the Saxons but the structure which his workmen erected would not stand. Accordingly his clerks, or wise men, advised him that the foundations could only be made stable by drenching them with the blood of a fatherless child, seven years old. The clerks tendered this somewhat unexpected advice after each of them had been warned in a vision that such a child was to be the cause of his death. Merlin, was now seven years old was the obvious candidate for the central role in the proposed sacrificial rite, but he defeated the clerks by pointing out that the real cause of the instability of the foundations was an underground pool at the bottom of which were two dragons each under a large stone. When the water was drawn off the dragons fought each other and both perished. Merlin interpreted this as signifying that Vortigern was to be overthrown by the sons of Constant, a prophecy which was subsequently fulfilled.

St Ambrosius Story

Ambrosius is Emrys Wledig, or as Nennius calls him, Embreis Guletic. Nennius tells the marvellous tale of Vortigern being unable to lay the foundations of his castle in Gwynedd, and sending to find a boy whose father was unknown in order to sprinkle his blood on the foundations to make them firm. Messengers were sent throughout the Isle of Britain in the quest, and they came to a place in Glywysyg where they heard boys playing at ball, and a dispute having arisen among them, one sneered at the other, " O boy without a father, thou hast no good at all." The messengers asked, "Whose son is the lad to whom this is said?” Those who were playing ball replied: "We know not. His mother is here." The mother of the boy of whom this was spoken said: "I know not that he has a father, nor do I know how he happened to be conceived in my womb."

Then the messengers took the boy to the king, who would have sacrificed him, according to the counsel of his Druids, but he escaped by telling Vortigern that the reason why his foundations gave way was that they were laid in a morass wherein were red and white dragons or maggots in deadly contest. Then the boy said, "Ambrosius is my name my father was a Roman consul, and this shall be my fortress." Then Vortigern left the castle to Ambrosius, and also the government of all the east of Britain, and went with his Druids to the land of Gwynnwesi, in the north, and built a fortress there, which city is named Caer Gwrtheyrn. The fable is foisted in clumsily, and is incoherent. The boy's father is known. Ambrosius knows it, his mother does not. All we can make out of it is that Vortigern seems to have thrown himself on the still strong Pagan element among the Britons, and to have sought the death of Ambrosius, who headed the Romano-British party, and that he was defeated.

Merlin Story

His growing fame secured for Merlin an established position at Court, and he played the part of the magician in numerous incidents. After transferring the stones of Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury Plain, and instituting the Round Table, he performed the crowning act of his career by bringing about the conception of Arthur, The King, Uther Pendragon, was in love with Ygerne, wife of the Duke Tintagel. By his magic art Merlin gave the king the semblance of the duke so that he was able to enter the latter’s castle and beget Arthur upon his wife, even though the duke and he were at war with each other. Merlin himself supervised the rearing of Arthur and when the time came to prove his right of succession the magician fixed a sword in an anvil on a block of stone, with an inscription on the sword declaring that only he who could draw if from the anvil would be king. When everyone else had failed Arthur drew the sword and was proclaimed rightful ruler.

Such, very briefly, is the content of the French Merlin. Now the greater part, though not the whole, of the material I have summarized is derived from the Roman de Brut, a poem of some 15,000 lines in octo-syllabic couplets completed in 1155 by Wace. Its author, a native of Jersey, educated in Normandy and probably also at Paris, was an ecclesiastic and a professional writer whose audience was the Anglo-Norman nobility. The Roman de Brut in its turn was a rendering into French of the Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth, which had first appeared in 1136. Geoffrey’s work had been intended for the same audience but being written in Latin, was more limited in its appeal. Wace’s role was that of a populariser and he contributed very substantially to the spread of interest in Arthurian themes. Geoffrey of Monmouth, on the other hand, was one of the major imaginative writers of the Middle Ages and his Historia can without hesitation be described as the most influential book ever to have come out of Wales. It was, of course, intended to be read as history rather than as imaginative literature. Nevertheless, it was the fire of Geoffrey’s imagination working on pseudo-historical material that secured such widespread acceptance for his work. That it was the medieval equivalent of a best-seller is shown by the fact that over two hundred manuscript copies of the Latin text still exist. Geoffrey was not of Welsh origin but was probably a member of the Breton family which had come over with the Norman Conquest and settles in Monmouth.

Merlin’s Statue Carmarthen
Merlin’s Statue Carmarthen

The Welsh legend was a version of the primitive theme of the Wild Man of the Woods, it was a theme widely used in the medieval art and was no doubt derived from early man’s fear of what lay beyond the limits of the clearing or inhabited territory on which he had his homestead. In the Middle Ages feat was replaced by fascination and the outcast from society, leading an eccentric life in the forest, often with his reason impaired, and partaking in some measure of the nature of the animals which were his daily companions, became an object of sympathetic curiosity. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in particular wild men were depicted in tapestries and illuminated manuscripts and impersonated in dances and pageants. They also occur in sculpted work on churches, as in the group of figures on the façade of the church of San Gregorio in Valladoid, built between 1488 and1496, where the wild men are actually placed on the jambs of the portal, a position usually reserved for figures of the prophets and saints. A famous literary instance of a wild man, in whom insanity was added to wildness, was King Nebuchadnezzar, who is frequently depicted in medieval miniatures as crouching, bearded and hairy, a delineation based on the statement in the Book of Daniel (4.33) that he ‘was driven from men and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles feathers, and his nails like birds claws.’ This portrait of Nebuchadnezzar was probably the earliest example of the use in literature of a theme whose productiveness on the Middle Ages was mainly in the sphere of visual art. We were here concerned with its literary aspect and it would seem that in Europe it was among peoples speaking Celtic languages that the theme was first used for literary purposes, and that this happened many centuries before it manifested itself generally in the visual field. The story of the Wild Man has been preserved in literary from in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The fullest version is the one in Irish, in which the wild man is known as gelt and his condition as geltacht. In Welsh the equivalent forms are gwyllr and gwylleith. A thirteenth century Norse text, the Kongs Skuggsjo or Speculum Regale, gives the following description if the Irish gelt:

There is also one thing which will seem very wonderful about men who are called gelt. It happens that when tow hosts meet and are arrayed in battle-array, and when the battle-cry is raised loudly on both sides, that cowardly men run wild and lose their wits from the dread and fear which seize them. And then they run into a wood away from other men, and live there like wild beasts, and shun the meeting of men like wild beasts. And it is said of these men that when they have lived in the woods in that condition for twenty years then feathers grow on their bodies as on birds, whereby their bodies are protected against frost and cold, but the feathers are not so large that they may fly like birds. Yet their swiftness is said to be so great that other men cannot approach them, and greyhounds just as little as men. For these people run along the trees almost as swiftly as monkeys or squirrels.

Now, however, when he arrived out of battle, it was seldom that his feet would touch the ground because of the swiftness of his course, and when he did touch it he would not shake the dew from the top of the grass for the lightness and the nimbleness of his step, He halted not from that headlong course until he left neither plain, nor field, nor bare mountains, nor bog, nor thicket, nor marsh, nor hill, nor hollow, nor dense-sheltering wood in Ireland that he did not travel that day, until he reached Ros Bearaigh, in Glenn Earcain, where he went into the yew-tree that was in the glen.

Thenceforward he was known as Suibene Gelt and lived for many years an outcast from society, wandering throughout the length and breadth of Ireland, existing on water and water-cress and sleeping in ivy-bushes. On becoming mad he received both the power of levitation and the gift of poetry. More than half of the Buile Shuibne is in verse and consists largely of nature poems of the type well-known to students of early Irish and Welsh literature, in which the salient features of a landscape are barely and tersely noted and described. On one or two occasions Suibne re-establishes contact with his wife and the nobles of his kingdom and his senses return to him for a while but St Ronan again curses him and he relapses into madness. At last he is befriended by another, and more celebrated saint, Moling, under whose protection he ends his days.

Although the manuscript texts of the Buile Shuibne are late, the composition of the tale can be dated on linguistic evidence in the twelfth century. Its material, of course, derives from an earlier period although some elements in the story, such as the curse of Ronan are later accretions of the original theme of a warrior who became mad in the terror and stress of battle. In medieval Welsh literature the tale of Suibne is paralleled by the legend of Myrddin, as Merlin is called in Welsh. The legend has not survived in the form of a prose saga, but it seems fairly certain that such a saga did at one time exist and was transmitted orally. Substantial portions of the legend, however, are founded embedded in some five or six poems preserved in manuscripts  dating from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, such as the Black Book of Carmarthen “c 1200’ and the Red Book of Hergest “c 1400”. The most important of these are the Afallennau ‘Apple Trees’, the Hoianau ‘Greetings’ and Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddyddei Chwaer ‘The Conversation of Myrddin and his Sister’. In the main the poems consist of political ‘prophecies’ and are concerned with the public affairs of early medieval Wales, but the legendary material is interspersed among the prophecies. These are spoken by Myrddin, who is portrayed as a seer living in Coed Celyddon, or the Caledonian Forest, in southern Scotland towards the end of the sixth century A.D.  At a period the greater part, if not the whole, of the Scottish Lowlands was divided into three Welsh-speaking kingdoms of Strathclyde, Rheged and Gododdin, and it is here that the legend of Myrddin has its geographical setting. This region was in fact the cradle of Welsh literature and there has survived a considerable body of verse believed to be the work of Taliesin and Aneirin, poets of Rheged and Gododdin respectively. The poems of Myrddin, however, can make no claim to such high antiquity and belong rather to saga material which probably took literary form in Wales in the ninth or tenth century.

The northern setting, however, is portrayed with consistency. In the Afallennau Myrddin is a madman, wandering in misery in the Caledonian Forest and endowed with the gift of prophecy. He refers bitterly to the battle of Arfderydd at which he wore a golden torque, but before the close of which he lost his reason and his Lord Gwenddolau was slain. Now he believes he is being hunted down by the men of Rhydderch Hael, obviously the victor of Arfderydd, and he complains that his sister Gwenddydd does not visit him. In one line he declares that he has been guilty of the death of the son of Gwenddydd. From other references it would appear that he hides himself from his pursuers, real and imaginary, in a apple tree, which has the power of rendering him invisible, and each stanza in the Afallennau poem begins with an invocation to this apple-tree. Two stanzas of the Afallennau contain an address to a wild pigling, Myrddin’s sole companion in the woods, and this may have suggested the composition of the Hoianau, which is a series of twenty five stanzas each beginning with a stereotyped greeting by Myrddin to the creature which he describes as his “rude bedfellow.” It is clear that these poems contain the debris of a legend which can now only be imperfectly reconstructed. Rhydderch Hael was king of Dumbarton towards the end of the sixth century and is well authenticated, but Gwenddolau is a much more shadowy figure. The battle of Arderydd was probably a historical encounter which took place in 573, according to an entry in the Annales Cambriae, at Arthuret, near Carlisle, and plays a role in the Welsh legend identical with that of the battle of Moira in the Irish take of Suibne.

This reference to a vision in the heavens does not occur in any other Welsh triads, many of which contain summaries of legend now lost, suggest that the madness of Myrddin was at one time merely an incident in a full-length saga about the battle of Arfderydd, just as the frenzy of Suibne was merely an incident in the Irish saga of the battle of Moira. One triad describes the battle of Arfderydd as one of the three futile or frivolous battles because it was fought on account of the lark’s nest. Another states that Gwenddolau’s retinue was one of the three faithful retinues because it continued to fight for its lord for six weeks after he had been killed, Again another refers to four warriors who rode to Arfderydd on one horse in order to look as the steam rising from Gwenddolau’s host.  On their way, adds the triad, they were overtaken by a certain Dinogad who, however, has been blames ‘until this day’ for his pains. Yet another triad mentions the birds of Gwenddolau which had a yoke of gold and silver and were ultimately killed by a certain Gall son of Dysgyfdawd. References such as these are mere fragments of tales now irretrievably lost. Gwenddolau was clearly the central figure in a saga which culminated in his fall at the battle of Arfderydd. It should be noted that Myrddin is not once mentioned in the triads which refer to this battle. This is probably no more than an indication that the tale of Myrddin had branched off from the Arfderydd saga and assumed an independent existence, but is less easy to explain the fact that no reference to the Myrddin legend occurs in any of the early collections of triads.

I now turn now to the Scottish forms of the legend, they have been preserved in Latin and the oldest is a short reference in the twelfth century Life of St Kentigern by Joceline of Furness. In the last chapter it is stated that a certain homo fatuus or fool, or perhaps court jester, who was called Laloecen and possessed prophetic powers, lived at the court of King Rederech “Rhydderch”. After Kentigern’s death this person prophesied that within a year both king and another of the great ones of the land would follow him, the prophecy was duly fulfilled.

The correspondence between Lailoken in these Scottish legends and the Myrddin of Welsh tradition is self-evident. Both are madmen living in the forest, and both possess the power of prophecy, they are both obsessed by a sense of guilt and declare that they have brought about the deaths of other persons. Both have associations with King Rhydderch, the name Lailoken occurs in the poem Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd in the form Llallogan and is there used, whatever is exact signification may be, as description or appellation of Myrddin, Both Lailoken and Myrddin become mad as a result of the terror they experience in a battle, which various Welsh sources indicate clearly as that of Arfderydd.

Some differences between the Welsh and the Scottish forms of the Myrddin legend should here be noted. The vision in the heavens, which appeared to Lailoken, is absent from the Welsh poems although it is mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis. Gerald’s source for this reference is not known. In the Irish legend the vision takes the form of “huge, flickering, horrible, aerial phantoms” which tormented Suibne according to one account of the battle of Moira, but which were nevertheless visible to all combatants. The association of the madman with a saint towards the end of his life, which is a prominent feature of the tales of Lailoken and Suibne, is also absent from the Welsh forms of the tale. It may possibly have dropped out of it some stage in its development.
Whatever view we take of the ultimate origin if the Lailoken legend, it is certain that this northern tale was brought to Wales at sometime between the sixth and the ninth centuries. We know little about the relationship between Wales and the Welsh-speaking kingdoms of southern Scotland during this period, but a connection undoubtedly existed. During the fifth century a part of the population of Manaw Gododdin in southern-eastern Scotland had moved into Wales under the leadership of Cunedda and his ‘sons’.

Welsh before the close of the Dark Ages and it is perhaps rather singular that when Geoffrey of Monmouth came to write his Historia Regum Britanniae in the thirties of the twelfth century he knew so little of its actual content. His foreign origin was probably the principle reason for his ignorance and it was his lack of familiarity with the Welsh theme that made it possible for him to attach the name Merlinus to the central figure of another and totally unconnected legend, and the wonder child Ambrosius in the story of Vortigern and his fortress. One thing however, he did seem to know, and that was that some association existed in the popular mind between the seer whom he called Merlinus and the place in south west Wales called Caer-fyrddin. Accordingly he caused the discovery of the fatherless boy or wonder child to take place at Carmarthen, not in Glamorgan as in the Historia Brittonum of Nennius, and he further stated that the boy’s mother was a daughter if the king of Dyfed.

One of the most striking features of the Merlin legend is its dual localization. In the Welsh poems Rhydderch Hael and Gwenddolau, the battle of Arfderydd and the Caledonian Forest belong to the north of Britain or southern Scotland. On the other hand, both in his prose chronicle and in his poem Geoffrey associates Merlin with Dyfed or South west Wales, and with Carmarthen. This can best be understood by considering the origin of the name Merlin or Myrddin. Although in the Middle Ages Myrddin was accorded a place alongside Taliesin, Aneirin and Llywarch Hen as one of the founders of the Welsh poetic tradition, and numerous prophecies were attributed to him, his name does not occur in any of the genealogies of the ‘men of the North’ or in any other source, Neither does he figure among the five early poets listed in the “Northern History” attached to Nennius Historia Brittonum, namely Talhaearn Tad Wen, Aneirin, Taliesin, Blwchfardd and Cian. There are in fact no grounds for believing that any historical person of the name of Myrddin, whether king or poet, existed in the North in the sixth century.

The name Myrddin is simply the second element of the place-name Caerfyrddin and is derived from the British Moridunon, meaning ‘sea fort.’ The Welsh form was no doubt established by the end of the sixth century but is meaning was probably obscured by the phonetic development it had undergone. This may have facilitated the prefixing to it of the word caer, also meaning a ‘fort,’ which in any case came to be commonly used during this period as the first element in the names of places which had been Roman fortresses or towns.

Thus the Myrddin of south-west Wales was at first a shadowy figure having no specific legendary associations but it was natural enough for the popular mind at an early stage to endow him with the gift of prophecy. Then, at some time during the seventh century or eighth century, the tale of Llallogan migrated to Wales together with a considerable quantity of other literary material, legend and folklore of northern origin. Before long the story of the northern wild man attached itself to the name of Myrddin, a development which was no doubt aided by the fact that both Myrddin and Llallogan were reputed to possess prophetic powers. In the poem Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd Myrddin is addressed by his sister as Llallogan vyrdin and Llallawc. The significance of these forms, however, does not seem to have been clear when the poem was composed and in the course of time the northern name was completely displaces by the Welsh form Myrddin. Nevertheless, the tale did not shed its northern setting and associations, so that during the various phases of its development in the later centuries of the Middle Ages is usually had one foot in Wales and the other in Scotland. In Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin, for instance, Myrddin seems to be a spokesman for the men of Dyfed in the first half of the poem and refers to some of the ancient traditions of south west Wales, while in the second half he switches abruptly to the northern scene and utters prophecies relating to the battle of Arfderydd, In the Vita Merlini, as we have already noted, Merlin is introduced as king of the Demetae but after the first few lines he is swiftly transported to the Caledonian Forest. Merlin had been claimed as a local celebrity both in Scotland and Wales. In Scotland his grave is pointed out at Drummemzier, near the spot where the brook Pausayl joins the Tweed, and an old rhyme is quoted as having declared.

Merlin’s Tree Carmarthen (now a roundabout)
Merlin’s Tree Carmarthen (now a roundabout)

When Tweed and Pausayl join at Merlin’s grave,
Scotland and England shall one monarch have.

Accordingly, when James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England the Tweed is said to have overflowed its banks and the Pausayl to have been united with it for a time at the grave. This must be attributed to the influence of the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth. In Carmarthen on the other hand, where Lailoken had been completely absorbed by Myrddin at a very early date, the famous Merlin’s Oak is widely believed to have been planted by the magician himself, although others maintain that it grew from an acorn planets by a schoolmaster on May 19th 1659. The tree is said to have been deliberately killed in the nineteenth century by a puritan who disapproved of the local inhabitants’ custom of congregating under its branches at all hours of day and night. Today it is only an old stump, but well-guarded by the municipal authorities for fear the other old prophecy be fulfilled, that:

When Merlin’s Tree shall tumble down,
Then shall fall Carmarthen Town.