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Was Merlin Historical?

Dive into the legend of Merlin! Was he a real advisor to a king, or a figment of imaginative storytelling? Explore historical records, captivating Arthurian myths, and the TV dramatisation of Bernard Cornwell's excellent book trilogy.


Don't you just love the madness and magic of Merlin? The granddaddy of sorcerers, the true archetypal wizard, the wild man of prophecy. He has so many presentations, however, his history is primarily arcane! 

Merlin in a circle
Merlin is fittingly portrayed as a feared druid and a crazy old oracle to the Britons of Dumnonia in Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles. This is a romantic figure glorifying a lost mysterious celtic way of life. Of course, it's very unlikely a man matching our modern vision of Merlin has ever existed; history doesn't always meet our expectations.


'I believe the Gods hate to be bored, so I do my best to amuse them. That way they smile on me. Your God,’ Merlin said sourly, ‘despises amusement, demanding grovelling worship instead. He must be a very sorry creature' 

Bernard Cornwell, The Winter King


I can imagine Merlin's prototype as a real living druid, or a bard, maybe a madman, all from the Romano-British period. It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who fictionalised Merlin with the trappings of wizardry in modern fantasy. It's almost always conflict that teases out names of potential interest. 

Painting of Merlin looking Moses-like

The fifth and sixth centuries were war ridden. In the east and south, Germanic Tribes who we call Anglo-Saxons founded their kingdoms. Some Britons resisted in the west and north, they also fought themselves—others assimilated into the Germanic way of life. 

 

In popular media, Merlin is often a priceless asset to Arthur and his followers, because of his magical prowess, and foresight. In reality, though, there isn't any evidence to suggest such meetings! All sources for Merlin are post 12th century, but we know some are alleged to be copies of 10th century manuscripts. They were written hundreds of years after the events.

Romano British helmet artifact
Romano-British Crown and Diadem: Norfolk

Be that as it is, I do like Merlin's defiance; it endures and not just against the Germanic invaders or Mordred's ambitions, but his stubborn defiance toward Derfel and Arthur. The semi demented wizard can appear quite vulnerable but secretly he's deceptively sharp minded because we forget he is a magician. His powers from shape changing to flight are later tweaks to the character by medieval writers. 


In earlier Welsh manuscripts, like the 'The Red Book of Hergest' and 'The Black Book of Carmarthen' Merlin, written as Myrddin Emrys, Wyllt or Merlinus Caledonensis, wasn't a prime 'Sword in the Stone' Disney type wizard, but a crazy bard and prophet, with a sound knowledge of nature.


After a major loss during the battle of Arthuret, Carlisle. This Myrddin (Merlin), was born circa 540 and went mad, totally losing it!! He ran away into the forest where he lived as a wild man, a bit like King Nebuchadnezzar or maybe John the Baptist. Bards were just beneath Druids for the Britons. Maybe Myrddin would have retained some social significance. 

Painting of Merlin looking Norse

The contradictions that define modern and proto-Merlin's says to me, there was historical inspiration for medieval historical fiction writers like Monmouth. I've barely touched the surface. Other Merlin names from records are:

1. Ambrosius

2. Emrys

3. Myrddin

4. Merlinus

5. Merdinus

6. Merdinn

7. Merlin Ambrosius

8. Merlin Caledonensis

9. Merlin Silvestris

10. Merlinus Arturius

Even if he never existed at all, the stories surrounding Merlin bring our attention to the historical context of the era: like the hunger for territory, for instance, supernatural belief, Celtic in-fighting, religious tension, Irish piracy and of course the Anglo-Saxon wars. For me, personally, Geoffrey of Monmouth's development of Merlin and his other heroes most likely characterised the spirit of such a past, a zeitgeist. It's comparable to Gandalf, from Tolkien's legendarium, whose name was taken from the Völuspá of the Poetic Edda's. Above all, Gandalf is a reinvigoration himself, a modern shape shifted expression of the old one eyed runemaster himself, Odin, the wanderer and prime god of the vikings. 


Arthurian characters have had their fair share of reboots and retcons; the wild man Myrddin, Derfel the warrior and, the warlord, Arthur; they've all differed over the centuries. We may never uncover an exact history. It's up to us as individuals to make up our own minds

*Update*

The latest depiction of Merlin in the recent Winter King TV show, is portrayed by a person of a different heritage to the archetypal Merlin and discontent has rained down across review websites. Cornwell and supporters of the casting choice forwarded the case that the Winter King took place very shortly after the Romans left Britain. Cool. It is a respectable theory that people of colour were in Roman ranks. However, the times are off. Rome withdrew in 410 CE, but the story is set in the latter part of the fifth century continuing into the sixth, generations later. After generations of breeding with the native women Merlin, would have most likely resembled his archetype. The apologetics fail, leaving doubt that the casting was nothing other than a bending of the knee to modern inclusivity and wokism

The evidence proving the presence of African or Romano-African soldiers, individuals or black communities is lacking—yet, this doesn't mean they did not exist.  Bede, Gildas and Tacitus are highly sourced historical writers who Bernard Cornwall must have used to shape The Winter King, but I cannot find anything in their sources online or in my own books. Eitherway, this avenue doesn't need exploration, Bernard Cornwell originally did Merlin traditionally in print, but then, sold the character off, which is what good authors are supposed to do, to be fair. 

The most disappointing thing is the insensitivity of hinting at Merlin's Roman ancestry; Rome massacred the druids at Anglesey, we lost all knowledge of druidic celtic briton, they violated Boudicca and subdued many more. However, druidry is still mysticised because of the absent history. The druids are meaningful and retain significance, and interest, not only in Arthurian legend, but culturally and historically. Cornwell's printed Merlin, is a thoughtful portrait on multiple layers; a man trying to restore the old ways, he carried loss, and struggled within his political, social, and religious landscape as an old schemer, stubbornly fighting his battles against the Saxons and Christians.The Winter King televised series should not have deviated from the written ethos. 

Cartoon of Merlin predicting Disney ruining Star Wars


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