Was Merlin Historical?
Was Merlin Historical Somehow?
I 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 also pretty cool.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 madnan, 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.
The fifth and sixth centuries were war ridden. In the east and south, Germanic Tribes who we call Angli-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 Crown and Diadem: Norfolk|
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.
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:
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 from the past, capturing 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.