Merlin, from the prophetic bard Myrddin
Renowned as one of the most famous legendary figures of all time and certainly the most famous in Arthurian legend besides Arthur himself, Merlin is, of course, the great magician, Arthur’s foremost counsellor, the power behind the throne, and creator of the shining kingdom of Camelot. Merlin’s feats and adventures are too numerous to be listed in a single blog post – the most well-known being his revelation as a boy of the red dragon and white dragon fighting beneath Vortigern’s tower, his series of prophecies about the coming of Arthur, his building of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain by flying the stones from Ireland with magic, his devising of the choice of Arthur as King through the Sword in the Stone, and his ultimate defeat at the hands of a sorceress (in most stories it is the Lady of the Lake named Nimue, Vivienne or Niniane, but in some stories it is Morgan le Fay), who traps him in a tree, in a cave, or under a rock.
One of the most interesting and lesser known aspects of Merlin’s status in legend are his origins which are much older than his first appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittanniae (ca. 1136). His earliest incarnation was Myrddin, a Welsh bard and “mad prophet” whose story is told in a series of pre-12th century Welsh poems, one of the earliest of these being the 10th century “Armes Prydain” (“The Prophecy of Britain”) from The Book of Taliesin. Myrddin served the early British lord Gwenddoleu in a war against King Rhydderch of Cumbria (based on the historical King Rhydderch of Strathclyde) and fought with his master at the battle of Arfderydd. Following this battle, Myrddin descended into madness, either through guilt because he accidentally killed the son of his sister, Gwenddydd, or through grief for Gwenddoleu, who was slain on the battlefield. Thereafter, he roamed the northern forest of Celyddon (Caledonia), living as a hermit and issuing frenzied prophecies which at the time were regarded as proof of his powerful magic gifts.
The foundations of his story may go back further in time to Suibhne Geilt (Sweeney the Mad), a King of Dál Naraidi in Ireland, who was said to have lost his sanity at the Battle of Moira, a historic battle fought in AD 637, after which he became a wild man roaming the forest. (In some versions of Arthurian legend, Merlin is a prince or a king in his own right.)
Myrddin also shares his story with Lailoken, a “mad prophet” from Scottish legend who lived in the 6th century – indeed, it would seem that Myrddin and Lailoken are different versions of the same man. He was for a time at the court of King Rhydderch, who was married to Gwenddydd, Myrddin’s sister (known as Ganieda in Arthurian legend). In the Welsh poem “The Prophecy of Myrddin and Gwenddydd”, Gwenddydd says, “I ask my Llalogan Myrddin, a wise man, a prophet…” Llalogan, very close to Lailoken, is translated as “twin brother,” which would suggest that Myrddin and Lailoken are one and the same. In the Lailoken legend, Lailoken is brought by King Meldred to his court for his amusement, but the king gets more than he bargained for when Lailoken reveals the infidelity of Meldred’s queen. Here the stories of Merlin, Myrddin, and Lailoken overlap, for in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (ca. 1150), it is Merlin who reveals the unfaithfulness of his sister, Ganieda, to her husband, Rhydderch, though Ganieda is able to convince Rhydderch that what Merlin says is false because of his madness.
Lailoken became infamous for prophesying the downfall of Britain and his own “triple death.” Befriended by Saint Kentigern (also known as Saint Mungo aka “dear friend”), he persuaded the saint to give him the Last Rites, even though his prophecy of his own death seemed highly implausible. Lailoken claimed he would die from being beaten by sticks and stones, then from being impaled through the heart with a stake, then from falling into water. One day, as he wandered through a field near Dunmeller, Lailoken was spotted by King Meldred’s shepherds who, angered at his humiliation of their king, threw sticks and stones at him. Fatally injured from the beating and stoning, Lailoken fell off a cliff into the River Tweed and was then impaled through the heart by a protruding stick – thus fulfilling his seemingly impossible “triple death” prophecy of his own demise.
The Merlin legend’s deep roots in history and literature, which precede what came to be known as Arthuriana, are what give the character resonance and significance. Interestingly, it was the Myrddin and Lailoken attributes with which the Merlin of medieval literature was imbued from Geoffrey of Monmouth onwards, in particular his prophetic powers (Geoffrey calls him “Merlin the Prophet”). Although Merlin had magic, it was mostly his powers of alchemy and engineering that characterised him (the transformation of Uther into Gorlois, the moving of Stonehenge). Later, in the French Arthurian cycles, Merlin’s powers were enhanced to include shape-shifting and spell-casting as well as prophecy. It was only in the 17th century that Merlin began to be depicted as an all-powerful wizard or sorcerer, at which time his fame reached its zenith. However, in recent incarnations, Merlin’s legendary powers have been somewhat scaled down again, to the point where he now more closely resembles his origins once more. Key to Merlin’s endurance and appeal across different eras and cultures are the aspects that were there from the very beginning – the gift of prophecy, the strangeness or otherness (madness), and the loyalty to a doomed king.
Merlin is a major character in the Fata Morgana Series. He is a child of Morgan’s age, with a twin sister, Ganieda (who will be the subject of a later blog post).
Myrddin is also a character in the Fata Morgana Series. He is a young man who is a Druid; in this case, a different character from Merlin.