Merlin: Warrior & Poet. Two Historical Figures that Inspired the Legend
It’s only a few weeks now until the movie King Arthur: Legend of the Sword hits the big screen. It will be particularly interesting to see how it portrays Merlin, the royal puppet master in the Arthurian tales. The stories we know today derive from the romantic fiction of the Middle Ages, first composed during the twelfth century, beginning with the work of the Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth around 1135.
The modern legend of Merlin was born out of the Middle Ages. ( CC BY-ND 2.0 )
Here, Merlin is depicted as the real power behind the throne: he is King Arthur’s mentor, his royal advisor, and he manipulates affairs of state with magical powers. The action is set during the sixth century, shortly after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Historically, during this period Britain became divided into many feuding kingdoms—the nation’s plight made worse by the Anglo-Saxons who were invading from their homeland in northern Germany. The invaders eventually conquered much of Britain, driving the inhabitants west. Ultimately, southern Britain became two separate countries: England, founded by the Anglo-Saxons, and Wales, the region of the Welsh, the English name for the native Britons.
Map showing sites associated with Merlin and the Arthurian legend. (Graham Phillips)
Arthur and Merlin in the Dark Ages
This period of conflict and uncertainty is popularly known as the Dark Ages, an era from which few written records survive, and it was during this turbulent time that Arthur is said to have lived. He united the British kingdoms to halt the Anglo-Saxons, we are told, establishing a brief age of peace and prosperity. It ends tragically, however, when Arthur dies in battle, drawn into civil conflict with his own family. Having failed to secure the Britons’ future, Merlin is sent mad with grief and ends his days as a crazed, forest-dwelling hermit.
Merlin, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. ( Public Domain )
Although this story is embroiled with medieval fantasy, earlier Dark Age works do exist to suggest that the Arthur of fiction may have been based on a genuine historical figure; more remarkably, Merlin too. In these accounts Merlin appears under the original Welsh rendering of the name, Myrddin, and is said to have been a royal advisor and a poet who possessed the gift of prophecy. Such people—poets attributed with second sight—did exist during the post-Roman era, and were retained by various chieftains to act as both councilors and chroniclers, composing poems to record the exploits of their king. They were known as “bards,” and Myrddin is said to have been one of them; works dating from the sixth century are even attributed to him.
The Black Book of Carmarthen
Now preserved in the National Library of Wales, a manuscript called The Black Book of Carmarthen contains two poems, The Greetings and The Apple Trees , both involving a battle at a place called Arfderydd in northern Britain, after which the author claims to been driven out of his mind and forced to live alone in a nearby forest. Another seemingly contemporary poem in the manuscript, titled The Conversation of Myrddin and Taliesin , concerns Myrddin and another bard discussing this same battle.
- Who Pulled the Sword from the Stone? The Truth of the Swords of King Arthur
- The Chalice of Magdalene – Is this the Holy Grail?
- Did the Templars Hide the Ark of the Covenant? Unraveling the Cove-Jones Cipher
These works all imply that the romance Merlin was based in part on the Myrddin of the poems: he is living a reclusive forest existence, having lost his wits, exactly like Merlin in the Arthurian tales.
A page from the Black Book of Carmarthen, thought to be the earliest surviving manuscript written solely in Welsh. ( Public Domain )
Evidence that this Myrddin historically existed can be found in the Welsh Annals , a tenth-century chronicle preserved in the British Library in London. It records the very battle referenced in The Black Book of Carmarthen poems, specifically naming the bard. An entry for the year 573 reads: “The Battle of Arfderydd in which… Myrddin went mad.”
A Real, Historical Man?
So Merlin the magician does seem to have been based in part on a real-life sixth-century bard. Unfortunately, however, he cannot have been a contemporary of a historical King Arthur. One of the earliest surviving works to reference Arthur is the History of the Britons by a monk named Nennius, who wrote around the year 830. Unlike the medieval romancers writing over three centuries later, who elaborated their accounts with fanciful themes, Nennius merely relates Arthur’s purported military achievements. His most decisive battle, we are told, was the Battle of Badon, seemingly fought near the city of Bath.