Did Merlin really exist?


Gustave Dore’s iconic depiction of Merlin with Vivien

Although I’m sceptical about the idea of a ‘real’ King Arthur I don’t have similar doubts about Merlin. This isn’t just because I’m a devotee of the wizard’s latest TV incarnation courtesy of the BBC. No indeed. My belief in a historical Merlin goes back more than three decades, to my first encounter with a famous entry in the Welsh Annals under the year 573:

bellum armterid inter filios elifer et guendoleu filium keidiau; in quo bello guendoleu cecidit; merlinus insanus effectus est.
‘The battle of Arfderydd between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddoleu son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddoleu fell; Merlin went mad.’

In 1876 the renowned Celtic scholar W.F. Skene identified Arfderydd as Arthuret, a parish on the Anglo-Scottish Border a few miles north of Carlisle. Skene also proposed that the nearby place-name Carwinley, recorded in the 13th century as Karwindelhou, derives from an earlier Caer Gwenddoleu, ‘Gwenddoleu’s Fort’. Most historians now accept this derivation. The fort itself is either the Roman one at Netherby or a native stronghold beneath the Norman ‘motte and bailey’ castle of Liddel Strength.

Much academic attention has been directed at the Welsh Annals to assess their original date of composition. They seem to have been compiled c.900, probably at the great monastery of St David’s, by a monk who gathered information from a number of earlier sources. It is likely that the entry for Arfderydd was originally a brief notice of the battle (bellum armterid) and that the details of the participants were added later. The information about Merlin may have been inserted c.1150 after the publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and possibly reflects traditions enshrined in older Welsh poems attributed to the ‘wizard’ himself. In these poems, we see Merlin fleeing in terror from the carnage of Arfderydd to seek a refuge in the forest of Celidon, a wild region of what is now southern Scotland. There in the deep woods he lived alone as a fugitive, hiding from King Rhydderch of Dumbarton who sought to capture him. In medieval Scottish legend it was believed that Merlin’s grave lies beside the River Tweed at Drumelzier, a village between Biggar and Peebles.

Wales makes its own claim for Merlin in the Arthurian stories of Geoffrey of Monmouth and in folklore about the town of Carmarthen whose Welsh name Caerfyrddin is said to mean ‘Myrddin’s Fort’ (Myrddin is an old Welsh form of Merlin). Glastonbury in Somerset is another place associated with Merlin in his familiar guise as King Arthur’s chief counsellor. For me, however, the ‘real’ Merlin is the one from the lands around the Anglo-Scottish Border. He was the bard of King Gwenddoleu at a royal caer near Carwinley in northern Cumbria. He fought at the battle of Arfderydd in 573 where he witnessed the slaying of his lord. Afterwards, he fled into the wild woods of southern Scotland to live out his remaining years as a hunted man.

Why do I believe this to be history rather than legend? The answer is fairly straightforward: it’s a hunch, an instinct, a quirky personal preference. I could try to justify my stance by adding that I’ve been interested in the circumstances surrounding the battle of Arfderydd for more than 25 years, looked at scholarly papers on the earliest Welsh traditions and reached a conclusion based on the views of experts. But this wouldn’t be entirely true. Most experts are rightly cautious about who Merlin was and whether he was ‘real’. Their careful consideration of the literature doesn’t account for my unbridled enthusiasm in placing him among the historical figures of 6th-century North Britain. Like I said, it’s really nothing more than a hunch.

* * * * * * *

Notes & References

* For a photographic tour of the Merlin legend around Drumelzier, see my 2015 blogpost On the trail of Scotland’s Merlin.

* On the oldest traditions of Merlin see: A.O.H. Jarman, ‘Early stages in the development of the Merlin legend’, pp.335-48 in R. Bromwich & R.B. Jones (eds) Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd/Studies in Old Welsh Poetry (Cardiff, 1978).

* An excellent and accessible discussion of the northern Merlin is given by Nikolai Tolstoy in his book The Quest for Merlin (Sevenoaks, 1985).

* Skene’s identification of Arfderydd as Arthuret was announced in a paper presented to a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh: ‘Notice of the site of the battle of Ardderyd or Arderyth’ PSAS 6 (1876), 91-8.

* While visiting Carwinley in search of Caer Gwenddoleu, Skene heard of a local legend about a great battle between ‘Picts’ and ‘Romans’. Was this a genuine tradition of the bellum armterid of 573, preserved in Cumbrian folklore? I explored this question in a short article published sixteen years ago: ‘Local folklore and the battle of Arthuret’ Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society 95 (1995), 282-4.

The battle itself occupies one half of Chapter 5 of my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010).

* For additional information on these topics, take a look at Diane McIlmoyle’s blogposts on Merlin and the battle of Arthuret.

* * * * * * *

32 comments on “Did Merlin really exist?

  1. badonicus says:

    For a moment there, I thought you’d come over to the Dark Side! LOL

    I think this Myrddin is deserving more than any other of consideration. (You might be interested to know that August Hunt has been writing a lot about this character on his blog site: http://thedarkavalonbooks.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/where-is-merlins-grave-at-drumelzier/).

    • Tim says:

      Well, Mak, I came to early medieval history from the Dark Side so it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that I may return there one day 😉

      By a strange coincidence I was browsing August Hunt’s website a few days ago. It’s been a while since I saw his writings on Arthurian topics so it was good to drop by for a visit. He’s been working on this material for many years and I noticed he has a couple of books out. I recall his earlier theories on Arthurnet/Ansaxnet in the dim and distant past, back in the Old Stone Age when my computer didn’t have Windows or a mouse. In those days he was exploring the possibility that Arthur and the ‘Saxon’ king Cerdic were one and the same but his ideas seem to have moved on from there. I spotted his recent posts on Merlin and Arfderydd and found them quite interesting, with good illustrations.

  2. 3rays says:

    what a wonderful subject…so what do you think of merlin born at the Cadzow Castl/ the Cadzow oaks at that unspellable park just out side hamilton. One of my friends whos friend ia an auther wrote a book of it, must now find out more of him and let you know, and whata fun BBC proggie, thanks Tim for great thoughts, and im kinda with you on it.

  3. esmeraldamac says:

    Ha! I was with Mak there, for a moment, too!

    I always think that the assorted ‘merlins’ are far easier to handle if you take out the modern accessories – dragons, glowing eyes and transfiguration. As a bard like Taliesin and Aneirin, he seems entirely plausible as Gwenddoleu’s right-hand man and doesn’t generate the red-hot-hands-off response instinctive to most historians when Arthur enters the frame! 🙂

    Thanks for the link – I did, of course, use Men of the North when looking at the evidence for Carwinley.

    • Tim says:

      I agree. The idea of a historical Merlin does seem almost palatable in academic circles. I assume this is because he can be uncoupled from Arthur quite easily, at least on a scholarly level. On other levels the two are rightly inseparable and work very well together (as we see on TV at the moment).

  4. […] See Tim Clarkson’s Senchus blog for his view on a Cumbrian Merlin. […]

  5. […] Did Merlin really exist? « SenchusDecember 19, 2011 at 5:20 pm      […]

  6. Beware the assumption that ‘forest’ = trees. A ‘forest’ was simply the wild bog and hill land outwith cultivation; the Romans referred to woods (ie trees) as ‘sylva’ contrasted with scrubby waste. In Moffat, we (and Nikolai Tolstoy) believe Merlin lived in a cave here after losing his marbles before – perhaps – making his way to Drumelzier to die.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this, Liz. You’re right, of course, about the true meaning of ‘forest’. The imagery I had in mind came from the Myrddin poems which speak of the deep woods of Celyddon/Celidon. I have often meant to find out whether Hart Fell and the other hills around Moffat were woodland or heathland in early medieval times. This info might even be in the Tolstoy book which I’ll have to dig out and check.

  7. Oh, this would make a wonderful Memoirs of Hadrian-type novel. You should give it a go 🙂

  8. Tim says:

    I might, Nicola – if I could hire you as a ghostwriter 🙂

  9. “Although I’m sceptical about the idea of a ‘real’ King Arthur I don’t have similar doubts about Merlin. ”
    Hmmmm, many historians might consider Myrddin more elusive than Arthur……and at Glastonbury too …..?
    (Tim, you weren’t supposed to open that single malt until Christmas eve)

    • Tim says:

      🙂 Looks like my secret is out of the bag, Ed! I just can’t resist a dram when I find an unopened bottle of Genmorangie Port Wood Finish tucked away in a cupboard.

      I am often as surprised as anyone at my apparently firm belief in a historical Merlin (although the whisky does clarify things rather nicely.)

  10. David Hillman says:

    I remember, from reading Robert Graves ever so many years ago, that the main outlines of the story of the wild man of the woods, and some of the details,were also told of Suibhne king of dal naraide, though the manuscrips of this story are late.
    Moridinum existed long before Merlin was thought of.
    Was the original protagonist Suibne, Myrddin, or Llailocen?

    • Tim says:

      Hi David. Yes, the stories of Merlin and Suibhne do seem to be connected. I remember reading an old article by Kenneth Jackson on the three-fold death suffered by these two ‘wild men’ in their respective legends. Nikolai Tolstoy also explores the topic in his book.

      Off the top of my head, I think ‘Moridunum’ takes its name from the sea (Sea Fortress?). Its root is a pre-Roman name, presumably. Not sure when local tradition at Carmarthen started attaching the name to Myrddin but, at a guess, I’d go for c.800+.

      As for Lailoken, I wonder if he’s an originally distinct North British figure who somehow got blended with the northern Merlin. Or maybe Lailoken is the original North British equivalent of Ireland’s Suibhne? At some point I’m going to have to dig out my old notes on all of this and also get updated on current research. I haven’t visited the topic in detail since 1995.

      • The earliest known reference to Myrddin occurs in “Armes Prydein” (the Omen, or Prophecy of Britain), dated c.930 AD. The name appears only once in the poem.

        According to A O H Jarman, (Source as quoted in original post) the Myrddin legend developed in 5 stages:

        1. Basic themes of the constituent elements of the legend developed prior to their association with characters and localities.
        2. These basic themes became linked to Battle of Arfderydd (North Britain), St Kentigern and Lailoken.
        3. The basic legend transferred from Northern Britain to Wales, and the identification of Lailoken with Myrddin.
        4. The development of the legend in Wales.
        5. The development of Myrddin as Merlin under the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

        Which we can summarise as such:

        Myrddin does not appear in any northern source
        Lailoken (Lallogan) is the name always used in the northern sources
        Myrddin associated with Lailoken as both possess power of prophecy
        Merlin (the boy Ambrose) associated with Myrddin (Omen of Britain poem) as both possess power of prophecy
        Merlin is only found in documents later than Geoffrey’s ‘Historia’.

        Tim, try an Islay malt and all will become clear!

        • Tim says:

          Thanks for posting the summary, Ed. Very useful for those without access to the Astudiaethau. In the absence of anything more recent in my collection of references I regard Jarman’s scenario for the legend’s development as authoritative. Hence I should probably say ‘Lailoken-Myrddin’ rather than ‘Merlin’ but it just doesn’t seem to have the same cosy familiarity. This must mean I’m either using ‘Merlin’ as a convenient (if inaccurate) name for Gwenddoleu’s bard or clinging to an unsustainable inkling that Lailoken really did bear the alternative name ‘Myrddin’ in the North.

          PS. Islay malts are my favourite (especially Bunnahabhain) but I don’t have any in stock at the moment, not even a miniature. Still, the ‘Sixteen Men of Tain’ provide excellent compensation with their oak casks and port pipes.

          • Buannan says:

            I consider Jarman to have shown rather convincingly, that if we are looking anywhere for a Merlin we should be looking both north and at the figure of Suibhne/Lailoken. One version of the Suibhne story even has him travel to the Clyde to search out Lailoken whom he eventually meets. These characters seem to have been one and the same, in the same way Fionn and Arthur both gaelic and brythonic equivalents. The good people of Carmarthen may not have like Jarman’s conclusion regarding Merlin but as my old granny would say; be careful what you ask for.

            As to the possible nature of Lailoken (spiritual or otherwise), to up Kentigern’s credentials his chroniclers give him a pagan god for a grandfather and a host of other miraculous trappings surrounding his up bringing and later ministry.

            It was quite popular among early saints, especially Irish saints to have llew/lug as a grandfather, the modern Scots name Findley comes from: Fionn-Lug, combining the names of a pagan father and son duo, or perhaps simply with Fionn in it’s literal meaning and translated as “Fair” or “The fair one” in english. Fair Llew/Lug. Once a popular name with early christian saints (Llew/lug’s sons in the irish mythical tradition were Cú Chulainn and Fionn, in the british tradition they may have been Mabon and Arthur, unless anyone actually still thinks the big man was historical in which case we’ll have too agree to disagree, what is interesting is that it’s through his mother that Kentigern is related to Lot/Llew/Lug, rather than his shadowy “princely” father).

            That Kentigern requires such credentials implies that Lailoken was a non christian “spiritual” adversary and of some influence, rather than simply the mad heckler that the St’s two lives paint.

            Whatever, Ardbeg 10 year old would be the dram to sip whilst pondering Lailoken in my humble opinion. Although the portwood offering from the 16 men has it’s merits, especially when on offer in the Coop 😉

  11. Tim says:

    Thanks for the additional Suibhne/Lailoken info, Buannan. I was interested to note your words on Arthur: ‘…unless anyone actually still thinks the big man was historical…’. My view is the same as yours but If I ever run a blog poll on Arthur’s historicity I’d expect it to reveal several adherents of what Mak refers to above as the ‘Dark Side’. It’s even possible that the Believers among the regular visitors to Senchus might outnumber the Unbelievers.

  12. Buannan says:

    What makes Merlin (if we may call him that) interesting is that in the figure of Lailoken, from the various literary sources, we would seem to have the faintest hint of an actual character. Lailoken could well be no more than a mythical tradition but if so, he’s different. Unlike Fionn and Arthur, for example, he’s cast as a mortal among mortals in all his doings. No otherworld raiding, border defending and endless hunting, or feats of magic and wizardly wonder for Lailoken, just misery and privation in the wild wood. Lailoken seems all to fragile and human, perhaps by design at the hands of churchly chroniclers. But even the other sources see Lailoken as mortal.

    Tolstoy, in “Quest for Merlin” becomes rather bogged down reconciling the northern and southern Lailoken-Merlin traditions, although it remains a fantastic book I can’t help wondering if Tolstoy wasn’t just trying to keep everyone happy, well happy enough to buy his admittedly fantastic book.

    Jarman on the other hand, has no such qualms and doesn’t pander to Welsh sentimentality. After a thorough methodical scrutiny of the sources exposing the southern Merlin as a pseudo character. He doesn’t leave much of Lailoken either for that matter, enough to just keep the flame clinging to a spent wick, but little more.

    “The dark side”, I like that…

    I believe in Arthur, my Arthur is “Noggin the Nog”, pitted to do battle against his great adversary “Nogbad the Bad” on the heights of Arthur’s Seat and Edinburgh castle rock for all eternity. In the process of which he keeps a small boy safe in his bed at night, fires his imagination and sparks a curiosity thats never been exhausted.

    Whilst looking at the folklore of Ireland and comparing the daring do of both Fionn and the Arthur of the earliest stratum of reference, it seems clear to me that we’re dealing with the same or similar character who fulfilled a similar roll to my youthful Noggin the Nog, all be it in more difficult and uncertain times.

    Interestingly, whilst Lughnasa, a harvest festival, was historically never celebrated on the continent or in scandinavia, it survived as Lamas in English speaking regions of the british isles until quite recently and in doing so perhaps offers a clue as to the ethnicity of the wider population who supported it, and perhaps why Arthur is so widely spread in british folk traditions and seen as a fitting hero on which to build the familiar literary tradition.

  13. […] Tim Clarkson of Senchus asks if Merlin really existed? […]

  14. Mick says:

    Professor Breeze’s article ‘The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle’ suggests ‘Arfderydd’ may have been a Celtic hydronym, ‘ardent weapon’ or ‘burning weapon’ and was perhaps a lost name of the Carwinely Burn. I will look at the article again in greater detail over the weekend, but his suggested explanation regarding the parish of Arthuret as having no ancient village or centre due to it being named after a river seems reasonably sound.


    • Tim says:

      I think Andrew Breeze is probably right. In the article, he cites examples of parishes named from rivers, not from villages, so Arthuret parish could take its name from the old Celtic name of the Carwinley Burn on its northern boundary.

  15. rstrathie says:

    aerial photographs of Liddel Strength here :- http://www.borderarchaeology.co.uk/home/sites/liddel-strength

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