The origin of the Merlin legend

Scotland's Merlin
Regular visitors to Senchus will already be aware that my latest book examines the historical roots of Merlin’s story. I’ve written several blogposts about it in recent months, as the date of publication has drawn ever nearer. Scotland’s Merlin: a Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins has now been published.

A summary of the book’s contents is printed on the back cover:
Who was Merlin? Is the famous wizard of Arthurian legend based on a real person? In this book, Merlin’s origins are traced back to the story of Lailoken, a mysterious ‘wild man’ who is said to have lived in the Scottish Lowlands in the sixth century AD. The book considers the question of whether Lailoken belongs to myth or reality. It looks at the historical background of his story and discusses key characters such as Saint Kentigern of Glasgow and King Rhydderch of Dumbarton, as well as important events such as the Battle of Arfderydd. Lailoken’s reappearance in medieval Welsh literature as the fabled prophet Myrddin is also examined. Myrddin himself was eventually transformed into Merlin the wizard, King Arthur’s friend and mentor. This is the Merlin we recognise today, not only in art and literature but also on screen. His earlier forms are less familiar, more remote, but can still be found among the lore and legend of the Dark Ages. Behind them we catch fleeting glimpses of an original figure who perhaps really did exist: a solitary fugitive, tormented by his experience of war, who roamed the hills and forests of southern Scotland long ago.

The chapter headings are as follows:

Chapter 1 – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin
A study of the most familiar version of the Merlin legend as told by medieval writers from the twelfth century onwards.

Chapter 2 – Myrddin Wyllt
The Welsh traditions of Myrddin Wyllt (“Wild Merlin”), legendary founder of the ancient town of Carmarthen.

Chapter 3 – Lailoken
The old Scottish tales of a wild madman who possessed strange powers of prophecy and whose story seems to lie at the root of the Merlin legend.

Chapter 4 – The Battle of Arfderydd
This is the historical battle, fought in AD 573, in which Myrddin/Lailoken went mad and afterwards fled into the wild woods.

Chapter 5 – Christianity and Paganism
Many people today see the “real” Merlin as a pagan shaman or druid. This chapter suggests instead that he was a Christian.

Chapter 6 – Wild Man and Seer
A discussion of the Wild Man character as a popular motif in medieval literature.

Chapter 7 – Arthuriana
The legends of Merlin and Arthur are closely entwined and both are often believed to be based on historical figures who lived in Scotland in the sixth century AD.

Chapter 8 – Scottish Merlins
The development of the Merlin legend in medieval Scottish literature. This chapter also looks at a selection of modern theories about the legend’s Scottish roots.

Chapter 9 – Scotland’s Merlin: Fact or Fiction?
The final chapter draws the various strands of history and legend together to reconstruct the life and career of the “real” Merlin, who is here identified as a sixth-century North British warrior called Llallogan.

Extracts from the oldest sources of the Merlin legend – the Lailoken tales, the story of Suibhne Geilt and the poems of Myrddin Wyllt.

Notes for each chapter direct the reader to a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Illustrations include maps, photographs and a genealogical table.

Published by Birlinn Books of Edinburgh, under the John Donald imprint, and available from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

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18 comments on “The origin of the Merlin legend

  1. Ian Malcolm says:

    Thanks Tim. Sounds interesting and i’m buying.


  2. Sounds really interesting, and after reading ‘The Men of the North’ I’m sure it will be thoroughly researched. I’m intrigued about hearing your argument for Myrddin/Merlin being a Christian…

    • Tim says:

      Thank you, Lorna. I’m expecting the “Christian Merlin” theory to be the most controversial aspect of the book. Whether anyone will be swayed by my argument is another matter. I’ve certainly stuck my neck out with this one!

  3. adam ardrey says:

    Dear Tim,
    I look forward to reading your book on Merlin. In my book Finding Merlin I said Merlin was a druid because, for example, early Christian sources had him shrieking at Mungo Kentigern from, what is now, Glasgow Necropolis Hill; and later being (I thought unconvincingly) ‘converted’ to Christianity.
    You can see what may be his grave, or, at least, where it may be his remains lie today on my website
    Best wishes
    Adam Ardrey

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for visiting, Adam. People who read my book will see that yours is mentioned, so hopefully (if they read both) they will be able to “compare and contrast” our respective theories.

      • adam ardrey says:

        I would be pleased if people were to ‘compare and contrast’ and, better still, come up with ideas of their own.
        In Finding Arthur I got the location of Arthur’s Glein battle wrong and a German scholar, Kurt Leibhard, building on what I had found, found the right place, smack-bang next to Arthur Mac Aedan’s father’s Delgon battlefield – perfect, absolutely perfect.
        As for Merlin being a Christian – if he was, given he is as famous as he is, is it not likely he would have been canonised? It is not like the Christians to miss a trick like that.
        I had two Christians at my door on Saturday. We had an… interesting wee talk.
        Best wishes
        Adam Ardrey

  4. How do you pronounce Lailoken?

  5. These chapter summaries remind me strongly of Stephen R. Lawhead’s Pendragon series. It seems he must have used similar sources in the development of his characterization of Merlin.

    • Tim says:

      I never got around to reading Lawhead’s books but I suspect you’re right about his Merlin sources. The Welsh Myrddin poetry, for instance, is a deep pool of dramatic narrative for writers of novels.

  6. William Johnstone says:

    Having read everything previously published on the subject I’m keen to have a look, I’ve a copy of the book in my bag and it’s next up!

  7. […] You can find out more about Scotland’s Merlin and how to buy a copy on Tim Clarkson’s blog HERE. […]

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