A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins
by Tim Clarkson
“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.” [from the back cover]
Merlin, the wizard of Arthurian legend, has been a source of enduring fascination for centuries, the earliest roots seemingly based in the early Welsh figure of Myrddin. Today it is generally accepted that Merlin, the Arthurian wizard, was the 12th century creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Whereas the Merlin of literature and Arthurian myth is well known as magician, wise man, prophet and the modern inspiration behind popular wizards such as Dumbledore and Gandalf, Merlin the 'historical' figure is less well known and some contend that he may not have existed at all.
Geoffrey devised his Merlin from an amalgamation of historical and legendary figures. Ambrosius Aurelianus is mentioned in 6th century De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniæ (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) of Gildas. He is one of the few figures that Gildas admires in a Britain that has degenerated since the departure of the Romans. According to Gildas it is Ambrosius, the last of the Romans, who rallies the beleaguered Britons to victory over the Anglo Saxons, culminating in the victory at Badon.
The 9th century miscellany known as the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), often attributed to a monk named Nennius, has Ambrosius (Emrys), as the son of a Roman consul. Here Vortigern's twelve wise men advise him to retire to the remote boundaries of his kingdom and there build a fortified city to defend himself. They came to a province called Guenet (Gwynedd); and having surveyed the mountains of Heremus (Eryri, Snowdonia) they discovered, on the summit of one of them, a hilltop suited to the construction of a citadel. All of the materials were assembled for the building but it all disappeared in one night, so that nothing remained of what had been provided for the constructing of the citadel. Materials were again procured a second and third time, and yet again they vanished as before.
Vortigern's advisers told him “You must find a child born without a father, put him to death, and sprinkle with his blood the ground on which the citadel is to be built, or you will never accomplish your purpose.”
Consequently, messengers were sent throughout Britain, in search of a child born without a father. When they came to the field of Aelecti, in the district of Glevesing, they found the fatherless boy who was led back to Vortigern. Before they put the boy to death, Vortigern allowed him to speak, “hidden under this pavement there is a pool. There are two vases in the pool, in them a folded tent, containing two serpents, one white and the other red.”
They dug and found it to be so. The serpents began to struggle with each other; and the white one, raising himself up, threw down the other into the middle of the tent and sometimes drove him to the edge of it; and this was repeated thrice. At length the red one, apparently the weaker of the two, recovering his strength, expelled the white one from the tent; and the latter being pursued through the pool by the red one, disappeared.
The boy Ambrose (Emrys) told the meaning of this mystery; “The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away; the Saxon race from beyond the sea.”
When questioned of his origin the boy replied, “A Roman consul was my father.”
|Vortigern's Tower, Dinas Emrys by Alan Lee|
The site has been identified as Dinas Emrys, near Beddgelert in Snowdonia. The archaeology of this remote hilltop has revealed evidence of Post-Roman activity, imported pottery from the eastern Mediterranean and a subterranean pool, probably a cistern for the water supply. The foundations of a tower were discovered on the summit during excavations in 1910 which were initially thought to have been evidence of Vortigern's Tower but turned out to be the remains of a 12th-century Norman keep. Nevertheless, there was ample evidence for Dark Age occupation.
In his Historia Geoffrey provides only two further tales concerning the wizard. In the first, Merlin creates Stonehenge as a burial place for Aurelius Ambrosius. In the second, Merlin uses enchantment to enable Uther Pendragon to enter Tintagel in disguise and father his son Arthur with the Duke of Cornwall's wife, Igraine. Merlin then disappears from Geoffrey's story; he does not tutor and advise Arthur as in later versions.
Clarkson includes a short chapter of “Arthuriana” and cites the possibility that both Merlin and Arthur legends originated in the Strathclyde region and Southern Scotland as “good enough reason to discuss Arthur in a book about Merlin” and cannot resist quoting Breeze's recent paper on the location of Arthur's battles. Clarkson notes that Arthur does not appear in connection with the Northern tales of Lailoken. Similarly, before Geoffrey's story, Merlin has no connection with King Arthur in the early Welsh poems and is entirely absent from the tales of the Mabinogion.
The earliest reference to Myrddin (= Merlin in Welsh) comes from the Armes Prydein Vawr (Great Prophesy of Britain) attributed to the 6th century bard Taliesin. The reference “Myrddin foretells...” is considered not older than 930 AD and indicates there was a Welsh prophetic tradition concerning the name Myrddin before Geoffrey and may have been influential on his writings two centuries later.
Geoffrey's first work on the wizard was entitled Prophetiae Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin), c.1130, which he claimed were the actual words of the prophet. Yet most see the Prophecies as Geoffrey's own construct. The Prophecies were circulated as a separate publication before being incorporated into his Historia Regum Britanniæ at Book VII.
In the 1140s or early 1150s John of Cornwall produced another work entitled Prophetiae Merlini which many see as a direct lift from Geoffrey's work. However, John did not simply make a copy of Geoffrey's Prophecies, as they contained other elements not included in Geoffrey's works which raises the possibility, however slight, for an independent source for a southern prophetic tradition of Merlin. The sources for John of Cornwall's Merlin Prophecies are certainly worthy of further study in the argument for a northern archetype.
The Merlin story was transmitted to Europe through Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia. As a literary figure he developed throughout Arthurian Romance with later authors reliably placing Merlin as the king's advisor until he becomes bewitched and imprisoned by the Lady of the Lake.
Geoffrey later wrote the Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin) c.1150, in which his Merlin figure changes dramatically to include the tradition of the wildman of the woods referring to the wizard's trauma after witnessing a horrendous battle in the Yr Hen Ogledd (The Old North), formerly the territory of northern Britain and southern Scotland. Geoffrey seems to have stumbled across another Merlin/Myrddin. Clearly the Merlin of Vortigern's time (5th century) cannot be the same Merlin who went made after a northern battle a hundred years later.
In the Vita Merlini Geoffrey writes of a battle fought by Peredur, prince of the North Welsh allied with Rodarch, king of the Cumbrians against Gwenddolau, who ruled the kingdom of Scotland. So traumatised by the slaughter on both sides, Merlin wept for three days, refusing food. “Then, when the air was full with these repeated loud complainings, a strange madness came upon him. He crept away and fled to the woods.....lurking like a wild thing” in the forest of Calidon.
This episode is entirely absent from Geoffrey's earlier tales of Merlin. What caused this change in his account of Merlin; had Geoffrey uncovered further source material that compelled him to elaborate and complete his account of Merlin? Here, no doubt, Geoffrey was influenced by the Welsh Myrddin poems which refer to Merlin's madness.
There are six medieval poems containing material relating to Myrddin the Wildman: Yr Afallennau ('The Apple-trees'); Yr Oianau ('The Greetings');Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin ('The Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin'); Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei Chwaer ('The Conversation of Myrddin and his Sister Gwenddydd'); Gwasgargerdd fyrddin yn y Bedd ('The Diffused Song of Myrddin in the Grave'); and Peirian Faban ('Commanding Youth').
The first three are found in the 13th century Black Book of Carmarthen, the second two in the 14th century Red Book of Hergest. However, the poems contain material of a much earlier date, possibly 11th century and some certainly appear to pre-date the composition of Geoffrey's Vita Merlini. These poems portray a wildman of the woods, usually named as Myrddin, living in the Caledonian Forest where he has fled after the battle of Arfderydd. Here Myrddin has lapsed into madness and acquired the gift of prophecy. In this aspect he is Myrddin Wyllt, Merlin the Wildman.
|The medieval earthwork of Liddel Strength, near Carwinley, a candidate for 'Caer Gwenddoleu'.|
In the late 12th century Gerald of Wales identified two Merlins: one called Ambrosius who prophesied in the time of king Vortigern; the other was born in Scotland and named Merlin Celidonius and Sylvester, from the Celidonian wood because he grew mad and sheltered in a wood. Gerald adds that this second Merlin lived at the time of king Arthur. This second Merlin character is identifiable as Myrddin Wyllt of Welsh poetry, based on Northern sources.
Clarkson investigates the sources in depth for the story of the northern wild man of the woods that was transferring to the Welsh Merlin legend. In Scotland there exists an almost identical tale in which the Wild Man is called 'Lalocen' as he appears in the 12th century Life of St Kentigern (St Mungo of Glasgow). A 15th century Latin text called Vita Merlini Silvestris (Life of Merlin of the Forest), names the prophet as 'Lailoken', a wildman of Strathclyde.
Clarkson concludes that the Lailoken legend was transported to Wales and attached to the name Myrddin.The transmission of the northern wild man prophet to Wales must have occurred before the Welsh Myrddin poems were written down in the Black Book of Carmarthen and Red Book of Hergest and certainly before Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini.
The crux of 'Scotland's Merlin' is that the 6th century battle of Arfderydd was the single event that sparked the Merlin legend; Clarkson identifies Lailoken as a historical character, the Merlin-archetype, whose story became over-shadowed by the growth of the Welsh Merlin legend.
Essential reading for anyone interested in the Merlin legend.
Tim Clarkson's previous books include:
The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (2010)
The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings (2013)
Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (2014)
The Picts: A History (New Edition 2016)
Available from Birlinn
Tim's Blog: Senchus: Notes on Early Medieval Scotland
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