Myrddin: The Original Merlin

This is my 100th post! And it’s a lot of fun because we’re talking about, arguably, the most famous character in Arthurian legend: Merlin, or Myrddin as he would have been known to the Britons. Merlin is one of the most fascinating and mysterious characters in my Arthurian novels, just as he is in the the medieval Romances and modern depictions. But is there a historical person behind the legend?

Nicol Williamson as Merlin in Excalibur
Nicol Williamson’s unmatched Merlin, from Boorman’s Excalibur.

While there are clues to earlier mentions of Merlin, the earliest certain mention of Merlin comes from a 9th century monk named Nennius, who claimed to have collected much older stories into his book, History of the Britons. He describes Merlin prophesying to Vortigern, King of the Britons. In this account, however, he is known as Ambrosius. The first time we hear the name “Merlin” is in the 12th century, from Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote Prophetiae Merlini, The Prophecies of Merlin, and the wildly popular, Historia Regum Britanniae (HRB), or History of the Kings of Britain. In the HRB, Geoffrey refers to him as “Ambrosius Merlinus”, or Ambrose Merlin.

Neither of these refer to the Brittonic name, Myrddin. Where does Myrddin fit in? The confusion of names is due to confusion of who, exactly, Merlin was. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s third book, Vita Merlini, or The Life of Merlin, shows that Geoffrey based his Merlin on an early British prophet called Myrddin Wyllt (the Wild). Myrddin Wyllt was a bard who encouraged his king to go to battle against the king of Strathclyde. When his king was defeated and killed, Myrddin Wyllt went mad and lived the life of a beast in the woods and gained the gift of prophecy. However, Myrddin Wyllt, who may have been a historical person, lived about a century after Vortigern and the Merlin Geoffrey describes.

Myrddin Wyllt as Merlin by Alan Lee
Merlin by Alan Lee is a great depiction of Myrddin Wyllt.

Geoffrey wasn’t a good historian, using incorrect dates and garbling or making up events and people to fill the gaps in his HRB, so putting together the identity of Merlin is guesswork. Assuming that the Vortigern story is based on some heavy warping of actual people and history, it may be that Geoffrey confused the Ambrose of Nennius’ History with Myrddin Wyllt. He was writing over 500 years later.

So why didn’t Geoffrey just call him Ambrosius? It may have been that he had Myrddin Wyllt in mind, and the addition of Ambrosius to the name was to square his story with Nennius’ writing. It comes late in Merlin’s story, and briefly, suggesting an off-hand insertion. Later readers have assumed that the Ambrosius of Nennius must have been the same Ambrosius Aurelianus referred to later by Nennius and also described by Gildas, as if two people could not have had the same name in the same era.

Merlin TV series
Colin Morgan as Merlin in the TV series, Merlin.

Why didn’t Geoffrey go with Myrddin? Well, it seems he chose Merlinus because of the pitfalls of translating Brittonic to Latin. Myrddin (pronounced MER-thin, with a soft ‘th’ like in ‘the’), may have meant something like “Fairy-Lord” in Brittonic. However, Geoffrey was writing in Latin, and translating Myrddin into Latin sounds would have resulted in the Latin name ‘Merdinus’, or “Poo-Man” to put it mildly. Geoffrey appears to have avoided that issue by altering the name and Merlin has lived on through the centuries.

The Merlin of Geoffrey is the foundation for the stories that people are familiar with. From Geoffrey and Nennius, we get the story of Merlin’s prophecy to Vortigern, which is immortalized in the flag of Wales. In this story, Vortigern is fleeing from the chaos caused by his invitation of the Saxons to Britain. When a tower he tries to build on a hill keeps collapsing, his “magicians” tell him that he needs to find a boy who was born without a father, kill the boy and sprinkle his blood on the stones. They probably thought such an impossible task would save them from finding an actual reason.

Merlin and Vortigern with the dragons
Merlin prophesies to Vortigern about the coming of Arthur. Illustration from a 15th-century manuscript of History of the Kings of Britain.

However, Vortigern sent out his messengers to find such a boy, and in southern Wales, they came upon some kids playing ball and arguing. One boy was teased for not having a father, and when the messengers spoke to the boy’s mother, a nun named Aldan, she said that she had become pregnant without having been with a man. They took Aldan and the boy, Ambrose Merlin, to Vortigern.

Remains of a tower atop Dinas Emrys, with rocks spilling into what appears to have been a pool. This is where Merlin is said to have prophesied to Vortigern! (Our picture, 2016)

Merlin asked Vortigern why he was brought there, and Vortigern told him exactly why. Merlin asked to speak to the magicians, saying he would prove them liars. Merlin did just that, and explained to Vortigern that the tower would not stand because it was being built over a buried pool. They excavated beside the tower and found the pool.

Merlin went on to describe what was in the pool: two hollow stones, each of which held a dragon (the term was actually “worm”). The pool was drained and the dragons, one white and the other red, emerged and fought. First, the white dragon drove the red to the edge of the pool. Then the red rallied and drove the white back. Merlin launched into a long prophecy: the red dragon represented the Britons, who were being defeated and oppressed by the Saxons (the white dragon). However, the Britons would rise up, led by “a boar of Cornwall” who would defeat the Saxons, possess the forests of Gaul (France) and make Rome fear him. He would be celebrated, but his end would be unknown. Clearly, this referred to Arthur. Vortigern abandoned the site, which came to be known as Dinas Emrys (Ambrosius’ Fort).

The view from atop Dinas Emrys. (Our picture, 2016)

Merlin is next called upon some time later by Ambrosius Aurelianus, now King of the Britons, to devise a fitting memorial for British chieftains killed treacherously by Hengist. Merlin suggests bringing Stonehenge from Ireland and setting it upon the Salisbury Plain, and then does it himself using “engines”. Later, he becomes an advisor to Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, and disguises Uther so that he can sleep with Igraine and conceive Arthur. After Uther marries Igraine, Merlin drops out of Geoffrey’s story.

It is in the later Romances that the story of Merlin is expanded. He takes Arthur from Uther and Igraine and gives him to the care of Sir Ector. He is behind the “Sword in the Stone” episode, becomes an advisor to Arthur, and leads him to obtain Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. He initiates the Grail Quest and is eventually entrapped by his student, the fairy, Viviane.

Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones

My series, The Arthurian Age, attempts to use the early Welsh legends up to the HRB, and fit these characters and events into a plausible historical whole. This has been surprisingly easy, but Merlin is a challenge because people expect a supernatural-persona. How do I blend the mystical into the real and make it believable?

We finally meet Myrddin in chapter six of The Retreat to Avalon. The soldiers at the gate fear him, and Myrddin seems mysterious if not particularly sinister. Merlin seems to know everything. Gawain is intrigued and asks around about him, learning that Myrddin is known as Merlin outside of Britain, had served on a merchant ship in his youth, and that Myrddin had taught one of Arthur’s blacksmiths how to harden steel, apparently magically. Gawain ends up spending some time with Myrddin, starting a friendship that grows in Book 2 of The Arthurian Age, The Strife of Camlann.

Strife of Camlann Chapter 11 Merlin and Viviane
The Strife of Camlann, Chapter 11: Myrddin meets Viviane and is impressed by her intelligence.

I’m currently working on Book 3 of The Arthurian Age: Three Wicked Revelations, where we will see more of Myrddin and learn more about him. Though I haven’t fully disclosed his back-story yet, I have left clues. I am confident that my take on this character is very original and fitting. My Merlin, or any Merlin, may not have existed, but the role my Merlin plays in The Arthurian Age could easily have been the role of anyone in that era, with the proper background.

Thanks for coming by, and as always, I’d love to hear from you with questions and comments. I had to leave a lot of Merlin stuff out for the sake of brevity. And if you haven’t read The Retreat to Avalon and have any interest in a historically-based Arthurian adventure, please pick it up and let me know what you think.

The Arthurian Age Book 1

4 thoughts on “Myrddin: The Original Merlin”

  1. Walking to Dinas Emrys we came near a stream to cross we saw sticking up from the water what looked like a bloody shirt. Thoughts of the Washer at the Ford came to us where a warrior on the way to battle might meet a Hag scrubbing away to get blood from a shirt, his shirt, foretelling his death. Note no account of a warrior turning away from his Geas and refusing to fight.

    Coming closer it seems silly to say but we actually felt a relief when we realised it was a torn fertiliser bag with red writing on it. We claim not to be superstitious but we are all susceptible to a liminal moment.

  2. The walk from Beddgelert to Dinas Emrys is well worth doing for fun and to see the countryside of legend. Even the diversion of walking up mini waterfalls if you wish. Hopefully you won’t have a near encounter with the Washer at the Ford as we did.

    • Our hike to the summit of Dinas Emrys is one of my favorite experiences in all our trips to Britain! We half expected to see a Hobbit stroll by. It was just so beautiful.
      Now I’m going to have to get more details on the Washer at the Ford from you!


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