Merlin. The mention of the name conjures up images of magician, wizard, clad in robes, conical hat atop white flowing hair. Who was Merlin, where was he from, and how has he changed over the centuries? This paper will investigate and discuss Merlin in his various roles in literature from the first possible sources through the twentieth century variations of the character, and investigate how Merlin has changed, what he has grown to represent in literature and why he has remained so popular through the ages. Over the ages, Merlin's character has ranged from madman to magician to mysterious druid. The persona of Merlin is heavily influenced by the age in which he appears.

There are several early manuscripts from which Merlin's origin can be traced, but he is first mentioned as Merlin by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Malory wrote of Merlin in Le Morte D'Arthur, but then the character disappears for almost 100 years until Spenser wrote of him in The Faerie Queen. The character disappears again for almost 200 years and suddenly re-emerges in the works of Tennyson and Twain and grows to almost monumental proportions in the literature of the twentieth century. Some authors of the twentieth century adapted Merlin and included these wizard-like characters in their novels and movies. Most notable of these are J. R. R. Tolkien's Gandalf and George Lucas' Obewan Kenobi. Merlin's character has undergone some radical changes since his first appearances in literature, and to understand these changes, it is necessary to trace his origins from the beginning. This beginning takes place in the oral tradition of Wales and Scotland.

The first possible source for Merlin is in the Lailoken tale from the Scottish lowlands. It was passed down orally through the centuries and was put to parchment in the twelfth century. The character Lailoken was a famous warrior, who, upon seeing his soldiers slain before him, went mad and fled into the woods to live as a recluse. Lailoken was connected to the Battle of Arfderydd in 573. He gained the ability to tell the future while living in the woods. One day, he encountered Kentigern, described in the text as "Blessed", "Bishop", and finally, "Saint." Lailoken's madness came about because he felt responsible for the deaths of his men. He was absolved of his guilt by the good Bishop Kentigern. Lailoken prophesied his own death to Kentigern's priests on the day it is supposed to happen. He first said he would die by being stoned and clubbed, then he told them he would die by being impaled on a wooden spear, and lastly, he would die by drowning. Lailoken wished to receive Communion before his death and Extreme Unction afterward, and extracted a promise from Bishop Kentigern that he would receive these sacraments. Lailoken received Communion and ran back to the woods. Kind Meldred's shepherds found him and stoned and clubbed him. According to the tale, at the exact moment of his death, Lailoken rolled down a hill and was impaled on a stake sticking up from a pond. With his head under water, he drowned. Lailoken had predicted his death correctly.

Another tale of Lailoken involves King Meldred, who captures Lailoken and places him under arrest until he makes a prophesy to the King. Lailoken tells him a riddle about his adulterous Queen in riddle, wrangles a promise to be buried in a Churchyard, tells the King what his riddle meant, and departs for the woods. It is in the woods that his predicted three-way death comes. Lailoken is buried in a churchyard thirty miles from Glasgow.

These two tales of the madman Lailoken are sprung from the Scottish oral tradition and can be clearly linked by some of their details (the death prediction and a prophesy of the defeat and reunion of Britain), but can also be dubious sources because of the timing of their appearance in writing. The tales appear in a saint's tale by Joceline of Furness called "The Life of Kentigern", which was written in the twelfth century in Welsh and "preserved in Cotton Vitellius C. VIII from the fifteenth century" (Galyon 4) The questionability of the source arises because Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote of Merlin in 1135, 1136, and 1150. Which came first? There is no definite answer, but, according to Galyon and Thundy, "the many similarities among the Celtic wild-man stories were recognized by their composers or scribes," (Goodrich, 4), and in fact, the final lines of the Meldred and Lailoken tale contain a named reference to Merlin:

Pierced by a spear, crushed by a stone

And drowned in the stream's waters,

Merlin died a triple death. (Goodrich 6)

It is probable that Lailoken existed in tales since the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 but were not set to parchment until the twelfth century and the scribes of the tale were influenced by other references to Merlin. The similarities between the characters Lailoken and Merlin are undeniable. Geoffrey uses Lailoken's triple death prophecy not to predict Merlin's death, but in a prophecy Merlin makes to King Vortigern about a man they pass on the street. The early characters were similar enough to support the argument that at the very least, Geoffrey's Merlinus could claim some of his roots from Lailoken.

Another important detail in the Kentigern/Lailoken tale which survived and was adapted for Merlin's character was Kentigern's birth. In the Annals Cambria, Kentigern is born of a woman and an unknown father, who, in truth, was a man dressed as a woman and lay with Kentigern's mother. This detail was changed and attributed to Merlin's birth by Geoffrey. In Merlin's case, the father was an incubus who came to the woman in her sleep. This detail can certainly be traced back to the Lailoken tale, which gives support for the argument that Merlinus descended from Lailoken.

A second probable and important source for Geoffrey's Merlinus was the Welsh character Myrddin. There are a number of Welsh manuscripts and fragments which contain references to the character, the oldest of which is a poem from around the year 600 called "The Gododdin", which states that "Morien defended the praise-poetry of Myrddin." (Goodrich 14) The old Welsh "Myrddin" was thought to be a bard who evolved into a prophet in later works. Myrddin, like Lailoken, is tied to the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 in the tenth century work Annals Cambria. The link between Lailoken and Myrddin is undeniable, and Geoffrey's Merlinus is clearly the old Welsh character Myrddin, combined with the details of the triple-death prophecy and Kentigern's birth found in the Lailoken tales.

Myrddin appears in a poem called "Separation Song of Myrddin in the Grave," which was written in about 900. There is also a character Myrddin who appears in the Book of Taliesin, a fourteenth century manuscript, developed from the poems of the oral tradition of Scotland and Northern England. The Welsh Myrddin poems and tales do not take place in Wales, rather, they tell of the "Old North", or the English/Scottish borderlands. Taliesin, like Myrddin, was thought to be a sixth century poet and will also evolve into an important character in the twentieth century Merlin stories--mainly as Merlin's teacher and later, as The Merlin.

The poem "The Conversation of Myrddin and Taliesin," written sometime in the eleventh century, mentions the Battle of Arfderydd and is notable because the character Myrddin says in the last stanza:

Seven score generous nobles went mad;

in Celyddon Wood they ended.

Since it is I, Myrddin,

in the style of Taliesin,

my prophesy will be just. (Bollard 26)

This passage ties Myrddin to Taliesin, the Battle of Arfderydd (previously mentioned in the poem), to the Caledonian Wood, madness, and prophecy. A pattern has been established.

These Welsh poems develop Merlin's character in another important way which do not survive adaptation in later works: Merlin as a character with family ties. In the old Welsh poems, Myrddin has a sister, Gwenddydd, with whom he has a conversation in the poem "The Prophesy of Myrddin and Gwenddydd, His Sister". This poem can be found in the fourteenth century book Red Book of Hergest and "may also be classed with the early poems of the Myrddin tradition" (Galyon 30). The poem is a series of questions posed by Gwenddydd and answered by Myrddin about "future Welsh rulers" (Galyon 30). Myrddin lists the historical rulers of Wales. Gwenddydd calls Myrddin 'Llallawg', and Galyon says that

this word occurs independently elsewhere in early Welsh poetry apparently meaning 'friend' or perhaps...'lord'. The word, however, is cognate with the name Lailoken to give it the Latin forms found in "The Life of St. Kentigern (31).

This use of the name Llallawg further ties the poem with the Lailoken tales.

Copyright 1998. Denise W. Johnson.  All rights reserved.