Merlin is the seductive puzzle, the druid trickster, the bearded mentor of young kings, the pawn of priestesses and faeries. Merlin steals the story as Gandalf, Yoda, Dumbledore and other reincarnations of the powerful, aphoristic sage. But the Merlin we think we know is a mere shade of the many Merlin’s captured in literature from ancient times. Merlin: Priest of Nature, by the Celtic scholar Jean Markale, traces this Merlin backwards through time and tomes to a 12th century tale in verse called Vita Merlini by Geoffrey of Monmouth. That story came from ancient bardic myths and legends about a woods hermit and wild man called Myrddin Wyllt and a mash-up with a warrior chief named Aurelius Ambrosius (Merlinus Ambrosius), both figures that pre-dated Geoffrey’s work and had nothing or little to do with Arthur and Excalibur. Geoffrey also developed a Merlin in his well-known Historia Regum Britanniae, and in his Prophetiae Merlini (Merlin’s Prohecies).
Markale spins his Merlin story from etymological threads. There are amusing observations, like the probability that Merlinus was a more acceptable latinization of Myrddin than Merdinus, which comes uncomfortably close to the French merde. Geoffrey’s audience was the educated class of Britain and Normandy and they would have known the French word to the detriment of the character. The Welsh, Celtic, Roman, Irish, Anglo-Saxon and other influences in the British Isles and along the Norman coast all serve to clarify the myriad bits that coalesce into a Merlin we accept today. If you enjoy getting lost in the etymological notes of the Oxford English Dictionary, as I do, you will be fascinated by the various permutations of Vivian, Niniane, Nimue, Gwendydd, Ganieda, Mordret, Medrawt, Morgan and more.
But, if that’s too wonky for you, Merlin the enchanter is intriguing and ambiguous, as much myth as historical person. He may have been a wild woods-hermit, a bard, a sage, a magician who engineered Arthur’s birth and set in motion a legend treasured for a thousand years, a madman besotted with the charms of the Lady of the Lake who immured him under a rock and tricked him into giving her his power. Markale makes the case that Merlin was an heir to druids, a prophet, a master of the natural world, a madman–above all, a literary construct borrowed from appealing narratives and emerging as a powerful and enduring celebrity.
Robert De Boron, a court cleric, added Merlin to a grail history and may have written Lancelot in Prose that firmly fixes Merlin in the story of Arthur. That Merlin goes on to meddle spectacularly with history and ultimately retires to the forest in isolated, divine madness. Sir Thomas Malory wrote a great Merlin character in his thousand-page epic Le Morte D’Arthur, which I keep taking off the bookshelf and then regretfully slipping back when I realize I still don’t have time to finish it. Merlin’s literary evolution is as interesting as the wizard himself.
Merlin: Priest of Nature is a read for those who like to unravel language, or anyone obsessed with the idea of Merlin, flawed bard, outsider, prophet and magician. Markale has included a prodigious amount of scholarship and reference material that would be a good jumping-off point for an in-depth study of Myrddin-Merlin, whoever he was or whatever we would make of him.
Merlin: Priest of Nature Jean Markale Inner Traditions 1995