Did historical Merlin really exist?

I’m sure you’ve come across the question “did historical Jesus really exist?” These discussions, usually among atheists, involve trying to uncover whether there really was a person who matches at least some of the more plausible characteristics of the “Jesus” described in the Bible. Setting aside miracles and resurrections, was there a person from Nazareth who had around a dozen followers and preached to people? Was he crucified as a criminal for disturbing the peace? Even these most simple and fundamental premises of the historicity of Jesus have been hotly debated.

Personally, I find it all a bit boring. The character “Jesus” is almost certainly an amalgam of stories, some exaggerated and others outright fabricated, about different people that congealed together over time to become a single character. It’s a natural evolution that happens whenever you get enough “I know a guy who knows a guy…” stories together: they somehow all end up being about the same guy.

To illustrate this principle, and for a little Sunday Fun, I’d like to tell you about…

Merlin!

Merlin the Wizard! Sorcerer extraordinaire! The subject of literally hundreds, if not thousands, of novels, short stories, comic books, movies, and television shows!

Unlike Jesus, there are few people around today who believe the stories about Merlin; yet like Jesus, Merlin’s biography is rooted in a particular point in time. Although the stories about Merlin and his life have evolved dramatically over the centuries (just as the stories about Jesus have), they at least claim to be rooted in an actual historical person.

So, were they? Did historical Merlin exist?

Let’s flash back to the mid 500’s C.E., to a town in Wales called Arfderydd near the Caledonian Forest. According to Welsh oral history, that town was home to a poor simpleton named Myrddin Wyllt. You could tell he was poor, because he was unable to buy any vowels.

He made a living as a bard, singing for the children of the local chieftain, Lord Gwenddoleu. (As you can tell, Gwenddoleu was wealthy and could therefore afford many vowels.) The lord’s family had some sympathy for Myrddin and took care of him. He seemed a little slow and a little crazy. It’s possible that he was schizophrenic, although of course he wasn’t diagnosed as such at the time. But he was kept around for entertainment: they gave him food and mead, and he had a fairly peaceful existence.

Then one day, Riderch Hael, King of Alt Clut, came along and slaughtered everybody in town. He did this because he is a Christian and Arfderydd was pagan. Because: of course.

Myrddin escaped alive, running and hiding out in the Caledonian Forest. From that point on, he is described as completely and utterly barking raving mad. He talks to animals, runs naked in the forest, and lives in a cave.

But these are superstitious times, and the people in the surrounding villages have some ambivalence toward Myrddin’s madness. On the one hand, they make fun of him. On the other hand, there are whispers that he may speak to demons. Or perhaps to angels. He might tell the future, or people’s fortunes. Who knows what wisdom might be hidden in his incomprehensible mutterings?

So people come to him and ask him questions. Realistically, he is most likely just simple and insane. But he happily rambles at anyone who visits him… and superstitious people are only too eager to listen and try to make sense of it all.

One day, some young shepherds are mocking and teasing him, and they chase him through the forest. They start to get mean, as packs of young men sometimes do, and he trips and fall down a cliff and into a stream, where his body is impaled on a fisherman’s stake.

The next morning, after the body is found, the stories begin to circulate around the village.

“He told me that he would die of drowning!” one villager says, “And look, he was right!”

“Wait a moment,” cries another villager, “he told me that he would be killed by stabbing, and sure enough that is what happened!”

“But just the other day,” retorts a third, “he told me that he would die from a fall… and that prediction, too, came true!”

The verdict is in: he predicted his own death!

Since these are small medieval towns and there was not much else to do, stories and rumors flew in a whirlwind. Soon, everyone wanted to get in on the action. One traveler knew some stories of a similar figure, a wild and crazy mystic named Lailoken from a far-off village, so he started telling these stories as if they were about Myrddin, instead. The ploy worked: this man became very popular, and the center of attention at all of the bars while he told the stories of Myrddin’s impressive fortune-telling.

For the sake of academic accuracy, I should pause for a moment to say this: I’m telling one possible reconstruction of how things went, based on the wide spread of myths and essays and analyses related to this topic. I’m sure there are others out there–some more expert than I am on this topic–who would describe it a slightly different way.

But humor me for a moment, and come along with my narrative. You will see a number of elements of how stories are told, how rumors are distorted, and how myths are built, that ring very true. Some of these phenomena you’ve probably seen first hand in the story-telling that your friends and co-workers do.

And remember: you should always be bearing in the back of your mind how these same processes may have been at work in stories about Jesus.

Next, let’s fast forward 600 years.

* * * * * * *

Geoffrey of Monmouth is writing a book…..

No, wait!

That is far too humble of a task for the mission on which this man has embarked.

Geoffrey is creating a national identity for Britain! Now, everybody knows that when you are writing the Truth (with a capital T), the kind of story that is meant to inspire patriotism and pride and a sense of cultural unity, then sometimes it is necessary to embellish a little bit on the truth (lower-case t) if you want to get your point across. So this is what Geoffrey did.

He wrote a tale of the lineage of the Kings of Britain, up to and including King Arthur. As most authors know, to have a compelling narrative it helps to have very detailed characters, conflicts, and plot twists. So when it came time to talk about King Arthur and his miraculous reign, it was important to have the most vivid cast of characters around him.

To accomplish this, he created a character that was based partly on Emrys Wledig, a well-known war hero who lived in the fifth century, and partially on… Myrddin Wyllt.

You see, he had heard some of the tales and folklore of this crazy and wild, possibly possessed, mystic who could foretell the future, and thought: that would be a great person to have at King Arthur’s side! So he wove good Myrddin into the story.

Of course, he had to change a bunch of stuff. For example, remember that Geoffrey is writing after the Normon Conquest in 1066. So one of the common languages being spoken in Britain at the time was Anglo-Norman French. Since uppity French speakers would never be able to deal with a Welsh name like “Myrddin”, which by-the-by also sounds suspiciously like “Merde”, he decided to call him “Merlin” instead.

Thus the character Merlin Emrys, a great and wild seer who aided King Arthur, was born!

* * * * * * *

Over the next few hundred years, these stories of Geoffrey’s really caught on. I mean, I’m talking “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Twilight” levels of popularity. Dozens, if not hundreds, of fragmentary tales by different authors sprung up using King Arthur and Merlin (and the rest of the Camelot Crew) as characters.

The people of the time new damn well, by the way, that Geoffrey’s dramatic history was more drama than history, but hey… they didn’t care. It was great storytelling!

And you know how story-telling works, right? Each time a tale is re-told it gets amplified a little more. So under the name of “Merlin”, the deeds of Myrddin Wyllt grew ever more varied and impressive. He can shape-shift. He built Stonehenge. He advised Julius Caeser about his dreams. He appeared as an 18 foot giant with backwards hands….

Fast forward 500 more years.

* * * * * * *

The renaissance! Also called a time of revival and rediscovery: the driving force of most intellectual work during the 1500’s to the 1700’s was the desire to uncover truths from the past. Philosophers harkened back to the Greeks. Theologians harkened back to the gospels and texts from the earliest days of Christianity. Magicians tried to uncover writings from Egyptian antiquity.

So when many people found writings from the 1100’s about a miraculous magus who lived in the 500’s, they didn’t even break stride to ask questions.! They were overjoyed at the find! This is the truth! This is history! And we have ancient documents to prove it.

If it’s written in an ancient document, then it must be true… right?

During this period many people (not all) took the stories about Merlin (Myrddin) at face-value, and wrote treatises and plays and essays about him, all very earnestly. They were seeking to learn about this amazing historical figure, Merlin, the greatest wizard of all time.

But the pendulum always swings: by the 1800’s people began to be skeptical again. Skeptical about magic in general, and skeptical about Merlin in particular. People began to doubt that such a person ever really existed… but by this point, it didn’t matter. The impact of the character of Merlin on modern culture was already unquestionable.

* * * * * * *

Whenever I hear that people are debating the nature of “historical Jesus”, I think of the story of Myrddin Wyllt: the poor, crazy drunken simpleton who was transformed by the forces of history into the greatest wizard of all time.

How many of the same historical forces were at work in the creation of the narrative that we associate with Jesus today? We will never know, of course. (And that’s fine.) But it’s important to keep these alternative narratives in mind–these “what if” stories about how history may have happened–if for no reason other than I makes you aware of what you really do not know for sure.

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