The Merlin Files 1 – Boy Wonder

The legendary Merlin – or Myrddin – has so many connections with Wales that he demands our attention, whether we live in the North or the South of the country (or even if we are English or Scottish).

The strands of the Merlin story are so complex that we think he merits a series of articles to try to clarify just who or what he was.

The earliest mention of Merlin ties in with Pembrokeshire.Online’s earlier story about the Causeway of Berlinus ( As recounted there, Britain was long ago plagued by two warring dragons which were eventually captured in Oxford and transported to Snowdonia to be shut away.

It is in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain that we come across the sequel to this fantastical story – and the sequel in which Merlin (or Merlinus, as Geoffrey called him) takes the lead role.

It has been suggested that Geoffrey, writing in Latin, adapted the name from the Welsh Myrddin but instead of Merdinus (which French readers may have associated with merde) he opted for Merlinus. Whether this is the case removes unproven.

In Geoffrey’s History we are told how, in the 5th cenutury, King Vortigern, fleeing the Saxons, retreated to Snowdonia where he attempted to build a new castle. But every time work began, the walls collapsed. His advisers suggested that the answer was to find a child born without a father and to sacrifice him to make the foundations of the castle secure. This, apparently, seemed a reasonable solution…

Accordingly, a search was made for such a child, and Vortigern’s messengers, when they visited Kaermerdin (Carmarthen), came upon young Merlin, whose mother, a nun, had given birth without having sex with a man – she claimed instead to have been visited by an incubus, an apparition in the night.

Merlin was brought to Snowdonia but, before he could be killed, he told Vortigern he could reveal the real reason his castle kept falling down.

The king, struck by the boy’s mystical nature, agreed to listen. Merlin explained that the two dragons (one red, one white) were buried in the rocks here, and they would have to be released before the castle could be built.

When the dragons were released, they fought. And Merlin explained that the white dragon represented the Saxons, who would defeat the British (the red dragon); but that one day the British would be in the ascendant again, thanks to the “Boar of Cornwall”.

That red dragon would ultimately come to be the symbol of Wales. And the “Boar of Cornwall” would turn out to be one King Arthur.

The boy Merlin was of course spared by Vortigern, but that was only the beginning of his story…

© Nigel Summerley

To be continued next week…

Nigel Summerley

Nigel Summerley retired from The Oldie magazine to return to freelance journalism. He previously held executive staff jobs at the London Evening Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Express before freelancing for 20 years for newspapers including The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent, The Guardian and the ‘i’ paper, plus a wide range of magazines. He continues to write about music, travel and health, and blogs at

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