The Merlin Files 5 – Wild Man

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain, which has provided much of the basis for the previous articles in this series, Merlin played a vital – and somewhat sinister – role in the adulterous rape that led to the conception of King Arthur.

But after that, Merlin disappears completely from the story. Geoffrey recounts in almost overwhelming detail the exploits of the adult King Arthur (assorted giant-slaying, warmongering and empire-builidng) but there is no mention at all of the sorcerer from Carmarthen playing any further part in the king’s life.

However, about 14 years later, in 1150, Geoffrey was back with a new work, an epic poem called Vita Merlini (The Life of Merlin) – not so much a sequel as a quite different tale. And in this he not only told a bizarre tale of Merlin’s life as a wild and disturbed eccentric, but he also managed to bring him back to the story of Arthur, playing a crucial role in the last act, that of bringing the wounded king to the Isle of Avalon (Glastonbury).

We are indebted to John Jay Parry, who in his 1925 commentary on Vita Merlini explains that the work was essentially the story of a man who, because he had stirred up strife between two armies, was punished by seeing a vision in the heavens over the battle, which drove him mad and sent him out into the wilderness to live with wild animals. In this state he was endowed with the gift of prophecy.

Parry says: “I would suggest that at the time Geoffrey wrote the History of the Kings of Britian he knew of [the Celtic] Myrddin in little more than name. During the next ten years or so he learned something of the Welsh legends that clustered around him, and he tried to use these in a new work and to convince his readers that this Merlin was the same one he had written about previously.”

The fact (if we can use that word) is that there were several Merlins – he is a multiple personality.

Parry again: “Myrddin ab Morfryn was a Welsh prince in North Britain, and probably like several other warrior princes was also a poet… From poet he developed into prophet and magician… most predictions among the Welsh seem to have gone under his name.”

A number of legends grew up around this Myrddin, including the one (which Geoffrey enthusiastically latched onto) about his life in the woods as Myrddin Wyllt – Merlin the Wild.

This was a story that had similar versions in different parts of the British Isles: in Wales there was Myrddin; in Scotland, Lailoken; and in Ireland, Suibhne.

Let’s concentrate on the Welsh Merlin, apparently a victim of some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder. The battle that is said to have driven him mad is reckoned to be the battle of Arderydd (or Arthuret) fought in about the year 575 near Carlisle. 

It was fought between Peredur, king of the North Welsh (accompanied by Merlin) and Gwenddoleu, ruler of Scotland. The story goes that Merlin’s mind was so turned by the violent events he witnessed that he lamented for three days, refused food, then fled to the woods…

In the Vita Merlini, Merlin has a sister called Ganieda, who was married to Rhydderch, king of the Cumbrians. She sent messengers to the woods and fields to look for Merlin, and one of them tracked him down.

The messenger told Merlin how much he was missed by his sister Ganieda and (now we learn) also his wife, Guendoloena.

Merlin agreed to be taken to the court of Rhydderch, but things got worse rather than better. Rhydderch offered Merlin various gifts to make him stay but Merlin became incensed about material things and made as if to return to the forest.

Rhydderch had him chained up to restrain him. But Merlin managed to bargain for his freedom by promising to explain why he had laughed at seeing Rhydderch taking a leaf from Ganieda’s hair.

Merlin’s explanation was that the leaf had got in her hair when she was having illicit sex with her lover.

Both Rhydderch and Ganieda (who denied the truth of Merlin’s insight) were furious, and Merlin left despite Guendoloena’s entreaties. Merlin told her she had his permission to marry again, and he returned to the wild for several years.

Then, when Guendoloena was set to remarry, Merlin turned up at the wedding riding on a stag, took the horns from his stag, and used them to kill the man she was planning to marry – he’d obviously changed his mind about giving permission.

After this mad outburst, Merlin was captured by Rhydderch once more, but to gain his freedom again, he agreed to prophesy.

Free to go, Merlin was asked to stay by his sister, but he said he would return to the wild and asked her to build him a house there – which she did.

Back in the wild, he continued to prophesy, referring back to formerly telling these things to Vortigern and to explaining to him “the mystic war of the two dragons” (as was covered in the first article in this series).

When Rhydderch died, his widow, Ganieda, decided to go and live in the woods with her brother, Merlin.

The bard Taliesin visited Merlin in the wild, and Merlin told him a lot of stuff about the natural world and also how he had taken the wounded Arthur (after the battle of Camlan) to Morgen (one of the nine sisters who ruled “the Friendly Isle”. And while Taliesin and Merlin were talking, a new spring of water emerged, Merlin drank from it, and his madness was cured.

The story also features a visit to Merlin from one Maeldinus (who had been turned mad by apples intended for Merlin by a woman who had been his lover but whom he had spurned). Maeldinus’s insanity was similarly cured

Merlin, Maeldinus, Taliesin and Ganieda all ended up living in the woods, and when Merlin found he could no longer prophesy, his sister, Ganieda, took over his prophet duties.

What happened to Merlin’s wife, Guendoloena, is not at all clear. Like a number of others whose lives were touched by Merlin, she doesn’t seem to have come out of things too well.

So, multiple-personality Merlin – who was boy wonder, prophet, magician, sorcerer and wild man – becomes almost impossible to tie down to any particular identity or time or place.

Next time we will look at whether he ever existed – and how man lives he may have had.

© 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 www.nigel-summerley.blogspot.com.

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