The real Merlin

Like Arthur's, Merlin's story becomes entwined with a number of recorded historical events that may at least give us a starting point to identify when he lived. We are told that he was about eight or nine when Vortigern's soldiers found him, and this followed the Saxon invasion of Britain under Hengist. Hengist's arrival in Britain is usually dated to about 449 AD.

Just to set it in context, it might be useful to check out how that date relates to others who were living near or at that time, and who are likely to be better known. To be honest there aren't many. We are really at the dawn of the Dark Ages. There was, though, S:t Patrick. Although his dates are uncertain it is probable that he arrived in Ireland sometime around 432 on his mission to convert the Irish to Christianity. He at length established a bishopric at Armagh around the year 454 and died around 461.

If Merlin existed, Patrick may well have known him or known of him. Attila the Hun was also alive. He had become king of the Huns in 434, and after ravaging most of easter Europe he invaded France in 451. The following year he invaded Italy and Rome itself was only saved by the intercession of the pope, Leo I, regarded as one of the greatest of the early popes.

This then was the period of Vortigern and Hengist. On Hengist's arrival all at first went well. The Saxons aided Vortigern in the repulsion of the Picts and for a short period there was peace. Vortigern even married Hengist's daughter, Reinwen, to form an alliance. But Hengist now had a toe-hold on Britain and, in 455, he sent for further reinforcements. It would be at this time that Vortigern fled. How long he remained in the Welsh hills is uncertain, but we can imagine there were a few years before his death. The likely date for the first appearance of Merlin, therefore, is around 457 or 458, which would place his birth at about the year 450.

Geoffrey's chronology becomes little truncated over the next events. Aurelianus and Uther return from Gaul almost immediately; Vortigern and Hengist are killed. In fact, for all the historical evidence of Hengist's existence is sparse, he is believed to have ruled over his stronghold in Kent for at least thirty years and perished around the year 488, the date recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. In place of Geoffrey's record we can envisage that Aurelianus fought back the Saxons from overrunning Britain and established an uneasy peace with Hengist's men remaining in Kent, and Aurelianus having lordship over the rest of southern Britain.

Not much is known about Aurelianus, or Ambrosius Aurelianus (Aurelian the Divine) as he is sometimes called. He is believed to have been a descendant of a Roman family who sought to uphold the last vestiges of Roman civilization in Britain. He may well have been from a noble British family with Roman sympathies. He was certainly alive around 437 when he was involved in a battle at Guoloph, or Wallop, in Hampshire. The date of his death is uncertain but it was probably around the year 473, because it was then that the Saxons began again their incursions, which suggests that opposition to them had weakend.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, of course, now records Uther, called the Pendragon (or chief dragon or ruler), as king, and no doubt there was a successor to Aurelianus who sought to hold back the Saxons, though less successfully than his predecessor.

Uther must have ruled a few years before he succumed to be the beauty of Ygraine, though that period is not identified of Geoffrey. Allowing for some uncertainty over the dating of the death of Aurelianus, we could place Arthur's conception at around 475. This is the date suggested by Norma Lorre Goodrich in her fascinating studies of the legend, King Arthur [1986] and Merlin [1988].

Geoffrey does tell us that Arthur was fifteen years old when Uther died, which would bring us to about the year 490, by which time Merlin would be about forty. Although a boy king may sustain the support of his people, he would still require a wise counsellor to help him in his judgements, and that would be an obvious role for Merlin.

If Merlin held such an important role, it would seem that there should be some record of him somewhere. It is strange that Geoffrey makes no record of this. But there is something in Geoffrey that may give us a clue. When Uther dies the noblemen of Britain implored to "Dubricius, Archbishop of the City of the Legions, that is their king he should crown Arthur". Here was someone with clear authority and the power to anoint kings. Who was Dubricius?

Dubricius is an acknowledged historical person, who in later years was raised to the sainthood. He is claimed to have founded the bishopric at Llandaff, and to have ordained Samson, late Bishop of Dol in Brittany. Some of the recorded dates conflict here. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, Dubricius died in about 612 (his entry states that the date of his death is "the most authentic information we have about him").

However, Samons's life is recorded as 480-565. Something is wrong. It may be that because of his later fame, Dubricius's life became entangled with other great names of history. However, other studies assign different dates to Dubricius, such as The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, which gives his death as about 550, whilst other sources date him even earlier. These dates would not only accord with the dates for Samson, but are remarkably close to Merlin's supposed life.

Could it be that the character and the role played of Merlin and that of Archbishop Dubricius are one and the same? This is the conclusion that Norma Lorre Goodrich reaches in her books. Certainly it is strange that once Arthur becomes king, Merlin does not appear again in Geoffrey's History. When we come to the all-important battle of Mount Badon, where Arthur convincingly defeats the Saxons and establishes a peace that lasts for forty years, we find that it is Dubricius who speaks to the troops from the Mount. You might think, considering the reputation that Geoffrey has building for Merlin, that it would have been he who delivered the speech. If he didn't, where was he?

There could, of course, be plenty of explanations. In real life, Merlin and Dubricius may have been enemies. Dubricius represented the church whereas Merlin, because of his dubious birth and magical arts, represented a pagan culture, synonymous with the Druids. For Arthur to be a Christian king, it would have been impossible for Merlin to crown him or, for that matter, to remain his principal adviser.

There is another interesting point. Tales and legends about Dubricius were abundant at the time that Geoffrey was researching his History. Dubricius's remains had been discovered on the Isle of Bardsey and translated to the abbey at Llandaff in the year 1120, the same year that a book about him, Lectiones de vita Sancti Dubricii, appeared.

This book, and other writings, gave Dubricius a miraculous birth. Apparently he had no father, but was the son of a nun, herself a granddaughter of King Constantine and thus second cousin to King Arthur. This accords entirely with the supposed origins with Merlin, and it is more than tempting to think that Geoffrey either confused or linked the stories of Dubricius and Merlin.

In book 8 of his History, Geoffrey mentions Dubricius and Merlin in almost the same sentence. He notes the raising of Dubricius to the sea of Caerleon, and he then goes on to describe how Merlin raises the memorial of Stonehenge as a "sepulchre". It does seem strange that within almost one breath Geoffrey would favour a Christian and then a pagan act. In fact Merlin would seem to be performing a Christian ceremony. However, in book 9, when describing the members of Arthur's court, Geoffrey makes no reference to Merlin but not only mentions Dubricius as "Primate of Britain", but attributes him miraculous powers of healing. The last reference to Dubricius tells us that the saintly man had resighed his archbishopric in order to become a hermit, and presumably to devote his final years to solace and prayer. Could this relate to the solitude of Merlin, ensnared as legend says by Vivienne, alone in a cave?

However you consider it there are some remarkable similarities between the roles of Merlin and Dubricius and, as Arthur's mentor and adviser, they could easily be the same person, regardless of the legends that grew around them in later years.

In which case, why the two names? Dubricius is, of course, a Latin name and not the original Welsh, which was Dyfrig. Dyfrig in Welsh means "waterman", which might be likened to "baptist", although in Latin it became confused with "merman". By a coincidence one translation of the name Merlin was "mermaid", although the real meaning of the word "mermaid" is maid, or lady, of the mere, or lake! Could it be that, in his name, "Dubricius" or "Dyfrig" was used interchangeably with "Merlin", or that one or the other was a title or honorific, so that the bishop may have been referred to at times as Dubricius the Merlin; that is, Dubric the waterman or baptist?

Merlin, though, was also a Latin name, the original Welsh being Myrddin, a name which is believed to mean "fortress". It was, in fact, an ancient and much revered name, possibly attributable to a god. In ancient days, the island of Britain was referred to as the Fortress Isle, or Myrddin's Isle. It would be no surprise, therefore, to want to link the legendary status of Merlin, or Arthur's protector, with that of the very matter and origin of Britain itself. And if Dubricius was recognized in this day as the Primate of Britain he may have been termed Dubricius of Myrddin.

Either way there is some substance here which could untangle the tales. It seems more than possible to me that Geoffrey, knowing the stories and legends of Dubricius, and knowing the other names by which he was called, interlaced these with tales he read in his "little book" and developed the story of Merlin, as Britain's kingmaker, out of the original tales of Dubricius.

Although the actions of one were pagan and of the other Christian, six centuries after their existence these events had become impossibly entwined.

There is one other matter to resolve, though, which may provide an additional explanation, and that is the later life of Merlin, or Myrddin, and his relationship to King Gwenddalou. Here we really run into problems with dates. Gwenddalou died at the battle of Arfderydd (which in Latin translates as Arthuret) which is assigned to the year 573. The Merlin of Vortigern would have been over 120 by then. Our image of Merlin as a white-haired, white-bearded old mage, rather like the near-immortal Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, might fit the dating, but in all seriousness it is pushing credibility, even with all of the accepted anachronisms.

In his book The Quest for Merlin, Nikolai Tolstoy establishes, certainly to my satisfaction, that this Merlin or Myrddin is a later and distinctly historical person, recognized in the Dictionary of National Biography as Myrddin Wyllt, or Merlin the Wild. Myrddin was a bard and adviser at the court of King Gwenddalou. He was known to the Strathclyde bishop of Glasgow, Kentigern, who lived from 550 to 612. Kentigern was appointed bishop by Riderch, the new king Strathclyde who had defeated Gwenddalou at Arfderydd and was, apparently, threatening to hunt Myrddin down - probably because of poetical propaganda Myrddin had been spreading against him. It was for this reason that Myrddin fled into the forest, having already almost lost his reason because both his king and his brothers had been killed in the battle. W. Rutherford and N. Tolstoy think he may have been a latter-day Druid and so took part in shamanistic practices. Jung and von Franz also see shamanistic elements in the story of Merlin.

Although Geoffrey in his Life of Merlin sought to reconcile these two legends, clearly they cannot be. What is more likely is that in his research for the History of the Kings of Britian, Geoffrey had come across the Prophecies of Myrddin (the sixth-century bard) and had worked them into his story of Dubricius, either because they seemed to fit well with the story of Vortigern, which he had copied from Nennius, or because he genuinely confused Myrddin with an earlier Merlin. As a result, over the centuries, some of the writings and stories associated with the later bard have been grafted on the story of the earlier enchanter and kingmaker.

This is all, of course, supposition, although it's fairly convincing. If the start from the viewpoint that King Arthur existed, it is not difficult to belive that he would have had a senior adviser, and that that adviser could have been Dubricius. It could also follow that Dubricius became confused with a man of equivalent miraculous powers whom Geoffrey called Merlin, a name he possibly confused with the later bard Myrddin.

It is not surprising that because of, not despite, this confusion, Merlin has become such a fascinating character, with a blending of so many facets: wisdom, madness, good and evil, adviser and schemer. The Arthurian world would be fascinating enough without Merlin: all of those chivalrous and heroic adventures, but add the dimension of magic and mischief provided by merlin, and you have the greatest fantasy on Earth. For near nine hundred years, since Geoffrey unleashed the story of Merlin and Arthur, writers, poets and artists have been fascinated with the life and the legend.

This contrasts with the earlier thory of E. Davies that Merlin was a god (the evening star), and his sister Ganieda a goddess (the morning star). There is some evidence that Merlin may originally have been a god, for in the Triads, we are told that the earliest name for Britain was Merlin's Precinct, as though he were a god with proprietorial rights. G. Ashe would connect him with the cult of the god Mabon. Because of his association with stags, there may be a connection with Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god.

See also
Conrad | The Legend of King Arthur
Dinabutius | The Legend of King Arthur

See also
- Merlins origin
- Merlin, Uther Pendragon and Arthur's birth
- Merlin's Entertainments
- Merlin - the Necromancer
- The real Merlin?
- Tomb of Merlin
- Literary origins
- The name Merlin