Which Merlin is this?
Students in one of my writing classes asked me if any of the characters in the Arthurian romances were based on real people. While the standard answer is ‘maybe, but we just don’t know’ there is really a lot more to it than that.
While Arthur himself may or may not, be based on any one or more people, and others like his adulterous wife, Guinevere, and his numerous knights are certainly fictitious the most implausible of all, Merlin, was actually a very real person and it is on this man that I based my Merlin. Much frustratingly incomplete work on tracking down the historical Merlin has been done but, briefly, this is pretty much what we know.
The real Merlin, like my character, was of Welch origin, was named Myrddin Emrys ap Morfryn (Myrddin, or Merlin, translating as Eagle), lived roughly between 480 and 570 A.D. and he was either a Christian monk or a priest. Among the verifiable historical characters that he seems to have known was the Saxon warlord known as King Vortigern, whom we will meet in the second book of the Merlin Chronicles. Merlin would have been just a boy when he encountered Vortigern sometime around 490 – 510 A.D.
It seems that, like my own Merlin, he attended a battle to give spiritual support to his liege lord and that the sight of the slaughter drove him mad. What, precisely, he raved about as he wandered through Wales, northwestern England and southwestern Scotland is unknown but, like our own Merlin, villagers were frightened by this half wild man and drove him off in a hail of sticks and stones and calling him Myrddin Wyllt, meaning Merlin the wild. Supposedly, in his madness, Merlin had gained the ability to ‘see’ or make prophecies and the belief in his power to fortell the future brought him to the attention of many in high places.
Whatever it was that the old man was raving about it seems to have hit too close to home for a petty war lord named Rhydderich Hael (translated as Roderick the Generous, which he obviously was not). Hael fancied himself king of Strathclyde and kept his ‘castle’ – actually a fortified hill fort – at what is now Dunbarton, Scotland and seems to have been, at one point, a friend of Merlins, possibly inviting him to court as an advisor. What Merlin might have said, or why it upset Hael, we will never know but there is some surviving evidence that Hael ordered the old man’s murder which took place near the mouth of a Strathclyde river at the point where it emerged from an underground cave.
There are still numerous writings which purport to have been executed by Merlin but unfortunately there is scant evidence to support these claims. But the historical Merlin retains deep roots in his homeland of Wales. The oldest inhabited town in Wales is named Carmarthen, which is a corruption of two words; the first being ‘caer’ often used to mean castle but actually translating as ‘place of refuge’. The second part of Carmarthen came from, as you may have guessed, Myrddin. Hence, Carmarthen literally means Merlin’s place of refuge.
To learn more about the real Merlin I recommend the following two books in the order they are presented ‘The Quest for Merlin’ by Nikolai Tolstoy and ‘Chasing Merlin’ by Sarah White.