Tim Clarkson is an independent researcher and historian who gained a PhD in medieval history from the University of Manchester in 2003. He has since written four books on the history of Scotland and the Old North. Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins is his fifth.
This clearly written and well-researched book traces the story of Merlin, a figure best known from television as a wizard and advisor of King Arthur associated with Wales and Cornwall, back to its origins in Dark Age southern Scotland, which was then part of the Old North.
Clarkson begins with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae as the source of Merlin’s depiction as an Arthurian wizard then turns to the Vita Merlini where we find a different ‘Scottish’ Merlin: a ‘Man of the Woods’ possessed ‘by a strange madness’ after a battle who seeks solitude in the Forest of Calidon and predicts his own threefold death.
This depiction originates from Geoffrey’s knowledge of medieval Welsh poems about Myrddin Wyllt, who became wyllt (‘wild’) after fighting in the Battle of Arfderydd and fled to the forest of Celyddon where he found solace beneath an apple tree with a little pig.
One of Clarkson’s more contentious arguments is that this northern wildman was not originally called Myrddin but Llallogan. The earliest roots of his story may be found in Vita Merlini Silvestris, where Lailoken (Llallogan) tells St Kentigern he became mad after a battle then begs for sacrament before his three-fold death.
The name Myrddin arose from the false etymology of ‘Carmarthen ‘Merlin’s Fort’ (Welsh Caerfyrddin, with ‘m’ softening to ‘f’)’. There is no ‘need to imagine that Lailoken of the North was already known as ‘Myrddin’ before his story migrated to Wales’.
More contentiously, Clarkson claims that Myrddin was not pagan but Christian. This is partially based on textual evidence. Lailoken pronounces ‘I am a Christian’ and petitions Kentigern for the sacrament. In the medieval Welsh poems, Myrddin addresses Jesus and his sister, Gwenddydd, urges him to take communion before he dies.
Clarkson also contests Skene and Tolstoy’s views that Gwenddolau, the northern British ruler who Myrddin fought for at Arfderydd was a pagan. The 5thC archaeological evidence shows ‘the aristocratic landholding elite proudly displayed their Christian credentials on memorial stones’.
‘the organisational infrastructures of paganism were unlikely to have survived the onslaught of the new religion. The two institutions could not exist side-by-side. Wherever Christianity came, the old beliefs died out within a couple of generations. Christian missionaries in the Celtic lands were not, as it is sometimes imagined, willing to turn a blind eye to pagan worship. They were determined to eradicate it. In such a climate of non-tolerance it is very unlikely that druidism, in whatever form, was able to survive… we should envisage Gwenddolau as a Christian king.’
Although Clarkson claims Merlin was not a pagan he admits it is possible to see him as a Celtic seer, shaman, or awenydd, in the Christian tradition. Rather than asserting his view as correct he encourages readers to make up their own mind whether ‘the original story was sprinkled with Christian allusions by later writers and all references to paganism were expunged’ or ‘there was no pagan narrative from the outset.’
Before I read this book it was my personal opinion that the medieval poems about the pagan wildman Myrddin Wyllt formed the earliest strata of the Merlin legend, and that the vitae of St Kentigern and Vita Merlini Silvestris contained later Christianised variants as propaganda promoting Kentigern and the Christian church. I haven’t been persuaded otherwise. It remains my opinion that Gwenddolau was one of the last pagan rulers of the Old North and that Myrddin was pagan; the allusions to Jesus and communion were added by Christian scribes.
Minor personal disagreements aside, this is an excellent book which does valuable work in tracing the origins of the Arthurian wizard, Merlin, to their roots in the story of a northern British warrior who became ‘wyllt’ at the Battle of Arfderydd, found solace amongst the wild creatures of the forest and became a renowned prophet.
I’d recommend this book to everybody interested in Merlin, British mythology, and the history of southern Scotland and the Old North. As somebody based in Lancashire it’s encouraging and inspiring to see the forgotten Dark Age histories of the north returning to life and being reclaimed.
You can find out more about Scotland’s Merlin and how to buy a copy on Tim Clarkson’s blog HERE.