By Carolyn Emerick
The Celtic Guide, Vol.1:10 (2012)
Introduction: Of the many characters in Arthurian Legend, Merlin stands out as a driving force. Not only does he play a crucial role in the life of Arthur, but his character’s own life is rife with adventure and drama. Much research and speculation has been conducted on an “historical Arthur.” Books, movies, and documentaries abound on theories about who might be the man behind the mythic king. But what of Arthur’s mage? What of the magician who made Arthur the great king of legend? Is there a historical basis for the character we know as Merlin? As it happens, there is some truth to this legend. But, it is a rather twisted Celtic knot. So let us begin to unravel it.
The major source for Arthurian Legend as we know it is Le Morte d’Arthur, published in 1485 by Sir Thomas Malory. Though Malory did not create the legends, he collected existing versions and compiled them into a single volume, perhaps adding some of his own invention. The stories of King Arthur and his Round Table, the romance of Lancelot and Gwenyvere, the epic battle between Arthur and Mordred, and other chapters of the drama with which we are so familiar are recounted in detail. Malory’s text is the springboard that most subsequent authors based their works on Arthur upon.
However, three centuries before Sir Thomas Malory penned his masterpiece, Geoffrey of Monmouth was hard at work with his ambitious Historia Regum Britanniae, otherwise known as History of the Kings of Britain (circa 1136). In order to appreciate his work, we must remember that the standards of Medieval historians were somewhat less scrupulous than standards of today. Like many historians of his era, Geoffrey mixed true history with legend, perhaps peppered with his own inventions that no doubt seemed like excellent enhancements at the time.
Geoffrey’s History is an ambitious work in the vein of Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (circa 731). Both authors attempted to fill in the blanks of British history and give a sense of national identity to the people of the British Isles. However, “historical” works of this period were typically clouded by bias and personal editing of the facts. Geoffrey of Monmouth mixed figures who are known to have existed (or thought by scholars to probably have existed) with characters of folktale and local legend. Being from Wales himself, Geoffrey added local Welsh legends to his historical work. King Arthur is grafted into English history right alongside documented kings and rulers. Beyond this history volume, Geoffrey of Monmouth also published two works strictly on Merlin; The Prophecies of Merlin and The Life of Merlin. Geoffrey was, of course, influenced by earlier writers; and there are other works of substantial influence. But, due to space constraints we shall move on.