The Quest For Merlin - Nikolai Tolstoy

This fascinating book investigates the origins of Merlin most popularly thought of as the sorcerer in the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Tolstoy's scholarly analysis of source material illuminates many aspects of Celtic culture and clarifies some beliefs which have been distorted through inappropriate translations in the past. Together with recent advances in the fields of linguistics, philology and archaeology, Tolstoy casts a new light on Merlin and his origins.

Tolstoy's central hypothesis is that Merlin or Myrddin lived in the late sixth century in the border region between Hadrian's Wall and Augustine's Wall. North of this area were the Pictish kingdoms which the Romano-Britains never controlled. The region was one of the surviving Celtic strongholds in mainland Britain. It was a densely forested area where traditional Celtic culture and religion thrived.

Source literature is re-evaluated to reveal that Merlin was the bard or advisor to a Celtic king , Gwenddolau , who ruled the region covered by the Celyddon (or Caledonian) Forest.In 573, the Battle of Arderydd was fought between Gwenddolau's followers and the army of a neighbouring Christian king, Rhydderch of Strathclyde which resulted in a victory for Rhydderch's forces. According to the sources, Gwenddolau was killed in battle and Merlin went mad, fleeing into the forest where he lived as a wildman until his death.

Tolstoy traces Merlin to Hart Fell in Galloway , Scotland , a hill at the centre of what used to be Celyddon Forest or the Wood of Calidon. This vast forest covered large tracts of land in the heartland of a Celtic tribe called the Selgovae. The Selgovae had remained hostile to Roman rule and were never bought under control.

In the sixth century, Hart Fell , which is 2,651 feet in height, would have given a view of the entire region as it dominated the area. It is also near the source of three rivers - the most notable being the Tweed For the last of the eminent Celtic bards or druids who believed in the power of nature and the mystic qualities of wooded streams, Hart Fell would have been a place of special spiritual significance. A holy place to retreat to when his known world lay in ruins.

This hypothesis is supported in contemporary written sources such as the "Life of St. Kentigern" - the sixth century bishop of Strathclyde and the "Life of St.Samson". Later sources such as Geoffrey of Monmouth's "Vita Merlinni" (Life of Merlin) and the "Four Ancient Books of Wales" - the "Black Book of Carmarthen", the "Book of Taliesin", the "Book of Aneirin" and the "Red Book of Hergest" provide further details and evidence.

As bard and advisor to the Celtic king, Gwenddolau (who was possibly a prince of the Selgovae) , Merlin would have been a key figure in the Celtic religion representing the pagan deities Cernunnos, Lord of the Beasts and Lleu or Lug.The bard would have formed the link between earthly life and the pagan otherworld - the realm of the spirits. According to the sources Merlin possessed powers of foresight, the ability to control beast and fowl, he could conjure up fogs at will and had a mocking laugh which was used to humiliate opponents.

Merlin's importance to the Celts lay in the fact that Gwenddolau's realm was the northern 'omphalos' or spiritual centre for a pagan Celtic religion at a time when many Celts were becoming converted to Christianity. In one of the last bastions of Celtic culture, Merlin would have been the spiritual leader of his people and an important figure in Celtic society.

One theory considered but eventually rejected by Tolstoy is that Merlin was not the name of one individual but was a title passed on from an eminent druid to his successor. However, there is little evidence to support this.

Reference has been made to Merlin "going mad" during the Battle of Arderydd and fleeing into the forest. This requires further clarification. Tolstoy examines the phenomena of the mantic trance or mystic calling which shamen in other religions undergo. These experiences often result in the subject spending long periods of self imposed isolation in the wild in order to communicate with his gods. Hence it is possible that Merlin's madness did not represent a mental breakdown but was rather a religious experience.

The Celts were renowned for their ferocity in battle and were formidable opponents. However, they were often defeated by disciplined forces who could withstand their initial ferocious onslaughts. As the spiritual leader of his people, Merlin would have been responsible for inciting the battle fever amongst the Celtic warriors. The Battle of Arderydd, was fought in an area of special religious significance to the Celts, and emotions would have been running high. Furious with rage and seeing his people defeated it is possible that Merlin experienced a shamanistic trance and fled to the forest to rebuild his spiritual powers.

There is also a more pragmatic explanation, Arderydd was a clash between two cultures - the older, pagan Celtic religion and the Christianity of the converted Romano-Britains (Celts who had converted to Christianity and adopted some Roman customs).Following Gwenddolau's death, Merlin as the Celts' religious leader could have been the focal point for a renewed struggle. As such he would have been a target for Rhydderch's troops. Thus his flight into the forest following the Celtic defeat served two purposes - it protected him and also enabled Celtic religion to survive albeit as an underground faith.

In "The Life of St. Kentigern" there is a reference to the friendship between Kentigern and a wildman named Lailoken who is eventually converted to the Christian faith. Lailoken was said to have experienced a mantic calling which led him to live in the wilds of Celyddon Forest with only the animals and birds for company and a wolf as his closest companion. Recent linguistic research has shown that the name Lailoken is an incorrect translation of the Celtic epithet "dearest friend", a name often attributed to Merlin. Taking this into account, together with the setting of Celyddon forest, Merlin's alleged powers over wild animals and the mantic experience and it is possible that Lailoken and Merlin are the same person and that the "madness" at the Battle of Arderydd was a spiritual experience.

The theory that Merlin retreated into the wilds in order to ensure the survival of the pagan Celtic religion has some support. In later years, during the so-called "Dark Ages" , the Romanised and Christian social structure in Britain began to collapse. Towns and villages were abandoned and law and order broke down. Concern was expressed about the reversion to paganism in many parts of the land.The resurgence of older religious beliefs would only have been possible had there been an underground faith which had kept the practices alive.

Assuming that Tolstoy is correct and that Merlin did live in the sixth-century he must have been an impressive and charismatic religious leader as his name is referred to in works written some centuries after his death and his name has passed into folk-lore.

Of his death , the sources record Merlin as stating that he would die a triple death of being "...pierced by a stake, suffering by stone and water" (Tolstoy).The three-fold death is a common reference in Celtic religion which also embraced voluntary self-sacrifice.The god Lleu or Lug suffered this form of execution and Merlin's alleged death at the hands of some shepherds may have been a form of sacrifice.As the earthly representative of the god Lleu or Lug, he would have been required to hand on his mantle to a successor as he neared the end of his life. By dying the same death as the deity who he represented, the circle was completed.

Tolstoy's "The Quest For Merlin" is an intriguing investigation into the origins, life and history of a significant yet little known character in popular English literature.Traditionally, Merlin has been associated with King Arthur yet Tolstoy makes no mention of the Arthurian connection in his book. At first this seems an oversight yet in the light of recent works re-appraising the Arthurian cycle, this is understandable.

Recent studies of the Arthurian myths have put forward the following hypothesis. Firstly, Arthur existed, he was a Celtic chieftain or warlord from either the west of England or Wales. According to later written sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was a Christian. He led the native resistance against the Saxons who were invading southern England. As the Celts converted to Christianity some of the more palatable, older Celtic pagan customs were incorporated into the new Christian faith.There is evidence for this in that surviving artifacts such as the high crosses and holy books like the Irish "Book of Kells" show Christian religious works employing Celtic decorative forms.

The military exploits of Arthur absorbed some of the older myths and legends as his fame grew during the wars against the Saxons. Hence the tales of Arthur and Merlin gradually became part of British folk-lore and by the early middle ages formed a corpus of popular literature and ballads. During the later middle ages , these older tales were used to form the basis for the Arthurian cycle as it is known today.

However when reading works such as Mallory's "Morte d'Arthur", the character of Merlin always seems a little out of step with the others. He is too ethereal and distant,a shadowy figure on the periphery of events who disappears altogether in later tales. Perhaps this is not surprising if we accept Tolstoy's hypothesis. Unlike the Christian King Arthur, Merlin belongs to an older time and a different part of the country, where pagan Celtic culture and customs survived longer than in other parts of mainland Britain.