Art. V. – SCOTTISH ORIGIN OF THE MERLIN MYTH., Vol. 20, Oct., 1892, pp.321-337.

THERE is already so much poetry and romance associated with the very name of the old Scottish Borderland that it seems superfluous in these days to seek to revive a claim which the Borderland, with its thousand and one mediaeval memories, has allowed to drop, namely, that of being the real cradle of Arthurian romance. In almost pre-historic times the great Merlin haunted the Borderland, and sang Tweed’s earliest song centuries before the birth of that ballad literature which was to be the poetic and plaintive outcome of long years of Border raid and rapine; but now we look in vain for references in our literature to such a time. Wales and Brittany have caught up the tradition, and, stamping their nationality upon it, the Merlin of Tweed has gone forth as the Merlin of Caermarthen and of the wild woods of Broceliande. 

So great has been the fascination of the Arthurian legends that one now feels they should no more enquire into the actual latitude and longitude of King Arthur’s capital than cavil at the geographical accuracy of Shakespeare’s Bohemia. We should read romance with all the faith of a child listening to a fairy tale, and with story-tellers like Sir Thomas Malory, Edmund Spenser, and Lord Tennyson, the task is no very difficult one. Such is the power of a great poet, that even as the majority of the reading world will be content to study the England of the Tudors and the Plantagenets in the pages of Shakespeare, so Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is, and will continue to be, the popular history of Arthurian England. 

Of late years, however, men have been looking more closely into these old-world romances and their origins. It is not so very long since Mr. Matthew Arnold pled eloquently for a more thorough study of our ancient Celtic literature and its influence on the succeeding thought of the nation, and now Celtic Chairs have been established in Oxford and Edinburgh. In the learned papers so recently contributed to these pages by the Oxford Professor, Mr. Rhys, the readers of the Scottish Review have had an opportunity of judging for themselves of the marvellous manner in which such special study has opened for us long-closed pages of our early history. What Professor Rhys has done for England principally, our late Historiographer-Royal, Mr. Skene, has done more particularly for Scotland; and, in discussing the Scottish origin of the Merlin myth, we shall have occasion to examine the poems dealing with the personality of Merlin, which have been translated from the original Cymric in Mr. Skene’s great work, The Four Ancient Books of Wales, and to note how far these poems illustrate the few scanty facts gathered from other sources regarding Merlin. Similarly it will be our duty to enquire how far the researches of the eminent Breton Celtic authority, the Vicomte Villemarqué, favours or discountenances the theory of Merlin’s Scottish origin.1

There is now no doubt that the mass of Arthurian tradition can be traced to Celtic sources, and particularly to the Cymric branch of the Celtic family, and accordingly wherever we find traces of the Cymri there are very similar traditions, diversified only by local circumstances. Thus, each of the four great divisions of ancient Cymric territory, Strathclyde, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany, have their separate traditions of Arthur and Merlin, and their Merlin shrines. The Scottish pilgrim will find the Cymric bard’s grave by the peaceful Tweed in the sweet vale of Drummelzier. The Welshman goes to dragon-haunted Dinas-Emrys, amid the fastnesses of Snowdon, or to the Mynydd Merlin or Merlin’s Hill, near Caermarthen. The haunt of the Cornish pilgrim would be fairy Tintagal or that mysterious tomb referred to in Sir Thomas Malory, where, to quote a quaint Scottish reference to the legend, that ‘wykede womane closede him in a cragge of Cornwales coste.’ And Brittany? Amid the giant stones of Carnac, or on that little islet of Sien, between Raz and Croissant, off the west coast of Bretagne, the faithful still look for the grave of Merlin. Truly it is a tangled web which the romancists have woven around the story of Merlin! 

Here then we have, speaking generally, three Merlins – the Scottish, the Welsh and Cornish, and the Breton. The first of these became known through time as the Scottish Merlin or Merlinus Caledonius; the second as the Welsh Merlin, Myrdin Emrys or Merlinus Ambrosius; the third as the Breton Merlin, Marthin, or Marzin. The first I shall call the Merlin of history, the second the Merlin of tradition, and the third the Merlin of romance

Let us see what can be gleaned by glancing rapidly at the history of the Merlin period. 

In the long wars for race supremacy which followed the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain, the northern Cymri were most exposed to the danger of invasion. As in Roman Britain the points to be guarded most strongly were the Saxon shore (i.e. the south-east coast of England) and the northern walls. Slowly but surely the Saxons drove the southern Cymri westwards to the mountains of Wales and the coasts of Cornwall. Large numbers of the refugees crossed over to Brittany or Lesser Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, giving as Professor Valroger points out, ‘a leur nouvelle demeure des noms qui leur rappelaient la patrie perdue.’2 The Cymri between the Roman walls, Antonine’s and Hadrian’s, were, on the other hand, surrounded on all points, by Scots in the north, Picts in the north-east, Saxons in the east, and Galloway Picts in the south-west. They were thus cut off from their Welsh brethren, although the inclusion of Cumberland and Westmorland in the district of the northern Cymri kept open for a long time the communication with Wales. 

But, as often happens with a nation most beset with foes from without, they were at strife, amongst themselves. Druidism, which had well-nigh disappeared among the Southern Britons, still flourished among the Men of the North, as the Scottish Cymri were sometimes called. Many of the noble families proudly held to their ancient belief, and, as Christianity crept in amongst them, the breach between Christian and Pagan Cymri grew wider and wider. The chiefs of two ancient royal houses took opposite sides in this struggle – Rydderch Hael leading the Christian, and Gwenddolew the Pagan factions. Both appear to have been men of more than ordinary ability, and both are mentioned in the ancient ‘Triads of Arthur and his Warriors,’ Rydderch as one of ‘the three generous ones,’ and Gwenddolew as one of ‘the three bulls of battle’ of the Island of Prydain (Britain). Gwenddolew was also called ‘the father of songs,’ evidently in recognition of his patronage of the bards. With both sides, also, are associated the names of the two representative men of the rival creeds – St. Kentigern with Rydderch Hael, and Merlin with Gwenddolew. 

At last the crisis came, when the Christian and Pagan forces met on the battlefield of Ardderyd in the year 573 A.D. In this fratricidal struggle the Christian army was victorious, and Prince Gwenddolew himself was slain. Rydderch Hael then consolidated the petty Cymric states into his kingdom of Strath Clyde or Cluyd, with Alclyde or Alcluyd (Dunbarton) as his capital, and with Kentigern as primate in the See of Glasgow. Merlin’s, own poems show that he was present at this fatal battle, fighting on the side of his friend Gwenddolew, and that after the battle he fled broken-hearted, if not altogether insane, to the Wood of Celyddon where, if we are to believe his poems, he wandered about for fifty years. Apart from the Merlinian poems, there is an entry in one of the old chronicles – the Annales Cambriae – which connects Merlin with Ardderyd:- 

   Anno 537, Bellum Armterid inter filios Elifer et Guendoleu filium Keidian: in quo bello Guendoleu cecidit: Merlinus insanus effectus est.3

Here not only is the death of Gwenddolew chronicled, thus identifying ‘Armterid’ with Ardderyd, but the sons of the Elifer above referred to are also mentioned in Merlin’s poems as ‘seven heroes,’ and as having been present at Ardderyd. As to the site of this battle, there is a curious chapter in the old Latin edition of the Scotichronicon,4 which gives an account of a meeting between Kentigern and Merlin. Here Merlin is said to explain his connection with the battle of Ardderyd, quod erat in campo inter Lidel et Carvanolow situato.’ Carvanolow, now corrupted into Carwhinelow, is simply the Latinized form of Caer-Gwenddolew, the city of Gwenddolew, and not far from the Liddel and Carwhinelow streams is the Ardderyd of the poems, now called Arthuret. The battle was fought therefore near Carlisle close on the Borders. 

The Cymri never forgot Ardderyd. It was a tale of dule and sorrow, thoroughly in keeping with that fatality which has ever since haunted their history. Only in the realm of fiction could the fallen Cymri rise superior to all their misforfortunes, and with the mythic Arthur conquer the world. The picture of Merlin, as described in the Cymric poems translated in Mr. Skene’s work,5 is a grand and gloomy one. There is first the battle-front of Ardderyd, with Merlin fighting side by side with Gwenddolew, ‘the bull of battle.’ The bard himself wears his golden torques,6 indicative of his high rank. Then when all is over and the field of battle is left to ‘the ravens screaming over the blood’ of the slain, there is the retreat across the wilds of Liddesdale into the recesses of the Wood of Celyddon, and to that part of the ancient forest which still bears a name hallowed by sorrow – the Ettrick Forest.7 His companions, the remnant of the Pagan army, ‘after suffering disease and longing grief about the woods of Celyddon,’ preceded him one by one into their mysterious Druidland, there to appear before ‘the Sovereign of splendid retinues,’ or, as Merlin elsewhere puts it, 

‘Seven score generous ones have gone to the shades, 

In the wood of Celyddon they came to their end.’8

How touching is the plaint of the last of the Druids, 

‘Thin is my covering, for me there is no repose; 

Since the battle of Ardderyd it will not concern me 

Though the sky were to fall, and sea to overflow.’ 

And then in the Avallenau, that poem addressed to his apple tree, he tells how with his shield on his shoulder and his sword on his thigh he sleeps all alone in the woods of Celyddon; how he is hated by Rydderch and his lords, who are ‘offended at his creed;’ how, in the days of his glory, he had wealth in abundance, and entertained minstrels; how, he is afraid that even his twin-sister, Gwendydd, or the Dawn, loves him no longer. There is also a vague reference to a still more mysterious loved one, ‘a fair sportive maid, a paragon of slender form,’ who is afterwards to blossom into the Vivien of romance. His sister Gwendydd had evidently been for a time his only solace. She was his Gwendydd, ‘Gwendydd, the delicately fair,’ Gwendydd, ‘the idol of princes,’ ‘the refuge of songs;’ and he was to her,- 

‘My far-famed twin-brother, 

The intrepid in battle, 

The fosterer of song among the streams.’ 

(How appropriate a title for the first of the Border singers!) 

In a poem which is written in the form of a dialogue between Merlin and Gwendydd, Merlin issues that series of prophecies which Geoffrey of Monmouth afterwards made use of in writing the prophecies of his Merlin Ambrose. In this poem, too, there are touches here and there of human interest, revelations of the inner soul of Merlin himself. This subjectiveness is characteristic of the Merlinian as compared with the other Cymric poems in Mr. Skene’s book. When Gwendydd asks who shall come after Rydderch Hael, we can read, as it were, in Merlin’s reply the thoughts running through the bard’s mind, thoughts of unhappy Ardderyd; and again, when he gently upbraids his sister, his words are evidently intended as much for himself as for her:- 

‘Gwendydd, be not dissatisfied, 

Has not the burden been consigned to the earth? 

Every one must give up what he loves.’ 

Villemarqué, I observe, seeks to explain away Gwendydd’s personality, ‘qu’en réalité sa mystérieuse interlocutrice n’est autre que la muse bardique;’ but there seems to be no necessity for thus robbing the story of her gentle presence, and in the Scotichronicon we have curious indirect evidence in her favour. A comparison of the English and Cymric versions of the poem shews that wherever twin-brother occurs in the one, the Cymric word Llallogan appears in the other. Merlin would therefore often be addressed as Llallogan, and accordingly in the Latin Scotichronicon, a Scottish source totally independent of and unconnected with the Cymric poems, we find Merlin described as ‘eum, qui vulgo Lailoken vocabatur.’ Gwendydd’s pet name for her brother had thus become associated with Merlin long after its original meaning had ceased to be intelligible to the monkish chronicler. 

When we come to treat of the personality of Merlin’s mysterious early love we tread upon less firm ground. That she was originally distinct from Gwendydd is proved by the fact that Merlin speaks of her to his sister. In one version of the Avallenau she is spoken of as ‘the lovely nymph with pearly teeth,’ who guarded Merlin’s apple-trees, and Villemarqué, always picturesque, calls the maid Splendeur, “qui, lorsqu’elle sourit, découvre une rangée de perles tout à fait dignes de son nom.’ In the Cymric poems she is variously called Hwimleian, Huimleian, Chwipleia, Chwibleian, and Chwivleian, in which different forms it is not difficult to trace such French romance forms as Nimiane, Nimainne, Viviane, Vivienne, etc. In Mr. Skene’s work the words are translated Sybil, as best suiting her character. The whole subject of Vivien is an interesting study which would require a paper to itself, since it is from the blending of the two characters, Gwendydd and the Sybil, that we get the Vivien of romance. As the general reader is unfortunately apt to form his or her opinion of this, the great Delilah of romance, from Tennyson’s powerful delineation, 1 can only remark in passing that in the early stages of the Merlin romances she is far from being what Tennyson describes her, the nameless waif subtle as the serpent of Eden. 

To return to Merlin himself, we have no direct evidence as to the exact date of his death. Hollinshead merely states that he flourished about the year 570, thus corroborating at least the date of the turning-point of Merlin’s life, the battle of Ardderyd (573). A Brevis Cronica attached to an old copy of Wyntoun’s chronicle gives under date 605, ‘about this tyme Merlyng the prophet of Brettane deceissit with greit pennance’; and the Scotichronicon states that ‘Merlin and S. Kentigern died in one and the same year,’ which, according to the Annales Cambria, would be 612. The implied date of the Avallenau, as we have seen, would bring him down to 623 A.D. 

Sometime, therefore, during the first quarter of the 7th century may safely be considered as the period of Merlin’s death. 

As to the manner of his death, we have again to fall back upon the Scotichronicon. It tells the tragic end to a tragic life. By the banks of upper Tweed at Drummelzier, or Dunmeller9 as it was anciently called, Merlin was attacked by the shepherds of Meldred, a princeling of the district, and stoned and beaten to death. His body was then flung into the stream upon a sharp stake, on which it lay impaled. Villemarqué’s short but graceful comment on this account is well worth quoting:- 

   ‘Depuis l’antique Orphée jusqu’à l’Orphée celtique, oombien d’autres sont morts de même! C’est la lutte éternelle de la force brutale contre l’intelligence, douce et sublime inspirée du ciel, dont le royaume n’est pas de ce monde.’ 

The French savant has here given the true key-note from which to estimate Merlin’s place in history and romance. He was the personification of intellectual force at a time when might was right. Nor did Merlin despise bodily strength. We know how proud he was of his golden torques glistening in the battlefield, of his sword and his shield, and if he wept over his apple tree by the river side, as the brave Abderahman I. of Spain did over his palm tree, he could also send through the Wood of Celyddon that trumpet-blast of prophecy which ever since has kept ringing in the ears of the expectant Cymri, of the time when- 

‘The Cymry will be victorious, glorious will be their leader, 

All shall have their rights, and the Brython will rejoice, 

Sounding the horns of gladness, and chanting the song of peace and happiness.’ 

During the sad gloomy years that closed his life, extended as it was far beyond the era to which he properly belonged, his position was unique. Hated by the Christian Cymri at the Court of Rydderch, whom possibly he had at one time treated with proud disdain as traitors and apostates, feared by the peasantry who looked upon the aged seer as one in league with the devil, as one who clung to some old-world paganism, the creed of the devil, no wonder he cried from his inmost soul- 

‘Death takes all away, why does he not visit me?’ 

No wonder people thought he was insane, he was so far above them in intellect, they could not be expected to understand him then. They did when it was too late. The old nature-worshipper at that time stood alone. Had he not seen what no eye had seen, to quote Professor Veitch’s fine lines- 

‘Weird sights not utterable in mortal words, 

Strange forms o’ morn, shapes in the weather-gleam 

That silent move and pass along the rim, 

Clear set, of the dim world that engirds the hills.’10

We find in the old Merlinian poems, an intimacy with and a reverence for nature which could only come from a deification of nature. We can well imagine that to Merlin Christianity was not a gospel of peace. It was already associated with fratricidal struggle, it was the origin of all his woes, and to him peace was associated only with- 

‘The silence that is in the starry sky, 

The sleep that is among the lonely hills.’ 

The Avallenau was addressed to neither friend nor patron, not even to Gwendydd, but to his ‘Sweet apple-tree which grew by the river-side.’ In his poems ‘tis not always the hum of men that you hear. ‘Tis ‘the voice of waterbirds whose scream is tumultuous, the lowing together of cattle about the ford.’ 

We now come to consider how our Merlinus Caledonius, 

‘Magnified by the purple mist 

The dusk of centuries and of song.’ 

became the great Merlin of tradition and romance. 

As time wore on the unremitting attacks from Scots and Saxons began to tell on the little Cymric kingdom of Strathclyde. For a time Stirling was the common march of the three races, and Hollinshead tells us that on the old Stirling bridge the following couplet was carved:- 

‘I am free march as passengers maie ken, 

To Scots to Britains and to Englishmen.’ 

But in 756 Rydderch’s capital of Alclyde11 fell into the hands of the Scots, then Cumberland and Westmorland were lost, and at last in 870 the final exodus took place, when in the words of Hollinshead, the Cymri ‘departed into North Wales, where they placed themselves in the country between Conway and the river Dee, out of which they expelled the Englishmen (that were in possession thereof) and therewith they erected a kingdom there which they named Stradcluid, maintaining wars against the English manie years after.’ (Reprint of 1805, Vol. I., p. 278).12

As in the case of the English Cymri who were unable to reach Wales or Brittany, many of the Scottish Cymri remained to become eventually part of the Scottish Border stock. For a long time, however, they were known and described by their Scottish and Saxon contemporaries as the Wealas, Stratclud Wealas or Walenses

The great body of the Cymri, however, must have gone southwards to North Wales, and it was natural that they should carry with them their traditions, their songs of the bards in which were preserved their nation’s hopes and fears. It was their Arthur who had won the twelve battles. It was their Merlin who had prophesied a happier time in the future. 

‘A mystery to the world, the grave of Arthur,’ 

says an old Cymric poem, and deep down in the national heart there slumbered the hope that the mystery had some connection with their king’s final triumph. Arthur therefore was their great king and Merlin was his prophet, and although this connection between king and prophet existed only in romance, there was really only an interval of thirty-one years between Arthur’s last battle and Merlin’s, between Camlan and Ardderyd. It was natural, too, that the names should be finally localised in Wales, and by the twelfth century both the Welsh localisation and nationalisation of the Merlin myth was fully established. The close of the eleventh century had been a brilliant era in Welsh history and literature. For the first time for nearly a hundred years Welsh princes sat on the thrones of North and South Wales, and during that period Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Historia Britonum. From the date of that epoch-making book an almost impenetrable veil of mystery gathered around the true history of Celtic Britain. But for Geoffrey’s pseudo-history we might have had a less ample but purer stream of true history. On the other hand it is to Geoffrey also that we are indebted for the rich flood of Arthurian romance which in the Middle Ages deluged the literature of Europe. 

Now, Geoffrey’s Historia is so intimately connected with the development of the Merlin myth that it requires some little attention, and the first thing that strikes the reader in this connection is that Merlin is no longer Merlin, the prophet of Celyddon, but Merlin Ambrose, the prophet of Caermarthen. In order to ascertain how this difference arose, we must examine the materials on which Geoffrey founded his wonderful romance-history. We learn from such earlier works as Gildas (560 A.D.), and Nennius (circa, 738), of the deeds of one Ambrosius Aurelianus, or Aurelius Ambrose, as he is also called. When Vortigern, in 449, took the fatal step of seeking aid from the Saxons in order to keep the Picts and Scots at bay, he found that this alliance was opposed by a Roman-British party under Ambrosius Aurelianus. This latter faction belonged, as the name of their leader indicates, to the class of Britons who had thriven under Roman rule, who had even given Emperors to Rome itself, and who were alarmed at this dangerous alliance with their traditional enemy. After a long civil war the Saxon party was defeated, and the Roman party made Ambrosius Guledig, a Cymric title which corresponded very much to the Dux Britanniarum of the Romans. He was even more literally the successor of the Roman Comes Littoris Saxonici, for the wars of Ambrosius were more particularly connected with the defence of the Saxon shore, whilst his successor as Guledig, Arthur, was more or less connected with the defence of the northern walls. 

The name of Ambrosius, ‘the great king among the Kings of Britain,’ as Nennius calls him, naturally lent itself readily to the myth-forming element, and so an account of what may originally have been simply the first meeting between Vortigern and his future rival, Ambrosius, is embellished with stories of buried dragons and enchantments. In this old legend of Nennius we find the germ of the Merlin Ambrose myth. It is the story of Vortigern’s futile attempt to build a tower of refuge amid the mountain recesses of Snowdon, of the strange upheavals of the site, and a strange disappearance of the building materials. Then follows the wise men’s gruesome counter-charm. The site must be sprinkled with the blood of a child born without a father. In the end a child is brought who tells Vortigern that the convulsions are due to the struggle of two buried dragons. The boy-wizard proceeds to warn the King against continuing to build on the site, and explains the significance and bearing of the incident on the future fortunes of the country. 

   ‘ “What is your name?” asked the King. “I am called Ambrose” (in British Embresguletic), returned the boy; and, in answer to the King’s question, “What is your origin?” he replied, “a Roman consul was my father.” Then the King assigned him that city, with all the western provinces of Britain.’13

It is curious that the supernatural part of this story agrees exactly with the legend of the bard Taliesin. He, too, was born without a father, and, whilst yet a child, cast a spell over the bards of Maelgwn, as young Ambrose confounded the wise men of Vortigern. Both also uttered words of warning to the kings before whom they stood. 

The part of the story, quoted in full, leaves no doubt that it refers to Ambrosius Aurelianus. Dr. Guest, in his Origenes Celticae, puts the date of Vortigern’s accession down at 447, and that of his successor, Ambrosius, at 463, so that the latter could easily have been still a youth in the early days of Vortigern’s reign. The boy is even called in the above passage Embresguletic, that is, Emrys or Ambrosius the Guledig. The next statement, that his father was a Roman Consul, is corroborated by the account of Ambrosius given in Gildas, where it is said that his parents (ancestors) were adorned with the purple.14 The grant of ‘all the western provinces of Britain’ further favours the supposition that, denuded of its supernatural embellishments, this was merely a meeting between two rival princes; and, lastly, the site of this dragon-haunted castle is still known as Dinas Emrys, the Fort of Ambrosius, not of Merlin

In the face of all this, when Geoffrey of Monmouth comes to tell this story of Nennius in his Historia, he takes the momentous step of describing the boy, not as Ambrose, but as ‘Merlin who was called Ambrose,’ and henceforth Merlin Ambrose. According to Nennius the boy was found at Gleti in Monmouthshire. Geoffrey relates how he was found at the gate of ‘a city called afterwards Kaermerdin.’ Now Kaermerdin, or Caermarthen, is simply the Roman Maridunum contracted to ‘Merdin,’ and the Cymric Caer, a town, prefixed to it; but by the magic touch of Geoffrey’s wand, Caermarthen becomes no longer the town of Maridunum, but the town of Merdin, Myrddyn, or Merlin.15 (The Breton form would be still more exact, for Merlin is there called Marthen.) 

As may well be supposed, this was not Geoffrey’s only fabrication. His story of Stonehenge, and his ingenious linking of the historical Ambrosius and Arthur, by making them brother and son respectively of his fabulous Uther Pendragon, are farther examples. 

Geoffrey of Monmouth thus proved, long before Shakespeare’s time, that there was something in a name after all, and as his Historia penetrated into lands where the ancient Cymric tongue was unknown, his legend of Merlin Ambrose quickly spread at a time when court, camp, and grove alike hungered for stories in romance. 

From the Merlin Ambrose of Geoffrey of Monmouth it is an easy transition to the Merlin of Romance. The striking features of the histories of the Scottish and Welsh Merlins are seized upon and moulded to suit the spirit of the time, the spirit of mediævalism. It would be interesting to study this development in detail, but here I can only indicate its leading features. 

In the romaunts Geoffrey’s story of the child born without a father is most wondrously developed. We saw that he had copied his story from Nennius, who possibly caught up some tradition regarding Taliesin, and which again may have had its origin far back amid the druidical beliefs of the spirits of the air holding communion with the sons and daughters of men. This, indeed, was a popular superstition all through the middle ages, and many were the wonderful stories told of such incubi and their supernatural offspring.16 In Merlin’s case the fiction was made the groundwork of a great allegorical romance. Even as Christ was both ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man,’ born of a Virgin, so Christ’s victory over Satan could only be nullified by the birth of a being who was both son of the Devil and born of a virgin. Such was the high keynote on which the mediæval Romance of Merlin was pitched, and the opening chapters describe how Satan’s scheme for thus ruining mankind was attempted, and how signally it failed. The child Merlin who was to be his agent was born, but all Satan’s efforts were counteracted by the spotless purity of Merlin’s mother. Merlin endowed with the wiles of the Devil his father thus turns these very powers into factors for good instead of evil.17 Merlin is thus made the personification of a second victory of Christ over Satan, and the reader is prepared for the further development of Merlin’s character from that of a pagan prophet to that of the adviser and friend of the typical Christian King Arthur. The Merlin of romance becomes the prophet-founder of the Round Table and the originator of that most sacred of all quests, the search for the Holy Grail. He is at the same time the genius of the battlefield. Amidst the Lancelots and Gawaines of the bravest and most chivalrous court in Europe, Merlin’s golden dragon was ever in the front of the battle. ‘And Merlin wente from o bateile to another and satte upon a courser, and cried lowde, “Now lete se now gentill knyghtes, now is come the day and the houre that youre prowesse shall be shewed.” And when the king and princes heard Merlin’s voice they constrained to do their utmost.’18 Have we not here the Merlin of Ardderyd, proud of his golden torques, glistening in the battlefield? 

Wisest of counsellors, bravest of warriors, Merlin was also the truest of lovers. The vague reference in the Cymric poems to Merlin’s apple-trees and to the nymph with the pearly teeth who guarded them is developed into one of the most charming episodes in the whole romance, namely his courtship of Nimiane in the enchanted orchard. Merlin’s story, however, is a tragedy, and in the pretty scene in the orchard, although the fairy knights, squires, maidens, and jongleurs come tripping in to the sound of timbrels and tabors, and singing as they come, the burden of their song is ever, ‘Vraiement comencent amours en ioye, et fynissent en dolours.’ Here was the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand appearing on the horizon even on the happy morning when Merlin poured forth his first love plaint to Nimiane. Over and over again in the romance when Merlin speaks it is with the quiet mournful dignity of the Merlin of Tweed, the prophet of the Cymri. 

In the last scene of all when Nimiane or Vivien, like another Delilah, learned the fatal secret of Merlin’s power, they ‘fond a bussh that was feire and high of white hawthorne full of floures, and ther they satte in the shadowe.’ 

‘Then, in one moment, she put forth the charm 

Of woven paces and of waving hands,’ 

and Merlin lay enchanted for ever. 

At Drummelzier, in Peebleshire, where the Powsail burn flows into Tweed, a thorn still blossoms in the spring over the traditional grave of the Scottish Merlin, and there, we too can sit in the shadow. Looking upwards and around from that old thorn by the river Tweed to the green rounded hills of the Borderland, we see a deeper meaning in Merlin’s own words- 

‘Are not the buds of thorns 

Very green, the mountain beautiful, and beautiful the earth?’ 

In Scottish literature, no doubt, his name has been almost entirely associated with his prophetic character. His prophecies linked with those of Thomas the Rhymer were in the old days household words to generations of Scotchmen, whilst his personality was lost in that final exodus of the Cymri from Scotland to Wales. Saxon historians necessarily knew little of the ancient British prince, prophet, and bard, but local tradition has preserved for thirteen centuries the memory of his last resting-place. 

ARTHUR GRANT.  

 

1  See Villemarqué’s Myrdhinn ou L’enchanteur Merlin, son histoire, ses œuvres, son influence
2  See Les Celtes, la Gaule Celtique. Paris, 1879. 
3  Cit. Skene, Villemarqué, Bishop Forbes’s Life of St. Kentigern. 
4  ‘Fordun’s Scotichronicon, with Bower’s continuation’ – Goodall’s Edition, Edinburgi; Roberti Flamini, 1759; Lib. III., Cap. xxxi., entitled, De Mirabili poenitentia Merlini Vatis
5  See particularly the poem called the Avallenau, or the Apple Trees, attributed to Merlin and translated in The Four Ancient Books of Wales, Vol. I., page 370. 
6  Necklace or bracelets of gold worn as a distinguishing mark of eminence among the ancient Cymri, referred to in Strabo, Camden. 
7  The following quotation from Hollinshead shews that the Wood of Celyddon was particularly associated with Merlin’s country of Upper Tweed:- ‘The water of Clide divideth Lennox on the north side, from the baronie of Renfrew, and it ariseth out of the same hill in Calidon-wood, from whence the Annand falleth.’ Vol. I., Cap iv. 
8  Villemarqué supposes that this is rather an allusion to the warriors who fell in Arthur’s battle in Celyddon. 
9  Ultra oram Tuedae fluminis praeruptam, prope oppidum Dunmeller, – so runs the Chronicle. 
10  From Merlin and other Poems (Blackwood) 1889. In Prof. Veitch’s Merlin we have what might be called the poetical first-fruits of the new heresy in the treatment of Arthurian tradition, the first poetical recognition of our Scottish Merlin, if you except Leyden’s references to him in his ‘Scenes of Infancy.’ 
11  The early Cymric connection with Alclyde is still shewn in its present name of Dunbarton – Dun Bretton – the fort or castle of the Britains. 
12  Mr. Skene quotes an entry from the Brut y Tywysogion to the same effect. 
13  Giles’s Nennius, p. 24, ed. 1841. 
14  It has been conjectured that Ambrosius was descended from Constantine the Usurper, whose career is given in Gibbon’s Roman Empire, ch. xxx. 
15  It is curious that Spenser in his Faerie Queene should refer to this very change from Maridunum to Caermarthen,- 
‘To Maridunum, that is now by chaunge 
Of name Cayr-Merdin cald, they tooke their way: 
There the wise Merlin whylome wont (they say) 
                                               To make his wonne’ (abode). — Bk. III., c. iii., st. vii. 
16  See Hector Boethius, quoted by Hollinshead; Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Part III., Section ii.; Luther’s Colloquia Mensalia, etc. 
17  It was this very connection between Merlin and the Devil which afterwards brought these romances into disrepute, when master-minds like Rabelais and Cervantes turned the extravagancies of chivalry into ridicule. An example from Cervantes is the burlesque poem on Merlin in Don Quixote, beginning:- 
‘Yo soy Merlin, aquel que las historias 
Dicen que tuve por mi padre al diablo.’ 
(I am Merlin, of whom the histories tell  
That I had the Devil for my father.) 
                                       Don Quijote, Pt. II., cap. xxxv. 
18  See Early English Text Society’s beautiful reprint of the Romance of Merlin, fifteenth century.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s