The character of Merlin, or properly in Welsh, Myrddin, has been written about more than
just about any other character in fantasy literature. Some whould have us believe that
Myrddin was a real 6th Century character - some even try to differentiate the characters
of the stories and tell us that there were two Merlins. So what is the truth about
this hero of Celtic legend?
There are six medieval poems that are significant when studying the chatacter of Myrddin. These are:
Ymddidian Myrddin a Thaliesin, Yr Afallennau, Yr Oianau (all from the black book of Carmarthen)
as well as Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei Chwaer,
Gwasgargerdd Fyrddin yn y Bedd and Peirian Faban (all of a later date than the 11th Century black book).
It is likely that the material in all these poems has roots in earlier verse, and we can note that
these poems speak of Myrddin as "The Wild Man of the Woods". The woods in question are Coed Celyddon,
the Caledonian Forest, and at this point we must note that there is a very similar tale of the Wild Man
that survived in Scotland, but in that tale, the Wild man is Lailoken, not Myrddin.
It appears therefore that Myrddin supplanted Lailoken when the Wild Man story was carried to Wales, and
that there was no Wild Man of the Woods truly called Myrddin. But why this transposition?
The most likely answer to this is that Myrddin was a figure derived from the name of the town - Caer Myrddin
(or Caer Fyrddin), modern day Carmarthen. Certainly the town was not named for Myrddin the Wild Man, because
we can see the same root of the town name even in the Roman period, where the town was Maridunum. It is
not possible that the town was named for a sixth century figure, and much more likely that such a figure
was invented for the purposes of explaining the town name, just as Romulus was invented to explain the
naming of Rome.
So much for the Wild man... what of Merlin Ambrosius? Well this legend is based on Nennius' history of
Vortigern, and the prophecy of Ambrosius - but Nennius does not call Ambrosius Merlin or Myrddin. That
name is given to him by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who inventively intertwined the Wild Man of the Woods with
Nennius' Ambrosius, to create the character of Merlin.
So having thrown a bucket of cold water on the histricity of Myrddin, what are we left with?
I would say plenty still. We still have the ancient story of the Wild Man of the Woods, and Nennius'
story of Ambrosius. Neither character was truly called Myrddin, but both legends are compelling, not
least because they derive from a forgotten literary genre - the celtic tales of the middle ages.
Find out More
Find out more about Myrddin by seeing information from the National
Library of Wales about The Black Book of Carmarthen