Early Origins

In early Welsh language poems a character called Myrddin appears in the 6th Century as a forlorn old man blessed with the gift of prophecy.

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Myrddin is described as the bard to Gwenddoleu, the king of the Welsh-speaking territories of southern Scotland and northern England. At the battle of Battle of Arfderydd (believed to be in Cumbria) in 573 AD Gwenddoleu is killed. Driven mad by the carnage of battle, Myrddin flees to the forests of southern Scotland where he develops a reputation for his visions and predictions.

According to medieval sources, Myrddin's mystical powers come to the attention of St Kentigern – also known as St Mungo. The two men are supposed to have met several times with Myrddin detailing his wild prophecies to the baffled saint.

At their last meeting Myrddin tells Kentigern of a premonition of his own death – a triple death no less. Legend has it that Myrddin was later pushed off a cliff, impaled on a stake in the River Tweed and eventually died by drowning.

Myrddin is alleged to have been buried by the Powsail Burn near the town of Drumelzier on the banks of the Tweed. A strange prophecy by Thomas the Rhymer exists about the Myrddin's final resting place that states that should the Powsail and the Tweed meet at Merlin's grave England and Scotland shall have the same monarch.

The prophecy is often understood to be a thinly veiled reference to King Arthur – the fabled ruler of all Britain.

Interestingly the Tweed burst its banks and flooded the Powsail on 24th March 1603 – the exact day that James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England. Stranger still, at his birth James was hailed as "little Arthur" since he had a direct claim to the thrones of both Scotland and England.

Myrddin becomes Merlin

The first recognisable representation of Merlin the wizard appears in 1138 as a creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae .

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The author, of Welsh-Norman descent, changed the name of Myrddin to Merlin because it sounded too similar to the French word for excrement!

It is also through Geoffrey of Monmouth that Merlin becomes associated with the legend of King Arthur and becomes a half-mortal, half-magical being with supernatural powers.

During this transformation Merlin is irrevocably associated with Wales and its rich Celtic history and literature.

Merlin at the court of King Arthur
Merlin depicted at the court of King Arthur (©iStockphoto.com/wynnter)

The next chapters in Merlin's progress from Scots wildman to Welsh sorcerer come from France.

In the 12th Century three medieval French poets, Wace, Robert de Boron and Chrétien de Troye, independently revisited Monmouth's work and added crucial elements to the story.

De Boron elaborated on Merlin's magical powers, Wace added King Arthur's famous round table while de Troye added the romance between Guinevere and Lancelot and also the glorious castle of Camelot.

These French interpretations reflected the sensibilities of their medieval audience and the earthy Celtic paganism of the early myths was forgotten in favour of chivalry, courtly love and dashing knights on brave religious quests.

Merlin the Prisoner

In later centuries the French poems were in turn revisited a number of times – the most notable being the definitive work of Sir Thomas Malory in the 15th Century.

To this day Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur is still regarded as the seminal Arthurian tale. Malory's stirring account also made a prisoner of Merlin in more ways than one. According to Malory Merlin meets his end after being enchanted by Nimue and entombed in stone forevermore.

The enduring appeal of the myths and the talent of those who revised it inadvertently invoked a similar fate for all future Merlins.

The shapeshifting sorcerer had become iconic and unchangeable; he was an ancient magical being in a long robe with wild white hair and beard. His name was Merlin and he was Welsh.

In short he had become the archetype for all future depictions of wizards. It is no accident that famous literary wizards such as Tolkien's Gandalf and JK Rowling's Dumbledore bear such an uncanny resemblance in form and power to Merlin.

Reinvention

A further 19th Century revival of interest in the Arthurian legends by the likes of Tennyson further cemented the major elements of the story and sealed Myrddin's fate.

During the 20th Century a glut of films and works of popular fiction revisited the Arthurian legends and adapted elements for their own purposes.

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In revising the myths for a new generation Merlin travelled far from his Scottish roots but also managed to carve his place in popular imagination around the world. Over a thousand years since he stepped out of the mists of time Merlin is still as powerful a figure as he ever was.

Perhaps in the years to come his story will be revisited again and Merlin will be transformed back to the poor, mad Myrddin of old and be returned to his native Scottish forests.

Even with his fabled gift of prophecy would Myrddin ever dare to predict that?

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