The Grail Code 
The historical Merlin?

While we were looking for the historical Arthur in the Annals of Wales, we ran into another familiar character:

Battle of Armterid between the sons of Elifer and Guendoleu son of Keidiau, in which battle Guendoleu was killed; Merlin was driven mad.

Quite a few people, we’ve discovered, are searching the Web for something about the “historical Merlin.” (The NSA has kindly provided us with your names and addresses, and you’ll be hearing from us shortly.)

We always think of Merlin as a wizard with almost unlimited supernatural powers. But is there a real person behind the legends—some learned Briton, perhaps, whose astute advice to kings and warlords earned him a reputation for a wisdom more than human?

Before we get too far into our search for Merlin, let me confess a few of my prejudices.

I think it’s very likely that there was a real Arthur whose life followed the skeleton outline we came up with a while ago. The historical sources and traditions, meager though they are, all seem to point toward one historically plausible man.

Merlin, on the other hand, is an entirely different sort of character. By the time we hear any details of his life at all, he’s already firmly stuck in the world of myth and legend. The stories that surround Merlin are all so fantastic that it’s hard to imagine them as even distorted memories of historic events.

Except for that one. The entry in the Annals of Wales looks plausibly historical. After a certain battle in which two famous people died, a certain Merlin went mad. People do go mad, and grief following a disastrous battle is just the sort of thing that sets them off.

But we can’t be too quick to accept the madness of Merlin as historical fact. The entry in the Annals is sparse and bare, but other versions of the legend (which we’ll hear soon) give us more details. Merlin went mad and became a wild man of the forest; after some time his sanity was restored. Now, that wild-man story is common in legends all over the world. It also reminds us very much of the story in the book of Daniel, in which Nebuchadnezzar becomes a wild man of the wilderness until his sanity is eventually restored.

We can easily imagine the story of the wild man of the forest attaching itself to some famous figure of legendary history, acquiring a definite date, and getting itself set down as history in the Annals of Wales, even if it was never true.

So if anyone asks me how many real historical facts we know about Merlin, I have to reply in the words of the fellow in the Monty Python sketch: “Nearly one. Call it none.”

Nevertheless, that won’t stop us from chasing Merlin through history for a while. And the first place we’ll look is back in our old friend Nennius, who gives us a marvelous story of a strange little boy whose name isn’t Merlin at all.

10 Responses to “The historical Merlin?”

  1. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Arthur in Green’s History Says:

    [...] The historical Merlin? [...]

  2. Rasor Says:

    History of the Britons by Nennius refers to Ambrosius Aurelius who was a historical figure recorded by other Dark Ages scholars. This was probably who the Merlin legends were based on as many of the events associated with A.A. are, or seem to be, directly related to the more fantastic tales of Merlin.

  3. Vaish Says:

    I think this is funny! HAHAHAH!

  4. Emma Lee Says:

    I think this is sad… :(

  5. Brian Williams Says:

    It really is shamefull that people who consider themselves historins who rely on following Latin and Greek routes to delve into our Arthurian past, have not stopped to consider there are more important local ‘roots’ to our history. Merlin was indeed very real and if one delves properly into the records not the hype he is there to find. Otherwise wait for the book ‘Merlin and Arthur of South and West Wales’

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  9. The Historical Merlin – Part 1 | Children of Divinity Says:

    [...] 2 The Grail Code – The Historical Merlin? – 3 History of the British Kings, Monmouth, Geoffrey – Chapter XIX – [...]

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