The Grail Code 
The Madness of Merlin

One of the surprises we find when we read Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain is how little of it is occupied with Arthur. We think of the History as the foundation of Arthurian literature, and so it was. But even if we include the story of Merlin and the book of his prophecies, the “Arthurian” material takes up only a quarter of the History.

Other legendary heroes fill up the rest—Old King Cole, Cymbeline, King Lear, and others whose names aren’t so familiar. The heroic Aurelius Ambrosius and the despicable Vortigern take up quite a few pages, and their story is filled with gripping drama. But there was never a genre of romance born from Aurelius; no writers lined up to compose allegorical Aurelian adventures. Only Arthur took off.

Or perhaps we should say only Arthur’s world took off. The character of Merlin was such a success that Geoffrey was persuaded to produce a spin-off called The Life of Merlin. In spite of its sober-sounding title, Merlin is a flight of wild fancy quite unlike the relatively plausible History that spawned it. Geoffrey recognized and intended the difference. He had written the History in prose; he wrote Merlin in verse, the sign of a more frivolous entertainment.

“I set myself to sing of the madness of the bard of prophecy,” he begins, “an entertaining tale of Merlin.” And an entertaining tale is what he gives us, where stirring speeches, songs, mysteries, intrigues, and fascinating facts of natural philosophy are all thrown together with a thin plot to string them along. All the romantic tales of Merlin the wild man of the forest go back to Geoffrey’s Life of Merlin.

But even though it’s a fanciful tale that doesn’t even pretend to be historical, Merlin leaves us with the same question we asked about the History: Did Geoffrey make it all up, or did he adapt some earlier source?

The idea of Merlin’s madness was not Geoffrey’s invention. We’ve already seen the germ of it in the Annals of Wales, which tell us that Merlin went mad after a battle between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddoleu son of Ceidio. (To be strictly accurate, the Annals tell us only that Merlin went mad in that same year; we cannot say with certainty whether as a result of the battle or from unrelated causes.)

Geoffrey’s “entertaining tale” begins with that very battle, so clearly Geoffrey has the same incident in mind. The entry in the Annals must refer to a popular story of Merlin’s madness, and it seems reasonable to suppose that Geoffrey had access to some version of that same story. Having supposed so much, we might as well go on to suppose that Geoffrey’s story probably follows the rough outline of the original tale.

In other words, we can take the entry in the Annals as more evidence that Geoffrey worked from older sources, using his own imagination mostly to embellish the stories and turn them into exciting entertainment for his more sophisticated audience. It certainly isn’t irrefutable evidence, but it adds a little weight to the evidence we’ve already collected.

One Response to “The Madness of Merlin”

  1. Eric Says:

    Thank you, that was fascinating. Yours was the first place I came when searching for The Madness of Merlin.

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(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey