Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (1) draws on the legendary history of Wales, Cumbria and South West Scotland. The overall story, written in the middle of the twelfth century, is about wounding and healing in various forms at the level both of the individual and the collective.
My interest here is in the resolution. Four people, somewhat bruised by life and getting on in years, retire to the Caledonian woods. They vow to live a contemplative life – outside in the summer, and in an elaborate ‘observatory’ in the winter, dedicated to star lore. Their leader is Merlin himself, recovering from a period of (still masterful and charismatic) breakdown, precipitated by a war of neighbours between the old British peoples of Cumbria and Strathclyde. This was at a time when both of them had invaders from other language groups (English and Gaelic) to contend with.
The little community’s second member is Merlin’s sister Ganieda, now widowed, previously Queen of Strathclyde – a kingdom ruled from Dumbarton and extending south to the Solway Firth. The third member is the traumatised vagrant Maeldinus, disoriented and damaged by the juice of poisoned (i.e. magical) apples. Last but not least is the Bard Taliesin, often taken as the model for self-realization in British Celtic tradition. He is world weary after the passing of Arthur from the apparent world into The Isle of Apples – Avalon, a Celtic Otherworld – to be healed and cared for by a wholly benign Morgan and her sisters. In the deeper picture Arthur will never die. But it is still it is the end of an era and a time of lengthening shadows for the culture he defended.
Geoffrey of Monmouth became the first Bishop of St. Asaph in North East Wales, though he never visited the diocese. But for literary purposes, he relies on the imagery and world views of both Roman and Celtic paganism. The forest contemplative group is dedicated to the Roman wisdom and owl goddess Minerva (often used as an equivalent to native British goddesses as in Sulis Minerva at Bath, and inscribed on a cliff overlooking the Dee at Chester, the city called Deva/Dea by the Romans). Indeed Ganieda, taking on the mantle of prophecy, in a sense becomes the Minerva of the little community. Describing his reason for joining forces with Merlin, Taliesin says “I have spent enough time living in vain, and now is the time to restore me to myself”, which seems to me to have a subtle tinge of divine self-recollection, thereby synthesising Pagan British and Neo-Platonist understandings of who he is. A recent verse translation (2) goes as far as say “I will have time to discover my true self”. I prefer the older translation, since Taliesin has already made that discovery, much earlier in life (3). What he needs is a place where he can fully connect again, after a life of service in the world. Either way, it’s an untypical view of contemplative spirituality for the place and time in which it was written.
The Vita Merlini is a poem written in Latin hexameters and presented as a literary game. It is an opportunity to display both classical and indigenous wisdom as understood in the twelfth century Renaissance (2). Yet in The Mystic Life of Merlin (4), R. J. Stewart shows how the work has greater potential depths for anyone open to them. His Merlin Tarot (5) images draw on two of Geoffrey’s books, the second being the better known History of the Kings of Britain (6), and on Stewart’s own seership. They are further explored in The Complete Merlin Tarot, (7), and The Miracle Tree (8) and ask for our contemplation as much as divination, having the power to open imaginal doors. Geoffrey’s books themselves introduced Merlin and Morgan to medieval European literature outside the Celtic language sphere and did much to establish Arthur. The imagery of the Vita Merlini evokes a sense of woodland renewal, of groves as healing places, and a restorative ‘Island of Apples’, presided over by a magical Otherworld sisterhood. It offers something to medieval people in Western Europe that was unavailable through the mainstream spirituality of the day. The world that Geoffrey made has been a potent resource ever since.
1: http://www.sacred-texts.com Geoffrey of Monmouth (ca. 1150) Vita Merlini Latin text with English translation by John J. Parry (1925). (Transcribed for Sacred Texts by Graham K. Tallboys.)
2: Walker, Mark (2011) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Life of Merlin’: a new verse translation Chalford: Amberley Publishing
3: Hughes, Kristoffer (2012) From the cauldron born: exploring the magic of Welsh legend and lore Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications
4: Stewart, R. J. (1986) The mystic life of Merlin London: Arkana
5: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The Merlin Tarot London: Element (Illustrated by Miranda Gray. Boxed set with pack of cards, handbook and notebook for users. An earlier edition was published by the Aquarian Press in 1992)
6: Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136) History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966. (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)
7: Stewart, R. J. (1992) The complete Merlin Tarot: images, insight and wisdom from the age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press (Not to be confused with the Merlin Tarot handbook which accompanies the pack, but is sometimes sold separately)
8: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The miracle tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NY: New Page Books