BOOK REVIEW: SCOTLAND’S MERLIN

Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins, by Tim Clarkson Edinburgh: John Donald, 2016. I find this book a useful resource. Author Tim Clarkson says of Merlin that, “like King Arthur and Robin Hood, he is both familiar and mysterious – an enigmatic figure who seems to stand on the shadowy frontier between history and myth”. Clarkson is firmly on the historical side of that frontier, working clearly and accessibly through the early literature as he quests for the source of the legend. Some of it is a proto-Merlin literature in which the central figure bears other names: Lailoken for the wild man of the Caledonian woods; Emrys for the young prophet of Snowdonia. Myrddin Wyllt is the name given in a group of early Welsh poems to the Scottish Lailoken, and Geoffrey of Monmouth goes on to create the medieval Merlin out of these and other disparate sources. Clarkson provides extensive extracts from the literature, showing how the Merlin of Arthurian literary legend was able to emerge.

Clarkson’s main interest is in the Merlin who, traumatised by his experience of the Battle of Arfderydd, flees to the forest. The battle was an historical event, was fought in C. E. 573 and is well covered by Clarkson, who earned his PhD with a study of warfare in early historic (i.e ‘dark age’) northern Britain. Historically, there is real difficulty in knowing who was fighting against whom, and what their motivations were. In a Scottish hagiography of St. Kentigern, Lailoken is simply a veteran of the battle. Its context is not discussed, and little is said about Lailoken himself, beyond describing his broken wildness. He has occasional encounters with St. Kentigern, who eventually blesses him. Shortly after this he suffers a threefold death, as he himself had prophesied, by falling down the banks of the Tweed onto a sharp stake with his head bent into the water. Everyone praises St. Kentigern for enabling Lailoken’s salvation by blessing him in time.

By contrast, Geoffrey’s Merlin (1) recovers, and he becomes a contemplative forest hermit together with his sister Ganieda. His madness has been a journey, not just a torment. A threefold death is prophesied by Merlin, and occurs. But it is not his own death. Instead, Merlin gets a new lease of life revolving around summers in the woods and winters in an observatory that has been built for him. He is able to have erudite and wide-ranging conversations with his visitor Taliesin, presented as a colleague and peer. But the setting is the same, a specific landscape in south west Scotland, where early British place names are still found – Loch Mabon, the River Nith and Caer Laverock (on Solway Firth at the mouth of the Nith) being three of them, with two ancient god forms thereby remembered. For me, the written records are a demonstration of how culture, and cultural agendas, change over time. Fragments of stories are pressed into the service of new cultural imperatives. The deeper past keeps its secrets, even whilst new understandings are crafted around its after-image.

There is no sense here of the what R. J. Stewart calls the Mystery of Merlin (2) – no suggestion of a local connection with the youthful prophet, though local Mabon names point to one. The Romano-Celtic world (including this region, immediately north of the wall) had Apollo Maponus as a significant deity. Clarkson is good at orienting readers to the general culture of early historic Scotland, and relating his Merlin story to a specific local landscape – with a good selection of maps and plates. He explains that, in the context of the sixth century, ‘Britain’ names an island without any political connotations. The terms ‘British’ or ‘Britons’ describe the native Celtic people who once inhabited the whole island. The story is set in what later Welsh literature described as Hen Ogledd (The Old North), which Clarkson takes to be southern Scotland below the Forth Clyde isthmus, “together with some adjacent parts of what is now England”. He notes that, by 800 C.E., on the eve of the Viking invasions, the British ruled in only three areas: Cornwall, Wales and the Valley of the Clyde.

Clarkson is the author of The Men of the North (4) and The Picts (5) which between them cover much of Scotland in the early historic period. He believes that a kernel of the Merlin/Lailoken story – about battle trauma and flight to the woods – is about an historic individual who took part. He also acknowledges that the story may preserve a memory of early shamanic practices in the locality. Merlin lives on in many different ways.

(1) Mark Walker Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation Stroud: Amberley, 2011

(2) R. J Stewart The Way of Merlin: the Prophet, the Goddess and the Land London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

(3) Tim Clarkson The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2010

(4) Tim Clarkson The Picts: A History Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2012