Merlin is a significant figure in the Arthurian legends. He is a magician who serves as an advisor at the court of Uther Pendragon and that of his son, King Arthur.
It is certainly worth asking, was such a significant legendary figure actually real? Or is he completely fictional?
In this article, you will learn:
- How many Merlins the legends speak of
- What theories there are about Merlin
- Which historical figures Merlin might be connected to
How many Merlins were there?
To establish whether Merlin was real or not, we first need to examine the question of how many figures named Merlin actually appear in the legends.
The answer is that there appear to be two distinct Merlins in the Arthurian legends – at least, in the earliest versions.
The Earlier Merlin
The earlier Merlin could also be called the ‘fifth century Merlin’. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, written in 1137, he is a boy or young man early in the reign of Vortigern. He is called Merlinus Ambrosius.
Since Vortigern’s reign began in 425 (as per the earliest information available, from the ninth century Historia Brittonum) Merlinus Ambrosius must have been born at some point in the first half of the fifth century.
Little is heard of Merlin until the time in which Aurelius Ambrosius (the historical Ambrosius Aurelianus) defeated Vortigern and became king of Britain. He thenceforth acted as an advisor to Ambrosius, and then continued to serve as an advisor in the reign of Uther, the following king.
This Merlin is not mentioned again after the reign of Uther, indicating that he died at some point before Uther’s reign came to an end.
Exactly when Uther is supposed to have ruled is unclear, but Bede places the campaigns of his predecessor, Ambrosius, in about the 480s. So Uther’s rule can be presumed to have started in approximately 500 and continued for an unknown length beyond that.
Putting all this information together, we can see that Merlinus Ambrosius must have been born in the first half of the fifth century and must have died soon after the beginning of the sixth century.
The Later Merlin
In a slightly later work by Geoffrey of Monmouth, called the Vita Merlini, we find a very different Merlin. This Merlin could be called the ‘sixth century Merlin’.
The Vita Merlini explains that Merlin was a king of south Wales. He was the brother in law of Rhydderch Hael, a historical king of Alt Clut in Scotland in the late sixth to early seventh century.
Immediately, we can see that this Merlin was active in the latter half of the sixth century, long after the Merlin described in the Historia Regum Britanniae.
This Merlin is said to have been active in the time of King Arthur, for he was one of the men who helped take Arthur to the Isle of Avalon when he was mortally wounded after his final battle.
This would require Arthur to have died some way into the latter half of the sixth century. This is inconsistent with the normal chronology given to Arthur in modern sources, but it is consistent with most of the information found in the Historia Regum Britanniae, which regularly makes Arthur a contemporary of mid- to late-sixth century figures.
Merlin became involved in a battle between several northern kings. During this battle, four of Merlin’s brothers were killed, which drove him to madness. He fled into the Caledonian Forest and began living there as a madman.
For this reason, this later Merlin is often called ‘Merlinus Sylvestris’ (‘sylvestris’ meaning ‘of the woods’) and ‘Merlinus Caledonensis’.
Was Geoffrey Just Confused?
It is widely claimed that Geoffrey of Monmouth did not intend to present two distinct Merlins in his writings. This is evidently correct, because in the Vita Merlini, Merlin refers to himself as doing things which were done by the Merlin of the Historia Regum Britanniae.
However, it is also claimed that Geoffrey did not have much information about Merlin when he wrote his first work, leading him to misplace him chronologically, making him a contemporary of Vortigern and Amborsius in the fifth century.
Supposedly, it was only later that Geoffrey learned about Merlin actually being a sixth century figure, which is why he then presented him as a contemporary of Rhydderch Hael in Vita Merlini.
This claim, however, is incorrect. Although Merlin does not actually appear in the Historia Regum Britanniae any later than the reign of Uther, there is a reference right at the end of the book to him having given prophesies to King Arthur.
Therefore, it is evident that Geoffrey already had in mind that Merlin was a sixth century figure, a contemporary of Arthur, when he wrote the Historia Regum Britanniae.
This means that him making Merlin a contemporary of Vortigern, who lived long before Arthur, was not a case of Geoffrey misplacing him chronologically because he had no idea when Merlin lived. Rather, it must have been intentional.
Where Geoffrey evidently did get confused, however, was in making the fifth century Merlin the same person as the sixth century Merlin.
Identifying the Fifth Century Merlin
Identifying the fifth century Merlin is not very difficult. The first story in which he appears in the Historia Regum Britanniae establishes with certainty who he was.
Geoffrey relates a story about how King Vortigern was trying to build a castle, but it kept on collapsing every night. His counsellors told him that they need to sacrifice a fatherless boy to ensure that the project is completed.
The boy who ends up being picked is Merlin. But before he can be sacrificed, he uses his powers of prophecy to show his superiority over the king’s counsellors, thus saving his own life. His name is revealed to be Merlinus Ambrosius.
The exact same story is also found in the Historia Brittonum. In this story, the child in question is not called Merlinus, but he is called Ambrosius.
There is every reason to believe that this is supposed to be the same Ambrosius who appears elsewhere in the Historia Brittonum as the war leader and high king of the Britons who campaigned against the Saxons – the Ambrosius Aurelianus mentioned by Gildas.
The Historia Brittonum even says that the child was known by the name ‘Embres Guletic’, which is the same name given to Ambrosius Aurelianus in Welsh literature.
Therefore, the evidence clearly shows that the ‘Merlinus Ambrosius’ who features in the Historia Regum Britanniae is simply a distorted version of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the historical leader of the Britons in the fifth century.
However, Geoffrey confused things by mistakenly making this Ambrosius a different person to the war leader by that name.
The fact that later Arthurian romance tales preserve traditions of Merlin growing up in Brittany is also consistent with him having originally been the same person as Ambrosius Aurelianus, since the same claim was made about him in the Arthurian legends.
An Alternative Theory About the Fifth Century Merlin
There is an alternative theory about the identity of the fifth century Merlin. This theory was put forward by Norma Lorre Goodrich, a professor who was active mainly in the 20th century.
This theory is based on a chronology of fifth century Britain that is supported by some evidence, although arguably not the earliest or best.
According to this chronology, Vortigern started his reign in the 440s rather than the 420s. This would mean that Merlin, a child near the beginning of Vortigern’s reign, would have been born close to the middle of the fifth century.
This would place his birth more or less at the same time as the birth of Dubricius, a famous and significant religious figure who was active in south Wales. His birth is usually placed in c. 465.
In the Historia Regum Britanniae, it is said that Merlin was born from the union between a human princess and a spirit (hence why he is a ‘fatherless boy’).
Goodrich associated this story with an account about the birth of Dubricius. He was said to be the illegitimate son of a woman named Efrddyl, the daughter of King Pepiau.
Goodrich considered the connection between Dubricius being illegitimate and Merlin having been a fatherless boy to be a significant similarity.
Furthermore, the infant Dubricius was said to have been able to perform miracles, which fits with the miraculous nature of Merlin in Geoffrey’s account.
Goodrich also used as evidence the fact that Merlin disappears from Geoffrey’s account almost as soon as Dubricius is introduced, perceiving this as evidence that they were the same person.
Problems With the Dubricius Theory
The major problem with the theory that Dubricius (who really was a historical figure) was the historical Merlin is that all the supposed connections are weak.
- While both Dubricius and Merlin were ‘fatherless’ in a sense, plenty of figures from the fifth and sixth centuries are recorded as being illegitimate.
- While both Dubricius and Merlin were recorded as performing miracles, the same applies to countless other fifth and sixth century figures. Almost every Life of a saint from that era speaks of miracles.
- The fact that Merlin disappears from Geoffrey’s account at about the same time as Dubricius is introduced and takes over as Arthur’s apparent leading religious figure is easily explained by Dubricius being the younger of the two. Merlin is portrayed as young early in the reign of Vortigern, so by the time he disappears in Geoffrey’s account, he must have been nearing the end of his life, so it is to be expected that he would disappear from the narrative.
In addition to this, Goodrich uses a chronology which conflicts with some of the earliest evidence. The fifth century Gallic Chronicle of 452 informs us that the Anglo-Saxon conquest was already at an advanced stage by 441, meaning that Vortigern’s reign must have begun well before then.
Therefore, the earliest evidence does not support placing Merlin’s birth as late as it would need to be to identify him with Dubricius.
Identifying the Sixth Century Merlin
Geoffrey’s account of the sixth century Merlin is broadly corroborated by Welsh poetry and other texts.
The description of Merlin as a madman who lived in the Caledonian Forest in the late sixth century is exactly what the Welsh texts tell us concerning a figure they call Myrddin, or Myrddin Wyllt (‘wyllt’ meaning ‘wild’ in Welsh).
They also associate him with the same battle that Geoffrey associates him with, the Battle of Arderydd, at which four of his brothers were killed. Various other details that Geoffrey relates in the Vita Merlini are found scattered throughout these texts.
It is generally believed that Geoffrey changed the name of Myrddin into ‘Merlinus’ to avoid association with the Latin ‘merda’, a word for excrement.
Although not all the information that Geoffrey provides about Merlin in the Vita Merlini is corroborated or consistent with the information from the Welsh texts, these sources do show that his account is about as accurate as it is for any other given historical figure in his book.
Arguments Against His Historicity
However, the problem is that there is no guarantee that these Welsh texts are historically reliable, since they too were written hundreds of years after the fact.
Since Myrddin was supposed to have been a bard (a type of poet), a certain line from the Historia Brittonum has been used against his historicity. The line in question says:
“At that time, Talhaiarn Cataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.”
The best attested of these are Neirin (Aneirin) and Taliesin, both of whom were mid- to late-sixth century bards. The other figures in this passage must have lived at the same time, although very little is known about them.
This is exactly the time in which Myrddin was supposed to have lived. Therefore, his absence here is conspicuous.
Of course, rather than assuming that this means that Myrddin was not real, this could simply mean that he was not one of the five most famous bards of his time.
After all, there were probably dozens if not hundreds of bards serving throughout Britain, since every king had multiple bards at his court singing his praises. It is perfectly plausible that Myrddin was just not exceptionally famous in his own time.
Connection To Lailoken
In discussions of Myrddin’s historicity, the figure of Lailoken is regularly mentioned. He was a madman who lived in a forest in the north of Britain, mentioned in the 12th century Life of St Kentigern.
His description matches Myrddin, and his name ‘Lailoken’ bears a striking similarity to the name by which Myrddin’s sister calls him in one of the Welsh poems. The name is ‘Llallog’, the diminutive of which would be ‘Llallogan’.
There does seem to be good reason for identifying Myrddin with Lailoken. However, since the earliest Welsh texts mentioning Myrddin actually predate the earliest source mentioning Lailoken, this does very little to establish Myrddin’s historicity.
In summary, we can see that the legendary figure of Merlin was actually composed of two distinct individuals.
The first was Merlinus Ambrosius. In reality, this figure was simply Ambrosius Aurelianus, the historical war leader who led the Britons against the Saxons in the fifth century. Geoffrey accidentally made him a separate character to the war leader in his Historia Regum Britanniae, thus confusing the matter.
The second figure was Myrddin Wyllt, a bard who allegedly served in Arthur’s court, before becoming involved in affairs in the north of Britain and becoming a madman living in a forest after a disastrous battle. His historicity is generally doubted by scholars, but the matter is still far from certain.
Therefore, we can say that Merlin was at least partially, but possibly entirely, historical.