Wizard theory: Merlin was no magician but he made an army vanish

Jonathan Thompson
Sunday 18 July 2004 00:00 BST

Merlin, the most famous fictional wizard of them all, was actually a 6th-century warrior king living in northern England, according to a new biography.

The book, to be published tomorrow, will claim that while King Arthur and Camelot almost certainly never existed, Merlin was a real historical figure - a leader of the Picts who fought off an invading Irish horde almost a century after the accepted "Arthurian" period.

The author, John Matthews, who has spent 30 years researching and writing on the subject, used a number of ancient Celtic poems and cryptic Dark Age sources to uncover the true Merlin, or Myrddin, as he was known.

"In many ways, there is more evidence to support the notion that Merlin was a real character than there is for Arthur," said Mr Matthews. "The sources and references go back much further, as do the place names."

The publication of Merlin: Shaman, Prophet, Magician coincides with Hollywood's latest addition to the canon, the movie King Arthur, which opens next week starring Clive Owen as the king. It controversially insists that the great British - probably Cornish - leader was actually of Roman origin.

Mr Matthews, who acted as historical adviser on the movie, now believes Merlin, a significant tribal leader, fought at the historic Battle of Arderydd in 573 - a bloody fight between the native people of Y Gogledd, or the "old North" of Britain, and an invading Irish army.

"The sources tell us of this king or prince, Myrddin, who took part in the battle, and saw close family members die," said Mr Matthews. "This sight drove him mad, and afterwards he went to live alone in the forest."

Driven insane by the carnage at Arderydd, Merlin went on to become a shaman-like figure, roaming the Wood of Celyddon, in what is today's Scottish Borders, and talking to the wild animals. It was this later period in Merlin's life, documented in the poetry of the time, that gave root to later myths of him as a magician.

"Potentially, what happened was that when storytellers started to put together the Arthurian sagas a few centuries later, they came across this character of Myrddin in Celtic poetry, and decided to add him in," said Mr Matthews. "From there, he gradually evolved into the magician we have come to recognise."

Another firm tradition - taken up by Geoffrey of Monmouth who did so much to foster the Arthurian myth - has Merlin as a Welshman, born in Carmarthen, which means "Myrddin's town". He is said to have been the child of a human mother and an incubus, or demon.

Myrddin's name changed to Merlin around five centuries after his death, as writers retold the stories in French and, it is claimed felt that Myrddin was too close to the coarse French merde.

In the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster King Arthur, Merlin is presented as much closer to his true roots. Played by Stephen Dillane, he appears as a warlike Pict, living on the Scottish border. "Merlin is almost a guerrilla leader in the film," said Mr Matthews. "He did live in the Border region, which was Pictish territory, and it is reasonable to suppose that if the Picts had a leader at this time, it could very well have been Merlin."

Steve Blake, director of the Centre for Arthurian Studies in Bangor, said: "Beneath the romance and beneath the legends, there was almost certainly a Myrddin.

"As Merlin, he has evolved into possibly the greatest magical figure the world has ever seen, when the fact is he was probably nothing of the sort. It's about time somebody had a really good look at the figures from our legendary stories."

And Geoffrey Ashe, author of Mythology of the British Isles and King Arthur's Avalon, said: "There are lots of stories, but you can get back to a real Merlin in the 6th century, and he is the most plausible one. It is quite possible that he was a warrior - all chiefs and nobles at that time were expected to be fighting men.

"In the Middle Ages, Merlin was taken very seriously. Continental writers took him up even before they took up the tale of Arthur."

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