Friday, 23 January 2009

Was Merlin a local lad made good?

Merlin as he appears in the book "Merlin: Shaman, Prophet, Magician" by John Matthews.

We moved to Carmarthenshire 21 years ago this March. I already knew of the town's connection with Merlin - how the town's Welsh name - Caermyrddin - was supposed to be linked to his name; how he was born/raised on Merlin's Hill, which is by Abergwili; how there was a Merlin's stone in a field nearby. We also have - or had - Merlin's Oak (The Priory Oak) which grew at the end of Old Oak Lane, and was encased in concrete to stop it falling and fulfilling the prophecy, "When Merlin's Oak comes tumbling down, so shall fall Carmarthen Town."

I think that books had a lot to answer for in the story of Merlin. Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100ish to 1155 and born in Monmouth), wrote Historia Regum Britannia in which Arthur was placed in the list of kings. Apart from establishing Arthur, Geoffrey mentioned Merlin, who was known in a literary sense from several Medieval Welsh poems. He first appeared in a book called the Prophecies of Merlin (Prophetiae Merlini), written about 1135 and then was included in the Historia. Many people are familiar with the prophecies which Merlin made about the fall of Vortigern and the rise and fall of Arthur. Geoffrey's Merlin is a romantic combination of Merlin the Prophet of the poems and the "young and prophetic" Ambrosius of Nennius' story. Nennius was a Welsh monk writing in the 9th century, and who first mentioned Arthur in his book Historia Brittanum. Bearing in mind he was drawing largely upon Celtic legend for his History of Britain, and bearing in mind that Geoffrey of Monmouth used it in his own Historia, the factual base of Merlin and Arthur becomes a game of smoke and mirrors . . .

As I learned when studying Archaeology, it is often the case that the same facts become recycled in a very parochial fashion, without looking outside of the box. This particularly so in the case of Pictish art. It would appear to be no different with Arthur and Merlin. In a severe case of Chinese whispers, a number of individuals would appear to have been combined. Recent research and books tie Arthur as strongly to Scotland, or to Wales, as he was ever tied to the West Country.

So what do we have factually to tie Merlin here? Legend has it that he was born in a cave (with a spring in) just outside of Carmarthen. Well, there is a small cave, housing a spring, at the bottom of Merlin's Hill, close to the A40. On the top of Merlin's Hill is an Iron Age hillfort, which gives great longevity to the habitation of the site.

The Black Book of Carmarthen does indeed include poetry which refers to "Myrddin" BUT it must be said that once again, this is the Myrddin/Merlin of legend as it post-dates Geoffrey of Monmouth's book.

Whilst there definitely was a Merlin's Oak, with pieces of it still in the possession of the local Museum and on display in the town hall, the actual tree was planted to celebrate the coronation of Charles II - the town stood for the King in the Civil War. It was killed by poison by a local chap, fed up with the youth of the town congregating beneath it - noisily (some things never change!)

In the 1970s Mary Stewart wrote a quartet of books about Merlin and Arthur - The Cystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment and the Wicked Day. They were good reading at the time, but again promulgating the same legends that Geoffrey began.

Below - the stone in Abergwili Churchyard.

There is definitely a Merlin's Stone, in a field near the bottom of Merlin's Hill. Merlin is supposed to have prophesied that one day a Raven would drink a man's blood off it. Merlin is also supposed to have buried treasure nearby and indeed, the stone was responsible for a man's death many many years ago, when some hopeful treasure-hunter was digging at the base of the stone and it fell on top of him! It is on an alignment with a small stone in Abergwili Churchyard, and also, further up the Towy valley, aligned with a largely destroyed Henge Monument in Nantgaredig. I would think, personally, that it has far more relevance to the prehistory of the Towy Valley than the early Medieval and Merlin. That is as PROOF positive as I can be, though, being a romantic, I would love to think that Merlin, and Arthur and his men still sleep with their swords at the ready, beneath Merlin's Hill, waiting for their call to arms to save us.

Many, many books have been written about Merlin, and Arthurian legend - indeed we have a dozen or more ourselves. By all means read the books, visit Carmarthen and the other places associated with Arthurian legend, and then make up your own mind.

View of the Towy Valley, where Merlin may have roamed as a boy.


Morning's Minion said...

Your recent series of posts on the history and natural features of your area are so interesting and well written, it seems to me they should be compiled into a booklet for your local historical society.
I enjoy the entries re your crafting and your animals as well.
You inspired me to more hours of searching for the g-g-grandparents and their neighbors. Still no results in UK, Canada or US census or in immigration-ships passenger rolls. Its not diffcult to imagine several likely possibilites when we work with sparse data that is more than 150 years old. When families may have made several moves before "settling" they could so easily fall between the cracks of the census.
You asked me previously about US birth and death certificates. The state of New York where many of my mother's people lived, didn't require vital statistic data to be filed until the late 1880's and then, with home births and deaths, it was often sketchy or simply not filed. Pulbished obits didn't include a woman's maiden name--most often in neighborhood news items she was referred to only as "Mrs.E.S. Ross"--for instance. I would need to know that was the name of my g-grandmother.
I'm never sure what compels me to keep searching. [The alternative might be to spend the time in sorting this mess of books, papers, fabrics, notebooks, unfinished projects.]

Wild Somerset Child said...

What a wonderful post and about one of my favourite subjects. I have driven along the A40 past the places you mention and managed to take a snapshot or two from the motorhome on our way to and from Haverfordwest. Weren't able to stop and explore, but it had me re-reading Mat Stewart's novels again.

To me it is amazing how legend inspires new writers and through historic novels can bring new readers to want to learn more of a place. Do you know Kevin Crossley Holland's Arthur trilogy, set on the Shropshire-Welsh border at the time of the crusades, with flashbacks to legend?. Intended for teenagers, but beautiful and very clever.

Sorry I've gone on a bit. Your photos are so evocative. I have a Merlin poem I wrote whilst driving this route (husband driving actually) and it is going into the little journal already part-made as a result of my last visit. Ann

Bovey Belle said...

Minion - how frustrating it must be to try and fill in the gaps in the ancestry and get back to WHERE they came from, where they lived when they moved about America. I've actually been searching the American deaths - recent ones - as my cousin stopped writing and my aunties couldn't contact her on the phone. I think I have found her death (98% certain in fact) back in 2004. Her brother didn't even bother to let any of us here in the UK know. If I can do any ground-work for you here on family history, I'd be glad to.

As for a local history society - I did try to start one, but being English is a distinct disadvantage here at times, and I fell foul of a rabid Welshman who had no time for us incomers, and when I started having panic attacks I cut my losses . . .

Somerset Child - I can still remember the first time we drove up the A40 towards Llandeilo when we moved here 21 years ago. Dryslywn Castle thrilled me, and Paxton's Tower, high on the hill, and then finding the line of command from Dryslwyn, through Dinefwr to Carreg Cennen, on its limestone crag.

I will have to seek out the Kevin Crossley-Holland novels. I was taught Paleography by a Nichole Crossley-Holland at (Lampeter) University. She must be related. . .

I would love to think that Merlin was a real person, but something I read recently made a lot of sense - that he is in fact a "modern" representation of the Druidic roots of this country. Not one person, but an amalgam of what they represented, what they were capable of, and kept alive so the memory of their powers would NEVER die.

Wild Somerset Child said...

Exactly how KCH makes use of Merlin and the Arthurian legends. I'll add the ISBNs for you when I have been out to the shed where we keep our overflow of books. Thanks for the fascinating insight into your beautiful part of the world. Ann.

Sarah said...

This was very interesting. I know very little about the history and legends of Merlin, though I know a little of Arthurian legend.

Morning's Minion said...

I'm assuming you have the US SSDI in your ancestry subscription so that you could research the death of your relative[?] I would be glad to do that for you, if you don't have it. I'm not sure if you have access to better census idexes for UK than my ancestry offers. With only "England" as a birthplace designation I feel that I'm blundering about in a genealogical swamp. Should I be sending you my e-mail address? I'm cluttering the comments a bit.

Bovey Belle said...

Minion - by all means. I can lift it out of any comment you send to post before I press publish, so it won''t go global! I don't subscribe to the US SSDI - just got the bare bones of what appear's to be my cousin's death in Sacramento (the last address we had for her too).