Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and Its Dark Age Origins – Book Review

The author of the book Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and Its Dark Age Origins, Tim Clarkson, is a PhD in medieval history, and holds an MPhil in archeology. I have had some correspondence with him regarding another of his books, The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland, and had a discussion with him on his essay on Cassius Dio’s anecdote on the Empress Julia Domna. His blog can be found here: https://senchus.wordpress.com/

Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and Its Dark Age Origins (M) reignites the question of Merlin: what is the true identity of this time honored character? Through rigorous research and painstaking attention to detail, Dr. Clarkson reviews the relevant British texts (providing translations) and discusses the past scholarship in his search for an answer. It’s my honest opinion that his even handed approach is commendable, and his studious commitment to inquiry should be upheld as a benchmark for students to strive to match. This book has been an asset in furthering my knowledge of both the Merlin myth as well as Dark Age British history.

So now to the meat of Dr. Clarkson’s work. His thesis is a heterodox one. He proposes that the ultimate founding of the Merlin myth, a Merlin-archetype, stems from a historical Christian man from the ancient kingdom of Cumbria named Lailoken or some variant, who took part in the battle of Arfderydd c 573. An intriguing case is made by him.

One interesting thread is his comparison of the wild man myths found in the famous Near East epic of Gilgamesh and Bible story of Nebakanezer with the British tale of the wild man, wherein he suggests that these tales borrow from a real condition in which insane persons were thought to be imbued with divine inspiration. Another comes in chapter 5 where he argues, rightly I think, that the belief that a factual Merlin-archetype as a pagan battling the forces of Christianity promoted by the theories of Skene and Tolstoy do not bear out under scrutiny. He weaves his way along this path to arrive ultimately at the aforementioned argument of an historic man’s fateful life story as the basis for Merlin, culminating in chapter 9.

His arguments are compelling and even persuasive in parts, but I admit I find a few elements of his work somewhat flawed. The most particular of these, in which I feel most qualified to discuss, is detailed below.

Merlin, the Geilt, and the Half Man

Dr. Clarkson has a hurdle when presenting his premise: if the wild man tale is Cumbric, why does it exist outside of Britain, namely in Ireland? He begins fitfully enough by comparing the surviving Scottish Lailoken tales with the most famous Irish wild man tradition, Suibhne Geilt, whose major texts were composed in 13 c. (1) In the Irish, Suibhne goes mad during battle due to a curse cast on him by Saint Ronan Finn after he kills one of the saint’s compatriots. He flees the battlefield _indeed, he leaps up and flys through the air so much like a bird that he even grows plumage_ to take refuge in the wilderness as an outcast and poet. In particular, Clarkson focuses on the episode with Alladhan, also called Fer Caille. This character is another forest dwelling wild man whom Suibhne befriends, and whom hails from the “land of the Britons”. Clarkson notes that both have identical histories, having retreated from battle in madness to find sanctuary in the wilderness, and that both have an obvious affinity with the tale of Lailoken. He goes further and puts forward the argument that the Irish Alladhan is a garbling of Lailoken. On page 72 of the kindle reader he states:

It seems likely that the very idea of Suibhne going insane after a battle was simply borrowed by Irish storytellers from the tale of Lailoken’s madness

He cites scholarship here and reasserts this opinion on reader pages 133/4.

Regardless, and with deepest respect to Dr. Clarkson, I must take issue with this treatment of the ‘Alladhan’ episode for a number of reasons.

1. Precedence

Buile Suibhne is not the earliest survivor of ‘wild man’ tales in Irish. The text dubbed The Quarrel Between Finn and Oisin, dated to the end of 8 c and which is extant in 4 manuscripts also revolves around the wild man plot, and is as far as I am aware the earliest anywhere. (2)

Finn: …from a royal host a maniac [Irish geilt] upon trees in the wilderness; from the battle… young men are wont to be on the point of a branch.

Although Dr. Clarkson does not mention the Finn text as far as I can recall, he does state that any Cumbric wild man tale, typified in Lailoken, could have entered Ireland as soon as 8 c. He needs to elaborate on his thoughts about this statement in regard to the precedent set in ‘Finn’. Also, as seen in the quotation, the ‘Finn’ includes the “flying” or “bird transformation” motif, found in Buile Suibhne and alluded to in the Welsh ‘Myrddin’ poetry, but absent from the Lailoken tradition. This deserves address; it is questionable that both the Irish and Welsh material would contain this motif if they were inherited either directly or indirectly from ‘Lailoken’.

2. Parallels

When Suibhne goes insane and takes flight to escape, he eventually finds himself in Glenn Bolcain, the Valley of Madmen. Interestingly, the name Bolcán is a loan of Latin Vulcan, a classical god of blacksmithing. Bolcán also appears in several Middle Irish narratives. A late offering from 15 c features Bolcán, here described as the king of France, in the role of Lailoken/Suibhne. (3) In the midst of fighting, a sudden terror of the onslaught takes hold of him:

…and his beauty and comeliness went from him, and his valour and his prowess left him, and he thought there was no shelter on earth for him, except if he went into the air or into the firmament, and he looked up into the clouds and thought that there was shelter for him between them. And there came lightness of mind and of nature upon him, and he gave his body a stretching from the ground, so that he went with the wind and with madness before the eyes of the hosts of the world, and did not stop in his mad flight till he came to Glenn Bolcain.

There is also a Saint Bolcán, but I regret to say I haven’t been able to turn my attention to his Life just yet.

So here we have what appears to be an independent parallel wild man tradition, alluded to in Buile Suibhne, and referenced at least between 11 to 15 c. This only raises more doubt in the claim made in (M) that the wild man type originates uniquely from Cumbric sources.

3. The Half Man

As noted above, Dr. Clarkson argues that the appearance of the character Alladhan or Fer Caille, and his description as a Briton, is a clue that points to the British origin of Buile Suibhne and the wild man type tale. Contrary to this, Fer Caille, which means “man of the forest” is part of a clear Irish tradition himself, wherein he appears in other early tracts unrelated to the wild man. In The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel (c 1100) he is regarded as a harbinger of doom and is described:

I beheld at the fire in front a man with black cropt hair, having only one eye and one foot and one hand, having on the fire a pig bald, black, singed, squealing continually, and in his company a great big-mouthed woman… Fer caille with his pig and his wife Cichuil. (4)

As monstrous and unfamiliar as the one eyed, one handed, one footed character may sound, in reality the “half man” is a figure deeply ingrained in the legends of all of Insular Celtica and Brittany.

The half man appears in the Welsh work adaptation of the French Arthurian romance Yvain or Le Chevalier au Lion (c 1150):

you will see on top of the mound an enormous black-haired man no smaller than two men of this world. And he has one foot, and he has one eye in the middle of his forehead; and he has an iron club which I assure you would take two men of this world to lift. He is not a violent man, but he is ugly. And he is keeper of that forest. You will see a thousand wild animals grazing around him. (5)

This episode has been linked, correctly I believe, to that of Custennin from the Welsh text Culhwch ac Olwen (c 1000):

… upon the top of a mound there was a herdsman, keeping the sheep. And a rug made of skins was upon him; and by his side was a shaggy mastiff, larger than a steed nine winters old. Never had he lost even a lamb from his flock, much less a large sheep. He let no occasion ever pass without doing some hurt and harm. All the dead trees and bushes in the plain he burnt with his breath down to the very ground. (6)

Regard that these figures, like the wild man Lailoken, have animals as their companions.

The half man character is also found in the folklore of the Scottish Highlands, Ireland and the Isle of Man.

The Song of the Smithy, collected by J. F. Campbell in Popular Tales of the West Highlands, features such a character:

There was seen a coming from the plain

The big young lad on a single foot,

In his black, dusky black skin mantle,

Grim was the look of the young lad,

Hideous it was, and disfigured (7)

Notes to this Scottish ballad include variants published from 18 and 19 c in which the character is depicted as leaping on his single foot over great distances while his pursuers lag behind. A surprising detail that is also worth pointing out is that the traditional Scottish half man is a blacksmith, recalling the Irish wild man Bolcán/Vulcan. This is also in keeping with the Manx half man tradition as well.

4. Doubles, Triples and Quadruples

Dr. Clarkson communicates to the reader that Suibhne and Alladhan are overt doubles of the wild man type. We have seen that Bolcán is a tripling. I would put forward that a quadruple wild man character appears in Buile Suibhne: Saint Mo Ling.

In Dr. Clarkson’s translation of Lailoken and Kentigern we read of the fateful incident that drove Lailoken out of his wits:

During that battle the sky opened high above my head, and I heard a voice like thunder, speaking to me from heaven: “Lailoken, Lailoken, because you alone are guilty of the blood of all the slain, you alone must suffer for all their sins. You will be handed over to Satan’s angels and, from now until you die, your companions shall be the beasts of the forest.” I turned my gaze towards the voice but my eyes saw a light too dazzling for any man to endure. I also saw countless battalions of a celestial army, like flashes of lightning, with burning lances and shining spears in their hands… an evil spirit seized me and brought me here to dwell among the wild woodland creatures…

A roughly similar incident actually occurs in the Life of Saint Mo Ling (c 1400):

As he [Mo Ling] was singing his prayer he saw a misshapen, ugly monster athwart the path before him. This was the Evil Spectre with his black, ugly, misshapen household, human beings, to wit, in forms of spectres. (8)

The specters intend to attack him, but the Saint procures from them a final request; three leaps head start to escape them:

The first leap that he leapt he seemed to them no bigger than a crow on the top of a hill. The second leap that he leapt, they saw him not at all, and they knew not whether he had gone into heaven or into earth…

The specters take to the air in pursuit of their prey but are frustrated to find him already safely ensconced within the church. He is then dubbed “Mo Ling” in reference to his uncanny jumping ability.

I feel that for the purpose of this inquiry the episode should be considered as a possible fourth version of the wild man tale, especially in light of the three aforementioned personages likewise present in the textual tradition of Buile Suibhne. I find that the episode from the Life credible as a hagiographic companion to the more or less secular variants, and in sum the sheer number of identical characters (who all enjoy traditions in Ireland outside of the wild man type tale) promotes the conclusion that Buile Suibhne is a synthesis of many interrelated Irish tales, none of which point in any obvious way towards a specifically British origin or influence.

It’s interesting to wonder how much genuine folk-memory from pre-Christian times has been preserved in early medieval Celtic literature…

⁃ Dr. Tim Clarkson in a discussion on his blog

To his great credit, Dr. Clarkson makes allowances for other theories of the Merlin-archetype; whether Merlin originates from factual or mythic history, and whether that narrative is founded in Scotland, Wales or from a pan-Celtic milieu. It is my belief that due to the saturation of interrelated stories, which to my amazement, mostly find corroboration across the centuries and in the literatures of all the Celtic lands, that Merlin derives from one or more mythic personages of pan-Celtic providence. I won’t speculate further on Merlin here, but it’s fun to note that the related half man character as the subterranean magic smith of the legendary Irish and Scottish Feena warriors has been inventively compared by others to the classical Brontes, the one-eyed blacksmith of the underworld who forged the thunderbolts of Zeus. (9)

Dr. Clarkson laments that most of the literature and lore of Cumbria has been erased. I second his sentiments. Though, in a final hopeful thought, I’d like to say that while direct Cumbric literature may be gone, some texts from the kingdom that followed Cumbria, the English Northumbria, does survive. Considering what we have gathered of the tropes of the Merlin-archetype tale, such as the 8 c ‘bird transformation’ and 9 c ‘leaping flight’ (10) motifs, the Christian poetry of the (probably) Northumbrian Cynewulf’s Ascension (9 c) does take on a familiar form, one perhaps inspired by fables of olden storytellers recounting Scotland’s Merlin:

Unknown and secret… was the flight of that Bird [Jesus Christ]… Thus that Bird made trial of flight when bold and strong in might it sought out the radiant home… and when again it stooped unto these mortal lands… It shall be known that the King of angels, the Lord strong and mighty, shall ascend a mount, leap the high dunes and compass the hills and knolls with splendor… The first leap was when He came unto the Maiden… The second leap was birth… The third leap was the course of heaven’s King when He ascended up upon the cross…

… And He shall save the world and all that dwell therein by that noble leap… (11)

Endnotes-

(1) Buile Suibhne text can be accessed here: https://celt.ucc.ie//published/T302018/index.html

(2) The Quarrel Between Finn and Oisin, p. 22: https://archive.org/details/fianaigechtbeing00meye/page/n3/mode/2up

(3) The Battle of Ventry: http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/f20.html

(4) The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/1100derga.asp

(5) A discussion of the half man in Yvain can be accessed here: http://www.mabinogion.info/owain.htm

(6) A comparison between the two texts can be accessed here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4tU4N_YNPSk

(7) Popular Tales of the West Highlands: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/pt3/pt340.htm

(8) The Birth of Mo Ling and his Life: http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/moling.html

(9) I thought that this proposal came from Popular Tales of the West Highlands, but I am unable to locate it again, so with much regret I can’t make a proper attribution. The interesting connection between Brontes and the half man does not originate with me.

(10) I have remarked already that various modern folk tales and ballads from both Scotland and Ireland feature the leaping half man character pursued by Finn and the Feena. The narrative ends when one of the heroes, usually Finn himself, is able to overtake and tackle him to the ground right before he enters his underworld abode. Although there is no description of the half man analog, the story of the “leaping” chase against a magical being and the last second capture by Finn is related in the 9 c text of The Slaying of Culdub: https://celt.ucc.ie//published/T303013/index.html

It went into Ely, into Cell Ichtair Lethet [] Seven times it jumped across the Suir [] He [Finn] made a thrust at it as it was going into the fairy-knoll

For comparison, here is an Irish folktale that fairly represents others found in Scotland and the Isle of Man: http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/places/the_burren/lon_macliomtha.htm

He [the half man character] then took to his heel and passed a hill in every bound and a valley in every spring and he delayed not till he arrived at Slieve na Glaise, confident that none of the Fenians would be able to pursue, but in this he was mistaken for he was pursued by the swiftest of the Fenians, by name Caoilté of the slender hard legs, who, coming up with the smith at Leaba na Glaise just as he was on the point of entering his forge, struck him slightly with the palm of his hand on the back of his head

(11) Cynewulf’s Ascension: http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/Christ_Kennedy.pdf

16 thoughts on “Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and Its Dark Age Origins – Book Review

  1. This is probably unrelated, accept for in my imagination, but I’ve recently started reading the original Tarzan books, where Tarzan is also, I think, a type of half man, fighting and living like an animal, with otherworldly abilities, and yet the main point I’ve come to regarding the Tarzan character is that his humanity far outweighs most people. He meets a woman who’s afraid of her husband and is horrified that such a thing even exists. He’s altogether honest, trustworthy and guileless. People who meet him learn what it is to really be human.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Rabbit, thanks for taking the time to read my stuff and for the great comment! I’ve never read Edgar Rice Burroughs but you make his work sound very enticing. It’s interesting how ideas about the nobility of barbarian people persist through the centuries. There is something like it in an anecdote by the Roman Cassius Dio regarding the Empress Julia Domna and a barbarian queen of Caledonia in ancient Scotland.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s interesting that you should mention a queen. Right now where I’m at in the second book Tarzan is captured by this deep jungle tribe where the men are described in downright racist terms but the women called intelligent and lovely. Hmmmm… sounds like old Edgar liked women best. lol

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This discussion illustrates very well how mythic themes get woven into local legends, folklore and hagiographies (think too of those early rulers who drew their descent from divine figures). Each story then becomes, of itself, an account that can be self-sufficient for its own purposes, yet the myth behind it remains fluid, running on into other streams of significance, creating new parallel accounts to be compared and contrasted.

    The myth itself remains elusive, never quite caught in the nets of analysis in which we seek to ensnare it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Greg, thank you for the comment! It was expressed beautifully and the sentiments are only too true. On a personal level, I love the suggestion connecting the pan-Celtic half man to the cyclops smith Brontes, whose brothers were the multi-handed Hecatoncheires. Some traditions of the half man have multi-handed giants assisting him at his forge, while others describe the half man himself as one eyed, one footed but multi-handed. Needless to say, if the suggestion has any merit, it points to a confluence of mythic figures, and caution should be taken when trying to picture the pre-Christian scene at this time. As you correctly say, it remains elusive.

      Like

  3. Fascinating! I’m glad to see there’s some serious investigation into the possibility of a historical basis for Merlin. I’ve seen claims relating to a historical Arthur in even relatively surface discussions of Arthurian tales, but those sources seem to treat Merlin as a magical element thrown in to spice things up. This Lailoken is an interesting possibility, though I’m also open to the idea of Merlin evolving more from a mythic theme rather than a specific person. After all, ultimately, it’s the idea the Merlin legend evokes that survived through time rather than a realistic representation of any one person.

    On a slight tangent, it suddenly struck me that the insane people out in the woods and believed to have access to divine revelations sounds a bit like how anthropologists describe the shaman phenomenon in Siberia. These are the ones known to practice what is sometimes called “soul loss” trances where the shaman is said to leave his body and fly into the spirit world to retrieve information and even lost souls. I can’t help seeing a parallel with the bird transformation theme.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Ceridwen!

      Yes and the book is very thorough in its analysis! I think it’s possible that a real figure from a historical battle could have (preexisting) mythological tales grafted onto his biography, but due to sheer spread of the wild man type in all the literature of the Celtic territories I don’t agree that it could have originated with him.

      You make a very pertinent observation about shamanism. Some have indeed likened the bird motif of the wild man with shaman spirit flight. Here’s an interesting take on the topic-> https://clasmerdin.blogspot.com/2009/09/luds-church-xv-part-two.html?m=1

      There is, oddly enough, a Scandinavian text that defines Irish “Geilt” in terms that resemble both the wild man (bird transformation) and half man (leaping chase) type, but it’s the only one that does so. Saint Muirgen the mermaid is also described as a Geilt, but she’s connected to fish and otters and the stags that pull her chariot when she decides to take a trip on land, so I’m not sure if birds are absolutely intrinsic to the concept of Geilt. I’ll get to Muirgen sometime.

      Speaking of sea creatures, I’m hustling to get to a post on water horses! The only thing holding me up is that I found an Irish story that is by far the oldest I’ve seen – but it’s in Old Irish. I have to translate it myself or track down some scholarship on it, and my access to jstor just expired! I’ve got a scheme though that’s so cunning you could put pointy ears on it and call it a cat. I’m going to find and beg someone to look stuff up and take pics of the monographs for me!!! Lol!

      Thanks for the always insightful comment. I can’t wait for water horses, I hope you find it to your liking!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This is a fascinating article and appreciated. What images! Approaching it as very much a non-expert on the subject I wonder what is, or was, in the mind of the people (story-tellers) who ‘grafted’ one tale to another. Was it to provide more information, or make it more exciting, or ‘just because’ or accidental over time or finding an argument to explain a reality. I wonder, without knowing, how story-telling today differs from how story-telling evolved.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks for sharing this!!! The book sounds interesting. I hope I have enough time to read it one day. If there’s a historical basis for the figure of Merlin, I think he must have been a Druid. His role as a wise counselor, helpmate and formidable trickster/sorcerer point to that strongly.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Merlin has been a favourite character of mine for as long as I can remember. Out here in the Antipodes, I did study (read) archaeology and anthropology at university and even undertook a unit in medieval history, where said Associate Professor offered for me to to stay at his place had along Hadrian’s Wall. Alas, I never took up the offer, but it would have been fascinating. I even have a direct family link to (Ancient) Cumbria – it might explain a few things 😂.

    What I do “know,” in part, is that myths do have a basis in something. Sometimes, a myth helps explain what the brain or normal acceptance of a matter, cannot. Sometimes, they are just a story. With the latter, the “just a story” has always stayed with me due to my anthropology professor Chuck (who was the world’s foremost expert on rock art) saying to me once, “you know Sean, sometimes rock art is just a doodle or ancient graffiti, nothing more, nothing less.” I might add it wasn’t necessarily a popular opinion at the time! But, it made a lot of sense to me, and I digress…

    I appreciate anything that helps build my knowledge of Merlin and I certainly appreciate what you have done here with your post, Tiege. Wonderfull stuff!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Sean! I’m so sorry I missed this till now! Thank you for reading and taking the time to make such a great comment.

      Lol, your professor was probably onto something, but admittedly, it’s disappointing to think that the voices of ancient people, surviving in primordial rock art for millennia to have nothing particular to tell us.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! I’ll update sometime soon… life is so busy.

      Liked by 1 person

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