There are certain folk from the mythology of this little island that fill my heart. Taliesin, Arthur, Gwydion, Rhiannon to name just a few. Another is the figure of Merlin. I guess my first encounter with Merlin was in Disney’s Sword in the Stone back when I was a very young child. I remember it well to this day. Going to the cinema and seeing this crazy magician change shape into various animals. Maybe that film was my first encounter with the idea of magic too – it’s too long ago now to remember that exactly, but my fascination with Merlin was lit, and continues to this day.
When we try to find the historical Merlin our quest leads us all over the country – from the tip of Kernow, to the Caledonian forests, and then to the mountains of Snowdonia. It seems that Merlin lived everywhere, at all times. It’s entirely possible that, like Taliesin, the name Merlin was a title, and not the name of one person, hence the various Merlins found across Albion. It was the Merlin. We also find the spelling of the name changing slightly in each location. He’s an enigmatic and complicated figure who is impossible to tie down. And maybe that is the point. The Merlin is simply too big, to much a part of the island in her entirety to be placed in just one area. One of the ancient names of Albion is Clas Myrdhin, Merlin’s Enclosure, he was that widely known.
However, probably the best known version of Merlin is that of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. In fact this medieval novel is probably the basis of most Arthurian lore, and certainly, in my opinion, the best Arthurian film ever made, Excalibur. Merlin is the mage to whom Arthur is given as a baby, directly after his birth from the womb of Igraine. His father is the High King Uther, so this tiny baby is heir to the throne of Albion. Raised by Merlin he then returns as grown man and Squire to Sir Kay and unwittingly removes the sword from the stone at a jousting competition. Most of us know this tale. Merlin then becomes Arthur’s most valued advisor during his time as King.
But what of the child Merlin? Who does legend say he was?
King Vortigern, a bad King, was losing control, and needed forces for his armies. It is said that it was he that invited the first of the Saxons to these shores as mercenaries. Here they saw the fertility of the land, and when Vortigern failed to pay them, they demanded their payment in land. Now this King wished to build a Tower, high on the top of a mountain in Snowdonia, but no matter how they tried to build it, the Tower would always fall. He consulted his Druids who said that a sacrifice was needed. The sacrifice should be a child with no father. The search took them to Carmarthan where they did indeed find such a child. The mother had no recollection of the father (though in some tales he is a demon, others a Pagan God), so the child was taken to the foundations of the Tower, there to be sacrificed.
It was there that he had his first prophetic vision.
In my mind I see the child Merlin fall to his knees and screams of the two dragons that lay within the mountain, one red, one white. The red dragon representing the Britons, the white dragon the incoming Saxons. The boy Merlin pronounced that the red dragon would win over the white. The red dragon is still upon the flag of Wales. The hill was then named after the boy – Dinas Emrys – and if you walk to the top you will indeed still find to this day the foundations of a roughly square tower…
There are other stories though. Merlin is said to have been the Bard and advisor to King Gwenddoleu who, along with all of Merlin’s family and friends, was slaughtered at the Battle of Arderydd in 573. A battle that some say was the final battle between a Pagan King, and the incoming Christian. A battle that was so bloody Merlin fled the battlefield into the forest in madness, there to hide, running wild as a Wild Man of the Woods, befriending animals, and speaking prophecies. Returning to the wild after witnessing great slaughter is also within the story of Suibne Geilt, or Mad Sweeney, in Irish mythology.
Many of us yearn to return to nature and live within the woods to escape the madness of this modern life, and maybe the metaphoric slaughter of community is indeed a part of that modern life, with many of us not even knowing the names of our neighbours. But within the forest, and the madness of Merlin great lessons were learned, and after many years it is said that he returned to the human realm, there to be of service, as a man of great wisdom. Wisdom gained through his years as the Wild Man of the Woods.
So although when we say the name Merlin, many default to Malory’s Medieval Arthurian tale, I wanted to try to write a song which honoured the many Merlins of this Isle. So the opening verse tells of his birth, and subsequent death of his mother in childbirth, acknowledging his unknown, and possibly supernatural father.
The second verse tells of his youth, found in the town of Carmarthan and taken as a sacrifice into the foundations of Vortigern’s Tower. Yet there he speaks his first prophesy…
But the child sees deep in the Earth,
Two Dragons are spreading their wings,
Two tribes will fight, for to claim this land,
Many die, for the folly of Kings…
The final verse is split between the pain and torment Merlin witnesses at the Battle of Arderydd and the final acknowledgement that his Great Spirit still lives on within the very Bones of Albion herself, or Merlin’s Enclosure. The verse is split by a section of prose that has been attributed to the ancient Bard Myrddin himself. As he runs in madness into the forest of Caledonia he sits at the base of a tree, there hugging to him a tiny piglet, saying these words in utter torment and grief:
For years I simply couldn’t get through that last verse without tears in my eyes – so devastating those words are.
Merlin am I was recorded on my second album Hills they are Hollow, an album on which I really began to experiment with different sounds and instrument textures. It taught me a lot, and Merlin am I is still a live favourite wherever I play to this day.