Monday, 31 December 2012

Professing in the Present


Stephen Knight

This is a new piece written for a discussion lunch for professors in the School of Culture and Communications at Melbourne University. We had a view over the whole city from the tenth floor, but then the building belongs to the lawyers. The Head of School had asked me to introduce discussion of the role of professors now.

I retired just over a year ago. I think of it as re very tired. In the highly-mobile traditions of our family we moved again, back to Melbourne, which has been very welcoming. I think of myself having entered a fifth university phase.

Thinking about the phases generates some thoughts about where we are, as against where we have been. The five phases are these. At first, Oxford around 1960 as a student. Then I moved far away, to Sydney for a long time as a lecturer. Then in the mid-eighties to Melbourne as professor and head. Then back to Britain, first to run a `new university’ department at De Montfort and then to the academically excellent but drastically under-organised department at Cardiff. And now, what ? Back to Melbourne, a little fiddling around. Five phases, Perhaps five acts ?

But they hardly seem to belong to the same play, the phases and their contexts have been so different, the variations so extreme. I feel that helpful in describing, even understanding, the variations is Max Weber’s description of universities. He was thinking of the German model, but was also aware how the Americans had remodelled it. He saw the crucial structural mix as the collegial and the charismatic. The collegial being academics working together, along with students, undergraduates and postgraduates. The charismatic element was leadership by experts, shaping and developing the subjects, and also having a role in the public arena. The mix was crucial. He also saw that mix as operating in the best families and the best states.
So, using those terms, I would characterise where I have been this way. Oxford was at first a fine definition that you can as a university be neither collegial nor charismatic. One tutor was little engaged: I vividly recall reading an essay on Shelley while he was on the phone discussing his weekend cricket team. The other defined uncharismatic being a miserable man who was expert in fifteenth-century English pronunciation. He was promoted to a chair and immediately dropped us. But he was replaced  by the young John Burrow. At our first meeting he gave each of the three of us a piece of paper. It had the names of authors and books on it. You might call it a reading list. We had never seen one. My Canadian buddy Phil turned over and said Holy Shit there’s more on the other side. People like John and Del Kolve were both collegial and charismatic, but I feel they were few, and worked separately, with no linking structure.

Sydney was totally opposite. High-level collegial, with structural linking -- people sharing courses, meetings, debates, the lot, and a serious broad commitment to teaching. And some brilliantly charismatic and generous leaders like, in my case, George Russell, Bernie Martin, Bill Maidment. There were also serious external links through the city’s intellectual life, through the WEA, and also the force of new thinking, political and intellectual, these were the days of Barthes, Foucault, Macherey, Althusser, Lacan. We really went for it. I’m not sure we found it.

Phase three at Melbourne was also highly collegial and highly charismatic in a somewhat more orderly way. Quite a few people were both, like Ken Ruthven, Stuart Macintyre, Peter Steele, Marian Adams, our excellent Dean. But those higher echelons of activity, now including me, were facing anti-collegial supercharisma in the very major changes of the Dawkins era. Weber didn’t account for the notion of the central funders presenting instructions in return for paying the bill. But the collegial-charismatic mix held together in face of those pressures at that time.

It was I think the attraction of a lower-trajectory form of collegiality that led me to move to De Montfort, formerly Leicester Poly, in 1992. I enjoyed my years in what we called Raymond Williams University, with students who often had low self-esteem but considerable talent, and a lot of young, bright and seriously committed staff, charismatics of the future. When we moved to Cardiff, mostly for our children’s education, the experience was largely continuous, but Cardiff also had ready-made charismatics like Terry Hawkes, Kate Belsey and Chris Norris, and also a strong collegial team to interact with them – but no organisation: my job was to provide the organisation. That led me into higher collegiality, national subject assessment, first of teaching in the mid 1990s and then of research, the hand of government revealing itself. We thought we should collegially mediate government’s clumsy desires to minimise their malignity.

So after that, back here, back to the heartland of  the designer cafe latte. Where are we now with collegial and charismatic ? Charismatic has been institutionalised with  laureate professorships, future fellowships  and so on, and I think consciously separated from the collegial body. That appears to me a science model that we have been induced to follow. The collegial seems seriously weakened, notably in the Melbourne model which tends to take undergraduates out of  the full collegial environment. Even though the types of course now offered to undergraduates are technically collegial in that they have groups of people delivering them, I think they may be only quasi-collegial. The old single-lecturer courses were in fact quasi-charismatic operations at the collegial level, including by established charismatic people, often with considerable effect.
There is also the other quasi-collegial activity of administration and meetings. Many of these are content-free and merely deal with unit handling. You can waste a lot of time waiting for a real collegial issue to emerge. There is also considerable pressure on the academic to relate to the external world, not it seems primarily through processes like the old outreach education or charismatic presence, but often just through PR and business linkage. That engagement is a quasi-process in itself and we will see more in off-campus engagement as Research Impact looms. Will engagement become a successful marriage I wonder ?

It does seem to me that a lot of the plans and demands being made here by deans and heads of schools are attempts to reconstitute the best effects of the collegial-charismatic mix of the past – like engaging people in collaboration, like linking the star performers to the future star students, like mentoring, and centres for this and that or everything. Centres seem a way of structuring in collegiality among charismatics. It can work: it might also contradict anti-collegial pro-charismatic funding structures. Cardiff ironists invented a Centre for Shaun the Sheep Shtudies. For woolly thinking.

The very difficult task as I see it for professors now is to continue to realise their roles in the charismatic mode without that process completely severing them from collegial activities, including with undergraduates. Weber did not predict our world where the universities are immersed in both the economy and the governmental para-economic command system. But I suggest Weber’s understanding of how universities can work at a high and multiply productive level  may help us respond to our current situation as quasi-charismatic quasi-colleagues in what is not yet I hope the quasi-university.

In discussion several  people pointed out there are quite a few regulations at university level holding back collegial activity like work-load models and research achievement requirements. It may be time for a campaign for more and better teaching to be credited. It was also suggested that the currently growing enrolments for Masters courses are in part generated because good students feel on finishing as undergraduates that they would like more collegial activities. It was agreed that the arrival of `Research Impact’ assessment in Australia will vary the situation, possibly for the better, but also possibly in a fetishised way, serving  industry and commerce primarily.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

The Tain: Translated from the Irish Epic Tain Bo Cuailnge


The Tain, translated by Thomas Kinsella from the Irish Epic Tain Bo Cuailnge (`The Cattle-Raid of Cooley’), with brush drawings by Louis le Brocquy (Oxford, Oxford University Press and Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1970).

It is hard to imagine that (and how, and why) this potent, powerful, unforgettable story is so little known. When people of all kinds and capacities like to prose on about the possibility of a real King Arthur or how many St Patricks were there, this major text of great antiquity, compelling richness and continuing mystery has hardly been heard of. It is as if we thought we could think about the renaissance without Hamlet or the nineteenth century without Notre Dame de Paris.

The manuscripts are early medieval, but the text was written down before that and its origins are in misty antiquity. K. H. Jackson, a rigorous-minded linguistic scholar went so far as to say it offered `a window on the Iron Age’, meaning that the stories and attitudes looked back to the heroic time of the Celts, before Romans, Christians, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings found their way to north-western Europe. Though the story was undoubtedly copied by Irish monks it, like much else of that culture’s ancient wealth, was irresistibly pagan.

The story of the great cattle-raid is simple – like the siege of Troy or Aeneas’s taking of Rome. Connaught has a king and queen, Ailill and Mebd, who are equal in power. When they compare their possessions, she finds to her fury that Ailill has a great white bull she cannot match. So she mobilises the army to head north and steal the great dun bull of Cooley, pride of Ulster’s bovine masculinity. There are remscela, pre-tales, added to explain things like why Fergus, former king of  Ulster, is now an exile with Connaught – that story also relates to the tragedy of Queen Derdriu and her fated love for the handsome Noisiu.

On the raid, Connaught has high hopes. They are deliberately attacking during the period when the warriors of Ulster are all as weak as women in childbirth, a curse laid on them by the goddess Macha for making her run a foot-race when heavily pregnant. Gender is a recurring issue, and some scholars have thought the whole subtext of the Tain is to justify the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy in early Celtic culture.

But Connaught discovers a problem. The great hero of Ulster is Cuchullain. That’s a sort of nickname: he was born Sentanta, but had to act in the place of a mighty hound (after he killed it) and so become called `Cullain’s hound’ or `the Hound of Ulster’ or even `Little Hound’ – he was still a boy then. He is not in fact an Ulsterman and so he patrols the border, fighting alone against the Connaughtmen for several weeks –he die shave a brief rest when his father from the sidhe – the fairy gods – named Lug (often called the Celtic Apollo, and the alleged founder of  London, Lille, Laon, Leiden etc) gives him a break. He deserves to be tired: he is no ordinary fighter. When he prepares for battle he goes into his `heroic distortions’. A pillar of blood rises from his head; one eye grows larger than a dinner plate; the other is so small a crane cannot pluck it from his head.’

Along with the single combats we are told the name and origin of many a hero of Ireland – a personalised history is interwoven with the text, as well as the places they come from, and often how they gained their names.  But like many a great epic, it is a dark story. The warriors of Ulster grow strong again; they gather in their many troops, each led by a famous ferocious hero. The great battle follows, and it is slaughter, on both sides. The heroic ethos is fully realised, but so is its massive cost in human lives and effective government. The last thing that happens is the two bulls fight. Finally the great dun bull of Ulster wins, and makes his way back to Ulster with the carcase of Finnbennach, the white bull of Connaught on its horns. Finally it reaches its home, where it tears up the earth, and falls dead.

A text that actually became almost forgotten in Ireland—the more popular stories of Finn MacCool and mere fairies pushed aside the mythic, cosmic Tain – the story, as heroic as it is  tragic and, amazingly, as comic as well, was revived in the nationalist period of the nineteenth century as a crucial document asserting the ancient power of Irish civilisation. It used to be taught widely, along with other early Irish texts, in big departments of language and culture, and many of the major scholars were German – not just because they were just great scholars. Quite a few of the manuscripts come from Germany and Austria because Irish monks were so important an element in Christian learning in those areas: Regensburg has a magnificent early medieval Itish Celtic church front.

But not only in Ireland and Germany: I studied the Tain when I was a young lecturer at Sydney. That was in the early 1970s a huge English department, with over fifty lecturers, and fifteen of us were medievalists. Bernard Martin, a New Zealander who had studied in Cambridge and Dublin, taught Old Irish to fourth year honours. We used  to read and check our translations against the very fine version by Thomas Kinsella, the major Irish poet, and above all wonder at the power and drama the Tain continues to transmit. And we could also admire the pictures. Louis de Brocquy was a brilliant choice: his bold, freehand black-ink drawings seem to catch in their own mode the raw vigour of the text: they remind me of Derain’s ink drawings for Apollinaire’s L’Enchanteur Pourrisant. You can see Cuchullain undergoing his distortions or the grim, understated  impact of four heads spiked on a tree branch.

In many ways the Tain, both in detail and overall, challenges the simple certainties of liberal humanist culture: gods, men and animals interchange here, and forces beyond the banally personal are seen to operate. Cathbad the druid prophesies the melodramatic tragedy of Derdriu’s life when she screams in her mother’s womb. But there is also human realisation: she herself foresees the colours of the face of her beloved Noisiu long before she meets him.

It will be a banal reader who is not stirred by experiencing the Tain.

King Arthur: Myth-Making and History



N.J.Higham, King Arthur: Myth-Making and History , Routledge, London, 2002


Books on King Arthur can seem dangerous to their authors: the topic somehow leads them on. John Morris, a respected radical historian, among the founders of the major journal Past and Present produced his strangely imaginary The Age of Arthur (1973), pressing too hard on possible evidence, constructing a dream of a Romano-British military Arthurian past. In that, he amplified the highly suppositious tracks of the even greater historian  R. G. Collingwood, whose sage remarks in the 1936 Oxford History of Roman Britain suddenly turned to two pages of fantasy about a possible Arthur leading a hardly possible cavalry  in the service of a briefly successful Celtic Britain’s defence against the Anglo-Saxons.  

Of course Arthur is himself pretty odd. Why do the English (and I speak as a Welshman) so honour someone who, if he existed, fought against those who spoke, in old and pretty scruffy form, the English language ? The answer is simple: until the first world war the English rightly revered King Alfred, soldier, scholar, administrator, only English king to deserve the title Great. But the first war and, worse, the second, made the Germanicity of the English origins all a bit embarrassing, and imaginative warmth swung firmly towards Arthur – who was not really conceived now as Welsh but more respectably as British and really as basically a Roman, so a decent chap having had the same education as all these fine classical scholars turned historians.

Even the allegedly material science of archaeology was Arthurianised and there was a huge following for Leslie Alcock’s Arthur’s Britain (1971) which felt it had found the king’s own home in Cadbury Camp – without any actual evidence beyond general suitabilities. It seemed fitting that the multi-selling Pelican had on the cover a beautiful romantic sunset, a code for both Celtic Britain and very possibly its twentieth century successor.

But not everyone has been hornswoggled by the Arthur myth. There were always some realistic scholars who felt Arthur was not much of a possibility as a real defender of the British faith,  and anyway  the literature about him was the really interesting thing – Joseph Ritson was one such in his 1825 Life, E. K. Chambers another in Arthur of Britain (1927), and there was a quite cool account of him in the original Dictionary of National Biography. But we had to wait for Nick Higham to put together a calm, scholarly and rather rigorous book about all the data of the real Arthur legend, or myth, and how it has developed over time. Higham is a substantial scholar of early Britain, paying attention to both the Germanic and the Celtic traditions: most commentators pick one or the other starting from Bede (a dedicated Saxonist).

This fine book is a sound guide to the considerable intricacies of what was said by the early sources. Gildas, serious Christian, inventive Latinist, and heavy-handed moralist was the first – he speaks of the battle of Baddon as taking place about forty years before he writes in about 540. He speaks warmly of Aurelius Ambrosius, the clearly part-Roman last of the legion-aware British generals, and sees him pushing back the Saxons in the mid-late fifth century. But – one of the great absences of culture – he never says who led the British at Baddon. Actually he only usually mentions leaders to say what evil sinners they were, except for A A. Higham takes us through this unique text with care and caution. Basically we don’t know what happened by who, and there is no actual Arthur mileage in it.

Bede respected Gildas, partly because he said the British were such useless sinners (he didn’t fancy the Saxons either, but Bede dressed them up rather well, once they were Christian). But Bede had no interest in the possibly Arthurian past, disliking the British (i.e. Welsh) anyway and never having gone far from his geordie monastic home. But his near-contemporary who wrote the Historia Brittonum from a distinctly British viewpoint did insert Arthur firmly into Gildas’s time-frame. We used to call this person Nennius, but the best scholars think that name belonged to a later reworker of a text in existence by 800 or before.

Higham writes very knowledgeably and fairly about this text that people used to think was a bit of a mess, but now seems like a remarkable effort to write the other side of Bede’s story, knowledgeable about Irish and northern British material as well as Welsh and Latin sources. The text speaks of the saintly Germanus, by no means Germanic, and the bold St Patrick, then turns to the warriors and lists Arthur’s great battles against the Saxons, all over Britain (people used to say that mobility proved he was on horseback, knowing nothing about Celtic warfare: if you didn’t find your enemy’s base and destroy it, you hadn’t won). It is clear that the Historia author knows some of the early Welsh materials, folkloric and semi-mythic, and  some stories about a great warrior Arthur. Higham avoids fancies carefully, and won’t go along with usual entrancing ideas like Aurelius had a son called Artorius or (I like this one) they were actually the same person. This is proper history.

And he gives the same treatment to the finest of all these early British  writers, Geoffrey of Monmouth, creator of the rich, influential, and fantastically successful Historia Regum Britanniae, `The History of the Kings of Britain`, coming from the mid 1130s, just after the death of Henry I. Geoffrey worked at Oxford, as a scholar and probably teacher, and understood the Norman hierarchy. With unaccountable brilliance he wrote a history of the British Celts that somehow aggrandised the Norman French as well. Following the Historia Brittonum, but with more bravura, his British arrived soon after Aeneas got to Rome, and were led by a Trojan called Brutus. So we are very grand and ancient. He told of centuries of fighting and squabbling, pastimes shared enthusiastically by Celts and Normans, and he also told how the great British leaders, Belinus and his brother Brennius, and indeed after them Arthur, had conquered France and Rome, just the sort of thing a Norman might mull over achieving  on a wet night in Winchester.

But Geoffrey embraced heroic myth as well as national politics: his Arthur has the mysterious double fatherhood of most superheroes; he is wise and generous when a young king; he defeats a vicious giant; he is conspired against from inside his family; he fights a great last battle and may perhaps not have died – maybe he is still in Avalon waiting to return, as Merlin has prophesied that the British will once more take over Britain. Geoffrey seems to have known how to sail close to the wind of Norman disapproval on behalf of his own Celtic roots..

Higham lays out the antiquity and also the modernity of this all very well and essentially shows how Geoffrey imagined Arthur like a glorious king of the suddenly emergent middle ages – a feudal lord, a leader of mounted warfare,  creating buildings of great splendour and so power, who kept the influence of the church firmly parallel to his project (we are told his uncle St David was his archbishop) – and above all a king whose will is exerted by his warrior-knights, those characters who were about to explode across the pages of story in high medieval romance.

This powerful account takes us most of the way through Higham’s book, but he does find space to offer a decent if brisk account of the later course of Arthurian legend, though he tends to keep its political valencies somewhat under wraps (Collingwood and the war don’t get an outing). For me Higham tends to be descriptive rather than searchingly analytic, but he covers a great deal of ground and refers to and describes accurately and, even better, calmly a very impressive range of material. No-one who wants to think seriously about the weird power of the Arthur myth – rather than about stupid conjectures about where he was born and so on – will be able to operate without a good grounding in the  excellent account by Higham, a very honourable exercise in bringing into contact the two elements of his sub-title, `myth-making’  and `history’.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Merlin, Wisdom and the Environment

Stephen Knight

This essay was written as an illustrated talk after the publication of my book on Merlin: Knowledge and Power Through the Ages  in 2009. I felt both that Myrddin/Merlin’s link to nature had not emerged satisfactorily as a connected theme in the book, as it had different valencies in different periods and contexts, and I also felt that the rich illustrations  of the figure deserved showing on a larger screen than available in the book – and I also wanted to begin and end with the image of Merlin as a  stag visiting Rome, which I had wanted to have on the cover, but the publishers preferred Howard Pyle: I am not sure whether the cheapness of  black and white or the patriotic Americanness of this image was its main attraction for them. In appropriately Merlinesque mode the paper has been given around the world, Houston, Perth, Sydney, Bologna, as well as back home in Cardiff. As I had the references available in the book, I put them in here as footnotes: I have thought it (and the pix) would make a good piece for a festschrift for someone I really like and admire, and am waiting for Tom Hahn’s to be proposed.



In a recent book I have argued that in the stories about him Merlin consistently represents knowledge,  but a knowledge that not only changes its nature in terms of changing understandings of what knowledge it, but also a knowledge whose evaluation changes quite radically through consistent encounters with power, especially the power of  secular authority. Whether he is an early Celtic mocker of heroic society, a Christian critic of medieval secularity, or an idealistic opponent of modern materialism, Merlin is consistently at odds with the power structures of a period and so his myth realises central concerns and problems of those periods.

The book argues that out in some detail and I hope with some credibility. Here I want to turn to something else which is at time represented in the book, but  is never followed up there because it seemed a different, if inherently interwoven, story about the meaning of the Merlin myth. This is the curious, even compelling, fact that Merlin consistently has a relationship with what we now tend to call the environment, the natural world and its implied values, rather than with the created world, social and material, of human society. But here too his meaning and its relationship with its opposites is neither stable nor consistent through time, and so tracing its path can offer an understanding of changing relationships between knowledge and the environment,  and of their opposites -- the environmental ignorance and destructivity that are today  all too evident and deeply problematic. 


1. Apple Tree and Little Pig

We first hear of Merlin under the name Myrddin, in early Welsh poetry, set in early Cumbria, still Celtic, recorded by about 1000.[i] In “Apple-Tree”, Myrddin speaks:

Sweet apple tree, growing in a glade,
a treasure hidden from the lords of Rhydderch.
With a crowd round its base, a host around it,
a delight to them, brave warriors.
Now Gwenddydd loves me not, nor welcomes me,
and I am hated by Gwasawg, Rhydderch’s ally.
I have destroyed her son and daughter,
death takes everyone; why does he not welcome me?
After Gwenddolau, no lords revere me,
no sport delights me, no lover seeks me out.
In the battle of Arfderydd, my torque was gold,
today I am no treasure to a swan-like girl. (Apple Tree,  35-46)                   


Myrddin  is an exile, in the forest. The story is that after the battle of Arfderydd in 573, just north of Carlisle, he suffered what we now call war trauma, having seen friends and relatives die, some apparently at his own hands. This was a real battle: maybe he was a real lord of Celtic Cumbria. But the point of the poems is the distance between Myrddin and the heroic court.[ii] The “Apple Tree” poem indicates clearly the power of nature: each stanza starts by invoking a “Sweet apple tree”: with its “tender blossoms” (47). The tree’s “special virtue” (83) is evidently a symbol of Myrddin’s desocialized natural wisdom. His only associate is another other worldly feature, the `Little Pig’ he addresses, in another poem.

Oian little pig ! It is clear day.
Hear the voice of the water birds, sad voices.
Years and long days will be ours,
and unjust lords, fruits withering
and bishops will support thieves, churches be vile,
and monks will earn their load of sins. 

The poems clearly deplore the result of heroic action and a question asked a bout Arfderydd -- “where is its cause” (23) -- itself points to a critique of heroic society: Welsh tradition records the view that this battle was fought for no good reason.[iii] The idea of a prince who has been traumatized in battle and takes to the wild, even to madness, is well-known in Celtic tradition, and the Myrddin story seems the earliest known. A well-known variant is the Irish story of Suibhne Geilt, “Sweeney the Wild.”

These poems offer the original Myrddin. He is not a prophet: he merely lives in alterity, and so implicitly criticizes heroic society, occasionally explicitly. As these stories were remembered in Wales, under Anglo-Saxon attack, the figure of alteritous knowledge becomes a voice for Welsh resistance, prophesying a British triumph. That is the second Myrddin, who is worked into the Cumbrian Myrddin texts in the process of transmission. When speaking of war in Wales Myrddin 2, is also place-linked, but now not outside the battle but at its Welsh locations:

And I will prophesy the battle on the Iddon,
and the battle of Machafwy, and the battle of Afon,
and the battle of Cors Mochno, and the battle in Môn,
and the battle of Cyminod, and the battle of Caerleon,
and the battle of Aber Gwaith, and the battle of Ieithion
and when Dyfed may be made a borderland for stags
a youth will rise, good for the Britons. (Little Pig, 174-80)

For Myrddin the environment can be a place of alterity or a heartland, or both.

2. Stag, leaf and maritime science
Geoffrey of Monmouth, a twelfth-century Welshman writing in Latin,  first dealt with Merlin his Historia Regum Britanniae of c.1138, more interesting in this context is his later Vita Merlini, “The Life of Merlin” (c.1150) starts in touch with the Cumbrian material: after the battle Merlin went mad and took to the woods. In winter he suffered, and addressed a wolf, his “dear companion”. Then comes a newly recorded but surely old story.
Merlin returned to court but the crowds drove him mad again. The king detained him in chains, and tried to calm him with music. One day the queen entered, and the king took a leaf from her hair. Merlin laughed. The king pressed him for an explanation, and in return for a promise of freedom, he explained – the leaf was there from the queen’s encounter with her lover in “the undergrowth” (p. 67).  He reads the natural signs to uncover social disorder.  The queen was angry, and he left after saying his wife could re-marry, if the husband avoided him, and he would attend the wedding “with fine gifts” (p. 73). Back in the forest Merlin realized from the stars and planets that his wife was re-marrying. He mounted a stag, drove stags, does and she-goats in three lines before him and went to court.  The bridegroom laughed at the sight: Merlin ripped off the stag’s horns and threw them through the man’s head, killing him. Here Merlin is aggressively natural –but he is not so always. He leaves for the woods, despite his sister’s pleading him to stay. He asked her to provide for him a house with seventy doors and seventy windows so he could watch the stars, and seventy secretaries to record his words.

Taliesin, the famous bard and visionary, visits Merlin and, at his request, explains wind and rain, the sea, types of fish, then the topography of Britain and, briefly, other places. After the environment they briefly discuss history for a while, but hear a new spring has broken out; they go to it. Merlin is made sane by the spring. Taliesin explains types of health-giving waters around the world. Chieftains and leaders come to see the new spring, and Merlin is asked to resume his kingship. He says he is too old and will remain happily in the forest of Calidon and . explains the nature of types of bird.

The natural world is elevated with classical learning, but there are still Welsh connections. The horn-throwing Merlin seems linked to Cernunnos, the Celtic stag-horned god, represented on a silver cauldron preserved in Denmark as himself bearing horns and having as his animal familiar a stag with the same horns. It may not be accidental that the horned god's other animal familiar is a serpent, representing wisdom, a figure which may, as I will suggest, be partly implied in Geoffrey’s deployment of the name Merlin. 

In his earlier Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey does deploy some environmental elements, still in awkward relation with political life: this interface is a  normal feature of Merlin and the environment. The new name has some environmental features: in early Welsh spelling Myrddin is represented as “Merdin”, and to Latinize this as “Merdinus” would produce a name redolent of the French word merde, “excrement”, as Gaston Paris long ago noted.[iv] Avoiding this earthiness, Geoffrey neatly revised the name as “Merlinus” to fit his new sociocultural context – and perhaps a little more positive environmentalism. While most feel that the name refers to the merlin, smallest of the European hawks, it is not evident that this meaning was then known: the Latin world merula, which is probably the source, means both bird and fish (modern French merle, blackbird and merlan, whiting, are both derived from it). I suggest Geoffrey found a name that suggested both natural liberty and wisdom. Geoffrey may even have imagined Merlin’s animal avatar as a winged serpent, the epitome of wisdom, and so even a dragon, the creature he first encounters and recognizes, deep beneath the ground when Vortigern’s tower collapses. Maybe that was a family matter.

Environmental connections continue among the politics. Merlin is found among the Gewissei, at Galabes Spring “where he often went”  and suggests that as Aurelius wishes to build a monument to the men fallen in the war he should bring from Ireland “the choir of the giants” from Mount Killare, valuable healing stones, moved in the past from Africa by giants.  Uther and an army go for the stones, with Merlin’s advice. They defeat the Irish but cannot move the stones. Merlin laughs and “with his own machinery” moves the stones to Amesbury. A knowledge versus power moment, showing. Merlin is not simply at the beck and call of a king, however powerful, this also has natural force, not magical. Much the same is true when Uther becomes Gorlois to conceive Arthur. According to Geoffrey, the solution is more a matter of natural knowledge than magic: “By my drugs I know how to give you the precise appearance of Gorlois” (pp. 206-07) and so the king becomes identical to his enemy.

 In the History Merlin has come close to royal power – though he never meets Arthur, just arranges his conception. He is also centrally involved in royal and national prophecies. He is not really in a state of alterity now. The next few centuries will make it very clear that political Merlin, as grand vizier to feudal monarchs, is not just environmental Merlin – or as I put it in my book Advice displaces Wisdom.. But just as natural Myrddin engaged with social politics, so socio-political Merlin has clear memories of his natural force, constrained as it might be.


3 From Nature to Grand Vizier

Geoffrey’ story became the structure against which detailed thirteenth-century French accounts of Arthur developed. At first Merlin became a Christian authority figure, the prophet of the grail who advised Uther and then Arthur to improve themselves. But this Christian-critic Merlin faded away: I think his natural connection made him too unorthodox for this kind of knowledge, though Robert tried to rechannel this alterity by making Merlin the son of the devil rescued for the church. In the massive prose Vulgate Merlin acted as in fully secular mode, as adviser and guide to Arthur, including in military terms. But both his natural connections and the early Celtic stories  haunted the texts and unsettled their secular  certainty.

One figure is located in the distant country – usually Northumberland, is Blaise, who writes down the stories Merlin tells him. Some feel this name comes from Welsh blaidd, Breton bleizh, meaning wolf, and they relate this to the old grey wolf that Merlin befriends in his Vita.[v] But environmentally attractive as this might be, it is very unlikely: the name comes from a natural but different source: from Bleddri, in French Bleheris, a real oral story-teller. He is clericised as a scribe – and very often illustrated. He is like a hermit, that environmentalised church source of wisdom, used very much in the Grail stories to oppose secular chivalry. 

Another figure has also been wrongly traced to Welsh roots: Vivien, the main figure who stops Merlin’s activities. Wisdom has to leave the story, presumably so it can end badly, though sometimes he returns for a rueful final comment. Some thought her name come from the word chwifleian in the Myrddin poems. An attractive idea, and it will recur in the 19thC,  but not true. It is a noun for `pale wanderer‘: her name is just a misreading, and misgendering, of the British saint Ninian. Her impact is the reflex of Blaise: where he trains and records Merlin she learns from and silences him. But she too is environmentally linked: Melrin ends up in a tomb or a cave, somewhere in a forest. She is also of course natural in her beauty and sensuality – though it is Merlin’s brains not body she wants.

Merlin does not always disappear from the story: he can retire, as in the Vita,  but this is in my view only in the texts where he does not confront secular power too directly. In the Perceval written or inspired by Robert de Boron, when the grail quest is over Merlin takes to a tower outside the castle, called an “esplumoir”. The word, it is generally agreed, refers to a moulting cage, as would be inhabited by a real merlin in its inactive time.[vi]  Nature is often disconcertingly close to the surface of the text, challenging the power of society.

One related feature is what most call disguise, and I call transformation: there is no original Merlin to be disguised, he always just symbolizes knowledge and has many versions. He takes many forms – but not courtly or aristocratic ones. He transforms as an ugly deformed herdsman from Northumberland, an old white-haired man, Uther’s mistress's serving boy, a small boy, a blind beggar with a dog: this too is a knowledge power element, in that his knowledge surpasses social power, but it is environmentally linked, as in the big boots of the peasant, the animals he handles when transformed and, the one I like most, the club he bears as a peasant boy.

Merlin is very rarely magical: his prophecies are in French linked to the narrative, but that is probably because they weren’t interested in the British political future. But his magical powers are distinctly environmental, especially the way he deals with Arthur’s enemies. He sets their tents on fire, then  ine then the major battle that follows, the king’s enemies faced “a great wind and storm that Merlin sent against them and a fog” (I.229). Later he raises a river and also a fog to help defeat the ten thousand Saxons who have renewed their attack on Britain in Arthur’s realm (I.298). When Merlin  brings the Breton army to Arthur he, in the spirit of  those famous warrior-priests, “led them riding in front on a great black horse” (I.228).

With the same mix of older patterns and new commitments, he says to Arthur, after telling him the story of his own birth:

“I want to keep going back to the woods; and this is by the nature that came to me from the one who sired me, for he does not seek out any companionship that might come above from God. But I do not go into the wood for fellowship with him, but to keep company with Blaise, the holy man.” (I.221)

As clearly in contact with the Celtic trickster are some digressions later in the Vulgate version, where the author seems to be amusing himself and his audience with exotic stories. The longest begins with him suddenly appearing in “the wide and deep forests of the country around Rome” (I.323) as a “black-skinned wild-haired, bearded and shoeless” and in “a ragged tunic” (I.324): shortly he will run into Julius Caesar’s palace  in the form of a stag and interpret his dream about a sow and twelve wolf-cubs. Following this startling opening comes a summary of the plot of the romance Silence, only found today in one manuscript, from the later thirteenth century[vii] about a young woman disguised as a man who is desired by the lascivious empress. Merlin, in human shape, with satiric laughter at various ironic situations, explains all and the empress is executed, along with her twelve lovers – the sow and the wolf-cubs from the emperor’s dream.

A retrospective digression  involves Merlin taking Arthur, on his anti-Roman European tour, to Lausanne, where he tells him about the devil cat of that region – a story itself reminiscent of the giant Cath Palug of Welsh tradition which survived in French and Creole myth as “le chapalu” and made a reappearance in film in 1965 in the form of Jane Fonda as Cat Ballou, the female gunslinger.

Merlin’s end also has an environmental development. Vivien leave him entombed in some way, and this becomes dynamised in Christian form, much as Blaise was. There develops a recurrent story motif about a knight finding by accident Merlin’s grave and receiving advice and prophecies. One story called La Conte del Brait (“The Story of the Cry”),[viii] has not survived in French, but has a major development in Il Baladro del Sabio Merlino, (“The Cry of the Wise Merlin”), a late medieval story in both Spanish and Portuguese.[ix] The grave-voice story is in Christian terms a version of the Cumbrian exile, alone, wretched, speaking truth to power. It is an image, that will show renewed power in the nineteenth century.

But before that both Merlin’s power to use knowledge critically and also his environmental connections were largely sidelined in the late medieval and early modern  centuries when royal power came to dominate his treatment. This is true of the English reworkings of the story, where Arthur becomes a figure of national leadership – English now rather than British and definitely rather than Welsh, his only function is as a prophet of Arthurian grandeur and eventual tragedy, and this pattern runs right through to Malory.

4. Merlin versus the Renaissance

In Book Three of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso Merlin prophesies from his tomb about Bradamant and the grandeur of the D'Este family.[x] This aggrandises the medieval single knight receiving advice, and then the idea of a cave  is massively amplified: here Merlin

… in milke white marble did engrave
Strange stories which things future strangely taught.
The verie images seemd life to have,
And saving they were dumbe, you would have thought
Both by their looks and by their lively features
That they had mov’d and had bin living creatures. (XXVI.30, 3-8??)

Advice from the grave goes further politically upmarket in Book 33 when Bradamant sees  murals about the future wars of France painted by “the British Merline”: (XXXIII.3,7):

He made by Magicke art that stately hall,
And by the selfe same art he causd to be
Straunge histories ingraved on the wall (XXXIII. 4, 1-3)

Merlin as a renaissance mage serving royal power is developed by Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene (1590-96). Merlin made Arthur’s shield:

But all of Diamond perfect pure and cleene
It framed was, one massie entire mold,
Hewen out of adamant rocke with engines keene.[xi]

He made a magic mirror for King Ryence, and his daughter Britomart sees her future husband Artegall through a magic glass he made. Merlin’s cave is like an industrial hell:

And there such ghastly noise of yron chaines,
And brasen Cauldrons thou shalt rombling heare,
Which thousand sprights with long enduring paines
Doe tosse, that it will stonne they feeble braines,
And oftentimes great grones, and grieuous stoundes,
When too huge toile and labour them constraines:  (III.3.9,2-7)

They were building “brazen walle” around Carmarthen. This is a strange sequence. Both Ariosto and Spenser see Merlin as mage and artificer, but both impose limits on his power, his enviromentally empowering knowledge. Ariosto uses Melissa like a classical Vivien, Spenser just makes Merlin see his terrifying end. This period does the same with prophecy: renaissance Merlin only prophesies up to the present, to back-validate the present ruler. He would be updated about every generation to add more grand monarchs, but never into: time had stopped with god’s anointed.

Merlin’s natural connections were now forgotten, but they were marginalised. Michael Drayton’s Polyolbion (the 1612 first version) locates Merlin in Monmouth, Carmarthen and Snowdon, but with little interest in prophecy disseminate his power in a folkloric way, treating him like a tutelary deity of the British landscape.

Of Merlin and his skill what Region doth not heare ?
The world shall still be full of Merlin everie where. (p.101, 159-60)


That environmentalised demoticism is matched by the now discernible popular Merlin.
A pamphlet by Richard Johnson survives from 1621 about Tom Thumb. In King Arthur’s time an old man sent his elderly barren wife to Merlin in quest of a child, even a tiny one: Tom is born and has a lively career at Arthur’s court.  This story will be persistent, and have special anti-heroic, even anti-liberal, political meaning in the eighteenth century, but here it just indicates the cross-cultural potential of popular Merlin in the early modern period.

Another instance is The Birth of Merlin, a play by William Rowley written by 1612. A major figure is the clown, Merlin’s doltish peasant uncle. Merlin is young and both a patriotic-historic seer and the folkloric comic trickster. They cross Britain in a comic and melodramatic narrative mixing up a playful devil and the Saxon invasions –some thought Shakespeare was involved, and it has his kind of multi-tonality, if not his skill and creative judgement. The popular and environmental Merlin is also found in the royalist pamphlet of 1641 Thomas Heywood, The Life of Merlin Sirnamed Ambrosius.[xii] Merlin could offer at Vortigern’s court aerial hunting, with flying hares and dogs, and a tournament enlivened by pigmy archers, but he was seen as firmly set in a Britain both natural and mythical.

Equally localized and demotic were the very popular Merlins, tiny paper almanacks with sunrise and sunset, tides, phases of the moon and a record of market prices: in a popular and everyday way, deeply environmental. These certainly grounded Merlin and were even involved in civil-war politics,. William Lilly’s Merlinus Anglicus Junior, a collection of new prophecies, sold out in a week in 1644 in 1647 and he started a long-running series of Merlini Anglici Ephemeris, and had many rivals and successors, into the eighteenth century.

At a loftier level Merlin was cut adrift both from political prophecy and popular locational energy but still as in Ariosto and Spenser had some esoteric link with the natural world. Where Ariosto’s Merlin created prince-pleasing frescoes in his cave and Spenser’s Merlin built a defensive wall of brass, Dryden’s genius of the British resistance – and also the Stuart symbolic revanche -- has contact with Philidel, an “Airy Spirit”

… I have view’d thee in my Magick Glass,
Making thy moan, among the Midnight Wolves,
That Bay the silent Moon: Speak, I conjure thee.
`Tis Merlin bids thee, at whose awful Wand,
The pale Ghost quivers, and the grim Fiend gasps. (II.1, 7-12)

But  this royally servile Merlin lacks nature-connected powers:

There’s not a Tree in that Inchanted Grove
But numbred out, and given by tale to Fiends;
And under every Leaf a Spirit couch’d.
But by what Method to resolve those Charms,
Is yet unknown to me. (III.1, 26-30)

But Dryden’s Stuart faith embraces Whig business practices as Merlin finally predicts to Arthur as he enfolds Saxons vigour and future mercantile exploitations of the environment:

Behould what Rouling Ages shall produce:
The Wealth, the Loves, the Glories of our Isle,
which yet like Golden Oar, unripe in Beds,
Expect the Warm Indulgency of Heav’n
To call ‘em forth to Light  (V.2, 76-85)

That multifarious Merlin did not survive: for the Tory Fielding he was a comic buffoon, in both the 1730 Tom Thumb: A Tragedy, and its 1731 sophistication into The Tragedy of Tragedies: The Life and Death of Tom Thumb.[xiii] “Merlin by name, a Conjuror by Trade” he sings about “the mystick getting of Tom Thumb” (p. 50). He can have natural powers: in the musical version by Eliza Haywood, The Opera of Operas of 1733 he addresses the “rav’nous Cow”  which has swallowed Tom in one of the great comic couplets of the British stage:

Now, by emetick Power, Red Cannibal,
Cast up thy Prisoner, England’s Hannibal. (p. 217)


5.Gothic Merlin

Fielding’s Tory mockery of natural wisdom was almost immediately contradicted. George II’s queen, Caroline of Anspach, a Whig intellectual, established in 1732 at Richmond, a “Hermitage” dedicated to learning with busts of Newton, Boyle and Locke. By summer 1735 she had built nearby a cottage with gothic windows and thatched roof, set into a hill, and known as “Merlin’s Cave”. Its six life-size wax images are Merlin and his male secretary,  Queen Elizabeth, Henry VII’s queen Margaret, and two wise women, one renaissance, either Britomart or Bradamante, one classical, Minerva or Melissa. Reclaiming the cave from the renaissance as natural, modest and, intriguingly, gender-aware, the cave it is  knowledge-linked, and the first instance of Gothic Merlin. Very shortly a new element was added. Celebrating the cave the Welsh poet Jane Brereton, herself writing as Melissa, sees Merlin in part as a forerunner of modern science like Newton’s, but also as a sort of Celtic bard who himself declaims:

I study’d Nature, through her various Ways;
And chaunted to this Harp, prophetick Lays (p. 7)

Thomas Gray’s poem The Bard and Thomas Jones’s very influential painting `The Bard’ were to disseminate this figure. They did not name him Merlin: I think he had become too much mocked and too popular for that. But the Celtic-Gothic link (in the 18thC the two were close) was of interest to some opinion-makers: Thomas Warton’s “The Grave of king Arthur,” tells how an “elfin queen” bore Arthur’s body to Avalon:

In Merlin’s agate-axled car
To her green isle’s enamel’d steep
Far in the navel of the deep.[xiv]

The young Cornish-raised scientist like Humphrey Davy, himself a master of cleverness, wrote in a poem of about 1795 about “mighty Merlin”, “The Master of the spell”, a figure of “anguish” with a “dull dark eye” at his highly gothic death in “a dark cave upon the flinty rock”.[xv]

But these were only forerunners, and Merlin’s return to the cultural mainstream would be by a much more roundabout route. Mainstream English Romanticism is not at all favourable to Merlin – or indeed, for that matter to Arthur, although their narratives were readily available in selections and editions.[xvi] Their preferred medievalism was the plain-man long-suffering moralism of the ballads, and they basically agreed with the renaissance view of Merlin as mere cleverness, but could see no use for him as such.

The major English Romantics all name-checked Merlin, but in narrative he was negative: Scott’s The Bridal of Triermain (1813) has him enchanting Arthur’s illegitimate daughter Gyneth to sleep for malign purposes;  in Wordsworth’s 1828 “The Egyptian Maid” Merlin is malign nature, sinking the maiden’s ship and then, under pressure from Nina, Wordsworth’s version of Vivien, flying her to Caerleon in “The very swiftest of thy cars” (109),  drawn by “two mute Swans” (179, 177): it all ends well, but not by Merlin’s hands. An equally malign Merlin appears in  “The Masque of Gwendolen” by the much underrated medievalist poet Richard Heber. Like a Celtic Lucifer, or a darkened version of the renaissance Merlin, he offers Gwendolen:

… a regal throne
Of solid adamant, hill above hill,
Ten furlongs high, to match whose altitude
Plinlinmon fails, and Idris’ stony chair
Sinks like an infant’s bauble.   (p. 207)

She rejects him; he turns her into a “ghastly spectre”, and the plot of the Wife of Bath’s tale is used to frustrate his malice.

A curious  aside to the romantics negative and naturally evil Merlin is in the small group of minor poets who set the story of Arthur in the north –the Arctic Arthur school as I call them in a recent essay – and use Merlin as his benign helper, continuing the British politicised grand vizier tradition, but in the context of Ossian and the notion of the northern heroic world: I am referring to Richard Hole, 1789, John Thelwall 1800 (check)   and Henry Milman 1818 here, and the main figure, Bulwer Lytton’s 1848 stanzaic epic King Arthur.

Tennyson links back to this Romantic negativism. The first of the Idylls of the Kings he wrote, apart from the previous `Morte D’Arthur’,  became “Merlin and Vivien”[xvii] From the start, it is both fateful and natural. It starts  “A storm was coming”: and that storm will finally see Merlin swamped by Vivien’s sexuality and yield to her is knowledge. He is only a clever man of science with no moral wisdom – Darwin is no doubt the model. Tennyson disposes of the man of natural wisdom in  order to persevere with his king of moral value. He introduces him as

… the most famous man of all those times,
Merlin, who knew the range of all their arts,
Had built the King his havens, ships and halls,
Was also Bard, and knew the starry heavens;
The people call’d him Wizard;  (164-8)

His failing is as natural as his skills, and Vivien gets him through her own natural power:

The pale blood of the wizard at her touch
Took gayer colours like an opal warm’d.     (947-8)

The myth that opals, through their color variation, are unlucky, is behind the image.[xviii] Ss the storm rages, animality takes over: Merlin’s wish for love in age is fulfilled in lust in a decidedly malign environmental context: 

… she call’d him lord and liege,
Her seer, her bard, her silver star of eve,
Her God, her Merlin, the one passionate love
Of her whole life; and ever overhead
Bellow’d the tempest, and the rotten branch
Snapt in the rushing of the river-rain
Above them; and in change of glare and gloom
Her eye and neck glittering went and came;
Till now the storm its burst of passion spent,
Moaning and calling out of other lands,
Had left the ravaged woodland yet once more
To peace; and what should not have been had been,  (951-62)

However, if this is Merlin’s nadir Tennyson will also finally advert to his approaching zenith. He had never rejected Merlin’s role as a bard: in 1852 Tennyson had published two poems under the pseudonym Merlin.[xix] In what he meant as his only autobiographical poem, “Merlin and the Gleam”(1889),[xx] a survey of his poetic life. Its opening states:

I  am Merlin
And I am dying,
I am Merlin
Who follow The Gleam. (7-10)

Tennyson identified “The Gleam” with Nimue and “the higher poetic imagination”, drawing on the Celtic tradition that Vivien was Myrddin’s `chwifleian’. Cumbria was also the source of the important development of a new and old Merlin, the man of nature, or, more correctly, Der Naturmensch..

6 Der Naturmensch


The German Romantics conceived from Celtic sources a modern Merlin, now again positively set in the context of nature. The Celtic Myrddin found in Ellis’s Specimens of Early English Metrical Romances (1805) inspired Ludwig Uhland’s “Merlin der Wilde” (1829). Merlin sits “In wooded isolation”,  on a mossy stone by a lake and listens to the  “the spirit of the world”(“der Geist der Welt”).  This universalized version of the Cumbrian Myrddin develops its source: a hart carries Merlin off to the king’s castle. The king asks to have a demonstration of “die Spruche” (“the wisdom”) Merlin has learnt in the wild, and asks him to explain something:  last night the king thought he heard whispering, like lovers, by the linden tree. The king's daughter comes in, Merlin takes from her hair a linden leaf and explains that the voices were the king's daughter kissing her lover – the ancient story is euphemised. Uhland also stresses that it is nature that has answered the question, and Merlin returns to the forest, lying on the moss, where his voice still sounds.

Karl Immerman’s early “Merlins Grab” (1818) celebrated Merlin as a  “Naturmensch”. A young man goes to consult the sage: the grave now has a romantic gothic setting, in the forest, by a fast-running river, in a grotto, lit by a red glare. Merlin speaks about the conflict on earth between the clear-sighted brave and the narrow-minded deaf: to attain virtue requires hardship, faith, strength: essentially “All Happiness comes from inside”.[xxi]  Immerman's major work, Merlin: Eine Mythe, is an epic medieval Christian drama but  in 1833 he wrote “Merlin im tiefen Grabe” (“Merlin in the deep grave”),[xxii] which seems in effect a second epilogue to, almost an apology for, Merlin: Eine Mythe as people do not hear his message from the grave.

Other nineteenth-century German Merlins following the Naturmensch concept include: Heinrich Heine in  saying his “Romancero” (1851)  “I envy you, dear colleague Merlin, these trees and the fresh breezes blowing through them.”[xxiii] In the same spirit Nicolaus Lenau starts one of his 1840s  “Waldlieder” (“Wood-songs”) sees Merlin as linked to the muse of poetry: “In the chalice of finest moss,  Sounds the eternal poem”.[xxiv]

French writers also developed a positive romantic Merlin. The Breton Hersart de La Villemarqué included Merlin in his 1842 Contes populaires des ancient Bretons  and Edgar Quinet’s long novel Merlin l’enchanteur (1860) represented Merlin as the “patron of France”.[xxv]  Both are political-historical rather than natural, but do give Merlin a sort of druidic leadership as well. That concept is celebrated  by Guillaume Apollinaire in his potent prose poem L’Enchanteur Pourrisant (“The Decomposing Enchanter”), published in 1909 with superb illustrations in bold black brush drawings by André Derain. PIC Apollinaire –Wilhelm de Kostrowitsky -- worked on thiswhen living in the Ardennes forest[xxvi] and he transmutes the romantic druid and the Naturmensch into the disembodied claims of art itself. He restated this in one of his finest poems, “Merlin et la vieille Femme” (“Merlin and the Old Woman”, 1912). Merlin explores the poetic process:

I made white gestures in the wilderness
Lemurs ran swarming through my nightmares
My leaps and twirls expressed that bliss
Which is an effect of art and nothing more (p. 97)

And he his own vitality with his art:

The lady awaiting me is called Vivian
And when comes a springtime of new sorrow
Couched among coltsfoot and sweet marjoram
For ever I live on beneath the hawthorn flowers (p. 99)

Ralph Waldo Emerson transplanted very influentially the continental Romantic initiative, when he took Merlin as a figure of the poetic muse and its transcendental power in his essay on “Poetry and the Imagination”(1841?) and in `Merlin I’, published in Poems 1847:

The kingly bard
Must smite the chords rudely and hard,
As with hammer or with mace;
That they may render back
Artful thunder, which conveys
Secrets of the solar track,
Sparks of supersolar blaze
Merlin’s blows are strokes of fate.[xxvii]

And more specifically in “Merlin’s Song”:

Of Merlin wise I learned a song, --
Sing it low, or sing it loud,
It is mightier than the strong,
And punishes the proud.
I sing it to the surging crowd, --
Good men it will calm and cheer,
Bad men it will chain and cage.
In the heart of music peals a strain
Which only angels hear;
Whether it waken joy or rage,
Hushed myriads hark in vain,
Yet they who hear it shed their age,
And take their youth again. (p. 1222)

The transcendental druidic Merlin, linking nature and poetry returns to Tennyson, as has been shown, and goes much further, as will be shown, but there were still other versions. In A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur (1889) Mark Twain makes Merlin a dark force of the past as he had been for the English Romantics, and a large number of poems and plays around the turn of the century rework the medieval advisory Merlin: his role is usually to fail to avert the Arthurian tragedy. But the wise Naturmensch resurrected by the German Romantics was also the dynamo for the next, and still current, major meaning of Merlin, strongly environmental in many ways, namely Merlin the educator.

7. Professor Merlin

There had been traces of this idea in the past, but it had never settled in a consistent formation. In Spenser Merlin  supervised  Prince Arthur’s education in north-east Wales near the river Dee, but only by appointing a tutor. In Bulwer Lytton’s much overlooked King Arthur of 1848 the heavily-bearded Merlin is like a “wizard on a Druid throne” (I. 38 and 41), and he has also been Arthur’s quasi-paternal educator in “the young hopeful day When the child stood by the great prophet’s knee, And drank high thoughts to strengthen years to be.” (I. 41).

America was more practical: as Alan Lupack has shown, Merlin as educator was realized in the Arthurian boys’ groups, notably those founded by William Byron Forbush well before the Scout movement took off in Britain in 1907.[xxviii] Boys were encouraged to join as “Knights of King Arthur”; each group was called a “Castle”, led by an adult “Merlin”: a guide for the guides was The Merlin’s Book of Advanced Work [xxix]. Groups for girls, or “Queens of Avalon”, were led by Ladies of the Lake. 

A more sophisticated educational Merlin emerged in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s lengthy and fine poem Merlin (1917). He is just a clever insightful man: his strong connection with nature is actually a withdrawal from the real troublesome world: he joins Vivien in Broceliande rather than continue advising Arthur, but returns to see the final disaster. This is a powerful and modernist realization of the failure of knowledge, or now education, to change the tragic path of history: and the date 1917 is crucial. For the world as well as Merlin, the final words are bitterly true:

Colder blew the wind
Across the world, and on it heavier lay
The shadow and the burden of the night;
And there was darkness over Camelot. (2623-6)

Poetry did not forget Merlin the visionary adviser to a world in crisis. For a Georgian like Noyes he was limited to sentimental nature-loving:

Tell me Merlin – it is I
Who call thee, after a thousand Springs, --
Tell me by what wizardry
The white foam wake sin whiter wings,
Where surf and sea-gulls toss and cry
Like sister-flakes, as they mount and fly,
Flakes that the great sea flings on high,
To kiss each other and die ?  (p.247)

But stronger minded poets could see more in the potential of Merlin as darkly educational voice: examples are

“Merlin” by Edwin Muir (1927):

O Merlin in your crystal cave
Deep in the diamond of the day,
Will there ever be a singer
Whose music will smooth away
The furrow drawn by Adam’s finger
Across the meadow and the wave ? (p.80)

Possibly more positive is Thom Gunn’s “Merlin in the Cave: He Speculates Without a Book”[xxx] where Merlin reviews his life through images of nature:

But I must act, and make
The meaning in each movement that I take.
Rook, bee, you are the whole and not a part.
This is an end. And yet another start. (p.84)

Gunn’s sense of the surviving value of nature and animal life is recreated by Geoffrey Hill in “Merlin” [xxxi] and apparently spoken in his voice:

Arthur, Elaine, Mordred; they are all gone
Among the raftered galleries of bone.
By the long barrows of Logres they are made one,
And over their city stands the pinnacled corn. (p.8)

A similar position is taken by the Leslie Norris, a Welsh poet, long based in America, in “Merlin and the Snake’s Egg”, [xxxii] where he is actually – and referring back to the Myrddin tradition -- become part of nature

Feathers sprout from his arms,
His nose is an owl’s hooked nose,
His eyes are the owl’s round eyes,
Silent and soft he flies. (p.45)

Yet it is the natural wisdom of his dog, Glain, who finds that totem of true wisdom, the serpent’s egg.

For the major post-war Welsh poet  R. S. Thomas , in “Taliesin 1952”, [xxxiii] Merlin -- clearly here the Celtic Myrddin -- is just one of the voices of his despair:

I have been Merlin wandering the woods
Of a far country, where the winds waken
Unnatural voiced, my mind broken
By sudden acquaintance with man’s rage. (p. 105)


The educational implications of natural Merlin in these poets was fulfilled with some power and impact by a T. H. White, who combined being a schoolmaster with deep dedication to nature, and condensed that with a deep knowledge of Malory. There is no sign that White had read the Myrddin poems or the German Romantics: rather, it is as if Tennyson and the Gleam and through Emerson, English romanticism has caught up and can deploy Merlin as means of educating the Wordsworthian child. But now in the 1930s the development of an English Naturmensch has political as well as moral meaning: what Wart, or Arthur, learns as a fish or a hawk is both to see the structures of power in the social world and also to learn ways in which the individual can gain personal authority and seek to improve social politics. The original story was substantially different: in the 1938 The Sword in the Stone Arthur met cannibals, a grass-snake and the comic, if also unsettling, Madame Mim. This material was replaced in the 1958 four-book version by more overtly political and moral sequences (the fascists ants and the communal geese) from The Book of Merlyn written in 1942 but not published until 1977.[xxxiv]

The natural wisdom Arthur learns from the animals is noble but ineffective. The darker side of nature in human cruelty and violence, is also much realized through the book, both personally and politically. In many ways White magnifies the insights of Robinson, though there is no sign of a source relationship. The long-unpublished fifth book returns to a world of animals in a badger’s den which is just like a Cambridge dons’ common room, and all the wise analysis just boils down to Arthur’s human courage in the face of violence.[xxxv] A fair position for 1942, and there is a resonance here with Clemence Dane’s contemporary radio drama series, The Saviours, where Merlin supervises a parade of British heroes through history, from King Arthur to the Unknown Soldier.

In White the educator Merlyn returns to supervise in natural mode the tragic outcome, and this has become a common feature found in the film Excalibur, where Merlin is a  national Naturmensch bearing a new age mantra that the land and the king are one.
A stronger version of the educational Naturmensch is in the major German performance piece Merlin oder Das wüste Land Tankred Dorst and Ursula Ehler (1981).[xxxvi] Merlin is the central figure, re-energizing the sage’s knowledge and values as democratic principles in a world seen as ravaged by capitalist imperialism and so brought to tragedy.

Merlin’s final return or, as in Robinson, his survival to the gloomy end is also common in a whole range of historical novels, which have become the dominant mode of disseminating the stories of Arthur and Merlin and routinely show Merlin as Arthur’s tutor. They are often child-oriented like White, and they recurrently assert the value of nature. Merlin can be stigmatized as too Welsh to be of value as in the English writers Godfrey Turton, The Emperor Arthur (1968) by and John Gloag, Artorius Rex (1977). But it is more normal for his Celticity to be celebrated as both natural and essentially wise, as in Merlin (1988) by Stephen Lawhead and Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicle trilogy and especially in Mary Stewart’s trilogy starting with The Crystal Cave, one of the few to offer a saga like account of Merlin. American novels tend to stress youth: in Jane Yolen’s trilogy, Passager (1996), Hawk (1996) and Merlin (1997) she represents Merlin as boy with special skills, looking forward to the recent television series. Yolen also looks back to Emerson, saying she understands the inner meaning of Merlin as “a metaphor for the Maker”.[xxxvii] A consciously localised variant is  Steel Magic (1967) by “André Norton” (i.e. Alice Norton) where Mr Brosius (i.e. Ambrosius/Merlin) welcomes two ordinary kids into an American Avalon where Arthur fights with local and environment-friendly help from a Native American named Huon.

Another localized wise natural Merlin is in recent French novels, where he is both localized as Breton and his love affair has a happy ending. Naturellement. Theophile Bryant’s Le Testament de Merlin (1975) is about “Merlin, l’immortel commandeur de la Celtie”.[xxxviii] Michel Rio’s novels make central the Arthurian traditions in the French traditions of Merlin as the figure of love, subtlety and artistic insight.[xxxix] René Barjaval’s L’Enchanteur (1984) is a full medieval story ending blissfully in Brocéliande.


8. A force of nature

Merlin, and Myrddin, began in and was validated by nature: environmental authenticity remained intrinsic to the figure even as the cultural forces of political power brought him into their difficult embrace, and he emerged as poet and naturalised educator to reassert the critical values of  nature and wisdom. But it is not a simple or triumphant story: it is consistently and sometimes dramatically dialectical. In both Robinson and White it is clear that war has once more forced its way into the world of the Merlin myth, and the myth has responded strongly, if also darkly, and always dialectical. In the Battle of Britain the salvation of the Spitfire was driven by an engine named Merlin: the positive side of natural  knowledge, honorably serving power. Then in the lead-up to the Iraq war, a scientist called David Kelly, of Irish origin brought up in Wales, like the exile myth itself, found that his knowledge as a weapons inspector was at odds with the requirements of current political authority, and he was found dead, in a wood, outside Oxford. Knowledge versus power – in the environment.

[i]Comment and translations of the Myrddin poems can be found in John K. Bollard “Myrddin in Early Welsh Tradition”, in The Romance of Merlin, ed. Peter Goodrich (New York: Garland, 1990), pp. 13-54. The translations used here are more literal and closer to the original.
[ii] These titles, like so many in early poetry, are generated by later editors sometimes from manuscript titles but often from the opening of the text itself. The titles have no real status, and can vary – “Apple Tree” is given in Welsh as the plural “Afellenau” and “Little Pig” is  “Yr Oianau” (“The Greetings”), as each stanza begins with “Oian”, “greeting”. The dates are early. Rachel Bromwich states that “Myrddin and Taliesin”, “The Song of Myrddin in the Grave” and “Myrddin and Gwenddydd” were “certainly composed before 1100” and adds that “At least the nucleus of  the Afallenau (“Apple Tree”) and the Oianau (“Little Pig”) are probably as old” (see  Trioedd Ynys Prydein, Triads of the Island of Britain, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, revised ed., 1978, p.470).  A. O. H. Jarman agrees, saying that the oldest part (lines 35-65) of Afallennau “might be dated in the ninth or tenth centuries” and “Myrddin and Taliesin” was written down “during the second half of the eleventh century, 1050-1100.” (see `Rhagmadroddiad’ (Intoduction) to his edition of Llyf Du Caerfyrddin, Cardiff,University of Wales Press, 1982, p. xxvi and  `Rhagmadroddiad’ to his edition of Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin, Cardiff, University of Wales Press,1951, p. 53).
[iii]  The Triads, a rhyming repository of condensed commentary on Welsh events, record it as one of “The Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain”, and elsewhere it is said to have been “brought about by the cause of a lark’s nest”, which may simply explain the idea of futility through the name of the fortress Caerlaverock, meaning “lark’s castle” in Welsh, which is not far away.  Line 24, “All their lives they prepare for it”, makes a classical statement of heroic training – the warband achieves meaning in its military moment – but that ideal has bitter meaning against the brutal, even futile nature of this battle: the tone is a negative version of the elegiac Gododdin, and the heroic tradition is rejected from the standpoint of the knowledge of the northern wise men, Taliesin and Myrddin.
[iv]  Gaston Paris,  Review of Arthur de la Borderie, Les veritable Prophéties de Merlin
[v]  For the argument that Blaise’s name comes from wolf in Celtic, see Philippe Walter,  Merlin ou le Savoir du Monde (Imago, Paris, 2000), p. 138, and Robert Baudry, “La Vita Merlini ou les Métamorphoses de Merlin”, in fils sans père, pp. 175-89,  p. 179.
[vi] William A. Nitze, “The Esplumoir Merlin”, Speculum 18 (1943), 69-79; Helen Adolf saw connections with Jewish mystical tradition in the image: “The Esplumoir Merlin: a Study in its Cabbalistic Sources”, Speculum 21 (1946), 172-93.
[vii]  Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance, ed. and trans. Sarah Roche-Mahdi (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1992).
[viii]   Some scholars felt the post-Vulgate author was inventing a text to avoid elaborating his story, and a Spanish author later provided it, but recent scholarship tends to assume there was a now lost French version. See Fanni Bogdanow, “The Post-Vulgate Roman du Graal”, pp.342-2.
[ix]  See William J. Entwistle, The Arthurian Legend in the Literature of the Spanish Peninsula (London: Dent, 1925).
[x] Peter H. Goodrich, “Introduction”, to Merlin: A Casebook, ed. Peter H. Goodrich and Raymond H. Thompson (New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 1-102, p. 20.
[xi] Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene in The Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912), see I, 7,  33, 5-7.
[xii] Thomas Heywood, The Life of Merlin Sirnamed Ambrosius (London: Emery, 1641); pp. 1-41, up to the death of Arthur, are reprinted in Peter Goodrich, ed., The Romance of Merlin: An Anthology (New York: Garland, 1990), Chapter 8, pp. 206-17.
[xiii] Henry Fielding, Tom Thumb: A Tragedy (London: Roberts, 1730) and The Tragedy of Tragedies: The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great (London: Roberts, 1731).
[xiv] Thomas Warton, Poems. (London: Becket, 1777), pp. 63-72, p. 65.
[xv]  The poem, “The Death of Merlin”, is printed by Roger Simpson, “An Unpublished Poem by Humphrey Davy: Merlin in the Late Eighteenth Century”, Notes and Queries,  new series 35 (1988),  195-6.
[xvi] The medieval Merlin material, like the Arthur material was readily available in the wealth of selections like George Ellis’s Specimens of the Early English Metrical Poems of 1805, and John Dunlop’s long popular History of Fiction of 1814: they offered selections from Geoffrey’s Historia and Vita and the Vulgate. The Preface Robert Southey wrote for the splendid Malory of 1817 added Robert de Boron’s Merlin and gave in detail the Vulgate story of Merlin and Nimue, as well as Heywood’s Life.
[xvii]  Alfred Tennyson,  “Merlin and Vivien” in The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, second edition, 3 vols. (London: Longman, 1987), pp. 393-422.
[xviii]  The idea was common in the period: Scott refers to it in Anne of Geierstein (1829) by making the ill-fated Lady Hermione wear a great opal; Queen Victoria was considered to have favoured them in order to rebut the negative connections of the stone in order to help the new Australian opal trade.
[xix]  Staines, p. 26.
[xx] Tennyson, Poems, ed. Ricks, vol.3, pp. 205-10, 7-10.
[xxi] Karl Immerman, “Merlins Grab” in Werke, ed. Harry Maync, 7 vols (Leipzig: Bibliographischen Institut, 1936), vol.4, pp. 433-8.
[xxii]  Immerman, “Merlin im tiefen Grab”, Gedichte, pp. 439-40.
[xxiii] Heine, Heinrich, “Postscript to the Romancero” in The Complete Poems of Heinrich Heine: A Modern English Version by Hal Draper (Berlin: Suhrkamp/Insel, 1982), pp.693-8, p.693. 
[xxiv] Nicolas Lenau (=  N.F. Niembsch von Strehlenau), Waldlieder und Gedichte (Stuttgart: Gotta’schen, 1878), pp.  393-5, p. 393. On Lenau see Weiss, pp 128-131.
[xxv] Simone Bernard-Griffiths, Le Mythe Romantique de Merlin dans l’oeuvre d’Edgar Quinet (Paris: Champion, 1999), p. 14; Geoffrey Ashe, Merlin: The Prophet and His History (Stroud: Sutton, 1996), p. 186.
[xxvi] See Jean Burgos, “Introduction”’ to Guillaume Apollinaire, L’enchanteur pourissant, ed. Jean Burgos (Paris: Minard, 1972), p. IX.
[xxvii]  Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Merlin I”, in Poems (1847)in Collected Poems and Translations, ed. Harld Bloom and Paul ane (New York, Library of America, 1994), p.1141-3, p.1141.   
[xxviii] See Alan Lupack, “Visions of Courageous Achievement: Arthurian Youth Groups in America”, in Medievalism in North America, ed. Kathleen Verduin (Cambridge: Brewer, 1994), pp. 50-68, see p. 53.
[xxix] Lupack, “Visions”, pp. 54 and 56.
[xxx] Thom Gunn, “Merlin in the Cave: He Speculates Without a Book”, in Collected Poems (London: Faber, 1993).
[xxxi] Geoffrey Hill, “Merlin”, in New and Collected Poems, 1952-92 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), p.8.
[xxxii] Leslie Norris, “Merlin and the Snake’s Egg”, in Merlin and the Snake’s Egg (New York: Viking, 1978), p. 45.
[xxxiii]  R. S. Thomas, “Taliesin, 1952” in Song at the Year’s Turning (London: Hart-Davies, 1955).
[xxxiv]  For a discussion of these changes see Elisabeth Brewer, T. H. White (Cambridge: Brewer, 1993), pp.33-44.
[xxxv]  T. H. White, The Book of Merlyn (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977); complete version of The Once and Future King (London:  Voyager, 1996).
[xxxvi] Tankred Dorst and Ursula Ehler, Merlin, oder Das wüste Land  (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1981).
[xxxvii]  Rozalyn Levin, Tom Holberg and David Bachi , “Dream Weaver: An Interview with Jane Yolen”, Avalon to Camelot 2 (1987), 20-3, p. 21; the interview was conducted from readers’ questions, edited by those named here.
[xxxviii]  Théophile Bryant, Le Testament de Merlin (Nantes: Bellanger, 1975).
[xxxix]  Michel Rio, Merlin (Paris: Seuil, 1989); Morgana (Paris: Seuil, 1999)