Merlin was not just a legendary figure. An examination of ancient Welsh poetry, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s accounts of King Arthur, and other works reveals a powerful, real prophet, holy man, and bard.
In Britain in the sixth century AD, there existed a prophet, magician, and counselor to King Arthur—Merlin. Was Merlin real? In Britain of the post-Roman Dark Ages, the traditions of the Celts were still alive despite the influence of Christianity. The existence of Celtic culture and that of the real pagan druid or bard Merlin was removed from history by later chroniclers.
There were probably two Merlins. One lived from about AD 450–-536. This was Arthur’s Merlin. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote of him in the History of the Kings of Britain, which became a best seller in Europe when it appeared in 1136. The Life of Merlin by Geoffrey appeared in 1150.
The second, later Merlin was a bard named Myrddin in Welsh. After the Battle of Arderydd in 573, this Merlin went insane and retreated into the woods. These two figures have been conflated, adding confusion to the dating of the Merlin’s life.
10. The Collapsing Tower Story Has A Historical Basis
Writing in the sixth century, St. Gildas recounts how the evil tyrant Vortigern fled from the onslaught of Saxon invaders. The tale is taken up in the Nennius papers that Vortigern tried to build a protective citadel for himself and his followers in Snowdonia.
Geoffrey tells how the tower that Vortigern was building kept collapsing. To remedy the situation, Vortigern’s counselors told him to sacrifice a fatherless boy on the site. This boy was Merlinus Ambrosius. Merlin instructed workers to excavate the foundation of the tower. There, in a pool, they would find two sleeping dragons, one red and one white.
In The Quest for Merlin, Nikolai Tolstoy proposes that Vortigern consulted Merlin, a person of spiritual authority who was known by the name “Myrddin Embreis.” He was the successor to the druids who had once presided over the “navel” of Britain, or a center of Earth that Tolstoy theorizes was Stonehenge.
While the tale of the collapsing towers is not historical per se, the place names and the names of the people involved are real.