Geoffrey Ashe Merlin:
the Prophet and His History
The History Press 2008
Ashe produced his first book on the Arthurian legends – King Arthur’s Avalon – in 1957, and over half a century later he still returns to the Matter of Britain, most recently in this overview of Merlin (first published in 2006 as a hardback by Sutton, now subsumed into The History Press).
In his own words Ashe “traces the evolution of the legend, the growth of Merlin as a character, his possible historical aspect, and the principal treatments of him in literature,” and adds a supplementary list of modern transformations. There is a select group of illustrations which reflect different aspects of Merlin’s developing story, and a useful bibliography (would, however, that it had been divided up into fiction and non-fiction).
Ashe was famously described as a “middlebrow” author, and here he writes with his customary confidence, born of long familiarity with the material, eschewing scholarly references (or even, disappointingly, an index) and revisiting old themes of his. As always, he writes with flair and ease, and there is the usual oblique approach to some of the strands he teases out which means the subject is illuminated as if by flashes of lightning.
A useful introduction this, but for more detailed argument you would have to go elsewhere. This is, above all, a personal response, as befits someone who lives in Glastonbury, that most legendary of Arthurian places, on a site subsequently chosen as Merlin’s “nest” by the romantic novelist Persia Woolley.