The evolution of Merlin

Beardsley's Merlin
Beardsley’s Merlin

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.

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2 thoughts on “The evolution of Merlin

  1. A question, Chris. If I wanted a book which would introduce me to all the main sources about Merlin accurately and proportionately, would this be the right book to choose? Or is there someone else who does that more comprehensively?

    1. The Ashe book is essentially an introduction, and though reasonably comprehensive is badly let down by its lack of an index. It was probably re-issued in 2008 to capitalise on the BBC Merlin TV series.

      Instead I’d probably recommend Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin (Hamish Hamilton 1985) which, though a quarter of a century old, is both academic but also imaginative, and includes in an appendix translations of the three key Myrddin texts from The Black Book of Carmarthen plus fifty pages of notes in closely printed text. Tolstoy, a Celtic scholar and historian, is familiar with both Welsh and Gaelic (which Ashe is not). To answer your question, this study is much more comprehensive.

      John Matthews’ Merlin: Shaman, Prophet, Magician (Mitchell Beazley 2004) includes the author’s translations of Welsh Myrddin poems but mustn’t be relied on as although Matthews is erudite he is also of a mystical and speculative persuasion. The book, issued in 2004 on the back of his advisory role in the Hollywood King Arthur film, can be recommended for its copious colour illustrations.

      Both Ashe and Matthews have more information on post-medieval treatment of the Merlin legend, in fiction, film, TV and other aspects of popular culture. But I’m assuming when you say ‘main sources’ you mean historical!

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