The Man behind Merlin | Strand Magazine


The historical figure who inspired a legend.

By Signe Pike

Nearly 1,500 years ago, a man stood on top of a hill fort in Scotland knowing he was about to die. He was not alone, though he might as well have been, given the size of the army marching to lay siege upon the fortress. He stood beside a powerful warlord called Gwenddolau, a man he was advisor to, along with their own small warband. The year was 573 AD, and the battle about to commence was one of the bloodiest battles in Scottish history that no one remembers: The Battle of Arderydd.

 The battle was recorded in multiple sources, but perhaps most famously in the 12th century Welsh chronicle the Annales Cambriae, which recalled “The battle of Arderydd, between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddolau, son of Ceidio. In which battle Gwenddolau fell: Myrddin went mad.”

Those two simple lines have driven writers over the past thousand years to the brink of madness themselves as they attempted to piece together the mystery of one man mentioned in this passage. Who was Myrddin? What was his role in this battle? And if he did indeed survive, what became of him in its aftermath? But while the Battle of Arderydd is believed to be an historical event, the man known as Myrddin has been relegated to the world of fiction. It hardly seems fair.

The Arthurian legend has been worked over by countless hands, from medieval monks and imprisoned 15th century knights, to 19th century antiquarians and modern-day authors like T.H. White and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Each added their own twist to the tale, resulting in layer upon layer of nonsensical sediment, effectively burying a man of flesh and blood and resurrecting him as a wizened old wizard who shot magic from his fingertips. The real story of the man who would become known as “Merlin” is far better than fiction. But it would take the re­-discovery of a long-lost woman to solve the mystery of Myrddin. And the discovery is so new, some are still only just hearing of it.

Languoreth of Cadzow was a Briton raised near modern day Hamilton in Scotland. She became wife of Rhydderch Hael, a historical king, who ruled the Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde from c. AD 580 – c. AD 614. But while scholars know the military campaigns Rhydderch was engaged in, acknowledge the other historical figures he brushed elbows with, and even know the names of the children supposedly descended from Rhydderch and Languoreth’s union (names that surface in medieval Welsh Triads, saint’s lives, and king lists), Languoreth, too, was somehow relegated to the realm of mystery.

Languoreth is named as Rhydderch’s wife in the 12th century Life of St. Kentigern. This hagiography, written by the monk Jocelin of Furness, goes on to reveal that Rhydderch’s queen also has a brother with whom she is exceedingly close. His name is Lailoken, and he is a non-Christian figure who stirs an awful lot of trouble in 6th century Scotland. He becomes an advisor to Rhydderch after the Battle of Arderydd. He is also a staunch enemy of St. Kentigern, who is today, the patron saint of Glasgow. Then, Jocelin goes on to tell us Lailoken was later known by another name: Myrddin—which in Old Welsh translates to “Mad-man.” Myrddin was an attempt at slander, not a nickname, assigned to a man who held political sway during an age when one’s name was everything—in the ancient world, in a time of oral tradition, one’s name and deeds were nothing less than one’s ticket to immortality. The loss of Myrddin’s identity began as early as the 1100s, when Myrddin (pronounced “Meer-thin”) was high-handedly renamed “Merlin” by Geoffrey of Monmouth. (To Geoffrey’s mind, the name too closely resembled the French word for excrement. No doubt Geoffrey believed he was doing the old boy a favor.)

In her time, Languoreth would have been one of the most famous women of early medieval Scotland. Yet she too, was wiped from the record, her memory surviving only in a scrap of Glasgow folklore as a treacherous adulteress. Wander the streets of Scotland today, and scarcely anyone you’ll encounter has even heard of her.

How could it be that duo of such power and influence were wiped so effectively from the collective minds of their own people?

The answer to this question lies in the nature of the enemies Languoreth and her brother, Lailoken, made in their lifetime—men of a new patriarchal religion that sought to subvert the matriarchal influence that had held sway in the British Isles for well over a millennia. St. Kentigern’s hagiography (as well as other sources) make it clear that Languoreth and her brother were bastions of an “Old Way,” one that stood in the path of a new power structure sought by men of the church. The very plausible saga of their lives has been traced now in multiple, credible non-fiction books, yet still the discovery of these historical figures who inspired 1,500 years of legend have failed to catch light in the modern mind.

That seems a shame, especially in such times as these, when so many of us are in search of moral and political inspiration. When we look back at the scraps of evidence left to us, one thing becomes apparent: Languoreth and her brother were two individuals who fought to preserve the ancient beliefs of their people in a time of tremendous religious and political upheaval. Seen through his sister’s eyes, Lailoken appears more as he might have been at the time; the son of a king or petty chieftain. A warrior. A politician, a scholar, and only lastly, a druid. An extraordinary man in many respects, but not in the way that many think.

Stories make no promises of truth. Yet through the study of folklore, history, archeology, and anthropology, I’ve come to believe that beneath every legend, lies a kernel of truth. We may never be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the 6th century man known as Lailoken was in fact the inspiration behind the wizened character of “Merlin.” But I am not alone in my fascination, and it has become increasingly apparent in recent years that Languoreth was a historical figure whose acknowledgement is long overdue. So we continue on, following the trail of Lailoken and Languoreth to reconstruct their paths through the mists of early Scottish history. Those of us in search of something more authentic are still traveling that shadowy landscape, searching for the kernels of truth in the stories that remain.

 

Signe Pike is the author of the historical series The Lost Queen, which has recently been optioned for television. The second book in the series, The Forgotten Kingdom, is on sale September 15th. Visit her website at www.signepike.com.

 

 

 

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