The Madness of Merlin

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Those whom the gods destroy, they first make mad
Euripides


In recent years, in other places, I have demonstrated that King Arthur really did once exist, when from the obscure seed that was his life sprung up the legion of legends that constitute the Arthurian myth. If our great king existed, then, is it not also possible that the other members of his pantheon are also real? This leads us to Merlin, the spell-singing court sorcerer of Camelot, whose vitality supported by a wide array of sources. The Welsh chronicle known as the Annales Cambraie tells us.

573 AD: The battle of Arfderydd between the sons of Eliffert and Gwenddolau son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Merlin went mad.

A medieval Welsh triad sums up the battle perfectly;

The three frivolous causes of battle in the Isle of Britain.
…The second was the action of Arderydd, caused by a bird’s nest, in which 80,000 Cambrians were slain…

The battle of Arfderydd & Merlin are tied together in a number of old Welsh poems. They tell the story of a great civil war among the native Britons,  climaxing at the battle of Arferydd. After the battle Merlin lost his mind then ran off to be a hermit in the Caledonian Wood. A sterling effort in finding the battle site was made by the great nineteenth century Scottish antiquarian, William Forbes Skene. His ‘Notice of the site of the Battle of Ardderyd or Arderyth‘ in the PSAS of 1864-65 shows this often brilliant scholar at his very best.

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Where, then, was this battle fought? We ought, in the first place, to look for it in one of the great passes into the country; & a curious passage in Fordun gave me a clue to the probable situation. In his notice of Saint Kentigern, he describes, evidently from some older authority, his meeting in the desert a wild man, who informs him that his name was Merlin, & that he had lost his reason, & roamed in these solitudes because he had been the cause of the slaughter of so many men : ‘qui interfecti sunt in bello, cunctis in hac patria constitutis satis moto, quod erat in campo inter Lidel et Carwanalow situato.  The last part of the Latin means, ‘fought on the plain between Liddel and Carwannok.’ Liddel, as is well known, is the name of the river which flows westward through Liddesdale, & joins the Esk about nine miles north of Carlisle. Near the junction is the border between England & Scotland, & from thence the flat & mossy district, called the Debateable Lands, bounded on the east by the Esk, extends to the Solway Firth

This nugget of information was the catalyst for Skene, who now begins to hone in on the battlefield, near Longtown in Cumbria, where a small settlement called Athuret immediately raised his heckles. Taking the train down from Edinburgh, Skene found a place to stay in Longtown, whose landlady was quite shocked to see anybody staying in the area at all. Skene continued;

About half a mile from Longtown is the church & rectory of Arthuret, situated on a raised platform on the west side of the River Esk, which flows past them on a lower level; & south of the church & parsonage there rise from this platform two small hills covered with woods, called the Arthuret Knowes. The top of the highest, which overhangs the river, is fortified by a small earthen rampart, enclosing a space nearly square, & measuring about 16 yards square. On returning to Longtown, I asked the old guard whether he knew of any place called Carwandlow. He said that Carwinelaw was the name of a stream which flowed into the Esk from the west about three miles north of Longtown, & also of a mill situated on it, & that beyond it was a place called the Roman Camp.

At this point Skene visited the ‘camp,’ which is today known as the Moat of Liddle. He thought it a magnificent native strength, & was taken aback by its splendid views, including the knowes at Athuret in the distance. He went on;

Between the fort & Carwhinelaw is a field extending to the ridge along Carwhinelaw, which is about half a mile off… The old farmer of the Upper Moat, who accompanied us, informed me that the tradition of the country was that a great battle was fought here between the Romans; & the Picts held the camp, in which the Romans were victorious; that the camp was defended by 300 men, who surrendered it, & were all put to the sword & buried in the orchard of the Upper Moat, at a place he showed me. This part of the tradition is curious, as the Triads mention the Gosgord of Drywon-ap-Nudd at Arderyth which consisted of 300 men.

The name of Erydon, which Merlin attaches to it as a name for the battle, probably remains in Ridding at the foot of the fort, & I have no doubt at all that the name Carwhinelaw is a corruption of Caerwenddolowe, the caer or city of Gwenddolowe, & thus the topography supports the tradition.

This is all breathless work, & leaves us moderns with a few scanty crumbs to discover. The only object of interest I could scrape up myself concerned another fortification, a mile or so to the North of the Moat of Liddel, where; ‘there is a slight eminence called Battle Knowe by Prioryhill farm near Canonbie. It feels like a burial mound & tradition says that a battle was fought here & human bones have frequently been dug up but no authentic information can be obtained to confirm the supposition. (Ordnance Survey Name Book 1858)

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Having discovered battlefield where Merlin went mad, let us now practice the very modern art of Psychoanalysis on his mind. By studying the old poems & stories surrounding Merlin, it is clear he had paranoid schizophrenia, the modern terminology of a condition as old as humanity itself. Joan of Arc heard voices & in the first Book of Samuel, Saul shows all the classic symptoms of a lunatic. The following are extracts from a report by the World Health Organisation in 1992.

Paranoid schizophrenia is the most common type of schizophrenia in most parts of the world. The clinical picture is dominated by relatively stable, often paranoid, delusions, usually accompanied by hallucinations, particularly of the auditory variety, and perceptual disturbances. Examples of the most common paranoid symptoms are:
Delusions of persecution, reference, exalted birth, special mission, bodily change, or jealousy; Hallucinatory voices that threaten the patient or give commands, or auditory hallucinations without verbal form, such as whistling, humming, or laughing;
Hallucinations of smell or taste, or of sexual or other bodily sensations; visual hallucinations may occur but are rarely predominant. Thought disorder may be obvious in acute states, but if so it does not prevent the typical delusions or hallucinations from being described clearly. Affect is usually less blunted than in other varieties of schizophrenia, but a minor degree of incongruity is common, as are mood disturbances such as irritability, sudden anger, fearfulness, and suspicion.

Merlin appears the medieval tale Lailoken and Kentigern, which states: “…some say {Lailoken} was called Merlynum.” This name change leads us to the 9th Century Historia Brittonum of Nennius, which states that in the late 6th century, ‘Talhaiarn Tataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.’ Nobody has ever established the further identity of Bluchbard, but the ‘Luch’ embedded in the name links it to the ‘Lok’ within Lailoken. Thus Lailoken the Bard easily becomes Luch the Bard, then Bluchbard. Perhaps, perhaps not, but there’s enough in there to believe it so.

Moving on from digressive conjecture, in the tale of Lailoken & Kentigern, Merlin is depicted as seeing visions & hearing voices, the classic symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. On one occasion a voice from heaven says; ‘because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan & you will have communion with the creatures of the wood.‘ We probably all have experienced a moment in public when a person of obvious insanity wanders around screaming wildly & talking to themselves. Lailoken and Kentigern reports the same thing of Merlin, who used to interrupt the services of his clergy by shouting out prophecies. It also has Merlin seeing bright visions of ‘martial battalions’ lighting up the sky shaking their lances ‘most fiercely’ at him, & then dragged off into the woods by an evil spirit. In another text, the Itinerarium Kambriae of Giraldus Cambrensis, he is said to have lost his mind just before the battle of Arferydd when he saw a monster in the sky.

On Thursday 11th September 2008 The Independent ran a fascinating story about the son of Patrick Cockburn, a foreign correspondent. His name was Henry, who told the paper; ‘do I have schizophrenia? My mother and father and the dreaded psychiatrist definitely believe I am schizophrenic. They have grounds for their belief, such as my being found naked and talking to trees in woods. Yet I think I just see the world differently from other people.’ Patrick added, ‘Jan and I soon became familiar with the distorted landscape of the strange world in which Henry was now living. The visions and voices, though the most dramatic part, were infrequent. He spoke vaguely of religious and mystical forces and was extremely ascetic, adopting a vegan diet and not wearing shoes or underpants.’

Henry certainly sounds like a modern day Merlin. When the mind is being bombarded by extra-sensory stimuli, there is only one true way to ‘let of the steam,’ & that was summed up nicely by Henry;  ‘my main strength was art, and it was through art that I understood my world.‘ Among the all the arts poetry is perhaps the oldest, yet its beauty is that anyone can write a poem. The writing of them is seen by modern psychology as a therapeutic tool to aid schizophrenia. In the  Journal of Poetry Therapy (June 2010), Noel Shafi writes; ‘a patient exhibited negative symptoms including social withdrawal. Under clinical observation she successfully wrote renkus describing her everyday life & seasonal feelings. After 13 months of renku therapy the therapist observed improved social functioning &decreased negative symptoms in the patient.’

This brings us neatly to the ‘therapeutic’ poetry of Merlin himself. While he was in the woods, fuelled by the typical poetic salve that is insanity, Merlin composed a number beautiful poems, of which 6 still survive. In them solid traces of schizophrenia can be found. They also show the skill of an accomplished bard, the first step on the ladder to becoming a Druid. Inbetween is the Ovates, the title given to a bard after twelve years of intense poetic training. On attaining this second rank, the bard will develop visionary powers, being able to see into the future & commune with long dead ancestors. It must have been a total nightmare experience for Merlin once he lost control of his visionary mind. He was not the bearded wise-man of Arthurian mythology, but a man in need of series help.

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Throughout his poetry we can detect the possible reason behind Merlin’s madness, the catalyst that sent him over the edge. It begins with the tradition of Gwendydd being his twin sister, which is given in the aptly titled, ‘The Dialogue Between Myrddin and His Sister Gwenddydd’ from the Red Book of Hergest.

Myrddin
Since the action at Arderydd and Erydon
Gwendydd, and all that happened to me,
Dull of understanding I am–
Where shall I go for delight?

Gwenddydd 
I will speak to my twin brother Myrddin, 
wiseman and diviner, 
Since he is used to making disclosures 
When a girl goes to him.

The tone of the first stanza is sullen & reflective. We can work out why from the following stanza from the Black Book of Carmarthen;

Sweet appletree that grows in the glade!
Their vehemence will conceal it from the lords of Rydderch,
Trodden it is around its base, and men are about it.
Terrible to them were heroic forms.
Gwendydd loves me not, greets me not;
I am hated by the firmest minister of Rydderch;
I have ruined his son and his daughter.
Death takes all away, why does he not visit me?
For after Gwenddoleu no princes honour me;
I am not soothed with diversion, I am not visited by the fair;
Yet in the battle of Ardderyd golden was my torques,
Though I am now despised by her who is of the colour of swans.

So here we have Merlin talking to the trees. It also introduces Rydderch Hael into the story, the King of Strathclyde who had married Merlin’s sister. With the line, ‘I have ruined his son and his daughter,’ we have a clue as to why Merlin went mad. If Rydderch is his brother-in-law, then the children in question were his nephew & niece. In the next line he says that ‘death takes all away,’ which hints that it was Merlin himself who killed them. No wonder his sister ‘loves him not!’ The emptiness of the last few lines portray his soul in dejected reclusion. His lord Gwenddoleu is dead & his mind is full memories of when he was wearing the ‘golden torques.’  The pathos of the piece gives us an excellent insight into Merlin’s mind at the time of his madness. He is obviously suicidal, a thread which the Dialogue poem expands on;

Myrddin
Great affliction has fallen upon me,
And I am sick of life–

I feel heavy affliction.
Dead is Morgenau, dead is Mordav,
Dead is Moryen, I wish to die!

Could Merlin, by surrounding himself with nature & solitude, be seeking reaffirmation with a forgiving god in the woods. Not wanting to disturb him too much, I think we should leave Merlin in the soft, safe confines of his Caledonian Woods. We find him talking to a little piglet & bidding him hide from the ‘dogs of Rhydderch,’– who were out to get them both – that classic delusion persecution, where conspiracies are found at every turn.

Listen, O little pig! happy little pig,
Do not go rooting on top of the mountain.
But stay here, secluded in the wood.
Hidden from the dogs of Rhydderch the Faithful.
I will prophecy–it will be truth!

There has always been a certain sense of the insane about the poet. John Clare spent years in an asylum churning out new cantos of Don Juan. TS Elliot composed his seminal Wasteland while undergoing psychological treatment at a clinic in Switzerland, while William Blake was blatantly as mad as a hatter. Of Baudelair, Jeremy Reed, in his Madness- the Price of Poetry (1989) wrote; ‘Baudelair was a prey to neurosis, his life is the record of an individual seeking to interpret incipient madness through the refinement of an aesthetic sensibility.’ So I guess Merlin & his madness are in pretty esteemed company, & I suppose you do have to be a bit mad to be a poet in the first place!


POEMS BY MERLIN 

(& links)

The first three are found in the thirteenth-century Black Book of Carmarthen, with the others appearing in manuscripts from later centuries.

Yr afallennau – The Apple Trees
Yr Oianau – The Greetings
Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin – The Dialogue between Merlin & Taleisin
 Cyfoesi myrddin a gwenddydd ei chwaer – The Dialogue between Merlin & his Sister
 Gwasgargerdd fyrddin yn y bedd – The diffused song of Myrddin in his grave
 Peirian Faban – Commanding Youth

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