We all know who Merlin was, don't we? King Arthur, Camelot, the sword in the stone, all that sort of thing? Well no, not really. The Merlin who has emerged from the popular mythology of books, films and TV series is about as true to a real-life character as Darth Vader. At least with Darth Vader we have some clarity. We all know (most of us, anyway) that he is a fictional creation, and the essential elements of that fiction are clear and straightforward, if still the subject of endless discussion and analysis by fans. Things are altogether more murky with Merlin. Was he a real historical character, or was he a fiction devised and endlessly elaborated upon by chroniclers writing centuries after he was supposed to have lived? Even today there is no shortage of speculation, and bookshelves could be filled with the efforts of those seeking to discover the truth; and others simply promoting pet theories.
"Scotland's Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins" by Tim Clarkson shines an extremely welcome beam of light into the gloom. The result is the most convincing account of the story of Merlin we have read, and, better still, the most convincing account we ever expect to be able to read. Tim Clarkson should be congratulated on producing a book which marries together painstaking and detailed research with common-sense and open-minded analysis, and setting out the results in a written style that is clear and accessible.
The book that emerges succeeds in cutting through centuries of confusion and complexity in a way that is deeply impressive. The author takes us back to each of the original historical sources that might have a bearing on the story of Merlin, and then to each of the subsequent elaborations and retellings of the parts of the story. As a result the reader is able to follow the construction of the elements of the Merlin legend and distinguish between layers of invention and the probable underlying historical reality. The chapter on the Battle of Arfderydd (an important turning point in the life of Merlin) is a particular triumph, using every available source to tie down the location of an event in the year 573 with a precision that is both impressive and entirely compelling.
Another chapter takes us on an excursion into the closely entwined legend of King Arthur who, assuming both actually lived, would never have met Merlin as they could not have been contemporaries. The author concludes with a clear account of the life of Merlin as it emerges from the discussion and analysis in the earlier parts of the book. He concludes by saying "So ends the reconstruction of Merlin's story. Some readers of this book may find it convincing. Others will not." This one did.