The Problem of Merlin

 As seen by
Doctor Marilyn Hume

Researching the history of Myrddion Emrys Merlinus, or Merlin, almost drove me crazy.

It was quite difficult to create a heroic and intensively masculine character from the Dark Ages who can never be a warrior, can never win renown in battle or can stand as a ‘manly’ man in a world that judged its males by their fighting skills.  Before I wrote a single word in the Merlin series, I knew that my Merlin had to be anything but a warrior.

As an aristocrat (which all the legends accentuate), he was born to be a leader of men and develop the fighting prowess that would make such a role possible.  But the Merlin of the Arthurian legends was a fatherless bastard who was widely reputed to be the son of a demon.  The societal rules of the time ensured that he couldn’t become a heroic warrior through legitimate means.  So I spent an incredible amount of time considering the implications for a little boy.  I had to accept that:

  • He could never be a real man by the yardstick of his society;
  • He would become an object of fear and loathing because he was supposed to be the child of a demon;
  • Merlin’s birth resulted from a brutal rape.  Today, this is acknowledged as a very traumatic situation, for the child is always perceived as being different; and
  • As an aristocrat by birth, he would be forced to live on the charity of his family.

Any young person would be traumatised if they had such a start in life in modern times, so you can imagine how much difficulty Merlin would have experienced when he was growing up in the years immediately prior to 450AD.  No self-respecting youth with any spirit would want to live as a peasant, so there was a need for this young lad to find a special purpose in life.

All-in-all, the character of Merlin posed a number of problems for me.  What man wouldn’t hunger to meet his birth father?  Would Merlin have wanted to know?   Or would he have simply accepted the fiction that his father was a demon and simply got on with his life?  I waded through these considerations, one by one, and I tried to ensure that everything hung together accurately.  I wanted to follow the original sources.

By the time that the first novel in the trilogy, PROPHECY: CLASH OF KINGS, was written, I knew that it was time for me to make massive decisions on the content and characterization of the second and third books in the series.  In my prognostications, I was always aware that the great writers of yesteryear had built into the legends a period of some ten to fifteen years in his life where he was believed to have disappeared into the “Wilde Woods” where he became a hermit.  In the legends, he went from being a reasonably well-documented wimpish youth to becoming an intelligent adult who was an advisor to kings and influential leaders.  Not for me!  I doubt that Merlin would have sat on his thumbs in the woods and done little but talk to frogs for ten years or so.

I decided that my Merlin would travel to Constantinople in search of his father who was a man of influence in the halls of the Eastern Roman Empire.  In the process, he would travel with a group of fellow healers who would hone their surgical and medical skills among the world’s greatest practitioners.

Before they could begin their epic journey across the continent, my Merlin would be forced to escape from the tangled lives of the Kings of the South-West where he held such sway.  Along the way, I had the opportunity to use the characters of Hengist and Horsa (the legendary Saxon/Frisian warriors) and the Celtic kings, Vortigern and Constans (his predecessor).   I used the legend of the Night of the Long Knives to my advantage, for Hengist is reported in the legends to have exacted a bloody revenge for the murder of his brother, Horsa.  Again, my research and plot lines were built on a practical, realistic base that followed the legends all the way.  I was falling in love.

And then I discovered the treasure-house of The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains that took place near Chalons in France in 451AD.  And I began to research Flavius Aetius, the very last of the great Roman generals.  All of which is worth reading, straight off the internet.

Later in the novels, I would have to deal with inconsistencies in the character of Merlin as presented by the legends.  For example, how could Merlin pretend to be a good man if he willingly colluded with Uther Pendragon to rape Queen Ygerne and murder her husband, King Gorlois, through the use of magic.  He was able to spirit Uther into Tintagel (wearing the face of Gorlois) and was able to trick Ygerne into betraying her husband.   These details simply do not gel with a man of honour, and this was a major moral dilemma that I would be forced to rationalise and justify.

As I said earlier, no clues were given in ancient Arthurian Literature to Merlin’s middle years except to imply that he became a hermit and spent many years living in the “Wilde Woods”.  I considered this to be an unlikely scenario and decided that my healer should be sent to the seats of learning where he would be able to hone his craft in Rome and Constantinople.

As part of my research, I spent a month living in the Old City section of Istanbul and studied the remains of the old civilization in Constantinople founded by Constantine.  I was amazed at the results of my research.   For example, I was curious as to what religions the peoples worshipped in the 5th and 6th centuries.  The answer surprised me because the populace was roughly 50% Christian and 50% Hebrew.  I was fascinated by this largely useless piece of information, given the current turf wars in the Middle East and the schism that currently lies between Islam and Christianity.

My research showed that there are deep inconsistencies in Merlin’s characterization in the legends.  To make my Merlin the essentially noble character I intended him to be, I had to rethink the nature of Uther Pendragon and what that monster would do to get his own way.  What were Merlin’s weaknesses and how could they be used against him?

The historical Merlin lived in a time of enormous political change as the Roman Empire gave way to the movement of tribes from the frozen North and the focus of power became centralised in Western Europe.  The northern tribes found new lands in France and elsewhere and settled down to till the soil and build new kingdoms, and the face of Europe became the ancestor of today.  For the next fifteen hundred years, the power shifted to Western Europe and never again would Rome possess any political power, except in religion.   In fact, modern students of history can find it difficult to imagine that The City of the Seven Hills managed to rule the known world so successful for such a long period of time.  While Britain, Spain, France and Portugal possessed large colonial empires around the world, none of these nations ever matched the Roman political influence.

Merlin lived in a period where one power gives way to another.   Through the eyes of my hero, I am able to show the terrifying changes that came to Europe with the passing of order and civilisation.  I have been fascinated by the whole process, and I hope you enjoy the novels.

I especially hope that the term, The Dark Ages, is seen by you as a misnomer, for the period wasn’t dark and uncivilised, but rather a time when all the old rules were disappearing and new ones were struggling to take their place.


Dr Marilyn Hume.