Monday, June 01, 2009

North To MacCamelot

Recently, the Times tellingly referred to Arthur as “widely regarded as the quintessential English king.” This is a bit of unintended irony demonstrating how the Celtic national hero has been tacitly appropriated by English literature, usually by claiming he was really a Roman or Roman-trained, a cohort commander for the aristocratic Romano-British leader Ambrosius. (If you don’t get the irony, it’s as if historians claimed that not only Crazy Horse was a captain in the 7th cavalry fighting the Sioux ‘barbarians,’ but learned his horsemanship and military skills from the US Army as well, under the tutelage of wise old General Custer.)

Earlier, from the Middle Ages on, courtiers referred to Arthurian and related literature – legends and folktales of Arthur, romances involving the grail, Tristan, Lancelot, Merlin etc as “the Matter Of Britain.” I think ‘the Matter Of North Britain’ would be apt here for the current drive to push the Arthurian nexus back up north across the Borders. The original setting used in Arthurian Romance was a vague cross-Channel setting which allowed the British expats who fled the Saxon invasions to sustain the identification with the mother country, by referring to the setting only as ‘Bretagne’ – which could mean Brittany (the name of their colony in France) as well as Britain itself. The next political shift, post-1066, was to map the action to a real England, with its capital Winchester as Camelot. This was useful PR for the new Anglo-Norman dynasty who dropped the hated term Norman and called themselves Plantagenets (another usefully ambiguous bit of symbology to do with transplanting).

Today, with the growth of Scots nationalist politics, there is a growing attempt to relocate the Arthurian nexus away from the Welsh and English Arthurs and Merlins of the past, to the land of the Picts and Scots. Ever since someone realised the one unequivocal place name in the famous list of Arthur’s 12 victories was ‘the Caledonian Wood,’ (Celtic Coit Celidon, ‘woodland-hideaway stronghold,’ glossed in Latin as Silva Caledonis) writers have been arguing the original events (or legends) have Scottish roots. This goes a long way back (at least to 19C antiquarian WF Skene), but the drive north is now being taken up again anew, this time more publicly.

That 2009 is Scotland’s official “Year Of Homecoming” (inspired by its being the 250th anniversary of Burns’s birth) makes any new books or theories topical. Some may think suspiciously so, for such proprietary historical claims inevitably have contemporary nationalist political overtones. (Full independence for Scotland is still “unfinished business” for many nationalists, and the ongoing Parliamentary scandal, which may see half of all MPs losing their seats over expense account abuses they tried to cover up, seems a renewed opportunity to fulfil this agenda.) The latest claims seem either proposed or adopted by Scots nationalist interests, including local governments interested in the heritage-tourism potential.

A new book, Finding Arthur: The Truth Behind The Legend Of The Once And Future King, by legal advocate and amateur historian (and Scottish National Party activist) Adam Ardrey, claims the legend of Arthur was based on the life of Artur Mac Aedan, the 6th-C warlord prince of Argyll, son of Aedan king of the Scots (i.e. Irish colonists in Argyll). Ardrey argues this Arthur was a pagan, his key military role being suppressed by hostile churchmen, from Glasgow’s own official founder [7C] St Mungo onwards. Merlin also features in the book as a contemporary, and we’ll look at the issue of ‘Merlinus Caledone[n]sis’ (‘Merlin The Caledonian’ i.e. the Scotsman) first, as his story is complicated enough, the matter getting a lot more complicated when you get to Arthur himself.
A depiction of MYrddin from a mediaeval codex
In Ardrey’s interpretation, ‘Merlinus Caledonesis’ was a confident of 6C King Aedan, this building on Ardrey’s 2007 Finding Merlin: The Truth Behind The Legend, which placed Merlin in Glasgow. This renewed publicity prompted Glasgow City Council this spring to add Merlin to its official roll of “Famous Glaswegians” alongside Billy Connolly (who also lived in the same neighbourhood where Ardrey places Merlin - Partick in west Glasgow). The Times quoted a Glasgow City Council spokeswoman that “recently an amateur historian has pointed to the fact that the legendary Merlin lived a 'comfortable life', with his wife Gwendolyn in Partick, not Camelot. We are sure that most Glaswegians will think that's just magic." (It’s understandable to want to locate legends in your own backyard, and always popular with the local tourism people. Ardrey himself began by researching his own surname and family history, concluding that Merlin lived on what is now Ardery Street, in Partick.)

The news stories are what you call pre-publication hype, the book won’t be out till June 11th, so I haven’t seen it, even though when the press stories came out, I was in Scotland, and in fact read the news on the train as it travelled through Partick. I say hype rather than just PR for it seems that books of speculative history are publicized via a deliberate stirring up of controversy just prior to publication. (Sound familiar?) In this case, the press predictably contacted the supporters of a Welsh Merlin for a rebuttal, getting “a fiery response from a Welsh community.”

The earliest Arthurian references are in Aneirin’s Gododdin eulogy to Edinburgh-based warriors of c600, which cites Arthur in passing as a paragon of military ability, and mentions the name Merlin as well (as a poet or bard) in its older form Myrddin (this being the surviving Welsh version, Merlin being from Latin variant Merlinus). The poem evidently originated in the Edinburgh court of the Gododdin kingdom, surviving via a later version kept at the kingdom of Strathclyde’s court, which may have been based at Dumbarton, and also apparently known at one time as Castello Arturius. Thus, we have an early association of the Arthurian legends with the North, though of course before the Scots, who were colonists from Ireland, had taken over from the Britons.

Mainstream historians tend to ignore the ‘Artur mac Aedan’ identification on the grounds he was too late to be the victor at Badon Hill, which is almost always placed in southern England, with Badon as Bath. A 1998 ‘Scots Arthur’ book, Arturius by David Carroll (described by the Telegraph as “a chiropodist from Hull”), got only a blip of publicity before sinking from view (though you can download it as a PDF). He cited a 7C codex, Adomnan’s Life Of Columba, as inspiration for his thesis, and challenged English Heritage to a £20,000 bet they could not disprove his claim. Not surprisingly they declined, having just been through the ‘Artognou’ Cornish controversy [see our earlier page on this, here]. Borders resident Alistair Moffat has also been emphasizing the Gododdin and other north-Brittonic links to the Arthurian legend in a series of books, like his 1999 Arthur And The Lost Kingdoms. There was even a 2001 exhibition in Glasgow ‘reclaiming Arthur for Scotland.’ The same year, The Quest For Arthur by Edinburgh lecturer Stuart McHardy also argued for a Scots Arthur, here not pagan but rather ‘involved in a crusade to re-Christianise the pagan north.’

Evidence here includes place names (such as Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and elsewhere) and other research by Glasgow historian Hugh McArthur, whose material appears on the Clan MacArthur website. ("The Duchy of Cornwall makes a lot of money out of the Arthurian legend with very little evidence.") The family tree of the rival Clan Campbell, once Strathclyde based, also starts with King Arthur as founder, via a link to a son of Artur macAedan.) The 2004 Walt Disney-backed film King Arthur starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley also had a northern setting around Hadrian’s Wall, claiming to be factually based (the film’s consultant historian was John Matthews, author of many books on matters Arthurian and Celtic). However, Arthur here is a Roman cavalry officer from the Eastern Empire [Sarmatia], with the natives [i.e. Picts] referred to disparagingly as “Woads,” led by a raggedy old Merlin and Pictish warrior-princess Guinevere, who fights in a leather bikini. Scottish Borders Tourism nonetheless mounted a tie-in campaign to “highlight areas in which local historians have previously cited evidence they claim points to the Scottish Borders as home to Arthur and his armies.”

The new characterisation of Merlin leading a 'comfortable life' in a large house with wife Gwendolyn, next door to her brother the king, as 'a scholar and politician,' rather than an eccentric old wizard, is quite a contrast to that of the earlier depictions of Merlin as an ageing, doddery wizard (cf TH White's novels like The Sword In The Stone) or more recent ones, in fantasy novels and dramas, which turn him into the Obi Wan Kanobi of the Druid set. The older Merlin legend focuses on his later life, after his downfall rather than as a court advisor. The major study to date of Merlin (we should really say Myrddin) as an historical figure is The Quest For Merlin by Nikolai Tolstoy, 1985. (Tolstoy, a professional historian, is not himself Scots, but an early supporter of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, who got into a major legal case which ultimately led to the European court censuring the UK government for suddenly withdrawing WWII records from the Public Records Office re British war crimes complicity that would’ve helped Tolstoy fight off a libel action which ruined him financially.) This book dealt with the ‘Scots Merlin,’ but focussed on the last phase of his life when he had had a breakdown after giving some disastrous advice to a neighbouring Borders king, Gwenddolau. Myrddin’s false prediction of victory had led to Gwenddolau’s defeat at the battle of Arderydd [now Arthuret near Carlisle] around 573 AD.

Myrddin went mad from shock and ran off into the great Caledonian Wood to live as a hermit, writing verse about his lonely life there. Several of these Merlin-attributed poems, such as Yr Afallennau or 'The Apple Trees' (“No diversions attend me, / Nor fair women visit me. / Though at Arderydd I wore a golden torque / The swan-white woman despises me now”) survive in the mid-13C codex The Black Book of Carmarthen. (Which is why the town of Carmarthen was contacted for a rebuttal quote to the new Scots claim, as they themselves have long claimed their town was named after Myrddin as a native son, i.e. Caer Myrddin (though others argue the personal name was created to explain the town name). Carmarthen Town Council, which hosts an annual Merlin & Magic Festival, told the Times: "Everyone in the Carmarthen area is very proud of our long-established links to Merlin and we certainly won't accept that he is from Scotland.")

Tolstoy’s 1985 book has a vivid description of Merlin’s being inspired by the wind rushing across the treetops around Hart Fell in Scotland’s Southern Uplands. (I flew north over this same area last month, and for anyone thinking of visiting, the Great Caledonian Wood is long gone, replaced by open farmland and post-WWII Forestry Commission plantations - see aerial photo.) This experience was the supposed basis of his enigmatic poem The Battle Of The Trees, which Robert Graves writes of in his ‘historical grammar of poetic myth,’ The White Goddess. For there in the wilderness, ‘Merlinus Caledonesis’ developed the gift of the awen, or prophetic insight, and this is the supposed origin of the cryptic (apocalyptic) Prophecies Of Merlin, which were published in the early-9C Historia Brittonum miscellany compiled by the monk Nennius, and recycled by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Prophetiae Merlinus plus a followup volume, Life Of Merlin, to accompany Historia Regum Britanniae, his fake 12C History of British kings leading up to glorious Arthur, there ‘emperor’ of 30 lands. GoM’s works led directly to the vast Arthurian romance genre, and as he had already dropped any Northern connection (Geoffrey was from south Wales), it became as obscure as the prophecies themselves are text-wise.

‘Merlinus Caledonesis’ gave way to ‘Myrddin Wyllt’, Merlin The Wild Man of Welsh lit, based at Caermarthen. (For other bios of Merlin, see Michael Dames’s Merlin And Wales, 2003; John Matthews’s 96-pp Merlin: Merlin: Shaman, Prophet, Magician, 2004, and for a more international approach to Merlin-related sites from Somerset to Sicily, see On The Trail Of Merlin by Ean Begg & Deike Rich, 1991. Merlin also appears of course in dozens of Arthurian novels, such as Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, where he narrates how he grew up to be advisor to the Romano-British cause against the Saxons; for the more mystical, shamanistic shape-shifting approach where he appears in different times and places and guises, see Robert Holdstock's Merlin's Codex trilogy, which has Merlin ranging from Greece to Britain over a span of millennia.)
Scotland's SE Southern Uplands
Complicating the Northern-Merlin issue is the hermit-prophet called Lailoken or Laleocen. Because the king who defeats Myrddin’s monarch was St Kentigern’s patron, Lailoken is mentioned in a Life Of St Kentigern. This king was Rhydderch Hael, ruler of Alt Clut [Dumbarton, capital of Strathclyde, on the north side of the Clyde below Loch Lomond], and Lailoken was supposedly married to Rhydderch’s sister. Lailoken is the likely inspiration for the Arthurian romances episode where Lancelot goes mad after his liaison with Guenevere causes the fall of Camelot, and runs off to live in the woods as a ‘madman.’ (The Lancelot-as-Lailoken episode is usually omitted from later retellings, but does appear in the 1981 film Excalibur, which was originally to be titled Merlin, but had to be changed due to a title conflict with a surreal, rather scurrilous novel by the then Edinburgh-based poet Robert Nye.) However Lailoken seems to have been the same person as Myrddin, for he also lived near Partick, has a similar life-legend, and there are poems referring to him by a similar-sounding nickname, Lallogen, apparently meaning twin, he having a twin sister, who also appears in the early legend.

But at Geoffrey’s hands, Myrddin became Merlin Ambrosius, an orphan who had the same gift of prophetic insight, which first comes to notice when he advises Romano-British leader Vortigern (who has unwisely let Hengist and his Saxons have a foothold in Britain) that his new fortress cannot be built as two dragons are fighting in a pool under its foundations. (A red dragon fights a white one, a bit of symbolism anyone could get, the former being the Welsh national symbol, and the latter the English symbol.) The name Ambrosius also appears in early historical sources as the ‘last of the noble Romans’ [i.e. Romano-Briton aristos] who acted as inspirational war leader against the invading Saxons led by Hengist. Though some historians have argued Ambrosius was the inspiration for the legendary war leader Arthur, when English novelists took over the legend after WWII, Ambrosius would usually become the ageing (often dying) political leader the young cavalry commander ‘Arturius’ works for.

But in nearly all cases Merlin remains Welsh and takes up his career in southern England. Even Nikolai Tolstoy in his own followup novel, The Coming Of The King, which is largely based on authentic early sources like the Black Book of Carmarthen, avoids a purely northern setting. (It was to be the start of a trilogy, left unfinished due to the libel action.) For - the “Battle of the Caledonian Wood” apart - Arthur still fights his battles in England, and novelists can’t resist following Geoffrey in having Merlin magically building Stonehenge - as a war memorial to the victims of Hengist’s treachery! (Tolstoy in his Quest For Merlin has a few theories about this as well.)
--(More next time from my May research trip to Scotland.)