6 March 2013


Anne Lawrence-Mathers. The True History of Merlin the Magician. Yale University Press, 2012.

This intriguing volume centres around one fact that seems incongruous from the viewpoint of the contemporary world: for around four hundred years Merlin, who came to be known as the sorcerer of King Arthur, was considered to be a real person. It is the extraordinary journey of a fictional character that influences the medieval world much more than most real people.
This meant that any writings associated with him were treated as those from any historical personage were, as opposed to the stories that some of them undoubtedly turned out to be.
The author, Dr Anne Lawrence-Mathers, is a senior lecturer at Reading University. Medieval magic is one of her specialist areas, and it certainly shows in this book. Geoffrey of Monmouth combined aspects of Myrddin Wyllt, the legendary Welsh prophet also known as a madman, and Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Romano-British war leader (who has also provided some material towards the stories of King Arthur) to produce the character he called Merlin Ambrosius. The journey from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pen to that of a prophet whose fame spread across Europe is documented here seemingly with no stone unturned.

The fascinating tale of how those prophesies (treated as if from someone with almost Biblical authority) fared is described here. Although the language is kept direct and unfussy (not too many long words to bamboozle this reviewer!), this volume is dense with facts. There is no fanciful speculation. Sources are judged as to their reliability by someone who is an authority in this field. The index is lengthy and the bibliography is rather long, even in quite small print, so plenty to check out if one wishes to do one’s own fact-seeking. Due to the sheer amount of information and attributed sources, this is an excellent reference work for those who wish to find out about the historical Merlin in depth.

The emphasis is very much on how the amalgam of shadowy myth and scantily-documented information rose to be both an historical individual and a powerful influence in both British and European affairs. Certainly, Dr Lawrence-Mathers’ familiarity with, and enthusiasm for, the subject matter communicates itself effortlessly. This is not is a New-Age work that puts together opinions and modern interpretations on spirituality, there are many other sources for those who crave such enlightenment, although it may be argued that perusing the genuine origins of the prophecies attributed to him would aid in this process.

Merlin is a figure so compelling that he influences people even to this day. Certainly the Neo-Pagan community abounds with witches and other ceremonial magic-workers who have taken his name as a potent talisman, both to inspire their own efforts and to advertise their powers to others. His legends are still broached in literature and his magic is still invoked. It may even be said of him that he stays a national figure, although without the authority that he carried nearer his birth. That authority and influence is documented in great detail here so this, then, is for the serious seeker after one great aspect of the truth of British mythology, or as close to the truth that research can get so many centuries since the original stories were spun. – Trevor Pyne

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