This was first published as a two part article titled, British Legends: The Madness of Merlin (Part 1), on #FolkloreThursday.com, 24th, January, 2019, and British Legends: The Madness of Merlin (Part 2) on 31st January, 2019 by zteve t evans. Here it is published as one piece and the ending is different.
The Vita Merlini
The Vita Merlini, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century, tells the story of Merlin after the Battle of Camlann where he ruled over South Wales, had a wife named Guendoloena and a sister named Ganieda. Unlike many Arthurian stories, instead of glorifying war, it tells of the horrifying effect of war trauma on the individual and their families even one as famous and powerful as Merlin. The work was originally written in Latin and presented here is a retelling of the story from a translation by John Jay Parry (1).
After the Battle of Camlann, Arthur had been taken to Avalon and Britain split into many small kingdoms that fought among themselves. Merlin ruled over the South Welsh giving laws to the people and foretelling the future. When Peredur of North Wales quarreled with Gwenddoleu, the King of Scotland, Merlin and King Rhydderch of Cumbria joined him against the Scots resulting in a savage battle. Alongside Merlin were three brave brothers who had fought beside him in many ferocious conflicts. They stormed through the enemy lines driving the foe back but eventually were overwhelmed by sheer numbers and slain. Seeing his brave brothers-in-arms fall Merlin cried,
“Where can I now find such brother-in-arms who have stood with me and fought the vicious foe?”
Seeing blood and death all around he wept and lamented for all the dead and dying but the fighting continued unabated.
The Britons rallied their troops and drove hard against the Scots forcing them to flee for their lives. Seeing victory, Merlin called Peredur and Rhydderch to him telling them to bury the dead with honour, but then grief took him and he began to wail and cry, mourning the death of his comrades and so many brave warriors.
Madness in the Woods
Peredur and Rhydderch could not console him so great was his distress so they followed his instructions leaving him alone in his anguish. As his cries rent the air his mind was taken by a fury and he fled into the woods where he found joy and peace in the quiet of the trees and hidden glades. Naked, he hunted animals and harvested the nuts, fruit, and roots surviving only from the gifts of the woods. He watched the animals and birds and learned of their ways and studied the trees and the plants and the natural world about him.
Winter came and food and shelter became hard to find and he struggled to survive. He often talked out loud to himself about the problems he faced. One day, while he was hidden among the trees and thickets, a traveller heard him and stopped to listen to what was being said. To the surprise of the traveller when he approached, the wild man fled through the undergrowth faster than any animal.
Ganieda Seeks her Brother
After Merlin had fled to the woods, Queen Ganeida, Merlin’s sister and the wife of King Rhydderch, was greatly worried for his well being. She sent searchers to the woods to look for him in the hope of bringing him back. The traveler had resumed his journey and meeting one these told of his strange encounter with a wild man and gave him directions to the scene of the incident. The searcher thanked him and continued to the scene but Merlin had gone. He searched all the wooded valleys and hidden glades and scoured the mountains searching places where few had ever trod.
At last, he came across a fountain hidden by hazel thickets and by the gushing water, naked and unkempt, sat the wild man of the woods, who sat talking to himself. Not wanting to alarm him the searcher hid behind a bush. He was a good singer and played the lyre. Gently and softly he played the strings and sang softly of the mourning of Guendoloena for Merlin, her beloved husband and of the worry of Ganieda, for her brother.
The music and singing soothed Merlin’s soul and he stood to see where it came from. Seeing this, the singer slowly stood up still playing his lyre and repeated the song. The music stirred in Merlin pleasant memories of his wife and sister and was deeply moved by their love. He remembered who he was and what he had been and set aside his madness. He asked the searcher to take him to the court of his old friend King Rhydderch where they both lived.
At the Court of King Rhydderch
As Merlin walked through the city gates, Ganieda and Guenedolena ran to meet him. They covered him in kisses and hugged him, making him feel greatly loved and he showed his own love to them. Happily, they led him to the royal court where King Rhydderch received him with great honour. Merlin seeing the vast crowd of people present and unaccustomed to human company, panicked and his madness returned. Desperately, he tried to escape to the sanctuary of the woods far away from the roaring of voices.
Rhydderch refused to let his old friend go. He ordered him to be restrained and music played upon the lyre to ease his distress and begged him to stay offering expensive presents but Merlin told him he preferred the treasures of the woods. Rhydderch worried about his safety in the wild and ordered him to be chained and Merlin fell silent and morose refusing to speak or smile to anyone.
One day, Ganieda came looking for her husband who moved to embrace and kiss her affectionately. Noticing a leaf caught in her hair he gently untangled it while lovingly chatting with her. Merlin saw this, smiled knowingly and laughed. This surprised the King and he urged him to say what was funny. Merlin fell silent refusing to answer, but Rhydderch persisted with his question promising him gifts. Merlin told him the freedom to return to the woods was the only gift he wanted and if he granted that he would tell him why he laughed. Knowing he had nothing to give that Merlin would value, Rhydderch finally agreed.
Therefore, Merlin said, “I laughed when I saw the affection you showed the Queen when you removed the leaf from her hair, when earlier, she lay under a bush with her lover, which is how the leaf got there.”
Shocked, Rhydderch looked angrily at his wife. Ganieda tried to conceal her shame by smiling and saying, “Take no notice of a raving madman who cannot tell lies from truth. I will prove his madness!”
She called a young boy over saying, “Now dear brother, show us your powers of prophecy. Tell us how this boy will die!”
Merlin said, “My dear sister, he shall die in manhood by falling from a cliff.”
Ganieda then told the boy to go and get his long hair cut short and put on different clothing. When he returned thus disguised she made him stand before Merlin and said, “And now dear brother, tell the King what death you foresee for this boy!”
Merlin replied, “This boy will grow up to meet death in a tree while his mind has shut out all reason.”
Ganieda turned to her husband and said, “This proves my innocence and my brother’s madness for the same boy cannot surely have two deaths. I will prove the point further! “
Taking the boy aside she told him to go and put on girl’s clothing and come back to her dressed in that way. When he returned she presented him to Merlin saying, “Now, dear brother, tell us how this girl shall die!”
Merlin replied, “Girl, or not, death will be in a river!”
Rhydderch laughed at the three different deaths predicted for the same boy and was sorry he had doubted his wife. Ganieda was greatly relieved, but deep inside she wept for her brother. Rhydderch kissed and embraced his wife but inside he grieved for his old friend and brother-in-arms remembering his greatness.
Return to the Woods
Merlin went down to the city gates but Ganieda appeared and spreading her arms before him entreated him to stay. He thrust her aside and strode on. Her servants tried to stop him but he simply glared down on them as if they were naught but impertinent little imps leaving them shuddering.
Guendoloena came running through the streets and pushing all aside threw herself before him. She wailed and wept, begging on her knees for him to stay, that they may live as man and wife again. Merlin could not look upon her but Ganeida said, “Have pity on your wife who loves you and will die for you. Would you have her live out the rest of her life in sorrowful longing for her husband? Say the word and she will follow you to the forest and live as you live. Say the word brother!”
Merlin bowed his head for a moment as if softening but then the madness in him spoke, “I will be free of her, free of you, free of love and its binding chains, therefore it is right that she be allowed her chance of happiness and marry a man of her own choosing, but beware should that man ever come near! On her wedding day, I will come to her and give her my gifts.” His sister and wife watched his departure sorrowfully but marvelled how he could have known about the secret affair of the queen and both were convinced the three different deaths of the boy he had predicted proved his derangement.
The boy grew into a young man and one day set off with friends hunting in the forest. The dogs roused a stag chasing it for many miles and he alone managed to keep up with the chase. With the dogs hard on its heels the stag sought refuge in a high and rocky place. In his excitement, the young man became oblivious to the dangers and urged his horse forward. Coming suddenly to a high ledge looking down upon a river, his horse suddenly stopped throwing him over its head and over the cliff. As he fell his foot caught in the branch of a tree that overhung the river leaving his body suspended in the air while his head was submerged in the water drowning him and fulfilling Merlin’s prophecy.
Guendoloena’s Wedding Gifts
Returning to the woods Merlin lived as the wild beasts lived. Through the winter he suffered greatly from the cold, damp and the biting wind but preferred this to the wars and violence of corrupt kings, rejoicing in the absence of human society.
Years passed and one cold night when the stars were clear and bright the moon threw down its light to fall upon a high mountain. Silhouetted against the magnificence of the heavenly vault a lone madman stood staring up at the sky studying the movements of the heavenly bodies. He saw the intrigue, murder, the death of kings and all the great events of Britain. From Venus came a double ray of light that was cut in two. Knowing this told of Guendoloena’s wedding he set off to take her presents as he had promised.
He came across a stag and by talking soothing words it allowed him to climb upon its back and he rode through the woods with its does following in a long line. Arriving at the place of the wedding he made the beasts stand patiently and obediently while he called out, “Guendoloena! Guendoloena! Guendoloena! I have brought your wedding presents as I promised!”
Laughing at the sight of him upon the stag with the does in obedient line, she came running, marveling how he managed such a feat.
From a high window, the bridegroom looked down at the scene and seeing Merlin riding the stag laughed. Hearing him, Merlin looked up and realizing who he was flew into a rage. Grasping the antlers of the stag he wrenched them from their sockets and hurled them at the laughing bridegroom. The antlers struck with great force embedding in his skull, killing him outright.
Prophecies of Death
Merlin fled upon the stag chased by servants. The stag outran them until it reached a river which it leaped over, but Merlin slipped from its back into the water. He was caught and taken to Ganieda at the royal court where he sat silent and morose refusing food and drink causing his sister great grief and worry. Rhydderch ordered food be placed before him in the hope of tempting him but to no avail, so he ordered that Merlin should be taken for a walk around the marketplace in the hope seeing people and all the different goods and novelties might cheer him.
In the marketplace, Merlin saw a man of ragged appearance sitting before a door begging for money to buy new clothes. Merlin stood looking at him, laughed and walked on. Further on, he saw a man purchasing a new pair of shoes while also buying patches of leather. Merlin stood and laughed and people stared. Seeing them stare he refused to go on and the servants took him back to the palace and reported to the King. Rhydderch, curious to know why Merlin had laughed offered to free him if he told him.
Merlin told him he had seen a man begging for coins to buy new clothes when he was sitting on a secret hoard of money. He was laughing at his audacity and the gullibility of people who gave to him and said, “Dig below where he sits and you will find his treasure.”
Next, he had seen a man buying new shoes and leather to patch them with when they became worn. He had laughed at the irony and futility of the act as he was destined to die by drowning telling him, “He is now lifeless on the river shore.”
Rhydderch sent servants to search the river banks but went himself to where the ragged man sat and digging up the ground below him found his treasure. His servants returned from searching the river and reported they had found the body of the man who brought the shoes.
Merlin was freed and made his way the gates where his sister caught up with him. She still loved him and begged him to at least see out the winter in comfort with her, but he told her,
“Dear sister, why do you fight to keep me? Winter will be hard but not as hard as living among the savagery of people, therefore let me be. But, if you will then build me a lodge in the remoteness of the woods where I may watch the movement of the stars and predict the fate of our people. You can visit me and bring me food and drink and keep me company.”
He left and Ganieda built a lodge for him and would bring food and drink and Merlin thanked her for that and for her company. One day he told her she needed to return quickly to court as her husband was dying, but told her to come back after the burial with Taliesin who had recently arrived after visiting Gildas in Brittany.
Ganieda returned to court to find to her grief that Merlin had spoken truly. After her husband’s funeral, she returned with Taliesin to Merlin’s lodge where she decided to live out her days. Merlin and Taliesin talked of many things. Merlin told him how they had taken the grievously wounded King Arthur to the Isle of Avalon after the battle of Camlann, leaving him in the care of Morgan le Fay. He told him the story of the Kings of the Britons from Vortigern to Arthur and then foretold a long period of Saxon domination which would eventually lead to a return to British rule under Cadwalader after prolonged and bloody conflict.
The Healing Fountain
As he spoke one of his servants came rushing in excitedly announcing that a new fountain had gushed forth at the foot of the mountain. Merlin and Taliesin followed the servant to see the wonder. Both marveled that it should have appeared so suddenly and sat down watching it flow. Feeling thirsty, Merlin cupped his hands and drank from the fountain and then bathed his brow. As its pure water coursed through his body his madness left him and his reason returned.
Many princes and chieftains came to see the place where the wonderful waters had cured Merlin of his madness. Seeing him whole and sane again they asked him to rule and guide them with his wisdom and knowledge. Merlin refused and told them he now preferred his life in the woods to one in a royal court.
Just as he finished speaking the air was rent by wild howls and cries and a madman rushed out of the woods towards them. Seeing them he stopped suddenly and then ran around looking to escape. He was quickly captured and brought before Merlin, who groaned for he knew the man and his heart went out to him understanding what he endured and said, “His name is Maeldinus. He was my friend many years ago when he was a strong and noble knight. Having such friends I thought myself fortunate.”
He told how they had both been among a hunting party and finding a spring of fresh water they all sat down to rest and quench their thirst. One of their party found a pile of apples and Merlin shared them out. Although there was none left for him he was happy for them to enjoy the fruits. His friends all declared they were the finest apples they had ever tasted but their pleasure did not last long. Soon they were howling wildly and running madly through the woods to become lost in the forest and that was the last time he had seen them and Maeldinus.
He discovered the poison apples were placed there by a woman who had loved him but who he had spurned. She had placed the apples for him to find intending revenge, but luckily he had not eaten one and was spared. Finishing his story, he ordered his servants to make the man drink from the fountain. They obeyed and the wildness fled from his eyes and intelligence and reason shone forth and he recognized Merlin and remembered who he was. Merlin invited him to stay and serve him and Maeldinus was pleased to accept. So Merlin now had his sister Ganieda and Maeldinus as companions and then Talisien spoke and said that he too would remain with him in the lodge.
Ganieda the Prophetess
After the death of her husband, Ganieda lived with her brother and his friends enjoying the closeness of nature and the companionship. Sometimes she became of elevated spirit and would foretell events to come to her companions concerning the destiny of the Britons. One day when the spirit came upon her she made a long prophecy concerning the wellbeing of Britain causing her companions to marvel and wonder. Merlin spoke approvingly and with love telling her that the spirit that spoke to him had fallen silent and the task of foretelling the future was now given to her.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
At this point, Geoffrey brings Vita Merlini to an end saying.
“I have brought this song to an end. Therefore, ye Britons, give a wreath to Geoffrey of Monmouth. He is indeed yours for once he sang of your battles and those of your chiefs, and he wrote a book called “The Deeds of the Britons” which are celebrated throughout the world. “(2)
Although the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth are no longer considered as accurate reference books his influence on British culture cannot be denied and as cultural products of his time they are priceless and certainly he earns at least a bouquet.
Offering a Prayer
Instead of a tale of heroism and glory he gave us a very tragic human story concerning one of the most powerful, important and enigmatic characters of Arthurian tradition. It showed the love and dedication of family and friends supporting a sufferer of trauma through dark times. Therefore, perhaps we can offer our own thoughts and prayers to our own divinities to comfort and heal those afflicted by inner anguish, torment or war trauma and offer support where ever we can.
© 24/01/2019 zteve t evans and #FolkloreThursday.com
References, Attributes and Further Reading
Copyright January 24th, 2019, zteve t evans and #FolkloreThursday.com
- 1), (2), The Vita Merlini – Latin text by Geoffrey of Monmouth – Translated by John Jay Parry from Sacred Texts
Nice post I enjoyed it. 🙂
Great tale of Merlin in the woods giving pause and reflection about madness and sanity, friendship and fidelity.
Thanks, greatly appreciated!
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