A MAGICIAN S LANDSCAPE
Thames & Hudson, Inc.
Hardcover, ISBN 0-500-51079-2
192 pages, $29.95
Previously published in Bloomsbury Review
we think of Merlin, what comes to mind is Walt Disney s image of a hooded old
wizard, the mysterious advisor to King Arthur, in a time of knights and armor
in the medieval ages. In Merlin and
Wales: A Magician s Landscape, Michael
Dames does not dispel the image of a mysterious wizard, but he does sort
through some of the fact and much legend, placing Merlin in the 5th
and 6th centuries. Bede, writing in the
8th century, said Merlin was the son of a Roman consul, although the
last legions left
Like Taliesin, Merlin was born a wonder-boy. He had golden hair and blue eyes and was cast into the troubled times of King Vortigern, a lout who while drunk gave away half of Britain for Ronwen, the beautiful daughter of the Saxon warrior Hengist, and who later was condemned for an incestuous affair with his daughter and fled to Wales. There on a hilltop he attempted to build a new stronghold. But the stone and timber gathered for foundations disappeared three times, until his wizards advised him to commit a foundation sacrifice, a common practice then, even among the early Christians. For the sacrifice, the wizards searched for a child without a father and planned to sprinkle his blood about the stronghold. The child they chose was Merlin.
When brought before Vortigern, Merlin demanded to see the wizards and asked them where the foundation was. They did not know. But he could see a pool of water they could not see and told them to dig, whereupon they found it. Then he told them to reveal what was in the water, but again they knew nothing. Merlin said they would find two vessels in the water, and they did. Inside one was a white worm; inside the other, a red worm. The two worms attacked one another, with the red worm driving the white worm across the water. This he interpreted as two dragons, with the red dragon being the army of the Britons, driving the Saxons across the sea.
Vortigern was so astounded he gave the hill to Merlin, and the place became known as Dinas Emrys (meaning Merlin s fortress), a place magical in myth but also in shape, as the hilltop with cliffs appears as a great goose, with a ridge extending outward as the neck and head. The goose was so sacred to the Celts they would not eat its flesh, and Dames describes Dinas Emrys as a natural effigy a stupendous totemic water-bird, whose pale grey-green rocks are shot through with veins of dazzling white quartz.
Ever since the Old Stone Age, people had regarded their surroundings as a living whole an outlook which, in dismissing for ourselves, we now tend to disallow for them. For them, supernatural life was seen at work in earthly, animated exemplars, icons upon which the everyday world was modeled and depended. To recognize the Dinas goose also calls for a flexible attitude towards scale, inherent in archaic symbolism, but denigrated since 1600 in Protestant Europe, except by those poets who have retained the older vision into modern times.
For such a poet, Dames cites William Blake, though a more recent proponent for the values of the late paleolithic might be Gary Snyder. As Blake said:
See a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower . . .
As part of this vision, Dames views the battle of Arfderydd in 573 CE as the battle against the old ways by monotheism with its suspicion of nature s melodies and of paganism s polytheistic response. After the slaughter and victory by the new religion, Merlin lost his world-view, lost his mind, and fled to the wilds of the forest where he became a raging, naked, hairy, solitary beast-man, living on wild plants and spring water. This brings to mind Robert Bly s Iron John and his theories of the wild-man. For the early Christians, banishment to the wilderness meant a soulless nature dwelling in evil, much as Jesus endured the taunts of the devil in the desert. The opposite was true for the Celts, as trees were sacred, and, according to Dames, Merlin s return to the forest resulted in a unity with the feminine earth.
Dames detailed study of Merlin and
his myths is beautifully accompanied on nearly every page with color
photographs, the landscapes of