Lailoken, or Myrddin, or Merlin

Six hundred years after the death of a wild man in the woods of southern Scotland, Geoffrey of Monmouth assembled some scraps of poetry written in the intervening years and added him to his History of the Kings of Britain as King Arthur’s right-hand man, Merlin.

Merlin and Arthur by Gustave Dore

Merlin and Arthur by Gustave Dore

There are several different sources in old Welsh literature for Myrddin, or as we usually spell it, Merlin. Some, referring to events in Wales itself, mention Merlin Ambrosius or Merlin Emrys, and these took place at the end of the Roman era. Others were linked to the Cymry of northern Cumbria, entangled as a by-line in the story of the Battle of Arthuret, which took place a couple of hundred years later. This Merlin was Merlin Wyllt, or Merlin Silvestris, or Merlin ap (son of) Madog Morfryn. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s response was to combine them all, and this has led to confusion ever since1.It’s possible that the reason that there are a number of ‘Merlins’ in this period is that it was a job title for a top-class bard, or that it was nickname given to men in this position, or just a name common in families that produced many bards. We can certainly be confident that there were at least two separate men with this appellation in the early medieval period.

There are two Welsh Triads which list three bards. Those bards are Taliesin (who was Urien of Rheged’s bard), Merlin Emrys and Merlin, son of Madog Morfryn. The latter, like Taliesin, was from the town of Caerleon-upon-Usk in Wales; Taliesin was the court bard of Urien of Rheged, and Merlin ap Madog Morfryn had the same role at the neighbouring court, ruled by Gwenddoleu, in northwest Cumbria.

Merlin ap Madog Morfryn, like Urien and Gwenddoleu, was believed to be a descendant of the heroic Coel Hen (‘Old King Cole’). Madog ap Morfryn, Merlin’s father, is said to have fought with Arthur at the Battle of Camlann, and Merlin’s sister, Gwenddydd was the wife of Rhydderch Hael, King of Strathclyde.

The job of bard was not, as popularly imagined, to sing a lot whilst waving bells on a stick. A bard of this era was an educated poet, a journalist, part cheerleader, part PR man, a little bit prophet and a hint of priest. The poems of the Welsh bards are not just works of literature, but records of contemporary life. When Merlin worked with Gwenddoleu, he was in a highly-honoured position. He enjoyed ‘goodly possessions and pleasing minstrels and wore a torque of gold’2.

Merlin’s fortunes changed at the Battle of Arthuret in 573CE. His king, Gwenddoleu, lost this conflict against Rhydderch of Strathclyde and other northern Britons. Merlin fought in this battle and later says he killed his own niece and nephew, who were the children of his sister and King Rhydderch.

Two different sources tell us what happened next3 and here we also get a clue to Merlin’s personal name, if we believe that ‘Merlin’ was a job title or nickname: the Scotichronon calls him ‘Lailoken’. We’re confident that this is the same man described in the Red Book of Hergest and the Black Book of Carmarthen, because there is a very accurate description of the Battle of Arthuret. This Merlin says that ‘my reason is gone with ghosts of the mountain’4 and that he has lived for fifty years as a wild man in the Forest of Celedon (Caledonia). Here, he laments his losses and is pursued, understandably, by Rhydderch Hael’s men. He prophesies many events, including the death of Rhydderch Hael and his own demise by the ‘triple death’.

Merlin is assumed to have been pagan and not just because of the colloquial link between druids and bards. He worked for Gwenddoleu, a king said5 to keep man-eating eagles and to have a sacred fire, implying pre-christian fire worship, or sun worship. And yet Merlin is said to have asked St. Kentigern for absolution when he foresaw his death, which Kentigern reluctantly granted.

Back in the forest, Rhydderch’s men had caught up with Merlin. He was stoned, and, backing away, fell over a cliff into a shallow river. Here he was impaled on a fisherman’s stake, and finally drowned. The triple death had claimed its victim.

©Diane McIlmoyle (revised) 05.10.12 

  1. To be fair to Geoffrey of Monmouth, he also wrote the Vita Merlini, which describes a Merlin far more like the Cumbrian Merlin. Unfortunately, this failed to counter the Arthurian Merlin described in the History.
  2. From the old Welsh poem, Afallenau (‘apple trees’) in the Black Book of Carmarthen.
  3. From the Scotichronon (based on the 14thc Chronica Gentis Scottorum and earlier sources) and The Conversation of Merlin and Gwendydd his sister from The Red Book of Hergest.
  4. The Conversation of Merlin and Gwendydd his sister from The Red Book of Hergest.
  5. Welsh Triads: Three Horses, Three Men who Wore Beards and Three Good Assassinations.

The following is the historian, Tom Clarkson’s take on Merlin.


18 thoughts on “Lailoken, or Myrddin, or Merlin

    • Hello Elizabeth – thanks for coming over. I agree – and I really do think that there were a number of merlins. Why, is anybody’s guess. I’m also intrigued by the fact that they might be junior members of the ‘royal families’ of Wales and Cumbria. Is this like Regency aristocrats sending their youngest son into the Church?

    • You know, I’ve no idea. I wonder if any readers know.

      Update: Looked up merlin the bird in my fancier dictionary. It says: 14th century from Old French esmerillion from esmeril, of Germanic origin. My other fancy dictionary says that esmerillion was Old French for augment. Linguistic coincidence? Interesting, though.

  1. The name Merlin does not exist prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth. It is thought he changed the name from Merdin (Myrddin) which would have been quite offensive to a Norman audience. The origin of the name Myrddin is a mystery, but the link with the falcon is interesting. In a poem from The Red Book of Hergest (c.1375-1425) entitled The Prophecy of the Eagle, the speaker is said to be Myrddin, hence he is known as “the voice of the Eagle.”

    The Eagle was associated with prophecy in ancient British tradition. In his Historia Regum Britanniae, c.1136, Geoffrey alludes to a prophecy uttered at Shaftesbury by an eagle but he dismisses it out of hand. Geoffrey tells us Rud Hud Hudibras built “the stronghold of Paladur, which is now called Shaftesbury. That was the place that the Eagle spoke in those days, while the wall was being built. If I believed the Eagle’s prophecies to be true I would not refuse to make mention of them as I have of other things.”

    This is a surprising rebuttal from Geoffrey who never missed an opportunity to mention Merlin and prophecies. Clearly he did not associate the Eagle with Merlin for whatever reason, but it’s not the first time Geoffrey misunderstood the vernacular.

    However, Welsh versions of Geoffreys’ Historia, known as Brut Y Brenhinedd, tend to include the Prophecy of the Eagle, but in a different version than that included in the Red Book of Hergest.

    The link with Merlin/Myrddin and the Eagle is further emphasised by Gerald of Wales, who provides extracts from The Prophecy of the Eagle in his Expugnatio Hibernica, before 1200, as a prophecy of Merlin Sylvester (Prophetia Merlini Silvestris), the wildman of the woods, (Lailoken?)

    Two items in Geoffrey’s piece suggest the Eagle was from the north, although he seems to locate it in the south. Firstly, he names Rud Hud Hudibras as the son of Leil who built a city in the North of Britain, ‘Kaer Leil’ thought to be Carlisle.

    Secondly, Geoffrey assumes the stronghold of Paladur to be Shaftesbury, but Traprain Law, East Lothian, was formerly known as the ancient hill fort of Dunpelder Law, from the elements ‘din’ stronghold, fortress, and pelydr ‘spear shafts’. Hadrian’s Wall could be the wall being built that Geoffrey refers to.

    In Jocelin’s Life of Kentigern we are told that when Thaney was found to be pregnant with Kentigern, her father, Leudonus, tries to kill her by throwing her from the cliff of the highest mountain, which is named Dunpelder. After the death of Saint Kentigern, Jocelin tells us a certain foolish man, known as Laleocen, who lived at the court, receiving his necessary sustenance and garments from the bountifulness of king Rederech, was himself afflicted with the most severe mourning and grieved inconsolably. Sound familiar?

    • That’s fantastic information, Clas Merdin. I see what you mean about the French and ‘merdin’! And that eagle – how interesting. Could the eagle be linked to the Romans, I wonder, or is it a vernacular reference – certainly the speaking business sounds more raven than roman.

      I have to say I find Lailoken interesting in his own right, whether we want to call him ‘merlin’ or not. It all links up so neatly with the sources, stories, and family trees (if we believe them).

      Thanks again for coming over.

    • I know – I love all this stuff. It’s a terrific story that picks up on some major incident in Cumbria’s past, whether the fella’s got a famous name or not.

      Thanks for coming over! 🙂

  2. I love your post and have bookmarked your site. This is a fascinating and very authoritative post with further interesting comments. Full of colour and inspiration. I agree with you that evidently there are several Merlins (however his name is rendered) in several places (however their names are rendered,) i also think there were several Arthurs who were , blended together when Geoffrey of Monmouth et al started to conjure their take on these potent myths and legends. I am trying to nail down my take on them in a new novel. Not easy for such ambiguous times. The real history is somewhat fugitive.

  3. Laloiken seems to be an Anglicisation of Llallogan, by which name he is called in the Afallenau poems. The University Dictionary of Wales (Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru) gives two meanings for this word – llallog from the 13th Century meaning ?brother, friend lord with a diminutive llallogan. Or from the 17th C – llallog meaning “twin”. The normal Welsh word for twin is gefaill.

    • That’s very interesting; thanks for that. Hard to know what to conclude, though – was that his actual given name, which happened to mean something like, ‘little bruv’ (rolls eyes), or is that a nickname, too? In which case, whose little bruv? The questions go on…

  4. I have read that Lailoken had a twin sister named Langoureth which is interesting given the post above by Barcud Coch. Whatever the true history is, every fantasy, every tale of noble quest goes back to King Arthur, Merlin and the grail. Fascinating!

  5. Thanks for coming over, Audrey. I have to say I’m a much bigger fan of the bard and right-hand man of Gwenddoleu, than I am of the character of arthurian legend. Gwenddoleu, Urien and their historical contemporaries all fit my nobility and historicity criteria rather better… but then there’s enough material out there to assemble several merlins. Am still in favour of the ‘job title’ theory!

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