Merlin: ‘We Need Him’

On Monday night I watched a most interesting special on the famous mythical wizard Merlin. The hour-long documentary traced the origins of the Merlin story back and showed how the wizard is still inspiring the stories of today. It was both fascinating AND disturbing. Why disturbing? More on that later. But first…

Merlin is best known in folklore as the wizard who put the sword in the stone, a trick designed to identify the next king of Britain. Of course, as the legend goes, young Arthur pulls the sword out and his own legend begins. Merlin is also known for his many tricks and battles with spirits and enchantresses. He is said to have been wooed by a beautiful female apprentice only to be betrayed by her and sealed up in a long-lost cave for all of eternity. I guess he’s still there.

The legend of Merlin applies deeper than I first thought to the British Isles. The story originated in Wales during the 12th Century by a religious man, Geoffrey of Monmouth. He wanted to start a purely fictional legend, in part, many believe, to lend legitimacy to the Anglo Norman presence in England and Wales. So Merlin became this “wild man of the woods” figure from the 6th Century who is responsible for many of Britain’s great symbols, such as the building of Stonehenge and the assembling of Camelot (Aurthur and his cast). Some later writings about Merlin have the sage as a never-seems-to-die character who lives through the centuries. Here’s a brief Wikipedia description:

The standard depiction of the character first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s Historia Regum Britanniae, written c. 1136, and is based on an amalgamation of previous historical and legendary figures. Geoffrey combined existing stories of Myrddin Wyllt (Merlinus Caledonensis), a North Brythonic prophet and madman with no connection to King Arthur, with tales of the Romano-British war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus to form the composite figure he called Merlin Ambrosius (Welsh: Myrddin Emrys).

Geoffrey’s rendering of the character was immediately popular, especially in Wales. Later writers expanded the account to produce a fuller image of the wizard. Merlin matures to an ascendant sagehood and engineers the birth of Arthur through magic and intrigue. Later authors have Merlin serve as the king’s advisor until he is bewitched and imprisoned by the Lady of the Lake.

What makes the Merlin legend so intriguing is its impact on the youth of Britain today. The neo-pagans (a religious group growing in England and Wales) have adopted Merlin as a spiritual leader of sorts. He is a symbol to them of divine power and magical mystery. He’s a guide and a sage and, as one professor in Wales put it, “We need him (Merlin) to guide us and help us discover who we are.” Eh? There are neo-pagan festivals held each year in which thousands of primarily young people and outcasts gather, dress up in wizarding wear, read poetry, meditate on the universe, chant, and listen to tales of Merlin. Their goal is to reconnect with the old druidic religion of Britain — the one that predates the Church’s arrival — and somehow find their spiritual peace. Merlin is their spiritual icon with divine power. Or something like that. I’m probably misrepresenting them but that’s what I took away from the documentary.

I summarize it this way: the neo-pagan youths have replaced Jesus Christ with Merlin. And they have replaced the Church with the woods (going out into the woods to connect with the spiritual). Merlin lived in the woods. HE was an outcast. Yet he was wise and powerful.

About six months ago I talked with a church planter in Edinburgh to see how he was adjusting to his new move to the Scottish capital and what he observed around him. One of the first things he told me was that he had noticed that Edinburgh was a “dark city.” The buildings are beautiful, especially the cathedrals and castles, but the youth were running towards this neo-pagan philosophy with great zeal. There was a festival there, he said, that was just pagan — drinking, sex, chanting, drugs, wildness everywhere. It was a celebration of vice. Kind of like Mardi Gras, I figure, except with thick Scottish accents.

There is a great desire among the youth of Britain to find spirituality without religion.They have rejected the Church as they know it — cold stone walls, ritualistic liturgy, with a side of condemnation and judgment. They see the physical. They don’t see the spiritual, of course, which is the thing they’re really seeking!

I had no idea the fictional Merlin drove so deep into the modern culture of Britain. His name seems to be semi-sacred to so many! Wild, eh?

Here’s the Merlin show page on the Smithsonian Channel’s website. It includes a trailer for the documentary.