Of all the characters peopling the Arthurian mythic landscape, the most enigmatic seems to be Merlin.
I think there have been more modern tales written about Merlin even than Arthur. Science fiction, fantasy, romance, and even urban novels have been built around the fellow.
But, was he real?
Many historians point to the records about a wildman in the forest of Northern England as a likely candidate. Others point to the archetypal druid priests or bardic poets of Welsh folklore.
Writers have mostly had him be a magician but some have him be merely a very intelligent man, acting like a sort of vizier to King Arthur.
But a real magician named Merlin?
Such a thing will not be found in any historical source as magician’s are not supposed to exist and as the majority of written texts of the period were penned by churchmen, what would you expect?
The Welsh sources of the period were passed down by mouth from one generation of bards to the next. By the time their tales were written down, almost everyone “knew” magic was impossible.
Historical research has brought us the identity of the “real” Arthur, but can similar research produce the identity of this character?
Anything is possible, of course, but we would probably have to look for records mentioning his use as an ambassador, minister, lawgiver, or some other function where he might actually have entered the historical records without the onerous title of “magician” which would probably have been excised over the years.
One thing to be noted is that in the earliest versions of the stories about the wizard, he was around to help get Arthur crowned king but then disappears from the story. He was not normally seen as the mentor or power behind Arthur’s throne.
Another curious thing is that several early texts indicate the wizard was a member of the princely house, perhaps as someone who stood heir to the throne but could not attain it either from aptitude or choice. But the “facts” are a little hazy.
Has anyone seen any likely candidates?