Merlin: Devotee of the Forest

The story of Merlin speaks to my condition profoundly. He is one of the most relatable of the Celtic saints, at least for me. Perhaps that’s because he walks that fine line between Christian prophet and wilderness sage. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t fit into regular society, or because he was appalled by war and politics. I love the way he becomes like a wild animal. I love the way he transforms his madness into spiritual wisdom. I love the way he renounces his royal claim to live in the forest.

I will be using the Vita Merlini as my source for this article. This medieval poem, written in Latin, from the 12th century is not likely to be very historically accurate. It was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth who also wrote Historia Regum Britanniae, which was much more widely read. The story is loosely based on the historical figure Myriddin Wyllt and incorporates aspects of the story of Lailoken as well.

It appears to me, and this is only my impression of the text, that Geoffrey took the story of Merlin and used it as a platform to discuss certain aspects of medieval science and British politics. The story is interrupted by long sections which discuss various topics ranging from zoology to astronomy to predictions about Norse invasions. Most of that stuff is pretty inaccurate and also uninteresting for the average person today, so I am going to be focusing entirely on the narrative content instead.

The story itself is interesting for many reasons. It is an inspiration to those of us who are uncomfortable with mainstream society with its lack of self awareness, tendency towards war and violence, and corruption. It is also interesting to those who wish to understand the dynamic between Christianity and paganism in Celtic thought and culture. This poem was written well into the Christian era, yet it maintains elements of indigenous Welsh belief and practice.

The poem introduces Merlin like this:

“Merlin the Briton was held famous in the world. He was a king and prophet; to the proud people of the South Welsh he gave laws, and to the chieftains he prophesied the future. Meanwhile it happened that a strife arose between several of the chiefs of the kingdom, and throughout the cities they wasted the innocent people with fierce war”

Merlin was not prepared for the atrocities of war. He witnessed his friends and enemies alike falling to the sword. Rather than charging in blade first, Merlin began to weep and wail. He was so overcome with the evil he saw that he was paralyzed in tears of lament. After the fighting had ended, Merlin ordered that his loved ones who were slain be buried underneath a beautifully ordained chapel in memory of their loss. He then went into a depressive (or perhaps prayerful) three day period of fasting where he covered himself in dust, tore his clothes, and rolled around in the dirt like Job. Then he jumped up in a frenzy and fled into the forest like a scared animal.

“he departed secretly, and fled to the woods not wishing to be seen as he fled. He entered the wood and rejoiced to lie hidden under the ash trees; he marveled at the wild beasts feeding on the grass of the glades; now he chased after them and again he flew past them; he lived on the roots of grasses and on the grass, on the fruit of the trees and on the mulberries of the thicket. He became a silvan man [wild and uncivilised] just as though devoted to the woods. For a whole summer after this, hidden like a wild animal, he remained buried in the woods, found by no one and forgetful of himself and of his kindred.”

I absolutely love the image of Merlin being “devoted to the woods.” I feel that deep in my heart. His monastic call was not one which merely removed him from human society but one which also reintegrated him into the community of the forest. This is an essential idea which I believe any kind of New Monasticism needs to take seriously.

This Welsh story is not unique in portraying this kind of response to the horrors of war. There was an Irish king by the name of Suibhne who ruled in the 6th century. During the battle of Moyra, Suibhne had a vision which drove him mad. He fled human society to live in the wilderness just as Merlin did.

The word for this sacred madness in Gaelic is geilt. During the golden age of the Irish church those who felt this call to flee into the wild would often be led to monasteries and their calling from God was referred to as geilt which translates as “lunatic” or “madman.” Their’s was considered to be an exalted form of penance which challenged both human frailty and the false assumptions about the inherent goodness of civilization.

The desert mothers and fathers of Egypt and the middle east were a profound influence on the Celts and their understanding of Christianity. They also fled “civilised” society in search of solitude, leaving behind the wealth and corruption of Roman society to live in the wilderness like John the Baptist before them. Like Merlin, they also had groups form around them and eventually they formed the first Christian monasteries.

Perhaps this is one aspect of desert spirituality which was familiar to those early Celtic Christians. There is mention of this kind of sacred madness which compels one to live in the wilderness in The Book of the Elders. This book is a collection of the sayings of the desert Christians who first exemplified the Christian monastic life. Here is an example of one of the fathers and his teaching on geilt:

“They used to say of Abba Ammonas that some folk came to plead their case in his presence, but the elder feigned insanity when he heard. Then there was a woman there who said to her neighbour, “This elder is crazy.” The elder heard her; he called out to her and said, “How great were the labours I carried out in the desert to acquire this craziness! And am I to lose it today for your sake?”

Merlin was well missed back home. His family were searching for him and his people lamented the loss of such a wise leader. Eventually he was found by a traveler passing through the woods, but he was startled by the man’s presence and swiftly disappeared into the bush like a deer. A harpist was sent to retrieve him, as it was well known that music tames the wild aspects of the human soul. By playing the harp and singing songs about family and the love of home, Merlin was temporarily relieved of his madness. He agreed to return home partially because he missed his family, and partially because he was not looking forward to the winter.

His stay in “civilised” society was not a long one. There are a series of incidents described in the poem in which Merlin proves both that he had the gift of prophesy and that the people of his homeland were full of corruption. After trying his best to stay, and after being held against his will once he decided to leave, eventually he managed to flee back into the forest where his heart truly belonged. The king tried his best to make Merlin stay and even offered him an abundance of material wealth and political power. But Merlin rejected these gifts saying,

“Let the dukes who are troubled by their own poverty have these, they who are not satisfied with a moderate amount but desire a great deal. To these gifts I prefer the groves and broad oaks of Calidon, and the lofty mountains with green pastures at their feet. Those are the things that please me, not these of yours – take these away with you, King Rhydderch. My Calidonian forest rich in nuts, the forest that I prefer to everything else, shall have me.”

After he returned to the forest, a healing spring with magical properties sprung out of the earth and Merlin drank from it. Upon tasting its water he was healed of his madness and felt as if he had awakened to a new life. He decided to establish a monastery in the forest where he could study the stars and commune with nature.

His monastery began to attract wise people from all around. This is the part where Gregory inserted all that medieval science and political stuff I mentioned at the beginning. The teachings are given as a conversation between wise people. Merlin is joined by Taliesin, a famous Welsh poet and mystic, and his sister Ganieda. Between the three of them they discuss all manner of things which don’t relate to the story. These conversations are likely not words actually spoken by these individuals in any historic sense, but rather they are incorporated into the story to give them a little more medieval street cred by attaching the names of famous wise men such as Merlin and Taliesin.

Regardless of historical accuracy, this poem has profound wisdom in it – especially for someone like me who feels called to bring people into the forest to pray, commune with nature, and make beautiful music. I can also really relate to the idea of geilt. As a teenager I was not able to fit into regular society and by the age of 15 was a nomadic wild man living in the urban jungles and highways. My healing well was finding a community of people who also felt called to fast in the forest and pray together with the animals, stars, and waters.

Have you experienced any such sacred madness? Have you felt the call of the woods beckoning you to return home to it? What healing wells have awakened your inner peace?

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