In the current issue of PLANET magazine I review Stephen Knight’s book MERLIN Knowledge and Power Through the Ages (Cornell University Press, £18.95). His approach is similar to that he brought to his earlier study of the Robin Hood legend. On the one hand he identifies his subject as a character with identifiable characteristics but on the other hand he emphasises the mythic rather than the personal nature of these characteristics. He has little time for what he calls the “re-formation of knowledge in the service of individual identity” , an approach which involves trying to prove that Robin Hood or Merlin were real historical characters living at a specified time in the past. Attempts have been made to do just that for both of these characters which have the air about them of those who argue for the literal truth of stories in the Bible or other religious tales. Wanting to believe that fragments of ancient rope found on Mount Ararat might be from Noah’s Ark is just one recent example of this tendency.
Saying this is not to say absolutely that there could not have been an historical person that fed into the legendary identity of Robin Hood, or a bardic Myrddin who became the Merlin of legend. It is to say that the really interesting thing about such characters is their legendary status rather than any possible actual historical existence. The same can be said of Taliesin, Arthur and many other legendary figures. What they became as their stories grew expanded beyond the confines of a particular age, let alone a particular life. In trying to show that Merlin figuratively represents Knowledge and its relation to the power structures of particular ages, Knight is able to present Merlin as embodying the relationship between Knowledge and Power in different historical periods. Sometimes he is able to instruct those in power, sometimes he is used by them and sometimes he is marginalised. Interestingly Knight sees such Knowledge in our own age as serving the interests of individuals rather than institutions.
How might such an analysis be extended to the deeper mythic significance of characters seen to have their origins not in remarkable individuals but deities from a distant past? Surely no-one would confuse these with real people? Perhaps not. But a similar process seems to operate when these deities continue their mythic lives in later ages in folk tales, poetry or fictional writing. What happens here is in some ways the reverse of the process described above. In at least one version of the way this works a goddess or god is reduced in status to that of a character in a story and may, in the story, be interacting with other characters whose status is uncertain or who do not have any significant life outside the story. Here, it is not so much that we want to find out who this character really was but who(s)he really is. If a character in a story, a legend or other narrative embodies a mythic significance, and if the stories told about such characters speak to us directly at the mythic level, then should we be so literalistic as to worry about how they correspond to identified deities in the past and how much the redactors of the story did, or did not, understand this? Linguistic evidence may provide us with such a link and we might regard this as a bonus. But given the paucity of information about such deities in the past; and given the fact that even as deities their character may have varied at different times in that past, shouldn’t we be thinking rather about how we can build a relationship with them in the present?
The Homeric Hymn to Demeter contains the line “Hard are gods for mortals to see”, and stories about them are never going to be definitive. But the story of Rhiannon riding out of Annwn in a love tryst is powerful enough for me to regard it as an evocative image of the Queen of Faery on her white horse even without the identified linguistic link back to the goddess Rigantona. Mabon Son of Modron can be identified as Maponos Son of Matrona, so the image of him being released from a dark dungeon into the light of day takes on a mythic dimension which enables a mythic interpretation of an otherwise random episode in the story of How Culhwch Won Olwen.
And here the link with legendary characters such as Robin Hood and Merlin can be made. The mythic lives of such figures enable them to be seen as operating at the level of social forces such as Knight’s interpretations suggest. But the mythic life can also operate at the level of religious symbolism. Arthur, who rescues Mabon, may or may not have been a Dark Age warrior. But here he is the bright Sun shining and banishing the darkness of Winter. The gods are not always so hard to see. But sometimes they may pretend to be real people!