Unmasking the real man behind the medieval myth of Merlin

Merlin, by Norma Lorre Goodrich. New York: Franklin Watts. 416 pp. $24.95. In 1986, a copper, gilt, and enameled crosier, circa AD 475, was among the archaeological discoveries found at Whithorn, Scotland. The digging there had recommenced because of Norma Lorre Goodrich's 1986 book, ``King Arthur,'' in which she unveiled the world of the legendary king, locating him and his kingdom, not predominantly in Wales but in Scotland - specifically south and western Scotland.

Now, Goodrich has turned her hand to that other man of myth and romance: Merlin.

Recognizing that medieval writers - the major sources of information on Merlin - brought to their work their own prejudices and ambitions, Goodrich set out to sift the fantastic from the fact, to discover the reality of Merlin if she could. Her findings, which she reveals in ``Merlin,'' would make an investigative journalist blush with pleasure.

``Merlin'' starts out slowly, with a necessary investigation of that very name - Merlin - which has clouded the vision of so many historians for so long. Her discovery and revelation: Merlin was a nom de guerre - a veil to draw between the brilliant adviser to four kings and his enemies.

Goodrich then takes each aspect of this man - his childhood, his role as teacher, his prophecies, his death or murder, his magic - and considers it carefully.

Her presentation of her discoveries and theories is clean and spare, enabling the nonacademic reader to follow her path through the maze of etymology, medieval poetry, post-Roman geography, Celtic history, and myth. But she brings to her scholarship a quality that is often missing: common sense. She removes Merlin from his niche in the medieval romances and places him where he belongs - post-Roman Britain.

There, Goodrich found a remarkable group of men standing against the savagery of the Anglo-Saxon invaders in the 5th and 6th centuries, relics of a world that was rapidly disintegrating. These men, thoroughly Christianized, classically educated, land-owning, agrarian, and peaceable, were the last of the unconquered Celts. Their kingdom was a sickle-shaped crescent of lands - Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Wales - connected by the Irish Sea, the perimeters of Britain into which they had retreated.

Among them, Goodrich discovered a renowned churchman, a bishop, an adviser of kings, a great teacher, a man thoroughly versed in the prophets of the Old and New Testament, the man who may have owned that copper, gilt, and enamel crosier. That man was Merlin.

M. Melissa Pressley is a free-lance book reviewer.

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