The Quest for Merlin by Nikolai Tolstoy (Little, Brown, $19.95)
King Arthur's mentor-wizard and resident prophet and magician, Merlin, has enchanted authors and audiences from the 12th Century to the 20th, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Tolkien, who called him Gandalf, by way of Malory and Tennyson. Was there a real, historical Merlin? The British-born historian Nikolai Tolstoy, whose earlier books include a biography of his famous family--Leo was a distant relative--thinks there almost certainly was.
He lived in the Scottish Lowlands in the 6th Century, and although Tolstoy adds that this Merlin (or Myrddin) had no connections with Arthur, he was a fascinating figure no less. Tolstoy even pinpoints a mountain spring in Dumfriesshire where, he is convinced, Merlin, a surviving Druid in a Britain slowly being Christianized, took refuge after his patron was killed in battle.
Tolstoy's far-ranging explorations find premonitions of Merlin in the earliest Welsh and Irish poems, and eerie parallels to Merlin the Trickster in the shaman figures who have existed in other cultures from Siberia to North America.