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Book Review : An Engrossing Search for Merlin in the Mythic Past

December 09, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

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.

In the end, Tolstoy draws on Jung: "Myth is not fiction; it consists of facts that are continually repeated and can be observed over and over again." Tolstoy argues that in effect the historical Merlin was recurring out of time past, and "acting out the myth which is central to man's existence; the objectivization of God; the emergence from unconsciousness to the reflected daylight of divine consciousness." The profoundest parallel, for Tolstoy, is to Christ, as a being both mortal and divine. Readers may stop short of the parallel, yet Tolstoy conducts an engrossing search of the mythic past (including the Welsh sagas popularized by Lloyd Alexander in his Prydane Chronicles and reflected recently in "The Black Cauldron").

The cross-connections between cultures widely dispersed in time and space are mind-teasing. And the book, scholarly as it is, has the non-pedantic warmth of a passionate act of faith, impelled by Tolstoy's evident belief in the past as prologue, and his vision of Merlin standing at the last edge of a pagan past, foretelling a later, different light.

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