I'd forgotten I was Merlin once...
This was first sent out in the newsletter for Midwinter 2018.
Strange how some things can completely slip from your memory.
More than twenty years ago I was invited to contribute as a scriptwriter to an Irish-American TV co-production called ‘The Legends of the Isles’. They wanted storytellers to write lively versions of some of the most renowned legendary tales of Britain. Somehow I got asked. There were to be seventeen programmes in all covering a wide range of subjects, from Richard the Lionheart to Grace O’Malley, the Irish pirate. Each of the writers got to choose the legends we wanted to tackle. I got Stonehenge, Merlin the Last Druid, and the Quest for the Holy Grail. Dream themes!
But we didn’t have long to get it all together. Three months maybe? That was a lot of material to research, digest and create from in a short time. So it was very pressured. I had other things on too, particularly a storytelling tour of historic sites in southern England that also needed preparation. I had to drop a week of that work, which English Heritage never forgave me for. Anyway I wrote first drafts of the Stonehenge, Merlin and Grail scripts. But I was running out of time so someone else took over the Grail film. I continued working on Stonehenge and Merlin to the final draft. It was the Merlin story I spent most time on.
The film crew was starting out from Dublin on three weeks of filming, so I suggested they begin at Cae Mabon. Lots of good places to film around here, I said. They were making several programmes at once, including The Sword in the Stone. So for two or three days they filmed in nearby forest, castle and crag. Next to the first waterfall above Cae Mabon we had the sword, literally, in the stone. They wanted to show it through the seasons. At one point someone rushed up asking for anything that could be used as snow. I found coconut. They used the bronze chalice I have as their vessel for the Holy Grail. Later it travelled with them through England and France.
They also wanted someone to ‘be Merlin’ in the landscape. No dialogue, just a figure moving in an atmospheric setting. I volunteered and was given the job. Someone rustled up a costume and the Merlin figure moved moodily through the trees, down to the river, onto a rock. He blew a horn, the horn that still hangs at Cae Mabon. They wanted to show him in his madness too, when he was so consumed by grief for his lord’s death that he fled deep into the forest and went wild, communing with pigs and wolves, the spirit of an apple tree, a stag. For mad Merlin I donned a bearskin – one I’d had since wearing it as a man from 30,000 years ago in a theatre-in-education piece about human origins – and did a crazed, jerky dance while teetering on the brink of a precipitous boulder. That bearskin, alas, was burned in the Roundhouse fire. I thought I would never see it again.
After the work was done the crew left for far off exotic places to film the rest. Some weeks later I got back the bronze chalice. But I never saw the finished film. They never sent copies nor directed me to it. I had no confirmation that it had ever happened. I didn’t chase it up and rarely had cause to talk to anyone else about it. The memory of it slipped away. Until a few weeks ago.
* * *
I’ve been doing a spot of mythic maintenance at Dinas Emrys lately, cutting the smothering bracken from the amphitheatre bowl and digging up the rushes that choked the pool. Over the last few months the place has become clearer and more open. As a consequence it feels like some of its ancient power has come closer to the surface. Maybe the dragons are stirring again. Certainly since doing this work I’ve been granted more insights about the place.
For example I’ve found a new way up through the original outer, middle and inner gates, as identified by archaeologists more than sixty years ago. There’s a natural, rock-guarded entrance from flat meadows that reach toward Beddgelert where three valleys meet. From there it’s a fairly easy uphill walk, despite a couple of short scrambles. The gateways are quite clear. But the paths aren’t actually there. No one has walked this way for decades, possibly centuries. Nonetheless the lie of the land shows you the way. These paths were walked by those who came here long ago. But they have lain quiet for an age, perhaps since the time of Llywelyn.
I’ve also learned more about the old name for the place, Dinas Affaraon Dande. Although I knew this name before, I didn’t understand its meaning. Now I’ve found that, according to some, Dinas Affaraon means the Fort of Higher Powers. And Dande means ‘fiery’. The Fiery Fort of Higher Powers. The people who lived there when it was called that were known as The Pheryllt. They, apparently, were Alchemists. But they could equally have been Magicians, Wizards, Prophets, Healers, Advisors and Priests, the kind of characters that populate the Mabinogi. I like to think that Pheryllt time was Mabinogi time. The time of Blessed Bran and tragic Branwen; Math, ancient bear king and lord of Gwynedd; Gwydion, best storyteller and most devious enchanter; even Mabon son of Modron, the Great Son of the Great Mother, whose grave is a few miles away in the upper Nantlle Valley. I am convinced that these and other Mabinogi characters knew this place. One who came, according to legend, was Ceridwen, looking for a spell to make her sadly lacking son shine. She was prescribed inspiration and given the recipe. They say she came to the Pheryllt riding on a dragon.
So Dinas Emrys has a pretty potent set of associations. First there are the two dragons - female and male, indigenous and invader, red cell and white. Then it’s where the young Merlin first presented himself to the world as he was about to be sacrificed. After releasing the hidden dragons he uttered a prophecy that has survived fifteen centuries and speaks truth to this day. And it was a place of higher powers where potions were concocted to bring inspiration for none other than Taliesin himself. From the mythic point of view this place is very sacred indeed.
* * *
In the course of pursuing my obsession (twenty visits over five months) I have scoured the Internet for more info. Looking into versions of the Dinas Emrys story I came upon the website www.hedgedruid.com. There was a full retelling of the story and a link to ‘an old video recording of an English documentary about Merlin. Beautifully narrated.’ Of course I clicked the link and, lo and behold, it was the film I’d scripted and performed in all those years ago, which I had never until then seen. The quality is not great but there is the younger me blowing the horn, walking with my old Mayan sandals, wearing the bearskin.
Here is the link to the original film.
Although I’d almost forgotten being part of this film I realised that many of the words have stayed with me ever since. Some of them I still speak when telling Merlin’s tale. I realised too that the figure or archetype of Merlin has been with me a very long time. But at the same time it feels as I’ve only just begun.