A page from the Black Book of Carmarthen
featuring the Conversation between Myrddin and Taliesin
The earliest recorded is in medieval Welsh in The Black Book of Carmarthen and this might, in fact comprise two different conversations. There is another in a medieval Latin poem by Geoffrey of Monmouth called Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin). Then there is Porius, the twentieth century novel by John Cowper Powys set in North Wales in the year 499 in which the two characters do not so much have a conversation as move around each other in relation to the events in the novel. None of these conversations bear much resemblance to the other in terms of content, though the conversation in The Black Book of Carmarthen, or some other source of it, seems to have provided the occasion for later versions.
It is likely that the 38 lines of the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen contain two separate frames of reference, and have even been thought to be a mistaken conflation of two separate poems, though this seems unlikely. The first 22 lines (mainly in past or dramatised present tenses) appear to be about a battle resulting from a raid by Maelgwn Gwynedd from North Wales on territory in South Wales. The remaining 16 lines (in present or future tenses) refer to the Battle of Arfderydd after which, according to other sources, Myrddin became mad and retreated to the Caledonian forest, though here it simply says that 'seven score' ran mad from the battle into the forest. In the first of these scenarios Myrddin laments the slain of his side (the territory around Carmarthen) while Taliesin laments those of North Wales. The second scenario seems to be in the form of a prophecy foretelling the events of the Battle of Arfderydd in northern Britain.
This raises questions about relative time frames. Maelgwn Gwynedd (Maglocunus) was criticised by the sixth century monk Gildas who called him 'Dragon of the Island', supposedly a term of praise but used by Gildas dismissively in a denial of such terms as used by the bards about their patrons. Maelgwn ruled Gwynedd in the sixth century. The Battle of Arfderydd also took place in the latter part of that century. So from a chronological perspective it is quite possible to take the dialogue between the two bards as occurring after one battle and that they then prophesied another battle which was to follow. In this view the poem would have been written much later as a memorial of both events. The Black Book of Carmarthen is a thirteenth century manuscript but its contents are copies of older manuscripts. This poem has been dated on the basis of style, versification and other evidence to between 1050 and 1100(*).
But there is also the conflation of people and places to account for. The Myrddin who fled the Battle of Arfderydd lived in northern Britain and the battle took place there, near what is now the border between England and Scotland. But by the time the poem was written he had become associated with Carmarthen in Wales. Similarly, Taliesin was the bard of Urien of Rheged in the North, but was also associated with Maelgwn Gwynedd in Wales in the later prose tale about him. As with much of this early lore, place and time slide between northern Britain and Wales, and from the sixth century through succeeding centuries up until the twelfth and thirteenth when much of the manuscript source material that has come down to us was copied.
Geoffrey of Monmouth may have had access to some of this material, including some that has not survived. But it is thought that he had not seen the material about the northern Myrddin Wyllt when he composed his History of the Kings of Britain in 1136, which features a Merlin based on a character called Ambrosius in the earlier ninth century History of the Britons attributed to Nennius. Only later, after he had seen the story of Myrddin Wyllt, did he compose his Vita Merlini in about 1150. This led the slightly later commentator Giraldus Cambrensis to distinguish between 'Merlin Ambrosius' and 'Merlin Sylvestris', but it was the Merlin of Geoffrey's History that developed into the composite Merlin of later Arthurian romance. His Life of Merlin locates him in Carmarthen in spite of being based on the story of the northern Myrddin Wyllt, and so takes him north to join a battle against the Scots.(**)
Geoffey’s dialogue between Taliesin and Myrddin is more like two monologues for much of its length. Myrddin had sent Taliesin “to find out about the wind and the clouds” and much of Taliesin’s speech on his return is simply a summation of medieval natural history. He then discourses on the nature of different places, including The Isle of Apples, or Avalon, where he claims to have accompanied Arthur after the battle of Camlan. This may be parallel to the journey to Annwn in the poem ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ in The Book of Taliesin where Taliesin accompanies Arthur to the Otherworld on a raid to capture a magical cauldron. Or it may simply be another case of Taliesin boasting of his many journeys to different times and places. Geoffrey seems here either to be using material he was aware of, but had not studied in detail, or using it as a starting point for his own quite different purpose. So Taliesin, like Myrddin before him, is being appropriated by Geoffrey, into the Arthurian narrative of his earlier History of the Kings of Britain. As if to emphasise this, Myrddin’s reply is a monologue largely based on the prophecies of Merlin in Geoffrey’s History. It is only a reply to Taliesin in that it appears to validate his claim to have accompanied Arthur to Avalon. (**)
The exchange of prophecies that ensues is the basis of some sort of dialogue but it is interrupted by messengers bringing the news that a new healing spring has arisen. Myrddin goes to drink from it and is cured of his madness. The conversation continues with Myrddin asking Taliesin what power brought the spring into being which elucidates a reply from Taliesin describing various virtuous springs, rivers and lakes, concluding with a remarkably scientific explanation of how springs arise from aquifers. We then learn that Myrddin’s cure has robbed him of his prophetic powers, which are then transferred to his sister Ganieda (the ‘Gwenddydd’ of the Welsh poems?). Geoffrey’s account, then, seems not only to rely on knowledge of the Welsh Myrddin lore but also some knowledge of the Welsh Taliesin lore. But, especially in the case of the latter, either his knowledge was not detailed or, if it was, he chose to ignore the detail and use it to create something quite different.
In John Cowper Powys’ novel Porius, Myrddin Wyllt is characterised as an incarnation of Chronos who has kept a low profile through the reign of Zeus and now proposes to do the same for another 2000 years while the new Christian god rules, waiting for the time to bring about a return to his Golden Age. Taliesin is a young poet making a name for himself as the chief bard of Ynys Prydain. They meet on a few occasions in the novel and Taliesin, here, is a composite figure, essentially the historical bard of Urien of Rheged but at a time when he was attached to the court of Cynan Garwyn in North Wales, to whom a poem in The Book of Taliesin is addressed. But he is also referred to as the “pot-stirrer” of Ceridwen, a role he continues to adopt in the novel where he is both the chief bard and the head chef in Cynan’s retinue! In a novel that also contains aboriginal giants, pre-Brythonic forest people, Irish, Pictish and remnant Romans alongside the Brythons and Saxon invaders, the interactions of Myrddin and Taliesin are more at the level of psychological rather than actual conversation, as indeed is much of the significant content of this novel.
Each of them, however, comes with a supernatural ‘back-story’ and their similarity in this respect may be related to the penultimate line of the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen: “Can ys mi myrtin guydi taliesin”, which has been literally translated as “As I am Myrddin, then Taliesin” taking ‘guydi’ as the modern Welsh ‘wedi’ (then, after). But the medieval Welsh word can also mean ‘in the manner of’ (***) so the line could indicate that Myrddin is here ‘in the guise of Taliesin’. Elis Gruffydd, writing in Welsh in the sixteenth century, was of the opinion that “Merlin was a spirit in human form, who was in that shape from the time of Vortigern until the beginning of King Arthur when he disappeared. After that, this spirit appeared again in the time of Maelgwn Gwynedd at which time he is called Taliesin ….. he appears a third time in the days of Morfryn Frych son of Esyllt, whose son he was said to be, and in this period he was called Merlin the Mad. From that day to this, he is said to be resting in Caer Sidia ….”. (****)
What these accounts all have in common is to ascribe the superior condition to Myrddin whose range of representation from that of the spirit-sired wonder child Ambrosius in the ninth century History of the Britons – and later as Merlin in Geoffrey’s History – all the way through to John Cowper Powys’ portrayal of him as a primal god existing outside of the constraints of space and time. Taliesin, on the other hand, fluctuates between his identity as an historical bard, the idealised figure and persona of the Spirit of Poetry and an other-world traveller and inhabitant of the far reaches of imaginative existence. He is, in these conversations, the alter-ego of Myrddin, a form Myrddin might take, or an apprentice whom Myrddin can send on errands, as in Geoffrey’s Vita, or who takes a subordinate role in a partnership, as in the Black Book of Carmarthen poem where Myrddin claims to encompass the identity of Taliesin and to be the one whose “prophecy is widespread/without end”. Even so, both of them share the characteristics of not being constrained by either space or time and can appear in different guises in different times and places, and in that sense share a mode of being with the gods.
(*) A. O H. Jarman Ymddidan Myrddin a Thaliesin (Caerdydd, 1967). The text of the poem and discussion of its stylistic characteristics are taken from this edition.
(**) The sequence of Geoffrey’s compositions and his knowledge of sources given above is based on the interpretation of Jarman. But it might be that Geoffrey knew about the northern Myrddin material earlier but chose to ignore it in his earlier work until he had an occasion to use it that better suited his purposes.
(***) J Lloyd-Jones Geirfa Barddoniaeth Gynnar Gymraeg (Caerdydd, 1931-63)
(****) Patrick K Ford (ed.) Elis Gruffydd The Death of Merlin (Viator 7, 1976)