Yes, Virginia, There Was a Merlin
With all the hoopla about Harry Potter this week, it seems as if people have forgotten about the OG wizard: Merlin. The legendary spell-caster has been written about by no less than Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis (among others) and portrayed on film and television by Joseph Fiennes (pictured), Stacy Keach, Sam Neill and Bobcat Goldthwait (really).
But did the sorcerer really exist? All signs point to… kind of, maybe.
The fictional character of Merlin originally appeared in an 1136 book titled Historia Regum Britanniae (“History of the Kings of Britain”) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the guy who popularized the whole Arthurian legend thing.
He was reportedly based on a man named named Myrddin Wyllt. Myrddin served as court adviser for Gwenddolau, a Brythonic king who ruled in the mid-sixth century. When Gwenddolau was killed in battle in 573 AD, Myrddin fled into the Caledonian Forest and eventually lost his mind. When he finally emerged, he claimed he was a prophet. Supposedly, Myrddin successfully predicted his own "triple death" by falling, stabbing and drowning. It's said to have come true in 584 when he was chased off a cliff by shepherds, then impaled on a fisherman's spear in the water below and finally drowned because he had landed head first.
Myrddin's prophecies were apparently written down in Cornish language and were later translated by John I of Cornwall in the 12th century. Rumor has it that John of Cornwall's original manuscript is currently somewhere in the depths of the Vatican Library (aren't all mysterious texts in the Vatican Library?). Some argue that Myrddin really was the all-knowing sage later embodied by the fictional Merlin - they say Christians rewrote history to paint Myrddin as a madman to discredit him.
Long story short: Merlin the Magician is most likely a fictional character with roots in a local legend whose feats may or may not have been wildly embellished by the time John of Cornwall and Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about him.