Enchantment permeates Celtic mythology, shrouding the tales in a haunting, dreamlike quality. The all-pervasive otherworld lies behind much of the mystery and magic, penetrating the forests and lakes, and crafting charmed rings and weapons such as King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. There are in fact many otherworlds of Celtic myth: invisible realms of gods and spirits, fairies, elves and misshapen giants, some of them sparkling heavens while others are brooding hells. The veil between the visible and invisible worlds is gossamer-thin and easily torn, allowing seers, bards and some privileged heroes to pass in and out on spirit-flights or journeys of the soul. Common gateways to the otherworld are by water and across narrow bridges, beneath mounds or wells which hide glittering subterranean paradises or dark purgatories. Above all, it is on the eve of Samhain, October 31, that all the gates to the otherworld open and spirits emerge from beneath the hollow hills.
The very name of Merlin conjures up images of magic and mystery. Perhaps even more than King Arthur, the real character and person of Merlin remains obscure, lost in centuries of tales told and retold. The Merlin of legend is at once a master of enchantments, a prophet and a kingmaker. To understand the real Merlin, however, it is necessary to forget our modern conception of wizards and magicians, derived from Shakespeare’s Prospero, Tolkien’s Gandalf and T H White’s amiable but bumbling Merlin. These are recent inventions. If it is accepted that Merlin lived in the age of King Arthur (i.e. in the fifth or sixth century), he would have been a combination of a priest and a witch doctor, more akin to a shaman or druid than a wizard as such. There appear to be two contesting theories about the origin of Merlin: firstly that he was a composite of several different individuals and secondly that there was only one real Merlin, who was actually called Myrddin Emrys, and that he was a Welsh bard and soothsayer who died in the sixth century.