Thèophile Briant [1891-1956] and the Testament of Merlin
If any French writer could qualify for the title of a Son of Hermes then the Breton writer, magazine editor and publisher Theophile Briant would certainly be up there high at the top of the list. Born in 1891 he comes a little out of sequence in our listing but we mention him now in light of his remarkable book The Testament of Merlin which has just been translated into English (by myself) and published by Skylight Press.
A great enthusiast of all things Breton, Celtic and Arthurian Briant spent twelve years writing this powerful account of the life and work of Merlin. Reviews were enthusiastic when it first appeared, (in 1975, 19 years after his death!) describing the author as poet, visionary and novelist all at once. Able to create characters and give them life, he reveals a mastery of the art of evocative description and scenes are impregnated with the Celtic and religious atmosphere of the epoch.
Steeped in the tradition of the Mysteries he structures his work on a three fold framework. The first section opens in a sixth century Summer Solstice as King Arthur’s fleet leaves Armorica en route for ‘the Last Battle’ against Mordred and the Saxons. The second is an initiatory sequence featuring faery mysteries in the Forest of Broceliande. And the third, which ends the life of Merlin (on the physical plane at any rate) is enacted against a back drop of claims between old and new religions.
Although the Round Table Fellowship is defeated at the Last Battle it nonetheless ends with the conviction that “We may have been beaten at Salisbury but King Arthur still lives”. How can he be dead when he had Merlin for a friend and protector and had been transported, still living, off to Avalon?
As the King sleeps in Avalon the earthly action is taken up by Merlin ‘of the golden torque and star’ one of whose functions as a bard has been to rouse the blood of the warriors in battle; a druid certainly, brought up in the religion of the Ancestors, that of Nature, but who had in infancy met one of the many Christian missionaries of the time, bringing a message of love and forgiveness from a man in the the East called Christ. Son of an unknown God, who had been put to death by his fellows and of whom a certain Joseph of Arimathea has piously collected the blood. The Cup that was passed round in the meal of the Round Table Fellowship before the Last Battle was said to be the symbol of sacrifice of this god and was of some attraction to younger knights since it was said that the purest of them might be worthy to possess this precious cup whose secret has not yet been revealed to anyone.
On the evening of the terrible battle of Salisbury unspeakable grief had been the lot of the few survivors, which include Merlin who, however, is able take charge of the bodies of the two whom he loves most, his king, and his young disciple, Adragante the Gael. Not being able to accept that the death of these two friends can be the ‘unimaginable dawn’ of the Christian god he appeals to the god of occult forces, via his former master, the Druid high priest of the forest, who has promised him help if he maintains the ancient faith. Like Roland on the evening of defeat at Roncevaux, Merlin sounds his silver horn, and in the night, from afar another horn responds.
The deal is done! No Christian any more, nor life as king’s bard, Merlin returns to the solitude of the forest, attentive to the voices of Nature to revive his soul in his own way, which involves the not unpleasant setting up in a rock crystal castle with the faery Viviane and renewing acquaintance with his old friend the ferryman Barynthus who drops by from time to time in his world encompassing ship.
King Arthur is not dead; some time he will return. As for Adragante, ‘reborn’ by the old magic of his Master, he will be witness of what is to follow, but only by writing, for one problem of the cauldron of Keridwen is that although it can resuscitate it renders the recipient dumb – a child of silence, or son of secrecy, product of a Truth that abandons itself to the Shadows. With the fervour of disciple, Adragante begins a journal and it is through his eyes and his pen that the story continues, which is also one of initiation.
Many tests await him: cold, hunger, storm, loneliness, on this coast of Armorica or confined to the depths of the forest . But Merlin had warned and prepared him.
At the threshold of the route are many teachings and symbols; a rebel boar, national emblem of Brittany, a solar bear that triumphs by Intelligence, a golden apple tree of Knowledge, a flower of the Graal, mystically flowing with blood issuing from the Crucifixion to perpetuate its memory. Here too is a sacred book of wisdom from which writing is absent (to avoid any error of interpretation) with 78 images, 22 Trumps, 9 numbers, that give the adept the Key to the Universe and Life.
Guided by his master, Adragante descends to the submarine depths and their inhabitants; lower still, to the centre of the Earth where the Fire, principle of all life, reveals to a few initiates the secret of the Great Work; finally to the hall of eternal Time, hung with its deceiving mirrors of Past and Future. It is in these that he sees the plain strewn with the corpses of Salisbury. And an even more terrible sight, a vague form, wearing the white robe of the druids, and the five pointed star of the bards, falling, face bloody, under a hail of stones. The ‘threefold death’ of Merlin at the hands of some shepherds in the Scottish border country.
He must however vanquish his fears of menacing serpents until, winning free from the underworld caverns, aided by Merlin, he breaks through to the light of dawn by the sea, the sun flooding the bay of Cézembre, from whence the story began, now reflecting the Infinite Light of God the Creator. It had been necessary to confront the Shadows to approach the great mysteries of Life and Death, and accede to a new life, illuminated by Knowledge and Love.
That had been Merlin’s the wish for him: the initiation of the disciple until he sees his Master disappear from his sight in a mysterious and triumphal ascension.
Merlin it seems was a man torn between two religions that he needed to reconcile, Druidism and Christianity, each necessary to his soul thirsting for the Infinite – and perhaps like Théophile Briant himself, for in the front of one of his books is the following quotation.
“Modulating in turn, on the Lyre of Orpheus
The sighs of the Saint and the Faery’s cry.” [Gérard de Nerval]