A lot of times, my novels will be catch-alls for everything I find interesting about a particular topic. Burn Me Deadly, for example, deals with dragons, and Blood Groove with both vampires and 1970s culture. Usually by the time I finish, I’ve burned out my intense interest in a sort of positive exorcism that gets the obsession out of me for good.
But not always. For example, my 2011 novel Dark Jenny is a pastiche of Arthurian legends, yet it hasn’t killed my interest in them. I still pick up books on the topic that look interesting (for example, the 1982 novel The Idylls of the Queen by Phyllis Ann Karr, which uses the same bit of Arthurian folklore as its starting point, but goes off in very different directions [and which I wrote about here]). I’ll also gladly watch any documentary about Arthur, Merlin, or the Round Table, no matter how suffused with stock footage and incorrect information it might be. But I’ve come across nothing that I wish I’d known at the time I wrote Dark Jenny.
That is, until now.
In episode 3 of the 2001 documentary series The Legends of King Arthur (now available on BritBox), writer Susanna Shadrake says (via the very Patrick Macnee-ish narrator Robert Whelan) that Merlin came very close to having a significantly less dignified name.
“In the process of translation, Geoffrey turned the name ‘Myrddin’ into ‘Merlinus,’ known to us as ‘Merlin.’ He could have substituted a single ‘d’ for the Welsh ‘dd,’ and added the Latin suffix ‘-us.’ ‘Myrddin’ would then have become, ‘Merdinus,’ and the prophet, as well as Geoffrey, would’ve been a laughing stock. ‘Merda’ is the Latin for ‘excrement,’ to put it politely. ‘Merdinus’ would have been immortalized as, ‘the Shitty One’.…Geoffrey was far too astute an author to burden such a compelling figure as Merlin with a comedy name.”
Now, I’ll admit that Merlin isn’t my favorite Arthurian character, but nowhere in my reading before or since have I come across this little tidbit. I’ve poked about a little to confirm it, with no success, so I can’t vouch for its veracity or accuracy. But ultimately, to a writer of fiction like me, it doesn’t matter if it’s true. Because it’s hilarious.
In Dark Jenny, my Merlin figure was named Cameron Kern and modeled vaguely on Jerry Garcia, so a strict use of the joke wouldn’t have worked. But had I known there was even a possibility that the actual Merlin came this close to being known as “the Shitty One,” you better believe I’d have found a way to work it in. That’s the kind of detail that you can’t get away with inventing, but that you’d be super-foolish to ignore.