Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

Merlin's Folly and Fate

And now we have again a tale of disaster to tell, namely, how Merlin the wise fell into love's dotage, and through folly brought himself to a living death, so that thenceforth he appeared no more upon the earth, and his wise counsels were lost to Arthur and his knights.

For the old magician, who had so long kept free from love's folly, became besotted with the damsel named Nimue, she whom King Pellinore had brought to the court on his quest at Arthur's marriage.

Merlin quite lost his wits and wisdom through his mad passion for this young lady, to whom he would give no rest, but followed her wherever she went. The shrewd damsel, indeed, encouraged her doting lover, for he was ready to teach her all the secrets of his art, so that in time she learned from him so much of his craft that she became skilled in necromancy beyond all enchantresses of her time.

The wise magician knew well that his end was at hand, and that the woman whom he loved would prove his ruin, but his doting passion was such that he had no strength of mind to resist. He came thereupon unto King Arthur, and told him what he foresaw, and which it was not in his power to prevent; and warned him of many coming events, that he might be prepared for them when Merlin was with him no more.

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris


"I have charged you," he said, "to keep in your own hands the sword Excalibur and its scabbard, yet well I know that both sword and scabbard will be stolen from you by a woman whom you foolishly trust, and that your lack of wisdom will bring you near to your death. This also I may say, you will miss me deeply. When I am gone you would give all your lands to have me again. For Merlin will find no equal in the land."

"That I well know already," said the king. "But, since you foresee so fully what is coming upon you, why not provide for it, and by your craft overcome it?"

"No," said Merlin, "that may not be. Strong I am, but destiny is stronger. There is no magic that can set aside the decrees of fate."

Soon afterwards the damsel departed from the court, but her doting old lover followed her wherever she went. And as he sought to practise upon her some of his subtle arts, she made him swear, if he would have her respond to his love, never to perform enchantment upon her again.

This Merlin swore. Then he and Nimue crossed the sea to the land of Benwick, the realm of King Ban, who had helped King Arthur so nobly in his wars, and here he saw young Lancelot, the son of King Ban and his wife Elaine, who was in the time to come to win world-wide fame.

The queen lamented bitterly to Merlin the mortal war which King Claudas made upon her lord and his lands, and the ruin that she feared.

"Be not disturbed thereby," said Merlin. "Your son Lancelot shall revenge you upon King Claudas, so that all Christendom shall ring with the story of his exploits. And this same youth shall become the most famous knight in the world."

"O Merlin!" said the queen, "shall I live to see my son a man of such prowess?"

"Yes, my lady and queen, this you shall see, and live many years to enjoy his fame."

Soon afterwards Merlin and his lady-love returned to England and came to Cornwall, the magician showing her many wonders of his art as they journeyed. But he pressed her so for her love that she grew sorely weary of his importunate suit, and would have given aught less than her life to be rid of him, for she feared him as one possessed of the arts of the foul fiend. But say or do what she would, her doting lover clung to her all the more devotedly, and wearied her the more with his endless tale of love.

Then it came to pass that as they wandered through Cornwall, and Merlin showed her all the wonders of that land, they found themselves by a rocky steep, under which he told her was a wonderful cavern that had been wrought by enchantment in the solid rock, its mouth being closed by a mighty mass of stone.

Here, with all her art of love, and a subtle show of affection, the faithless damsel so bewitched Merlin that for joy he knew not what he did; and at her earnest wish he removed by his craft the stone that sealed the cavern's mouth, and went under it that he might show her all the marvels that lay there concealed.

But hardly had he entered when, using the magic arts which she had learned from him, the faithless woman caused the great stone to sink back with a mighty sound into its place, shutting up the enchanter so firmly in that underground cavern that with all his craft he could never escape. For he had taught her his strongest arts of magic, and do what he would he could never move that stone.

This faithless act performed, the damsel departed and left Merlin a prisoner in the rock. She alone of all the world could set him free, and that she would not do, but kept her secret, and thanked heaven for her deliverance.

And so Merlin, through his doting folly, passed out of the world of men into a living tomb.

Long days and months passed before his fate was known, and then chance brought to his cavern prison a valiant knight named Bagdemagus, who had left Arthur's court in anger because Sir Tor was given a vacant seat at the Round Table which he claimed as his due.

As he wandered through that part of Cornwall in quest of adventures, he came one day past a great rock from which dire lamentations seemed to issue. Hearing those woeful sounds, Bagdemagus sought to remove the stone that closed the cavern's mouth, but so firmly was it fixed by enchantment that a hundred men could not have stirred it from its place.

"Strive no longer," came a voice from within. "You labor in vain."

"Who is it that speaks?" asked the knight.

"I am Merlin, the enchanter; brought here by my doting folly. I loved not wisely but too well; and here you find me, locked in this cliff by my strongest spells, which in love's witlessness I taught to a woman traitor. Go now, worthy sir, and leave me to my fate."

"Alas! that this should be! Tell me who did this thing, and by what dismal chance, that I may tell the king."

Then Merlin related the story of his folly and fate, in the end bidding the knight to leave him, for only death could free him from that prison.

Hearing this, Bagdemagus departed, full of sorrow and wonder, and after many days returned to Arthur's court, where he told the story of the magician's fate. Great was the marvel of all and the grief of the king on learning this, and much he besought Nimue to set Merlin free. But neither threats nor entreaties could move her obdurate heart, and at length she left the court in anger and defiance, vowing that she would never set free her old tormentor.