Merlin the Mad

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Merlin the Mad

by: Norris J. Lacy (Author)
from: The Camelot Project  2003

"I am imprisoned here by such powerful charms and spells that no one could free me."
                                                                      - Suite du Merlin
(French, thirteenth century)
Darkness. Utter darkness. It is not just very dark, but oppressively, absolutely dark. This is something that few people ever experience: usually there is at least a candle somewhere in the distance, or a little light from the stars and moon, even on a cloudy night. But here, "dark" means something completely different. The darkness is almost palpable. Even in a very dark room, the eyes adjust after a few minutes and diminish the impression of darkness, even if nothing is actually visible. That is not true here. People think of darkness as the absence of light, but this is not an absence: it is a terrible presence, almost a heavy, glutinous substance: Darkness.
     And silence. The silence is almost as oppressive and tangible as the dark. No sounds from outside can penetrate the damp stone walls. There must be a way for air to enter, through a small fissure somewhere in the walls or ceiling. But no sound can follow it. Surely there have been storms since I've been here--I think it may be spring by now--but I have not heard even the faintest rumble that might be thunder.
     In fact, there is some sound here, but it is made only by me, even when I lie completely still. I can hear my breathing and even the sounds made by the nerves in my ears: a slight ringing, or maybe it is the blood making its futile way through the veins within my ears. And it seems that I can hear, as well as feel, the beating of my heart. And naturally, when I move around, I make noise. Curiously, even a soft step taken on the stone floor sounds almost deafening, so accustomed am I now to the quiet. At first I talked aloud, I sang, I sometimes shouted, just to combat the silence, to fend it off. But gradually it won; it enveloped me, and almost unconsciously I began to walk and move as softly as possible. And I spoke and sang less and less, until my own voice began to sound foreign to me and was rarely used at all, though it would occasionally awaken me as I found myself audibly playing out my role in a dream. If it was a dream.
     So I have only my thoughts and my dreams and my occasional fantasies to occupy me. Simply to pass the time, I find myself organizing those thoughts, putting them into some kind of rational order: taking stock of my situation, remembering and analyzing Arthur's work and my part in it. I suppose it is mere habit, since I have always written or dictated a record of everything I did and of everything that happened to Arthur. So I think about the past and how I would write about it if I could. But I do my best not to think of the future, since ironically I have no future even though my life has no end. I will never leave this darkness. It holds me here. It confines me. It possesses me.
     My "tomb" is actually a large chamber. It is of irregular shape but is roughly a rectangle, eight paces wide and thirteen paces deep. It occurred to me immediately that those were the proportions of the golden mean; that ought to be auspicious, though, under the circumstances, I can't imagine how. Anyway, my initial impression that the room was about double my height seems to be confirmed by the echo when I speak--or used to speak. The floor is reasonably smooth except for a single raised section, as high as my knees, near the middle. I first thought that this should perhaps be my bed, but obviously any other part of the stone floor would do as well.
     And in fact, I found a better place. There is a kind of alcove on one side, extending back just a few paces. Standing or sitting in it, I can just touch both sides by extending my arms. I often do go to sit in my alcove for a full night. Or perhaps a full day; there is no way to tell. I try to break time into day and night, but I know the effort is meaningless and arbitrary: for me it is always night, and it always will be.
     Although it sounds illogical, the smaller space seems less overwhelming, as if it somehow holds less darkness and less silence. Now I most often sleep there as well. I tell myself that it shouldn't matter which part of the tomb I choose: my small world is the same everywhere--damp, cold, hard, dark. Especially dark. But I quickly discovered that I couldn't sleep as comfortably in the middle of the chamber or even in a corner. So my alcove first became my sitting room, and it has gradually become my bedroom as well. My world, which had been reduced to a large cavern with stone walls, has now been further reduced to a small recess in one of those walls. It is a space from which I occasionally venture out into the room--but for what? There is nothing to discover. Nothing to do but pace.
     Curiously, I can pace, quite normally, when I want to. My feet know every bump and depression in the floor, and I can even walk quite briskly without extending my arms toward the walls in front of me. I always know just how far I am from the wall. I don't really know whether it is just my familiarity with the chamber or whether something in my mind or instinct also lets me see what my eyes cannot. After all, I have always had what some call second sight, although it seems to me to be primary sight: eyes are secondary, because they see--when there is light--largely what the mind tells them to see or what the emotions want them to see. But people still call my ability the gift of second sight. Merlin: seer, sage, singer. Merlin the Prophet. Merlin the Magician. And now Merlin the Entombed. Soon Merlin the Mad? Unable to die because of who or what I am. Unable to leave because of what the world has become. Because if I left, everything I did for Arthur could be undone.
     Though it is now called Merlin's Tomb, it was just a large cave or chamber, much like any other, until Niviene closed me in here, sealing the entrance with a massive stone. She accomplished that by using a bit of magic that she considered far more impressive than it actually was. And since she learned that magic from me, my eternal confinement is really my own doing, but not in the way she thinks. What she does not know is that she did not choose my fate: I did.
     No one knows that. Not even Arthur. The story that is told is quite different. In his dotage, they say, Merlin became infatuated with a beautiful young woman. Soon he began spending more and more time away from court. At first, some assumed that he was merely seeking some solitude, as he had often done, in the forest from which he had first come. But then stories began to circulate about the old fool chasing after a young woman who alternately flirted with him and rebuffed him. No one really knew whether the flirtation was intended to lead him on or simply to make him look more ridiculous, but it hardly mattered: it accomplished both.
     Merlin had long been a familiar figure at court. He was usually at Arthur's elbow, sometimes openly advising the king, sometimes whispering in his ear. And although his access to the king inevitably created jealousies and resentment, almost everyone acknowledged that his advice, and no doubt his powers, had been invaluable. People recognized that his support had enabled Arthur to become king; Merlin had even arranged the means to demonstrate the young man's divine right to the throne by having him draw a sword from an anvil atop a large stone. Apparently that event has already become rather famous. And Merlin had guided and advised the king in every aspect of kingship and military leadership, up until the day Arthur decided to marry. Merlin had opposed his choice of brides, but for once Arthur refused to heed his warning. Thus did the king marry Guenevere. And by now everyone knows what came of that.
     No one really knew that the king's advisor had urged him to take a different bride, and naturally it took some time for the disaster of the marriage to become common knowledge. So everyone assumed that, in marriage as in war and statesmanship, Arthur's success was ensured by Merlin's guidance. The king's power and prestige continued to grow. There was only a single concern: a good many of his subjects began to wonder if the authority, the policies and plans, and especially the power were really Arthur's. Or might they instead flow from the soft, sometimes whispered, voice of the little man who was always at Arthur's side? Was Arthur himself weak or even inconsequential? Was he merely the instrument through which Merlin actually ruled?
     Merlin's reputation fed these concerns. He was known as a prophet, having predicted certain deaths, Arthur's accession, and other events. He had remarkable powers, from a source thought by some to be divine, by others to be diabolical. He was said to have talked soon after his birth. He changed form and appearance frequently, concealing his identity sometimes for evil purposes but often playfully, just for the pleasure of deceiving others or perhaps in order to remind them of his power. He had made the sword in the anvil appear before the church door, and it may have been his magic that enabled Arthur to draw the sword. And more than once, during Arthur's military campaigns, Merlin had transformed attacking armies into stone. There are places where you can still see the stones, frozen in perfect formation. Or so they say.
     Even if only half of what people said about him was true, Merlin was to be respected and even feared. And he came to be feared all the more as his power over Arthur became more evident. With fear came the questions and the serious doubts about Arthur, specifically about his ability to reign without the assistance of magic, whether diabolical or not.
     And so it was that many in the realm were pleased to see Merlin leave court on occasion, sometimes for weeks or even months. And many were even happier to hear the rumors about Merlin and a certain young woman who must have been no more than half his age--whatever his age might be. He was said to be following her around the countryside, seeing to her every need and desire and generally trailing after her like some panting puppy.
     Some said that he was merely love-sick, having been stricken mightily by her beauty and youth. Others cynically argued that the attraction was more basic: they thought him simply intent on relieving her of her virginity--assuming that he still had the capacity and she still had the virginity. Whatever the case, a good many of those closest to Arthur were by no means displeased to see that Merlin had other interests and was more and more often absent from the court and thus away from the king.
     Those were the stories that were told about me, and even though I have never been particularly sensitive to public opinion, I confess that I found it rather distasteful to set about making myself the object of ridicule or scorn. But I had decided that it had to be done. So I had chosen my reputation. And then I chose my fate.
     My disappearance was the only way to combat the remaining lack of confidence in Arthur. By that time, a great many of his barons had concluded that he was little more than a figurehead and that I was the power behind the throne. It is true that Arthur was very young and inexperienced when he became king. And it is no less true that, like many others, Arthur required guidance and advice--training in war and in kingship--and I willingly gave him all the assistance I could. I understood, far better than anyone else, how much depended on his success, and I also understood that he possessed the qualities that, with my help, could ensure that success.
     Before Arthur, Britain had been occupied by a variety of invading forces that the people just called Saxons. In many cases, "invasion" is hardly the term for it: most often the Saxons simply walked ashore, and the people were generally too busy fighting among themselves even to notice that they were being invaded. Not that they could have done much about it: there was no national consciousness, no centralized system of government, no military or political organization beyond what was imposed by leaders of small regional or local factions. And there were hundreds of those throughout the land. Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, was king, but at that time the title meant little: most local leaders ignored him, either unimpressed by his title or actually unaware that they even had a king.
     Arthur was the one who could change all this. I recognized the necessary qualities in him, but moreover, I realized, as no one else could have, that historical events--or the stars--had been aligned in such a way as to produce, finally, a king to unite the Britons.
     But even after the sword was freed from the anvil, there was resistance to Arthur, in part because of his youth. He had to repeat the drawing of the sword several times over the course of a year, and he had to continue to distinguish himself as a military leader--by following my advice about strategy, obviously--before most of the barons were willing to acknowledge his right to the throne. And even after that, a number of them accepted his authority grudgingly or not at all. That situation had to be changed, and that was my function.
     I like to believe that I did my duty and did it as best I could. I do believe that. But much of it had to be done in public, and the result of that was to undermine confidence in Arthur as much as it generated it. Who, people continued to wonder, really made decisions? Who was devising military strategy and making political policy? Was Arthur just a royal puppet whose puppeteer was Merlin?
     And as long as there were suspicions about Arthur's power and decisiveness, there were those who were tempted to challenge him. Several ambitious or jealous barons did so, and they and their armies were defeated by Arthur and his, though only with my advice and guidance. Others would no doubt mount similar challenges in the future, and they might well be either stronger or more desperate. And even if we--rather, Arthur--could defeat them, his energies would be wasted on these internal conflicts rather than directed toward subduing the invaders and building a peaceful and prosperous kingdom. Worse, there was always the possibility that his throne could be usurped by someone not chosen by history or the gods.
     So I came to understand that, having assisted and advised Arthur, I could now help him most by disappearing. I began to go away for extended periods, vanishing into the forest after explaining--and it is true--that I was by nature a solitary person and that I required privacy for thinking, writing, singing, and simply living the kind of life that was essential for me. That was of course before I started to disappear from court simply to spend time alone with Niviene. I thought that these absences would permit his subjects to see that Arthur was now in control, that he, not I, now made the decisions, that the king was perfectly able to rule the kingdom.
     My reasoning was sound, but my plan was not flawless. The problem was that people assumed that in an emergency I would return to do what needed to be done, or at least to instruct Arthur about what to do. And unfortunately the king did not help. Whenever he faced a crisis or needed my advice, he would send out messengers to find me and bring me back to court. And if enough people looked for me long enough, someone could always find me. Of course, I knew that they were looking for me, and I would reluctantly let myself be found before the need for me had become desperate. I soon came to realize that this was a weakness on my part: I could never rid myself of my sense of duty toward Arthur and toward his kingdom. Some would surely think it was vanity that caused me to make myself available in times of need. I have never thought of myself as vain, though it did naturally please me that Arthur valued my advice and support. But whether it was vanity or genuine concern for the future of the realm, or both, I was unable just to stand by and watch others destroy everything I had built. Or rather, everything that Arthur had built, but only with my guidance.
     So I concluded that I had to disappear, not just periodically, but permanently and completely. If I didn't, Arthur could not rule effectively in his own right; if he couldn't do that, there could never be a united stand against the invaders or against rebellious knights. In that case, his reign might well be cut short and would certainly be followed by the same chaos that preceded it. All the historical forces, including my efforts, would have served no purpose, all because I did my work too well. Or at least too conscientiously.
     And that is why I am here. That is why I have to remain here forever in darkness and silence. The buried undead. The mighty Merlin imprisoned in a tomb by a young woman whose beauty the old fool was unable to resist.
     The same people who might accuse me of vanity would no doubt believe that I concocted an unselfish motive so that I could spare myself the humiliation of admitting that I was victimized by Niviene and by my own foolishness. It's an understandable suspicion. In their place, I might even wonder that myself, because I know how easy it is for a person to convince himself of whatever he would like to believe. Since you are Merlin--I might ask--why did you not have enough strength just to disappear completely into the forest and not allow yourself to be found? Why did you always come when called?
     Why a dark tomb when the forest is good enough? Perhaps the great Merlin was weak. Or at least I feared that I might weaken if Arthur was facing a crisis that could destroy him and the kingdom. How could I stand by and see him and his country ruined when I could so easily prevent it? So if I was weak or fearful, it was still Arthur--not Merlin--who concerned me most. The time had come for the king to reign without my assistance, and if he could not do that now, he would never be able to. So I did what was ultimately best for him and the kingdom. I did what had to be done. For him, not for me.
     I often wonder why I even try to analyze my motives and organize my memories about these events. By now it no longer matters why Merlin did what he did. And even if I could explain it, there is no one to explain it to. There never will be. I suppose it is just habit or the way minds work. You relive events and try to make sense of them and try to explain them, if only to yourself. Especially to yourself. I wish I could write them, even if no one can read them. But instead, I sit in the dark and think.
     I confess that, although I have always cherished solitude, I am more than a little displeased by the complete solitude of darkness, silence, and emptiness. In the forest, I could enjoy the wind, the trees, the animals. The sounds. There was life! Here there is nothing. I had expected it, obviously, but that does not make it easier. I sometimes wish that there were some sound, some life--anything!--in my tomb. I wish I had arranged to have my harp with me when I was entombed.
     I wish for anything that might at least break the monotony, as singing and writing once did and still could if I wanted to sing and if I were able to write in my tomb. Here my only real sustenance is my thoughts, and they are not always an entirely satisfactory diversion. I have always considered myself independent and self-sufficient: I needed only my thoughts and my songs and my writing--and later, of course, Niviene. But here, in the absence of light and sound, I find that I need more. But there is no more. There is only time. And the void.
     Occasionally, of course, I see events at court. I sometimes know what Arthur is doing. My second sight sometimes lets me know what someone is plotting and how the king is dealing with those plots. At those times I wish I could offer him advice. But then I realize that, even if I could do that, my assistance would recreate the problem that my entombment was supposed to solve. And I understand that I made the right decision when I disappeared.
     Curiously, I realize that, although I do see events and people, I see them less clearly than I would have expected. I thought that, living in the dark, undistracted by the world and light and sound, I could concentrate my attention and my sight all the more sharply. The opposite is happening, though: I see bits and pieces, but I am unable to see things, to watch Arthur and his enemies, for more than a few minutes. Am I losing my second sight? Is that possible?
     I do on rare occasions seem to hear Arthur, at least in dreams. Or when I am on the edge of a dream, which is where I spend more and more of my time. Since there is no day or night here--or rather, no day but only night--and nothing to do but think or dream, I more and more often find myself moving or hovering between sleep and wakefulness, and I can't always tell the difference. But I do dream, and in a dream I can become Orpheus: I no longer sing aloud to pass the time, but in my dreams--if they are dreams--I relive the music I used to sing. Orpheus, child of Morpheus: I found that clever, and it amused me. But only briefly.
     And sometimes those dreams are interrupted by Arthur's voice. Or Niviene's. Or even mine. And then I wake up and wonder if I was already awake. Did I really hear a voice? What was Arthur saying? Was Niviene mocking me? Or was I just dreaming? Thinking about these events, I understand that the line between sleep and wakefulness is my own equivalent of a line between life and death, a place where wisps of dreams may be the only reality there is for me. But with dreams, reveries, second sight, and no physical reality to relate them to, I also realize that I can never be certain whether one of my thoughts is connected to the world outside or whether it is something of my own invention. Or whether it really happens at all. The result is unsettling, even upsetting. And to think this is happening to me. To Merlin.
     Strangely, I sometimes dream that I am dreaming. In the second dream--the one within the first one--I may be walking around, and sometimes there are other people present. I realize in my dream that I am dreaming, and I make an effort to wake up, but I cannot. I wonder how it would be to awaken from a dream only to find that you are in another one. Perhaps it would be much like my life.
     Once I had one of these dreams within a dream, and I looked in a mirror and was unable to recognize myself. If a dream is itself a kind of mirror, I realized, I was then three times removed from my waking state, and, ironically, when awake I could see even less than in my dreams.
     Maybe the dreams are an escape of sorts. I do occasionally think of escape, or even of death. There are times when I find myself almost regretting the fact that, since I can never leave here, I can't simply die and be done with it. Longevity is desirable; immortality, at least under these circumstances, can be a curse. Or just an endless bore.
     At one time, people who knew me or had seen me commented that I never seemed to age. I had always seemed to be old but never seemed to become older. That persuaded them that, being unlike others, I would not die. They were right, at least about my not dying. However, there came a time when I decided to age and did, or at least appeared to. I thought that might be helpful, and to a degree it was. As soon as people noticed this, they assumed that my sight was weakening and my powers were failing me, just as their own powers, mental and physical, were deserting them with age. They were entirely wrong, of course: someone who can never die can never age, whatever his appearance, and absent aging, his powers remain intact. And so mine have. Or so they did before I came to my tomb. Now I'm unsure of them. And even of myself.
     Sometimes I wonder if using Niviene was the best way to accomplish my goal. Maybe there was a better way, but at least at the time, I decided that I needed her. Not in the way people thought, although I confess that she was a rather attractive young woman: after all, I am not unlike other men in every way. But she interested me mostly because she seemed to possess modest powers and the desire to develop them further.
     Those powers had to be modest, because someone with more acute second sight might well have understood what I was doing, and that would have defeated my purpose.
     I could obviously have entombed myself easily enough without her assistance, but naturally it occurred to me that if I had the power to do that, I would also have the power to undo it. The difficulty facing me was that I suspected, indeed knew, that I would find the tomb an unappealing place to spend eternity, and events--or rather the absence of events--proved me right about that.
     I feared that I would eventually be tempted to leave this place and do my best simply to remain unseen in the forest. That, for Arthur's sake, was not a risk that I could run. And so it was clear to me that, if I wanted to ensure my complete absence from the world and thus from Arthur's life, I could take no such chances. I had to make a very unpleasant sacrifice. I had to disappear. Forever. I therefore needed someone whose powers, however meager, would be sufficient if added to mine to condemn me to a fate and a place from which I could not escape. That was Niviene's function.
     What I had not anticipated was the apparent waning of my powers in the tomb. I'm puzzled by that change, and sometimes I still wonder if I'm only imagining it. But my increasing difficulty in seeing what happens at court really leaves no doubt. I've been told that the Christians enjoy discussing silly questions such as whether their god can make a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it. Obviously, the answer has to be both yes and no--or else there is no answer because it is a meaningless question. The equivalent question for me is whether Merlin could entomb himself through a spell that would be too strong for him to break, and my answer was no: if Merlin could do it, he could also undo it. But if he had realized that his powers would weaken, he would have understood that the answer was instead yes. Merlin could have done it after all, using all his powers to spin a spell, understanding that he would eventually be unable to undo it. And he could have accomplished that without all the silly chasing after a woman.
     But I cultivated our acquaintance, which was by no means a distasteful process. I actually enjoyed the company and the attentions of a pretty young woman. But I found my task as frustrating as it was intriguing. At times she flirted shamelessly with me; at other times she seemed to want nothing to do with me. I understood both attitudes, and I would have understood even without second sight. When she found me less than appealing, it was no doubt because I had taken on the appearance of a wrinkled, aging man, if not already a very old one. And when she did seem interested in me, it was perfectly and painfully obvious that she was attracted to my power rather than my person.
     This game, which I'm afraid is the way she thought of it, continued for months, until I eventually concluded that I had to play the old fool that so many took me to be. So one day I asked, "Will you never be able to return my love?"
     She replied, "Never!" But then she added, "Unless . . . ."
     I naturally knew what she had in mind, but I asked anyway: "Unless . . . what?"
     "Unless you teach me. You know my thoughts, but I don't know yours. You have powers, and if I have any, they can't compare to yours. I am too different from you. But if you teach me spells and skills, we can be alike, and if we are alike, we can be together."
     I sighed, "Niviene!" And with a start, I realized that I had said that aloud, in my tomb, speaking for the first time in many weeks, or perhaps in months. It was as if my thoughts were erupting into reality. Or perhaps the opposite. In here, it was now becoming impossible to tell the difference. I'm sure some would see that as the very definition of madness, but it is far from that. It is as if my thoughts expand as memories are drained from them.
     So my thoughts are gradually freed from the tyranny of what I think of as "solid" memory. I can recall events, but even when I make an effort, I find myself increasingly unable to remember the appearance of things and places, and especially of people. I would never have believed that I would be unable to visualize the tiniest details of Niviene's face. Oh, I can remember and recite every little detail, but I can't see it. She has a single dimple, on her right cheek, and a high forehead, and a tiny mole in the very middle of the little hollow at the base of her throat. And yet her image is gone: I can describe every feature, but I can't see her face. It is blurred, and I have to try to reconstruct it out of the details that I can consciously recall. But conjuring up the memory of a cheek with a dimple can never recreate the image--the beauty--of Niviene. And I think the same is happening with my image of Arthur. The two people closest to my heart seem to be escaping from me, like water evaporating: it must still be there, but its form has changed so that it can no longer be seen.
     Gradually, since I said Niviene's name, I have begun to speak again. I have done it partly to organize my thoughts--though for no good reason--but mostly to relieve the monotony, or as a substitute for writing, which itself would have been a substitute for acting, for living. And I'm afraid I have done it almost unconsciously, without deliberately deciding to: I find myself muttering a name, usually Niviene's, occasionally Arthur's, or a few words. And I also began to find it more and more difficult to distinguish spoken words from thoughts and dreams--and dreams within dreams--and all of those from visions. And, I fear, from fantasies as well. Do I still have second sight from time to time? Or do I just conjure--imagine--visions from outside? Is there any way to know?
     I try to guess how long I've been here, but it could be a few weeks or a few years. I realize that I have forgotten what light looks like. Or how the air feels on my face.
     Images still do occasionally come back just for an instant, like a candle flickering just before the flame dies. Yesterday or sometime not very long ago--or maybe it was long ago--I saw Arthur on horseback doing battle with someone. It seemed to be with a Saxon enemy, but all went dark again. And once, disturbingly, I thought I saw the king's body pierced by a spear, but the instant passed too quickly for me to be certain. And of course I have no way to know if it has already happened or may happen in the future. Or not at all. Or if, perhaps, it must happen simply because I believe I have seen it happen. As I think about it, that seems the best explanation.
     Later--or maybe earlier--I saw him lying with a woman. Not Guenevere: the color of the hair was wrong. Too dark. And then the vision disappeared under waves of darkness. Later, for just an instant, a similar vision, but this time the hair was blond.
     Perhaps the blond woman was Guenevere, if she was anyone, although the vision was so brief that I was unable to focus on it. But oddly, I thought it looked as much like Niviene as like the queen. But it could not have been Niviene, not with Arthur. I realize that my mind must be playing tricks on me. What is real? What is not? But I know it could not have been Niviene. I had almost never seen her and Arthur together. They barely knew each other.
     And yet . . . it now seems to me that I remember hearing that Niviene sometimes went to Arthur's court to look for me even though I was known to be away. I can't be inventing that memory: as I think more about it, the recollection becomes clearer and clearer. But why would she be at court now that I'm gone, unless . . .
     You fool! Can't you see what is happening to you? You're confusing fantasy with fact and suspicion with coincidence. You are inventing an illusion, a dream. Even with Guenevere as his wife, why would Arthur lie with Niviene? Unless he had . . . . But I tried to put that thought out of my mind. If they are together, it means only that he is no more immune to her charms than I am. Or was. He has always been a man with healthy appetites, and she would be far from the first woman, apart from his wife, who has been bedded by the king. All of that would explain his actions. But why would she lie with him, unless . . . . Again, unless. I can't rid myself of the idea: could it be that she and Arthur had plotted to rid themselves of me? Why, after all, was Niviene so eager to learn some magic? And had she worked some of it on Arthur?
     At first this seemed an absurd idea, but once I considered it further, it appeared more and more likely, and suddenly, in the darkness, I saw things with absolute clarity, more clearly than I had ever seen anything outside: Merlin had simply been in the way! In Niviene's way for the obvious reasons, but in Arthur's way because with me around, or nearby, he could not hope to exercise his power fully and effectively, as he so obviously wanted and needed to do. What would be more natural than an alliance against the old fool Merlin? Could it have been Arthur's idea? After all I did for him? Or was it part of her plan?
     I wonder if Niviene's powers are strong enough to let her see me here. And if she can see me, I wonder if she is laughing at me.
     So, Merlin, you have been betrayed by the two people you most loved, and only now, with your famed second sight, can you begin to see it--now that your second sight is failing you, now that all sight is failing you. It is so dark in here, but not too dark to see the truth. Betrayed by Niviene and Arthur! Niviene, how could you do this? Merlin loved you. Merlin loves you. Merlin will always love you. And you betrayed me! Why is it that I can only now see all the truth?
     Now I understand perfectly what I wish I didn't know at all.
     Jealousy doesn't become an old man, and especially a silly old man, a silly old man in his tomb. But to my astonishment, I am jealous. I remember once wondering--it must have been after I came here--if my unselfish sacrifice was not just a story I told myself until I began to believe it. It's true that I enjoyed my time with Niviene, and I feared losing her. Again, an old man's fantasy.
     Or was it? Did I teach her magic so that she could help me disappear from the world? Or did she ask me to teach her so that she could rid herself of Merlin? It really makes no difference now: in either case he acted the fool, and so he was a fool. Is a fool. A fool who desperately loves Niviene, who now betrays him with the ungrateful man he made into a king.
     So who am I? Merlin the Prophet? Or Merlin the Magician? Or just Merlin the Madman? Or Merlin in love with what he could never hope to have? And does it really matter now?
     Could it be that I was a fraud, that I was Niviene's willing victim, that I made a fool of myself and then found an explanation that would spare my pride? But admitting that now, and especially here, would be pointless: who would know or care? And it would not really be the truth. At least not the full truth. Merlin chose his fate, and everything he did was for Arthur. And Niviene was necessary, so she served my purposes. I didn't serve hers.
     I wonder how long I have been here. Foolishly, I occasionally find myself wondering how long I still have to be here. The answer is obvious, and depressing: forever. I try to imagine what season it is, and I realize that I can no longer even see whether the trees have leaves or whether the ground is covered with snow. My sight continues to dim, and I would not have thought that could happen. But I am beginning to understand that it could indeed happen and did, and because it did, it had to. This realization startled me at first, but as I reflected on it, it began to make complete sense.
     I began by thinking of my prophecies--the ones I actually made, not the silly and false ones in the stories people tell about me. My own prophecies always came true, and now I realized that the process was more complex than I had once thought. I had assumed that my second sight permitted me to know what was destined to happen whether I predicted it or not. But instead it is the opposite: things happened because I had predicted them: if my second sight was infallible, that would mean that my prophecies produced future events. The truth, then, is simple: something could not fail to happen if it is predicted by someone whose prophecies are invariably right! That was an astonishing illumination--an odd word to use in total darkness--and it was startling for its clarity and simplicity. And for its self-evident truth.
     Those thoughts led me to others, even more fascinating to me. At times I've wondered if I couldn't have found a better way to remove myself from Arthur's world. But now I understand that it had to happen as it did because by now people already know how it happened. This was an epiphany. I realized that time is circular and that cause and effect are reversible: just as the present becomes the past, so does the past generate the present and therefore, obviously, the future.
     So it stands to reason that the present is one of the causes of the past, just as the past leads to the present. Niviene entombed me here, and suddenly I understood that it had to happen that way because everyone knows by now, or soon will, that it did happen that way. It could not have been otherwise. And when I realized this, I instantly understood why I cannot die: not just because I am who I am, but because people know who I am and know that I will never die. All of this understanding came to me in a flash. As I sit in the darkness and think back over my life and my imprisonment, I understand that nothing could have happened other than as it did.
     I would like to write these things down. Of course, I myself no longer have any story. Nothing to tell, because now nothing happens to me. Yet I find myself wishing for a pen and a scrap of vellum and even the dimmest of light--a single small candle--so that I could write, just as I have always written about everything. But since I have no story, what could I write, other than my thoughts about time, destiny, and darkness?
     In the past, there was no scarcity of stories, and they were exhilarating. I remember best the times when Arthur was a new-made king. We would sometimes talk all night about plans, ambitions, strategies. Especially at first, the strategies were all proposed by Merlin, but the victories that resulted were Arthur's. And they made glorious tales, but tales that by now have been retold repeatedly. And now all that is finished. And the story of Niviene has been told as well and is already known, in one version or another, to everyone who might care. Probably even to those who don't.
     So why would I want to write now that my own story is done--unless just by habit or to pass the time? Or unless the accounts of events are so connected in my mind with the events themselves that I somehow feel that writing would revive or recreate past pleasures. It's a foolish thought, but then, there could be nothing more foolish than an old fool sitting forever in a dark tomb.
     I wonder what I would do if I did have vellum and a pen. Would I write about an old fool sitting forever in a dark tomb, rarely even crossing to the opposite wall? Would I write about an old fool sitting in a dark tomb wishing for vellum and a pen so he could write about wishing to write?
     And how can one write the story of nothing? And is there any reason to write what no one can ever read? And would people believe it if they could read it? Sometimes I even wonder if people will soon remember me at all, and if they do, I wonder if they will think I am only a legend--a man who never lived except in a tangle of invented stories. When I was still living in Arthur's world, there were already absurd tales told about me. Maybe those tales, and others, are all that remain, like an image in a mirror. Or in a dream. Or a dream folded within another dream.
     Maybe that's true of everyone. Perhaps our only existence is in the minds of others, who know or think they know what we are. If Merlin exists, it is because others believe he does. And if that is true, then they make us what they think we are or what they want us to be. And we have no choice to be what we might wish to be, because we don't exist unless others create us. So if they know only tall tales about me, then I must exist only as a legend or a tall tale. Or as a figment of Niviene's imagination. Or even Arthur's. How can even I be sure of what Merlin had been before he was entombed? If I dream that I'm dreaming that I'm gazing into a mirror and seeing someone unknown to me, can I be sure that my memories are not just more dreams or images in a glass?
     Does it really matter whether the events that I recall are imagined instead of lived? Are they any less real if they never happened? When I was first here, I sometimes worried that the darkness, solitude, and boredom would be destructive. But in a way I am beginning to find it liberating: my thoughts are freed and my mind is absolutely lucid. And that lucidity lets me understand that it doesn't matter at all if I am inventing memories and past realities. I'm sustained by my thoughts, not by events that may or may not have occurred. Only thoughts are real, and my thoughts flow quickly even as my body is nearly paralyzed by the thick silence and the heavy darkness.
     In fact, I've come to realize that darkness does have weight. It presses down on me more and more, making it harder for me to rise and walk. I move very little now. And as I become more immobile--or perhaps because of the absence of any sights and sounds to distract me--my mind is unshackled, and my thoughts leap freely from one point to another, leading me to see astonishing connections where I never saw them before. Connections where connections never existed: everything is connected!
     I am beginning to understand how much the mind is oppressed by the body and the senses. Without sights, sounds, light, people, appetites, the normal activities of life, I learn that pure thought is possible. At times, my thoughts make their leaps even without attaching themselves to any subjects that I'm consciously aware of. Thought without a subject! The power to think without thinking about something! It is said that only madmen do that, but that is not so. Madmen and Merlin, perhaps: I know that Merlin also has that power. Thought without a subject is not something that most people could even comprehend. But to me it is now both obvious and exhilarating. And, in its own way, liberating. Even here in my bleak prison.
     I try to move even farther inside the darkness, try to invite it to fill all the recesses of my mind, hoping that it will crowd out images from the world. I tell myself that I no longer want to see. I try to close my mind in upon itself. But sometimes, in spite of myself and in moments of weakness, I still do try briefly to see, even though I'm afraid of seeing what I don't want to see.
     It's odd how sight preoccupies those who once had so much of it and now, living in darkness, have next to none. I know only that Merlin has been betrayed and deceived and that, by the old fool's own doing, or by the treachery of the only woman he ever loved and wanted, he is entombed forever in this place. Freed from the world to be a prisoner, alone with himself. Forever. Merlin, dead and condemned to live. Yet freer here than he ever was outside.
     But betrayal is still painful, and I realize that life outside still casts a shadow over me. A shadow even in the darkness.
     Sometimes I wonder if I could leave even if the stone door were not sealed. Could I bear the light? Could I walk out? Would I want to? I try to imagine myself outside, but I see nothing. Even out there it is dark. There is nothing to see. No life and no story. Merlin's story is finished--but not ended.
     I can't forget and can't remember. Arthur is lost. Niviene, too. How could she do this to me? But I still love her after all that. But life goes on. Sadly, life goes on even for me. Especially for me. And in darkness. But there is no death. Even death has deserted me.
     And so I remain. And I embrace my darkness, out of necessity or resignation or desperation. The darkness is all I have. It is heavy and sometimes almost painful, but it is mine, as nothing else is. This is now my world, my tomb, my darkness. My home. And at least I am safe from further betrayal. I can stay here and not be overwhelmed by light and noise and crowds. And life. Better to stay here. Better to have my darkness than nothing at all. It is mine. It is Merlin's. It is all he has.
     And it is utter darkness. It is not just very dark, but oppressively, absolutely dark. This is something that few people ever experience: usually there is at least a candle somewhere in the distance, or a little light from the stars and moon, even on a cloudy night. But here, "dark" means something completely different. The darkness is almost palpable. Even in a very dark room, the eyes adjust after a few minutes and therefore diminish the impression of darkness, even if nothing is actually visible. That is not true here. People think of darkness as the absence of light, but this is not an absence: it is a terrible presence, almost a heavy, glutinous substance: Darkness.
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Copyright 2003 Norris J. Lacy and used here with his permission.