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The Book of Merlyn

The Book of Merlyn
The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King
Prologue by Sylvia Townsend Warner; illustrated by Trevor Stubley

A magical account of King Arthur's last night on earth.

Sales restrictions: Not for sale in the British Commonwealth except Canada
January 1977
This book is out of print and no longer available.
160 pages | 6 x 9 | illus. |

This magical account of King Arthur's last night on earth spent weeks on the New York Times best-seller list following its publication in 1977.

Even in addressing the profound issues of war and peace, The Book of Merlyn retains the life and sparkle for which White is known. The tale brings Arthur full circle, an ending, White wrote, that "will turn my completed epic into a perfect fruit, 'rounded off and bright and done.'"

  • Publisher's Statement
  • The Story of the Book
  • Introducing The Book Of Merlyn
  • The Book Of Merlyn

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It was not the Bishop of Rochester.

The king turned his head away from the newcomer, incurious as to his identity. The tears, running down his loose cheeks with their slow plods, made him feel ashamed to be seen: yet he was too vanquished to check them. He turned stubbornly from the light, unable to do more. He had reached the stage at which it was not worth-while to hide an old man's misery.

Merlyn sat down beside him and took the worn hand, which made the tears flow faster. The magician patted the hand, holding it quietly with a thumb on its blue veins, waiting for life to revive.

"Merlyn?" asked the king.

He did not seem to be surprised.

"Are you a dream?" he asked. "Last night I dreamed that Gawaine came to me, with a troupe of fair ladies. He said they were allowed to come with him, because he had rescued them in his lifetime, and they had come to warn us that we should all be killed tomorrow. Then I had another dream, that I was sitting on a throne strapped to the top of a wheel, and the wheel turned over, and I was thrown into a pit of snakes."

"The wheel is come full circle: I am here."

"Are you a bad dream?" he asked. "If you are, do not torment me."

Merlyn still held the hand. He stroked along the veins, trying to make them sink into the flesh. He soothed the flaky skin and poured life into it with mysterious concentration, encouraging it to resilience. He tried to make the body flexible under his finger-tips, helping the blood to course, putting a bloom and smoothness on the swollen joints, but not speaking.

"You are a good dream," said the king. " I hope you will go on dreaming."

"I am not a dream at all. I am the man whom you remembered."

"Oh, Merlyn, it has been so miserable since you left! Everything which you helped to do was wrong. All your teaching was deception. Nothing was worth doing. You and I will be forgotten, like people who never were."

"Forgotten?" asked the magician. He smiled in the candle light, looking round the tent as if to assure himself of its furs and twinkling mail and the tapestries and vellums.

"There was a king," he said, "whom Nennius wrote about, and Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Archdeacon of Oxford was said to have had a hand in him, and even that delightful ass, Gerald the Welshman. Brut, Layamon and the rest of them: what a lot of lies they all managed to tell! Some said that he was a Briton painted blue, some that he was in chain mail to suit the ideas of the Norman romancers. Certain lumbering Germans dressed him up to vie with their tedious Siegfrieds. Others put him into plate, like your friend Thomas of Hutton Coniers, and others again, notably a romantic Elizabethan called Hughes, recognised his extraordinary problem of love. Then there was a blind poet who tried to justify God's ways to man, and he weighed Arthur against Adam, wondering which was the more important of the two. At the same time came masters of music like Purcell, and later still such titans as the Romantics, endlessly dreaming about our king. There came men who dressed him in armour like ivy-leaves, and who made all his friends to stand about among ruins with brambles twining round them, or else to swoon backward with a mellow blur kissing them on the lips. Also there was Victoria's lord. Even the most unlikely people meddled with him, people like Aubrey Beardsley, who illustrated his history. After a bit there was poor old White, who thought that we represented the ideas of chivalry. He said that our importance lay in our decency, in our resistance against the bloody mind of man. What an anachronist he was, dear fellow! Fancy starting after William the Conqueror, and ending in the Wars of the Roses... Then there were people who turned out the Morte d'Arthur in mystic waves like the wireless, and others in an undiscovered hemisphere who still pretended that Arthur and Merlyn were the natural fathers of themselves in pictures which would move. The Matter of Britain! Certainly we were forgotten, Arthur, if a thousand years and half a thousand, and yet a thousand years again, are to be the measure of forgetfulness."

"Who is this Wight?"

"A fellow," replied the magician absently. "Just listen, will you, while I recite a piece from Kipling?" And the old gentleman proceeded to intone with passion the famous paragraph out of Pook s Hill: " 'I've seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting off from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou'-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the castle, and the Horses of the Hill wild with fright. Out they'd go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they'd be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again.... It was Magic—Magic as black as Merlin could make it, and the whole sea was green fire and white foam with singing mermaids in it. And the Horses of the Hill picked their way from one wave to another by the lightning flashes! That was how it was in the old days!'

"There is description for you," he added, when he had finished the piece. "There is prose. No wonder that Dan cried 'Splendid!' at the end of it. And all was written about ourselves or about our friends."

"But Master, I do not understand."

The magician stood up, looking at his ancient pupil in perplexity. He twisted his beard into several rat tails, put the corners in his mouth, twirled his moustachios, and cracked his finger joints. He was frightened of what he had done to the king, feeling as if he were trying to revive a drowned man with artificial respiration, who was nearly too far gone. But he was not ashamed. When you are a scientist you must press on without remorse, following the only thing of any importance, Truth.

Later he asked quietly, as if he were calling somebody who was asleep: "Wart?"

There was no reply.


The bitter answer was: "Le roy s'advisera."

It was worse than he had feared. He sat down, took the limp hand, and began to wheedle.

"One more try," he asked. "We are not quite done."

"What is the use of trying?"

"It is a thing which people do."

"People are dupes, then."

The old fellow replied frankly: "People are dupes, and wicked too. That is what makes it interesting to get them better."

His victim opened his eyes, but closed them wearily.

"The thing which you were thinking about before I came, king, was true. I mean about Homo ferox. But hawks are ferae naturae also: that is their interest."

The eyes remained closed.

"The thing which you were thinking about... about people being machines: that was not true. Or, if it is true, it does not signify. For if we are all machines ourselves, then there are none to bother about."

"I see."

Curiously enough, he did see. Also his eyes came open and remained open.

"Do you remember the angel in the Bible, who was ready to spare whole cities provided that one just man could be found? Was it one? That applies to Homo ferox, Arthur, even now."

The eyes began to watch their vision closely.

"You have been taking my advice too literally, king. To disbelieve in original sin, does not mean that you must believe in original virtue. It only means that you must not believe that people are utterly wicked. Wicked they may be, and even very wicked, but not utterly. Otherwise, I agree, it would be no use trying."

Arthur said, with one of his sweet smiles: "This is a good dream. I hope it will be long."

His teacher took out his spectacles, polished them, put them on his nose, and examined the old man carefully. There was a hint of satisfaction behind the lenses.

"Unless," he said, "you had lived this, you would not have known it. One has to live one's knowledge. How are you?"

"Fairly well. How are you?"

"Very well."

They shook hands, as if they had just met.

"Will you be staying?"

"Actually," replied the necromancer, now blowing his nose furiously in order to hide his glee, or perhaps to hide his contrition, " I shall hardly be here at all. I have been sent with an invitation.'"

He folded his handkerchief and replaced it in his cap.

"Any mice?" asked the king with a first faint twinkle. The skin of his face twitched as it were, or tautened itself for the fraction of a second, so that you could see underneath it, in the bone perhaps, the freckled, snub-nosed countenance of a little boy who had once been charmed by Archimedes.

Merlyn took the skull-cap off indulgently.

"One," he said. " I think it was a mouse: but it has become partly shrivelled. And here, I see, is the frog I picked up in the summer. It had been run over, poor creature, during thedrought. A perfect silhouette."

He examined it complacently before putting it back, then crossed his legs and examined his companion in the same way, nursing his knee.

"The invitation," he said. "We were hoping you would pay us a visit. Your battle can look after itself until tomorrow, we suppose?"

"Nothing matters in a dream."

This seemed to anger him, for he exclaimed with some vexation: " I wish you would stop about dreams! How would you like it if I were to call you a dream? You must consider other people."

"Never mind."

"The invitation, then. It was to visit my cave, where young Nimue put me. Do you remember her? There are some friends in it, waiting to meet you."

"It would be beautiful."

"Your battle is arranged, I believe, and you would hardly sleep in any case. It might cheer your heart to come."

"Nothing is arranged," said the king. "But dreams arrange themselves."

At this the aged gentleman leaped from his seat, clutching his forehead as if he had been shot in it, and raised his wand of lignum vitae to the skies.

"Merciful powers! Dreams again!"

He took off his conical hat with a stately gesture, looked piercingly upon the bearded figure opposite which looked as old as he did, and banged himself on the head with his wand as a mark of exclamation. Then he sat down, half stunned, having misjudged the emphasis.

The old king watched him with a warming mind. Now that he vas dreaming of his long-lost friend so vividly, he began to see why Merlyn had always clowned on purpose. It had been a means of helping people to learn in a happy way. He began to feel the greatest affection, which was even mixed with awe, for his tutor's ancient courage: which could go on believing and trying with undaunted crankiness, in spite of ages of experience. He began to be lightened at the thought that benevolence and valour could persist. In the lightening of his heart he smiled, closed his eyes, and dropped asleep in earnest.



“. . . a personal as well as historical story that crisscrosses the centuries on the question of war and peace.”
New York Times