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Of Uther Pendragon and the fair Ygraine; and how Arthur was born.
Now Uther Pendragon, King of all Britain, conceived an inordinate passion for the fair Ygraine, duchess of Cornwall, and having otherwise no access to her, he proceeded to wage war upon her husband, Gorlois the duke.
Thereupon Gorlois closed his wife into the lofty castle of Tintagel, high upon an eminence of adamant, and himself took refuge in another strong fortress called Terrabil, which Uther Pendragon put under siege with a mighty host of men, but nevertheless could not penetrate.
And unable to achieve his purpose the king fell ill with rage against the duke as well as with love for the fair Ygraine, and he lay endlessly on a couch in his silken pavilion, before which was mounted a golden device fashioned in the likeness of the great dragon from which he took his surname (and which had appeared as a fire in the sky over Winchester when he assumed the crown).
To Uther now came one of his barons, the dotard Sir Ulfin of Rescraddeck, saying, "Sire, when you are ill, all Britain ails."
"Even a dragon," said the king, "can be felled by love."
"But love," said old Ulfin, "can not be taken by sword and lance."
"Yet the favorable conditions for love can be so established," said Uther Pendragon. "Could I take Terrabil, I should put Gorlois to death. The fair Ygraine, widowed and undefended, then must needs accept my suit."
"Alas, Sire, while we are fruitlessly occupied here upon the plain before Terrabil," said Ulfin, "the Angles and Saxons are regrouping their forces in the east, augmented by new hosts from barbarous Germany."
And Uther Pendragon fell back groaning. "Ulfin," said he, "I can not do without this woman. Unless I may have her, I can not rise from this couch. I shall sicken further and I shall die, and Britain shall die with me, and this beautiful land, which my forebear Brute, the grandson of Aeneas, conquered from the giants who then ruled it, will fall to the German toads and become a vile place named Angland."
And Ulfin nodded his old white head. "It is apparent to me, Sire, that this love which holds you in thrall, you who might on demand have any other woman in the realm but this one, is due to a spell worked upon you by some sprite or fiend evoked by one of your enemies—perhaps by another female whom you have spurned. Now, my counsel is that you consult Merlin, than whom no one is a greater authority on the powers of the unseen."
"A spell so powerful," the king agreed, "that it hath closed my mind to the obvious. Merlin, of course! If he could by magic transport from Ireland and erect in a circle at Stonehenge the monoliths that an entire army could not budge, he can get for me one damned little wench." But here he blanched and seized his beard. "I am overwrought, Ulfin. The fair Ygraine is for me the only woman in the world, and I shall die unless I can have her." He closed his eyes and his thick black beard did fall slack upon his mighty chest.
Now having taken leave of his sovereign, old Ulfin found him two knights and charged them to discover Merlin and fetch him hither with all haste, and these knights set out for Wales. After a journey of many days they found themselves deep in an enchanted forest at a spring called Alaban, and on the branch of a tree which hung over this spring sat a large raven whose body was so glossy black as to show blue reflections in the sunlight that filtered through the foliage.
And both the knights and the horses, being sore thirsty, drank from the crystal water of the spring (into which one could see forever because there was no bottom) and by the time they had soaked their parched throats the men had been transformed into green frogs and the horses into spotted hounds.
Now in despair and confusion the knights clambered with webbed feet from the steel armor which had fallen around them as they diminished in size, and the horses howled in dismay.
"None may drink of my waters without my leave," said a voice, and looking aloft the frogs saw it was the raven that spake.
Then the glossy black bird flapped his wings twice and before their bulging eyes he was transformed into a man with a long white beard and wearing the raiment of a wizard, which is to say a long gown and a tall hat in the shape of a cone, both dark as the sky at midnight with here and there twinkling stars and a horned moon. And the next instant Merlin (for it was he) caused both knights and horses to return to their proper forms, and only then did he laugh most merrily.
"Forgive me," said he, "for my magician's japery. Surely it did no harm."
Then the knights informed him that he was required by the king, and he revealed that through his arts he had long known the summons would come and should be at Uther Pendragon's side in an instant, and so he was. But the knights were constrained to return as they had come, and as it happened they were never seen again, and it was supposed they had been destroyed by monsters.
Now when Merlin materialized in the king's pavilion Uther Pendragon said to him, "Merlin, I have all the grief in the world, being ruler of all the civilized portion of it. A spell or charm hath been put upon me in which I love to the point of madness the one woman I am denied. Either get for me the woman or relieve me of the spell, and thou shalt be granted any good that is within my power."
"Sire," said Merlin, "your distress is at an end. You shall lie with the fair Ygraine this night, and you shall have pleasure to the limits of your capacity, which a thousand women can certify is formidable as befits a mighty king."
"Thou undercounteth me somewhat, Merlin, unless thy computation refers only to the previous twelvemonth," said Uther Pen-dragon, rising from the couch. But then he peered suspiciously at his wizard, saying, "Methinks thou wilt ask a king's ransom for making this arrangement. Thy sovereign is not Croesus."
"What I shall ask, Sire," said Merlin, "is nothing which you now possess, no gold, gems, land, castles, nor serfs. The material is of no value to me, I who traffic in the ethereal." Saying which he moved his wand and for a moment the pavilion was thronged with airy spirits who danced on fox fire. But with another gesture Merlin caused them to vanish as quickly, and then he spake as follows.
"By your exertions this night you will beget upon the fair Ygraine a male child. This child is what I ask you to grant me."
Now though he had heard pleasantly Merlin's listing of the rewards which he would never ask for, the king was not quick to assent to the positive demand.
"A son? My son? Though having no interest in my gold, Merlin, surely thou art extravagant with my blood. My heir and successor? The next king of Britain? For what purpose, pray? To apprentice him in thy black art of nigromancy?" Uther did scowl. "A British king kills many, but it would be unnatural for him to speak with the dead."
"Even so long ago as the reign of your predecessor," said Merlin, "the unfortunate Vortigern, who introduced the treacherous Anglish and the vile Saxons into this land to help him fight the barbarous Picts and savage Scots (and soon found the Germans at his own throat), I did prophesy the coming one day of a great king, the greatest king of all that was and would ever be amongst humankind."
"Indeed thou didst do," said Uther Pendragon, plucking from the little tree of stag horns next the couch his crown and placing it upon his head. "I have reigned now for twelve years."
"Truly," said Merlin, who was also a diplomatist, "only from the loins of such a mighty king could come the one who would realize my prophecy."
"I see," said Uther Pendragon, who could not long have ruled his realm were he a mere vassal to his own vanity. "Well, no man can escape what hath been foretold. If I am to be father to the greatest, and not the greatest in mine own self, then so be it."
"Therefore," said Merlin, "the time is at hand for the conception of that future king, whom you will beget on the fair Ygraine. And even as it is I who will make possible your begetting of him, so must it be I who will prepare him in the time of his nonage for the high office to come."
"I grant that which thou wouldst have," said Uther Pendragon. "But my pleasure in thinking on his future achievements is stained with the awareness that I must necessarily be dead before they come about—for I warn thee, Merlin, that I shall, unlike my forebear Lear, not while I live relinquish my crown to my offspring, be he another Alexander or Caesar."
"Far greater than either," said Merlin, and this statement caused a shadow to cross through Uther Pendragon's eye with the swiftness of a swallow darting over a battlement. Therefore the wizard was quick to distract the king with the nearer prospect of lust satisfied. "But now, as to the business with the fair Ygraine, through my craft I shall change you into the very likeness of her husband, the duke of Cornwall, and in such guise, while Gorlois stays besieged here at Terrabil, you shall go to Tintagel, be admitted to that castle as its proper lord and into the chaste Ygraine's bed as her rightful master."
Now this plan did bring a glint to Uther's eye, and he went to pick at his great nose even as it began to diminish in length and fatten at the lobes to become that, in image, of Gorlois. So did his height dwindle, the massive tun of his chest lose half its capacity, his legs bow, and his arms wither, for the duke of Cornwall was not a comely peer though married to a beautiful woman as is often the case.
And had not Merlin soon remembered to transform the king's robes into a perfect representation of Gorlois's clothing, the figure before him would have been ludicrous, with the crown supported only by the little ears like unto a squirrel's and the ermine piled high around the feet.
"God's body!" cried Uther Pendragon in a foul oath, staring at his altered visage in a looking-glass, "what an ugly toad is Gorlois and now, perforce, am I as well!" Then suddenly a terrible grimace did ugly his features further, and he grasped himself at the privy parts. But soon his brow cleared and he did grunt in an amazement that began as pleasurable but was shortly colored with wry reflection. "Either thou hast allowed me to retain mine own virility, Merlin, or" (and here he frowned in a certain envy) "there is substantial reason why the fair Ygraine hath ever been a loyal wife."
But Merlin diplomatically assured his sovereign that the former was rather the case, though in fact he had transformed him into the duke of Cornwall in every wise.
Thereupon old Ulfin was summoned, and Merlin changed him in a trice into the image of Sir Jordan, Gorlois's loyal retainer, and then Merlin transformed the day into the night, for the king was impatient to set out for Tintagel. But before they started for Cornwall, Uther Pendragon sent old Ulfin out of earshot and he spake privily to Merlin. And his voice was now that of Gorlois and of a thin and reedy quality foreign to his natural throat, the usual sounds from which were as of the drums of war (and when in his normal person he sought to whisper, the silken walls of his pavilion would tremble as in a tempest).
But as the duke he could scarce be heard until the magician came to his very stirrup.
"I have me the peculiarity," said the king in this weak voice, "with a woman I have long desired, to tup her so often with the tool of the mind that when it comes to close buttocks my actual meat will not stand. It is as if a malignant spell hath been put upon it."
"'Tis but the shock of reality (which always hath a touch of squalor) as opposed to the perfection of the fancied," said Merlin. "But be you now at ease, Sire. I myself shall accompany you in the guise of Sir Bertel, another of the duke's close retinue, and be assured you will be a stranger to this trouble, against which I can provide counterspells."
Then having taken on the mirror-image of Sir Bertel, a very fat knight with a mustache like unto the horns of an ox, Merlin was bored with the prospect of a journey of some leagues, and therefore he transported himself, the king, and old Ulfin instantly, through magical means, to the great ironbound gate of lofty Tintagel on its eminence overlooking the sea which was so far below that the surf could not be heard in its furious dash against the base of the precipice.
"Ho!" cried Sir Ulfin at the lancet window of the porter's lodge, within which all was dark, and "Ho!" thrice again, and then finally a feeble light did flicker within and at last a guttering taper was thrust into the window, the which served only to illuminate the turnip-nose of him who held it.
"Who stands without? And to what purpose? Speak, else I shall call the guard and loose the mastiffs."
"His Grace the duke of Cornwall!" cried old Ulfin.
And the candle did disappear and soon the huge bolts that secured the gate did squeak and groan and the ponderous counterweights were lowered and the great gate did lift.
"Your Grace," said the porter, bowing with his torch of pitch and tow.
Now Uther Pendragon was occupied with his lascivious anticipations, and he stared aloft among the many towers as if to identify that which would contain the fair Ygraine. But Merlin, in the guise of Sir Bertel, spake.
"Doth the main gate of Tintagel go unwatched except by thee, sleeping, in time of war?"
"Sir my lord Bertel," said the porter, "'twas not this unworthy creature who made that arrangement but rather Her Grace, who did send the guard to bed and me as well, and the mastiffs would seem ailing or sopped, for they lie quiet in the kennels." The porter shook his head in the torchlight. "Indeed, had you not been the duke and his retinue, but rather the warlike Uther and his host, I fear Tintagel would have been easily overwhelmed and Her Grace most vilely mishandled by that most goatish of monarchs."
"Insolent knave," said Merlin. "Dost criticize the duchess of Cornwall? Thou shalt be whipped." But his false anger served to conceal his true amusement, and to himself he said, that cunning baggage! For not even Merlin, with all his arts, could divine the ways of women. And then he did wonder how she could have known the king would come this night, and he learned from the porter subsequently that these orders had been in effect since the duke had left Tintagel to be besieged in Terrabil at the very outset of the war, now a fortnight in progress.
But Uther Pendragon meanwhile did not await for the arrival of the grooms to dismount but rather flung his reins to old Ulfin, leaped afoot, and with lustful impatience hastened through the courtyard and hurled open the portal of the keep, which was unlocked and unguarded as well, and penetrating the darkness of the great entry hall, so lost himself, making a clangor amidst the shields hung upon the walls there.
"Ho!" cried the king. "A light! A light!" And at length a steward appeared in nightdress, carrying a dripping candle and rubbing his sleepy eyes with his knuckles.
Excerpted from Arthur Rex by Thomas Berger. Copyright © 1978 Thomas Berger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 16, 2014