Merlin was a jerk (and other notes from Europe)


First things first: I’m FAMOUS!

Full disclosure, it is now “old” news, but in typical fashion I have completely forgotten to share it the last couple blog posts so I am very firmly remembering to share it now before I forget again.

My art, “Summer Bee”, has been installed on the utility box on the corner of 12th Avenue North and University Drive, right across the street from the North Dakota State University gate. Tri-College sponsored the installation and chose my art for the endeavor! The traffic count for that intersection is about 8 million vehicles per year, and I am pretty sure that means I’m famous. If you get a chance, drive past and admire…bonus points for anyone who stops to take a silly selfie with it!

Now that all the job craziness has been sorted and the moving uncertainty resolved, to celebrate surviving the insanity we accepted our friends’ offer to join them on their European vacation. We will be paying for it literally and figuratively for some time, but it was TOTALLY worth it.

My husband made all the arrangements while riding a misguided wave of guilt about all the job stress of the past two years while I paid zero attention whatever, since I was pretty sure something would occur that would prevent us going. Which meant that I had no idea what we were doing until two days before we left when I finally bothered to look it up and print off the itinerary.

We took the Uncovering Camelot tour given by Scholarly Sojourns, and I’ll tell you honestly that I have never been all that interested in the whole King Arthur and the round table thing. Not that I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it—I can have fun anywhere. But a group of mostly guys doing what appears to be ridiculously stupid things, with the main girl a seeming “paper doll figure” (so described by one of the other tour participants) didn’t seem to hold much appeal. Though I dearly loved Disney’s the Sword in the Stone, partially because catchy music is always good, and partially because I desperately wish for the magic to shrink and pack things into one small bag. Now THAT’S magic (FYI, our tour came with our own personal professor/expert in Arthurian literature, and he declares that movie an abomination).

I had the BEST time! Totally recommend! I dearly love learning how stories start and how they develop and change over time, in this case over centuries. Who added what bits and when and why are fascinating, and I am now very interested in how Gwenevere is blamed for the fall of Camelot right at the same time the literature was driving the European witch hunts and now I have a great deal of research to do. In my free time. Add in tramping about the gorgeous countryside seeing the actual places associated with the various stories and it’s a GLOREOUS experience. Although I admit it is a trifle disconcerting when you drive by a gorgeous castle, complete with banners waving in the wind, and don’t stop because it doesn’t have any Arthurian associations. I mean, seriously?! Everyone else was making stuff up, why can’t we? The castle is RIGHT THERE. The only real drawback to the tour is that you are fitting so much in and going so quickly there is no time to indulge in the really important things—like having your rune stones read by the guy dressed as Disney’s Merlin outside of Glastonbury Abbey.

I came home with 16 pages of notes from our sojourn, but in the interest of not giving all of you a brain aneurism I am narrowing this post to three.

Note #1: Reading Arthurian things is now a completely different experience. Ages ago I read Mercedes Lackey’s Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit, which I remembered liking because Gwenhwyfar was such a strong character, but it has been so long that I no longer recalled any details. I intended to read it in preparation on the plane, etc, once I realized what my trip was about, but I got sucked into the plane’s movie selection and didn’t. I started reading it after the tour and it is so fun to go through with my new knowledge and be all “I know where this part came from!”, “We spent a whole afternoon there. The story is fine, but they didn’t mention the WIND?”, and “Oh, she used all three of those stories in this, huh?” It’s super fun. And I still think it is a good book, and an unusual interpretation, so when you are looking for your next read, give it a thought.

Note #2: I will travel thousands of miles to take pictures of flowers I can find at home. It’s a compulsion, I can’t help it. We wandered about London for a couple of days before the tour and I didn’t take any photos at all until we hit the flowers at Regent’s Park. Now, I did also take REAMS of photos of all the places we went and there are so many art ideas in there that I will never get to that it makes my head spin, and hopefully one or two will wiggle themselves into existence and I will share them later. However, with my reputation as an occasional roadkill artist in mind, I will share this note proving that despite my inability to say things once if I can say things 14 times, sometimes a dramatic story can be told very simply.

We were wandering around Old Sarum Castle and I came across a slug. I don’t know why this slug appealed, but I now own about 98 photos of it from different angles. As I finally wandered away, I glanced back—to see another of my tour companions walking straight for it. His aim was unerring, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Therefore I offer this two image short story:

Note #3: Merlin was a total ass.

Oh, hey! You want the girl? I will totally take out the husband for ya so you have a clear path to her.

Oh, look, we arranged for the birth of a kid via this murder. Enjoy the girl, bro, I am kidnapping the kid.

Hey! Those stones over there are magic? Let’s go steal them. Who cares if we slaughter thousands of Irish in the process? I need to show off how powerful I am.

Then we got to the story about how he was supposed to be teaching Nimue magic–her name and the stories vary. Sometimes she is enticing him, sometimes she is the lady of the lake, sometimes she sticks him in a tree, etc. In this version, he was teaching her magic and she was having to fight him off every night because he didn’t know how to keep his hands to himself. So Merlin=thief, murderer, rapist, kidnapper. I totally lost my temper.

In the midst of total exhaustion (it was a walking tour and I walk a lot in my normal life but there are NO inclines—much less hills—in Fargo and apparently Europe is nothing but), with slightly wacked blood sugar, and weirdly fascinated by the dairy cows on Merlin’s Hill I decided to fix that particular story. Everyone else adjusts and adds and changes these stories, why can’t I?

I mean, other than being primarily ignorant of any of the writings or history and that I don’t typically write fiction. Other than that.

So with the frantic fervor of the punch drunk and totally delusional I wrote madly in our tour bus on the way to our hotel, the light waning and the words becoming more and more incomprehensible as we went, convinced I was a genius.

It took me two days to decipher and recopy what I wrote so I could read it and discover that—just perhaps—I am not a genius. It isn’t good writing, but I personally find it hilarious because while it may not convey anything of Arthurian times, it VERY clearly conveys the snit I was in with every single word. For those of you who think my rants are entertaining I am posting my transcribed short story, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Merlin’s Magic Butter,” at the end of this post. For those of you with actual taste who value your time, take my advice and skip it. 😉

I totally intended to share different art in this month’s post, but as soon as we got home the house was hit by covid and we’ve been all self-isolating in our bedrooms in hopes of not giving it to the daughter or making it worse for each other. It’s hard to paint from bed. My respect for Frida Kahlo just increased dramatically. Since I am sticking with my computer and I have “asses” on the brain (yes, I am still muttering in your direction, Merlin!) instead I offer you this new addition to my animal greeting cards, as well as a card inspired by the most beloved vermin. I was away for two whole weeks. It is so weird eating your own breakfast without either sharing or defending it.

And now for bad fiction!

The thing about bad writing is if it is bad enough you can just sort of lean into it and it becomes almost good in its badness. If I was motivated and brilliant I would write about ten short stories based on annoying aspects of Arthurian legend with just as little knowledge and understanding, put them together into a compilation, title it something along the lines of “It Ain’t Your Father’s Camelot: Completely True Tales of Questionable Quality”, and make a fortune. However, while I occasionally play motivated and brilliant when it suits me, I am also easily distracted, so we all know I am never going to actually do that.

I would like to say it is reproduced here completely unedited, but that is only marginally true. My scribbles were more than occasionally incoherent, so there was a widespread deletion of anything I couldn’t read, originally all characters mentioned were represented by dashes (apparently I wasn’t slowing down for anything so mundane as knowing who was who), and originally I ended the story with “ADD FABULOUS ENDING HERE!!!” (complete with all three exclamation points and heavily underlined). However, as I was transcribing an ending poured out of the pen without any real thought or effort—which is in keeping with the entirety of the rest of the story—so I have replaced that here.

I also thought adding some punctuation to what were basically two separate, four-page, run-on sentences would be not unwarranted. The rest is mainly as originally written.

One nod to local history: When we visited King Arthur’s Cave we were told by a local that it was really Merlin’s cave and Arthur merely visited him there, and that the cave prior to that on the path was Slippery Gem’s cave, where he lived with his wife and was so named because he trapped rabbits and made slippers. Who knew? The history books are all woefully short on such colorful details. So “Slippery Gem” definitely had to be a name included when I filled in all my dashes.

 Without further ado I now present “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Merlin’s Magic Butter” in all it’s dubious “glory”.

Contrary to popular belief, Merlin was a complete jackass. I learned that almost immediately.

It was a bit of a surprise when a man renowned for such epic accomplishments as he chose a cave near our village to settle in. Not that this isn’t lovely country. The best, really. (Enter some fluffy description here but keep it SHORT). And as people go, we’re quite  alright, if I do say so myself. But we are more than a few days ride from the scene of all the marvels and busyness. One could only assume he wanted to get away from it all.

Naturally we were all curious about the Great Merlin so I was appointed to welcome him on behalf of the village. Not that I am the head of the village—far from it- but my family is as old as these hills and the women in it have collected the knowledge of them over time into something people call magic. A small magic, really, but one the village thought best for a first contact—one magic user to another, even if one is a ?? and the other sung of in tales and the like.

It didn’t go well.

We put together an offering of welcome. It never hurts to start off on the right foot with someone who is rumored to be able to level your home with a thought and a glare. Good strong ale from the pub. Fresh bread from (someone) who makes the best bread in the village. My best crock of fresh herbed butter. I’ve been fortunate in my life to own my own cows. They are good, sturdy animals and I skim the milk and make the butter myself. It seemed a right enough gift. It’s hard to be in a temper with good food before you.

I was somewhat surprised when I got to the cave he’d taken over to discover that Merlin was a rather average looking man. The tales make him 10 feet tall and shrouded in smoke. Yet for all his finely woven wool and gilded leather there was not much to distinguish him from the other men of the village aside from an apparent lack of sense. The village lads learned long ago to keep their hands to themselves. Merlin, however, seemed to have the mistaken impression that I was part of his welcome gift.

When he refused to take no for an answer I hit him over the head with the butter crock. There was no help for it and I can’t deny more than a bit of satisfaction when he crumpled to the ground.

I checked him over but other than being out cold he seemed well enough so I left him there and returned to the village.

He seemed to have suffered no long-term effects as he went about his business the next day, though he gave no sign he knew me as we passed in the square.

Shortly thereafter he and Caratauc the blacksmith did a bit of business. Trade is a normal part of life and Merlin wanted a few iron charms to imbue with magic for powerful anti-faerie charms. In exchange Merlin agreed to help Caratauc with a “little problem” he’d been suffering from for quite a bit. I’d tried to help him myself and mixed him a good strong salve, but the idiot man applied it to the wrong head and then blamed me when it didn’t work. It is difficult being part of the service industry.

When he finished the charms he sent his daughter Gwyneth to deliver them. I tried to warn them both that Merlin had been more than a bit handsy, but Caratauc was sure I was mistaken and that I “must have misunderstood” his intentions. The Great Merlin would never do such a thing.

Fortunately, Gwyneth has a mite more sense than her father and is strong from working in the forge alongside him. She delivered as promised and came away fine, though all she said of the interaction was that some men didn’t understand a woman until they’d been hit over the head—and that he may be a bit dented but he’d likely be fine in the morning. She’s a good lass, that Gwyneth.

(Things come in 3s? Yadda yadda. the baker? Bread and kneading and strong, maybe? Figure out later)

I don’t know if it’s his magic blood that keeps him invincible to blows on the noggin or if he’s just that thick, but clearly getting hit over the head by the village women wasn’t enough to get the message through. Something needed to be done.

Now it’s a crime to waste resources, whatever form they take, and poor judgement not to take advantage of an opportunity to add to one’s own knowledge. Hence, instead of being direct, I offered him a bargain. My body for the taking in exchange for the teaching of his brand of magic. I’ve been told I am an evil enchantress as I’d no notion of actually following though. But in my view dishonorable men do not have to be treated as if they are honorable. They should be viewed as the vermin they are and dealt with accordingly.

For a period of some weeks the same pattern repeated itself. I would go to the cave bringing a basket of bread and ale and herbed butter. Merlin would eat, drink, and pontificate until the ale was gone, get handsy in the attempt to collect his fee, and then pass out. It’s possible the herbs in the butter were chosen with care. After all one can’t continually keep bashing a man over the head no mater how satisfying it may be to do so. Fortunately a small bit of herb magic did the trick just as well.

You’d think a great mage would catch on at some point, but he never did. It’s true some of the herbs included are hallucinogens when used appropriately so it is possible he dreamed what he wanted to happen in his own head and had a lovely time. Or it is possible that he was too caught up in his own reputation to admit he couldn’t remember what had happened next day. I honestly don’t know which—men who believe themselves powerful are often wont to deceive themselves as much or more than anyone else.

Eventually we came to the end of what Merlin had to share. This did not take as long as one would think. One expects a great mage to have the knowledge of the universe to impart, but Merlin is half deamon. Rather than having learned magic, he IS magic—which is not a thing you can teach. Which he knew and failed to mention when we struck our bargain, so how honorable is that, I ask you? Not to say he doesn’t have knowledge—he has certainly learned a thing or two from a multitude of sources. But he’s never had to really work at it—by virtue of his deamon blood he can do things most folk can’t even dream of by essentially waving his hands and he’s had no real competition to give him the drive to stretch or apply himself. He simply hasn’t needed to. As a result, he has a lot of oomph, but not a lot of skill. Which had the benefit of freeing up my evenings much earlier than I anticipated as he drew to the end of what he could impart and prepared to take me through attempting magical feats with the full expectation that I would try and fail and try and fail again as I’d not his blood to work with.

It didn’t quite go as he’d expected.

I have been called many a thing depending on who is doing the talking. By those who know the results of this tale I am often a “witch” or an “enchantress”. But the truth is that I am one of many such women across our land. We have roots sunk deep into the ground. We listen to the rhythms of the earth and sky and water and sometimes they share their secrets with us and we treasure those gifts by using them to serve our people and passing them on to our children to do the same.

So Merlin’s teachings did not stand alone for me as they did for him. They sank into the knowledge of time, melding with generations worth of small skills. Rather than something wholly new it amplified what was already there.

The truth of what happened next is no great thing, though the stories have gotten more than a bit out of hand. It’s Slippery Gem’s fault, down at the pub. He likes a good tale, our Gem, and is often clever with it. To hear him tell it there was a great battle—ferocious and full of lightening lasting for days and raging over the countryside. What poppycock. As if the neighbors would tolerate the scaring of the sheep and the destruction of crops. But it’s a fine tale as Gem tells it and I admit to getting caught up in it myself of an evening with my pint.

The truth was that it wasn’t all that difficult, or even mostly my doing. Merlin passed out again from the herbs in the butter (people always think to drug the ale, but that’s foolishness. A man knows what his drink tastes like and the fat in the butter helps the effects to stick) and rather than hauling him into his bed as I’d normally do, I let him lay on the floor, moved aside the rushes to bare the ground beneath, and sliced one of his wrists so that the blood sank into it.

It was no great spell, at least not on my part. I’ve been speaking with the earth all my life and Merlin had given me more words to use. I don’t know to this day if it was the power of the words I had gained form him or if it was simply that the earth had also had quite enough of Merlin’s behavior. But I asked the earth to protect her daughters and the earth responded. The hill rumbled and shifted and the next thing you knew the entrance to the cave had vanished. The echoes of it were felt all the way to the coast, a lullaby felt through the soles of your feet and seen out of the corner of your eyes.

I do regret the loss of my best butter crock, however. It’s my own fault it got left behind. The earth had no issues with me—I’d plenty of time to walk out before the cave closed behind me. Ah, but I’d been feeling a mite full of myself as I did and I didn’t think to grab it. More proof that smugness serves no purpose. But the village women no longer have to go out of their way to avoid the man, nor prove they know how to treat a man who tries to take what should only be offered, so all is right enough with the world.

But it was my favorite crock.

They call it Hallow Hill now, as Merlin is presumably inside. Some think the caves are still there and Merlin is trapped inside. Some think the earth has swallowed him and he is no more. Either way having a magical jackass inside has had an unusual affect on the hill itself and it has come with a few unexpected benefits.

At first it seemed only that the grasses on the hill grew especially lush. Then that the cows I grazed on it started producing milk that was…not magic. Not really. Just a bit more—suggestible. The herbs I add for flavor are enhanced, more vibrant.

With all the raiding back and forth there has been more than one occasion to use a quiet method of disabling a man. Now, though, when I use my herbs a man doesn’t just fall over. Once their body wakes up certain parts of their anatomy never get up again. Caratauc the blacksmith is not the only one with problems these days.

I’ve no problems with this, as a general rule. I’m careful who I give it to and for the most part they deserve it. But the first batch I discovered this on was given simply to help a neighbor sleep at night. Oops? It took weeks to work out a suitable antidote. Poor man was as patient as the day through the process. A good man and we’d spent much time together until I worked it out. We intend to be handfasted next spring.

I still make regular butter—some with herbs for flavor or for healing, some plain, and all are richer and more robust than before. We call it Merlin’s Magic Butter. After all, credit where credit is due. Besides, if people insist on rewriting the story and exalting Merlin as a great icon why miss a good marketing opportunity? Though I have had to change my name. No one wants to buy butter from the evil enchantress Nimue, but they will happily buy butter from Viviane in the square. I can report she does a brisk business of a market day.

In addition to the normal products, I still make small batches of herbed butter that I only sell to very special men, the ones that seek more than they’ve earned. Rather than Merlin’s Magic Butter it is the butter served TO Merlin. I say it is reserved and available only to the truly powerful and then I charge double the price with the promise it will have greater effects on them then it did on the great mage himself. It’s boggling how many of them don’t think that through. I no longer go by Nimue, but Merlin is presumably dead or trapped in a cave, so any affect on him clearly didn’t benefit him in the long run. Clearly, they are too dumb to be allowed to reproduce anyway—I’m just helping things along a bit. I share the profits with the village women to fund dowries or help them start small businesses. It seems a fair enough arrangement when all is said and done, and Merlin has proven to have benefited the village more than I’d have given him credit for.

If Merlin is still inside of or a part of the hill as the magic suggests, I know he would be quite put out at the indignity of being used for pasture. So I watch my cows and imagine them tramping all over him without his consent and I consider it a fitting end.

For those who may doubt the validity of my version of history I offer you this supportive testimony from the cows on Merlin’s Hill. Given the nature of the story theirs is the only word you should trust on this issue.

6 Responses

  1. Professor Dave loves this to death!! Brandi, it’s brilliant! I was so curious about what Merlin’s magic butter would turn out to be, and man, you hit that out of the park! Among my favorite bits: “(people always think to drug the ale, but that’s foolishness. A man knows what his drink tastes like and the fat in the butter helps the effects to stick)”, but there are so many in this piece. With this story you have officially joined the pantheon of writers who have added to and extended the Arthurian Legend, and you have done this brilliantly. What is even more meaningful to me, personally, is that you were inspired to do so by moments and places on the tour that our band of merry adventurers all shared. It is entertainingly evocative (Merlin’s Hill! Where it all began! I could picture it while reading this) Putting on my pedantic professor’s beanie, however, I would point out that the name of our hero in the cave is spelled ‘Jem’, so Slippery Jem.
    But again, this is wonderful. Thanks so much for seeing it through and sharing! This absolutely made my day.

  2. I feel sorry for the slug! Loved the two cards!! Will read the unedited story later, as I don’t have time now!!! But I will read it. Also liked the trip explanations. Know you had a great time with great friends and that’s the most important part!!!!

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