Some time ago I bought G/Son a copy of Merlin and the Making of the King by Margaret Hodges. He spent this weekend with me and asked to have “Merlin”* for a bedtime story.
It’s based on Mallory, but written for young children, and it’s illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. One of the things that Nonna loves best about it is that each chapter has illustrated medieval borders that move, as Arthur’s life does, through the seasons, starting out with Spring flowers, seguing into strawberries, and ending with stags and holly trees. (I find it fascinating that the middle part: when Arthur ruled happily and the Knights of the Round Table did justice (the part that would have been illustrated by, oh, maybe, ripe apples, or harvest-ready wheat fields, or ready-to-pick grapes and figs) is never interesting enough to tell or illustrate. Me, I’d like to hear more about that part.)
The Arthurian legend isn’t like most of the stories that we tell children. In fact, it’s not like most of the stories that I read to G/Son or watch with him on Netflix; it doesn’t conclude neatly and happily with the hero winning in the end. Indeed, by the end of the story, it’s not really clear who the “good guy” is. Which is (one reason) why it’s so rich and has resonated for so many hundreds of years.
G/Son was listening intently while Nonna read the part about Merlin taking Arthur to a lake where Arthur got his sword and his scabbard. The scabbard was magical and, as long as Arthur possessed it, he would never bleed to death of his wounds. (The story doesn’t say, and G/Son has no idea, but, of course, this part of the story is about Arthur having a feminine side, as it is women who bleed but do not die. And, well, scabbard.) Remembering ahead from the last time that we read the book, G/Son said, “Nonna, know what? That was a mistake. That lake lady should not have given Arthur the scabbard right away.”
Nonna: “Why was it a mistake to give him both at once? If you have a sword, you need a scabbard.”
G/Son: “But remember, Nonna. His wife is going to trick him into giving her the scabbard and she’s going to throw it into the outer darkness where it will never be seen again. And that’s what lets Mordred kill Arthur with his sword. The lake lady should have waited until Arthur’s wife was gone and then given him the scabbard.”
Which is all really interesting to me, because the book is clear to distinguish between Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, and his step-sister, Morgan le Fay. They’re depicted quite differently — Guinevere blonde (Quelle suprise!), innocent, and playing the lute, while Morgan is raven-tressed, scowling evil, and shown stealing the scabbard. And, written for children, the book never even hints at any other relationship between Arthur and Morgan, who is described as Arthur’s “evil step-sister” and “Morgan le Fay, a witch.”
So I said, “Oh, it’s not Guinevere who takes the scabbard; it’s Morgan, Arthur’s stepsister.”
And with the certainty that can only be mustered by five-year-olds, G/Son said to me, “No, Nonna. You read it to me before, and I remember it the right way. It was Arthur’s wife. First, she tricks Arthur into giving her his sword and scabbard and then she gets Accalon to fight Arthur. But Vivien and Merlin save him. Then, Arthur’s wife waits until he’s asleep, steals the scabbard, and throws it into the outer darkness and no one can find it.”
Which is all exactly as it’s told in the book, except that it’s Morgan, described as Arthur’s evil step-sister, who does all that.
So Nonna (who has learned never to argue with a sure-of-himself five-year-old, (and who also wanted G/Son to get to sleep)) said “OK, let’s keep reading and see what happens.”
And when we got to the part where the book says that Arthur was betrayed by Morgan, G/Son said, “That’s what the book says; but it’s not how I remember it. Really, it was Arthur’s wife who betrayed him.” (Which if you believe, as I do, that it was the Christian Guinevere who never joined Arthur in the true marriage of the land that was needed, and that it was Pagan Morgan who was his “true” wife, who had to turn on him when he turned on feminine power, all makes pretty good sense. But I’m not having that discussion with G/Son for, oh, another ten or twelve years.)
Go ahead and tell me that archetypes don’t exist.
But my grandson knows this story, the one that’s been fascinating his people for generations and generations — the one that tells how our Fisher-King-of-a-world got its wound and what’s needed to cure it — so well that he sees through the omissions that storytellers make to “protect” the children. Sometime between now and adulthood, our culture will mostly make him forget what he knows.
But I’m betting that the Witch’s Grandson will retain the viable seed of memory within him. I’m staking all that I’ve got on it. I have just this one, precious arrow to shoot into the future. I’m fletching it with all the skill I have.
And, in the meantime, we went to the farmers’ market for tomatoes, squash, sweet soap, a necklace and earrings for G/Son’s mommy, a baguette of local-made bread, and a ballon toy. We went to the grocery store for chocolate milk, burger makings, and popcorn. We picked choclate mint from Nonna’s pots. We ate apples and cheddar cheese. We figured out how to draw comic books online and print them on Nonna’s printer. We left some milk and honey for the fairies and we gave up, because of the rain, on trying to see the shooting stars. We played a Calvin-ball game of chase in Nonna’s basement (the rules regularly change so that Nonna cannot win). G/Son beat me twice, decisively, at Hi Ho Cherry Oh! We made sugar cookies and we watched Ponyo.
And, somewhere, in the middle of it all, we told the true story about King Arthur.
May it be so for you.
Picture found here.
*When we read the part about Merlin living in a cave facing the Western Ocean, G/Son said, “Nonna, Merlin is Gandalf.” I said, “They’re a lot alike.” And G/Son said, “Merlin is Gandalf, who is Dumbledore.” I said, “What is similar about them?” And G/Son said, “Oh, they’re old, and they know a lot, and they help young people. Nonna, keep reading.” And so, I did.