Rex quondam rexque futurus
With thanks to Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, TH White, Lerner & Loewe, and Walt Disney
One sunny evening, the Boy and I were sitting outside in the Japantown Plaza eating gyoza when a pigeon flew by.
“Wouldn't it be wonderful to be a pigeon? For twenty minutes, so you could feel how it felt to fly?” I asked the Boy. He said that it would. We imagined and spread our arms.
“Say—did I ever tell you the story about the little boy who came under the tutelage of a great wizard who turned him into different animals as part of his education?”
The Boy said I had not. So I took a deep breath. And told him this story.
Once upon a time, a long time ago....
There lived a scrawny, grubby little boy with scabs on his knees. His clothes were rags. His name was Arthur, but everyone called him the Wart.
—“The Wart?” the Boy laughed. “That's a funny name!”
The Wart was a stable boy apprentice in the household of a lord named Sir Hector. He was training to be the servant of Sir Hector's son, Sir Kay, who was a boy like the Wart, but a little older. Sir Kay was everything the Wart was not. He was big. He was beefy. He was brawny. He was also rich and had a title and his way in life was planned out for him full of comfort and privilege.
One day when the Wart was out in the forest he got lost. He met an old man with a pointy white beard all the way down to his knees. This old man was the great and powerful wizard Merlin.
Now, most of us grow up the ordinary way. You and I were born as babies, and then we get older, and when we die, we are very old. But not Merlin. Merlin grew up backwards. So he was born as a very old man, and then got younger and younger as his life went on. When the Wart met him he was still at the beginning of his life, because he looked old.
—“What happened to Merlin later?” the Boy asked, with his Listening Face on.
Later, when Merlin was a handsome young man, he fell in love with a beautiful witch named Nimue. And she enchanted him into a tree! She locked him right up inside the tree.
—“I think I know that story,” the Boy said thoughtfully.
But this had not happened yet.
The advantage to Merlin growing up backwards was that, while you and I remember things that happened in our pasts, he remembered things that happened in his future. So when he saw the Wart, he knew that this scrawny, scrappy boy was destined to be a king, and not just any king, but the greatest king who ever ruled over England.
Merlin knew that the Wart would, as king, unite warring factions and bring peace, harmony, and a sense of working together for a common good to a people who were until then scrambling around in the dark. For they were dark times indeed (I said, mentally apologizing to the brilliant intellectual developments and significant cultural advancements made during medieval times, for sake of a good story). Nobody cared about anybody else. Noblesse oblige had not yet been invented. England was not England per se, but just a handful of rich lords and knights interested in their own well-being. They had no sense of community or of being part of a nation. They had no sense of honour or of civic obligation. England was a lawless mess where fortune was decided by who had money, and who had money was decided by an arbitrary accident of genetics that only happened to a very few people. In England at the time, almost all the money was concentrated in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population, and they were badly behaved and ran everything to suit their whims, and everybody else was struggling to survive. Poverty and hardship and social injustice were everywhere. There were foreclosures and tenant evictions and knights were casually cruel to peasants and there was no health insurance.
In fact it was, in every particular, almost identical to San Francisco today.
Until the Wart became the great King Arthur, the idea of chivalry did not exist. Now, chivalry was historically a flowering of cultural attitudes brought to the barbaric North by rich titled women who came as noble wives, and turned people's focus away from raping and pillaging and instead held court and encouraged stories, songs, dancing, and courtly love. But mythologically, King Arthur was important because he was the one who introduced chivalry. “Chivalry” comes from the French word “cheval,” because back then, English people spoke a lot of French. “Cheval” means “horse.” In the time of knights in shining armor, rich people had horses and poor people did not. So this was a new code of conduct that said that if you were rich enough to own a horse, you had power and a responsibility to use this power benevolently and for the greater good. Instead of using your power for self-interest or for random brutality, chivalry meant you were obliged to work for the well-being of the community and help take care of people less powerful than you.
So Merlin knew, when he saw the Wart, that he had to take this special little boy under his wing and teach him everything he knew so that when the time came he would be ready! The future of civilization depended upon him!
“Hello Boy, and who might you be?” he said, peering through his spectacles at the Wart. Spectacles had not yet been invented but Merlin brought them back with him from the future.
“....My name is Arthur,” said the Wart, conscious of the dirt on his nose and the tears in his clothes. “But everybody calls me the Wart.”
“The Wart?” said Merlin. “That's a funny name!”
—The Boy laughed.
“What are you doing in the forest, young Wart?”
“The horse I take care of hurt his leg and I came into the forest to find herbs for a poultice for him. But I couldn't find the herbs...and now I am lost....”
The Wart's voice faltered and sounded small in the enormous forest. Darkness was coming on.
“A poultice! Well, you can't go wandering about by yourself in the forest, you know. It's full of...everything! You could meet anybody in the forest. Wizards. Sorcerers. Anything could happen. Nobody who goes into the forest comes out unchanged. A poultice! Pah! ….Well, luckily for you, I happen to have some veterinary herbs in my collection that would do just the trick.”
“....Oh if you please sir, if I could have a bit, for Patsy, I'd be ever so grateful. Where's your collection?”
Merlin opened his robes and rummaged in their abundant pockets. “Now let me see,” he said, sticking his pointy nose into a breast-pocket. “I know I had them somewhere...they were just on me....” He looked through fifty patched pockets, to no avail.
“Tarnation. I'm afraid they seem to be at home.” He looked at Wart from under his bushy eyebrows. “You will just have to come with me to my cottage,” he said, and whisked his robes around him and turned to go, a dusting of sparkles floating off the robes and making Wart sneeze. Merlin tromped off without looking behind him.
“Wait!” Wart hurried after him.
They came to a clearing in the forest and there was what had once been a woodman's cottage, reworked into a scientist's lair. It looked like your Saba's inventing basement. There were chimneys coming out of the thatch in all directions, and clocks and gears and pop-out gadgets of every description scattered about. There were even infrared lasers set up to detect interlopers.
The lasers were still in beta testing mode, and went off as soon as Merlin drew near, covering him with silly string.
“Stop that, stop that! It's me!” he said, sputtering and scrubbing silly string off his spectacles and reaching for a fingerprint lock-pad by the door. The green door slid back into the wattle-and-daub wall.
“Right this way, Wart,” Merlin said, shaking bits of string off of his feet as he went in.
Wart took a deep breath. He stepped over the threshold.
Inside were wonders from science's great ages. Astrolabes, unicorn horns, holograms, and hovering housecleaners. Souvenir postcards from Copernicus, Tesla, and Marie Curie adorned the fireplace. Wart whistled.
A trained labrador trotted up to him with a cup of tea balanced on his nose. “Oh! —Thank you!” Wart said. Meanwhile Merlin had lost himself in the pantry and was throwing books and bottles and instruments in every direction looking for his horse herbs.
Merlin re-emerged with a bottle of green flecks in bilious yellow ooze. He handed it to Wart. “Apply twice a day to the afflicted area,” he said. “Should be better in a week. But be careful—I've had a nasty time with side effects. The last horse's head kept bursting into flames. Perhaps it was the peppermint,” he muttered to himself. “No peppermint for Patsy while you're giving her this.”
“Thank you sir,” said Wart. “Ah, but—sir, I don't even know your name!”
“Don't know my name? Don't know my...what do they teach children these days?”
Merlin drew himself up to his full four feet high and puffed out his chest. His pointed hat poked itself more upright. “My name is Merlin,” he said in his grandest tones. “I am a great scientist.”
“How do you do sir,” Wart said. “You look more like a wizard to me.”
“There is little difference between the two outside of nomenclature,” Merlin said, still grandly. “Now, a handy boy like yourself with an interest in healing potions, you could be useful around this place. I could use a young sharp pair of eyes and a nimble pair of hands. After all, I'm not what I will be one day. And every scientist needs an assistant.”
He wrapped his robes around him and lost himself in thought. The robes dropped to the floor, empty.
Merlin reemerged sitting on top of the fireplace. “It's all settled!”
“What's all settled, sir, er, Merlin?”
“Why, the terms of your training of course!”
“The terms of my what, sir?”
“Heavens, whomever's been responsible for your education up 'til now hasn't done a good job of it, boy. You're as slow as molasses. ….What have you learned, so far, anyway?”
"I am apprenticed to serve a knight,” Wart said, proudly. “I am learning how to take care of armor as well as horses. And...things.”
“You haven't been taught a thing and I shall have to start from scratch. Very well, the training begins tomorrow! At dawn! We haven't a moment to waste!”
Merlin sniffed again. He spoke slowly. “How tiresome it must be to live as mortal humans do, from front to back, and not know what will happen in the future. Yes boy, your training. You must come to me and I will educate you in the ways of the world. I will teach you how to take the best care of horses, and people as well. I will open up your mind, expand your horizons, and unlock for you the tremendous powers that lie within you.” He poked Wart's scrawny chest with a bony finger.
Wart looked dubious. “You must have me mistaken for someone else, sir. I'm nobody. I'm just the Wart. The stable boy. I'm not good at anything. Sir Kay, now, he's somebody. He's big. He's strong. He's going to be a knight and someday ride into battles on a white charger.”
“Sir Kay is nobody,” Merlin said. “You, Wart, don't you see? You're the one. Underneath that admittedly unprepossessing exterior lies great promise. I see great things in you, boy. And it's my responsibility to teach you what you need to know so that great promise can become great reality.”
Wart's eyes got big.
“And it so happens that I need help around the place,” Merlin said. At that moment a dishwasher behind him coughed out blue smoke and some soup tureens and died. Merlin sighed. “See what I mean? You can do odd jobs for me as payment for your tuition. Come back tomorrow morning and we will start straightaway!”
“Yes sir, er, Merlin,” Wart said, bowing awkwardly. “Thank you sir. I...I hope your trust in me is not misplaced. I shall do everything in my power to make you proud of me.” He held his little head up as high as he could. “—I have to get home now, Sir Kay will be furious with me for being gone so long.” He put the tea cup down and tucked the ointment into his jerkin's belt.
“Of course,” Merlin said, already turned to an astronomy text from the late 30th century. Just as Wart was going to ask which direction he ought to head, the dog trotted up to him.
“Clive will show you the way home,” Merlin said. “Now run along. I have a conference call in five minutes with the head of Alpha Centauri and they hate to be kept waiting over there.”
Clive the Labrador cocked his black head toward the west and boy and dog headed back to the castle and were home with the last dregs of the setting sun.
The next morning Wart arrived at Merlin's cottage even more than usually dishevelled and dirty. He was panting and out of breath. A stream of bees followed him and he banged on the door with urgency.
“Good morning sir, Merlin, sir!” he called through the window. “Please let me in!”
Merlin appeared at the door with safety goggles pushed up on top of his head. “Eh? Who? What?” he said. He peered down at Wart. “Oh it's you, Boy.” He seemed not to notice the bees, circling and buzzing with intent.
Wart jumped up and down. “Please let me in, sir!”
Merlin gestured him in, not hurrying one bit.
Wart slammed the door behind him and slumped against it. “Phew!” he said. “That was a close one!”
“Good morning, Wart,” Merlin said, sitting down on a hovering footstool. Clive the labrador trotted up with a biscuit for Wart. “Now what's all the fuss about?”
“Bees, sir, I'm terrified of bees.”
“Well sir I don't much care for getting stung.”
“Are you allergic?”
“Have you been stung more than once before, and from the second sting on, did you ever turn blue, swell up, or have difficulty breathing?”
“Oh, no sir. Nothing like that.”
“Then you're fine. What's the trouble?”
“Those stings hurt awful bad, sir.”
Merlin looked pointedly down his nose at Wart. “Now Wart, provided you're talking about honeybees, stinging you is just about last on their list of priorities. They have fifty million other things they'd rather be doing with their valuable time. You are looking at the wrong end of the stick. —Speaking of sticks, honeybees don't generally chase people. What in the world did you do?”
There was an embarrassed pause. Wart looked down at his feet.
“I...I disturbed their hive, sir.”
Merlin looked more pointedly at him.
“And why did you do that?”
Wart shuffled uncomfortably.
“Well I...I was awfully hungry, sir, on account of we downstairs in the kitchen didn't have much to eat this morning, and I do get so hungry sometimes...and I saw the hive out while I was mucking hay, and...the honey, sir.”
“The honey,” Merlin sighed. “It's always about the honey. Humanity gets itself into most of its muddles on account of the honey. —And I suppose you just thought you could stick something into that hive and get the comb for yourself and pay no price for your thieving?”
“Something like that, sir,” Wart said, bright red. He had jabbed a stick hard into the hive, it had fallen down and broken open, the bees had swarmed out, and there he was in the thick of things. The experience did not bear remembering.
“Ah, foolhardy youth,” Merlin said. He absentmindedly took Wart's biscuit from him and took a bite of it. “Now listen young Wart. You never really know a person until you've walked a mile in his shoes. My friend Atticus Finch said that. And knowing people, well, that's the heart of everything! Especially for someone like you whose destiny is to become a leader of men. You cannot lead them until you've been them.” Merlin furrowed his eyebrows.
“I'm sorry, sir?” But Merlin paid no attention. He was thinking.
“Come with me, Wart!” he suddenly said, springing up. “Now where did I leave my...oh well, this will do.” Merlin grabbed a fork from the counter and waved it at Wart and at himself. Wart had no idea what would happen next.
To be continued....
Richard Harris and Boy in the last scene of Camelot