Book One of the Merlin’s Gambit Trilogy
Merlin Learns the Truth
“I can only see into the past and future of things if I am aware of their existence, if they are things in my head, it’s the thinking of a thing that makes the magic happen, makes the understanding unfold,” I explain. “So, tell me of things in Rome, in Italy, if you will?” I ask, once we are brushing away the crumbs from our impromptu meal.
“Things in Rome,” the old man repeats, slowly, one hand stroking his beard abstractedly. His face changes dramatically as an idea hits him and his fingers leave his whiskered chin, the index finger pointing sharply up to aid its birth. “Yes! I have one.” He grins broadly and his eyes are afire. “I’ll give you two names. One whom you shall know instantly, I am sure. But the other you may not, and the connection will not be so obvious, so your skill will be needed to unravel the puzzle.” He rubs his hands together gleefully, unaware that his explanation is unnecessary to any but himself, interlocks his fingers and lowers his face onto them. He thinks for a second or two, grey and bushy eyebrows knit together in concentration, before laying his palms flat against his knees and rubbing them as if to warm himself. “Theoderic is the first name,” he says, almost in a whisper, conspiratorially.
“Oh, yes, I do indeed know this name. A courageous man. Brought up as a royal hostage in Constantinople, the new Rome of the Eastern Emperors, with all the privilege such a childhood could imbue, including the gold standard in education, especially in statecraft and military strategy. He’s more Roman than most Romans, and knows exactly how to play the game. Indulged by Emperor Zeno to achieve an impressive array of military honours too. Magister militum by the age of twenty-nine, consul at thirty, after which he returned to his Ostrogothic roots and became their king. He’s a success story waiting to be told and, although it will not help you to know the names of those who will chronicle him, I can certainly provide you with them, should you wish me to do so. As for his deeds: Overthrowing Odoacer, viceroy King of Italy for Zeno, now that was a thing that had to be done. He didn’t need much encouragement to do it, the man should have stuck to the terms of his bargain with Zeno, but Theoderic was glad that he did not. Even gladder was he to take his place as King of Italy, upon which he made his new headquarters in Ravenna, and founded the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths from there.”
“Oh, bravo, Myrddin.” He’s clapping as I wind down my revelation but I raise my hand to stop him.
“There’s one thing he did that puzzles me.”
“I can imagine nothing that would puzzle you, boy.”
“Well, then, hear this: he brought his people, Pannonian and Thracian Ostrogoths alike, whom he had united from their geographical separation, all the way to Italy, and ruled that racial harmony should prevail, yet keeps the Christian Ostrogoths and the indigenous Roman population separate from one another. Why is that?” I genuinely do not know the answer to this question, it’s not me trying to be clever, really.
He sighs and although he’s smiling benignly, there’s a look of sadness in his eyes that I do not understand at all. “Oh, Myrddin, my boy, there is so much to tell you before I send you on your way. Let me hope that you will find the answer to that question in your discovery of the second name I shall give you. It is this, Symmachus; Pope Symmachus, mark you, not the senator of the same name.
I close my eyes and think the thingness of the name through for a moment or two, watching the images that float across the screen of my inner eye. I must have been pulling funny faces again because I hear the Old Man stifling a giggle – it’s not an easy thing to listen to a wise old person whom you respect giggle, the concept is really a prerogative of the very young. Once I have my narrative in the correct order I begin my second revelation: “It’s definitely all religion with this one, at least it is on the surface. Born a pagan on Sardinia, but baptised at Rome, where he was also made a deacon. He was made archdeacon by Pope Anastasius II, upon whose death, in AD498, he was elected Pope, at the Constantinian, or Lateran, Basilica. Then it all goes a little awry as politics seem to enter the religious field making of it a battle ground. An archpriest named Laurentius was also elected Pope, later but on the same day, at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore; his supporters were Byzantine flunkeys, some of whom were senators, acting with the Eastern Emperor Anastasius’ approval. Seems the aim was to bring the Roman Church under the control of the Eastern Patriarch. Theoderic, King of Italy, was asked to mediate, but Theoderic, King also of the Ostrogoths in Italy, scored well in his statecraft lessons, and decreed that the office should go to the one who was elected first and had more supporters. After an investigation Pope Symmachus was recognised as such. But the other side then produced a fragment of an earlier document, that they had no doubt forged for the purpose, which stated that Symmachus had influenced the decision by means of bribery and corruption, although the writer felt it would serve no purpose to name the individuals thus bribed. Symmachus then called a synod and took measures that would ensure that no cleric would be able to mete out similar treatment to either himself or to subsequent popes again, and had Laurentius bundled off to somewhere called Nuceria.”
Francisco laughs when I get to this bit. “Ah, Nuceria,” he says, throwing his head back, arms wide, and wearing a smile that could warm the world. “It’s a lovely place. Pompeii and Herculaneum were close by, you know, but Nuceria was only a little damaged by the eruption that destroyed them. Please, excuse my interruption, Myrddin, my boy. Do carry on.”
“Well, it seems that Laurentius was not as pleased to be there as you might have been, Old Man. Despite the ruling of the synod he came back to Rome, was recalled by his senator flunkey, Festus. Took over several churches and ruled as pope number two, right alongside Symmachus, if at some small remove. Hostilities between the two heads of the Roman Church became almost unbearable during the four years that this was allowed to continue, often with rioting in the streets. But a carefully orchestrated, not to mention backhanded, offensive was put into action by the supporters of Symmachus, again in writing. This time Theodoric would act. If one side can forge documents, then so can the other, only this time much more effectively, using forged documents pertaining to alleged instances of much earlier times that clearly gave the bishop of Rome a status above judgement by any other than God.” I stop here to take stock of the significance of these strange events and find myself rather perplexed, not just at the absurdity of the whole thing, but also at the lack of Spirit of it all – Christian Spirit, I mean – and the brazen interjection of nothing more apparent than raw and naked ambition on the part of both parties involved, but particularly that of this Laurentius chap, who was clearly being used by not only the Roman senate but also that of the Eastern Emperor, no doubt in order to achieve a desired political outcome. “They will come to be known as the Symmachean Forgeries, should it interest you to know. Those who laboured to produce them can have had no idea of the trouble these forgeries are going to cause in another few hundred years. No idea whatsoever.” I continue. “I quite understand why Theoderic did nothing to uphold the original synod’s decision, and why it took him so long to intervene. After all, in Ravenna he was far enough removed from all the nastiness for it to bother him unduly, and, as an Arian Christian, why should he care if the Roman Church should wish to publicly emasculate itself quite so convincingly? Of course, eventually their incontestable forgeries made lack of action impossible and he had no choice but to act in favour of Symmachus.” I fell silent once I’d spoken this last thing.
“So, what do you deduce from all of this mummery, Myrddin?”
“That the Christianity of the Romans is not that of the Britons. In fact, it does not know itself what it is. In the form that it has been forced to assume, it seems to me to be no more than a way for a dying empire to raise itself phoenix-like from its own ashes to keep the control that in Constantine’s day was fast slipping away. By removing its hub to his new city of Constantinople he might indeed have succeeded in breathing new life into the embers of the old and dying empire, but in reusing those familiar hierarchical structures I do not see the breath of a spiritual life anywhere in this system called Christianity, for there is nothing that will provide its adherents with even an ounce of hope and awareness, let alone guidance, compassion and love.”
“Once you have thought about it a little longer I’m sure that there will be a few more things that will bewilder, astonish and exasperate you just as much as–”
“Arianism!” I almost roar. I don’t give him the chance to finish his sentence because the implications and consequences of this little gem are just reaching my senses and making themselves heard in the cavity of my mind with such explosive report that my eyes feel as if they are about to pop out of their sockets. As is the way with thingness, it’s only milli-seconds before I’m understanding the full story, and for once in my life I really am rendered completely speechless … only for a few seconds, but, by the antlers of Cernunnos and all his issue, they are long seconds. Long enough for me to pull my eyes back in and rein in any curses I might have mentally unleashed upon what passes for humanity and its diseased mind in these parts. I speak in very measured cadence, using a calm, low voice when my mind makes this type of connection. That is to say the type that provides earth-shattering, life-changing enlightenments such as this latest series of pictures to cross my pineal eye. The Saxons and their invite to Britain was a particularly senseless series of revelations, and I delivered the verdict Vortigern and his magicians were awaiting in said voice, but I was a small child then and the revelations were separated by at least a few hours, whereas these … this … all of it, hits me full on within the space of less than a second, bambambambambam, like a series of punches delivered by a strong and many-seasoned warrior. It’s like … like … nothing on earth … nor even in the Universe. There is no sense, no rhyme, no reason, no point … there is … nothing, absolutely nothing that can make this all right, not ever. There is no going back from this knowledge, no unknowing that can be done. I am not the same person now that I was before this seeing, were I to wish it so for the rest of my existence it could not be so …
“At this point in time,” I begin, in The Voice, “the known world is described as Christendom. That means that the whole of the known world is, at least nominally, Christian. Is that right?” My old friend nods that it is so. I’m not in need of reassurance that the statement is correct, more that we are both aware that it is so. “Quite apart from the fact that the Byzantines of the Eastern Empire, which constitutes roughly a third of this known world, have their own Patriarch and their own orthodoxy, which they are already trying to manipulate into Rome by means of the political manoeuvrings of their own papal candidate, all of which already sets them aside from the rest of this brave new world of Christendom. More than half of the remaining two thirds of the known world, from the Vandals of North Africa, the Visigoths in Spain, the Burgundians in what is left of Gaul that isn’t already Frankish, the Gepids and Lombards further north to the Danube, and of course Theoderic, King of Italy and King also of the Ostrogoths in Italy, all are adherents to a form of Christianity promulgated by an Alexandrian theologian called Arius, who argues for a slightly different definition of the trinity than the one that got officially accepted, and whose ideas just happened to be in vogue when all of these Germanic peoples, which is a huge amount of warrior-like people spread out across the length and breadth of what is called Christendom, were converted. And there’s Pope Symmachus sitting in his palace of St Peter at Rome, just the other side of the wall which separates it from the Lateran Palace, in which sits Pope Laurentius. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, and admittedly all of this has been made clear to me in a very short space of time, but does no one see the wrongness of all of this? Maybe it’s the piecemeal attrition of the situation for those who have lived it through many generations of history taught them and the experiences of their own lives that makes it acceptable to those who let it continue to be so. To me, only two characters in the play of these events seem to be blessed with anything even vaguely approaching sense …” After this short oration I stop for breath, or perhaps just for peace. With my elbows resting on my knees and my hands outstretched, as if in supplication to my almost full Moon Mother, I lift my face to her and receive her cool Wisdom as a breath of her Spirit. She shows me the way, she always does, yet it’s cloudy and needs to take shape a while. I’m not conscious of having stopped speaking, not really. Not until he speaks, my old friend.
“And who are they?”
I look across at him, his calm and strangely content face lit by her gracious rays.
“Those two characters, Myrddin. Who are they?”
His voice is so gentle. It makes me wonder if I can ever be gentle again, with the heavy burden of this knowledge which I now bear. The things which I can now see from just those two names, Theodoric and Symmachus, now that thingness has brought them into focus by means of some connection or other of my own known world and shone its light, past and future, upon them in all their horrible, senseless animation. How could I tell him of such horror to come, and all in the name of this religion, this Christianity that isn’t even real any more … but the Way begins to clear … no, not real any more, but changed to suit the purpose of one emperor, Constantine, and shaped to fit the will of the men who did his bidding, and the men who followed those men to do their own bidding … until it bears no resemblance at all to the man’s teachings, to the Jesus for whom it all began almost 500 years ago. I can feel the blood flowing through my stiffened limbs again, and The Voice returns. “They may not be the ones you’re expecting,” I say, grinning so broadly I can feel my lips crack.
“Well, come on then, my boy, even my patience may wear thin if you do not tell me their identities soon!”
“They are, Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, and Arius, the Alexandrian theologian.”
“If there were any possibility they could have been otherwise, my boy, I would not be sitting here.” He’s the one grinning from ear to ear now. I look quizzically at him for a second or two, but I already know why his statement is true.
“Because Theoderic dared to be himself and no other, and because Arius still believed and taught the Truth rather than the pack of lies which an emperor’s men distorted it into. Because Theoderic knew that Arius’ Truth would not have held an empire together but it would unite a People. And the Truth which they both knew, that religion does not require Faith.”
And now for the normal bit of post-scene chat:
All comments in the form of constructive criticism or mistakes you’ve noticed that I might not have noticed yet, whether typos, spelling or grammar, will be very gratefully received and appreciated – although I think spelling and grammar ones are most unlikely, but you never know, I might have done it all juuuuust a little too quickly and boobed … I’ll post the next scene in a week, and thank you very much for reading.
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