by Teddy Delwiche ’17
Like a sheep slinking from the ill-aimed axe, the fifth-century British ruler Vertigen barely managed to evade his butcher: the Saxons. In a bedraggled, though not altogether unsuccessful effort, the Britons had managed to slay some of their Saxon foes, casting them “to the infernal regions with their heads smashed” (multos per palum confractis cervicibus ad Tartara legavit). But flight was inevitable.
Skirting off to Wales, Vertigen sought aid from his advisers (magi): “They all said together that he should build a very strong tower for himself that would be a fortress for him against the evil enemies who had stolen his kingdom through treachery” (Dixeruntque omnes pariter ut aedificaret sibi turrim fortissimam quae foret sibi munimentum contra hostes nefarios qui dolo sibi regnum surripuerant. Historia Regum Britanniae 6.106).
The process proved futile, as the cement blocks—like Jenga pieces stacked on a Jello surface—refuse to hold firmly in situ. Reduced to the status of “liars and fools” (mendaces et fatui), Vertigen’s supposedly wise advisers enlist the assistance of a mere child to solve their conundrum.
The boy’s name? Merlin. The problem with the tower? It had been built over a pond.
Such is the beginning to one of innumerable tales I am editing this summer as one of Dumbarton Oaks’ three Medieval Latin interns. What exactly do I do? Numerous interns before me have described the position in hearty, fuller terms, so I will keep my contribution brief: I read Latin all day. This explanation, as I have found, usually elicits a tone-deaf “Interesting” retort from my DC peers occupied with their think-tank, finance, or startup internship. But I assure you the work really is interesting.
For six weeks so far I have been helping edit a variant version of the “History of the Kings of Britain” (Historia Regum Britanniae), combing through the entire edition in Latin and providing comments on everything from translation to citation to the mere title of the work—a much more involved and pointed process than one may initially think. The entire affair has afforded me an opportunity I increasingly find to be a rarity: to slow down, to regard a text in a genuine manner, one defined not by striving for flashes of interpretive insight for showcase, but rather by extending simple, unadulterated attention. True thought often takes true time.
Perhaps that is what I have found so enticing about Merlin in the specific incident mentioned above, that a prepubescent boy can surpass the counsel from men of greater age and repute. Those men lust for immediate action, but lack the means to achieve it.
Of course today, Merlin’s image is largely confined to that of a magician, a wise wizard, a beady blue-eyed Dumbledore. But at least in this portion of the “History of the Kings of Britain,” it is the predictive power, that ability to pierce through the banal or chaotic or confused, that provides youthful Merlin his vim. Yes, Merlin may have the help of what today would be considered supernatural agents. And yes, he can still perform magical stunts apt for HBO. But I suppose for me the simple fact is this: I prefer a wizard reliant on wisdom, rather than the wand.
I cannot say definitively my time in the DOML office will render me any wiser, any closer to Merlin. Surely after this summer I will have attained a finer attention to detail. And if I ever find myself in dire straits, I will think twice about the foundations upon which I construct a tower.