Melred and Lailoken
a Scottish tale of Merlin
It is said that Lailoken (Merlin) was once captured by King Meldred and held, bound with thongs, in his fort Dunmeller so that the king might get to hear something new from him. He in fact remained fasting for three days and, though approached by many, gave no one at all an answer.
Then on the third day the king was in his court, sitting on the high seat, when his wife came in to him, gracefully wearing on her head a tree-leaf which had been caught up in her shawl. When the king saw it, he pulled it off and in pulling broke it into tiny pieces. At the sight of this, mad Lailoken began to laugh loudly. King Meldred, seeing that he was more cheerful than usual, went over to him with a flattering remark and saying charmingly, ‘Lailok, my friend, tell me, I beg, what that laughter meant—that clear burst of laughter which you have left tingling in our ears—and I will set you at liberty to go where you wish.’
Lailoken immediately replied to this with, ‘You caught me and ordered me to be bound with thongs, because you were eager to hear some new oracle. So then, I’ll put you a new problem about a new matter. Sweetness was distilled from poison, and bitterness from honey. But neither is so, though both remain true. There, I have put the question. Tell me the answer if you can, and let me go free.’
The king replied, ‘This problem is really difficult and I don’t know how to untie the knot. So tell me something more understandable, and the original arrangement will stand.’
But Lailoken offered another problem like the first. ‘Wrong made good out of ill, and honour reversed it again. But neither is so, though both remain true.’
The king said, ‘Do not go on talking in riddles. Tell us plainly why you laughed, and the answers to the question you put, and you will be free from your bonds.’
Lailoken answered, ‘If I speak plainly, it will distress you, but it will be the beginning of fatal trouble for me.’ The king replied, ‘However it is to turn out,’ he said, ‘we want to hear this, nevertheless.’
So, addressing the king, Lailoken said, ‘Now, as you are a skilled judge, tell me your opinion on one matter, and then I will obey your command.’
The king answered, ‘State the case quickly and you’ll hear the opinion.’
Lailoken said, ‘One who grants an enemy the highest honour and one who causes a friend the greatest distress—what does each of them deserve?’
The king answered, ‘Retributive justice.’ ‘You have judged rightly,’ said Lailoken. ‘Accordingly, your wife has earned a crown and you the worst possible death.’
‘But,’ said the king, ‘this isn’t “Not so, though both stay true”, and all your evasion ends in obscurity. So I beg you to expound these questions, and I will give you anything you ask within reason.
Lailoken answered, ‘I ask one thing which can certainly be granted (apart from my freedom), and that is that you convey my body for burial to the east side of this fort, in a place more fitting for the grave of a faithful friend who has died, not far from the spot where Pausayl burn falls into the river Tweed. For it will happen that in a few days I shall die a triple death. But when the confluence of the two rivers comes up to my tomb, the marshal of the British race will defeat the foreign race.’ By this remark he referred to the ruin of the British and to the fact of the future integration of their divided condition. He held forth on this and on other matters, explaining more precisely what they wished to hear. The king and his wife and their court agreed to the request about his burial, and swore an oath to send him away, free and unharmed, where he wanted to go.
Lailoken stood with his bonds removed, ready to run off, and began in this fashion: ‘What is bitterer than a woman’s spite, which from the beginning has been infected with the poison of the serpent? Yet what is sweeter than the decisions of law whereby the meek and humble are protected from the spite of the ungodly? Now, this your wife today bestowed the highest honour on her enemy, while you tore a faithful friend to pieces. But neither case was so, because in doing what you did you yourself thought you were doing good, while she was entirely ignorant of the honour she was bestowing on an enemy.
‘The second riddle is like this one. Evil made good at that moment when a worthless woman honoured her betrayer. Honour did ill when a just man killed his faithful friend. But neither case was so, because both people were unaware of what had been done.
‘For a little earlier, while the queen was committing adultery in the king’s garden, the leaf of a tree fell on her head, to betray her and make her adultery known to the king. And this leaf, caught up in her shawl, was what the queen honoured by carrying it into the hall in front of everybody. As soon as the king saw this leaf he at once plucked it off, and in plucking it off he broke it into little pieces. This is how the woman bestowed honour on an enemy who was going to give away her treachery, and how the king did an injury to the friend who made it less likely that the crime would escape him.’
With these words Lailoken went off to the trackless wastes of the wilderness, and no-one followed him. All alike began to doubt and to wonder. The adulteress, in tears, was scheming to deceive and began to soothe the king with honeyed words. ‘My lord, noble king, do not believe what this madman has said, since, it should be realised, the only aim of his conjectures was to get himself released and sent away. So, my lord, here I stand ready with suitable witnesses to clear myself of the charge brought against me. You yourself heard, as we did, how that wicked fraud said he was to die three times, which is plainly impossible. Death cannot be repeated in one already dead—-and so both things are obviously similar sorts of lie. What is more, if he were a true prophet or seer, he would never let himself be captured or bound by those from whom he would later wish to escape. Consequently, if you do not go after him, you will appear to be conniving at the insult to me and at the harm done to your kingdom. As an honourable king loves justice, so you ought not to let such a great offence go unpunished, or it may happen that the honour of the kingdom will be affected because he has been spared.’
The king’s reply to this was, ‘Stupidest of women, if I do take the trouble to fall in with your suggestion, you will be found to be the foulest of adulteresses. But he is a true prophet. For he said “If I explain plainly what you ask, the outcome for you will be a sad one, but it will be the beginning of fatal trouble for me.” Our trouble is already clear enough, while the sad outcome for him lies hidden till it shall come to pass.
At these words his wife burst into greater floods of tears; and because she had not got what she wanted, she began secretly to plot the death of Lailoken. Then, several years after, on that day on which he had been fortified with the holy viaticum, Lailoken happened to be crossing the plain near the castle of Dunmeller at sunset. He was discovered by several shepherds who had been set on him by that evil woman.
As he had predicted and as it is recorded above, so we have heard was his end accomplished. It is said that the king handed over his lifeless corpse for burial in just that place which he had chosen while he lived. Now that fort is some thirty miles from the city of Glasgow. In its plain Lailoken lies buried.
Pierced by a stake, suffering by a stone and by water,
Merlin is said to have met a triple death.