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Thursday 24 November 2022

Barons and wizards

Arthur: ‘Which is the greatest quality of knighthood? Courage? Compassion? Loyalty? Humility? What do you say, Merlin?’

Merlin: ‘Hmm? Well, they blend, like the metals we mix to make a good sword.’

Arthur: ‘No poetry. Just a straight answer. Which is it?’

Merlin: ‘All right, then. Truth. That's it. It must be truth above all. When a man lies, he murders some part of the world. You should know that.’
Court magician – on parchment it looks like such a cushy job. You get the protection of a great lord. Access to his network of connections. Resources for keeping your laboratory well stocked. Money and space to build up a decent library.

It’s never that easy, of course. Even if your patron is the most sober-minded of barons, he’s going to be calling on your services at any hour of the day and night. What is a court sorcerer for, after all? There are always rivals to be spied on, messages to be sent, opposing armies to be scattered by foul weather, paramours to be seduced with love philtres, stars to be read, ailments to treat, enemies to be stricken with plague. Even Merlin is made to conjure great magic for no better reason than that his lord wants to sleep with another man’s wife.

The court wizard is not only there to cast spells. He's also read a lot of books and is supposed to be wise and well-versed in devious stratagems, making him the lord's valued consigliere

There can be far more frivolous demands that that on a wizard’s time. A lord needs something to fill the long winter evenings when it’s too cold and wet to go jousting other knights or stirring up petty wars. Hence King Arthur’s whimsical question about the qualities of knighthood mentioned above, or his bored yearning for strange experiences that brings the Green Knight into Camelot:
‘And also another matter moved him so,
that he had nobly named he would never eat
on such dear days, before he had been advised,
of some adventurous thing, an unknown tale, 
of some mighty marvel, that he might believe,
of ancestors, arms, or other adventures.’
Feasts, holidays, and celebrations are times for a lord to show off his wealth. Minstrels, acrobats, jugglers, jesters, wrestlers – anyone can provide such commonplace entertainment, so to outdo his rivals a lord will need to strive for something more exotic. Dwarves jousting on the back of pigs, cavorting bears, or slaves from Outremer performing the dance of Salome all count as cracking entertainment to the medieval gentry, but the crème de la crème is to bring out a court sorcerer for that frisson of the mysterious, macabre and faintly forbidden.

You might think it’s beneath the dignity of wizards like Merlin or Cynewulf to sing for their supper like this, but after all it’s not so different from after-dinner entertainment in the modern world. If you can get Henry Kissinger to turn up and regale your dinner guests with a few Nixon anecdotes and some takeaway wisdom, the real pleasure is in letting them know you can call on a man who has had the fate of the world in his hands. On a less exalted level, think of Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull teaming up to mount a Wild West show in front of European royalty and even the Pope. Near-mythic figures have never been averse to cashing in on their reputations.

What would a court magician do to entertain his or her lord’s guests? We have plenty of examples from medieval literature. D B Easter in A Study of the Magic Elements in the Romans d'Aventure and the Romans Bretons cites turning stones into cheese, causing oxen to fly, having asses play musical instruments, bringing folded paper birds to life, giving inanimate objects the power of speech, transforming animals into knights, animating a suit of armour, increasing the size of a room, making water flow uphill, telling fortunes, prophesying the future, and calling up a band of phantom warriors to fight each other.

This post originally appeared on my Patreon page accompanied by a detailed adventure seed or a mini-scenario (take your pick). I'm afraid if you want the scenario too you're going to have to subscribe, sorry about that.


  1. I thought Merlin was quoting Metallica here, until I remembered Metallica were quoting Paul Gerdhart

    1. It looks as if Metallica (1988) were quoting Merlin (from Excalibur, 1981) which may have been quoting Gerhardt (1600s) but I can't find any reliable source for that, other than the usual dappy internet quotation sites. But if Gerhardt did say it he was quoting Merlin (5th-15th centuries, in either direction) so I guess it's all OK!