This is a chapter of King Arthur and His Knights by Blanche Winder.
Merlin, the great wizard, was the best friend of Uther, the good king. The stories told about the magician’s fairy house in the woods were quite true, and Merlin spent most of his time in his wonderful home among the pine trees. What a strange shadowy place it was, to be sure, with wild deer feeding in the glades that surrounded it. Human beings never ventured very far into this mysterious wood, but they whispered all sorts of tales about it. They named it the Enchanted Forest, or, sometimes, the Valley of No Return.
Hunters who followed the hares over the meadows or chased the wild boars through the tangled thickets on the edge of the woodland always stopped short and turned their horses and their hounds about, when they looked into the dark shadows of these haunted trees. Sometimes they caught glimpses of grey dim walls and towers and heard sounds like fairies singing, or unseen horses trampling, or invisible hounds baying through the wood. Then the real horses and hounds would begin to tremble as the hunters hurried them away. But nobody could ever quite describe what he had seen and heard: though all were agreed that, if any rash person ventured up to the dim grey walls of Merlin’s home, he was pretty certain never to come back.
In this hidden house, then, Merlin learned all sorts of things from the fairies, because he could see and hear and speak to the invisible people of the air. He learned so many of their secrets that at last he became a regular fairy king among them.
One day, Merlin was standing under a great oak tree, just after the sun had set and the quiet shadows had commenced to steal through his beautiful wood. Merlin felt that something rather wonderful was going to happen — something beautiful and strange. The evening grew darker, and, all at once, the oak boughs above his head began to rustle and whisper, as if a little wind were moving them up and down. At the same time, he heard soft knockings inside the tree trunk and a murmur of many voices speaking together in what seemed to be an unknown foreign tongue.
Then, in the middle of the shadows, the branches and trunk of the oak began to give out a silver shining, like the shining of a full moon. Slowly and silently, a great clearness grew around about the tree. The boughs seemed to fade away, and a wonderful picture appeared, painted on the bright air — the picture of an old man, with a long white beard, standing before a silver table on which was a mysterious and beautiful Shining Cup. Round about the table, many people were seated, who wore gay Eastern robes and looked very calm and content. And, by the side of the old man with the white beard, stood a younger man, with a silver fish in his hands. He placed the fish on the table, and everyone stood up. Merlin thought he heard them singing as they did so. Then the whole vision faded, and Merlin found himself alone in the forest again, with the oak leaves whispering and rustling above his head. But, while he stood wondering, behold! a little book suddenly fell down from the branches right to his feet. As it fell, he heard a voice speaking among the leaves.
“In the little book is written the story of the silver table and the Shining Cup that you have been allowed to see in a vision! I, who speak to you, am the old druid who saw them brought to the land of West-over-the-Sea. I have been commanded to show you the vision and to give you the little book. Also, I have been commanded to tell you that, from the wood of the oak tree in whose boughs you have seen the vision, you are to carve another round table, like the silver table on which the Shining Cup stood. When you have carved this second round table, you are to take it to King Uther and bid him keep it carefully in his palace until his death; for it will have a marvelous meaning and purpose for many years to come.”
The voice died away, and Merlin picked up the book and took it home to his fairy house. There he lit his lamp and, sitting down among his magic volumes and crystals and strange caskets and boxes, he read the book from end to end. And in it was the whole story of Joseph and his followers, and the church made of wood at Glastonbury, and the beautiful Christmas flowering thorn. Not only was the whole tale written down in the book, but there were also careful directions about the making of the second round table.
Merlin locked the book up carefully in one of his caskets, for he knew what a very, very precious possession it was. Merlin set to work to make a big round table from the oak tree in the wood. Nobody knows exactly how he made it, but the fairy folk helped him. When he had finished, he was even a greater magician than he had been when he had begun — so great that, by using certain spells, he was able to lift the round table straight out of his house in the Enchanted Forest and to set it down in the very middle of the royal castle that belonged to Uther, the king.
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Well, Uther was greatly amazed when he saw this beautiful and big round table brought to his castle nobody knew how. As he gazed at it, however, he became aware that Merlin was standing by him, smiling at his astonishment. The magician told him something, though not all, of the way in which the table had been made, and Uther looked at him admiringly.
“You seem to me to be able to do anything you wish to, Merlin!” he exclaimed. “I wish you would bring me the Giants’ Dance from Ireland!”
“What is the Giants’ Dance?” asked Merlin.
He knew quite well, really, but he was pretending that he did not. King Uther told him, then, that he had just come back from a war in Ireland, and that, among the hills, there was an extraordinary circle of great stones, which the people said were enchanted giants, and which they always called the Giants’ Dance. He had wished very much to bring this circle home with him and had set a whole army to work, to try and lift the stones from their places, and set them on the ships that were waiting to carry them away. But, though all the engineers of those days had worked their hardest and done their best, none of them could lift the great stones so much as an inch out of the ground. In despair, Uther had given up the idea of bringing the stones to his own kingdom and had left them standing, in their wide, still, lonely magnificence, on the distant Irish hills.
“Oh!” said Merlin. “It’s just a great circle of stones you want moving, is it? Well, that’s easily done!”
Off he set for Ireland, with his crystal balls, and his black wands, and his lists of spells that were written down in his fairy books. But the small old book of the Holy Grail he left at home. When he reached the hill where the Giants’ Dance stood, he went up to the top quite alone. What he said and did there nobody ever knew! But the peasants who lived in huts in the valley told a strange story of what some of them had seen that night — a story about great stones that traveled, all alone and upright, down the slopes of the mountain, while voices, which guided their movements, called down from the air and up from the ground! They told, too, of great ships with shadowy sails that were seen setting out to sea. And the movements of the ships were guided by voices calling among the waves. However this might have been, whether the peasants really saw these things or only dreamed them, certain it is that, the next morning, the Giants’ Dance had been carried away from Ireland and set up not very far from Uther’s castle, on Salisbury Plain!
And on Salisbury Plain it stands to this day, but we call it Stonehenge now, and have almost forgotten that it was once called the Giants’ Dance. While, as for the round table, you may see a round table for yourselves at Winchester: though that is only a copy of the table that Merlin made in his fairy palace in the middle of the Valley of No Return.