Many years ago, when I was about fifteen years of age, I was holidaying in a small West Wales village called Rhosilli. Situated some twenty miles south-west of Swansea, on the tip of the Gower Peninsula, Rhosilli is said to be a place of magic and fable. Overlooking the village is a small mountain, on top of which is a large, red stone, with a crevice hewn out of the central potion, as if someone of untold strength had ripped a sword from the very heart of the rock.
The rock has been known for many centuries simply as “Arthur’s rock” or as it is called by the locals, many of whom are small, pale and furry and pronounce everything with an excess of spittle, “Yr Rhos Arddur”.
From Yr Rhos Arddur, you can see for miles across land and sea. Indeed it is said there once stood a famous wizard who – despite being born in the nearby village of Rhosilli and so lacking in physical stature – could see the shores of Ireland on a fine day. The wizard was reputedly named “Mervyn”. This grated a little bit, because at the same time there was a famous wizard from Wales known as “Merlyn” or as the English – who were renowned for their inability to spell anything correctly, called him – “Merlin”.
Now Mervyn was every bit as good a wizard as Merlyn, but unlike his more famous counterpart he was not tall and elegant, he was short and stumpy. Moreover, he lacked Merlyn’s long, flowing, white beard. Instead, like most of the inbred villagers, he had thick, black tufts sticking out at seemingly random angles from his face (and indeed most of his body). And unlike Merlyn, he was not blessed with a clear, ringing voice, which echoed resonantly across the valleys all the way to Camelot itself. No, Mervyn the Wizard had a speech impediment which meant every time he used a word with an “S” in it, he would dribble all over his tufty beard and pronounce it “schhs”. So “Hello sexy” became a rather nauseating “Hello schhsexthy”.
Now you can imagine this did not endear him to the local girls, many of whom were equally, small, pale and tufty but prided themselves on being able to speak the most difficult of Welsh words without spitting. So not only was poor old Mervyn in the shadow of his more elegant and rich contemporary Merlyn, but he couldn’t even have a meaningful relationship with the tufty little fur-ball babes in his own village. This embittered Mervyn and twisted his mind to believe his misfortunes were rooted in the different way the two wizards spelled their respective names. But for his mother’s choice of a letter “V” rather than a letter “L”, he would have been handsome, rich, famous and a friend to the stars (like Lancelot, King Arthur, Guinevere etc).
Being very clever, cunning and witty, he rationalised this by pointing out that were Lancelot to spell his name with a “Pr” rather than a letter “L”, few would take him as seriously. That the simple chance of an arrangement of letters should have such a profound effect on his whole life weighed heavily on Mervyn’s mind and he came to realise that words were very important indeed. So important, in fact, he came to formulate an entirely new kind of wizardry revolving around the written word. He would compose the most beautiful, elegant and entrancing verse, praising the virtues of four foot nine inch, tufty haired inbreeds. He crafted carefully worded poems dedicated to elevating the status of the village girls to virtual goddesses. His stories in which the heroines were all short, pale and tufty were written in clever, witty prose, praising the values both familiar and dear to the inhabitants of the small village of Rhosilli.
This made him very popular with the local girls, who use to say, “That Mervyn, he has a way with words”. Gradually and inexorably his status and value as an individual rose to an all time high.
Then one day, a beautiful princess from far over the seas landed on the shores of Rhosilli Bay. She had come in search of a prince of men who would be father to her children, a husband to her and a protector to her people. As she stood on the beach, the light from the early morning sun reflected off the fine jewellery elegantly draped around her long, fine neck, highlighting her brightly coloured silk clothing and contrasting beautifully with her rich, dark, clear skin. Her eyes were like jewels themselves; deep, black and captivatingly attractive. And her lips, oh her lips, so red and full, they were like the most succulent of fruits. Mervyn stood at the edge of Yr Rhos Arddur, looked down at the beach and fell deeply, completely and utterly in love with this vision of loveliness.
The people of the village, on the other hand, saw the Princess and cried almost in one voice, “Look at that witch! She is so dark! Yuch. She is so smooth. Yuch. And she’s not in the slightest bit short, pale and tufty! Yuch. Yuch. Yuch.”
And before Mervyn could even have the chance to weave his magic words with the princess on the beach, the very, very silly villagers chased her away, back into her ship and far away to the land from whence she came, never to return.
Mervyn was devastated and sat at the edge of the foreshore kicking pieces of driftwood with his tufty little feet, the anger in him grumbling and growing with every passing minute. “Schee waschs beautiful,” he cried to the seagulls who replied with nothing more enlightening than “Caw, caw, caw”. He stood and drew himself up to his full four feet nine inches of pale, tufty glory and shook his fist at the sky, uttering vehement oaths of condemnation, and lip curling, savage cries of vengeance.
Realising it was his writing which popularised the belief that anything other than short, pale tuftiness was not attractive, he cursed the villagers with a cynicism which meant they would always question anything they read, hence the saying “Do not believe everything you read”. Moreover he vowed to re-appear every hundred years at the very spot from which he first espied the beautiful princess and challenge the nearest person to a test. Then he disappeared in puff of bright orange smoke (a very wizardy thing to do as I’m sure you’ll agree).
As it happens, seven hundred years to the day, I stood at that very spot, near Yr Rhos Arddur. It was a warm but windy day and the sound of people playing in the sea far below swirled around in the air. My attention, grabbed by the sight and sounds of the bay neglected to inform me of the old man who was slowly climbing the winding track that led from the dunes to where I stood until he was almost upon me.
“Hello,” I said when he finally arrived, “lovely day isn’t it?”
“It ischs indeed!” He agreed. “Itschs a very lovely day.” He proceeded to unfold the most incredible table I have ever seen. From little more than a box the size of a paperback novel, he produced a beautifully carved and inlaid table which could easily seat four adults. Then, from under his cape, he pulled three small bags and placed them carefully on the table, in the form of an equilateral triangle.
“You have a beautiful table,” I offered, seeking to know more.
“It ischs,” he agreed, “but beauty is not always what it seems.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” I replied.
“Well, let me put it thischs way,” he spread his hands out on the table. “In these bags I might just have the secret of good looks, the secret of wealth and the secret of erudition.”
“Yes,” I said rather impatiently, as teenagers do.
“If I were to offer you one of them, which would you take?”
“Good looks, riches or erudition?” I pondered.
“Yes, you could be the most handsome man alive, or the richest or the cleverest and most erudite. Which would you choose?”
“If I were to choose to be the most handsome, then that would be it, wouldn’t it. I would be handsome and nothing more.”
“Yes,” he said.
“And if I were to choose to be the richest, again that would be it. I would be just a rich man.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “just a rich man.”
“But if I were to choose erudition then I would be clever, no?”
“Cleverer than you?”
“Then I choose erudition.”
“And so it shall be.” He said as he opened the bag and sprinkled some powder over me. As he did so, I could feel my knowledge, intelligence and abilities swell inside, until I was so clever I was cleverer than a very clever man in the land of the clever. That is when I used all that cleverness to persuade him to part with his bags of richness and handsomeness. And that is why I am now not only erudite but handsome and rich with it.
© Martyn Winters February 1998