King Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler. Public domain.

“It was a very long time ago in a faraway kingdom called… England.”

I know about England!

“Well, it was different back then than it is now. It was a thousand years ago. There was no electricity or airplanes or car insurance. There weren’t even any laws.”

She’s very surprised by this.

No laws?

“No. The only law was what the warlords said was the law. There wasn’t even really a king, because if somebody said he was king, every other warlord would argue with him and fight him with their big armies. The warlords could do and say whatever they wanted and nobody could stop them.”

There were no police?
“There were no police at all. The warlords were the ones who enforced whatever they said the law was in their little corner of the country, and if they were jerks about it, nobody could say anything. If they decided they didn’t like somebody, they could kill him for no reason. If they decided they wanted something somebody had, they could just steal it. And there were no courts to punish them.”

She’s really surprised by no courts or judges.

Was it before slaves?

“No. It was not before slaves. In fact, there were many slaves back then who had no choice but to work land for no money.”

Were there capitols?

She lives in Springfield, Illinois.

“Not really. Not like today. Nobody voted and nobody was elected to anything, because there were no offices and there were no laws.”

This seems to add up to her, so we move on.

“Once, in this time, there was a young warlord named Uther.”


It takes her a bit.

“Uther wanted to be king because he felt he had the best claim to the throne, and because he had inherited a strong army from his father. Moreover, it was his opinion that if he conquered all of England, there would be no more fighting and no more conflict, and everybody would follow the same set of rules, which would happen to be his rules.”

Why did people have to follow what the king said?
“Many people, including the church, said that God was the one who said who was king. Mostly they said this because whoever was king gave them lots of land and money, so these people would say whatever the king wanted. They also had to do what the king said because he had a big army full of men on horses in big armor with swords and shields and spears who could attack anybody who disagreed with them. In this time, the only way to get people to agree to anything was not by talking or agreeing, but by threatening.”

How did they decide the first king? When did they come up with kings?

“Nobody is really a hundred percent sure. I guess it also depends on which king. Some, long ago, before things like writing or history books, might have killed a big monster and people thought they were a hero. Others might have been good at convincing people, or smarter than others, and convinced strong people to support them. By the time we get to Uther’s story, there had been kings of one kind or another in England for hundreds of years. And each king would have sons and when he died, his son would become king – or become a knight or a lord, like Uther. That’s why Uther was a lord, because his father had been. And it’s why he decided he was going to become king of all England.”

How did he become king?

“He got his army together and said to the other lords ‘If you don’t make me king, I’m going to beat the shit out of all of you. My knights are the best knights and fighting me is foolish and will cost you dearly. So you’d all better just make me king.’ But it didn’t work, of course. So Uther went to war with them and actually did beat the shit out of most of them. But there was one other warlord who also had a very big and strong army, and his name was the Duke of Cornwall.”


“Yes, it’s a place in England.”

It’s a wall of corn?
“No. Actually, you know, the English meant something different from American corn when they said ‘corn,’ you know…”

She listens patiently.

So, it was a wall of corn?

“Let’s just call him the Duke. The Duke was another warlord who was a big huge jerk like the others, who stole and killed and did whatever he wanted because he had lots of assholes in big metal armor who would do what he said because he paid them and gave them all the best land and food. Nobody liked him, but nobody could do anything about it, except Uther. Uther beat the shit out of all the other lords and then told the Duke he would gladly beat the shit out of him for good measure if he didn’t accept Uther as king. But the Duke wasn’t having it, and the two entered into a long and violent and costly war that killed many men. Uther decided that one way he would try to win the war was to build a big castle on top of a mountain in an important place.”

Were castles like capitols?

“Kind of! A lord or a king would live in a castle and it was where he would rule everything.”

Some are small like mansions.

“Yes, they are. But in this time, we’re talking about big castles with tall walls made out of stone. The sort of castle Uther intended to build was one meant for war. Because you see, if you put a castle in an important place – on the shore of the sea where ships must come into port, or at the crossing of a great river where an army must use a bridge, or overlooking a valley or a road – then an army that must go past it needs to fight all the knights and archers in the castle, or those knights will just come out of the castle and kill them.”

She is involuntarily making hand motions like she is wielding a bow and arrow.

“And attacking a castle is incredibly hard. The walls are tall and made of stone and won’t catch fire, so you can’t just burn it down. The gates are built to be so strong that you can bang on them for months and they won’t be bashed in. And all the while that you’re trying to get in the castle, the people inside the castle are shooting arrows at you and dropping rocks on you or even throwing fire grenades. The best castles had storerooms of food so big that you could surround the castle for months and months and it would do you absolutely no good, all while you’re getting shot at.”

If they run out of arrows, did they throw tomatoes?
“They did! They threw whatever awful stuff they could think of just to be mean. If they had chicken for dinner, they’d throw the dead chicken heads over the wall. Sometimes, they even threw POOP.

This is the best thing she’s heard all week.

“Uther picked a tough, important spot on the top of a mountain where he knew the Duke’s army would need to pass in order to win the war. But there was a problem. Every time he tried to build it, it would fall over. This was not before architects or engineers, so a bunch of smart people who were good at this stuff still didn’t know why it was happening. They said ‘The ground is level and our calculations are right and we’re using good strong stone, we don’t know why the castle keeps falling down!’”

Why was it?
“I’ll tell you why. One day, an old-ass man with a long white beard came to Uther and said ‘My name is Merlin and I’m a wizard and I’ll tell you why your castle is falling down.’”

How did he know?

“Merlin knows everything because he was born at the end of time and lives backwards instead of the other way around. So he’s already been to the future and knows what is going to happen.”

Wait. So…
She is really very, very interested in this. She sleeps on the top bunk bed and so when I stand next to it we’re at eye level, and she has been gravitating slowly closer to the gap in the railing where the stepladder goes down. She’s almost monkey-hanging halfway out of it now.

So… if you knew him… he would get younger?

“Yes, he would.”

But… he wouldn’t know what just happened?
“He was very good at playing it cool and he had magic. And he said to Uther ‘I’m from the future, biiiiiiiitch. I’ll tell you exactly why your castle is falling down.’”

Why was it?
“‘If you dig down into that mountain, you will find two dragons – a red dragon and a blue dragon. And they are fighting a whole bunch, and their glorious battle shakes the roots of the mountain and knocks down your castle. You will see the red dragon vanquish the blue dragon.’ And Uther said ‘That is some bullshit, old man, there’s no such thing as dragons.’ And Merlin said, ‘Whatever, don’t listen to me, you’ll never build your stupid castle.’ So Uther decided he might as well do it, so he got his biggest dudes with the biggest shovels and had them dig into the mountain. And there were the two dragons under the mountain, and they were fighting just like Merlin said.”

There aren’t dragons!

“There were back then. And these two were fighting. It was awesome. Uther and his dudes got a bunch of popcorn and watched them beat the crap out of each other for like, days. They got a football announcer to call the fight and everything.”

But you said it’s before football!!!
“I’m joking, kid.”

About the football?

About the dragons.

“No, the dragons really happened. And just like Merlin said, the red dragon defeated the blue dragon by breathing fire all over him and tore his head off and ate his heart. And then he roared—”

What did the blue dragon have?
She means as far as special abilities, I determine.

“Blue dragons have lightning breath in a 60-foot line, but are not as smart or as strong as red dragons.”

“Anyway, the red dragon roared and smashed through the mountain and blew the whole top off of it and flew away. And Merlin said ‘This is an omen from the future. The red dragon represents you and the blue dragon represents the Duke, and this means you will beat the shit out of the Duke and become king of all England.’ And Uther adopted the red dragon as his symbol and became Uther Pendragon.”

“Pendragon” is for some reason very funny.

“Anyway, with the dragons out of there, Uther could build his castle.”

But the dragon smashed the mountain!

“Yeah, but Merlin used his magic to just fill the mountain in again so it was fine and they had a very big basement. And so Uther built his huge castle, and it ruined the Duke’s day. Many times he threw an army at the walls of Uther Pendragon’s castle and every time, Uther’s army beat the shit out of the Duke’s. Finally it got to the point where the Duke realized it was dumber to keep fighting than to negotiate for terms – which is what they call it when you know you’re going to lose but the guy who is going to win would prefer that he not have to fight you until you’re totally dead. So he met with Uther. And when he met Uther, his wife came with him. Her name was Igraine, and she was wise and beautiful. And Uther, who I guess was single at the time, got the hots for her right away, and so when he was there making a deal with the Duke, he said he’d let the Duke have his land and his title, but he would have to give up his army and let Uther marry his wife.”

Why did he want his wife??

“Because she had a great personality. The Duke was super, super pissed off, yelled at Uther and called him false, and stormed away with his wife. And Uther was so obsessed with wanting Igraine for her personality, that he stalked his halls day and night scheming how to get her from the Duke. And the war continued. And this made Merlin very, very disappointed.”

“Because Merlin saw that though Uther was strong enough to be king, he was not good, and he would not make a good king. He was stills selfish. It made Merlin angry.”

Why did it make him angry?
“Because the war was still going on, and the only reason it was going on was because Uther was being a total asshole who wanted somebody else’s wife. It was a terrible reason for other men to have to go die at war for him. And Merlin wanted England to be one kingdom, but also to be a place ruled by somebody who was good. And that’s why, when Uther came to him and begged him to help him get Igraine, he came up with a plan.”

What was his plan?
“Merlin was playing the long game. He knew that if Uther got Igraine, their hips would wiggle and they would have a baby. And that baby would be the rightful king when Uther eventually died. So he said to Uther ‘Here is my price. I will use my magic power to get the lady Igraine and her fascinating personality for you, and you will pass a most wiggly night with her. And you shall have a baby boy, and when you do, you shall give him to me to do with as I please!’”

What if Uther just didn’t do that?
“Oh, the consequences of that would be dire. Nobody crosses a wizard unless he’s a total idiot.”

What would happen?

“Merlin told him: ‘If you don’t do as you promise, every bird will take a crap in your soup. The walls of your castles will all rot and fall to the ground and the peasants will rise against you in rebellion, and all the swords of your knights will rust.’”

How did he get her?

“Merlin used his magic to create a potion that would transform Uther so that he looked like the Duke. And Uther drank the potion, poofed into the Duke, and rode off to the Duke’s castle and just ordered the guards to let him in.”

But! She stutters when she gets excited. But But But what what if the Duke was also there?

“Don’t worry, Merlin always planned for everything. In this case, he used his magic to create the illusion of another army on the horizon so that the Duke said ‘Holy shit, I’m being attacked holy shit’ and he got in his armor and jumped on his horse and rode off. And so Uther showed up looking exactly like the Duke and let himself in. And just as Merlin had said, he and Igraine wiggled their hips because she thought he was her husband.”

Her mouth is ajar.

“And in the morning, Uther stole Igraine away to his own castle and poofed back into himself and said ‘HA! I got you!’ And Igraine Was Not Happy. But happy or not, in nine months, she gave birth to a boy, just as Merlin had said. And Merlin showed up and reminded Uther of his price. And at first, Uther was reluctant. But Merlin reminded him of all the terrible shit that would befall him if he broke his word, and Uther gave him the boy. ‘What is his name?’ asked Merlin, and Uther, who hadn’t even thought about it, said ‘Arthur,’ which means ‘Eagle of Thor.’ And Merlin took the child away and started his plan to make him king.”

Why did he want him to be king?
“Because he knew that the boy had Uther’s strength and Igraine’s personality, and that this made him a special boy. But he also knew that if he let him be raised by Uther, he’d turn into an asshole, because the way our parents raise us makes a very big difference in what kind of a person we become. So Merlin wanted a man with Uther’s strength and claim to the throne, but without being raised to be another asshole warlord. And so, he disguised himself as a beggar and took little Arthur to another part of England, to a castle in the Forest Sauvage ruled by an old knight – well, not old but a little older than Uther, anyway – whose name was Sir Ector. And he went to Sir Ector because Sir Ector was good and kind even though no rules said that he had to be.”

Why was he?
“Because he was raised well and because he thought it was the right way to act. The peasants who worked on his lands and the servants who worked in his castle and the people who came to ask him for help all found him to be fair and just and generally to be easy to get along with. Merlin decided he was just the guy to raise Arthur. And there was something else: Sir Ector had just had a baby boy of his own, but there was a problem. Because you see, this was before hospitals.”

She gasps.

“Sir Ector’s wife took ill as she gave birth to their son, Kay.”

“K-A-Y, Kay.”

He’s a letter.
“Well, he’s also a boy. Sir Ector’s wife died giving birth to Kay, which unfortunately used to happen a lot back then because they didn’t have doctors to watch you or X-rays to figure out what might be going wrong.”

But wouldn’t the baby die too?
“Not always. And, most tragically, back in that time they sometimes wouldn’t care as much about saving the mother because they were more interested in the baby. But not Sir Ector, because he was a good guy. Anyway, sadly, his wife died, but fortunately, Kay lived. But because his wife had died, everybody at the castle was in darkest mourning, and Sir Ector ordered everybody to wear black and to go about wearing veils for a year and a day. And on the last day of this long mourning period, along came a stooped old man and a little baby at his door.”

It was Merlin.
“Indeed it was. And Merlin asked for shelter inside the castle and was received with great kindness and generosity by Sir Ector, who treated him well even though he was still getting over stuff. And Merlin showed the baby to him and said ‘This young boy is an orphan. I totally don’t even know at all who his parents are, they sure aren’t the king or anything. His name is Arthur, by the way.’ And Sir Ector looked down at the baby boy and for the first time in a year and a day he smiled and said ‘Well, he can stay.’ And so, Sir Ector adopted Arthur and raised him as his son with Kay as his brother.”

So Kay was older.
“Kay was precisely one year and one day older.”

She considers the math on this before we can move on.

“One day, when Arthur and Kay were five and six, Sir Ector was hanging around with them in the big dining hall along with his buddy, Sir Grummore Grummursum. They were all drinking the beers because there wasn’t a legal age for alcohol back then. Anyway, Sir Ector was saying to Sir Grummursum ‘I think what these boys need is some education. They should read and write and speak Latin and know geography and such.’”

What’s geography?
“Maps. ‘I’ll need to hire a tutor for these boys of mine, yes sir.’”

What’s a tutor?
“It’s a teacher who teaches you outside of school because this was before school.”

So tutors were how they learned.
“Yes. And really, only rich people could afford them. Back then, most people didn’t know how to read because they didn’t think it was that important and I guess in some ways it wasn’t. These days, though, almost everybody knows how to read because everybody goes to school.”

Why didn’t they read??

You can throw a book at this girl at basically any time and she’ll devour it. At seven, the concept of an illiterate society is alien to her.

“Back then, there weren’t a lot of books. There weren’t roads with signs. There weren’t computers or newspapers. Pretty much everybody needed to be farmers and hunters just so there would be enough food.”

Why do we need reading so much now?
“Well, we talk a whole lot, and we write a whole lot. My whole job is to write things for people. We don’t need as many people farming because we’ve got like, huge farming machines, and we don’t need anybody hunting at all because we keep great herds of animals for meat. But back then, Sir Ector wanted Arthur and Kay to read and write because he wanted them to grow up smarter than he was, because all fathers want that. Anyway, Arthur and Kay grew bored with all this talk and went out to play. And back then when boys went playing, they played at archery with their bows and arrows.”

They used bows and arrows?
“Yes. In fact, back then, bows and arrows were the best thing around because you could kill a dude even if he was a very long way away. Englishmen were in fact very good with bows, and in order to get really good with one, you had to practice for years and years. So, they started out young, with toy bows like Arthur and Kay had.”

Okay, they were TOYS.

She’s relieved.

“And you know how kids play, of course. Kay would say ‘I bet you can’t hit that rock’ and Arthur would say ‘I bet you can’t hit that tree’ and they’d take shots at stuff, or they’d see how far they could shoot their arrows. Each of them had just the one arrow and they’d reuse it, because you know, it’s hard to make a really good arrow by hand. And here’s the thing about when Kay and Arthur would hang out. Kay wasn’t a bad boy exactly, but he could kind of be hard to get along with. And sometimes he would get jealous of Arthur and he would be mean and remind him he was adopted, which is not at all a nice thing to say to somebody. So he was getting mad that Arthur was a better archer than he was and pointed to an owl in a tree and said ‘I bet you can’t hit that owl because you’re adopted!’”

I know who the owl is.
“Well, yeah, I think we all do. Anyway, Arthur shot his arrow and he missed the owl because it jumped up flying and shouted at him ‘SCREW YOU LITTLE BOY!!!’ and flew off, and Arthur was like ‘Did that owl just insult me?’ and Kay was like ‘Whatever, go get your arrow because you’re adopted.’ And Arthur went running into the woods after his arrow. Woods in these days weren’t like woods today.”

We got lost the last time we went into the woods because we left the path.
“Yeah, well you understand what happened next, then. Because back then woods didn’t even have paths. Pretty much nobody went into them because they were dark and dangerous. And Arthur went running into there without thinking, and before he knew it he was lost. And because it was autumn, it wasn’t long before the sun went down and it got cold.”

He could leave string behind him.

“He didn’t happen to have any with him. Arthur wandered around in the dark, and try as he might, he couldn’t figure out where he’d come in. And off in the distance Arthur could hear the wolves howling.”

Oh no!

“But just as he was losing hope, he saw a light in a little grove nearby, and as he got close to it, he saw that it was a little house with a chimney with smoke puffing out of it and lights in the windows.”

She’s smiling a lot.

“Now remember, as the son of the lord, Arthur could have just barged into this house on his father’s land. But Sir Ector had taught him that this was rude, so he walked up to the door and knocked,” I rap on the bed frame and she smiles so very widely, “and after a moment the door opened and a strange old man with a big long beard looked out at him very, very sadly.”

Was it Merlin?
“It was. He looked down at Arthur with great, great sadness—”

Why was he sad?
“Because remember, he goes backward. He knew that he would never see him again because this was the first time they really met.”

She gets it now. This one concept completely blows her mind.

“Merlin invited Arthur inside, where he found that very same owl. ‘This is my familiar, Archimedes,’ Merlin said, and Archimedes gave Arthur a very mean look,  ‘and I understand you’ve been looking for this.’ And Merlin went like this…” I pull an arrow out of the air for her with an accompanying slide whistle noise, “and he said ‘And I believe you’re looking for a tutor, too.’”

We’re interrupted because her sister needs something, and then I take her downstairs and start running her bath. I tell her a little more, but pretty soon there’s no time to tell any more of it for tonight. She’ll ask to hear the rest of it again soon, so I guess I’d better google ahead…