The aged Merlin has abjured human society. Retreated into the wild wood, with only a crow and a wolf for company (and by night the stars), he has lost all conscious sense of his identity and of his once visionary and wonder-working powers. Now comes an emissary in search of him, to restore him for one ‘last mission’ in that repudiated world.
Meanwhile, across the earth, on their desert mountain stronghold Alumatu, a fanatical white-clad Sisterhood of Light train members of their Order each for a murderous mission of her own: to go out into a city of ‘the shadow’ to become the disciple of a chosen heretic philosopher or priest there, to win his trust then at an appointed hour publicly and spectacularly assassinate him.
At first our Merlin seems to be the traditional ‘Merlin of the North’, uneasy exile at the interface between old Celtic ‘pagan’ Britain and the new Christian kingdoms. Yet he seems also to be suppressing memories of his magical and tragic doings in the long-ago Arthurian world; and the two women who beset him, a politicising wife and a hanger-on widow, seem to be angry mutations of Ladies of the Lake . A good 200 years old would this Merlin need to be.
So he is. This is a play whose onward process fractures Newtonian time and space. ‘Meanwhile’, I say above: Merlin’s ‘time’, and that of the Alumatu assassins, may be historically six centuries apart; in the play’s organism, they are synchronous. And as Merlin’s memories re-awaken in all their wonder and sorrow, and his powers revive, he passes through the gateway of a burning ash-tree into the nightmare landscape of yet another ‘time’, our own, where his world and that of Alumatu startlingly collide. Here his true mission proves altogether unexpected, not least to himself.