Magic Tower of Air
Merlin appears in the shape of a young squire; Nimue in the form of a little maid ‘but twelve years old’. This number is, in this context, more mystical than chronological in intent.
Together they perform an enchantment that is an evocation of the ideal society of humankind and a reconstruction of the Earthly Paradise or Garden of Eden.
For behold! Out of the forest comes a carole of ladies and knights and maidens and squires, “each holding other by the hands and dancing and singing: and made the greatest joy that ever was seen in any land”…And presently, in the midst of the wild wood, appears an orchard, wherein was all manner of fruits and all manner of flowers, that gave so great a sweetness of flavour that marvel it was to tell. (Vida Scudder, Le Morte d’Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory).
This is no mere infatuation of a magician for a fairy maid. It is a great and pre-ordained work of redemptive magic. Similarly Merlins’ disappearance from the Earth into the world behind outer nature is no falling under a false enchantment but a deliberate sacrificial sacramental act. As Vida Scudder puts it, although she does not appear consciously to realise the deeper implications:
….when she spoke to him of her longing to know how to create the magic tower of air, he bowed down to the earth and began to sigh. None the less he did her will, and on a fateful day they went out through the forest of Broceliande hand in hand, devising and disporting; and found a bush that was fair and high and of white hawthorn full of flowers, and there they sat in the shadow.
And Merlin laid his head on the damsel’s lap, and she began to caress gently till he fell on sleep, and when she felt that he was in sleep she arose softly, and made a circle of her wimple all about the bush, and all about Merlin. And when he waked he looked about him, ‘and him seemed he was in the fairest tower on the world and the most strong; and he said to the damsel; “Lady thou hast me deceived, but if ye will, abide with me, for none but ye may undo these enchantment” And in truth she stayed by him for the most part, “Ye have been my thought and my desire” says she, “for without you have I neither joy nor wealth. In you have I set all my hope, and I abide, none other joy but of you”.
Her impulse is thus love and not self-will. And, whether ‘deceived’ or not, Merlin was well aware, before and after the fact, of the implications of this profound magical union.
Gareth Knight, The Secret Tradition in Arthurian Legend