I’m told that some couples start out their marriage happy and stay happy the whole time they live together, easily getting along, yielding, loving, being kind and gentle, even in the mornings, but for most of us, relationships are difficult. Sometimes we have to set aside our own needs, forgive thoughtlessness, and not take ourselves so seriously. Most young people aren’t so good at this. I certainly wasn’t. In my experience, healthy relationships mature over time. Quiet, peaceful partnerships develop as we age.
The early years of my own marriage were stormy. My husband and I hadn’t figured out what really mattered and what didn’t. After 40 years together, we still don’t always get it right still, but these days, if we mess up, or take offense, or act thoughtlessly, we don’t get so upset. Admitting our mistakes and asking for forgiveness is easier than it used to be.
To get to this place, however, we had to ask difficult questions of ourselves, be vulnerable, acknowledge our failings, and ask for help. This can hurt, and sometimes it hurts a lot.
The Story of Nyneve
For Nyneve , a Lady of the Lake in the tales of King Arthur, this learning was quite painful.
As a young woman, she craved knowledge and power. If anyone had these gifts, it was the magician Merlin, whose magic could heal sickness, create jewels out of the air, and reveal the future. Nyneve lusted after what the old man knew. When she was given the opportunity to seduce the great magician and discover his secrets, she grabbed it.
By this time, Merlin was an old man, yet all his love, he had avoided love. Insecure, he felt the need to wrap himself in images of strength, beauty, and perfection. Because he was afraid to reveal his true nature to others, he could not let go enough to love or be loved. Healthy relationship is impossible unless we allow ourselves to be known as we truly are, to be seen in our essence. Merlin could not allow this to happen.
The Betrayal of Merlin
This made him vulnerable in a way he hadn’t expected. When Nyneve pretended to care about him, he was lost. Besotted by her beauty and ignorant of her true purpose, he soon taught her all the magic he knew in return for her promise to be his lover.
Of course, Nyneve had no intention of following through on her promise. All she wanted was enough magic to destroy him. Like a soldier who kills or the mob who lynches, she saw Merlin as less than human. He became the villain. In this way, she rationalized her plan to trap him with his own spells, render him helpless, then entomb him in a crypt that could never be unsealed.
When Merlin taught her all she needed to know, she followed through on her plan, leaving him eternally helpless.
Seeing Who We Really Are
Yet the power and knowledge she gained did not give Nyneve the ease, riches, or security she’d longed for. With great power comes great responsibility. People clambered to her for healing, for visions, for wealth and power of their own. She had to discern who to help and who to turn away, when to intervene and when to leave things as they were.
Wandering throughout the world, performing service and preventing tragedies, she received adulation, gifts, and fervent thanks, but could never stay long in any town, because eventually gratitude would turn to resentment, for people do not like those whose power is so far beyond theirs.
In all her travels, Nyneve never found a loving relationship until she came face-to-face with a woman much like herself.
Ettarde was beautiful, young, and loved by the gangly and insecure Sir Pelleas, but with her cold and angry heart, Ettarde treated him with disdain. Heartsick, Pelleas was dying from a broken heart when Nyneve discovered him. Struck by the young man’s pain, she railed against the other woman, yet in truth, she was railing against herself. Pelleas might be young, and Merlin old, and yet the beauty Nyneve saw in the knight was the same beauty that had existed in the magician. What she saw in Ettarde was her own guilt.
Yet her guilt made her angry. In her anger, she grew rash and punished Ettarde by making her love Pelleas with all her being, while at the same time causing Pelleas to despise her. Though the young knight was freed, Ettarde died from sorrow.
Guilt, Humility, and Relationship
I like to think that Nyneve regretted what she’d done, not just to Merlin, but also to Ettarde. After all, had she not deserved the same fate as that young woman, or worse, for what she’d done to the magician?
The years of wandering had softened her. Seeing herself in another had startled her. Now, she had shown herself to be rash and cruel. We do this in relationships. We hurt one another, see our own sins in the other’s face, blame, lash out, and, hopefully, feel remorse and regret. When we understand our own failings, when we honestly see ourselves, then we can fully see another, can reach out, can love.
Finally, after years of struggle, Nyneve finally her failings. She realizes her cruelty was never warranted, and in her newfound understanding, she is humbled. For perhaps the first time in her life, she doesn’t project her needs onto someone, make the other into a villain, and with this new wisdom, a true wisdom, Nyneve sees Pelleas as he really is, and she allows herself to be seen by him.
Reaching Out in Compassion
At this point, Nyneve has no thoughts of wooing Pelleas. Indeed, she tells him to go out and live his life, for one day his true love will appear. Yet he doesn’t believe her. He is worn and bitter, and he thinks he has lost the capacity to care about anyone.
Taking his hand, Nyneve says she will help him find his love. He asks her to stay with him until his beloved arrives. She agrees, and as time passes, they come to love one another. 
Once upon a time, Nyneve rejected and destroyed a man worthy of her care. Now she reaches out to another man from the deep, selfless compassion born from pain. She has learned to see and to be seen. With this new knowledge, that is true wisdom, she can not only love someone else, but can also accept the love of an imperfect, very human, man.
Love and Redemption
We are only human. Weakness and insecurity bedevil us. Time and again, we lose, and we fail, and in the end, our tomb awaits us.
Yet if we believe in love, we know the tomb is not the end. Passion, relationship, and love live on in Pelleas, in Nyneve, in Merlin’s story, and in our own hearts. Some of us die without realizing how our labeling and judging separate us from even our own souls. We might feel safe when we keep others at a distance this way, even if we don’t admit this to ourselves, but we are not in relationship, and our hearts will be empty, cold, and bitter.
True relationship requires humility. Nyneve shows us that. True relationship also requires the willingness to redeem ourselves by admitting the pain we have caused others, by allowing ourselves to be seen, by seeing and knowing and serving others. In this way, we can, finally, learn to love.
In faith and fondness,
- In various stories she is called Vivien, Nyneve, Nimen, and other titles. Nyneve is one of the Arthurian Ladies of the Lake.
- This version of the story is found in Greene, Liz and Juliet Sharman-Burke, The Mythic Journey, New York: Fireside, 2000, 164.
“The Beguiling of Merlin” by Edward Burne-Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons