No Fool Like An Old Fool: In the Arthurian legend of Merlin and Vivien, the old wizard's infatuation with Vivien, a young lady of the court, leads to his downfall. The story of Peter Dunne's fall from grace bears a very similar shape and feel.
THE SELF-DESTRUCTION of Peter Dunne has unfolded with the dream-like logic of our oldest and unhappiest myths. How could the master shape-shifter have got it so wrong? Made so many mistakes? Let down his guard so foolishly?
These are questions Mr Dunne himself found it difficult to answer. Indeed, at the press conference announcing his resignation from John Key’s ministry, the Member for Ohariu observed more than once that he could offer no “rational” explanation for his behaviour.
Throughout his encounter with the assembled media pack on Friday afternoon, Mr Dunne maintained an extraordinary dignity and clarity. It was almost as if he was discussing the behaviour of another man – one he barely recognised as himself. Again and again, he denied leaking the Kitteridge Report on the GCSB. It was at home, he said, in his study, in a locked briefcase. But, yes, he had discussed leaking the report with Fairfax Media’s parliamentary correspondent, Ms Andrea Vance.
He sounded like a man bewitched.
More than one journalist has hinted that Mr Dunne’s fall owes almost as much to Ms Vance as it does to the man himself. Between 30 March and 7 April, the politician and the journalist exchanged more than 64 e-mails. It was to preserve the confidentiality of these exchanges that the Minister was ultimately moved to tender his resignation.
These extraordinary events have the shape and feel of a very old and tragic tale. The bones of the story may be found in the mythology of every culture, but I first encountered it in the legends of King Arthur and the Round Table. There it is called the tale of Merlin and Vivien.
In the words of Alice M. Hadfield, whose 1953 version of the Arthurian legends I grew up with as a child: “Merlin the Wizard was a wise man nearly all his life, but when he was old he fell into foolishness.”
Unwisely, for a person so high in King Arthur’s esteem, he allowed himself to become bedazzled by Vivien, a young lady of the court. “He became quite crazed about her, followed her about everywhere, and told her any secret of his magic she wanted to know.”
Though initially “flattered and excited by his attention”, the young woman soon discovered that it was not “altogether comfortable to receive so much devotion from a wizard, and after a time Vivien became very tired of it.”
This was hardly surprising since Vivien had been raised under the guidance and protection of another magician. An ominous development because, as Ms Hadfield delicately puts it: “One wielder of magic seldom likes another, and Vivien had grown up to have no love for Merlin.”
Merlin’s end came when he invited Vivien to view the treasures hidden in a subterranean cave whose concealed entrance only he knew the whereabouts. Allowing the old wizard to lead her to the cavern, Vivien waited until he was well inside before sealing up the entrance with an incantation Merlin himself had taught her.
“Only the person who had said the word could say the other word which would undo it”, writes Hadfield. “Merlin is sealed up in the earth by his own folly and pride till all spirits meet before their Ruler.”
Such is the tale of Merlin and Vivien, which, I’m sure you now agree, bears a not unfamiliar shape and feel – even to us, who dwell at several centuries remove from the Middle Ages.
For there is much in politics that still carries the whiff of magic. How is it possible that those blessed with every conceivable political advantage fail so abysmally to spark the public’s interest? Why do the voters flock to politicians so bereft of wisdom or imagination? From whence do the words and phrases that inspire nations arise?
These matters are not described as “the dark art of politics” for no reason.
Few would dispute that, until very recently, Mr Dunne’s career bore all the hallmarks of a master political magician. To have shifted with such ease from Left to Right, and then, without disturbing a hair of his trademark coiffure, from Right to Left, and back again to Right, he must surely have mastered the elements of more than a few political incantations.
But he is not the only powerful magician at the court of King John. And, as Ms Hadfield has told us: “One wielder of magic seldom likes another”. It may have been Ms Vance’s own magic that persuaded Mr Dunne to contemplate (at the very least) sharing secret information with her newspaper, but we would be foolish to rule out the possibility that she was working with more than just one political wizard.
Speaking on TVNZ’s Q+A, Winston Peters observed: “There’s no fool like an old fool.”
Nor, it would seem, an old tale.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.