By Saturday, despite waving his hands and generating a lot of smoke, Merlin has given up. He explains that a demon with an unpronounceable name has cursed the well and that no one can break the curse. Hank agrees with Merlin’s assessment about the demon but assures the abbot that he can break the spell, as long as no one comes within a half mile of the well while he works his magic. Merlin warns Hank that breaking the spell requires saying the demon’s name, and saying it means certain death. Hank, unafraid, tells Merlin to go home and get back to predicting the weather—a branch of magic in which Merlin is particularly unskilled.
Merlin’s dramatic motions align him with the repetitive bowing of the hermit Hank’s just visited and seem to form part of the book’s criticism of Roman Catholicism by suggesting that the dramatic motions of the faith are nonsense. If Merlin represents the superstitions of the Old World and Catholicism, Hank stands for a modern (implicitly protestant and American) approach to the world that shuns superstition and fear for rationality. And, given his desire for power, Hank can’t resist throwing in a personal dig against Merlin’s poor job as a sorcerer.
That evening, Hank’s men and supplies arrive from Camelot, and they make quick work of repairing the well’s brickwork. They place an iron pump and lead pipe to spray water under the chamber door and stage bowls of Greek Fire and fireworks on the roof. Hank wants to work his miracle on Sunday, since Sunday miracles are worth more, so he calls the crowds to witness his show starting at 10:30 pm.
Hank accomplishes his miracle through the application of simple 19th-century engineering. But, because he thirsts for power, he reveals the results with a dramatic show designed to impress ignorant medieval minds. His motivations include both helping the people out and increasing his own status.
The excitement in the crowd builds to a fever pitch. Hank stands on a platform, holding out his hands and pronouncing nonsense words. At the end of each string of syllables, he electronically ignites one of the bowls of Greek Fire on the roof. Then he commands the “fell spirit” to “disgorge” the rest of his “infernal fires” into the sky and depart. Uttering more nonsense, Hank ignites the fireworks and starts the pump. The crowd goes wild when they see water flowing under the door.
Yet again, although Hank (and the book) disparages the slavish and superstitious medieval beliefs, he leans on these same beliefs to generate his own aura of power. Instead of taking the opportunity to educate, Hank appropriates religious language to manipulate medieval beliefs to his advantage.
Hank shows the monks how to work the pump—they won’t have to laboriously draw the water by hand anymore—and retires feeling very pleased with himself. It has been “an immense night.” He has proved himself to be a superior being to everyone in the sixth century.
Hank’s sense of well-being derives from his ability to outsmart and outperform the medieval population, thanks to the unfair advantage of coming from 1300 years in the future. Moments like this raise questions about meritocracy. Technically, Hank can outperform anyone in the sixth century. But, like the nobles, who have power because of their families, he starts from ahead. It’s not clear that he’d be as successful if the playing field were even.