Melichus is a wizard whose struggle to decipher an ancient book of magic results in the creation of deadly apparitions – simple ones at first, followed by more complex visions – and in the gradual spread of a permanent winter across the Northern and Southern Kingdoms in an effort to destroy, or undo the makeup of, the world (The Face in the Frost).
Melichus and Prospero were both students of the legendary magician Michael Scot. Prospero describes his fellow apprentice as one who quarreled easily and “enjoyed doing things by himself” (Face, 106). During this training Scott had a secret name for his pupil; Prospero knows it and later uses to summon his nemesis (Face, 152). As part of their studies, the two wizards were forced to live together in the deserted mountains of the Northern Kingdom and use their combined powers to create and enchant an object. The two ultimately chose an ordinary looking green-glass paperweight which bound Prospero and Melichus together magically: the paperweight could not leave the house unless both wizards were touching it and once outside, neither wizard could let go. Therefore, through this paperweight, each has a share of the other’s powers (Face; 108).
Somewhere between fifty to seventy years prior to the events of The Face in the Frost, Melichus was in England disguised as an old fisherman (Face, 27) and learning sea-spells (Face, 55).
During his travels around Glastonbury Abbey, he was approached by a monk who asked that he drop a special book into the “deepest part of the sea” (Face, 27). The book was one of magic, but only after decoding the strange script and after intense concentration would one be successful in using the spells. While only able to translate the first incarnation of the book, it was apparently a powerful one: the monk was able to not only create the image of a wolf but one that was real and left tracks (Face, 25). It is apparent from later occurrences that Melichus had no intention of losing the book and instead wished only to gain its wisdom.
Returning to the Southern Kingdom village of Briar Hill, Melichus retreated from society to begin his own attempt at decoding the strange book. Shortly thereafter the townspeople were visited at night by “apparitions of their dead relatives and friends” (Face, 55). Melichus freely admitted he was the wizard responsible for the deeds, which both frightened and angered the townspeople. After one of the village’s citizens was killed indirectly by Melichus (a woman, startled by an unpleasant shape, ran out in front of a horse and cart), a mob marched on his house set on stopping the magic, but Melichus escaped and sought refuge in a nearby forest. That night the villages set fire to the forest as a means to trap the wizard; the next morning only scorched remnants of trees remained. In a clearing the villagers found a burnt body that they hastily buried under a flat, white stone.
The events of Briar Hill occurred, according to the notes in the Register that Prospero later reads, “Obiit Melichus Magister A° 697 A.U.C." (Face; 55). This roughly translates as "Master Melichus died in the year [Anno] 56 A.D." 697 A.U.C."
The Face in the Frost
By the time of the events of The Face of the Frost, Prospero has been on the receiving end of a number of odd occurrences. It seems there is a malicious force at work against him, though he doesn’t know why. In recent days he has been visited by spectral cloaks, moths, and skeletal birds (Face, 16-8) that exist only to scare him; a nightmarish vision of an old man writes on his window in an unreadable script and says that because he cannot comprehend the writing that he will “suffer [for] his ignorance” (Face, 16).
Through Roger Bacon, Prospero discovers a connection between the apparitions that have appeared to him and the book once housed at Glastonbury Abbey. Roger’s notes about the book include a copy of a crest, or heraldic emblem, that the distressed Prospero learns belonged to his old rival Melichus. From the country’s register of wizards, Prospero learns of Melichus’ demise at Briar Hill.
In separate visits to Briar Hill, Roger and Prospero each learn some of Melichus’ secrets. Roger, believing an assistant of Melichus stole the book and is now using it to alter the weather, investigates Melichus’ former residence and comes across a sunken, frozen landscaped accessible through the basement. This winter wonderland seems almost a self-contained “practice run” for the bleak and bitter weather that is slowly covering the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. Prospero utilizes the Necromancy section of his own spell book to call forth the spirit of Melichus buried in the burnt forest. To his horror, Prospero discovers that the burnt body belonged to one of Melichus’ servants, mistakenly killed by the mob (Face, 80).
Melichus is alive and well and Prospero realizes Melichus has been the one after him all along. Prospero also realizes why: Melichus knows there is only one person who can stop him - Prospero, through their connection with the green-glass paperweight. With Roger Bacon in tow, Prospero heads off to the farthest corners of the Northern Kingdom to find the paperweight.
Along their journey Melichus has plotted a number of traps – from shrouded figures of gray and magical stones to straw-filled effigies and the “village” of Five Dials – each revealing that his power is growing stronger from the book. His power is symbolized by the face in the frost: each morning, “the frost melted, always in the same way: At first two black eyeholes formed, and then a long steam-lipped mouth” slowly gobbled up the remainder of the face in ominous fashion (Face, 123).
Melichus is eventually “found” in a deserted town reading from the book with unwavering attention – he is consumed with the book, as it is consumed with him. Prospero locates the paperweight and uses it to attract Melichus’ attention away from the book. Removing it from the house, both Prospero and Melichus are whisked away to the world within the glass paperweight. Only there, through the assistance of Mr. Millhorn and the Kabbala, is Melichus able to be soundly and ultimately defeated.
The name Melichus, or Milichus, appears in the play, The Tragedy of Nero, which was the subject of Bellairs’s aborted doctoral dissertation. In the play based on historical events, Milichus is a servant that reveals to Nero the impending assassination attempt upon his life in hopes of receiving a large reward.
His name spelled Milichus by Tacitus, he is identified as a freedman of Scevinus'. I have retained the spelling Melichus because it is found uniformly in the MS and predominantly in Q1. It is perhaps an authorial peculiarity. Tacitus described Melichus with unbridled scorn: "For when his slavish brain considered the wages of treason, and unbounded wealth and power floated in the same instant before his eyes, conscience, the safety of his patron, the memory of the liberty he had received, withdrew into the background." (Tacitus, Annals, XV.liv; LCL, Tacitus, IV, 301).
- ↑ "The Tragedy of Nero" (1979), by Elliot M. Hill.