Though from the first mention of Lancelot and Guinevere's affair in Alfred Lord Tennyson's The Idylls of the King King Arthur's court is sown with seeds of budding darkness, the fall of the court begins in earnest through the catalyst of the deceitful and manipulative Vivien who, though she but briefly appears in the chronicle, irrevocably alters it. Tennyson uses imagery of the sea, specifically the image of a crashing wave, to represent an inevitable destructive force that will wash the kingdom from its place on earth, a symbol of power and death. This force and its devastating power is embodied in the character of Vivien via Merlin's prophecy of his own downfall, while its use in "Merlin and Vivien" in connection with death heavily foreshadows Arthur's last battle in "The Passing of Arthur".
The deep tragedy of "Merlin and Vivien" is that Merlin foresaw Vivien's betrayal in a vision that connects Vivien to the image of a crashing, ruinous wave. As Merlin confides in Vivien:.
O did ye never lie upon the shore,.
And watch the curl'd white of the coming wave.
Glass'd in the slippery sand before it breaks?.
Ev'n such a wave, but not so pleasurable, .
Dark in the glass of some presageful mood, .
Had I for three days seen, ready to fall.
You seem'd that wave about to break upon me.
And sweep me from my hold upon the world, .
My use and name and fame. ("Merlin and Vivien" 290-294, 300-302) .
Though in a twist of dramatic irony Merlin rejects his intuition and denies the link to Vivien, Vivien fulfills his prophecy with her actions that culminate in her "sweeping [him] from [his] hold upon the world" by binding him within a hollow oak tree. Indeed, throughout her conversation with Merlin Vivien's effect on him is repeatedly described using wave terminology, thus reinforcing this metaphor and indicating the progression of her persuasion over Merlin. As she sings to Merlin, Merlin says he feels the song "slowly ebbing, name and fame" ("Merlin and Vivien" 435).