Roman stones, but no Romans; not for a thousand years.
The Romans left Wales in the fifth century AD.
[...] an inn called The White Hart.
The white hart was the badge of Richard II of England. This marks the innfolk as being in sympathy (perhaps deniable sympathy) with the deposed Plantagenet. Their silent opposition to the current Lancastrian king, Henry VI of England, is consistent with this.
Tales from the White Hart is a well-known collection of science fiction stories by Arthur C. Clarke.
Note that Hywel is ten years old, being in his eleventh year.
Three humans are here described as having become gods.
Many rulers, both of the Roman era and later, were declared divine. (See p88.)
He had heard the chains, right enough, but never once seen what was in them.
[...] a talbot-hound, for Sir John Talbot, the latest Lieutenant of Ireland. Talbot had smashed the Côtentin rebels at Henry V's order; it was said the mothers of Anjou quieted their children with threats of Jehan Talbó. Now that Henry was dead, long live Henry VI, and the advisors to the three-year-old King hoped the War Hound could quiet the Irish as well.
[...] and Hywel saw it was a man on hands and knees, in fantastically ruined clothes and a black cloak.
Kallian Ptolemy introduced.
Hywel stared at a dark eye, glassy as with fever, or madness. The eye did not blink. The cracked lips moved.
"What... did [Ptolemy] do?"
(Henry V, who has just died in 1422 AD.)
"Not to bury his curse, man, [...] Leave killing him to his own sort of worker."
The death curse of a wizard is apparently dangerous, even when the wizard is bound with serpent chains. But the English soldiers seem to treat this as a technical problem; Ptolemy is not regarded with superstitious terror. We presume that the English court has its own wizards.
"I can't do much [magic], and I truly can't escape."
"Then I am a wizard," Hywel said, breathless, triumphant.
The man shook his head, rattling iron. "Magus latens... no. Someday you could be, if you were taught. [...] Now you're catalyzed."
Latin: "latent wizard."
"And I did it, now that I would not do it."
Perhaps if sparrows had voices...
"My name," said the wizard, "is Kallian Ptolemy. With the letter pi, if you can write."
Ptolemy is being precise about the spelling of his name: Πτολεμαίος. It has a silent P, or rather (being a Greek name) a silent pi (π).
He does not expect a Welsh village boy to be literate.
Everyone knew that wizards gained power by knowing names.
Stated from Hywel's uneducated point of view, and therefore not necessarily true.
(In fact, nothing in the rest of TDW implies that names have any particular magical relevance.)
Owain Glyn Dŵr had been a mighty wizard, [...] Glyn Dŵr and a few English lords had almost taken the crown from King Henry IV. And he really had taken Wales away from Henry V, [...] Glyn Dŵr sat for years as King in Harlech, with his own lords and armies.
The English had finally scattered Owain's soldiers, but they never took Owain, and no one ever saw Owain die. It was said he never died; that he slept like Arthur; that he would come back when the time was right.
TDW's history of Glyn Dŵr is nearly consistent with ours; but our Glyn Dŵr did not come that close to unseating Henry IV. Also, Henry V reigned from 1413 to 1422. It doesn't seem likely that Hywel would think of Glyn Dŵr as having "taken Wales away from Henry V" if he had already vanished before Henry became king.
But [Meredydd ap Owain] was a wizard. He made a glass marble out of the empty air and gave it to Hywel, holding Hywel's hand [...]
This reads as a description of prestidigitation. The implication is that Meredydd was not truly a wizard. (Also, his presence did not catalyze young Hywel's talent. And a much older Hywel described Owain Glyn Dŵr's children as lacking magic -- see p350.)
"I did nothing," Hywel said in Cymric.
Cymric is Welsh for "Welsh."
[...] the miles of triple walls, patrolled by men in armor of hammered gold, pierced by seven times seven gates plus one, but never the engines of an enemy army.
The first major discrepancy between TDW history and ours.
Constantinople was sacked in 1204 AD, by armies from the West, in the Fourth Crusade.
And at the heart of the conurbation, glory among glories, stood the Pantheon Kyklos Sophia, the Circle of Wisdom.
"[...] It contains the stars: a thousand lanterns of gold, each one the sacred light of a different deity. [...]"
"Who is your god?" Hywel asked, nearly whispering.
"The same as the builders of the Kyklos Sophia worshiped. The perfection of the curve. The meeting of the stones. Time and energy and precision; those are the wizard's true gods, [...]"
Ptolemy implies that wizards have a scientific, not theistic, outlook. (But wizards are known to have different beliefs, so this may merely be the projection of his own viewpoint.)
Later, he will refer to Thoth as his god.
"They are taking me to Eboracum... your York, where there is a Pantheon, to kill me. [...]"
"Magic destroys," Ptolemy said. "Every spell, enchantment, effect, ruins the worker a little more. If you are strong-willed, the wrecking takes a little longer... but it happens in the end, just the same."
Whether Ptolemy intended this or not is unclear.
Ptolemy's head turned. "If you kill me--" Then his air ran out.
"-- I can't teach you anything else," presumably.
"Spirit is to matter at... I've forgotten the numbers; some astounding ratio. [...]"
This may be a rendering of Einstein's equation: the ratio of energy to matter is the square of the speed of light. Again, Ptolemy demonstrates a scientific outlook.
"[...] You cannot push down a stone wall with your hands... but if you will wait, find the keystone of the wall, the effort you can make will produce the result you want. [...]"
"Your grandmother was Owain Glyn Dŵr's sister."
These lines have some resonance with dragon-slaying legends such as the Volsunga Saga. The blood of dragons burns, but tasting it brings wisdom.
Hywel was certain the offering was proper, remembering the story of the Greek who talked with a mouthful of marbles.
Demosthenes, who practiced speaking clearly with stones in his mouth.
Hywel is making an offering to Ogmius for the gift of the right word at the right time. (One can imagine the author sharing this impulse.) The offering is the marble that Meredydd ap Owain pretended to create by magic (p13); the act can therefore also be interpreted as Hywel's dedication to true magic.
"They do not worship Thoth in Ireland; perhaps he does not go there. He deserted me, certainly."
Ptolemy now implies that Thoth is (or was) his god. Earlier (p17) he referred to the "perfection of the curve." By identifying these, he seems to hold a less anthropomorphic view of his god than the Welsh villagers do of theirs.
"...and then one day I found I was fighting their war. In time I cared for those... barbarians... so much that I actually ceased to do any magics that might injure them... which meant, any magics at all... And soon enough the English soldiers put the iron on me."
Ptolemy implies that magic does not just ruin the wielder (as on p17), but (in some way) injures everyone nearby, or everyone involved. This is a bitter statement, for a wizard: that magic is never a good choice.
"...To free someone, you see, is the ultimate human act. And in the City they know the difference between actors and directors. It is the Empire's heart and brain, that difference. This country is full of actors, I know very well; and did one of them move to aid me, any more than Thoth whom I worshiped?"
"Why, this is Britain, isn't it, and not a part of Byzantium? So of course they're here, to change that. As I was in Ireland, until I was no longer of use to my directors."
This rings as the key passage of chapter 1. Straightforwardly, Ptolemy lays out the goal of the Byzantine Empire -- to absorb the world -- and its methodology -- the use of secret agents, as well as overt agents with secret agendas. These agents are the "actors," and the "directors" are their spymasters in Constantinople.
Ptolemy was introduced as having helped the Irish rebels against Henry V of England. He now implies that he was sent by Constantinople as part of a strategem to bring Britain under Byzantine rule. (Although the plan did not involve him fighting England directly -- p23.) By implication, Byzantium's aid of Owain Glyn Dŵr was also a strategem. Presumably the goal was simply to weaken England, the main power of Britain. After England's fall, Wales and Ireland could be mopped up easily.
At another level, we have the language of theater, which is a constant motif in Ford's writing. The director moves the actors across the stage. And the stage director (like the spy-runner and like Constantinople itself) can accept anything from his subjects except the attainment of their freedom.
"[...] I wonder if there's any power any human can leave alone. Old Claudius tried to refuse godhood, and failed..."
"Ah, there's no use. If I'd changed in Ireland, I'd never even have called you."
Ptolemy said earlier (p23) that he ceased to do magics in Ireland. He now admits that he hasn't stuck to that resolve, and seems to give up even trying. He is about to employ magic to change, or ruin, Hywel's life.
The burning finger pierced his eye, hissing like a snake when it strikes.
Again, a snake.
Any or all of these are possible.
The act of magic harms Ptolemy as well as Hywel. It underscores that Ptolemy never really gave up magic. If he is forcing a choice upon Hywel (which seems certain) then Ptolemy is hypocritically taking the role of a director (in his terms from p23).
If the act ensures Hywel's status as a wizard, or increases his power, then we can take the snake symbolism as the dragon's blood, once again giving wisdom; as does the lost eye (invoking Odin on the tree).