Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Merlin, by Stephen R. Lawhead

Today I'm looking at the second book in the Pendragon Cycle from Stephen R. Lawhead, Merlin. This book covers the life of Merlin, whose birth concluded the first book, Taliesin. This book is told entirely from the perspective of Merlin and goes up until the death of Uther Pendragon and Merlin's placing the sword in the stone until it will be removed by Arthur. And no, that's not a spoiler because if you know Arthurian legend you know how the story works.

The worst thing I have to say about this book is I feel like it's just boring more than anything else. Merlin spends a lot of his time outside of what's going on in Britain. For example, when he's a kid he gets kidnapped by a tribe of hill-folk and spends something like three years living north of the Wall and basically cut off from all the other events occurring in Britain. On the plus side, this is how Merlin learns to do certain forms of magic, but on the other hand he's away for important things happening in Britain. This is explicitly the time when the Roman legions, the final pretenses of Roman control over Britain, are abandoning Britain and leaving it fully exposed to attacks from Saxons, Picts, and Irish raiders. In Taliesin and to an extent in Merlin as well, the characters are increasingly concerned by the growth of fear and desperation among the population as Roman protection disappears and the threat of barbarian invasion becomes ubiquitous. But Merlin's gone for significant chunks of that time.

His capture by the hill-folk isn't the only time Merlin is effectively M.I.A. during this book. After returning from his capture north of the wall, Merlin finds another group of survivors from Atlantis and falls in love with their princess. Once Merlin is recognized as a king in his own right, he arranges to marry his love and they are soon expecting their first child. Unfortunately for Merlin, both his wife and child, as well as most of the second band of survivors of Atlantis, are killed by a band of Saxon raiders. Merlin slays a great number of them in a battle-fury, and then wanders off to be insane with grief for a number of years. How many is not stated and I begin to get the feeling that the Atlantean Fair Folk have much longer lives than humans because Merlin is described as hardly aging a day while other people have grown old and died in the same time. So bad things continue to happen in Britain but once again Merlin is not present to witness them. When Merlin comes out of his madness Vortigern is High King of Britain and has made a mess of things by making deals with the Saxons to protect his own throne and will be overthrown by the Britains in favor of Aurelianus and his brother, Uther.

This is at the point where we're on familiar Arthurian legend ground and Lawhead starts hewing closer to the source materials that have been passed down over the years. He still takes his own spin on things and provides his own version of events, such as the romance between Uther and Igraine who Merlin describes as Gorlois's daughter rather than his wife. And I did find myself being slightly more interested as events got into territory which I was more familiar. But I was left with the feeling that most of this book, much like all of the previous book, was basically set up for a story that's coming later, rather than being a terribly interesting story in itself. It does seem a little weird to me that the next book, Arthur, was imagined originally as the ending to the series rather a midway point.

So on the one hand, because I can get these books for free and because I'm curious to see Lawhead's take on the more well-known bits of Arthurian mythos. On the other, I'm concerned that they're going to be a lot of effort without a lot of pay-off in the end. So we'll see what happens.

- Kalpar

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