by Stephen Lawhead
Edition reviewed: Lion, 1994, ISBN 0-7459-2763-7
Narrated by Merlin (Myrddin Emrys), this is Book 4 of a five-part fantasy retelling of some of the King Arthur legends. The setting shares the geography of Britain and Ireland some time after the end of Roman government, but as there is a colony of refugees from Atlantis living at Glastonbury I think it's best regarded as a parallel universe sharing some geography and place names, rather than as a depiction of historical post-Roman Britain.
Arthur is brought up in the north, in the area around what is now Edinburgh and Lothian, and the Battle of Badon (Baedun in the novel) is apparently set in the same sort of area. Apart from a lengthy description of a stag hunt during Arthur's childhood, the story effectively starts shortly after Baedun when Arthur goes to Londinium to be crowned High King of Britain. Gwenhwyfar, an Irish warrior princess, comes to Londinium to claim him as her husband and they are married there on the same day. On a visit to Gwenhwyfar's relatives in Ireland, Arthur and his companions fight a fearsome Vandal war host led by Amilcar, nicknamed Twrch Trwyth or the Black Boar. The Vandals are driven out of Ireland, only to land in Britain and burn their ships showing that they intend to stay. Merlin, Arthur and their allies from the kings of Britain and Ireland have to pursue Twrch Trwyth and his war host in a deadly chase, culminating in a single combat on which the future of Arthur's kingdom depends......
Stephen Lawhead's style reminds me of Tolkien in some ways, even down to
having a rhyme of lore at the front of the book:
Ten rings there are, and nine gold torcs on the battlechiefs of old
Eight princely virtues, and seven sins for which a soul is sold
Six is the sum of earth and sky, of all things meek and bold
Five is the number of ships that sailed from Atlantis lost and cold
Four kings of the Westerlands were saved, three kingdoms now behold
Two came together in love and fear in Llyonesse stronghold
One world there is, one God, and one birth the Druid stars foretold
Make of the rhyme what you will. There are further parallels with Tolkien in the presence of other races of people who seem different from ordinary humans. Earlier volumes in the series told how refugees from Atlantis sailed to Britain and established a colony at Glastonbury, led by their king Avallach (The Fisher King) and his daughter Charis (The Lady of the Lake). Merlin is the son of Charis and the great bard Taliesin, gifted with mystical powers and long life, and is Arthur's chief bard and advisor. The Atlantis refugees are known as the Fair Folk, and another race of people, the Hill Folk or the Little Dark Ones, live in secret places in the hills of the north. Merlin has links with both races, as well as with the human world. So the tale is firmly planted in the realm of fantasy.
The story itself moves at a pace best described as stately, punctuated by fast action sequences in battle or hunt. Sometimes the narrative flips into present tense for a page or two during an action sequence, which is quite effective at conveying a sense of tension and speed. Battle scenes are vividly drawn, particularly the climactic single combat that lasts for three chapters and yet doesn't drag.
The device of borrowing the legendary boar hunt from Culhwch and Olwen and making it a metaphor for a military campaign, with the Vandal leader as the 'boar' Twrch Trwyth and his warbands as his 'piglets', is a neat idea. Animal motifs are a not uncommon feature of names, so a name with an animal element could easily have found its way into folklore. The stem Cuno-, meaning 'Hound', appears in numerous Brittonic personal names over a long period, including a Cuneglasus (Blue Hound) attacked by Gildas and a Cunobelin from the time of the Roman invasion. Gildas also refers to a place called 'receptaculum ursi' (stronghold of the bear) and describes Maglocunus as 'insularis draco' (dragon of the island), which might be either a title or an insult depending on one's interpretation.
Merlin narrates the tale in first person throughout, though as Merlin is an observant and somewhat detached character with wide knowledge and a tendency to comment on events, it feels more like an omniscient narrative. Certainly I didn't get the claustrophobic feeling of being confined inside one person's head that I often get from first-person narrative. There's a clear distinction between the good guys (Arthur and his supporters) and the bad guys (Arthur's enemies), as one expects in fantasy. Some of Twrch Trwyth's Vandal followers are allowed to see the error of their ways and surrender to Arthur, but there is absolutely no indication that Arthur could ever be wrong in any right-thinking person's eyes. People who disagree with Arthur are either evil or misguided, and there's no space for alternative viewpoints.
This may contribute to the impression of rather one-dimensional characters. So Arthur is noble, Gwenhwyfar is brave, Cai and Bedwyr are loyal, Gwenhwyfar's father Fergus is quarrelsome but lovable, Bishop Urbanus is corrupt, and so on. Merlin seems to have a little more complexity, perhaps because he is the narrator. Overall, the novel was an easy read but not a particularly involving one.
Fantasy retelling of some of the King Arthur legends mingled with the legend