Tuesday, 21 April 1998

A.A. Attanasio: The Dragon and the Unicorn (1994)

Edition: New English Library, 1994

Review number: 26

This is an Arthurian tale, the first of a series, telling the story of Merlin up until the birth of Arthur. It is apparent from the first page of the very long prologue that it is not a simple story, as it becomes when told by Mary Stewart, for example. Her approach was to minimise the supernatural as much as possible; Attanasio seeks to maximise it, while having some sort of pseudo-scientific justification for it. (For example, "demons" are alien creatures composed of energy rather than matter.)

Bleys, the teacher of Merlin, is a Chinese sage who finds a unicorn, another creature of energy, and steals its horn to gain immortality by losing his mortal body. He travels from Tibet, where the encounter happened, to Britain, in an attempt to escape the attention of the dragon, the energy-creature which inhabits the earth, and the source of the energy he used to become an immortal. He is also chasing the unicorn, whose help he needs to get free of the earth's magnetic field.

Merlin himself is a demon who is born in human form to defeat the Fury, which is the name Attanasio uses here for Odin, chief of the Norse gods (worshipped by the Saxons invading Britain). This he does by raising up Uther to be king over Britain in place of the corrupt Vortigern; the rest of the story will be pretty familiar to readers of other Arthur-related fantasy novels.

What Attanasio manages to do is to create an Arthur-myth completely different from any other retelling. (It is perhaps closest to that of Nikolai Tolstoy.) It can be rather heavy-going, but it is not surprising that it won awards; worth working to get into. It could definitely do with some trimming, particularly the prologue.

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