Thursday, 4 October 2001

Stephen Lawhead: Merlin (1988)

Edition: Lion, 1988
Review number: 954

The second of the novels in Lawhead's Arthurian series is written from the point of view of Merlin, who is made a descendant of the Atlanteans who settled in Britain in the first novel about Merlin's father Taliesyn. The plot will be familiar - the traditional build-up to the accession o Arthur as king: the madness of Merlin, Vortigern inviting the Saxons to come to Britain as mercenaries, Ambrosius and Uther, the conception and hidden childhood of Arthur.

With any Arthurian novel, as opposed to a simple retelling of the myth, the question which immediately arises is how the author has made the story his or her own. In Lawhead's case, this has two aspects. The first is the quality of his writing, perhaps more obvious here than in any of his other novels. This is particularly the case in the retelling of the tale of Manawydan from the Mabinogion, and in the (first person) description of Merlin's recovery from madness, following a break in the narrative during his actual raving.

The second is the Christian subtext. The story of Arthur, with its conflicts between the Christian Celts and pagan Saxons, lends itself to this, and so to make it an important part of the story is not new to Lawhead (though it has rather gone out of fashion in recent retellings, which have tended to emphasise aspects likely to appeal to students of the New Age). Expressing a Christian apologetic in fiction is difficult to do well, however, as is usually the case with any agenda imposed upon a story. Here, though, it works as well as with any writer since C.S. Lewis, and this is because the story comes first and the spiritual aspects seem to arise naturally from the author's own faith rather than been forced into the narrative out of a sense of duty.

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