Wednesday, 19 December 2001
Nikolai Tolstoy: The Coming of the King (1988)
Review number: 1018
This novel, the first of a projected trilogy which hasn't yet appeared (and probably never will), made quite a stir among my more literary friends when I was a student. As Arthurian fantasy goes, it is unique in several ways, and, while tedious in places, it is generally engrossing.
The title leads the reader to expect a Sword in the Stone scenario, with Merlin tutoring the boy Arthur, but in fact Tolstoy has completely separated the two characters, making the king precede the wizard by about fifty years. The king of the title is not Arthur, but an even later ruler who, at the beginning of the novel, goes to Merlin's grave to consult with the ghost of the enchanter.
The Coming of the King is one of the most difficult novels about the Celtic Dark Ages to read, making almost no concession to the modern reader. Names and, frequently, concepts such as fate are given only in Celtic forms, and then not even in the ones most likely to be familiar to readers. There is a pronunciation guide, but no glossary. Forms of Celtic literature are imitated in ways which are sometimes disconcerting or off-putting (it certainly helps if you have read, say, the Mabinogion). In one way, this is a virtue: it makes the novel atmospherically Celtic; but The Coming of the King is not an easy read. (Traditional tales from other cultures are also worked in, including Beowulf and a touch of the Kalevala; these borrowings are more interesting to catalogue than to read.)
The best sections of this novel are the least portentous: the amusing story of Merlin as a precocious baby and the exciting siege of Deinerth. This is where Tolstoy forgets that he is writing mythology and gets carried along by his own story. (To try too hard to produce mythology is a common fault in modern fantasy authors, one which is an annoying legacy of Tolkien's influence. Even if there is something in the reader which is stirred by the epic ideas, this is stifled when these are expressed in turgid prose.)
Tolstoy went on to become involved in one of the bigger libel cases of the 1990s, when he was sued after suggesting that British officers handed over Yugoslav resistance fighters to Tito after the end of the war knowing that they would be massacred. The second and third books of this trilogy seem to have been forgotten in the stress of the massive damages awarded against Tolstoy; a pity. The Coming of the King, as a result, stands as a unique and different Arthurian fantasy, and this alone is a considerable achievement.