The Magic of Merlin - Merlin's Blade - CSFF
- Written by Emma Engel
This month's Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour focuses on an exciting new book we haven't covered before here, Merlin's Blade by Robert Treskillard. Since I finished it about a month ago, I've been eagerly waiting for the Tour so I could share my astonishment with this new novel. While my reviews have reflected the current boom in YA Dystopian fiction, my first love is Epic Fantasy, and few things fit that definition more than a new look at the Arthur myth.
In many ways I feel like all the story has been wrung out of the tales of King Arthur. We've been fascinated with it so long that we seem to have run out of anything original to say...in both fiction and non-fiction. So when I heard vague mentions of a new book set in Arthurian England, I wasn't overly curious until I saw the title: Merlin's Blade. And suddenly, I was interested.
You see, in many ways Merlin is the most interesting part of the legend. We have a fairly good grasp of who Arthur was in general terms if he really existed. We know he was a great warrior and strategist, he or his advisers were also very politically astute, and between those two gifts he united a large portion of the clans. Beyond that the details are murky which is why the story has benefited overall from so many different takes. That and the fact nothing screams myth more than the words, "Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus." But Merlin, a huge player in nearly all the versions, remains shrouded. Who was he really? Was he some kind of magician who used slight of hand to gain status? Was he simply the wisest and most revered adviser to the king? Was he a Christian priest who performed miracles like the apostles? Or was he something much, much darker? I know it may seem strange to start a series of discussions about a certain book by not talking that much about the book itself. But I really want to lay a foundation by going over the most popular theories and versions of Merlin because so much of my actual review is focused on Mr. Treskillard's take on the character and how it fits in the lore.
The character as we know him comes to us through a historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who shuffled things around to make a better story. His Myrddin Emrys seems to be a combination of mad prophet, who lived many years after the time of Arthur, and Ambrosius Aurelianus, a warlord of both British and Roman decent. Of note for tomorrow, Ambrosius as a historical figure is known for attributing his victories to God. Despite Geoffrey, there is a decent record of Ambrosius in history, and, interestingly, he is occasionally linked to the Pendragon family as a brother or uncle to Uther. So Merlin the wizard is almost entirely fictitious.
However, the argument has been made that while Merlin might be made up, it doesn't mean the legend is without truth. There seems to be some evidence for a strong adviser to Arthur who probably had somewhat of a reputation himself. But like many of the characters we suspect have some basis in reality, such as Arthur himself and Robin Hood, too much time has passed to separate the man from the myth. We know the little we do have is faulty, so when it comes to Merlin, he can be anyone and anything we want. Which is why he is so much more interesting than the king he served.
There are two very icon Merlins from film that probably are what many people think of when they hear the name. One is an animated old man in blue robes with a pointy hat and a talking owl. T.H. White's Once and Future King combined the legends with sarcasm and breathed new life and interest into the story. Walt Disney took the best parts of the story and turned it into a happy movie about a young Arthur, called Wart, learning valuable kingship lessons by being turned into several kinds of animals. But it also opened the door to another screen version of the magician. Both much younger and more sarcastic, the Merlin of the BBC television show is at the beginning of his carrier, much like the Merlin of Mr. Trekskillard's book. In the show, Merlin's magic is linked with that of the Druids. It is, in many ways, Harry Potter magic. Children are born with and can use it naturally. However, it is more controlled and powerful when channels with spells and staffs.
The other literary Merlin I wanted to single out is from C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength. Lewis wields the entire Arthur mythos with surety and pens perhaps one of the most original of the adaptations in the last hundred years. His Merlin is Merlin Ambrosius who has slumbered since the days of Arthur. His God-given power is absolute and untouched by anything is this world, but, like in the old stories of Fae, he is capricious at best and fond of death and violence. In many ways, he shares the same angelic images and explanations as Tolkien's wizards.
My own thoughts on Merlin? In the happy world of stories, I think of him much as Lewis describes, powerful, without any real reason to operate the same way everyone else does. He is capable of performing miracles, but unlike the apostles, he is almost indifferent to his power. He looks more the Father Christmas from the new Narnia than the Disney wizard, but he definitely has some of the attitude from the BBC version. Unlike that show though, I do see him as an older mentor to a young Arthur. My "scholarly" guess as to who he would have really been in history though is quite different. Based on our guesses for dating Arthur, I think it unlikely that Merlin had any connections to Christianity. I think it quite likely that he was a Druid. Whether the "wizard" came simply from the reputation of that order or from actual actions on his part, this leads to a much darker version of the character I am happy to reject in favor of my more fanciful head cannon.
From here on in the Blog Tour, I promise to link these musing into an actual review of this amazing book! However, it seemed best to establish an idea of my thoughts on Merlin in advance rather than bog down everything else down trying to explain as I went. In the meantime, check out some sites for more information on the book, and check out what the other Tour blogs are up to!