(Book One of The Merlin Spiral; Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2013) Reviewed by Lee Duigon
Early in the fifth century, when the Roman emperor pulled his legions from the province of Britannia and told the Romanized Britons, “Look to your own defenses,” such chaos ensued that, to this day, 1,600 years later, historians have not yet sorted it out.
Suddenly cut off from Rome, Britain was attacked from three directions: Irish raiders from the West, the Picts swarming down from the North, and multitudes of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians from the East. The Irish killed their victims, took their plunder, and went home—until they came again. The Picts came over Hadrian’s Wall, or around it by water, and destroyed whole towns and villages. They, too, went home when they’d had their fill for the time being. But the invaders from the East did not go home. They pushed their way across Britain, and there was always another wave behind them.
All we know for sure, amid a swirling mist of legend and tall tales, is this:
Someone halted the advance of the invaders long enough and decisively enough for the native Britons to survive in Wales, Cornwall, and throughout the North.
Someone enabled the church in Britain to survive the onslaught of the Heathen hordes—and not only to survive, but to prevail.
That someone, however shadowy a figure he may be in history: that someone, who is the only person to whom these achievements have ever been attributed, according to traditions reaching back into the sixth century—
That someone is King Arthur.
And beside Arthur, as his mentor and his sage, stands an even more indistinct figure:
A Christian Story
Author Robert Treskillard has tried to bring this turbulent era back to life, with Merlin as the central character. He joins a great host of novelists, poets, playwrights, movie-makers, musicians, painters, and other artists who fell under the spell of the Arthurian Age.
But this effort is different from others that have been made lately.
Zondervan is well-known as a major Christian publishing house, and Treskillard’s books carry the imprint, “Teen Fiction.”
The story is either a historical novel flavored with fantasy, or a fantasy whose setting is a particular time and place in history. One of the problems with Arthur and Merlin—at the same time, one of the attractions—is that they are never far removed from fantasy. Not even the monks of Glastonbury Abbey, who in 1190 claimed to have dug up Arthur’s tomb, could haul the king out of fantasy and into history (see http://www.britannia.com/history/arthur/cross.html). The glamor goes all the way back to the French Arthurian romances of the 1100s, and to Welsh tales that are older.
Treskillard takes liberties with the Merlin story—especially with the tradition as it was first popularized by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his “Merlin’s Prophecies,” circa 1130. Everyone who has ever attempted to tell this story has taken liberties with it.
Treskillard’s achievement, a rare feat nowadays, is to embed Christianity so firmly into the story’s cultural setting, so deeply into the personalities of major characters, that it would be impossible to tell the story without it. Here “the religious stuff” is not slapped onto the story like a decal to make it “a Christian book.” Faith, and Christianity’s battle against paganism, barbarism, and brutality, is why things happen in this story, and why the people in the story do the things they do. Everyone who wishes to write any kind of “Christian story,” a fantasy or otherwise, should pay attention to how Treskillard does it.
“Fantasy,” especially fantasy earmarked for young readers, is a literary realm in which Christ’s Kingdom has few outposts. There are, to be sure, many books described as “Christian Fantasy,” but we don’t see them on the best-seller list. A few critics have hailed the Harry Potter series as “Christian,” but they are a very small minority.
For the most part, young readers’ fantasy sports themes that are anything but Christian—teens using witchcraft to circumvent adults and get what they want, vampire romances, teens who have super-powers because they serve, or are even descended from, pagan “gods.” A steady diet of this is hardly conducive to the reader’s spiritual health.
So Mr. Treskillard’s Merlin books have an important mission—to reclaim ground for Christ in a realm that has been largely conceded to a spirit that excludes Christ and His Kingdom. This can be said of almost all of our movies, television, music, games—just about all of our popular culture.
A Conspiracy of Druids
Merlin’s Blade, the first book of a trilogy, introduces us to Merlin, the son of a village smith in Cornwall. Merlin is badly scarred and partially blind, the result of a wolf attack some years ago. He has just entered manhood.
The story focuses on a plot by the pagan druids to expel Christianity from Britain and re-establish themselves as the ruling class. Their great asset is a mysterious Stone that fell from the sky seventy years earlier. The Stone has great magical powers: it can turn ordinary metals into gold (a great thing for the druids’ finances), burn or freeze anyone who lays a hostile hand on it, and cause individuals to have intensely tempting visions of themselves acquiring whatever they most desire—power, wealth, love, beauty: anything.
Opposed to the druids and their stone are the abbot and monks of the local abbey (who taught Merlin to be a Christian), Merlin and his father, and some of the more faithful of the villagers. Before the climax of the struggle, Uther Pendragon, High King of Britain, arrives on the scene with his wife and children—including the infant Arthur—and his band of expert warriors. But the war-band has a traitor in its midst, and readers who know the Arthurian legend will know the traitor by his name—Vortigern.
To make restitution for his father’s long-ago failure to serve the king when the king most needed him, Merlin swears himself into Uther’s service. This is how he becomes Arthur’s protector.
To tell any more would be to spoil the story. Treskillard uses many pieces of the established tradition, such as Merlin’s vision of the Red Dragon in mortal combat with the White Dragon, and puts his own spin on them. This is only what Arthur’s multitude of pseudo-biographers have been doing for better than a thousand years, so no complaints are warranted. Treskillard offers a rich mix of traditional and original material, and it will be up to the reader to decide whether he likes it.
I’m rooting for these books to succeed: most importantly, because I think storytelling, an essential piece of our humanity, is ground that ought to be reclaimed for Christ. I also think King Arthur matters, as a great hero of Christendom, and welcome efforts to preserve his memory as such. In addition to being a good adventure story in its own right, Merlin’s Blade serves both these higher purposes.
But it doesn’t serve them as well as it should—or could, with a little more care. There are faults in this book which must be mentioned.
I can’t help being distracted and annoyed when someone in A.D. 477 calls someone else a “guy” or answers a question with “yeah.” Treskillard’s editors at Zondervan permitted no end of colloquial Americanisms to slip into the writer’s dialogue. Given that the writer is trying to get the reader to imagine he’s in the fifth century, saying “yeah” upsets the whole illusion. Even worse is his penchant for writing “ya” for “you,” and incessantly using “sure” as an adverb, when it should be “surely.” Some of this dialogue sounds like a lot of text messages.
It should not have been allowed. This is writing down to teenage readers, as if they were incapable of responding to anything better. You don’t have to wallow in thee’s and thou’s and other archaisms to send the reader back in time. Plain, simple English will do. What the editors were thinking, when they allowed such cartoonish dialogue, is anybody’s guess. I even wonder if it might have been more their idea than Treskillard’s.
Zondervan has pulled out all the stops to promote these books. “The Merlin Spiral” website ( www.kingarthur.org.uk ) is a marvel to behold, with videos, plays for a 3D video game, secret messages, and even contests in which a lucky reader can win a facsimile of Arthur’s famous sword, Excalibur, crafted by Treskillard himself, who is a blade smith. (When he writes about how great swords are forged, he is writing from experience.)
This is a lot of sizzle, but the steak is underdone. All the razzmatazz is fun, no doubt—but they still should have cleaned up the dialogue. It would have been an easy problem to fix, and they would have had a better book.
I am sure Treskillard expects readers to take his story seriously. He should have written it accordingly.
Could It Be Magic?
More troubling than the slangy dialogue is Treskillard’s choice to allow “magic” into his story.
We suspect the Stone’s power is demonic; and later on the bad guys acquire other magical objects with great powers. If the druids really could do magic, one asks, why didn’t they just raise some storms to sink the Romans’ ships and keep them out of Britain in the first place?
“Magic” I define as actions which defy or circumvent the laws of nature—laws ordained by God to sustain His Creation and make it function smoothly. As opposed to magic, a miracle is an act of God that seems to break nature’s laws: but as God Himself is the author of those laws, and their enforcer, nothing done by Him will overthrow them. But in a very real sense, “magic” is an attempt by man to act as God.
Here the druids are using magic provided to them by the Devil. We see very little of this in the Bible—Pharaoh’s magicians duplicating the first few miracles done by God through Moses, only to wind up throwing up their hands in utter defeat; and the Witch of Endor summoning Samuel from the dead, an achievement which seemed to have surprised her more than anyone. All the rest of the manmade magic in the Bible is exposed as fraud and pretense.
Should a Christian storyteller give Satan and his servants the power to break God’s laws of nature and get away with it? For Treskillard’s sake I am trying to keep an open mind; but my strongest inclination is to say “no.” I’ll wait and see how this develops in the next two books.
Most people, if you ask them who Merlin was, and if they’ve heard of him at all, will say “a magician” or “a sorcerer.” In Merlin’s Blade, Merlin is yet too young to have acquired such a reputation. As the trilogy moves on, we wonder if he will. Or will Treskillard be content to present him as a man like other men, albeit wiser and more resourceful than most, but ultimately nothing more—and nothing less!—than a wholehearted servant of the living God.
Which is honor and praise enough for any of God’s creatures.