(Book Three of The Merlin Spiral; Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2014)
And so we come to the final book of the trilogy.
This is not to say the story ends here: far from it. Treskillard will take up the tale in his next production, The Pendragon Spiral. At least that’s what it says at the end of Merlin’s Nightmare.
I have been frustrated by these books. So much fine and vivid writing, so much attention to detail, thanks to thorough research; so many keen insights, one of them even profound and edifying—and all of it marred by irritating and easily-corrected flaws.
Zondervan is marketing these books for teens. Well, there is a crying need for good, sound, Christian-oriented books in the Young Adults fiction market—especially in fantasy, which is a major portion of that market. Robert Treskillard surely has the artistic ability to create such books, if only he would amend the flaws.
We Americans consume a prodigious amount of fiction in many forms—books, comics, television, movies, etc. Much of it is a wasteland. Worse, much of it is morally toxic—ultra-violent video games, and countless Young Adult novels that vigorously glamorize and promote crime, atheism, and sexual aberration. Only a simpleton would claim that a steady diet of this trash can have no ill effects on the minds of young readers.
That’s why it’s so important for a writer like Treskillard to live up to his potential.
The Merlin Spiral tells how Merlin, by God’s grace, overcomes his own problems and becomes the protector and teacher of the child who will grow up to be King Arthur. The books are set in a convincing re-creation of Britain as it was circa A.D. 500.
Merlin’s Nightmare concludes with the coronation of Arthur as the high king of the Britons. It’s not going to be an easy row to hoe. With the departure of the Romans, Britain has been plunged into social, political, and religious chaos. Pagan Saxons, in vast numbers, have invaded from across the sea and pagan, savage Picts are invading from the north. The chances of the native Britons surviving as a Christian nation seem almost nil.
The actual history of this era has been poorly preserved. There’s really only one thing we can say for sure: someone, possibly King Arthur, achieved the seemingly impossible. In a mere hundred years or so, the Saxons and the Picts were converted to Christianity, and the hard-pressed Britons were able to survive in Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and the north.
Those achievements are a worthy subject for an epic. That’s why the story of King Arthur—and Merlin—has been told for 1,500 years, in more versions, more languages, than one can easily count.
Some of these retellings, like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, are fantasies. Treskillard’s version is a fantasy set in the real world—at least, a world which the author takes great pains to make seem real.
But he has created a problem for his readers.
An Army of … What?
Merlin’s Nightmare is a fantasy because, in addition to the well-nigh insurmountable problems already confronting Merlin and Arthur, Treskillard has them up against powerful black magic, satanic in its origin, wielded by Merlin’s devil-worshiping sister, Morganna (better known to Arthurian buffs as Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan le Fay). Among other deadly feats of sorcery, Morganna raises up a whole army of werewolves to fight against her brother and the king.
In the real world, there can be no such thing as mobs of werewolves. The whole business smacks of a video game (“Here come the zombies!”), and is terribly hard to take. The Saxons and the Picts are more than adequately menacing without werewolves being thrown in. And so the credibility of the story begins to break down.
You might even get away with one werewolf. But not a whole army of them.
But more than the issue of credibility, how much power, and what kind of power, does a Christian storyteller want to ascribe to Satan? In our own experience, and in the Bible, Satan doesn’t indulge in pyrotechnics. He gets more than enough mileage out of temptation. Man’s own inborn sin is ample ammunition for the Devil. Pride, covetousness, idolatry, lust, and all the other sins do vastly more harm than any legion of werewolves. And if Satan really did have the power to shatter God’s laws of nature, wouldn’t he have used it by now? Wouldn’t we see examples of it in the Bible?
YA fantasy fiction is already awash with “magic.” In too many of these books, teens acquire all sorts of magical super-powers and become superior to adults. This is not wholesome.
In our culture, teenagers feel pressure to leave childhood behind and become like adults—but only in a limited way. They crave what they see as adults’ autonomy: no one will boss them around anymore, no more homework, no more being told what they can or cannot do. They seldom understand that adults’ autonomy is hedged all around by innumerable responsibilities. The adult can’t just do anything he wants. He has bills to pay, a family to raise, laws he must obey, and so on—it’s not as easy as it looks.
So teens, largely due to the immaturity fostered in them by our popular culture and our public schools, are already prone to magical thinking. The “magic” that they read about only reinforces that. The illusion of power and autonomy, without responsibility and necessity, is seductive.
In my own Bell Mountain fantasy novels, I have ruled out “magic” altogether. I set my stories in an imaginary world which I have tried to make “realistic” by conforming it to the laws of nature, to history, and to the Bible. Whatever “magic” the characters have to deal with is either a hoax or something real that they’ve misunderstood.
I don’t say Treskillard ought to go this route: only that he’s gone way too far in an opposite direction. He ought to reconsider, deeply, the emphasis he’s placed on magic.
Too Much of a Bad Thing
Then there’s the violence: still too much of it, still too graphic, just as in the first two books. Again, don’t we already have more than enough mayhem in the rest of our “entertainment”? It seems to be guided by the maxim, “When in doubt, shed blood.”
Merlin himself is the chief punching bag in Treskillard’s tales. After three novels, Merlin still hasn’t done anything that would account for his still being famous after fifteen hundred years. Mostly he absorbs physical punishment. True, the “historical approach” to Arthur’s saga usually seems to minimize both the characters and the events in which they played a role. These are a very far cry from the old Welsh stories in The Mabinogion, the medieval romances of Chretien de Troyes, or the twelfth-century pseudo history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, in which Arthur conquers most of Europe.
But here I kept waiting—and waiting—to see a bigger Merlin. Not a sorcerer, because Treskillard’s Merlin is a firm follower of Jesus Christ: but at least a man renowned for his wisdom and resourcefulness. Maybe this Merlin will attain to greatness in the coming “Pendragon” books. For the time being, at least he’s morally upright, faithful, and if nothing else, persevering.
More Dopey Dialogue
Finally, Mr. Treskillard must do something about his dialogue. At least stop peppering it with modern Americanisms like—I kid you not—“Ya got a problem with that?” Particularly galling in this book was his habit of writing Merlin’s little daughter’s lisp, as in, “Thith ith my daddyth friend.” Really, it would have been sufficient just to say the child lisps.
I won’t even try to describe what we get when Treskillard has occasion to let Picts speak. Not even Picts deserve to be shown as spouting gibberish.
Why do the editors at Zondervan allow this? I wonder if they have an image in their minds of young readers who get antsy unless the characters they’re reading about sound just like their classmates. I wish I had a nickel for every time Treskillard writes “ya” for “you,” along with other rhetorical monstrosities.
He doesn’t have to write such dialogue, and I wish he’d stop doing it.
Even So …
I’ve been hard on Robert Treskillard because he’s a good writer and I’m pulling for him to produce books that people will be reading for many years to come. I would hate to see him undone by faults which he could easily correct.
What’s so good about these three books of The Merlin Spiral?
The research is not only deep and thorough, but also up to date. The history of what we may call King Arthur’s Britain is confused and fragmentary. At the same time, those who have studied it have turned out a vast amount of scholarship and speculation. Keeping up with it, as Treskillard has, is no small job.
The result of all this research is to give the novels a setting that is as authentic as humanly possible, and also convincing to the reader. Treskillard puts you there, in late fifth-century Britain. The writer who achieves this is entitled to take a bow.
But all the research in the world won’t make your story come alive unless you have the gift of storytelling. Treskillard has it. Aside from the potholes of the dialogue, and that stuff about the werewolf army, he takes the reader on a fast, exciting ride.
He also has artistic courage. Any writer enterprising enough to tackle the story of Merlin and King Arthur will have holes to fill and plenty of them. He must then decide, over and over again, whether to fill them with material handed down by tradition, or with his own imagination, informed by his research. The latter is the bolder choice, and Treskillard makes it: his imagination is equal to the challenge.
That’s why I’ve been so hard on him. He has the potential to write books that people will remember and want to come back to.
More importantly, his books are invested with a solidly Christian outlook, and the world needs more books like that. His treatment of the Holy Grail, for instance, as seen in Book Two, Merlin’s Shadow, is superb, taking the Grail out of the realm of magical, quasi-pagan items and relocating it in the realm of faith: and it also speaks to the absolute sovereignty of God.
Americans need to read about such things. We need to think about them.
I look forward to Treskillard’s next trilogy, The Pendragon Spiral.