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Merlin - Stephen Lawhead

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  • Plot? What plot?
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      11.06.2005 11:32
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      • "Plot? What plot?"

      The legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is a mythical cultural icon that Britain has cherished and puzzled over for centuries now. There are God only knows how many different versions of the same basic tale, and as a result there’s the straight-laced warrior version, the romantic Camelot version and the completely fantastical magical Merlin version. Last year’s disastrous film outing with Clive Owen was surely proof enough that the public don’t want the dull, Arthur-was-just-a-brave-but-regular-guy version. Since Stephen Lawhead is a science fiction author, and the book in question is entitled ‘Merlin’, a.k.a Arthur’s dark, magical sidekick, you could be forgiven for thinking this novel would be a nice, escapist exploration of the preposterous side of the Arthur legend. However, you would be entirely WRONG. Lawhead’s series of, and I laughingly use the phrase, ‘fantasy novels’ is actually a five piece set of dry, dull narrative that hardly nods a head towards any mystical goings on.

      ‘Merlin’ is in fact the second instalment of the Pendragon series, and it follows up ‘Taliesin’ in much the same way; as a very boring vehicle for Stephen Lawhead to parade his history skills. It is quite feasible to read ‘Merlin’ without having read the first novel, since each book in this series merely tells the tale of one generation without leaving any threads unsolved. In other words, you’re reading five books about five different people, all of whom are supposed to be closely related yet require separate books…Lawhead having some contract issues perhaps? Ah, whatever, my point was that you can feel free to read this as a stand-alone novel.

      The novel, unsurprisingly, begins with Merlin’s childhood, detailing his slow ‘magical’ training. Don’t hold your breath for any nice mystical elemental conjuring or transfiguration, or even any little old spell...Merlin’s super duper magical skill is to understand animals…how exciting. Not. If I’d been keen to read about animal conversations I’d have gone for Dr. Doolittle. Considering Merlin’s part in the Arthurian legend has always been a mysterious, and sometimes dangerous, one, you could expect a little spice in his history, or at the very least a darkness to his character. Unfortunately, one of Lawhead’s main problems is his lack of characterisation, and Merlin, in the end, is a poor, one-dimensional personality with no charisma, and who is in no way the compelling figure we are all familiar with. Lawhead instead portrays Merlin with the flair of a historical biographer rather than a fantasy novelist, and it makes for an extremely dull read.

      The plot itself is somewhat absent, and the novel merely plods through Merlin’s life like a passive bystander with little interesting analysis to make. The story only picks up when the character of Arthur himself is introduced, which leads me to believe that Lawhead’s intention was always to concentrate solely upon this legend alone. However, the romanticism that has always made his tale so appealing is sadly left out, making for a dry read about his war conquests and allegiances. Once again, reading was somewhat like reading a history log.

      The narrative, as I have already stressed, is very dry. Lawhead also frequently (and confusingly) veers from one narrative stance to the other, and since more than one comes in the form of the thoughts of animals, things become a bit muddled. The animal sections are confounding and entirely pointless, the only reasoning behind them that I could surmise was Lawhead’s last-ditch attempt to include some fantasy aspects. It’s a lacklustre effort, though, and merely annoying.

      The be-all and end-all of the matter is that Lawhead has taken a perfectly interesting, compelling legend with great fantasy potential, and wasted it by trying to maintain too much historical context/reality. Merlin as a non magical character is merely boring, as is his plodding past. The next time I delve into the Arthurian legend, it will hopefully be with a healthy dose of romanticism, if only to keep the myth alive. If we were all to go by Lawhead’s version, I could see the story slipping into obscurity very, very soon…

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    • Product Details

      An epic set Against the Backcloth of a Roman Britain and Celtic Legend.