Review: “Merlin”, by Stephen Lawhead

I wasn’t going to do another book in this series so quickly (and I promise to you that I won’t review anymore until I finish the whole thing), but it struck me that “Merlin” had an especially good analogue to my favorite book in “The Once and Future King” cycle, and that book is “The Ill-Made Knight”.

“Merlin” is the best reviewed book of Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle. It’s easy to see why. It is the first novel of the series with an Arthurian character as the star that everybody has actually heard of (Taliesin actually does appear in a few early Arthurian legends and we get hints that we’re meeting Lawhead’s analogues of the Lady of the Lake and the Queen of Air and Darkness, but nobody nearly as important or recognizable as Merlin is in “Taliesin”), and unlike “Taliesin” it focuses exclusively on Merlin, allowing for rich character development.

Like “The Ill-Made Knight”, “Merlin” zeroes in on the life of an important non-Arthur character in the Arthurian mythos, giving us insight into his mind that the original legends never give us. The successes of “Merlin” are many. Like “Taliesin”, it is a brilliant book. I won’t go into as much detail about the plot this time as I intend to discuss other matters, but rest assured that Lawhead’s prose is as elegant as ever and his Merlin is a suitably fascinating main character to carry us through the story. His portrayal of medieval British life is a far cry from White’s, but then this is wild, pre-Arthur Britain. We get a small hint of this sort of chaos at the very end of “The Candle in the Wind” and it is implied in “The Queen of Air and Darkness” and “The Ill-Made Knight”, but in “Merlin” we explore it. The main takeaway is that Britain is in shambles, and very badly needs a ruler that can unite the people through loyalty rather than fear. The novel is essentially about Merlin’s attempt to bring this about, first by trying to become king himself, then later picking a man to become the new high king and serving as his adviser.

Of course, we know how this must end: A sword is buried in a stone, no high king found to be suitable, and Merlin sets off to find Arthur.

It’s all brilliantly done, but instead of focusing on that I want to focus on what “The Ill-Made Knight” did better.

First off is pacing. This is probably Lawhead’s biggest weakness (another reason he’s a good analogue to George R.R. Martin). “The Ill-Made Knight” is much shorter than “Merlin”, and “The Ill-Made Knight”  is pretty long. Lawhead includes a lot of traveling in his book, as well as a lot of tearful reunions, and some of these are probably unnecessary. But the “Ill-Made Knight” is superior for other, more fundamental reasons: Lancelot is simply a more compelling character than Merlin.

Some people (Lawhead included, in fact) mock Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere, and its role in the downfall of Camelot, as “soap opera elements”. Well, what they consider mere soap opera I believe to be the heart of the Arthurian mythos, and the thing that makes it so enduring. Lancelot is so fascinating because of his dual role in the legends: He is Arthur’s greatest knight, his noblest warrior, and his closest friend. He is also cheating with his wife, and it his deceit and betrayal that causes the downfall of Camelot. This duality at the heart of Lancelot’s actions is not lost on White. He too sees its potential in humanizing a legendary figure, but he goes a step further and shows this duality at the heart of Lancelot’s soul, and makes it the driving force behind his actions.

Lancelot is such a sympathetic character because he is sadistic and unfaithful. That White uses these qualities as motivation for Lancelot’s greatness is a stroke of genius. It proves to be a driving force not just for Lancelot’s character but for White’s entire cycle: As brilliant as Camelot is, and as great a king as Arthur is, it was ultimately founded by a man who once drowned nineteen infants. Camelot, whatever it seemed, was not pure and unstained goodness personified. It was so good because the people involved in the making of Camelot worked so hard to overcome their faults.

Contrast this to Merlin. Make no mistake, Merlin is given depth, and he is given flaws, his main one being fear – fear of the enormous responsibility laid upon his shoulders, and fear of Morgian, the Queen of Air and Darkness, and the embodiment of evil in Lawhead’s cycle. By the end of the novel Merlin is a different person than the man he was at the beginning or even the midpoint: More sure that he’s not the fabled king of the Kingdom of Summer, and more sure of the path he must choose. This is all well and good.

But unlike Lancelot, Merlin’s motivations are driven by goodness. His intentions are always good, even if sometimes clouded by ulterior motives. There is not a drop of sadism in Merlin, and while he fights he repeatedly refers to battle as a tragedy, and finds killing even the most loathsome people repellent. Merlin is not trying to overcome his dark nature, as Lancelot does. He is not motivated by his faults. That’s just how he is.

There is nothing wrong with this, but it makes him a much more typical hero. He is heroic because he’s heroic, he means well because he is a well-meaning person, and he is great because he is born to greatness. Lancelot is heroic because he is sadistic, means well because he is afraid of what he will do if he doesn’t, and is great because he is disgusted with his flaws. Merlin is a good person; Lancelot is a bad person who through great effort became good, and still was not good enough to prevent the fall of Camelot.

So while Merlin is a very well-developed and compelling character, he lacks the fascinating duality of the ill-made knight. This is no flaw of Lawhead’s book, but rather a strength of White’s. White created one of the great characters of all time in his portrayal of Lancelot. It’s almost unfair to expect Lawhead to keep up.

All of this makes the book sound far worse than it is. In fact, the book is brilliant, at least as good as “Taliesin” and, yes, possibly better. Lawhead’s writing is at times powerful, at times subtle, at times moving, and at all times beautiful to read. In the slower sections of the book I STILL couldn’t put it down simply because I was enjoying myself too much.

And so, I ordered “Arthur”, and I will have to be patient, because this time I wanted a hard copy I could carry around with me. And while Lawhead doesn’t QUITE equal the majesty of White’s tour de force in its best moments, it’s still going to be a hard wait. The Pendragon Cycle is magnificent. Forget Arthurian literature – if you like fantasy, you’re missing out on what could very well be a masterpiece if Lawhead could keep up this level of quality. I can’t wait to burn the midnight oil to find out.

  • Jay M

    Good review and I look forward intensely to your thoughts on the other volumes in The Pendragon Cycle. This series (to be followed very closely by Lawhead’s other masterpiece, the Song of Albion trilogy) means more to me and has affected me more deeply than any other works of fiction I have ever encountered. You are certainly right in observing Myrddin is a character driven by goodness (though he’s far from ignorant of his own faults and, at times, serious pride). This is part of what I find so compelling in the Pendragon Cycle (and in much of Lawhead’s work generally) – it is very easy to find literature and art that explore unflinchingly the darkness and duality of human nature. Works that present compellingly virtues such as goodness, fidelity, courage, honor, and piety are much, much harder to unearth. Lawhead, without devolving to the level of a cheap sermon or Sunday School lesson – does this better than anyone I’ve ever encountered.
    I would say that part of why Lawhead shies away from the traditional Lancelot / Guinevere affair and the reason he doesn’t see it as central to the Arthurian mythos (although as I’m sure you know if you’ve read through Grail by now, he does give something of his own riff on it) is that in the earliest Arthur tales and for centuries after them it simply wasn’t. It’s a much, much later addition and Lawhead was primarily interested in drawing on the original Celtic source material from which the legends of Arthur sprung.
    Anyhow, I’m always so glad to find people who have discovered Lawhead and this series particularly. I eagerly await your thoughts on the Arthur, Pendragon, Grail and Avalon. Blessings mate.

    • Anthony M

      Thanks for the kind words.

      I want to be clear: I absolutely loved the Pendragon Cycle – every single book. It was brilliant. And I don’t have a problem, per se, with characters driven by goodness. Merlin is a fine, even great character – but White’s Lancelot is possibly the best I’ve ever read about.

      I might have to revise my opinion about the affair being central to the timelessness of the legends, because Lawhead was able to craft a brilliant retelling without it being featured. We shall see.