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Archive for April, 2018

Our Man on Earth: The Original Tale of Merlin, Arthur’s Legendary Wizard is the first book in the new Swithen series by Scott Telek. The premise of this series, as Telek states, is that he will write a series of Arthurian novels that remain faithful to their originals “by retaining the plot, story, and weirdness of the original legends from nearly a thousand years ago, but filling in the character and psychology in ways that are compelling to modern readers.”

Based on the Prose Merlin, Our Man on Earth is an insightful and psychological look into Merlin’s origins and childhood.

Our Man on Earth proves that Telek is certainly off to a good start. The novel tells the story of Merlin’s conception and birth, and is based upon the 442 lines of the Prose Merlin (written circa 1230-1240), to which Telek provides a link for those who wish to compare his novel to the original. I will say that Telek’s novel follows the Prose Merlin’s description of Merlin’s birth and what follows very closely without deviation but with plenty of additional information.

Those familiar with Merlin’s origins will know that a common version of the story is that he was conceived by the devil. Many other authors have had his mother claim she got pregnant by a demon, only for the reader to be informed it was really a man, as in Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy. Telek, however, stays true to the original. He expands the story to provide details about Merlin’s mother Meylinde’s family and how a real demon chooses the family to torment. The demon’s goal is to create an Antichrist by getting a human woman pregnant and having her give birth to his child.

Is Merlin then the Antichrist? Well, he would have been had his mother not been a good Christian woman who prayed and turned to God for help, and immediately upon his birth, had Merlin baptized. Telek explores the religious implications of Merlin’s conception, the doubt expressed by Meylinde’s community over her statement that she begot him through a demon, and the evil thoughts of many that she probably got pregnant by Blaise, the priest she is consulting in her distress. Telek doesn’t shy away from the supernatural but makes it feel real as the child grows quickly in Meylinde’s womb so that he comes to term after only five weeks.

Meylinde is soon imprisoned for her crime of premarital sex. Merlin’s birth and how Meylinde and her midwives respond to his strangeness are all described with great detail and provide both entertainment and mystery. Like T. H. White does for the boy Arthur, Telek allows Merlin to shapeshift into various creatures, but most marvelous of all is when Merlin begins speaking—and his first words aren’t just “mama” or “goo-goo.” He speaks in full sentences like an attorney-at-law, and lucky for Meylinde that he does because he becomes her defender when she is brought before the judge who will likely sentence her to death for her sin of sex outside of wedlock.

I don’t want to say much more because it will spoil the plot. But what I do want to say is how very powerful the end of the novel is. We are told that because Merlin is the devil’s child, he has the gift of knowing everything that is past. Then when he was baptized, God gifted Merlin with knowledge of the future. Consequently, one would think Merlin perfect in his being all-knowing, but this is not the case. He is logical, but he is not quite human—he lacks emotional intelligence and human compassion. The conversations between him and his mother on this topic are the culmination of the book and bring the story to a powerful close. For me, this was the best part of the story because it showed true human emotion, character development, and the humanity of the characters. Too often, the Arthurian characters become stick figures in modern retellings but that is far from the case here.

I thoroughly enjoyed Our Man on Earth. I only wished it was longer, but fortunately, Telek has already published the second book in the series The Sons of Constance. Anyone familiar with the Arthurian legend knows this refers to Arthur’s father and uncle. At the end of Our Man on Earth, Merlin realizes his destiny is to assist Arthur to become king. Arthur’s family will then be the focus of the next book. A third and fourth book, The Void Place and The Flower of Chivalry, are also in the works.

Finally, in case you’re curious about the series title, I’d add that I had the chance to talk to Telek and ask him about it, and he explained, “‘Swithen’ is a Middle English term from slash and burn agriculture that means the burning of a field to make it fertile for the next generation…. It refers to the grail quest, in which Arthur and his men are told that their way of life is ending and to make way for the new.” Telek is also ambitious about the series. While the titles of four books are currently listed at his WordPress site, he told me, “I am planning to just go forward with the series as far as I can, so at the pace I am going, I expect it would take fifty novels to reach Arthur’s death. I know it’s insanely ambitious, but…it will be amazing if it can be done! My goal is to slow it down enough to give all of the stories the heft they deserve (you know how momentous events go by in a flash in the sources) and to unify the story even further, which is why I’m beginning it all with the birth of Merlin. Kind of amazing to think of all of the Arthurian legend stemming from a failed effort by the devil, right?”

Ambitious indeed, but Our Man on Earth shows that this getting at the meat of the individual stories brings them to life in new and rewarding ways. Consequently, I welcome the Swithen series as an exciting new addition to modern Arthurian fiction, and I especially appreciate how closely tied the series promises to be in relation to its source material. Too many modern novels go too far afield from the sources until they become almost unrecognizable as Arthuriana so an author determined to be faithful to his sources is refreshing. I definitely look forward to reading the next book in the series.

For more information about the Swithen series, visit https://theswithen.wordpress.com/. Our Man on Earth is available at Amazon in ebook and paperback editions.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other books. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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John Matthews, long known for his scholarly books on King Arthur, has finally published the first novel in his long-awaited series about King Arthur’s childhood. The book is The Sword of Ice and Fire, and it’s the first of four books in the Red Dragon Rising series. This series is quite an undertaking because, first of all, Matthews has a reputation to live up to, and secondly, he has a whole Arthurian tradition behind him to draw upon.

Matthews’ first Arthurian novel is complete with Vortigern, dragons, and even shapeshifters and a Celtic god.

That said, only T. H. White previously wrote a novel about Arthur’s childhood, namely The Sword and the Stone, later the first part of The Once and Future King and the source for the Disney film The Sword and the Stone. As Matthews notes in his Author’s Note, White’s version of Arthur’s childhood is too humorous and light-hearted to fit with much of the later Arthurian material and White’s depiction of it in his own later novels. If there are other depictions of Arthur’s childhood, I’m not aware of them. Merlin’s childhood has been treated in a long series of books by T. A. Barron, but I have to admit they are too over the top and far-fetched that they don’t resemble anything Arthurian at all but more just broad children’s fantasy. Therefore, I was both interested and a bit unsure how I would take to Matthews’ novels.

It turns out I greatly enjoyed this first book. The Sword of Ice and Fire is definitely a young adult novel, so I didn’t become as engrossed in it as I might an adult novel, and it is a fantasy story, so it may not appeal to those who are only interested in the more historical Arthur, but setting those two elements aside, there is much in this book to enjoy, especially how Matthews uses many aspects of the Arthurian legend in new and surprising ways that ultimately leave you thinking, “Yes, that makes perfect sense” or “I never thought of it that way; why has no one else until now?”

The story takes place in a castle where Arthur has been brought by Merlin to be raised. Arthur is cared for by Sir Hector and his wife Elaine, and he has a foster brother, Cai, just like in most versions of the story. What makes the novel stand out is that the castle is in Avalon, and in it also reside nine sisters, known as “the Nine.” Matthews here is drawing upon Geoffrey of Monmouth’s statement in the Vita Merlini that there were nine sisters in Avalon. In his Author’s Note, Matthews notes that Geoffrey gave them names, but Matthews has decided to give some of them different names, and the list is quite impressive since they are all women of significance in Arthurian legend to some degree or another. Of course, there is Nimue and Morgaine, but there’s also Argante and Ragnel. I’ll let readers discover the other sisters for themselves.

Another fascinating part of the storyline is the inclusion of Bercilak, the Green Knight. While the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight doesn’t tell us much about the Green Knight’s background, here we get his back story, and he even ends up becoming Arthur’s teacher.

Merlin has brought Arthur to Avalon to keep him safe, and to ensure that safety, Arthur has not been taught anything about his childhood, so in the novel we also watch him finally become aware of his heritage as son to the late King Uther Pendragon, as well as why his safety is in jeopardy. Early on, we learn there is someone evil who wants to see Arthur fail and who wants to take possession of the Sword of Ice and Fire for himself. Eventually, we learn this villain’s identity—this is where I was most surprised by Matthews’ choices. The villain is a magician named Amangons, whom in his Author’s Note Matthews tells us is a magician from an obscure French medieval story, The Elucidation. I have to wonder why Matthews chose to include this character and also make him a relative of Arthur’s—hence, his desire to kill Arthur and obtain the throne for himself. That said, perhaps Matthews wanted to save the other better-known Arthurian villains for his later works.

One of the best uses of the Arthurian legend in the book is how Matthews treats the Questing Beast Glatisant. I really enjoyed his depiction of the beast and how the beast plays into the plot. I also liked how he introduced into the novel the Treasures or Britain—he refers to them as the Hallows of Albion. In the Arthurian legend, there are Thirteen Treasures, but Matthews has reduced them to four. The Sword of Ice and Fire is the first of these treasures, which Arthur must achieve. Needless to say, he does, and the remaining three volumes of the series will tell the stories of how he achieves the remaining three.

I feel like I’ve already said too much in terms of revealing the plot so I’ll stop here and just add that I think anyone who enjoys Arthuriana, and isn’t a stickler for a solely historical and realistic novel, will find this book a fun read. It’s really enjoyable Arthuriana for all ages, and I’m eager to read the remainder of the series. Congratulations to John Matthews for creating a successful first volume.

The Sword of Ice and Fire (ISBN-13: 978-1911122173) is published by The Greystones Press. It is available at Amazon and most online and retail bookstores.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other books. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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