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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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