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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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The new film Anonymous offers one of several theories about whether Shakespeare wrote his own plays. Theories surrounding Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays focus on whether he had enough education to do so and whether a learned man who was a noble, and therefore, feared people would think it beneath him to write the plays, may have asked Shakespeare to take the credit for them. Scholars have debated these questions for years and will continue to do so.

Few people, other than Shakespearean scholars, know that besides the thirty-seven plays generally attributed to Shakespeare, there are a group of “apocryphal” plays that have been attributed to him, either with him being the author in full or in part. Even editions of Shakespeare’s works that include these apocryphal plays do not always include all of the same ones, including The Birth of Merlin. In all, over forty additional plays have been attributed to Shakespeare besides the thirty-seven usually agreed upon as his work.

The Birth of Merlin—the only Arthurian play ever attributed to Shakespeare—first had Shakespeare’s name placed on it when it was published in 1662. The play is noticeably absent from the First Folio of his plays published in 1623. In fact, it was not performed on stage until 1622—six years after Shakespeare’s death. It has been attributed to Shakespeare with William Rowley as co-author. Most scholars believe Rowley wrote the play himself and Shakespeare’s name got attached to it to give it popularity. Rowley was himself a playwright who lived from 1585-1626.

William Shakespare First Folio

The first page of The First Folio, the first collection of Shakespeare's plays. The Birth of Merlin is noticeably absent from it.

After having read The Birth of Merlin, I personally feel it unlikely it was written by Shakespeare. It has some elements typical of Shakespeare—such as iambic pentameter and nobles speaking in verse while commoners speak in prose—but these were common in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. My first thought was that it could be a very early play of Shakespeare’s—at best it might be ranked with his early Titus Andronicus, but even that play is far more dramatic and has a stronger plot. And since it wasn’t performed until 1622, it is unlikely a part of Shakespearian juvenilia—and Shakespeare retired after The Tempest, one of his best plays, so a falling off in his powers seems unlikely if he wrote it at the end of his life—after all, he died at the young age of fifty-two; and again, if he did write it, why would it not have been staged until six years after his death? Furthermore, the play is lacking in the poetic element, the double-meaning word play, or really any scenes that stir the heart or imagination. I have a hard time believing it could be Shakespeare’s play, although his interest in history would have made it a likely topic for him.

Arthurian scholars have often noted the falling off of popularity in the Arthurian legend during Elizabethan and Jacobean times, save for some masques and the Tudors’ attempts to claim a family relationship to King Arthur. The only reference in all of Shakespeare to King Arthur, actually, is in King John where Prince Arthur, upon dying, hopes to rest in “Arthur’s bosom.” We will never know whether Shakespeare ever considered writing a play based on the Arthurian legend or why he may have decided against it. That said, The Birth of Merlin does reflect that the Arthurian legend was still well-known and popular in Jacobean times.

William Rowley, or whoever wrote the play, did know his Arthurian legend. All the basic elements of Merlin’s story, as told in Geoffrey of Monmouth and other authors, are here, with some odd additions. In the play, Aurelius has defeated the Saxons and chosen as his bride Artesia, the sister to the Saxon leader, who ultimately plots to overthrow him and poisons him toward the end of the play. Meanwhile, Joan, a young commoner, has become pregnant and goes to her brother, simply named “Clown” in the play, to tell him of her misfortune; together, they try to find her a husband so her child will not be a bastard. The “Clown” character is typical of comedies of the era and there to add comic relief, although admittedly, the play is not very funny, and it does not fit into standard definitions of comedy or tragedy but rather would have been classified as a “History” play.

Joan does not even know the name of the man who impregnated her, although eventually it is revealed to be the Devil. When Merlin is born, he is already grown and has the start of a beard. The rest of the story follows the traditional one of Vortigern trying to build his castle. Merlin goes to him since Vortigern believes he needs to sacrifice one without a human father to keep his castle from falling. Merlin, however, reveals the dragons beneath the castle. He goes on to reveal that Aurelius has been slain and Uther will become king. He then makes a prophecy about Uther’s descendants, similar to the prophecy in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, including predicting King Arthur’s coming.

Wikipedia states that “The play is rich with visual effects of varying types, including devils and magic and masque-like spectacles. It was clearly designed to provide broad, colorful, fast-paced entertainment.” Among these spectacles is the comet that Merlin interprets to make his prophecies. Having only read the play, and it being unlikely ever to see it performed, I cannot speak to how entertaining it would be on stage, but it is a solid piece of Arthuriana in terms of following traditional stories about Merlin’s birth and youth.

As for Shakespeare, we can only dream what his Arthurian play would have been like had he ever written one. If only….

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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Of the three recent films about the Ninth Legion in Britain that mysteriously disappeared in the second century, The Last Legion (2007) was the film I was most interested in watching because it took place just prior to the time of King Arthur and was said to provide a link to the Arthurian legend. In that respect, it did not disappoint, and while I think The Eagle was a more intelligent film that raised questions about Rome and its right to occupy Britain, I enjoyed The Last Legion the most. One of my friends said it was more “predictable” than the other films, notably The Centurion, but I feel the film set out to tie the legend to the Roman emperors and successfully did so.

The cast of The Last Legion is more impressive than the other two films. Colin Firth plays the lead role, the soldier who must protect the child emperor after Odaecer of the Goths invades and conquerors Rome. Ben Kingsley plays the wise old man Ambrosinus who has come from Britain seeking Julius Caesar’s lost sword, and the child emperor, Romulus Augustus, is played by Thomas Sangster, who will be known to Arthurian film fans as playing the boy Tristan in Tristan and Isolde with James Franco playing the adult Tristan.

The story begins with mention of the sword of Julius Caesar which is fated to become the sword Excalibur. The boy Romulus Augustus has just been made emperor of Rome. The film is a bit in error timewise by saying it begins in the year 460 when Romulus Augustus reigned from 475-6 (the book the film is based on gets this fact correct–why the change?). The Goths invaded Rome and Romulus was deposed as Caesar after ten short months, although in the film it is the day after Romulus is crowned. The Roman empire then fell with a Goth taking the crown and ruling the empire, while the Eastern (Byzantine empire) would remain in power another ten centuries. History does not state what became of Romulus other than he was sent to live in Campania and then disappears from the historical record. The film takes advantage of this lost information to tie the boy to Britain. But first, he is taken as a prisoner to the Isle of Capri.

General Aurelius is determined to rescue the young emperor, and meanwhile Ambrosinus has come from Britain to Rome to seek the sword of Julius Caesar. It is predictable that the sword will be found on Capri, formerly home to Roman emperors, and then Aurelius, Ambrosianus, Romulus, and a few other companions, including a woman disguised as a male soldier (Colin Firth’s required love interest in the film), manage to escape Capri, make it over the Alps, and eventually reach Britain, where they also discover the remainder of the Ninth Legion (although it would have disappeared three hundred years earlier – the film’s largest historical inaccuracy, while in the book a fictional Twelfth Legion was actually used). Together they join in fighting Vortigyn (the film’s version of Vortigern) and his Saxon mercenaries (in the novel, but not the film, it states that it’s the legendary Battle of Badon Hill where Arthur defeated the Saxons, typically dated to about the year 516).

If you read this article farther, there will be a bit of a spoiler, although any discerning filmgoer will foresee what happens next. Aurelius is typically in legend King Arthur’s uncle, the brother to Uther Pendragon. He is often known as Aurelius Ambrosius, so the film is obviously using a version of Ambrosius for Ben Kingsley’s character. No blood relationship exists between Aurelius, Ambrosinus, or Romulus in the film, but the suggestions behind the familiar legendary names are there. In the film, in Britain there is also a young girl named Igraine who ends up later marrying Romulus, who decides to change his name to Pendragon. Guess who there child is. In the final scene, Merlin (another of Ambrosinus’ names – another big surprise) tells a young Arthur the story of his parents.

The film plays fast and loose with history, but Arthurian works always do, trying to create a historical atmosphere against which the legend could have taken place. I find the way the film links Arthur to Rome to be interesting since Arthur typically claims to be descended from a Roman emperor, although it is usually Magnus Maximus, and in Malory, it is Constantine. Arthur’s lineage also traces back to Rome through, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Brutus from whose name Britain comes. Brutus was a descendant of Aeneas, the founder of the Roman empire and one of the survivors who fled when Troy was destroyed (both the costume designer and swordmaster of the film, interestingly, had worked on the film Troy). Romulus, besides being the historical last emperor of Rome, also has a counterpart who is the founder of Rome in ancient legend.

The film has its moments of corniness and exaggerated action, but most films do, and this film at least is trying to be corny in its romantic and adventurous storylines. It is not a great film. I would not even say it is one of the better Arthurian films (it’s questionable whether there has ever been a great Arthurian film), but it succeeds in what it sets out to accomplish, creating an intriguing storyline that ties Rome and Arthurian Britain together, provides some light moments of comedy, and a lot of magic in creating a sense of wonder about how the legend of King Arthur may have happened. If you like a little myth and wonder woven into depictions of Roman Britain, this may be the film you will most enjoy, while if you like gritty realism, The Centurion or The Eagle may be more your style. I’m not sure that one of these films is better than the other–they are just different. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be The Last Legion. If I had to pick one as the best, I would say The Eagle. Interestingly, The Last Legion may be the film least about the Ninth Legion, yet the only one named for it.

For those interested in Arthurian literature, the film is based on an Italian novel of the same name written by Valerio Massimo Manfredi in 2003. It was translated into English in 2005.

In future posts, I will write about more films that tie Arthurian Britain to Rome, but more specifically in the time of Arthur. I’ll note here that Rosemary Sutcliff, author of The Eagle of the Ninth (upon which The Eagle was based) was the first author to create a novel, Sword at Sunset (1959), based upon trying to place King Arthur within his historical post-Roman world, and that effort along with continued archeological efforts, has contributed to this trend to create a more historical depiction in fiction of King Arthur and his world.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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The Kingmaking: Book One of The Pendragon Banner’s Trilogy by Helen Hollick (published by Sourcebooks Landmark 2011; ISBN 978-1402218880). Available at Amazon.

Somehow in writing King Arthur’s Children, I overlooked Helen Hollick’s The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy. I would like to remedy that by discussing each of the books in the trilogy in separate blogs, beginning here with the first book The Kingmaking.

Modern Arthurian novels can be divided up between those that seek to be truly historical and those that are vaguely historical with fantasy elements. Hollick’s retelling is purely historical. There is no Merlin and no magic in this book, and the same is true of the succeeding two books.

The Kingmaking begins with Vortigern ruling Britain and Uthr Pendragon seeking to overthrow him. When Uthr is killed, Arthur eventually takes his place and the rest of the story will ultimately lead to the event of the book’s title. Anyone who reads an Arthurian novel basically knows what’s going to happen since there is a general structure to the legend that influences all modern fiction writers of Arthurian lore, but the legend has room to stretch and Hollick does her fair share of stretching within the legend’s boundaries while retaining her historical focus on what may have been likely to happen, much of it based in historical research and theories by Arthurian scholars.

One interesting change Hollick makes centers around Morgause’s role in the novel. Uthr is married to Morgause’s sister Igraine, but Morgause is Uthr’s mistress on the side. Morgause has had many daughters by Uthr but she has always exposed them to die. Morgause despises Arthur, not realizing until Uthr has died that he is Uthr’s son, but thinking he is only Uthr’s bastard-born nephew. Morgause’s hatred for Arthur causes her later to attack him sexually. The result is not quite what readers might expect, but it deeply shapes Arthur’s future character.

Arthur later admits that his disgust over what Morgause did to him has resulted in how he mistreats women. He is not a gentle man, but rather one who takes women whenever he chooses, determined not to let them exert any feminine power over him. He impregnates a slave girl (p. 160), and he later says he knows he has many bastard daughters (p. 220). Arthur ends up marrying Vortigern’s daughter, Winifred, as a political alliance, and by her he has a sickly daughter who dies soon after birth (p.313). Arthur, however, hates Winifred and is in love with Gwenhwyfar throughout the book.

Eventually, Vortigern dies and his son Vortimer assumes the kingship, but Arthur is on the road to gaining it for himself. During this time, he abandons Winifred and marries Gwenhwyfar. Both women then have sons by him. Gwenhwyfar’s son Llacheu is born first (but in what we would call a bigamist marriage today) while Winifred’s son Cerdic is born a few weeks later. Both women want to see their own sons acknowledged as Arthur’s heir. Winifred threatens to complain to the Pope to make sure Cerdic is acknowledged, but Winifred is half-Saex (Vortigern’s wife Rowena had been the daughter of the Saex leader Hengest) while Llacheu is fully British born. Arthur is disgusted at the thought of having a partially Saex child and lets Winifred know the British people will rally around Llacheu when the time comes.

That Arthur should have sons is unusual but not a new idea as I’ve shown throughout King Arthur’s Children. Llacheu is a traditional son of Arthur in the early Welsh legends and is usually attributed to being Gwenhwyfar’s son as well. More surprising is that Cerdic is credited as Arthur’s son. Hollick, in her “Author’s Note,” states that she is not the first to suggest Cerdic (who is a historical King of the Saxons) was Arthur’s son, but I believe she is the first novelist to do so. The idea was originally suggested by Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe in The Discovery of King Arthur (1985). [see the family tree for Ashe’s theory at http://www.childrenofarthur.com/. Finally, years after Morgause sexually forced herself upon Arthur, she is revealed to have had a daughter named Morgaine. Hollick does not reveal whether the daughter is Uthr or Arthur’s, but it’s a good bet it is Arthur’s daughter considering she exposed her other daughters. While Morgaine is a girl and not likely to inherit the throne, no doubt Morgause has kept her alive to serve as a way to hurt Arthur down the road. (Having not yet read the second book in the series, at this point I am pondering whether Morgaine is really a he and the future Mordred while Morgause is hiding the child’s sex while biding her time. My discussion of the next two books will reveal the details.)

While I was a bit put off by Hollick’s writing style, primarily the way she uses verbs in her sentences, I did find The Kingmaking to be entertaining reading, both for its depictions of Arthur’s children as well as the rather brutal and rough Arthur. I did not find Arthur likeable, but I did like Gwenhwyfar, and I am curious to see how the story will turn out. In her “Author’s Note,” Hollick states that because Lancelot and Merlin were the creations of later twelfth century Norman romancers, readers will not find them in her books since she wants to provide a historical portrait of what could have actually happened. While Merlin was actually established in Welsh tradition so I don’t understand this reasoning (other than perhaps Hollick saw no use for Merlin in a historical rather than fantasy novel), if there is to be no Lancelot, then I am curious to see how Camelot’s fall will be brought about. Will Gwenhwyfar find herself another lover, or will Morgause’s plotting be sufficient to bring about Arthur’s downfall? It’s on to reading Book II: Pendragon’s Banner to find out.

For more information about Helen Hollick and her Arthurian novels, visit www.HelenHollick.net

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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