King Arthur may well be the ur-fantasy story.   The ur-hero story even.  This story has been told countless times, in many forms including, quite notably, Monty Python’s version (you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!), one of my personal favorites.  There is even much academic debate about whether a real Arthur or Merlin existed. While that is mildly interesting, and I have been known to read a treatise or two about what might have happened, I’d much rather read pages and pages (and pages and pages) of stories about what could have happened.

The Arthurian legends were certainly my first foray into “fantasy” and it’s the one story I never tire of, no matter what the medium.  I daresay I’ve read them “all” – The Mists of Avalon, the Sword in the Stone, The Once and Future King, even Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.  I have a grand copy of Le Morte d’Arthur, almost too beautiful to read (or at least that’s my current excuse for not reading it). 

I love this story (or should I say stories) so much that I took an entire class in college about King Arthur (me, a science major!), in which we read the older texts based on the oral legends (where Gawain was the hero, not some pretty French dude).  They aren’t as flowery as the Lancelot versions with their courtly love, chivalry and the round table, but it is those gritty older texts that, in my humble opinion, have spawned the best modern Arthurian works.  As my high school English teacher always told us “Arthur was a peer of Beowulf.”  Which means, though he likely carried a sword, his armor was made of leather instead of metal, and he probably didn’t joust.

Tackling the story of Arthur in one book is an impossible task, which explains the plethora of series books about him.  Most beloved (and in my mind still the best) are Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment.  Primarily historical novels, they provide a framework that is vastly different than the romantic legends.  The characters are Britons, culturally influenced by the Roman invasion (and subsequent abandonment) of the British Isles.   Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicles follow in much the same way, though they are not nearly as well written. 

I place Lawhead version – Talisen & Merlin– in terms of quality, midway between Stewart (who really is untouchable) and Whyte (who created a good story, but told it poorly).  Lawhead’s Arthurian universe, like the ones created by Stewart and Whyte, is the Dark Ages in Wales.  There are  a lot of folks vying for power  on the British Isle  – Britons, Picts, Scots and even British born Romans.   Not content with the real cultural miasma, Lawhead adds in another, mythical one – the lost race of Atlantis – which in one fell swoop explains the “Fair Folk” of Avalon (where else would they settle in Britain but that magic island?).

The second book of the series (there are five),  is dedicated to Merlin.  He is a perfect mix of British and Atlantean;  he has the power of one race and the grandeur of another.  This is to be expected since his father was a peerless Welsh bard and his mother a ageless princess from Atlantis.  He’s a bard, a warrior, a wise adviser; he is everyman and  godlike at the same time.  The name Merlin evokes a collective image of a superhuman, all powerful, hoary old man in a pointed hat, but  in this version, like the other two mentioned, Merlin is solidly a man, and a young man at that.  He is wise beyond his years, given knowledge without experience.  I like this Merlin version better.  He is not omniscient or omnipotent.  He is human, though extraordinarily talented.

The one big turn off of Lawhead’s version is the prevalence of Christianity.  Surely there were Christians milling about in the Dark Ages.  I just have a hard time reconciling my very modern condescension for the Church with a story which, to me, is about the pagan religions.  Druids are much more romantic to someone who has been witness to the modern day Church scandals.  To be fair Lawhead gives his characters credibility.  Bishops hobnob with druids ,and individuals take what they can from both religions.  It’s certainly a much more tolerant society than today.  Further one could certainly argue that Jesus had his fair share of miracles and that the introduction of his followers to the story shouldn’t detract from the “fantasy.”   It could, for the right reader, even add to the atmosphere.  Unfortunately, I am not that reader.

Lawhead is cognizant that some of his ideas are different than what others have written.  He even has Merlin, who narrates book number two, muse about the “real” events being misunderstood, which made me chuckle.  Lawhead has covered his bases and certainly will not offend.  Though I don’t know if he’ll impress avid readers of Arthurian stories, or if, other than the introduction of Atlantis, he’s offering anything new.  The books are good though, a worthy journey back into the legend.