Welcome back for the third day of the CSFF Blog Tour for Merlin’s Nightmare! As before, you can find more posts from the tour here, as well as my review of Merlin's Blade and Merlin's Nightmare. Today, though, I want to talk about the legends behind Arthur and why I like Robert Treskillard’s new version of the story.
What do you think of when someone mentions King Arthur? If you are like me, you probably have a mental image of medieval knights in armor riding about the countryside doing good deeds. (Maybe the original boy scouts society?)
I do know this image doesn't fit reality.
One of the earliest mentions of Arthur is linked to a 6th Century British saint, St. Gildas. Oddly enough, Gildas never mentioned Arthur in his own writings, even though he supposedly was born the year Arthur defeated the Saxon invaders at the Battle of Mount Badon. The reference comes from a biography of Gildas written almost five centuries later. I can guarantee that the author for that hagiography didn’t have access to the Internet, so his fact checking was probably limited to reading up on legends in the local monasteries or listening to ballads at the inns.
Most of the other major sources for Arthurian legend—and the most well-known author, Sir Thomas Malory of Le Morte D’Arthur—have about the same level of authenticity. Malory, for example, may have been a brigand-knight during the War of the Roses. Scholars speculate that he wrote his famous work while in prison. He doesn’t have history or imagination on his side, since the knights of his story sounds more like 15th Century contemporaries than true Briton heroes.
The reality is, any historical King Arthur would have more in common with Beowulf.
Growing up, I was most familiar with The Boy’s King Arthur, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth, so I certainly don’t mind Malory’s version. I love the other Arthurian stories as well, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Edmund Spenser’s brief encounter in The Fairie Queen. I just like knowing where the stories might have come from as well, and I also have a particular fondness for the story of the Anglo-Saxon invasion with the changes it brought to England.
That’s why I’ve enjoyed Treskillard’s Merlin Spiral so much. He takes Merlin and Arthur back to the time when they might really have lived and recreates their world in considerable detail.
Several other bloggers have noted the amount of research Treskillard put into these stories. I noticed this as well, but I also noticed the way Treskillard interprets the fragments of history we have, combining them with bits of Arthurian legend.
So, while scholars try to identify Arthur with the Roman war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus, Treskillard’s Merlin is Ambrosius, hiding under a false name to protect himself and Arthur from the murderous High King Vortigern. Arthur becomes Merlin’s foster son under the name Artorius, another legend name, suggesting that their complicated relationship explains the later muddle about who they actually were.
Even better, since we’re talking about a wild conglomeration of legends and historical fables, the Merlin Spiral goes beyond the history. I like the history, yes, but I also like how Treskillard creates a story of magic and faith, demons and monsters.
It fits in well with the Arthurian legends and the other stories we have from ancient England—from Beowulf to the hagiographies written about St. Gildas.