CSFF Blog Tour: Cleansing Legends

These past few days, as the blog tour has been reviewing and debating Merlin’s Blade, I have been reminded of Walt Disney’s Sword in the Stone. I don’t know what that tells you about my frame of reference, but there you have it.

Merlin’s Blade and Sword in the Stone are vastly dissimilar; any exhaustive treatment of their differences would turn exhausting. But there are a few, interesting similarities, arising in large part from the fact that, in both works, Merlin is a straightforward hero.

Anyone who wishes to make Merlin the hero of Arthur’s story must first face that, in the old legend of Arthur’s conception, Merlin was – to put it in legal terms – an accessory to rape. Also to adultery. It’s a disagreeable story that, if kept, sullies Uther and Merlin alike, with a stain that can be dealt with only by an epic redemption story or an enormous disregard for sin.

Naturally, then, Sword in the Stone and Merlin’s Blade discarded it. The former made it clear that, however Arthur came to be hidden, Merlin had nothing to do with it. (Remember Merlin explaining to his owl that he didn’t know who was going to drop through the roof, only that whoever it was would be important?) Merlin’s Blade also began after Arthur’s birth, absolving Merlin of all involvement in the event.

As both stories avoided the unpleasantness of Arthur’s conception, so they avoided the unpleasantness of Merlin’s. In an interesting paradox, Merlin’s Blade humanizes and Christianizes Merlin, and Sword in the Stone does neither. Disney made Merlin good; it took no pains to make him Christian, and it skipped entirely any question of how he acquired his powers. Merlin was a wizard, in the sense so often used in modern culture – another being, his power independent from the devil’s and from God’s.

In all this there is a cleansing of Merlin and the old myths of King Arthur – Sword in the Stone to an innocence, Merlin’s Blade to a more positive goodness. I consider both works creditable pieces of the sprawl of Arthurian legends. I also consider Disney’s Robin Hood – you know, where everybody was an animal – a creditable piece of the Robin Hood legendarium.

CSFF Blog Tour: Merlin’s Blade

The blind son of the village blacksmith cannot, perhaps, expect too much. Even a conversation with the young, sweet-voiced harpist seems at the outer limits of hope. But hope Merlin does. He even tries.

So his troubles begin. But soon enough the wreckage of that long afternoon will shrink into unimportance. Ancient powers are rising up in Britain, reaching into places high and low, and though Merlin is blind, he will see.

Merlin’s Blade is the beginning of the Merlin Spiral, Robert Treskillard’s telling of King Arthur. Perhaps the most notable thing about this retelling is how it orders and redefines the supernatural element of the Arthurian legends under the authority of Christianity. The supernatural is ubiquitous in the old stories and reflects, I think, the pagan notion of ambiguous spiritual forces lurking all around us. There is something anarchic in the visions of minor competing powers, of magic working good ends through evil means.

In Merlin’s Blade the King reigns, and though there is rebellion, there is not anarchy. All spiritual power that is good is attributed to Jesu and, beneath His will, His servants; the evil spiritual powers are connected to the druidow and, through them, demons. Spiritual power that is simply neutral is eliminated.

In this way Treskillard tames the fantastic element, drawing his own story back from what was, in the original, most outlandish (Merlin wasn’t human) and, to be frank, creepiest (Merlin, by magic, deceived Arthur’s mother into sleeping with Arthur’s father). By this, and his use of historical facts, Treskillard brings the story of Arthur just into the realm of the possible.

Knowing the tension between the mythical Arthur and the historical Arthur, I enjoyed this attempt to bridge it. I also enjoyed the character of Merlin, with his scars and his limitations and his inner strength. He seemed – this is the plainest way to say it – like a real person.

On the stylistic level, there were some rough spots. I thought people “shrieked” too much, and some phrases or sentences could have used a little more polishing. For example, near the climax we read, “Natalenya was of quality, something Merlin was beginning to understand” – which seemed a bit off; he’d been smitten with her since the first page. Substantively, I took exception to some brutal moments and one or two gag-worthy images.

Taken altogether, I found Merlin’s Blade an impressive effort. Even fantasy-readers who feel tired of King Arthur may be rewarded by trying it. It probably isn’t the Arthur you know – and certainly not the Merlin.

Now, fellow-travelers, we have links to

Merlin’s Blade on Amazon;

– Robert Treskillard’s blog, and

– his website;

– and, finally, to the blog tour:

Noah Arsenault

Beckie Burnham

Keanan Brand

Jeff Chapman

Laure Covert

Pauline Creeden

Emma or Audrey Engel

April Erwin

Victor Gentile

Ryan Heart

Timothy Hicks

Jason Joyner

Carol Keen

Krystine Kercher

Meagan @ Blooming with Books

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Joan Nienhuis

Nathan Reimer

Chawna Schroeder

Kathleen Smith

Jojo Sutis

Robert Treskillard

Steve Trower

Phyllis Wheeler

Shane Werlinger

Nicole White

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Myth of Arthur

Say, have you thought what manner of man it is
Of whom men say “He could strike giants down”?
Or what strong memories over time’s abyss
Bore up the pomp of Camelot and the crown.
And why one banner all the background fills,
Beyond the pageants of so many spears,
And by what witchery in the western hills
A throne stands empty for a thousand years.
– G. K. Chesterton, “The Myth of Arthur”

Arthur Pendragon holds a high place in the culture of our civilization – universal, always recognizable and yet always changing. In this – and in how he walks the boundary of myth and history – the king Arthur is like the outlaw Robin Hood.

Robin Hood is a more human figure than Arthur, whose birth and death were marked by magical intervention and who was always entangled in otherworldly things. The outlaw is merrier than the king, happier and freer in the greenwood than Arthur was in Camelot.

Arthur is dated several centuries earlier than Robin Hood, which may account for the paganism in the Arthurian legends. Robin Hood certainly never consorted with fairies and half-fairies, nor did he owe his bow to another world, or his life to enchantments. Neither, for that matter, did he ever go on a holy quest. The Merry Men never sought the Holy Grail.

There is, in the vast web of stories around Arthur, a tension between paganism and Christianity. In the tales of Robin Hood, pagan Britain has surrendered to Christian Britain, and new ambiguities creep through the stories. The villains, in the ancient ballads, will take Christian oaths; “by the rood” Robin will swear, and so will, on occasion, the sheriff of Nottingham. Robin Hood casts in his lot with some men of the church, and robs others; to the unmerciful Bishop of Hereford he declined to show mercy.

The greatest commonality between King Arthur and Robin Hood is the fascination they have so long and so widely enjoyed, and the consequent endless retellings of their tales. Anyone may tell his own version of Arthur or Robin Hood, and many people have. Today the CSFF tour begins a review and a discussion of one of the latest versions – Merlin’s Blade, by Robert Treskillard.

It may be that these fields of legends grew up from the seeds of lost history. No one really knows if Arthur ever ruled Britain or Robin Hood ever rebelled in it. But I think that most of us hope they did.

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Character Profiles: The Spoiled Princess

Gleamdren sulked. She was good at sulking, whether she knew it or not. Her face fell naturally into all the right grooves, letting anyone with eyes know exactly what she thought, which was that the world was not behaving as it ought.
What was this fascination with mortal women? First, Rudiobus falling for the glamourized dragon (which, granted, only looked mortal) and now this! The Eanrin she knew wouldn’t be caught dead speaking to a mortal girl. He certainly wouldn’t drag one along on a noble quest! Was he going to start writing poetry in her honor too? Insufferable man.
And now even the Dragonwitch was enthralled by the little insect. Her dragon. Her captor.
– Anne Elisabeth Stengl, Starflower

Lady Gleamdren Gormlaith was cousin to the queen, the prettiest woman at court, and a renowned collector of suitors. A hundred suitors, all eager to court her, all melting like butter before her every word and gesture.

She was a Spoiled Princess. The Spoiled Princesses of fiction come in a variety of ways. Many of them are literal princesses. Others, like Gleamdren, are of high birth, but not quite that high. Some have reached their status (social and spoiled) through a father’s wealth. This last group crosses with the archetype of Little Rich Girl, and often Heiress, too.

Authors match this diversity of Spoiled Princesses with a diversity of uses for them. In the old fairy tales, they were often included as counterpoints to the Good Princess. A classic example of this is found in certain versions of Beauty and the Beast, where Beauty has two sisters who are rendered endlessly complaining by the loss of their father’s fortune. These Princesses are more moral points than anything else.

In Dragon and Slave, Her Thumbleness is one small step up the ladder – more unlikable than Beauty’s sisters, but also more of a character. A minor character, but at least she has the dignity of providing a vital plot point.

Gleamdren is a secondary character, entertaining and reasonably important to the story, but a clear step behind the main cast. She does not, as they say, experience personal growth. Yet sometimes the Spoiled Princess does experience growth; sometimes she is the heroine.

Demonstrating this – and also why the Little Rich Girl can so easily be the Spoiled Princess – is Charlotte, the English heiress of Masquerade. She gets to take center stage, and consequently endures the painful reckoning so necessary when the heroine is, however slightly or charmingly, a brat. Princess Una, the protagonist of Heartless, is charted a similar heroine’s journey.

I am also going to include, as an example of the Spoiled Princess, the princess who complained about the pea beneath her mattress, because that story has always annoyed me.

The archetype of Spoiled Princess, simple though it seems, may be shrunk or expanded to fill any role from a moral exclamation point to a heroine. You do not expect Spoiled Princesses to be much good, but they are – whether for humor, or for plot twists, or even for a story of redemption.

Review: The Terrible Speed of Mercy

In his introduction to his biography The Terrible Speed of Mercy, Jonathan Rogers wrote, “The outward constraints that [Flannery] O’Connor accepted and ultimately cultivated made room for an interior world as spacious and various as the heavens themselves.” It’s not surprising, then, that his biography of Flannery O’Connor is a spiritual biography.

The Terrible Speed of Mercy is a short book, only 162 pages when you exclude the notes; Flannery O’Connor had a short life, only 39 years. It was never exactly dramatic. O’Connor led, as Rogers said, a “pious” life, in straight grooves of routine. She never married, had no children, never sinned or succeeded in spectacular fashion.

Rogers deals with the events of O’Connor’s life, but his main focus is on her “interior world”, explored through her writing – her stories and, more often, her letters. To the author’s credit he searches beneath the shallow surface to the quiet struggles of O’Connor’s life and the meaning of her work.

The one fault of this biography is that Jonathan Rogers lets his bias toward Flannery O’Connor show too obviously. He just tried too hard. At one point he recounted how, as a child, O’Connor would try to “sock” her guardian angel, and then wrote, “Jacob, too, fought with an angel.” Which is like following up the story of how Don Quixote fought windmills with a reminder that David, too, fought giants.

The worst example of bias comes in the introduction, where Rogers generally suggests that disapproving of O’Connor’s writing is a spiritual failing. In the crowning paragraph, he writes:

The violence, the sudden death, the ugliness in O’Connor’s fiction are large figures drawn for the almost-blind. If the stories offend conventional morality, it is because the gospel itself is an offense to conventional morality. Grace is a scandal; it always has been. Jesus put out the glad hand to lepers and cripples and prostitutes and losers of every stripe even as he called the self-righteous a brood of vipers.

The train of thought here, if I’m following it correctly, is that O’Connor’s literature is offensive in the same way that Jesus’ ministry among the “sinners” was offensive. But writing about fictional losers is nothing like putting out “the glad hand” to real ones.

Rogers, apparently, starts from the position that “conventional morality” – he might have told us whose – is Pharisaical. Even granting this extraordinary assumption, Rogers’ contention that O’Connor’s works only offend conventional morality because of the gospel strains credulity. It could never have been the gore? If only O’Connor had expunged the last rays of grace, all offense would have gone with it?

The problem is not that Jonathan Rogers defended Flannery O’Connor from her critics, but that he failed to do justice to them. If he could have addressed their arguments seriously – instead of hinting that they were Pharisees – the book would have been stronger.

The Terrible Speed of Mercy is a sympathetic biography, informative, well-written, and engaging. It is not what they call “definitive”, but it does help its readers greatly in understanding the spiritual underpinnings of Flannery O’Connor’s work and life. As a biography, what it brings out is not so much that O’Connor had an interesting life, but that she was an interesting person. And this ability – the ability to see, to consider, and to bring to written life – a public figure as a person is priceless in a biographer.