Review: Merlin’s Mirror

The old legends of Europe hold that Arthur, greatest of Britain’s kings, was conceived by the trickery of the wizard Merlin. Merlin himself, the tales go, was demon-born, the son of no man.

But what if both were the sons of no man – the sons, rather, of the Sky Lords, aliens seeking to return to Earth? This is the essential idea of Merlin’s Mirror, a science fantasy novel by Andre Norton. The book takes classic tenets of fantasy and works them into a sci-fi universe, and thus the legend of Arthur is reborn into science fiction. There is no “magic”, properly speaking, in Merlin’s Mirror, just misunderstood technology.

Published forty years ago, Merlin’s Mirror is old school: an omniscient viewpoint combined with a now-extinct brevity. This slim volume covers in 205 pages what modern novelists would need a trilogy to tell, and possibly a longer series. Certainly there would be a sequel book (or series!) in the works – at least if the first sold respectably.

It was oddly refreshing to read the story of Merlin’s entire life in one book – just to see it told in its essentials, without chasing the enticing side trails all modern novels have to run down. But I could also see downside of this style of novel-writing. The novel took Merlin’s ruling motivation (to carry out the mission given him by the Sky Lords) too much for granted; it puzzled me initially.

The brevity hurt Merlin’s characterization in other ways. As a character, he is stained by his manipulative role in Arthur’s conception, showing no reluctance beforehand and little reflection afterwards; the story sweeps on, and Merlin is worse for it. Nor does the novel make it clear, until the very end, that Merlin really cares about anything besides his mission. So although he is in some ways an admirable character, and in other ways pitiable, he is not really likable.

Norton retains much – not all – of the original unpleasantness of Arthur’s conception and of Mordred’s. This, together was Nimue’s (failed) temptation of Merlin, adds a few raw moments to the book. I did not enjoy it, though I realize that as modern standards go – in some respects, even as the original legends go – the book is mild.

Merlin’s Mirror presents the clearest religious view of any novel I have read by Andre Norton. Yet it is still murky. Aside from presenting a more elegant version of the Christ-as-moral-teacher viewpoint – making Him great, yet only one of many who had seen “the Great Light” – the narrative makes little clear. “The Power” – a phrase of which Merlin proved fond – sometimes refers to knowledge or alien technology, and sometimes seems to be religious, and so confuses the story.

The ending was clever in its own way, and almost hopeful; it had a sense of anticipation, at least. But more than anything else, it was sad. The last pages of the book cast doubt on Merlin’s mission, a doubt compounded by the ambiguity of “the Power” and the immoral means once used by Merlin. This is the worst thing: That Merlin, for all his power and dedication, may have been only a tool or victim. He also may not have been, but a confusion sets in near the end of the book, and it’s hard to tell precisely how the author meant certain things to be understood.

With an innovative premise, and even some emotional power (“lonely Merlin” – sniff!), Merlin’s Mirror intrigues but it does not satisfy.

Help Wanted, Again

Help Wanted
Up-and-Coming Hero Seeks Wise Old Mentor

Qualifications: Applicants must have broad experience and knowledge, particularly of the Evil that threatens all our lives. Persistence, commitment, and keen perception skills required.

Applicants must be wise, learned in arcane yet extremely relevant knowledge, and have a store of aphorisms – or else be able to come up with apt aphorism-like remarks on the spot. Preference given to those who know something vital about me that I do not yet know myself; also to those who can predict the future.

All applicants are required to have outstanding teaching skills, including outside the traditional classroom environment. Sinister yet compelling warnings, ambush tests, and on-the-job training all desired. Teaching methods that involve physical pain and mortal danger to the student are also acceptable. I am, after all, an up-and-coming hero.

Applicants must be willing and able to guide me onto the path of my True Destiny, even if I initially resist.

Applicants must be older than I am.

All applicants must understand that they will eventually have to absent themselves so that I may experience horrible dangers with no way out, and so come into my own and be truly heroic. Death, though the normal method of leaving, is not required. Any way that upholds the applicant’s status as Mentor, and my status as Hero, is permissible.

Benefits: Being a Wise Mentor.

To Apply: No application necessary. Interviews, furthermore, will not be held, because any Wise Mentor who would submit to being interviewed by an up-and-coming hero is obviously in need of mentoring himself. If interested in the position, simply find me and try to claim it. Preference goes to those who initiate the meeting by rescuing me from certain death, who reveal various dark secrets, or who carry or bestow an item of obvious mythical quality, such as a light-sword, a wizard’s staff, or any kind of magic jewelry.

CSFF Blog Tour: Keep the Salt, Shine the Light

The most outstanding element of Jill Williamson’s Safe Lands Trilogy is its world-building. From the opening pages of Captives, she created two worlds, orbiting no more than a rising mountain apart and yet utterly distinct. In the Safe Lands, all is pleasure and comfort and convenience, greased by the omnipresent wonders of technology.

In little Glenrock, life is harder and the rules are stricter. On everyone is laid clear expectations of who and what they are expected to be, and they feel it when they fail. But unlike the people of the Safe Lands, the people of Glenrock had the freedom to go, and even to stay much longer.

The entire trilogy is more or less about the collision of these two societies. These dual, conflicting worlds came to remind me of the Church and the larger culture of our present day. It’s not an exact resemblance, by any stretch; the world is not as dissolute or libertine as the Safe Lands, and the Christian community is not as strict or isolated as Glenrock. But the parallels can be drawn long.

In Rebels, the last book of the trilogy, readers became acquainted with the Kindred, a separatist group within the Safe Lands that made common cause with the Glenrock exiles. Not that all the Kindred were willing in this arrangement. In fact, one woman was so unfriendly and judgmental toward outsiders of any stripe that she reminded me of Glenrock’s own leader.

The founders of Glenrock and of the Kindred had excellent reasons for what they did. The separation from the Safe Lands was necessary to save themselves and their descendants from tyranny, deception, and all kinds of grief. Nor, in their fears and suspicions, were the people of these groups entirely unjustified. But it led some of the Glenrock folk to an unnerving callousness toward outsiders, and some of the Kindred to give up a much wider world for safety.

And Rebels, like Captives, left me thinking about the Church and the world. The New Testament rings with a sense of the separation between the Church and the world. It’s present in Christ’s image of His people as a city on a hill, in Peter’s addressing us as “aliens and strangers in the world”, in Hebrews’ portrait of the heroes of faith “looking for a country of their own”. Paul commands Christians not to “conform any longer to the pattern of this world”, John instructs us not to love the world, and James goes farthest of all, warning us that friendship toward the world is hatred toward God.

But as with Glenrock and the Kindred, the necessary separation can turn to isolation and a noble mission can lose its focus to a selfish, inward concentration. The Church has been called to more than self-preservation. When we make preserving ourselves – or even preserving our families or communities – our only goal, we lose sight of God’s larger purpose.

Of course, when we cease to make guarding ourselves and our communities any sort of goal, we may lose God’s purpose in another way. The Safe Lands Trilogy captures that truth, too, showing not only what happens to those who become rather too narrow in the straight way, but also to those who fail to recognize and reject the false ideas of the world.

The same tension between preserving and going forth is found in the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ commands us both to keep our saltiness and to shine our light – and of such tension, perhaps, balance is made.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”