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 brevity that is now almost extinct. This slim volume covers in 205 pages what modern novelists would need a trilogy to tell, and possibly a longer series. 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 the downside of this style of novel-writing is also evident. 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 admirable, 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 meant certain things are meant to be understood.

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

To PC or Not PC

Let’s talk about grammar.

Wait! Come back! This will be interesting, I promise. It will involve politics and controversy and barely any pop quizzes. Politics and grammar meet – let’s say clash, because I did promise controversy – in the question of pronouns. There’s an old convention in English that, when the sex of a person is unspecified, he is referred to by the male pronoun. This is probably related to the old use of “Man” as a term for all humanity: The male stands in for all.

Not surprisingly, the classic rule of he has fallen out of repute and use. Several new conventions are now fighting for the privilege of replacing it. It’s too early to project a winner, because like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, they’re all flawed in different ways. As speakers and writers of the English language, let’s consider our options.

(Pop quiz: What is a conjunction?)

Some people replace the lone he with the phrase he or she. The benefit of this formulation is that it is inclusive and all-encompassing. The downside is that it’s clunky. He or she has cluttered up many sentences with verbiage that serves no purpose beyond not being politically incorrect. The phrase has produced its own variants: he/she and, better yet, s/he. These updated versions are sleeker and more refined, but severely limited in that they are suited only for the written word. No one could speak them and still appear normal.

(Pop quiz: What is a subjective clause?)

Another common solution is to use the pronoun they in place of he. The clear advantage of this is that it avoids the clunkiness of he or she, and the android weirdness of s slash he. Unfortunately, it is also grammatically incorrect. If they were correct, it would already be used. To replace the singular he with the plural they brings the pronoun into conflict with its noun (or indefinite pronoun, which is functionally the same thing). You could say that everyone has their own opinions, but this is true only of Gollum. Everyone else has his own opinions.

Perhaps the most unique answer to this grammatical quandary comes from Charles Murray, who advocates that female writers use a generic she and male writers use a generic he. This is ingenuous and posseses certain aesthetic qualities of balance and symmetry. If it had been invented by Chaucer, it might have caught on. Such innovations are much more difficult at the language’s current stage of evolution, however, and to decide the use of the pronoun by the sex of the author can rub oddly.

(Pop quiz: What is a dental fricative?)

Now we come, at last, to the final and best solution. Some writers replace he with she – a solution that maintains elegance, simplicity, and grammatical precision. It avoids the pitfalls of other solutions but skirts on the brink of its own: Is the use of this pronoun merely political, bowing to the pressure of those who have taken it into their heads to be offended by he (and just about everything else)? Taking the question as a literary one, the classic he and the modern she are the best answers. But the question is always in danger of becoming political: He or she, to PC or not PC?

How do you grapple with the dilemma in your own literary wanderings? Remember, there is no right answer. But there are several wrong ones.

 

(ANSWER KEY:

  1. The concomitance of two or more events.
  2. The North Pole’s darkest secret.
  3. A clear violation of the Geneva Convention.)