Much of Magic

Sir Bors set out on the Quest for the Holy Grail, but he spent most of the appointed year in prison because (it can happen) he made an unscheduled stop to proclaim the Gospel to apparently unreceptive heathens. “They knew much of magic,” he later told King Arthur, “but little of God.” (quoted from Maude L. Radford’s King Arthur and His Knights)

This formulation – much of magic, little of God – is striking in any case, but particularly so because it occurs in an Arthurian story. Although this is often neglected in modern retellings, the Arthurian legends combined Christianity with magic, pagan legends with culled elements of Christianized Britain. Classic versions of the sword-in-the-stone legend put “the wise magician” Merlin working together with the Archbishop of Canterbury to find a new king for the Britons. And still the association of magic with heathenism: much magic, little God.

There is tension between the Church that makes common cause with magicians and the heathens full of magic, but perhaps not contradiction. The authors of the Arthurian myth found they could broker an accommodation between Christians and magic. Yet they could rarely have missed the accommodation between pagans and magic, typified in the Druids whose memory outlived their presence. The sort of magic that most famously imbues Arthurian myth – the magic sword, the wise man who saw the future, the Lady of the Lake – is not witchcraft. Yet it remains, in itself, ambivalent. Despite the rumors, there is no inexorable link between magic and the devil, but neither is there any inexorable link between magic and God.

I’ve seen the link between magic and God made; probably all of you have. There is more than one way to weave magic into the framework of Christian doctrine and Christian principles. C.S. Lewis’ way – carving out a place for magic in an explicitly Christian universe – is the most obvious. Another method, popular in modern Christian fantasy, is to fix a magical world beneath God (often called the Creator, the Eternal One, etc.), without venturing any further in Christian belief than monotheism. J.R.R. Tolkien is the premier example of the most subtle method. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings show little overt religion, but his posthumous works reveal his efforts to bring his creation into harmony with Christian thought. The influence of Tolkien’s faith on his work is indelible. (In this lengthy but thoughtful essay, Steven Graydanus examines how Tolkien’s Catholicism shaped his portrayal of magic.)

Much fantasy is created by people who have no interest in taming magic to Christianity. That alone doesn’t make it bad; I once read a charming, perfectly innocuous children’s book called The Enchanted Castle, in which I found nothing to condemn or to call Christian. Yet the portrayal of magic in fiction isn’t always innocuous. Nor is it bound to keep its customary ambivalence; it may be remade into more sinister forms. The categorical rejection of all fictional magic is mistaken, but there is a shade of legitimate warning down at the roots.

Because it may justly be said of some books, as it is justly said of some people, that they know much of magic and little of God.

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.