Stephen R. Lawhead
Taliesin (Volume 1 of the Pendragon Cycle)
Crossway Books 1987 (AvoNova 1990)

Stephen R. Lawhead
Merlin (Volume 2 of the Pendragon Cycle)
Crossway Books 1988 (AvoNova 1990)

Stephen R. Lawhead
Arthur (Volume 3 of the Pendragon Cycle)
Crossway Books 1989 (AvoNova 1990)

Stephen R. Lawhead
Pendragon (Volume 4 of the Pendragon Cycle)
AvoNova 1994

The Pendragon Cycle, Stephen Lawhead's retelling of the myths of King Arthur, was his break-through as a major fantasy writer. Telling a story that has already been told thousands of times is at the same time easy and difficult. Easy - because both author and readers already know the setting, the story and the major characters, and love them. Difficult - because almost every angle has already been looked upon, the story deconstructed, the characters redefined. It's hard to find something distinctly new and refreshing to add to it, but I must say that Stephen Lawhead has done a brave try.

"Taliesin", the first book in the series, takes place several hundred years before Arthur is born. In Gwynedd, Elphin, Lord Gwyddno's only son, is considered bad luck for everyone who comes close to him. Everything goes bad for him - until the morning when he finds a strange fish in his weir. An infant, a boy who the druids tell will be the greatest of all druids: Taliesin. In Atlantis, Charis is a young girl who sees her mother being butchered in the prologue to a bloody civil war. Soon she runs away to return several years later with a message to her family: the end is near, Atlantis is doomed and they have to flee for their life. They escape, and after a while finds a new land: Britain.

In "Merlin", the major character is of course Merlin, son of Taliesin, telling his own story about his life until Arthur's birth. It is basically consisting of two parts, one about the young Merlin, king, warrior, bard, druid, prophet, and one about Merlin as we know him from Arthurian mythology: Vortigern's, Aurelius' and Uther's prophet, the meddler whose sole goal is Arthur, the King of Summer.

"Arthur" tells the story about the king, from his early childhood until Camlann and his mysterious withdrawal to the island of Avalon. "Pendragon" give us the story one more time. In Arthur, most of the standard stories are included - the sword in the stone, Arthur receiving Excalibur (here called "Caledvwlch"), defeating the Saxons at Mount Badon and so on. In "Pendragon", some of them are included, too, but mostly it's about Arthur fighting Vandals (!) and plague. The perspective is also different, in "Arthur" the story is told by the different persons, in "Pendragon" the storyteller is once more Merlin.

The biggest difference with this series when compared to your average Arthur series, is Atlantis, a difference that colours the whole series. It would be a strange element even if the Atlanteans were just another culture emigrating to Britain - or "the Island of the Mighty" as Lawhead use to say - but when it finally got through to me that they were the long-lived Fair Folk, the elves, the weirdness of it just made me laugh. Weird, alright, but I think Mr Lawhead does a good job integrating this concept into the Arthurian myths, giving familiar concepts and titles new meanings and new explanations. As I said, it's hard to bring something new to this story, but he does just that. (At least I haven't read any older version including Atlantis in the story about Arthur, but I know that Marion Zimmer Bradley in her prequels to "Mists of Avalon" has done that. Inspired by Lawhead, maybe?).

Another difference from most other 20th Century versions of the story is the strong Christian message. No one can doubt where Mr Lawhead's religious sympathies are, and the first three books of the series were originally published by a religious publisher. I haven't got any problem with his religious views, we would probably agree on most points, but too much preaching tends to get kind of boring whatever the message is. Sometimes it works out fine, the religious expressions helping to create a sense of the Middle Ages, but sometimes it's just a little bit more than I can take. In "Arthur" it blends in very well with the scenario, but in "Taliesin" the preaching isn't as integrated and natural. Trying to catch the medieval atmosphere, the author uses a pseudo-medieval language, spicing it with words like "worlds-realm" and pious remarks. This strategy could help creating that feeling of otherness so often sought in fantasy, but it also slows down the reading - and at times it gets pretty slow. And sometimes there are holes in the Middle Ages facade. Like when some peasants eat potatoes. Potatoes? In 5th Century Britain? No, it was at least another thousand years before that American plant was introduced in Europe. But I think someone has pointed that out to Mr. Lawhead before me, because in the later books this sort of obvious anachronisms disappears. (Or maybe my vigilance lessened?)

Sometimes this series is great. You read and you love every minute of it. Then suddenly everything slows down and you've got to drag yourself through the pages until, just as suddenly, it changes again. Especially the long retellings of Welsh mythology had a negative effect on me, but I guess we're all different. Some people probably just loved those. Personally, I enjoyed those parts told by Bedwyr, maybe Arthur's closest companion. Many of the characters are so competent and pure of heart, but Bedwyr knows well that he is more of a swordsman than a thinker, which makes his remarks and thoughts quite charming.

To return to Arthur's youth in "Pendragon" after reading about his last battle at Camlann in "Arthur" seems quite strange to me. I guess the reason is that the series originally was meant to end with "Arthur", "Pendragon" and "Grail" being later additions. This doesn't mean "Pendragon" isn't as good as the previous books. The new stories about the war with the Vandals have the advantage, uncommon when it comes to King Arthur, of being new. That's because there never were any Vandals in Britain, but this is fantasy, not history, and if you can set aside histroical realities for a while, the story is quite good.

This isn't one of the best fantasy series I've read. It's not even my first recommendation when it comes to King Arthur. But if you want a series you can show your pastor to make him understand that your taste in literature won't hurt your spiritual life, you couldn't pick a better one. In that situation, this must be the Number One choice.

Karl Henriksson

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TaliesinTrade Paperback
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MerlinTrade Paperback
MerlinAudio Cassettes
ArthurTrade Paperback
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Books by the same author:
Grail (Book Five of the Pendragon Cycle)

Stephen R. Lawhead (personal home page)
Stephen R. Lawhead: An Unofficial Site (fan page)

Reviews - FantasyLinks - BoardRoom - Top 5

Henriksson & Henriksson 1997.