- This is one of a series of articles I wrote for The Coalition of Awesomeness blog some time ago. The blog has since gone to an unfortunate (but very awesome) grave so I thought I’d share it here.
There are a couple of book series that owned me, to be honest. But only one time was I ever compelled to read a series cover-to-cover twice in a row. As soon as I finished book 3, I was back in book 1 again the following day, and just kept on reading. I never do that. I have re-read series before, but usually with another book or significant time between readings. With Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, I had to go back right away to re-experience it. And then I went back again a year later.
I want to be clear that I’m talking about the original Cycle, which was a trilogy. When I read the series, that’s all there were. Three books: Taliesin, Merlin, and Arthur. Some time after I read those, two other books were added to the series – but these books were added on and not part of the original, completely self-contained plan. Everything I’ve read about them paints them as inferior to the original trilogy, and the back covers do nothing to persuade me otherwise so I can’t bring myself to read them, as much as I love that world.
That original trilogy, though… you may glean from the titles that the story is essentially that of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – but that’s really only the end of the tale (and fair warning to the purists, liberties are taken).
The general Arthurian legend, while interesting in its isolated sub-stories, had never held more than a passing interest for me. I’d dabbled around the edges from time to time (most notably, with Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” set) but it never really grabbed me at its core. And it isn’t why I started Lawhead’s series, either. I got into it because I saw that the second book was called Merlin and I wanted to learn more about that character. I thought it would be cool to read a sorcery story. I didn’t get what I bargained for, but I got so much more.
I will weep no more for the lost, asleep in their water graves.
– Charis in Taliesin
The story is simply epic in scope, and I don’t use that term lightly. Generations come and go through the books. Kingdoms (and islands) rise and fall.Â TaliesinÂ begins as the story of Charis, a young princess of Atlantis who escapes the destruction of her world to see her father become the Fisher King of Britain. She falls in love with the remarkable and mysterious Taliesin, gifted beyond all others, and Merlin is born as tragedy strikes.
This is to be Arthur’s story. Yes, but there is more to Arthur than his birth. To understand him, you have to understand the land. This land, this Island of the Mighty. And you have to understand me, for I am the man who made him.
– Merlin in Merlin
As I mentioned, Merlin was the book I was really interested in when this whole thing started. I was right to focus here, but my expectation was way off. While magic certainly played a role, this was much more depth and character focus than I had initially anticipated – and it thrilled me. This was a tragic, yet noble Merlin, long-lived, with experience hard-won. It has been years since I last read this – almost 20, I believe – and a single scene from this book still comes to me from time to time. I still viscerally feel the pain of the event that unfolded. I don’t believe any single moment from a book has ever stuck with me as strongly.
Arthur is no fit king. Uther’s bastard, Merlin’s pet, he is lowborn and a fool. … All these things and more men say of Arthur. Let them. When all the words are spoken and the arguments fall exhausted into silence, this single fact remains: we would follow Arthur to the very gates of Hell and beyond if he asked it. And that is the solitary truth. Show me another who can claim such loyalty.
– Pelleas in Arthur
Arthur is, as you would expect, about the boy who would be High King of Britain, his training, his reign, and his downfall. Camelot, Guinevere, Lancelot, the Round Table – all are present. Yet, as with the previous books, all are more nuanced and fully realized than I had encountered prior to that time. The ending is huge, personal, tragic, and triumphant all at once. It is a fitting culmination to a truly epic story.
It is this trilogy to which I compare all other Arthurian retellings. While many are excellent and have nothing to apologize for, none have captivated me the way The Pendragon Cycle did.
I think I just talked myself into reading it again.