Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Merlin and the Other Christmas King

Christmas, it is generally agreed nowadays, is for children. As such, it has increasingly been prettied up with Santa and elves and reindeer and eggnog. And gifts, lots and lots of gifts. But this solstice holiday still carries the echoes of earlier, less comfortable, but more fervent, observations through our long history. Christians celebrate the birth of a savior, the "Light of the World," Jews the miraculous Festival of Lights, and pagans the rebirth of the earth in the burning of the Yule Log. The underlying message of the holiday is and has always been about salvation through the turning of the earth toward Spring and the sharing of hope and plenty in this darkest time of the year. For our ancestors, this annual turning was no sure thing, so the right rites were critical.

My favorite reading at this time of year includes Mary Stewart's brilliant and carefully researched Arthurian quintet, based on the monk Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th-century History of Britain. Stewart chose to tell the story through the eyes of Myrddin Emrys (later Merlin), the bastard son of a minor Welsh princess and a royal father under penalty of death in his own kingdom. The first in her series, The Crystal Cave, follows Myrddin through his precarious childhood to young manhood in the service of his deposed father Ambrosius, their retaking of Britain, and his complicity in the adulterous begetting of his cousin Arthur by his uncle Uther Pendragon on Queen Ygraine of Cornwall. Britain was overrun with wave after wave of invaders in these dark years, and Christianity struggled for the worship of the people against the gods of Rome and the ancient Welsh gods of stream and mountain. Merlin never knows the name of the god who drives him and lends him his power, so sensibly pays polite homage to all he encounters.

Merlin fortells Vortigern's defeat
from Geoffrey's Prophecies of Merlin
In The Hollow Hills, Uther, who has married Ygraine after the death of her treasonous husband, is unwilling to acknowledge the child she carries as his heir, because it was conceived before their wedding. The child when born, if a boy, must be brought up safely far away from the contentious and dangerous court, and kept unaware of his parentage. Once again, Uther turns to his nephew Merlin for help. Merlin, informed by his god, tells both parents that this solstice-born son will be the promised king who can knit all Britain into a strong country. He secretly takes Arthur first to his own nursemaid, who has retired to Brittany in northern France where she keeps a public house with her husband. For the first time in his hectic, god-haunted life he is then free to travel the world and please himself for a few years with studying music, mathematics, and medicine. People wonder about the location of their infant king, but no one looks for him in so unlikely a place. When Arthur turns five, Merlin takes him to the loyal Lord Ector of Cambria, to be fostered as a knight's son  in the far north of Britain.

Merlin believes that his entire life is meant to be in the service of two kings––his late father Ambrosius and his cousin Arthur, the king to be––so he looks for ways to strengthen Arthur's claim wherever he can. A tale heard from a friend in Persia leads him to the lost sword of their ancestor, Maxentius, a mighty war leader who stormed Rome itself before he was defeated. He retrieves the sword and hides it in a cave on a haunted island to await its fitting inheritor. He then takes a position as holy man and keeper of a woodland chapel near Ector's keep, to instruct Arthur in things not taught by the friars or arms masters, while waiting for the call he knows will come. This second book ends with the raising of the 14-year-old Arthur to be king after the death of Uther.

The remaining books carry through the tumultuous life of Arthur and his marriage to the barren and pious Guinevere, his death at the hands of his nephew and illegitimate son Mordred, and his burial on the lost holy isle of Avalon, leaving Merlin the sorcerer both dead and alive in the hollow hills of Wales, awaiting in patience Britain's future need for a resurrected Arthur, its shining and unconquered Christmas king. Somehow I doubt if that last bit came from Geoffrey; it sounds heretical.

I rarely enjoy fantasy, but Stewart's retelling of Geoffrey's Arthurian saga has all the elements of a juicy soap opera writ large. When these people screw up they do it royally, and kingdoms rise and fall. This series is not fantasy in the usual juvenile sword-and-sorcery, spell-casting mold. Merlin is by far the most interesting character, as he wrestles with his terrible gift and implacable god for his often-ungrateful kings. The writing evokes ancient Britain with its crofts and crafts, misty hills and thundering surf, and haunted bloody history in beautiful prose and fascinating detail. I have all of the books, but downloaded the entire series in one massive ebook for convenience. Unfortunately, most of the forewords and all of the maps (I love maps) are missing from the electronic version. However you celebrate this season––with crèches, menorahs, yule logs, or Santa and the reindeer––the season (barring the Mayan end of time) will turn and the days begin to lengthen toward Spring and light. So relax, however you've done it, you've somehow done it right. Again.

Ruins of Tintagel in Cornwall, birthplace of King Arthur

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