This week on Down the Stacks, we’re diving into the first entry in a take on the legends of Merlin and King Arthur that reaches far beyond the shores of Britain and into the realms of other gods, myths, and heroes. Author Robert Holdstock has a clear love of the old stories from before the spread of Christianity throughout Europe: the times of paganism, tribal and clan honor, and bloody cycles of revenge. Through this wild world wanders the sort of Merlin we rarely consider - not a sagacious mentor but a man of passion who has yet to gain wisdom. Come with me as we explore the untamed lands of Celtika.
Although the book’s dust-jacket summary sells the book as the start of a “retelling of the Arthur tale,” the Once and Future King does not figure into Celtika except for one mention in a prophecy. This tale is all about Merlin long before he becomes the wise mentor figure we usually think of. Even the island that will eventually be called England is but a small part of the setting, for in Celtika Merlin travels from the frozen northlands of the Midnight Sun down the European coast and finally overland to the heart of Greece attempting to set right the tragedy of Jason and Medea. You see, Merlin was once part of the crew of the Argo when Jason sailed on his quest to steal the golden fleece, and Merlin was also present when Medea took revenge on Jason’s infidelity by killing their sons. The grieving Jason sailed for years seeking the bodies of his children, until at length he and the Argo found a watery grave under a frozen lake in the North. In the meantime, Merlin wandered the world aimlessly, following some Path he’s been on since time immemorial, until seven hundred years later when he discovers that Jason’s sons still live, displaced in time, and he travels to the lake to revive Jason and the ship.
Cetlika is told in the first-person perspective of Merlin, and so we get a good look at his internal thoughts, but those same thoughts also color our perception of the events and characters. I wouldn’t consider Merlin an unreliable narrator, but he is an imperfect man with cloudy memories and easily controlled by his emotions and magic. Merlin’s origins are a mystery even to him, since they occurred so long ago that the memories are difficult to call up. Magic is, by his words, literally carved into his bones and keeps him from aging until he uses it for other purposes. As such, he is hesitant to use his magic in large ways, such as seeing through time or illusions, unless the need is great. This conservative attitude toward magic makes him hesitant to associate with anyone similarly gifted but more liberal with their charms. Merlin makes friends easily, but is slow and inconsistent to reveal his own secrets, and as the book proceeds we find he also harbors a fear of confronting his misty past. He also has bad hygiene habits even for the barbarian peoples he travels among and tends to wear his clothes until they rot off his body.
Celtika is entirely Merlin’s story, so even the most important side characters only flit in and out of focus when they’re needed.
Jason would like to think that he’s the central character of the story, as it is for the sake of reuniting him with his sons that Merlin pulls him out of the lake, and for the most part he does lead the band of new argonauts. Jason is single-minded in his goal of finding at least one son, so any conversation he’s involved in quickly turns to related topics, and he’s so focused that he outright states that he’s not bothered by being seven hundred years and a continent away from his homeland.
Although Jason’s quest drives the main plot, the characters Niiv and Urtha stand out as more important. Niiv is a young woman of the Pohjola, one of the tribes who live around the Screaming Lake where Jason hibernated for so long, and daughter of a shaman who recently drowned. Merlin meets Niiv as she’s going to argue with one of the local goddesses for the right to her father’s magic, which she obtains. Niiv then quickly latches onto Merlin, begging him to show her how to use her magic. Merlin tries to hold her off, suspecting her of some deceit, but Niiv persists and joins up with the new Argo’s crew in order to stay close. Niiv and Merlin’s relationship is rocky throughout the book because Merlin remains stubborn about holding as much magic - and thus youth - in reserve and thinking Niiv’s purpose is to take it from him in some way.
Urtha is king of one of the Celtic tribes inhabiting Alba - the future Britain - but he’s also met at the Screaming Lake due to traveling there in search of an oracle about his family’s future. He seems to be just another cultural representative among the hodgepodge of tribes that make up the Argo’s crew, until the ship arrives at Alba to find disaster. Urtha’s lands, and those of many of his neighbors, are deserted or nearly so because the warriors abandoned their territories to join a Great Quest to raid Greece and take back artifacts stolen generations ago, and those defenseless lands were then set upon by strange raiders from the Ghostland that takes up the heart of Alba. Upon discovering this, and that one of his young sons was killed in the raids, Urtha’s reason for traveling with Jason becomes a matter of revenge against the man he left in charge of his lands. As the quest moves on in pursuit of the Great Quest, which is gathering warriors from almost every land inhabited by Celtic or Germanic tribes into a massive army, Urtha becomes one of the few characters to get past Merlin’s defenses and get him to reveal his deeper secrets.
There are a lot of separate forces in play in Celtika, often to the point that Merlin’s narration gets so distracted with his immediate issues that he fails to notice the larger forces until it’s too late. Aside from Niiv’s pestering, the chase to find Urtha’s traitorous warriors, and homing in on one of Jason’s sons, there is also the issue of Mielikki, a forest spirit from Pohjola conscripted to be Argo’s guiding spirit and is unhappy with the arrangement yet still proves helpful from time to time, and a mysterious female presence stalking the Argo with particular vitriol in mind for Merlin but evades his detection with superior magic. It can be frustrating at times to see Merlin’s hubris get the better of him, blinding him to something that should be obvious. On the other hand, he’s associating himself with the hero of a Greek Tragedy and traveling through a world that values action and honor more than introspection and apologies. Besides, Celtika is but the first book in a series; there’s time yet to learn wisdom and forge happier endings.
I’ll try to follow up this review with the other books in the Merlin Codex, and perhaps Robert Holdstock’s other legend-blending novels if I can find them.