Thoughts on “Merlin”, Book 2 of the Pendragon Cycle

When I wrote my thoughts on “Taliesin”, I had just finished reading it and hadn’t started reading “Merlin” yet. Here, I’m already starting “Bedwyr”, which is the second book in the third novel “Arthur”, and who knows how far I’ll get in the series before this actually comes up in my blog post queue (I’m running about two weeks ahead at the moment). Anyway, on to “Merlin”.

I like “Merlin” a lot better than I liked “Taliesin”. The work seems to be a bit tighter, and it’s easier for me to see the link from Merlin to the overall mythos. However, Lawhead still seems to have issues with the importance — or lack thereof — of his scenes. If this is generally considered a problem with pacing, then it’s a problem with pacing, but for me it strikes me more as an issue of emphasis … or, rather, of trying to emphasize something but not leaving enough content in those important events to make them really stand out. For instance, early in the book Merlin gets captured by some tribe, which seems to be very important to his character … but nothing really seems to happen there other than his tutoring and some kind of almost romantic relationship with one of them. The problem, it seems to me, is that the scene is too long for what happens in it, but too short given how important it is to Merlin overall. There’s no room to really do anything in that scene, but it really seems like there should be a lot more there than there is. If anything, I think this is Lawhead’s biggest weakness.

I thought that the scene in the cave with hermit Merlin would be something like that, but it worked well as Merlin recovers his ability to remember and think about what happened. Ultimately, I think that as we get closer to the legends, the work gets better, because Lawhead isn’t that great at world or character building, for the reason outlined above: he doesn’t seem to be able to think of enough things to do in his important scenes to make them really feel important, and so the gravitas of the scenes suffer. When we’re dealing with the familiar Arthurian characters, we already have a link to them, and so the scenes don’t have to carry that weight, as even some of the scenes will be interesting just because of how similar or different they are from the legends. Additionally, Lawhead doesn’t seem to be able, at least in these books, to really build the characters well as characters, so when we have an attachment to them as part of the legends he doesn’t have to do as much for us to come to know and feel for his characters, which is something that I didn’t really do in “Taliesin”.

Ultimately, I enjoyed “Merlin” a lot more than “Taliesin” … a trend that, spoiler alert, seems to be carrying on into “Arthur”.

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6 Responses to “Thoughts on “Merlin”, Book 2 of the Pendragon Cycle”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    You’re not totally far off on my thoughts…I think Lawhead’s biggest strength in the series is how he puts his own spin on the Arthurian mythos while making it seem authentically Arthurian, and not like a gimmick.

    A good example is the story of how Aurelius fathered Arthur and Uther married Ygerna. In the original legends Uther is more of a villain (as Merlin hints at), and is Arthur’s father, and yet when Lawhead spins it it doesn’t feel like cheating, but in fact a perfectly reasonable way the sequence of events could have gone.

    “Arthur” is even better at this – now that I know the stories of Arthur as the battle Duke of Britain are, in fact, rooted in at least some historical reality I was very impressed how Lawhead incorporated that into the story while still making it sound like something you’d find in the Arthurian legendarium.

  2. malcolmthecynic Says:

    …That said, I am more impressed with his world-building than you were, though I agree that the section at the beginning where he was kidnapped felt a little awkwardly placed.

    It WAS, however, important – I believe it was with them that he learned a lot of his magic.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      This might be impacted by the fact that I’m more interested in plot and characters than in the world anyway, but even given that I think other authors definitely build worlds better. We don’t really find out that much about Atlantis beyond Charis’ limited view of it, which is reasonable given the framing but is disappointing if you wanted a real and full glimpse of its society. But, again, the Britain parts of that book were done a lot better in that regard.

      Yeah, that’s one of my problems with the whole series so far: there are scenes that are important but don’t have enough content to play a prominent role in the overall work. In short, they’re too important to skip and simply summarize but don’t do enough to have anything other than an overly short and almost rushed scene. The kidnapping is the best example of this, as you’d think more would happen when he lived with them for years, but nothing really does happen except for pretty much the thing that Lawhead needs to happen.

      • malcolmthecynic Says:

        Well yeah, Atlantis was never meant to be the full setting. It was given – in my view – just enough backstory to feel interesting and real so that you felt the pang of tragedy when it was destroyed.

        But the British sections were better.

        My biggest criticism of “Taliesin” was about logistics. How on earth were the Atlanteans able to just land and claim what were apparently very large swathes of land, and declare themselves king over them, with no protest? Odd, that.

  3. malcolmthecynic Says:

    ALSO – And I keep mentioning this because it is EXTREMELY important – DO NOT READ PART THREE OF “ARTHUR” BEFORE “PENDRAGON” AND “GRAIL”!!!!!

    Those books both add important context and nuance to “Arthur” and lose a lot of their pathos if you already know the ending.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      That’s still the plan. I’m still working on “Bedwyr”, as I picked up the latest Order of the Stick compilation and decided to read all of them before going back to the series.

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