The very name of Merlin conjures up images of magic and mystery. Perhaps even more than King Arthur, the real character and person of Merlin remains obscure, lost in centuries of tales told and retold. The Merlin of legend is at once a master of enchantments, a prophet and a kingmaker. To understand the real Merlin, however, it is necessary to forget our modern conception of wizards and magicians, derived from Shakespeare’s Prospero, Tolkien’s Gandalf and T H White’s amiable but bumbling Merlin. These are recent inventions. If it is accepted that Merlin lived in the age of King Arthur (i.e. in the fifth or sixth century), he would have been a combination of a priest and a witch doctor, more akin to a shaman or druid than a wizard as such. There appear to be two contesting theories about the origin of Merlin: firstly that he was a composite of several different individuals and secondly that there was only one real Merlin, who was actually called Myrddin Emrys, and that he was a Welsh bard and soothsayer who died in the sixth century.
Let me tell you about a bespectacled young schoolboy with a pet owl who finds out one day that he’s a wizard – and no, I’m not talking about Harry Potter! Timothy Hunter is the star of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Books of Magic, which tells the story of a young boy who has the potential to become the world’s greatest sorcerer. Despite the striking superficial similarities between Timothy Hunter and Harry Potter, The Books of Magic actually came into being several years before J K Rowling’s creation was released on an unsuspecting world. The similarity was once noted by a journalist from The Scotsman newspaper, who asked Gaiman if he thought Rowling was aware of his 1990 comic, to which Gaiman replied that he ‘wasn’t the first writer to create a young magician with potential, nor was Rowling the first to send one to school’. Gaiman’s view, with which I tend to agree, is that whether or not Rowling had read The Books of Magic, the similarities most likely result from both it and the Harry Potter series being inspired by similar works, in particular those of T H White (author of The Once and Future King). The idea that Rowling and Gaiman were were both simply ‘drinking from the same well’ is supported by the prevalence of common archetypes from myth and fantasy in both their works.
There is a long and proud tradition in fantasy of anthropomorphically presented animals having epic adventures that are usually reserved for more standard (human) archetypes, like warriors and wizards. Whilst Watership Down is perhaps the most famous example of this fantasy sub-genre, Richard Adams’ novel is by no means on its own. Greatly influenced by Adams’ work was William Horwood’s equally epic Duncton Chronicles, the story of a mole kingdom almost as detailed as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as well as a number of lesser known works like A R Lloyd’s Kine Saga, a heroic fantasy trilogy which charts the life and struggles of a weasel named Kine. Despite its many qualities, a lot of fantasy readers tend to be put off even by the thought of reading Richard Adams’ bunny-centric epic, perhaps imagining that any book that involves talking rabbits must be for children. However, Watership Down rarely fails to win the love and respect of readers, regardless of age, because like most great novels, it is a rich story that can be read (and re-read) on many different levels. The book is often praised for its many thought-provoking themes but also it’s equally praiseworthy as just a corking good adventure.
Since tomorrow is Christmas Day, I thought I’d mention a figure from folklore who is often seen as an early inspiration for Santa Claus – the Holly King. Often, these two entities are portrayed in similar ways – the Holly King frequently appears dressed in red, wearing a sprig of holly in his tangled hair, and is sometimes depicted driving a team of eight stags - a sort of woodsy version of Santa Claus if you like. The Holly King was popularised in The White Goddess, a book-length essay on the nature of poetic myth-making by author and poet Robert Graves. In his book Graves proposed that the mythic archetype of the Holly King represented one half of the year, while the other was personified by his counterpart/adversary the Oak King. The two figures battle endlessly as the seasons turn: at Midsummer the Oak King is at the height of his strength, while the Holly King is at his weakest; the tables then later turn in the Holly King’s favour when he vanquishes the Oak King at Yule. Since Yule was the pagan midwinter festival that was the precursor to Christmas, the Holly King has forever been associated with this time of year.
Tolkien used the term ‘Necromancer’ in The Hobbit as an alias for Sauron, his chief villain in The Lord of the Rings. The ‘Dark Lord’ Sauron is depicted as having an unnatural power over death – most notably in the form of his chief ‘undead’ henchmen, the Nazgul or Ringwraiths. Similarly, in other fantasy novels and role-playing games in which necromancers have appeared, the word has been used to describe mortal practitioners of death magic. For example, there is Sabriel by Garth Nix, Gail Z Martin’s Chronicles of the Necromancer and the Flesh and Bone trilogy by A J Dalton. But where did the term ‘necromancy’ come from and did necromancers ever really exist? During the Renaissance, a time of discovery of all sorts of new forms of learning in Europe, necromancy was classified as one of the seven ‘forbidden arts’. The word ‘necromancy’ itself is a compound of the Ancient Greek words for ‘dead body’ and ‘prophecy’. In its original sense it meant communication with the deceased – either by summoning their spirit as an apparition or raising them bodily – for the purpose of divination, imparting the means to foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge. Meddling with life and death in this way was seen as dangerous even at the time of often reckless discovery that was the Renaissance and it was not long before necromancers acquired a reputation as the very worst practitioners of the dark arts.
Before the noughties’ rejuvenation of the genre with the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings‘ film franchises, pure fantasy movies were a much maligned species – in many ways the ugly sister of science fiction and graphic novel adaptations. Most of the attempts were aimed purely at children or were so niche as to appeal to no one other than a die-hard audience (Dungeons and Dragons movies, I’m talking about you!). There were of course some shining exceptions to this trend, perhaps the best loved of them being Rob Reiner’s 1987 film The Princess Bride. Based on the 1973 novel by William Goldman (who also wrote the movie screenplay, thus ensuring its faithfulness to his original text) the film was heralded as a cult classic almost as soon as it was released. Full of wit, picaresque adventure, action, romance and magic, this was not your typical fantasy film. This is what has perhaps ensured its longevity and even today it regularly comes near the top of lists of romance and comedy as well as fantasy films.
Charles de Lint’s urban fantasies, including Moonheart, Greenmantle and Yarrow, have earned him a devoted following and critical acclaim as a master of contemporary mythic fiction. At the heart of his work is the ongoing Newford series. Familiar to De Lint’s readers as the setting of the novels Memory and Dream, Someplace to be Flying and The Onion Girl, among others, Newford is the quintessential North American city, tough and streetwise on the surface and rich with hidden magic for those who can see. The fictional city of Newford could be any contemporary North American city… except that magic lurks in its music, in its art and in the shadows of its grittiest streets, where mythical beings walk in disguise. Newford is populated by a regular cast of characters not too different from you or I, each looking for a bit of magic to shape their lives and transform their fates. There is Jilly Coppercorn, painting wonders in the rough city streets; Geordie Riddell, playing the fiddle while he dreams of ghosts; Angel gathering the waifs, strays, poor and lost to her homeless shelter; Holly Rue and her antique book store complete with hobs and brownies and a dozen others. Their lives intertwine with the fey beings with whom they share Newford – gemmins who live in abandoned cars, mermaids who swim in the grey harbour waters; desert spirits who crowd the night; crow girls; wolf men; vengeful ghosts and many more. I challenge anyone who has read any of the Newford books or short stories not to fall under De Lint’s unique spell.
The ‘Emberverse’ or ‘Change World’ is the setting for a series of post-apocalyptic novels written by S M Stirling which depict the events following a worldwide cataclysm that causes electricity, guns, explosives, internal combustion engines and steam power to stop working. There are two sets of novels in S M Stirling’s fictional universe. The first, beginning with Island in the Sea of Time, tells of an electrical storm centred over the island of Nantucket which transports it back in time from the 1990s to 1250 BC. The stage is then set for a fascinating contrast (and conflict) between the people from the present and the past, their technology, culture and attitudes. This in itself is a brilliant concept and the Nantucket trilogy has all of the best features of the work of Stirling (who is an amateur military historian). For me, however, it is outshone by the second set of ‘Change’-related novels, which start with Dies the Fire. These tell the other side of the story i.e. what happens to the world that Nantucket island left behind when it is suddenly returned to a medieval level of civilization. The Nantucket trilogy’s central conceit of transporting people from our own world to another time and place is familiar from everything from The Chronicles of Narnia to Buck Rogers in the 25th century. However, I find the concept of people from our own world and time trying to deal with effectively being returned to the middle ages much more interesting and original – at least the way Stirling does it.
Today, just seven decades after the publication of J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit, hobbits are as convincingly a part of the English heritage as leprechauns are to the Irish, gnomes are to the Germans and trolls to the Scandinavians. Indeed, many people are now unaware that hobbits were invented by Tolkien, and assume that they have, more or less, always been with us. Almost everyone, whether or not they have read Tolkien’s books or seen Peter Jackson’s films, can form a picture in their mind of a hobbit’s characteristics. In Tolkien’s world they were a burrowing, hole-dwelling people, measuring between two and four feet in height. They were long-fingered, possessed of a well-fed and cheerful countenance, and had curly brown hair and peculiar, shoeless, over-sized feet. An unassuming, conservative people as described by Tolkien, the excesses of hobbits were limited to dressing in bright colours and consuming six substantial meals a day. Their one eccentricity was the art of smoking pipeweed, which they claimed as their contribution to the culture of the world. But where did Tolkien’s hobbits come from and were they solely his creation?
Everyone has heard of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table but, whilst there may well once have been a famous ruler named Arthur, no one can prove that he or his court ever really existed. Although the time in which King Arthur is supposed to have lived – in the fifth and sixth centuries – was a dark age in Britain, the story of his deeds and the valour of his knights blazed right through Europe. Various parts of Britain, from Scotland to Wales and Cornwall, claimed him as their own, while the French insisted that he was from their own Celtic hinterland of Brittany. Sicily is one of scores of places in which Arthur’s tomb is said to lie. Despite this international element one thing that appears certain is that Arthur was a Briton. While other countries may have the odd Arthurian battlefield, grave or castle, in western Britain there is hardly a range of rugged hills or stretch of rock-strewn moorland that does not claim some association with King Arthur.