Saturday, 15 March 2014

Stephen Lawhead’s “Taliesin”: Historical fantasy versus sacred storytelling

I am currently caught up in Stephen R. Lawhead’s Pendragon series, which I am actually reading for the first time. Stephen Lawhead is an engaging storyteller of what might be called “historical fantasy” and in his case with a definite Christian undertone. His Pendragon series –currently consisting of six books- tells  the stories of King Arthur, Merlin and the Grail from this particular historical fantastical viewpoint. He is not the first or the only one to do this with the Arthurian legends; perhaps the most famous of such “fantastical retellings” is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Mists of Avalon” and the contemporary BBC TV Series “Merlin” does the same.
Now as a student of the Western Mysteries, the Arthurian and Grail legends hold a special-and rather sacred- place in my heart. They contain some very powerful teachings and very soon a complete weekend retreat will be devoted to the Mysteries of the Grail. So, what are my feelings when reading these ‘fantastic’ retellings of such materials? Is that a problem?

Personally, I have absolutely no objections against anything like this, provided is faithfully and tastefully done. With ‘faithfully’ I mean that the characters are left as they are and not unduly embellished or misrepresented. And ‘tastefully’ means that the general feel of the storytelling remains more or less intact (and not all of a sudden is time shifted into a more modern world, for instance).

It is, however, important if you work with these stories ‘for real’, to keep in mind that these are fantastic retellings and do not belong to the historical ‘corpus’ of Arthurian writings. The fate of “Mists of Avalon” speaks volumes in this respect, as this is by many considered to be an accurate representation of paganism in Arthurian times and accordingly ‘followed’ as such.

Back to Lawhead’s Pendragon series from which I finished the first volume “Taliesin” and are one quarter into the second book, “Merlin”. How does so far work with these books? “Taliesin” – apparently, a historical Brythonic bard from probably the sixth century C.E- starts very promisingly with two simultaneous storylines, one in Britain involving the bard Taliesin’ s adoptive parents and the other on Atlantis before the Cataclysm, dealing with Lady of The Lake, Charis. She is destined to become Taliesin’s spouse and mother to Merlin after crashing on the shores of Britain after the destruction of Atlantis.
Lawhead does a masterful retelling of Taliesin’s story from the actual Middle-Welsh Ystoria Taliesin. I also found the Atlantis component quite surprising, which according to Lawhead accounts for the “Fairie” element in the Arthurian stories. There are parts in this book that are indescribably beautiful: the difficult birth of Merlin for instance and the mourning of Taliesin at the end. 

So far, Lawhead seems to have done something very interesting with “Taliesin”: he made a rather obscure Middle Welsh story available to the general public as well as placed the Atlantis and Arthurian mythologies alongside. We are going to see how this plays out in the following volumes!

Monument for Taliesin, Snowdonia, N. Wales

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