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Taliesin

Reviewed: May 27, 2008
By: Stephen R Lawhead
Publisher: HarperCollins Canada
496 pages, $8.99

In the Book of Ecclesiastes the Teacher writes: “Of the making of many books there is no end.”

He might have been talking about the many variations on the tales of King Arthur which have been produced since Thomas Malory compiled Le Morte d'Arthur in the 15th century. The very title, with its reference to death, tells us that this is not to be a happy tale.

Many authors, from those who wrote the medieval Chansons de Geste to T.H,. White to Bernard Cornwell, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jack Whyte, have taken a run at the Arthurian legends. A favorite pastime of the more modern writers has been to strip away most of the mysticism and attempt to present “how it might really have been” versions of the legends.

Stephen R. Lawhead’s Pendragaon Cycle, of which Taliesin is the first book, falls into that category of reinterpretations, with a bit of a twist.

The twist is that Lawhead has blended the Arthurian lore with the legendary Book of Taliesin and tied both of these into the tales of lost Atlantis.

The book follows three narratives. One is the story of Charis, a princess of Atlantis, shown as an isolated but fabulous island off the coast of Britain. Centuries earlier, as recorded by Plato, Atlantis had faced a great cataclysm, and had rebuilt itself into what had been a happy association of city states under a chief ruler. We enter the story as this alliance is beginning to fall apart but, even more importantly, as the island is about to enter the final phase of its destruction. We follow Charis from her childhood to her success as a bull dancer in adulthood, and to her attempts to rally the feuding kingdoms to flee what she comes to understand will be their final trial.

Atlantis is ravaged by volcanoes,earthquakes and tidal waves, and only a relative handful of its people, mostly from Charis’s city, manage to escape to the larger island some distance away.

The survivors, a more educated and advanced people than those on the mainland, come to be called the Fair Folk by the people they encounter, and the the new kingdom they establish is seen by many as a magical place.

Meanwhile, we have been jumping back to the story of Taliesin, the miracle child whose coming changes the fortunes of Elphin the unlucky, son of a British chieftain of a modest village in what we would now think of as Wales, which is ruled by the declining Roman occupation forces. After finding his son in a fish weir, Elphin’s reputation begins a dramatic change. He becomes a warrior, leads his people in assisting the Romans in their attempts to fight back the Irish and Pictish people who keep encroaching on the southern lands. In the end, however, the barbarian invaders prove too much for the combined local and imperial forces, and the village of Caer Dyvi is overrun.

Elphin, Taliesin and their people flee to the southwest, into what we would now call Cornwall, and they meet the Atlanteans there, forging an alliance against the possible invaders who may be following from the north. By now the focus of this part of the story has shifted to Taliesin. It seems predictable that he and Charis would meet and there’s a bit of a Romeo and Juliet theme in the way they come together. Their son will be called Merlin.

Lawhead has assembled this story very cleverly. It dragged a bit in some places, but once the two narratives began to move together one could see how the fates of the two races mirrored each other and how the refugees from Atlantis might be seen as fairies or devils by those in the land to which they had come. This is important since one of the legends of Myrddin have him being the product of a union between human and non-human parents. Taliesin himself is portrayed as being of a different order from the people among whom he is raised, preternaturally wise and given to intense visions.

Some reviewers dislike Lawhead’s work because he adds the coming of Christianity into the mix of the plot. He is, of course, planting the seeds needed to tell the story of Arthur, some two generations hence, and that is full of Christian references, so it makes sense to introduce them early on.

Taliesin has been continuously in print from several different publishers since it first appeared in 1987. It was seeing yet another edition on the racks during a recent trip to the city which prompted me to take this one down from my wife’s bookshelves and give it a try. Happily, she has the rest of them so I won’t have to go hunting very far to read more.

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