Just Finished: “Taliesin”, by Stephen Lawhead

So, I really like the Arthurian legends, which you may have gotten from my earlier review of “The Ill-Made Knight”. Soon I’m going to be opening up submissions for an anthology of Arthurian tales, and I have something Arthurian on the back-burner myself. Thus, I’m always into hearing new recommendations for good Arthurian stories, and one day somebody asked me if I’d heard of Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle. I had not, and so looked it up. Apparently Stephen Lawhead is a devout Christian, and the poorer reviews of his books compared him to C.S. Lewis. Well, sign me up.

The first book in the series was titled “Taliesin”. Reviews were excellent, and I picked up the book with interest…despite the fact that it seemed to have next to nothing to do with King Arthur. But hey, let’s forge onward.

All of this is just a long preface before I say “WOW”. “Taliesin” is a remarkable achievement. The novel tells two stories, which eventually come together by book three (of, I believe, four) of the story. One storyline follows Charis, a Princess of the Kingdom of Atlantis (!!!). The book follows her as war breaks out in her kingdom and dire prophecies about the end of the world slowly come to pass culminating, as well knew it would, in the utter destruction of Atlantis through storms and volcanoes. Charis manages to convince her father and brothers to pack up the royal court (some five hundred people strong, down to three hundred by the time all is said and done) and escape Atlantis with her just as the disaster strikes. The three boats they use for the escape eventually end up on the shores of Britain, where they rebuild their court.

The second story is the story of Elphin, the Prince and later King of a small British city (presumably these worked something like city-states). While out fishing Elphin finds an infant sitting in a stream, and takes him into his home. This infant is the titular Taliesin, and we are told he is going to be the greatest Bard, a sort of combination magician/singer/storyteller, who ever lived. This half of the story follows Elphin as he forms a war band to protect his people from barbarian raiders, who encroach closer and closer to the town every year. We also dip a bit into Taliesn’s schooling, and learn that he is, naturally uncommonly gifted at seeing visions in the “Otherworld” a sort of dream world or afterlife.

“Taliesin” is as ambitious as it sounds. Lawhead spends a very long time on worldbuilding in Atlantis, only to destroy the entire country before the novel is finished…in book one of a five book series! It’s like Tolkien destroyed Middle Earth three quarters of the way through “Fellowship of the Ring” and then spent the rest of the series in an entirely different location. The nerve it must have taken him to do that is stunning, but you can’t argue with the results.

“Taliesin” is basically the anti-“Song of Ice and Fire”. Throughout the book the characters keep talking about a great coming darkness, but one that will be followed by a brilliant light. It was probably three quarters of the way through the book, when it hit me that they might as well be saying “Winter is coming”. Just to punctuate this further, Taliesin stats refer to the coming light (presumably the reign of Arthur) the “Kingdom of Summer”.

Martin claims to be presenting a “realistic” portrayal of what life was like in the middle ages, but Lawhead, who is also known as a writer of alternate history, gets just as dark as Martin does, and is probably more historically accurate than Martin’s fantasy world. Yet here’s Lawhead, promising not only winter, but a coming summer along with it.

I mentioned earlier that Lawhead is a devout Christian. This comes through very, very strongly in the novel. About three quarters of the way through, Taliesin sees a vision of Christ and converts to Christianity, and a Priest converts the Atlantean King. In the novel Christianity is both unambiguously the true religion and an extreme and absolutely positive force for good. It’s easy to see why Lawhead was compared for Lewis.

Lawhead is a brilliant writer. The sheer ambition of the novel is enough to make the book impressive, but the characters are all fascinating, the prose is wonderful, and the worldbuilding is simply phenomenal. If you made me come up with criticisms at gunpoint I’d say that things in the novel tend to move very slowly (the two storylines meet up with each other much closer to the end than the beginning), so you need to be patient if you want payoff. FINALLY, by the end of the novel we get introduced to a recognizable Arthurian character. It is…

Merlin.

So there’s a ways to go yet before the sword in the stone.

Also, I want to go to the place where you can land two ships and 300 men, build a giant palace, and establish a kingdom, and nobody is going to challenge you. That sounds like a cool place.

Harsh as that sounds, it’s a minor criticism, because Lawhead makes the whole thing seem so real. “Taliesin” is a remarkable book and I give it my very highest recommendation. I can’t wait to read the sequel, titled, of course,”Merlin”.