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A conglomeration of northern European myths and legends masquerading as a novel,
This review is from: The Coming of the King (Paperback)
"The Coming of the King" is unexpected and disappointing.
Given that Tolstoy calls it "The First Book of Merlin" one would expect it to tell the story of King Arthur's rise to the throne. Instead it is set, for the most part, in the year 556, about eighteen years after Arthur's death at Camlann. (Not that that "556 A.D." is every stated explicitly --- characteristically, Tolstoy leaves that for the reader to infer, which is not so hard in the age of google, but would have required quite specialist knowledge when it was published, in 1989). This is the year when, according to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, "Cynric and Ceawlin fought with the Britons at Beranbury." Tolstoy takes this curt entry and turns it into Tolkeinesque battle of nations involving hundreds of thousands of men: the Britons under Maelgwn of Gwynedd, Saxons under Cynric and Ceawlin, Scandinavians under Beowulf, as well as Franks, Vandals, and, most interestingly, one Roman.
The actual battle occupies only the final chapter of the book. Most of the preceding chapters (and even some of the final chapter) is taken up by magical or mythological elements. There are witches, demons, prophecies, a talking fur-covered baby (it is Merlin), heroes who continually boast as they are fighting, encounters with Gods, shape-shifting, transcendental dreams, and so on. Much of it I recognized as being based in the myths and legends of the Welsh, Irish, English, and Scandinavians. I assume all of it was. But most of it did not actually advance the story, and was clearly out-of-place (if you know where it comes from). I found it incredibly tedious, and so skim-read most of the book without losing track of the "real-world" plot.
For me, the most interesting aspect of "The Coming of the King" was the character Rufinus, a Roman commander from Spain who turns up by accident in Britain at this time. The outcome of the final battle is largely due to him, and apart from Merlin he is the only character whom the reader really gets to know, through his conversations with Merlin. The historical context of Rufinus' early life in Italy and his campaigns for the Emperor Justinian contrast sharply with the supernatural tone of most of the book.
From the preface to his novel Count Belisarius (Penguin Classics), it is apparent that Robert Graves wanted to write an historical novel about Arthur but in the end gave up because of the paucity of genuine historical records to build upon, and instead wrote about Arthur's Roman contemporary Belisarius. Faced with the same situation, Tolstoy could not not make up his mind whether, like Graves, to write an historical novel centred on a Roman general, or to discard history altogether and write a fantasy novel using the myths and legends of Britain and its neighbours. Personally I would have preferred a much shorter book based on Rufinus, and Merlin as a real man. But a pure fantasy novel would have been better than this hodge-podge.