About The Broken Kings

Strange though it may seem, when I wrote the first book of the Merlin Codex (Celtika, 2001) I had not intended the ‘Merlin’ character to be the Arthurian Merlin at all.

In interviews about the Merlin Codex I’ve been asked many questions about my relationship with the Arthurian legend. As with many writers, I’m sure, it is deeply engrained within me. A part of my culture; a part of the romance between writer and the mythological past. And yet, I had not intended Merlin to be that Merlin.

The Merlin in my cycle of stories, the Codex, is a configuration of ideas; the endlessly travelling traveller; the man outside of Time; the wise man and the Fool, embodied in the flesh; the shape-changer who challenges nature. Merlin is the consummate dream of Power over Nature and Weakness over Man.

His name is a nickname. It means ‘cannot tie his laces’. This relates to me. I’m hopeless with laces and knots.

But from such small mundanities, ideas can arise, and stories. After all, what hero did not fail before he succeeded? My Merlin is engaged with life; helpful, passionate, generous (with the exception of using his powers of enchantment), insecure, focussing always on the simple fact that we all walk a path and we must always deal with the ‘crossing place’:

Where we meet and where we part;
The crossing place is where we test our heart
The moment’s pause; the road where we make selection.
The Shaping Place!
At this crossing, we find our next direction.

I’ll come to The Broken Kings in a moment, but first: Dame Diana Rigg! Magnificent! She played Medea, enchantress and lover of Jason, in the play by Euripedes. She was Medea in every aspect. She bestrode the stage. Jason grimaced and dissembled. The bronze shields that lined her palace rang with the fury of her striking as she challenged Jason for his affair with another woman, then brutally slaughtered his two sons by her as he wept, useless and disempowered, before the fury of the Colchean sorceress.

This was in the Almeida theatre, late 90s. I can still hear and feel the fury. I can still see the joky, inaudible chatter and the blood-stained squirming of the two young actors who had been ‘slaughtered’, now entombed in a glass coffin high on the theatre wall.

And yes: the thought: could any mother – especially one gifted in magic and illusion — allow the death of her sons?

The answer can be found in Celtika.

I wrote Celtika and The Iron Grail back to back: Jason’s search for his sons, hidden from Jason my their mother; his new ship-load of Argonauts, and Merlin’s recruitment to that fabled ship: Argo herself.

They were demanding but enjoyable novels to write, and particularly enjoyable was the gathering together of the myths of many continents and many ages. It has always been a passion of mine to play fast and loose with Time. Literary mechanisms can always be found to bring Time out of its linear dimension.

The Broken Kings extends the story of Merlin in particular, and his ages-long love affair with Medea; and his passion for Niiv, a Finnish enchantress of limited power but great affection and mischief. Merlin is young. By not using his powers of enchantment, he suspends age. But in The Broken Kings, he breaks. Responsibility comes into his life. He ceases to be the self-centred vagrant of so many thousands of years.

But the way this happens to him is as knotty and as tied as the laces he could never tie, when he was just a child. Jason’s ship Argo has always been a character to me, a ship slowly built, layer by layer, over the same thousands of years; and she has a guilty secret that she will only confide in Merlin.

All three books are connected, but written in slightly different styles. I’d planned a rip-roaring adventure for Book 3, but the story changed, deepened, became more intricate, very interesting to me (still exciting!). And to revisit my favourite Greek island — Minoan Crete, but an island in alternative worlds of space and history — was a true joy. And Arthurian Pendragon features more strongly, though he is ‘unborn’ as yet; so there was an authorial change of mind: Merlin will become that enchanter of Arthurian tradition, but not for several hundred years.

This is very much the way I work – that a novel suggests new ideas within the same world, but not in the form of sequels.

I’d intended to write a new ‘Mythago’ after The Iron Grail, but a fascination with the existence of the Unborn, pre-ghosts if you like – Arthur included – and the notion of a great conflict of old magic and new science, set on the mysterious island of Crete, intervened.

It is from characters – even ancient, sentient ships – that stories emerge like tangled dreams.

Rob Holdstock