Thoughts on The Merlin Codex

Perhaps sensing that Merlin’s own first-person telling was the most engaging of the narrative voices in Merlin’s Wood, Holdstock returns to it in The Merlin Codex, beginning with Celtika (2001). We recognize the same Merlin earlier in life, magic carved into his very bones, perpetually youthful through careful husbanding of the sorcery which alone can age him. Once he sailed with Jason on the Argo, and seven centuries later recovers this broken-hearted hero — preserved by his charmed ship — from the depths of a magical frozen lake in Pohjola, as Lapland is known in the Finnish Kalevala legends. A rebuilt Argo with a new patron goddess and Argonaut crew heads south on a quest for Jason’s sons, who in this revised legend were not killed by his vengeful wife Medea but hurled by her spells into a future which is the story’s present.

The voyage touches on the ghostly terrors of a Britain blighted by unnatural desolation, crosses the Germanic lands with magically-aided portage between the Rhine and Danube rivers, and links to an extraordinary episode of real history: the Celtic invasion of Greece in 279BC, with one of Jason’s sons included as a high-ranking officer in this wild, dream-inspired crusade. Merlin helps his old friend Jason with clairvoyance and charms but is opposed by Medea herself — another long-lived mage, determined that her husband’s second chance should also end in tragedy. Incidental action includes a lesser-known battle of Thermopylae, the sacking of Delphi, and a finely imagined set-piece of Celtic single combat, heart-stoppingly violent yet governed by formalities as elaborate as any code-duello.

Shadows gather around Merlin’s own story as he becomes dangerously involved with the lore-hungry Pohjola sorceress Niiv, who foreshadows or may even be Vivien. Hard-fighting Celtic argonaut Urtha is identified as the great-grandfather of Arthur, prophesied by Niiv to be “the reason for your life, and the death of everything you love.”

The intricate saga continues in The Iron Grail (2002), returning to that haunted Alba or Britain where the land of the dead and unborn is literally just across the river. This otherworld’s mysteriously troubled and all too tangible inhabitants have invaded Urtha’s territory and seized his hill-fortress. Echoing the disruption of heartwoods in The Hollowing, the reason for the spirits’ disturbance involves a son of Jason, hidden by Medea in the otherworld. The Argo makes a memorably wonderful voyage through the ghost-land’s ocean and magic islands of marvels and horrors, where at last Merlin unravels its complex, painful secret — also learning more about his own past and future. The author is at the height of his powers, stimulated to great creativity by this novel fusion of one era’s history with another’s myth; further “Merlin Codex” novels are eagerly awaited.

Robert Holdstock’s gift for evoking landscapes and weaving mythic patterns is outstanding. He has a remarkable ability to strengthen rather than diminish resonant myths by peeling away romantic embellishment to suggest both deeper strangeness and tough underlying realities, the rich soil and compost from which enduring stories grow.

David Langford

An extract from a longer essay on Robert Holdstock, which appears in Supernatural Fiction Writers (2nd Edition), edited by Richard Bleiler. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002. ISBN: 0684312506.