Taliesin by Stephen Lawhead

Rating 9.0/10
A novel about new beginnings, of legends come to life, of the romance between two people of differen

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The first of Stephen Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle, Taliesin, was written in 1987, a time when the fantasy genre was exploding into the public consciousness with the likes of Eddings, Weis & Hickman, Feist. This attempted to bridge the gap to romantic fantasy led by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Jack Vance with Lawhead weaving together the myths of sixth century Britain and Wales, Atlantis, and a fading Roman Empire with its flourishing Christianity. Indeed the novel is overtly Christian as it moves from telling us stories from the Mabinogion to having a grown Taliesin accepting baptism, declaring Jesus to be the predicted "Coming" of Druid lore and marrying Charis - princess of Atlantis.

The novel is a story of ending and beginning. Two threads alternate for the first part of the book. One thread is the story of Charis, only daughter of one of the Seven Kings of Atlantis. We are witness to her father Avallach as he struggles with politics in a land that is so golden, the rest of the world are but barbarians in its light. Yet it is a world that is in turmoil with the murder of kings and queens, the struggles of magery, the coming of a great catastrophe that will obliterate the fabled island. A world that has Charis grow up to become a "dancer" - an athlete of phenomenal skill and renown - in the bullring; a place that echoes the great Roman amphitheatres, echoes the narrative of a young Keill Randor in Canadian author Douglas Hill's 1982 book "Young Legionary". Eventually, it is a world that disappears amid fire and upheaval as Atlantis is doomed. A scant two thousand souls from this once proud nation arrive bedraggled on the shores of southern Britain, claim land near Glastonbury and become the stuff of legend. Avallach is the Fisher King, the Atlanteans are the Fey folk, Taliesin sees Charis emerging from a lake - so is born "The Lady of the Lake".

The second thread commences in Dyfed. The story of the changing fortunes of Elphin from "unlucky one" to a great King, husband of the beautiful Rhonwyn. His destiny steered by the druid Hafgan, he finds the baby Taliesin in his salmon catch (a cross reference to the later tale of Merlin turning into a salmon) and raises him as his own. Skip forward nearly twenty years and Elphin has trained a war-band, has been forced form his home by Irish raiders and leads his people south to a new land and a new alliance with the dying Atlanteans.

With the two threads now bound: in geography, in Christianity, in Arthurian Romance lore, in the love Charis and Taliesin have for each other; the inevitable elopement to the town of Maridunum creates a new beginning. Of course, against the romance of the legend is set the forces of evil. Morgana is here in the guise of Lile's daughter, Morgian. She is succoured by the blind bitterness of Annubi; the herbal lore of her mother, her own desire for Taliesin. The flight of the lovers leads them to the court of King Pendaran (Pendragon) who at first humiliates them, then gives them everything he has to offer. While there comes the greatest magic Taliesin can offer as he saves his newborn child - a child he and Charis name Merlin. With this, Lawhead is nearly done, and sets both himself and the reader up for the next novel - aptly titled "Merlin". Of what comes next, I cannot say, some things are best left for the new reader…

Lawhead's novel is littered with flowing poetical descriptions, faceted with historic narration from The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Taliesin himself, bound with cryptic utterances and portentous idioms.

For example: "Whatever happens in the age to come will owe to us for its beginnings... we are history's midwives... though we be forgotten, our silent shadows will stretch across all future ages."

Taliesin utters many of these words; Lawhead allows himself to tightly bind Celtic myth with Christian fervour through his own bard skills and the inexorable humility of the priest, Dafyd.

It is a novel where, as you read the author's next books, you later come to understand he is both learning and developing in his creative writing. Lawhead is naturally gifted at portraying the romantic, spinning enthusiasm, adding hyperbole to what is already legend. He does it well. Yet, it is done at the pacy exasperation of the mundane action and narrative that is necessary in any novel. The book begins well, ends well. The middle seems, at times, to be a necessary bridge between the former and the latter. If the start and the end are each a golden city, then the bridge is plain, lacklustre... necessary. The language of the author reflects this haste to cross from one to the other which is why Taliesin is not a perfect offering. At its heart, it is a novel about new beginnings, of legends come to life, of the romance between two people of different nations. It is a prologue to the next six novels and, as one of many versions of the Arthurian legends, worth reading by anyone who adores the fantasy genre.

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