During my childhood days, I was much fascinated by the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and still am! However it was not the chivalrous Arthur or the noble Lancelot that stirred my imagination. My favourite Arthurian figure is Merlin.
Merlin the archetypal wise man with his flowing white beard and swishing long robes who according to legend lived in a tree. In fact I believe that the wizards in medieval fairy tales all sprung from Merlin. The only difference being that they had more showy attire - long pointed hats and bright coloured robes decorated with shiny stars and crescent shaped moons.
Said to be the greatest wizard the world has ever known, the origins of Merlin has been shrouded in mystery, much like the man himself! There have been many accounts of how Merlin came to be and how his story ended. Thus I was more than thrilled when I chanced upon The Mammoth Book Of Merlin at the Fantasy Section of BOOK XCESS sometime ago.
The anthology edited by Mike Ashley contains 24 stories on the life and times of Merlin written by well known authors in the sphere of fantasy fiction. Many of the stories featured here do not toe the line of the traditional accounts told about Merlin and King Arthur's court.
Though the authors' have borrowed from popular lore about Merlin, the retelling of the tales are all their own. For instance, the first story in the collection Dream Reader - draws inspiration from the tale that Merlin was the offspring of a young nun and an incubus, hence his supernatural abilities.
In the story, a young orphaned Merlin is discovered by Ambrosius, a traveling mage, and taken into his troupe to form a trio of performers. Ambrosius becomes Merlin's mentor and teaches him to cultivate his prophetic talents.
While in Merlin's Dark Mirror, the wizard is portrayed as a schemer who plots Arthur's eventual downfall while appearing to give him good counsel. In this story, Merlin secretly holds faith with his father the Devil whom he communicates with through a "dark" mirror.
In the Rite of Challenge, Merlin comes up against Morgan le Fay who tries to prevent the "Round Table" from being brought to Camelot. In this story however, Morgan is not portrayed as an evil schemer out to cause woe for Arthur. Here she is the High Priestess and guardian of the Elder Faith who opposes Merlin's allegiance to the Christian King Arthur.
In the King's Mage, Merlin is depicted as a withered and cynical old man who although held in high esteem as Arthur's trusted mage, is in fact a charlatan who uses his knowledge of herbs and conjuring tricks to keep all at Camelot under his spell.
Though only Merlin himself can attest to whether any of the stories in this collection comes near to describing who and what he was, the authors have done a commendable job in exploring the different facets and stages in Merlin's life through creative storytelling.