|Title: Merlin's Harp|
Author: Anne Eliot Crompton
Synopsis: (from the book) Among the towering trees of magical Avalon, where humans dare not tread, lives Niviene, daughter of the Lady of the Lake and apprentice to Merlin the mage. Her people, the Fey, are folk of the wood and avoid the violence and avarice of man. But when the strife of King Arthur's realm threatens even Avalon's peace, and Merlin needs his apprentice to thwart the chaos devouring Camelot. And so Niviene will use her special talents to help save a kingdom and discover the treachery of men and the beauty of love.
This is a wondrous story of danger, enchantment, and charm... and of the greatest mystery of all, the power of the human heart. Presented in a flowing musical prose, Merlin's Harp is a joy for followers of the legend-- and for anyone who appreciates a magical tale.
Warning for Spoilers under the cut
The retellings I always look forward to are the ones that deal with side characters—otherwise known as not Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot or Merlin. I’ve read lots of retellings that stick pretty closely to the story of how Merlin helped Arthur get his crown, how he fell in love with Guinevere and how her affair with Lancelot ruined it all. And usually that story is told from the perspective of Arthur or Gwen. Anne Eliot Crompton’s retelling of the Arthurian Legend comes from the first person perspective of Niviene, a young fey living on the border between the human world and fey forest.
The story starts with Gwenevere’s abduction by Mellias (Meleagant), who in this story is not a greedy or corrupt nobleman but a fairy otter who pushed Gwenevere into the fairy lands solely for the love of mischief. Since Merlin (half fey) is often a guest of Niviene’s mother, Nimway (Nimue), he knows immediately who Gwenevere is and tells the fey that they must bring her back to Arthur. Niviene’s brother Lugh volunteers to bring Gwenevere back to Arthur
because he has fallen in love with her wants adventure in the human world. One guess as to the name Lugh takes out in the human world. Here’s a hint: a fey named Elana who was in love with Lugh dies of a broken heart after he leaves and her body floats out to sea on a barge of flowers.
Totally clever. Totally enjoyable to read. Totally Crompton’s. And she doesn’t stop there with making the legend her own. She goes on to give a valid and understandable reason for why Lancelot bouts of madness and violence—Lugh has completely forgotten about his life in the fey lands and whenever the ‘Lugh’ personality regains control over the body, he his frightened and confused by where he finds himself. Also, Crompton makes Mordred the son of Niviene and Arthur from a night Arthur found himself lost in the fey realms. Mordred is kidnapped from Niviene and has a spell cast on him to block out his memories of life in the fey lands—which makes his feud against Arthur super sad ::sniff::
The story is the basic legend, starting of course from Gwenevere’s kidnapping and running through the final battle between Arthur and Mordred. A lot of time is focused on the Lancelot/Gwenevere affair (as Lugh/Lancelot is Niviene’s brother). We also get the story of Morgan stealing Excalibur (Merlin retrieves it and Accolon isn’t part of the tale) and the story behind Gildas’ refusal to include Arthur in history. But because of how Crompton decided to handle Niviene’s narration, the story felt really disjointed and was difficult to follow at some points. Niviene would only related events as they pertained to her. You would find yourself in the midst of an important event and have no idea how it came to such a climax and then once Niviene had played her part, the story would move on without giving the event any sort of conclusion. Also, Niviene never cared about the why—she never cared why the other characters did the thing they did, just that they did them. Merlin and Gildas would sometimes try to explain the reasons to her (especially as it concerned her brother Lugh and his love for Gwenevere), but usually she never cared to ask.
Niviene is the character we know best as we spend most of the book inside her head. Her narration of the story is the aspect of the book I am most impressed with but disliked the most. Crompton does an excellent job of giving Niviene an alien mind. To many times a writer will write a non-human character only to have it come across sounding completely human. Not so here and there’s no denying that Crompton achieved something really impressive with Niviene’s narration. But, this impressive feat also made it impossible for me to empathize with Niviene as she empathizes very little with the rest of the supporting cast (she derogatory of anything she deems human—namely emotion). It also, as I mentioned above, made the story difficult to follow.
Merlin is pretty much the same old wise magician he always is. A character dedicated to doing the right thing (which means in this story helping Arthur hold out against the Saxons in an effort to protect the fey). He can be pretty manipulative at times though—pushing others towards his version of the greater good instead of working with them to determine what the best course of action is.
Lugh/Lancelot starts off as an interesting character. He’s Niviene’s brother, a leader among the fey and as a particular affinity for humans. He loses all that after entering the human world and falling in love with Gwenevere. After that, the only thing interesting about Lugh is his rages.
Mellias was fantastic simply because he was so different from the way the character is usually portrayed. He’s not greedy or lecherous. He loves mischief, but he’s also loyal to his friends, especially Niviene and Lugh. But he’s also probably the most self aware of all the characters and is the only one to make the best decision for himself in the end.
Gildas was interesting. He’s another character we rarely get to see. He’s characterized here as the Abbot of Arimathea Monastery. An intellectual and historian, although he has sworn to strike Arthur’s name from history (cause Arthur taxed the church, see). He’s a good man. He’s kind and compassionate to Niviene in the face of her brother’s disgrace, even though she has lied to him for several years. But he’s also incredibly petty. He’s probably the most human character out of the whole bunch—very well rounded.
Arthur’s characterization was pretty standard—a good king and a man with strong ideals. But he’s prone to fits of temper and Niviene quickly realizes he’s not a man to be crossed. Gwenevere, as described by Niviene, is silly and shallow. A disappointing characterization, especially since Elana is described the same way (not something I want to see in a ‘feminist’ novel). Morgan only pops up to steal Excalibur and see Arthur’s body to Avalon. She’s seen as scary by the other characters, but is never given a reason for her actions (She’s upset about her father’s death? But then that doesn’t explain why she helps Arthur at the end). Mordred is pure evil, but at least that’s explained by his being kidnapped at the spell placed on him (Of course, the kidnapping was never explained to my satisfaction either. Why did Morgan take him? Did she know he was Arthur’s son? Merlin suggests that he had something to do with Bran’s disappearance—why would he do that? These are questions Niviene never cares to ask).
Merlin’s Harp is a unique tale full of all sorts of wonderful new twists on the legend. However, the narration is a bit rough simply because of how Crompton decided to portray her character (not through any technical issues). Three stars from me, because while I enjoyed the new twists, I would have liked several aspects to be fleshed out a bit more (or at the very least explained).