Book Review: “Taliesin” by Stephen R. Lawhead

Title: Taliesin
Series: Book One of The Pendragon Cycle
Author: Stephen R. Lawhead
Pages: 486
Published: 1987
Spoiler-free Synopsis:Taliesin is the remarkable adventure of Charis, the Atlantean princess who escaped the terrible devastation of her homeland, and of the fabled seer and druid prince Taliesin, singer at the dawn of the age. It is the story of an incomparable love that joined two worlds amid the fires of chaos, and spawned the miracles of Merlin…and Arthur the king.” (Back cover)
Reason for Beginning: Arthurian fiction! Plus I’d heard of it before and just wanted to try it out.
Reason for Finishing: Good book!
Story Re-readability: Maybe a couple years from now. I’m more interested in getting to the other books in the series than in rereading this. But since it seems that a lot of little things are being set up that will have huge payoffs later on, maybe when I’m done with the series it would be neat to reread Taliesin and understand more of them.
Author Re-readability: Yeah, I like Lawhead’s style, for the most part. It’s straightforward, detail-driven in most of the right ways, and fairly textured and colorful. Lawhead doesn’t reach the level of sharpness and poetry of someone like Guy Gavriel Kay, nor the mythic resonance of J.R.R. Tolkien, nor the textured grace of Rosemary Sutcliff (though he tries). At worst he can skirt the edge of purple prose in a way that brings you out of the story a little bit. His handling of especially dramatic character arcs is a bit rocky. But most of the time his writing style works well for the story he is telling. His integration of historical research is top-notch. He’s written a bunch of other books on topics ranging from Robin Hood to St. Patrick, and even some urban fantasy ones, apparently, and I definitely want to try them all.
Recommendation: Fans of Arthurian fiction will especially want to check this series out for its genuinely interesting take on the legend, but fans of high fantasy in general will probably appreciate it too.

Key Thoughts

I’ve noticed two main approaches that are generally used in retellings of King Arthur legends: 1) the mythical approach, which emphasizes magic, mystery, and sometimes anachronism (ex. 14th century armor and castles in what is supposed to be the 6th century), and 2) the historical approach, which involves lots of research on the part of the author and generally explores the possible real people behind the legends. Examples of Type 1 are T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and T.A. Barron’s The Lost Years of Merlin. Examples of Type 2 are Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset, Anne McCaffrey’s Black Horses for the King, and Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles. Lawhead isn’t the only author to combine these approaches in the same series (I think Mary Stewart also does it in her Arthurian saga), but he’s the first I’ve read, and he does it well.

Plot & Its Handling

There are two plot threads that remain separate until a little over three quarters of the way in, when they finally merge. The first one involves the fall of Atlantis from the perspective of Charis, a cunning but troubled princess. Disturbed by the wars and infighting that are tearing apart her once-idyllic island home, she is the only person to believe the prophecies of doom made by a lone mad prophet, and eventually is able to lead a small group of survivors across the sea to Roman Britain. The second thread follows Elphin ap Gwyddno, a young Welsh chieftain, and his son, Taliesin, who is prophesied to be the greatest and wisest bard/druid. Elphin has a respectful relationship with his Roman overlords, but understands that Rome is pulling back and will not be around to protect the peoples of Britain from a massive barbarian invasion, which he believes will surely come in his lifetime. His struggle is to prepare his people for the coming Dark Times and follow the guidance of the wise druids, even when so little of it is clear to see.

Scenes in Atlantis have lots of court intrigue, wars, strange prophecies, and invented cultural events described in great detail. The lost island’s culture is a mix of real-world ancient cultures, with Greek (Cretan bullfighting and a capitol city named Poseidonis), Egyptian (court advisor named Annubi), and Mesopotamian (royalty sporting braided beards, and the focus on bulls) featuring most prominently. There are elements of the Jewish prophets like Elijah and John the Baptist in the minor (but pivotal) character of Throm, a wild man who prophesies Atlantis’ destruction. Sometimes you can sense Lawhead flexing his worldbuilding muscles as he gives us more detail about things (such as Atlantean bullfighting techniques) than we really need, but he does it more smoothly than David Drake. Nothing about Lawhead’s Atlantis is particularly new, but he’s done the hard work of integrating all the various influences into something that can pass as a unified culture, the father of them all. Oh, and it does have a little magic here and there. Not as much as I expected, but some.

Still, I liked the scenes set in late-Roman Wales much better. They reminded me favorably of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Romano-British trilogy, and have more realism, less melodrama, than the Atlantis scenes. Everything in Atlantis seemed so fated – prophecies of doom everywhere, with predictably no one but our heroine truly heeding them. There are some interesting character developments there, but mostly I was counting the pages to the expected cataclysm. You know that Atlantis will be destroyed, and only a few will survive and make it to the British Isles. But there is less certainty in the Welsh setting. Yes, the druids are murmuring of starfalls that predict Dark Times, and I know that this whole book is supposed to set up the Arthurian legends, but there is still a sense that any number of drastic things could happen.

Another thing: the plot is very slow until the final third or so. One reason I was more interested in the Romano-Welsh scenes was that more happened in them. Druids have fascinating visions. Elphin finds the perfect wife quickly, oddly, and romantically. Elphin becomes Chieftain, raises a warband, and fights as a Roman auxiliary. Taliesin has even more fascinating visions as a young druid-in-training. Other druids believe him when he speaks. People, in general, seem reassuringly mature and steady. On Atlantis, on the other hand, there are a few crucial events surrounded by chapters and chapters of foreshadowing and build up, some of which helps and some of which is probably a little bit irrelevant. Things are far less stable, but progress more slowly. Certain character arcs lean into melodrama. It’s understandable; after all, Atlantis is a larger-than-life place, and its destruction is gloriously cataclysmic – all this lends to melodrama. But its problems are a tad less relatable than those of Elphin ap Gwyddno’s tribe.

Characters

Both threads begin with the characters as children (well, Taliesin is an infant for a few chapters), and to Lawhead’s credit he writes them pretty well. He treats them with respect and understanding, acknowledging both their inherent immaturity and the fact that they usually notice and understand more than adults usually give them credit for (but lacking the vocabulary to express themselves).

I don't like this cover -- it misrepresents the book. Taliesin is wearing armor that doesn't come for another 6 or 700 years, despite the fact that he's a BARD and shouldn't be wearing armor, period.

There are four stages to Charis’ character arc. Each stage is written fairly convincingly, but the transitions are a bit weak. The first transition, from bright, idealistic little girl to hardened, death-seeking bull dancer just didn’t work. Lawhead does it through a time skip of about ten years: innocent at age 15, bitter and cynical at 25. Even though we do witness the major tragedy that causes this change, he does the skip right after it, so we don’t really get to watch her change. I felt it was too drastic. Her other transitions are a little more gradual, but not quite as graceful as they should be. Fortunately I do like the character. She’s intelligent, sometimes cunning, but not heartless; on the contrary, she cares a great deal for other people, and knows in her heart what the moral right is. Even when I didn’t quite buy the melodrama Lawhead wrote into some parts of her story, I was always engaged in her character.

Taliesin’s mental and spiritual growth through the aid of his father, Elphin, and the good druid Hafgan is more believable than Charis’ growth. It’s more gradual, more steady, more appealing. I suppose he doesn’t face any tragedy of quite the magnitude that Charis does, but he always seems far more mature than her. I liked him a lot, and even though the book is named after him, it still should have featured him much more.

Most of the side characters are also handled well, but there are a few missteps. Charis’ father, King Avallach, undergoes some drastic changes – at one point he even blames her for a major tragedy that happened (which she had nothing to do with) and basically disowns her. Thing is, it makes little to no sense with what we’ve learned of him previously. It’s too sudden – I didn’t buy it. He was portrayed as too mature, loving, and understanding for something like that. The tragedy that “caused” it was certainly devastating, but I’ve seen many people in real life go through tragedies just that bad without utterly disintegrating like he did. Even worse, this happens to him a second time near the end of the book, after he has converted to Christianity and supposedly has matured even more. It’s too melodramatic, too cliché, and ruins what is otherwise an awesome character.

Also, [SPOILER] the character of Morgian, who I’m 99.99% sure later becomes Morgan le Fay. I don’t want to spoil too much about her actual role here, but she is easily the least developed character, a cardboard-cutout seductress. She’s less a character than a plot device. Not a subtle hair on her head. This reflects the character herself and the way she is handled – Lawhead practically screams “SEXY VILLAINESS: DO NOT TRUST” at us every time she’s onscreen, even in a scene when she’s only about 7 years old. I admit it, it’s annoying. Fortunately, her manipulative schemes are mostly foiled later on by Taliesin’s common sense and integrity.

Which leads me to the final complaint: the more clichéd elements of Charis and Taliesin’s romance. It moves too fast, is too much like Romeo & Juliet, and some of their love scenes begin to sound like a Harlequin novel, contrived and sappy. The characters remain interesting, and I do like how Taliesin is smart and mature enough to not be thrown off by Morgian’s 17 year-old seductress act that threatens to sabotage their love. But it starts too late in the book. Lawhead should have trimmed more of the first two thirds of his novel and brought them together sooner, and then spent more time developing their relationship in depth.

Those clichés bothered me so much because there are, in fact, many other deeply emotional scenes that do work well without all the melodrama. An impassioned argument between Charis and her father felt very true, very real, and tactfully handled. In most cases, the emotion and drama do work very well. Where he had the most trouble was with characters who suffered great emotional degradation due to trauma, and with the central developing romance.

Theme Stuff I Liked

Well, seeing the seeds of Arthurian legend being planted was very cool. Learning Charis’ role in it, and watching for signs and hints in other characters at every opportunity was fun.

Also, I appreciated the way religious faith was treated in this book. Most Arthurian retellings involve the paganism versus Christianity conflict which is fairly inherent in many of the original tales, and most of the modern ones invariably favor paganism. This often creates an odd paradox, because Arthur himself is generally known as a Christian king, if not the Christian king of Britain. Such stories tend to represent the faith narrowly as fanatical or hypocritical Catholicism, in comparison with nature-loving harmonious pagans. Lawhead doesn’t make that rather prejudiced and nonsensical mistake. He represents Christianity in the persons of two evangelistic priests, Dafyd and Collen, who have arrived in old Roman Britain to spread their growing faith. They are not only kind, forgiving, and amiable, but quite intelligent, tolerant, and respectful of others. They aren’t one-dimensional “goody two-shoes” Christians, but they display a real relationship with Jesus Christ that seems to overflow out of them whenever they speak with other people. It’s quite refreshing to read their scenes, actually. They can’t solve every problem, they are not a deus ex machina. But they present the reason for their faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ simply and honestly, and actually manage to win some genuine converts.

But Lawhead doesn’t go pagan-bashing. In fact, he’s quite admiring of his Welsh druids, attributing to them more wisdom and moral strength than the arrogant Atlanteans. He seems very influenced by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s ideas of the Christian gospel as Myth Become Fact, wherein most pagan myths contain shadows, incomplete but with truth, of the gospel of Jesus Christ. (It reminds me of Romans 2:14-15, which reads “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.”) The druids have real visions of the Otherworld, and see real signs in the sky, but can only interpret a little. When the priest Dafyd meets the druids, to his credit, he recognizes these gifts that God has given them and praises God for it. Which is what I’d like to think I would have done in that situation too. ‘-)

Lawhead incorporates all of this into his vision of the magic of Arthurian legends. While not a flawless masterpiece, the book Taliesin is still a delightfully complex, and sometimes powerful, beginning to a saga I am interested in pursuing.

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: “Taliesin” by Stephen R. Lawhead”

  1. Bravo on a very intelligent and thorough review! It’s been about five years since I read Taliesin, but I think your review captures a lot of what I thought of it, too. I’m not sure I was very fond of Charis, though. She was too much of the plucky, fiery heroine for me, I think. (SPOILERS) My strongest impression of the book was finding the ending really anticlimactic since it was NOT at all what I was expecting. I thought, “Taliesin, the greatest bard, and that’s it? He didn’t even DO anything!” I was very frustrated. I think I threw the book. Em later pointed out to me that Taliesin gave his destiny to his son to save his son’s life, which makes better sense, but I still felt kind of betrayed by that ending. Not that that was perhaps the most intelligent response, but that was how I felt when I turned that last page.

    1. Yeah, I had that reaction too: while Taliesin was built up as an interesting character, he wasn’t allowed to do a whole lot. His sacrifice certainly is heroic and wonderful, but I got the feeling that all the prophecies about him probably meant more than just that. One thing the book lacks is a consistent villain, or even a consistent source of tension. And Charis, well, I can understand that. I accepted her overall, but mostly because I kinda liked how she was written as a young girl. After that time-skip, though, the angst became too heavy and really obscured her character. I hope Lawhead doesn’t get more angsty in the following books, because Lord knows the opportunities for it will only increase as the Arthurian legend progresses.

  2. Wow! This is a very in-depth review! I admit to skipping the spoilers, because I’m adding this one to my list of books to read! Thanks for pointing me toward another Lawhead series to enjoy!

  3. Hi David. I thought I’d come check out some of your other book reviews before I look at the ones by L’Engle.
    It’s been a long time since I read Taliesin (15 or 20 years), but I also think you captured well both the strengths and weaknesses of the book. I’ve read most of what Lawhead has written, I think (though I’m just starting his Robin Hood series which I put off getting so I could buy it as a set), and I think his writing definitely has improved over time.
    His series about Arthur is still one of my favorite on the topic (and I have a whole bookshelf of just Arthurian books), largely because of how Lawhead incorporates the Christian faith and expresses it so well. Most of the Arthurian books, besides extolling paganism, are so lacking in hope as the story concludes. Admittedly, the story does end with the kingdom in a mess, after Lancelot and Guenivere’s affair and then Arthur mortally wounded in battle, and Merlin gone, trapped by Morgan. I don’t even remember now just how Lawhead ends it, but it’s not with the same note of despair. Because of course the Christian always has hope.
    One author I haven’t yet read is Sutcliff. I have one of her books somewhere, but I somehow never finished it, I don’t remember why.

    1. I have Lawhead’s Hood, and have heard excellent things about it. After I read Merlin, I’ll may go on to that.

      Sutcliff’s pace is somewhat leisurely, but highly rewarding. I recommend starting with The Eagle of the Ninth, The Lantern Bearers, or The Shining Company, but probably any book of hers will be a good read!

      I hope you enjoy my other posts.

  4. I too really appreciated that SRL incorporated both the historical and mythical/supernatural approaches in this series, and particularly in ‘Taliesin’. Of course, Lawhead seems at his best when painting a landscape with Wales at the center. Of the series, Taliesin and Atlantis are characters so far removed from us (and taken from us far too soon in the story) that we cannot help mourning their loss. At moments within the series, Merlin’s character becomes tiresome while Taliesin and Charis are rich characters who participated most fully in dying cultures (as constructed by Lawhead) full of intrigue. The employment of distance at the beginning and close of the series leave me wanting more, to participate again in the world bettered by such people and that is wherein I believe SRL has been most successful.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I liked Taliesin himself a lot, but it seemed odd that he was so little used in the story. It does make you miss him more, though. I finished another book by Lawhead a few weeks ago, Patrick, that I hope to review before long, and hopefully it won’t be long before I move on with the Arthur series.

      1. It seemed like writing Taliesin’s character was about the farthest stretch of Lawhead’s abilities (I couldn’t have come close and I enjoyed it still so I’m not complaining). I enjoy, now that I’ve finished the series, being able to look back at Myrddin and see how effortlessly superior Taliesin was (in this series) and how much he is to be missed. What’s the saying – only the good die young? It seems true in lit as well. Enjoy your forays into the Kingdom of Summer.

        1. Hehe, perhaps. I liked Merlin better than Taliesin as a book, and even as a character only because Merlin felt more real, whereas Taliesin is so pristine and perfect, but a bit underdeveloped. I’ll see how Merlin’s character develops, though. My main hope is that Lawhead will write a strong, good portrayal of Arthur, who so often gets written as a weak or worthless character overshadowed by everyone around him.

          1. I wouldn’t be worried.

            Myrddin seems to me to be operating in that sort of dream wherein one sees almost clearly what one ought to do, but realizes during the dream that his actions will be wholly unsuccessful. The dream-world is being flung into the pit and while we should recognize what might keep the world from it, he so rarely manages to. I feel the weight of this struggle in a manner which I do not feel in Taliesin, but Taliesin so much better typifies the pagan Christian – the one for whom the intersections of light with the world are so much more brilliantly seen because one has learned to see the Lord embodied in the realm he understood first.

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