Last Friday we had a fascinating discussion with our interns about some of the first titles of a brand new YA imprint from Zondervan. One of those titles, you may recall, was Merlin’s Blade, the first volume in a very promising trilogy called the Merlin Spiral, by a debut author. We expect to see more of Robert Treskillard–for instance, this very month, when volume two appears! Merlin’s Shadow goes on sale at the end of September, but author graciously spared a little time to answer some questions posed by our enthusiastic assistant, Hayley.
Redeemed Reader. There are so many Arthurian books and series out there, why another one?
Robert Treskillard. Well, I never said to myself “I want to write another one.” I was just pondering the legends and couldn’t make sense of why someone would drive a sword into a stone. We all know why the sword is pulled from the stone … as it shows that Arthur is the rightful king. But why would it be put there in the first place?
The only thing I could think of to explain it was … what if the stone was the enemy? What if you were trying to destroy it? This set my mind on fire and the entire story flowed very quickly from that single question. I knew then that I had a unique take on the legends, and it just begged to be written.
But, I wasn’t sure if I was up to the task of writing a novel, much less an entire series, so I pulled out a chapter from the middle of the plot and wrote it just to see if I was up to this “writing thing.” Well, I liked it, and so did my wife and kids. Then I put my pen away, researched for a year, and only then did I start writing the actual novels.
The fun thing is that most of that first chapter survived the multi-year editing process and ended up in the printed book as chapter six.
Two other things motivated me:
1) As far as I could tell there was an unfilled gap in that no one had written a historically based, young adult, King Arthur tale with Christian undertones. A lot of stories touch on King Arthur, or borrow from it, but to tell the tale itself for a young adult audience, with a unique angle such as I found, was an exciting prospect.
2) There is such a cultural push to destroy our heroes, and King Arthur is one of them. Take for example Philip Reeve’s novel, HERE LIES ARTHUR, where Arthur is made out to be a thug and Merlin a master of political spin. I wanted to recapture something better than that and inspire a new generation of kids.
RR. Your books do a great job kindling an interest in both early British history and Arthurian legend; what other books would you recommend for an interested YA reader?
RT. Well, for history books, I can recommend the following, although some may contain mature content here and there. I have a huge library, but most of them are old books, and I’m not sure if they’re in print anymore, so these are the more recent.
· THE WORLD OF KING ARTHUR by Christopher Snyder.
· THE WORLD OF THE CELTS by Simon James.
· ROMAN SCOTLAND — FRONTIER COUNTRY by David Breeze.
· THE BRENDAN VOYAGE by Tim Severin. This is about a man who reconstructed St. Brendan’s small oxhide-hulled boat and sailed to America, proving that it could be done.
For historical fiction, I’d recommend anything by Rosemary Sutcliff, but especially her Arthurian tales. Also check out her THE SHINING COMPANY, which tells a fictional tale based on the ancient British poem named Y Gododdin, a poem which I draw from on more than one occasion.
Also, Stephen Lawhead’s PENDRAGON CYCLE is highly recommended for mature readers. These novel’s literary power and historical accuracy are attested by the fact that they are still in print nearly 25 years after being written.
RR. Why is Merlin almost totally blind? (BTW, I especially appreciated how you employed sounds and textures when narrating from his point of view.) Is there any intimation of that from the Arthurian traditions, or did you add it on your own?
RT. I began my plot, as I mentioned above, with the stone as the darkest enemy, and had to figure out what it could do. How do you make a stone dangerous? Once I came up with the concept of it enchanting the people who see it, then the only way to make Merlin immune was to make him blind so that he couldn’t see it.
As a new author, making Merlin blind was the very last thing I wanted to do because it made the writing that much more difficult.
But the story begged for it, and it added such interest to his character that I decided to try it. Having Merlin’s greatest weakness become his greatest strength was a powerful hook. And yes, it forced me to rely less on visual description and opened up a world of touch, sound, and smell—which was an excellent boot camp for my writing.
Another reason I didn’t want to make Merlin blind is because Lawhead uses this device briefly in his novels. If my own story world hadn’t called for blindness to make Merlin immune to the Stone, I wouldn’t have used it. If you’ve read Lawhead, I think you’ll find my treatment of Merlin’s blindness quite different. In fact, I worked very hard to make sure that my story is completely different from Lawhead’s.
RR. In Merlin’s Shadow, Merlin struggles to adapt to new circumstances and wrestles with doubt, a marked contrast to his faith and certainty in the first book. As a Christian, I appreciate the message that storms come to even the strongest, but I am curious: what made you choose this path for Merlin?
RT. (**SPOLIER ALERT**) The reason is because, for the first time in his life, Merlin can see how ugly his facial scars have made him. God healed him of his blindness, yes, but not of his scars.
So, then, Merlin ends up with two major questions:
A) How can I be loved by another when I’m so imperfect? This is something everyone deals with, on one level or another, but especially during the teen years. Sometimes our fears even cause us to pull away from those who care for us most, and then they end up feeling the same way.
B) How can God be good and still allow bad things to happen? And this question only intensifies as the novel goes on, bringing Merlin to the edge of his faith where he must hold on despite his suffering, and the suffering of those around him.
I’d keep writing more on this, but the next question dovetails perfectly with this one…
5. The darkness of Merlin’s Blade and Merlin’s Shadow is very dark at times and disturbingly real and powerful. On the Christian side of the equation there is often uncertainty and silence; God is powerful yet far away. How do you balance the power of darkness without detracting from the power of light?
RT. (**SPOLIER ALERT**) Hopefully the reader will find a satisfying answer to the darkness, and the questions it raises, at the end of MERLIN’S SHADOW, even if it means you must reread the hopeful parts to embed them more firmly in your mind and wash away the gloom and difficulties of the preceding pages.
Part of the problem lies in our own hearts. Colvarth, even though he was frailer physically, held onto God’s hope more firmly than Merlin did. Where are we in that spectrum? We can so easily become self-focused, as Merlin became, and ignore all of the blessings and protection that surrounds us. And we so often want to “fix it ourselves, in our own power”, but this just fails and we fall further and further away.
So if God felt distant in the book it was because Merlin thought him so, not because he was. I try to be honest in my writing and get as close as I can to the heart of a character and help the reader feel what they are feeling.
One must remember, though, that the King Arthur legends are, at heart, a tragedy … but a tragedy with hope. And such is our faith. The cross was the greatest single tragedy in the history of the world—filled to the brim with suffering—and yet it led to such triumph and hope for all people everywhere. I want to catch a glimpse of that, somehow, and imbue it into my writing. The darker the night, the brighter will be the dawn.
Also, I’m in the process of writing a series of blog posts about this question. It is my hope that my novels would reflect these truths. You may need to look carefully, but it is there. One example is when Dybris paints the cross on the Stone. Even though at a quick glance it appears that God is absent, he is actually very active. The “victory” of the Stone blowing Dybris back actually saves Merlin’s life by thwarting Connek’s plan.
6. As a language geek, I love the accents! How did you come up with all the different dialects spoken in the series?
The accents and languages were one of the difficult aspects of the story. My initial thought was to give everyone a modern-day English accent, but then decided firmly against that. Let’s cover some facts of the era:
· The people in southern Britain spoke what we now call Brythonic, as well as some Latin due to the influence of the Roman occupation. Brythonic has morphed over time into modern day Welsh, Cornish, and Manx, etc.
· The people in Ireland and Scotland spoke an ancient form of Gaelic.
· Some Norse peoples (with more to come) had settled in Scotland and Britain, bringing their own language with them.
· The Anglo-Saxons had just begun invading the southeast, bringing their ancient form of German. This was long before the Anglo-Saxon (merged with some future French and Norse) would became modern English, thus no one in the 5th century had an English accent as we know it.
· All of these languages, including Latin, have roots in an even more ancient Indo-European language that predated them. For instance, you can even find a lot of similar word in Latin and Gaelic! This meant that people could often figure out how to talk to each other even if they spoke different languages.
So, then, the English accent was out. And I realized that if my story had been true, then everything I was writing was really a translation from Brythonic (and these other languages) into American English, which was not only my native language but my primary market as well.
And so, while I try to not use modern words as much as possible, I’m not afraid if one slips in here and there … because everything is translation, per se, and every word of English is inauthentic.
So then, if everything is translation, how do I show differences between regions? That’s a tough one.
What I did was this … I chose to:
· Allow varying levels of formal speech (Colvarth), as well as rustic speech (Garth, for instance) because I’m sure that differences like that existed in Brythonic, too.
· Use an Irish lilt for anyone from Ireland, such as Mórganthu. This lilt probably goes back deeply into their Gaelic past, and so I thought that it would be authentic.
· Use a small bit of Scottish accent for those from the north. Again, it is probable that this accent comes from their Gaelic past.
For the Picti in book 2 I did something entirely different. I took modern English and applied some rules of Gaelic spelling and then mixed in some Gaelic words and word-order. This produced something quite unusual in that if you read it aloud, it actually comes across as quite Scottish, which surprised me but made sense.
For Atle and his household I chose to go with a Norwegian accent, but then switched to a Scottish for the younger characters who had been born in northern Britain.
All in all, I’m sure the accents in my novels trip some folks up and make the novels less accessible. It would be my hope, however, that an equal number found a thread of authenticity in it.
Many thanks for this in-depth review! Robert also gave us a list of highly recommended recent fiction that has nothing to do with King Arthur: Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga (“parts tend toward middle-grade, while other parts are darker and for more mature readers”), Robert Liparulo’s Dreamhouse Kings series (“time-traveling at its best”), Wayne Batson’s The Dark Sea Annals (“some of Wayne’s best stuff, with more books coming in the series”), and Jill Williamson’s Blood of Kings (“excellent, as is her new Safe Lands”). And a head’s-up: we’ll be talking about Safe Lands next week!