“Avalon: The Return of King Arthur”

Stephen R. Lawhead

This is the fifth and final book in Lawhead’s “Pendragon Cycle”. It takes place in a modern Britain that’s on the verge of getting rid of royalty and becoming a republic. Merlin is still alive and has identified a young Scotsman as the next rightful king of England and as the not-quite-reincarnation of Arthur himself. It’s a mix of political thriller and Arthurian tale, entertaining if you don’t look too closely.

“Grail”

This is the fifth book in Lawhead’s “Pendragon Cycle“. It’s entertaining enough, but the story in this and “Pendragon” is meant to be stuck in between, as Lawhead puts it, “the first two parts of “Arthur“” and “the last part of “Arthur“”. It’s all very confusing, especially if you don’t know about the sequence — as I didn’t — beforehand. The result of this out-or-order story telling is that the latter two books feel superfluous and, since you know how the story will end, are relatively uninteresting.

“Arthur”

This, the third book of Lawhead’s “Pendragon Cycle” concludes the tale of King Arthur. What? Aren’t there three more books in the series? Well, it’s complicated. As Lawhead puts it:

To get a chronological reading of the Pendragon Cycle, first read Taliesin. Then read Merlin. Next, read the first two parts of Arthur, followed by Pendragon and Grail in order. Finally, read the last part of Arthur, and, if you’re keen to complete the marathon, finish with Avalon, which recapitulates the themes in a modern setting.

Naively, I read them in sequence. That’s not a problem since “Taliesin“, “Merlin“, and “Arthur” make a fine trilogy all by themselves.

I liked this re-imagination of the “Matter of Britain“. In Lawhead’s treatment the “Fair Folk” (fairies, get it?) are the nearly immortal survivors of Atlantis and their descendants. The Fisher King was a king in Atlantis. Merlin is the son of the bard Taliesin is and an Atlantean princess, a princess whose half sister it the villain of the series. And so on. It’s all very clever and occasionally moving.

Obviously it’s not an attempt to tell a “realistic” version of the Arthur story. For that see Bernard Cornwell’s “The Winter King“, “Enemy of God“, and “Excalibur“. But despite the fantastic elements, magic is restrained and suitably mysterious and the growth of Christianity is treated sympathetically.

Overall, I enjoyed the three books. They’re a little uneven, but the good bits are very good and the less good ones aren’t half bad.