Robert Holdstock won critical and public acclaim with his award-winning novel Mythago Wood in 1984 and since then has continued to revisit the themes contained within that novel. His new book is Celtika which features the early life of Merlin, later to find fame through his association with King Arthur and his round table. David Howe spoke to Robert about his new project.
‘I've been a fan of early Celtic tales – some featuring Arthur, a Celtic chieftain who lived around 480AD, since I first started to piece together the history of pre and post Roman Britain,’ Robert explains. ‘I was always fascinated by the early Celtic tales – the precursor legends of Arthur and his retinue – and even wrote a novel The Bull Chief [1977, as Chris Carlsen] to celebrate my enthusiasm. And certainly, as a kid I loved the television Sir Lancelot; but the mediaeval romances don't appeal at all, any more, except for the weird and wonderful 1981 John Borman film Excalibur.
‘That said, Celtika is not really an Arthurian fantasy, though its source is the so-called Merlin Codex. The title suggests exactly what it is: Celt meets Greek! It's actually set in about the year 279BC, but in an alternative mythological world. The action shifts from the world of the Finnish mythological epic The Kalevala, where Jason and his enchanted ship Argo are resurrected from a sacred lake, to Celtic Britain, where one of Arthur's ancestors is High King, and to the invasion of Greece by an enormous army of Celtic warlords, champions and warriors drawn from many different Clans, an historical event that certainly occurred, though the army may have been surprised to learn that both Merlin and Jason and his new argonauts were travelling among them.’
The myths of Merlin are fairly well plumbed in the field of fantasy fiction, and I wondered what Robert felt he had to say about the subject which has not already been said. The answer was simple: he’s not using any of the more established myths. ‘The novel and its sequel don't seek to add to the Arthurian mythos; is there anything to add?’ Robert smiles. ‘If anything they explore the pre-Arthurian world of supernatural and fantastic belief, but I hope within a fairly realistic setting. Anyone who’s read my other work will know that I'm intrigued by the forgotten myths and legends that lie behind the legends we know and take for granted, the earliest forms of the “hero”. The new books also explore the themes of vengeance and betrayal in the twin cultures of Celt and Greeklander! But I have a rag-bag of new argonauts aboard the ship, some semi-divine, some legendary, some ordinary, each with his or her own particular talent; a lot of the fun comes from these individual tales.
‘Celtika is about how the past catches up with us! Literally! And how we deal with it in our different ways. There are several characters in the book with whom I’m very fond. I adore Merlin, but I'd have to, wouldn't I, since he's so much me! Reluctant to accept his age, a little too hedonistic for his own good, curious and fascinated by new discoveries... and he likes good food. Where he and I differ is in his selfishness (he won't use his talents because of the effect on his body). But that weakness is essential to his eventual redemption.
‘Apart from him, I am very fond of Urtha: a man of enormous honour and determination; and also Elkavar the Hibernian who can find hidden ways into the Underworld, but always gets lost once there; and I like the northern enchantress Niiv (she's the prototype of Vivian and very much Merlin's nemesis) because she's so confused between her lust for magic and her love for the man she's trying to seduce.’
Given that Celtica is a book influenced by myth and magic, I wondered whether there were any specific influences at work. ‘Well, certainly the Merlin Codex itself, which I think is still at the British Museum. I only saw copies of it, ten years ago when I was researching The Fetch. It was written down shortly after the Roman occupation of Britain and Gaul, and found in caves in southern Spain. It's very fragmentary, but clearly written by someone who knew the wider world of his time, and the processes of magic of his time. (Whoever wrote it doesn't refer to himself as Merlin, of course; it's officially called the Ronda Codex). I thought it would be fun to write the fragments into full-blown narratives. And since they refer to the bizarre resurrection of Jason and his “drowned ship, Argo”, I went back to the Greek sources to try to piece together what might have really happened between Jason and Medea.
‘In fact, a few years ago I'd seen the play Medea, with Diana Rigg in the central role. Fantastic performance, though the film by Pasolini remains definitive. When she kills the two boys, her sons, and taunts Jason, the two young actors – gore-covered and curled up together – were clearly talking to each other at the edge of the stage. It was funny to watch. But it gave me the idea that Medea, an enchantress, might well have tricked Jason into believing his sons were dead, and then hiding them. Ergo: what would happen if he found out about the trick? Read Celtika to find out.’
Robert is already at work on the sequel to Celtika and he doesn’t see that as being the end of the story. ‘The Merlin Codex is fragmentary in places, but there are a heck of a lot of fragments, and some of them are truly mind-blowing in what they imply …’
Celtika: Book One of the Merlin Codex is published in hardback by Earthlight.
David J Howe