Series Review: The Pendragon Cycle

PENDRAGON TRILOGYThe Pendragon Trilogy, by Stephen R. Lawhead, which includes Taliesin, Merlin, and Arthur. I read old paperbacks from Avon Books which I received as hand-me-downs from my aunt. The original publication dates were 1987, 1988, and 1989.

Turns out I was confused about these books. (Side note: Did you know there is a website to help you figure out the order of books in a series? I would have liked to know about it some time ago. Check it out HERE.) I had figured out the order of the trilogy as Taliesin, Merlin, and Arthur, but here and there I would see other titles in the series. So, once I had finished the trilogy, I researched and discovered that the “trilogy” was expanded, a few years after publication, into a “cycle,” with the addition of two more books: Pendragon and Grail. The problem? Because Lawhead released these after realizing the giant hole he left in the plot in the quick wrap-up of Arthur, he ended up writing into the hole. In other words, the books suddenly stop being (or working) chronologically. Called “more like an appendix” and “better than Arthur,” the latter books are now read by many in a makeshift order, which I wish I had done.

Sorta. Because even though I would have appreciated the whole thing in the chronological-event order without the gaping hole, I didn’t enjoy the first three books enough to want to continue to two more. I’m still torn on whether or not I should or want to continue the series.

PENDRAGON CYCLEIn the words of Jessi from GoodReads, “If I were to go back in time, I would read the first book in Pendragon, then the first two books of Arthur, then go back and finish Pendragon, then finish Arthur. That’s how it actually goes sequentially.” Although, with Grail thrown in there, you would have to insert it before Arthur‘s third and final “book.” For a list of the chronological progression, see the Wikipedia article HERE. But how obnoxious do we want to get? How much does all this jumping around and amending take away from the quality of the series? I mean, reading it without knowing these tricks, I just got to the end and–through tiny little tears–thought, What?!? We worked our way (the entire time) up to the Kingdom of Summer and then it was SKIPPED?!?

But to be honest, it wasn’t as surprising as it should of been, because the whole trilogy has major issues with plot development. We’ll get to that in a minute.

First, let’s talk about another super-handy list at Wikipedia that–had I known then what I know now–I would have printed out to have hand while reading. This list is the modern character and place name equivalents of the ones that Lawhead uses. In his defense, the whole series is moved back several centuries (to fifth century Britain from medieval times) to line it up more closely with the demise of Atlantis and the Roman empire. From there, the books are highly history-inspired, which means that the names have been made more appropriate to the time period. However, I really fault Lawhead for not giving us a simple list by which to decipher the characters and places we have grown accustomed to, like the (obvious) Guinevere as Gwenhwyvar, or–the much less obvious–Excalibur as Caledvwlch.

Not to mention, it would have been helpful to know why I was beginning an Arthurian trilogy on Atlantis, with nary a character to recognize (or so I thought).

Basically, I love reading Arthurian legends, but–despite its fan-base and high recommendations–I have a lot to complain about this series. Some more:

  • The narrator changes. This wouldn’t be so bad if it happened on a consistent basis, but it doesn’t. And there were times I was wondering who on earth was talking to me, and why. Not only that, but the voice barely changes (or not at all) between the narrators. Only the perspective does.
  • The book was rampant with negative phrases like “no less than.” It drove me batty.
  • There were a lot of battles. Detailed. Especially in Arthur. Some people live for that type of fantasy writing. I do not.
  • The series just plain lacked excitement. The best bits were really the middle of Taliesin and the end of Arthur. In between, I was usually bored.
  • Lawhead has a really strange way of in-your-face foreshadowing. In and of itself, it’s a bit laughable. But when you pair it with lack of delivery, it’s downright infuriating. Like, he might say, “Their fears for the morning would prove to be true.” Then, in the morning, maybe it would drizzle and then they would win the battle. WHAT?!? This happened over and over and over. I would get all psyched up for some fore-told event, and the event itself would fizzle in a lake of mediocrity and ordinariness.
  • Specifically, Morgian’s (Morgan le Fay) evilness is talked up frequently and Merlin is always showing physical anxiety about her. But when she does show up–so rarely–she’s almost all talk and she accomplishes very little. The two truly vile things she actually does manage are off-screen and vague. The same is true for Guinevere (in the negative), but I am assured that she comes more into her own in the later books.

All in all, I felt very unfulfilled with character and plot development. I felt like there were a whole mess of words which took me nowhere. And the development that did happen came in fits and starts that trailed off into oblivion. (It’s hard to accurately describe this feeling. Because I know, literally, the plot did continue on. But it was like running in a dream. Or like you were reading an author’s plot notes. Or running on a treadmill. There was no zing. No exceitement.) Plus, it seems to me that Lawhead omitted many of the messier sides of his primary characters in favor of a glossier Christianity (and I say this as a Christian.) This is boring and inauthentic. Where is the affair? Where is the illegitimate son? It’s part of the legends, and it’s part of what would make these characters both relatable and–in the long run–heroes.

Lawhead is quite an author for telling, anyways. He’s more likely–at least in these books–to tell you that something is “majestic” than to help you feel its majesty.

In conclusion, if you like Arthurian legends or classic fantasy and are willing to persevere when things are less than perfect, then you should take a crack at this series. I would recommend having a list of the modern names, nearby, and also read the books in the order recommended above. Keep a keen eye on passing time (while understanding that some of the characters live much longer than mere humans), place, tribes/people groups, and people. With the cursory knowledge that you now have, of the series, I’m pretty sure you’ll have a much better experience than I did.

Oh, and Atlanteans = Elves.

_______________

QUOTES:

TALIESIN:

“‘Yes, and good fortune will require more of you than failure ever did'” (p155).

“‘That is where you are wrong, woman. There is never enough time for love-making. We must take it when we can'” (p330).

“‘That matters but little,’ Cuall reminded him. ‘They are here, and that is the meal that is on our plate'” (p336).

MERLIN:

“Yet, every man has two names: the one he is given, and the one he wins for himself” (p15).

“And as there is much evil in the world, there is much doubt also” (p15).

“Humility, if it comes at all, most always comes too late” (p21).

“…the twin fields of bed and battle” (p27).

“A city is an unnatural place” (p30).

“But as I said, men’s hearts remember long after their minds have forgotten” (p38).

“You must understand, Myrddin Bach, not every man will follow the Light” (p45).

“They did not trust writing, and in this showed remarkable wisdom” (p61).

“I believe that certain powerful events leave behind their own lingering traces which also color the land in subtle ways” (p135).

“…the seasons fly? Up they swirl, winging back to the Great Hand which gave them. They fly like the wild geese, but nevermore return” (p193).

“Be thankful you are knit with such strong stuff” (p324).

“To decide for one is to decide against another. I never imagined it would be this hard” (p328).

“This is our work in creation: to decide. And what we decide is woven into the thread of time and being forever” (p328).

“But remember the church is only men, and men can become jealous of another’s favor. Do not hate them for it” (p329).

“…even though I know the Light is ever found in the lost unlikely places” (p333).

“Hearing with understanding is perhaps the greater part of wisdom” (p347).

“Once spoken, a word can not be called back; once loosed, an arrow cannot return to the bow. What happens, for good or ill, happens forever, and that is the way of it” (p364).

“As I have said, the illuminating spirit, like the wind, goes where it will, and sheds a light that all-too-often obscures as much as it reveals” (p381).

“…you are not the first man to love a woman. Stop acting like a wounded bear and let us discover what can be done” (p385).

“It happens like this sometimes–and all the plans, all the reasons, all desires and possibilities fade to nothing. And all that remains is the single unwilled act” (p392).

“Of course, there is no certainty in following, either. That is what makes it faith” (p393).

“Unreasonable men are even unreasonable, and only become more so when threatened. Truth always threatens the false-hearted” (p393).

“…forgive yourself as you have been forgiven. Your failings are not unique to you alone” (p421).

“That she loved where she should rightly despise was her glory” (p439).

ARTHUR:

“If you feel maligned and impugned in his presence,’ he said, ‘no doubt it is the truth working in you'” (p35).

“It was, they discovered, the foundation stone of the worlds-realm, so they decided to lift it up and see what lay beneath it. This they did. And do you know what they found?’/’I cannot say. What did they find?’/’Love,’ replied Myrddin simply” (p148).

“…as if good men and brave did not sleep in turf houses in ground hallowed by their own blood… as if war were a word” (p197).

“Great Light! The enemy’s power is so fragile! The devils can use only what we ourselves give them” (p220).

“‘Then be worthy, boy. No one stands between you and your honor!'” (p330).

“That which is given to us to do, we will do,’ he said and turned his face away. ‘We are men and not angles after all'” (p404).

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2 thoughts on “Series Review: The Pendragon Cycle

  1. Well done, Devon. You persevered to the end. However, you have a couple of things a bit sideways. I’ll just mention that, foremost, it was never my intention to split up the books leaving all those plot holes. The Pendragon Cycle was conceived as a 4-book series.

    However, the original publisher pulled the plug on the project after Merlin was published. I was writing Arthur at the time and was able to get them to agree to let me finish that one so at least 3 books would see the light of day. Then, I had to seriously truncate the story and make the best sense it I could.

    A few years later, another publisher came along, bought the series and asked me to finish it, so Grail and Pendragon were added. So, there you have it. I usually don’t explain all this, but since it seemed to bother you somewhat, I thought just this once. . . .

    All the best
    S R Lawhead

    PS – The Atlantis connection was not my invention, either. I found that reference in an old Welsh myth that linked the Fair Folk with settlers from lost Atlantis. They are NOT elves!

    • Thanks so much for commenting and keeping me honest and on my toes.

      The information you shared definitely makes me want to read the last two books, especially when your intention to continue was changed by the publisher. I had read somewhere that your series was truncated and then expanded later, but not why.

      I would also like to say that I had a hard time airing my grievances with this series (and really with many books) because I know that so many people love it, including a writer friend of mine who read through several times as a teenager. No doubt, your books have shaped his view of the world. And I also deeply respect the writing process and writers (obviously, since I am one).

      Thanks again, and best to you.

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