Reviews: Melusine's Gift and Ogier's Prayer, by Tyler R. Tichelaar
In the second and third books of his Children of Arthur series (following on from Arthur's Legacy, reviewed here), Tyler Tichelaar turns his attention from the Matter of Britain to that of France, and to the related legend of Melusine, the fairy ancestor of the House of Lusignan. Here he draws on modern pseudo-histories that have made Melusine the grandmother of Count Roland, the greatest of Charlemagne's paladins: this connection, as Tichelaar freely acknowledges, has no discernible medieval origin, but suits his narrative perfectly.
The Matter of France was in large part built upon that of Britain, with Merlin, Morgana, and Arthur himself featuring in tales of Ogier the Dane and Huon of Bordeaux: it therefore makes a natural partner to it. The second book opens atmospherically: after an appetite-whetting prologue in which Merlin rescues the dying Roland from the battlefield of Roncevaux, promising to reveal mysteries to him, we return to the present day, with protagonist Adam Delaney (né Morgan) honeymooning in the South of France, where he and his wife happen on the scene of Melusine's legend and begin to experience a haunting, increasingly immediate connection with the past: a past which, unlike Arthur's legend, is almost entirely unknown to them and will be so to most readers. (Even I, a passionate medievalist and longtime student of the Matter of France, had never actually read the Melusine romances before reading this novel, though I was aware of the outline of the story. I am grateful for having been pointed towards them.)
Before long, the reader is plunged into that past. In contrast to the first book, with its back-and-forth structure interweaving two linear narratives, the second is constructed like a Russian doll, stories nesting within stories in a manner strongly reminiscent of the Thousand and One Nights - looking forward to the third, in which the Caliph Haroun al Rashid will play a significant role. This kind of structure can be very difficult to pull off successfully, but Tichelaar masters it, once again bringing his own remarkably original twists to the legend, reinterpreting the meaning of several events and subverting some of its original messages at the same time as he ties it in to his created mythology, and uses it to broaden and deepen that mythology. And broader it certainly is, and more fantastical. Where Arthur's Legacy had only hints of immortality, predestination, and reincarnation, few of them made explicit before the end, here we are in a world of fairies and giants and spells: and the fantasy will only grow more pervasive as the story continues.
The ending of Melusine's Gift brings us down to earth with a crash, as the medieval story which has occupied more than half the book (continuously, not interspersed with the modern one as in Arthur's Legacy) recedes and we return to the Delaneys in time for them to receive devastating news which sends them hurrying back to England and into the plot of Ogier's Prayer. And here we hit a sudden change of pace. Over the course of the first two books, the modern story has seemed positively gentle in comparison with the excitement of the flashbacks: now it becomes a breakneck thriller - except that, as Tichelaar also expands the scope of his mythology to take in literally the whole of human existence at the same time, it is frequently held up by the need for exposition. It is hard to shake the feeling that there is more going on in this book than it really has room to contain, and to wish that the author had allowed himself a little more space to flesh out the complex backstory without interrupting the action quite so frequently - though it seems churlish to complain that what is already a pentalogy needs to be longer! It is something of a relief when we finally return to a more evenly paced (though anything but slow!) flashback to the ninth century. (Or rather, to a High Medieval view of the ninth century. While sixth century Britain, the scene of the flashbacks in the first book, is poorly documented, this period is much better recorded: but Tichelaar has applied only a light coating of history to later legends, both French and Middle Eastern. Notably, the siege of Rome from the Enfances d' Ogier is presented much as in the chanson, though in fact the campaign which seems to have inspired this episode took place long after Charlemagne's death. But the whole point of this series is that, in its reality, legends are true.)
Among the dizzying number of myths drawn into Ogier's Prayer are two with a distinctly problematic history: Lilith, and the Wandering Jew. In the latter case, Tichelaar, with his trademark ability to find alternative interpretations of long-established tropes, cleverly subverts the anti-Semitism of the traditional story: his Wanderer is blessed, not cursed, and charged with a vital mission, and his Jewishness is incidental. As of the end of the third book, however, he has perhaps been less successful at separating Lilith from the centuries of misogyny associated with her legend, and stereotypical "bitter woman" tropes. However, this is at least partly because much of what we hear about her comes via characters who view her through the lens of an early medieval mindset. Furthermore, given Tichelaar's own stated beliefs on the nature of evil and the primacy of forgiveness (clearly incorporated into the story in the advice of one of the wisest characters, which leads to the titular prayer and to Ogier, at least, letting go of his hatred of Lilith), and the fact that the fourth volume is entitled Lilith's Love, it seems likely that a far more nuanced Lilith is hiding under the surface of the story which so far has been told mostly through the eyes of her enemies, and will soon be revealed. I certainly intend to keep reading.