Robert Holdstock’s Celtika, and The Iron Grail: Books One and Two of the Merlin Codex

cover, CeltikaOn the strength of this beginning novel of a new series, Robert Holdstock is attempting to tie together almost everything he has written since the British Science Fiction Award winning Mythago Wood, weaving together all the threads of Western mythology into a coherent whole. Having apparently wrung all he could out of his Ryhope Wood series, which started with Mythago Wood, he turns to the ever-vexing matter of Merlin, a figure who has caused many a writer to propose interesting origins for him! Holdstock decided to make Merlin the central unifying character in this new series because of his role in Merlin’s Wood.

As he notes in an interview republished on his Web site:

I’d written a short novel called Merlin’s Wood in the mid-’90s, set in the forest of Broceliande, in an alternative present where the ‘pagan’ church has absorbed Christianity, rather than the other way round. The essential story was that Vivian, his nemesis, is still pursuing him through time, even though Merlin lies impaled in the bottom of a votive shaft. I like that Merlin so much I determined to bring him back. He was a late addition to the idea behind Celtika, but an essential one, as he gives an immortal’s perspective on things.

Hmmm … I read Merlin’s Wood some years ago, and I’ll be damned if there was any indication of it being an alternative history!

Be that as it may, Celtika: Book One of the Merlin Codex is a less complex book than any of the Ryhope Wood books and short stories. Because it doesn’t sprawl across multiple volumes like the Ryhope Wood series, it has a much cleaner feel to it. What always drove me nuts about the earlier books was the insistent nonlinear nature of them. Only Merlin’s Wood proceeded in a reasonably linear fashion.

But Celtika has a plot line more in keeping with traditional storytelling. Many centuries before he will be the friend of the once and future King Arthur, an apparently ever-young Merlin is a traveler questing after magical knowledge. During his questing, he happens upon Jason, he of the search for the Golden Fleece, a potentially cursed object if ever there was one. (Well, do you really want to wake a sleeping dragon? I thought not!) Like so many actions undertaken by Merlin, his assistance to Jason will cost him very dearly. Centuries later, Merlin learns of a ship frozen beneath the ice in a northern lake. He soon realizes that it is the long-lost and presumed destroyed Argo. Jason still lives. (Well, sort of. Death in the Holdstockian mythos bears more than a passing resemblance to death in the Zelaznian mythos — death is a transformative force, not an ending of existence.) Merlin retrieves both the ship and its captain, who then goes off on a quest to rescue Jason’s sons, who were assumed killed by the enchantress Medea, who stole them away many, many centuries ago.

After the ship and Jason are rescued by Merlin, the novel gets really interesting. The premise is that Hera is literally bonded with the Argo, making it a living thing that actively assists its crew. Unfortunately, haste causes its ceremonial rebuilding to go terribly wrong and makes a not-so-mortal enemy of its new deity, Mielikk, the Forest goddess. And more troubles arrive, for among the new Argonauts is the unnervingly attractive and tricky Niiv, a descendant of Merlin himself, who must be handled with extreme caution. Adding immeasurably to the chaos is Jason’s dreadfully wronged wife, the sorceress Medea, who has survived the many centuries and hasn’t forgiven him yet.

So three not-terribly-pleasant women all have an interest in Jason and his new quest. Maybe waking that sleeping dragon would have been a better choice! Not surprisingly, the prose here feels heavily influenced by The Odyssey. This series has the potential to reach a wider reading audience than the Ryhope Wood series, as it’s much easier to follow. It has good, well-drawn characters, and a plot with enough twists to make it interesting. If you like Holdstock, you’ll enjoy this one; if you like the writings of Zelazny, particularly those novels that have immortals as their central characters, such as To Die In Italbar or Call Me Conrad, you’ll find this worthwhile reading. It’s a worthy addition to the long list of novels that use Merlin as a central character!

cover, The Iron Grail


‘We know,’ was the reply, almost amused. The crows seemed suddenly alarmed but it was merely a gust of wind curling through the hall. Skaald whispered, ‘Three are returning who are a threat to you. A fourth is already here and hiding.’

I waited for enlightenment. They waited for me to ask for more. When I proposed the question, Skaald said: ‘The first is a man who needs you and will use you. He will weaken you dangerously. The second is a man you betrayed, though you believe otherwise. He wishes to kill you and can do so easily. The third is a ship that is more than a ship. She grieves and broods. She is rotting inside. She will carry you to your grave.’

The crows had become very still, watching me quietly from their raw perches, as if waiting for me to respond to these ominous visions.

— from The Iron Grail: Book Two of the Merlin Codex

These three dire warnings are given to Merlin as he returns to Alba, the future England, and more specifically, to the long abandoned fortress of Tuarovinda, which is the Hill of the White Bull. (I’ve decided that Robert Graves in his White Goddess phase would have really loved these books, as they are remarkably similar to much of that book.) Like the previous novel in this series, a doomed Hero is on the journey with Merlin. This time, it’s Urtha (or if you prefer, Uther, father of Arthur), who has come to reclaim his dominion. Urtha will be the first of the four men in the prophecy given to Merlin by Skaald. Holdstock’s using an archetype here, as skald is the word for an ancient Scandinavian storyteller. An abandoned fortress should pose no problem for a warrior king to reclaim, right? Wrong. Urtha’s fortress has been taken by what Jack Merry means by the Dead Heroes of Culloden, the name of his Celtic band — warriors from Ghostland, the realm also known as Faerie, have claimed it as their own. And nothing is more hard to kill off than the already dead.

Urtha’s children have been consigned to what is, depending on your belief, the heaven or hell of the land of the dead, Ghostland. This has saved them from the invasion of Urtha’s fortress home, but now Ghostland itself is coming unraveled, and what is happening to Ghostland is intrinsic to Urtha’s children, who literally ‘are both key and cure’. It is this unraveling that lies at the root of the invasion of the fortress, with the Dead crossing the river that separates Ghostland from the world of the living.

Meanwhile, Jason, who was the Hero that Merlin aided in Celtika, is looking for one of his long-lost sons; Urtha is also looking for his children and trying to reclaim his fortress; but it is down to Merlin to find an explanation for what is happening in this strange land. And prophecy never tells you exactly what is going to happen. Merlin may be very old, he may be very powerful as a wizard, and he may have foresight, but the Fates aren’t very kind to him. Nor do they treat his companions any better. All I can tell you is that The Argo — yes, Jason’s ship is back! — makes a terribly strange voyage through the ocean of Ghostland, which is where at last Merlin painfully learns its secret. In the process of doing so, he also learns more about his own past and future.

If you’ve read any of the Ryhope Wood sequence, you’ll understand that Holdstock is not an easy writer to grasp. As Richard Dansky said in his review of that series, ‘The layered complexities of Holdstock’s work can make it hard reading at times — after a few exhilarating pages you have to take a break. So much incident is alluded to, mentioned in passing and then we move on — a richness weaker writers of the fantastic would never dare squander. This richness is one of the author’s greatest strengths, and one that, bizarrely, is not common enough in the genre. In Holdstock’s best work, as it is in The Iron Grail, the complex depths of plot and allusion and time and place are combined with a real narrative drive — it is, quite simply, a page-turner.’

You can’t read this novel without first having read Celtika: Book One of the Merlin Codex. Like the Ryhope Wood sequence, the fact that there are (so far) two novels is absolutely meaningless. Although Holdstock has written one-offs such as Ancient Echoes and Unknown Regions, it is clear to me that his best, most interesting, and yes, most difficult to read, work is done at the length of The Lord of The Rings. The Merlin Codex sequence will, when the third part is out next year, be close to 900 pages in length, if not more. And this sequence may be even longer. Mythago Wood, Holdstock’s official site, has the tantalizing clue that this sequence might just connect to the Ryhope Wood series. Now, given that Merlin’s Wood, or The Vision of Magic also involves Merlin, anything is possible.

If you have the time to read carefully, holding lots of details in your head, you’ll find much to enjoy here. This Merlin is quite unlike any other Merlin you’ll encounter, as he has a depth, a reality to him, lacking in most Merlin portrayals. Holdstock really has made Merlin his own, and Merlin as a character is much better off for it. It will be fascinating to see what happens next in this sequence. It may not be a joyous adventure, but it is an interesting one!

(Earthlight, 2001/Tor, 2003)
(Earthlight, 2002)

Cat Eldridge

I'm the publisher of Green Man Review. I also do the Birthdays for Mike Glyer’s, the foremost SFF fandom site.

My current audiobook is Alasdair Reynolds’ Machine Vendetta. I’m watching my way though all nine seasons of the Suits law series.

My music listening as always leans heavily towards trad Celtic and Nordic music.

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