Even after thousands of years, there’s still something that calls to me from ancient Rome. Especially when it comes to literature. I can’t say that I know all the ins and outs of the Roman Empire, I know a little about this, a little about that. But one thing I’ve always found myself drawn to is the epic failure of Rome’s conquest of Britannia and the formation of Medieval Britain.
Then there is my fascination with all things Arthurian. Knights, epic quests, the famed Round Table, Merlin –all of it pulls on my heart strings. Always has. Ancient codes, ancient magic, Welsh history. What is not to love?
Couple my Roman Britain interest with my fascination for Arthurian tales and you can guarantee I’m going to read any book that pairs those two together. Even ones that don’t if they’re set in medieval Britain. I can’t help myself!
There are three series I’ve read (some in-part) that definitely do the Dark Ages justice.
The Roman Britain Trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliff
I’ve read Sutcliff’s trilogy most recently, and I finished all three stories, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, and The Lantern Bearers, in the compilation The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles. While the tales are aimed at a younger audience, I don’t think that should stop any older reader from enjoying them.
I picked up my copy of The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles after seeing the movie version of The Eagle of the Ninth. The dynamics between the two main characters Marcus, a Roman, and Esca, a slave, was rich and entertaining both on screen and on the page. My greatest disappointment was that the rest of the books did not follow these two but instead leapt forward in time to cover other stories about Marcus’s ancestors. Honestly, that disappointment didn’t last long.
What makes the series work so well is how this leaping in time allows Sutcliff to show the rise and fall of Rome exclusively in Britain. The Eagle of the Ninth illustrates the tensions between the newly settled Romans and the old Celtic tribes of Britain who are fighting their conquerers tooth and nail to protect their culture.
The Silver Branch shows Rome at its height of power, but also the instability that has arisen on the island with the heart of Rome so far away and the series of commanders who instate themselves as emperors. The main characters are loyal to Rome, wish to make their fathers’ proud as they follow in their footsteps, while they navigate an unsteady world.
Lastly, The Lantern Bearers paints a vivid image of the abandonment of Britain on Rome’s part and the new tensions that have developed across the land with the invasion of the Saxons. The main character of the last book, Aquila, is particularly broody and deals with the greatest adversity. His tale is the one that will haunt you. He was definitely my favourite.
What ties all three stories together so well is their mutual focus on pairs of young men at a critical point of development. Their understandings of honour and their willingness to fight for what they believe is right add suspense. Not that right is always utterly black and white, as they find out. My only pique is the fact that Sutcliff’s women are few, and the ones she writes are boring.
A Dream of Eagles Series by Jack Whyte
There’s nothing negative for me to say about Whyte’s series, though it has been a long time since I started them. Each is rather lengthy, but once you’re into the story it feels like it needs to be longer. I have to admit I’ve only finished the first four books in the series so far. The only reason I haven’t read the next two, or the companion stories, is because I don’t want to be done! I’m rather attached to the world and I keep having bouts of separation anxiety.
This series also follows a lengthy period of time; it’s set directly during and after Rome’s abandonment of Britain. What makes it unique in my opinion is how it shows the commencement of the Dark Days of Britain and how one small faction does whatever it can to make a life worth living in the face of social annihilation. It’s evolution or destruction as far as they’re concerned. Moreover, Whyte writes this series without a great deal of magic involved. Aside from some gifts of foresight, even Merlin is more cleaver than magical in this world.
The first books, The Skystone and The Singing Sword are narrated by King Arthur’s great grandfather Publius Varrus. In them we see Publius, a master swordsmith, come together with his former legion general, Caius Britannicus. With a host of others, they form the foundations of Camelot while Roman sentiment is still relatively strong across the island. However, in The Singing Sword Rome starts to leave Britannia and so the people of Camelot form new bonds with their neighbours, the clan of the Pendragons, and define what it means to be a Briton.
In the next books, The Eagles’ Brood and The Saxon Shore, Merlin, or Caius Merlyn Britannicus, Arthur’s uncle, takes over the narration of the series. In this pair of novels we see the next generation of Briton’s deal with their newest enemies, the Saxons, not to mention the daily struggles of leading a colony in a war-torn place. My favourite aspects of these two books is the relationship between the cousins Uther and Merlin, and ultimately how Arthur comes to be born and raised by Merlin. The Saxon Shore especially shows what is meant by the Dark Ages and it’s with tenuous bonds that Merlin manages to maintain the legacy of this forefathers as he struggles under a mountain of personal grief.
The next pair, The Sorcerer Volume I: The Fort at River’s Bend and The Sorcerer Volume II: Metamorphoses, sometimes sold as a single work called The Sorcerer, I desperately need to read soon! Not to mention the companion book Uther that I’ve had my eye on for what seems like forever.
Whyte’s style follows in the tradition of historical fiction. After reading A Dream of Eagles you will truly wonder whether is was all real, whether Camelot really did rise then fall much like the empire that lead to it’s creation.
The Arthurian Saga/The Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart
Ok, I’ve saved the best for last because Mary Stewart is one of my favourite authors of all time and her Merlin series is unbelievably good. Yes, the entire five book series is called the Arthurian Saga, but Merlin is the star of the first three which comprise the Merlin Trilogy. This one will always hold a special place for me because it is the very first Arthurian series I read. Plus, the books aren’t enormous tomes!
It’s been a long time since I’ve read them, so my memory is a bit sparse compared to what I was able to recount about the stories above. They all deserve five stars; I still feel strongly about that.
While Stewart’s series is set right after the abandonment of Britain, there is very little focus on Rome or the legacy of Rome. Thus it does rely on its readers to intuit the cause of Britain’s Dark Days. What Stewart does focus on are the Welsh roots of the Arthurian legend; I learned more about Wales and the Welsh language from this series than I have anywhere else.
The saga begins with The Crystal Cave, a story devoted entirely to the creation of Merlin. We follow the magician’s upbringing and learn what makes him unique in this world of constantly-fighting lesser-kings. Near the end we also come to learn of the origins of Arthur and Merlin’s role in his conception. I love how human this book paints Merlin. And Stewart too shows Merlin as more of a genius of his time rather than a man of magic, though in those days those may have been one and the same.
Next comes The Hollow Hills, which follows Arthur’s upbringing and rise to manhood. Narrated by Merlin, we follow as he plays politician amidst the danger of a ravaged Britain in order to keep Arthur safe and to ensure that he is able to claim his rightful place as heir to the Pendragon when the time is right. As hard as Merlin works to keep Arthur’s path clear, mainly by keeping the boy hidden, there are other powers at work wishing to taint the future of the High King.
The Last Enchantment marks the final book in the Merlin Trilogy and book four in the Arthurian Saga. Once again narrated by Merlin, we celebrate as Arthur comes uncontested to power. However, there are evil forces who have made good on their desire to see Arthur’s reign come to an ignominious end –not that we’ll see the end in this installment, just the threads that will lead to it later on. The focus of this story is the court of King Arthur and Merlin’s role as adviser. It’s fraught with tension, especially while the plot of Arthur’s half-sister unfolds.
I’m torn when it comes to The Wicked Day, book four. Mostly because Stewart makes me love Mordred and Arthur, and then she lets their stupid pride get the best of them. But I suppose you can’t change legend or history, depending on what you believe. Merlin is absent from this book and it’s told in third person, unlike all the others. In it the tale of Mordred is revealed in the tradition of Merlin and Arthur in the Merlin Trilogy, and shows his great attempt to become more than an instrument of doom. His failure is horribly tragic and wonderfully detailed.
Finally, much to my surprise, there is a fifth book in the Arthurian Saga! I came across The Prince and the Pilgrim while browsing the shelves at Powell’s Books in Portland when I visited a couple of years ago. I may have said, “holy shit, it can’t be,” when I realized what treasure I held in my hands. I’m looking forward to reading it but I’m still mad about Arthur and Mordred, which is why I haven’t yet picked it up.
I must mention one aspect of Stewart’s series that I find troubling. The depiction of male magic versus female magic really sets my teeth to grinding. Obviously, Merlin’s magic is all good since he works consistently to help Arthur. His nemesis is the truly evil Morgause, who uses her feminine wiles and witch magic against Arthur at every opportunity. Morgause is evil, no question. But there isn’t a powerful woman in the whole series to balance her out. The Lady of the Lake is simply too much of a side player.
I take issue with any storyteller who depicts female sexuality and power as evil, especially when her foil is a largely abstinent man. However, I suppose that is the foundation myth Stewart had to use. And these were written primarily in the 70s.
And there you have it! After compiling this list I realize that while I’ve read a number of books set in Medieval Britain, I’ve only read a few series. I’d love to rectify that, so if you have any to suggest please let me know!
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