Merlin Critical Essays

Robert Nye


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Merlin forms the middle of a loosely connected trilogy of novels, with Falstaff (1976) and Faust (1980), in which Nye retells the stories of notable fictional characters. His retelling is very different from the originals, for Nye’s novels are scabrous, scatological, scholarly, and bawdy. He reinforces the humanity of his characters by making them larger than life, engaged in huge, Rabelaisian romps that are among the most daring and rambunctious in contemporary English literature.

Of the three novels, Merlin is easily the most adventurous, for Nye uses a spirited and fast-paced postmodern technique that suits his spare, often poetic prose style. The story is told in bursts of short, vivid incidents. Chapters are often no more than a few lines long, and many paragraphs are no more than a sentence. Scenes interrupt one another and are often laced with seemingly irrelevant asides by other characters, usually Beelzebub or Astarot. The text is ornamented with bizarre lists. Attention is constantly drawn to the artifice of the entire enterprise, not only in the way that Merlin and the devil dispute authorship of the book but also in the way that Merlin addresses the reader and interjects lists of the things he intends to explain within the novel, or in the way that the devil refers back to specific chapters.

For all that Nye appears to transform the legend with his bawdy comedy and postmodern techniques, he is actually faithful to the story. Sex is one of the primary driving forces in the story of Arthur: Uther’s lust for Igrayne, Arthur’s for Morgan, and Guinevere’s for Lancelot all prove vital to the story. By focusing on these elements, Nye reveals the psychological and sexual underpinnings for the whole of the Arthurian cycle. Most critics have lauded the mixture of erudition and low comedy in Merlin, but few have noticed the serious contribution that Nye has made to Arthurian fantasy.