Merlin of the Woods

The matter of the Celts has had a strong hold on the English-speaking imagination for a long time, at least since the publication in the mid-18th century of the forged Poems of Ossian; but it was a symbolic moment of great importance when Matthew Arnold told his Oxford audience how, on a seaside holiday at Llandudno in North Wales in 1864, he had turned his back on "the prosperous Saxon" to his east, and looked on the "eternal softness and mild light of the west." Since then the conviction has grown that things missing from modern life—romance, poetry, mystery, ancient lore—will be found in those remote northern and western zones of the British Isles. For, as the contemporary poet X.J. Kennedy puts it, "Somebody stole my myths, / Took all their gist and piths," and from that sad certainty it is an easy translation to a strong hope that replacements will be found north of the Roman wall, west of the River Severn, and over the Irish Sea.

As fantasies go, this one is fairly harmless, and it has given rise to a huge bibliography, fictional and nonfictional, some of it eccentric. Nikolai Tolstoy is a contributor to this literature. Although best known for his books on his family, and on the compulsory repatriation of Soviet citizens in 1945, he has also written The Quest for Merlin, a book about the historicity of Merlin, and now this long fictional narrative of Merlin's life....

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