Back to Save the World?

Lady Vivien reviews the recent novel The Return of Merlin by Deepak Chopra

This work of fiction (subtitled “The Dawn of a New Age”) is an interesting departure for Chopra, who is best known for his self-help books, dealing with healing, weight-loss, and healthier living. Familiar with these other works, I expected the story to be primarily a parable about self-discovery, and indeed, the author includes a foreword - “The Key to Merlin” which encourages the reader to discover the ways in which the various chapters of the story can be interpreted for the individual, and assist in reaching that point of understanding which Chopra describes as being a wizard. Despite this ‘hidden agenda’, however, the book can simply be read as a work of speculative fiction, and appreciated as such. The story itself is told through several different viewpoints, but centre primarily around a pair of schoolboys, Tommy and Sis, and the young apprentice of Merlin, whom the author dubs Melchior.

Beginning with the killing of the royal stag and the fall of Camelot in the time of Arthur, Chopra weaves a tale which stretches betwixt the past and the modern world, and brings the spirits of the principals in the Arthurian drama - Mordred, Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Morgan and of course Merlin himself to life amongst the inhabitants of a small English country village. Though his shifts of scene are at first confusing, as we are presented with a series of seemingly unrelated dilemmas at various locations and points in time, the plot eventually begins to unfold as the suspense builds, and both reader and characters become aware of the nature of this particular quest, and why its outcome is important - not only for the fate of Camelot, but for the entire world. While the eventual outcome of the confrontation is predictable, the fate of the character is by no means assured, and the author manages to include some arresting - and chilling - twists to the story.

Overall, I was primarily impressed by the way that Chopra manages to submerge his ideas so effectively within the story. Despite the fact that I was looking for his tangential departures about the nature of the spirit, and how to discover the true self, I often found myself at times caught up in the story, and forgot that any other message was intended. As a work of fantasy, it’s an interesting if unremarkable read, and as second glance will uncover some interesting insights on the course of human development, both mental and physical. Fans of the traditional legend might find themselves a bit put off by the loose interpretations of the Canon. Like many modern authors, Chopra takes those parts of the legend that apply to his story, and discards those which do not. As the primary conflict here is between the wizards, Merlin and Mordred, the relationship between Arthur and Guinevere is covered only in the periphery, and Lancelot turns up only in the second half of the book, playing a surprisingly insignificant role. (Chopra also has the annoying habit of describing the sorceress Morgan as the “Fairy Fay” which seems highly redundant to me!) However, the essentials remain much the same - the sword, the grail and the stone are the objects which draw the heroes together, and it is the forgotten spirits within them that achieve the metaphorical victory which frees Merlin from his prison, and changes the course of history.

Yet the principal strength of the book is also its primary failing - for although it is a far better and more accessible read than the average self-help tome, it cannot help but fall short of the invention and wonder of truly classic fantasy, burdened as it is with a ‘deeper’ message. For those already familiar with Chopra and his ideas, it’s an excellent balance between the ludic and the didactic, and it’s a thought-provoking read for those seeking a bit more meaning in their fiction. For those simply seeking an engaging story, or a potentially classic reinterpretation of the Arthurian legend, however, I'd recommend a read of either The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, or better yet The Once and Future King by T.H. White.