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Transformers: But Myth Has No Prototype

cooper_overseaLike many fantasy writers born and raised in Britain, I am haunted by Celtic and Arthurian myth; it goes with the territory. Even before I could read, I’d been shown the footprint of King Arthur’s horse up on the mountain above my grandmother’s village in Wales, and the mist that was the breath of the Brenin Llwyd, the Grey King, blowing down from Cader Idris. And, and…

So when I grew up and found myself writing the first book in a sequence called The Dark Is Rising, my imagination was drawing unconsciously on a quarter-century of myths heard, read, and breathed in with the air. No wonder the book began with three children finding clues to an ancient grail (no, not the Holy Grail, just a chalice) engraved with “the true story of Arthur soon to be misted in men’s minds.” I don’t think I actually planned to write about Arthur, any more than I planned the identity of Merriman Lyon, the great-uncle that I gave the children. The story was well under way before I realized, like my character Barney, quite what my imagination had been up to.

[Simon] moved round the edge of the crowd with Jane, but Barney stayed where he was. “Merriman Lyon,” he said softly to himself. “Merry Lyon…Merlion…Merlin…” He looked across the room to where Great-Uncle Merry’s white head towered over the rest, slightly bent as he listened to what someone else was saying… And Great-Uncle Merry, as if he knew, turned his head and looked him full in the face for an instant, across the crowd; smiled very faintly, and looked away again.

When I’ve written characters from real life into my books — Shakespeare, Nelson, Owain Glyndwr, Roger Williams — I’ve tried not to transform them but to stay as close as possible to the recorded characters, with things they might have done, might have said. But a character from myth is another matter. He — or she — has no substance and no beginning; he emerges from the mist of prehistory and becomes an accretion of everything believed or written about him — and from all that, any writer’s imagination takes what it wants.

That’s why there are so many differing books about Arthur, and so many other differing books about Merlin.

I didn’t plan out what I was going to do with these two in the Dark Is Rising books; the myth-haunted imagination simply chose as it went along. It chose the sixth-century Romano-Celtic soldier who is the only “real” Arthur, mentioned briefly by the monk-
historian Nennius, and it put him at the Battle of Badon, fighting off invaders as the Romans’ four-hundred-year rule of Britain collapsed. But in order to give Arthur a son, my imagination also chose the fictional medieval king of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, for the sake of Guinevere. And it put Merlin as companion to both.

My Merriman Lyon is, I suppose, a transformed Merlin. But above all he belongs to my story, as the oldest of the Old Ones, lords of the Light, and you can’t identify him solely with the druidical sixth-century Myrddin or the prophesying magician of the Morte d’Arthur any more than you can Tolkien’s high wizard Gandalf, or the lovely absentminded Merlin of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. They all probably share the DNA of Jung’s archetype the wise old man, who lurks in everybody’s subconscious somewhere.

But I hope I managed to give Merriman the qualities that always drew me to the mythical Merlin: magical power, wisdom, mystery. And I hope my Arthur has the high courage of the defender of Logres, the ultimate earthly king. It’s the essence of a mythical character that the writer needs to catch. If you can manage that, your portrayal of him — or her — may not be a mirror image of all its predecessors, but it will be true.

From the May/June 2015 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Transformations.

Susan Cooper About Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper is an acclaimed, Newbery Medal–winning author of fantasy, from the Dark Is Rising sequence to King of Shadows. Her most recent novel is Ghost Hawk (McElderry).

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