Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Coming of the King - The Greatest Novel I Believe

I am a fan of Lovecraft, Howard and Tolkien above all others, but the one novelist that played a major influence in recent times was Nikolai Tolstoy and his amazing book 'The Coming of the King'. Published in 1988 by Count Tolstoy, a descendant of the famous Russian literary family. Nikolai, or Nikolai Dmitrievich Tolstoy-Miloslavsky, is a Celtic scholar who has done lengthy studies on the possible real figure of Myrddin Wyllt from early Northern Welsh lore and literature. He is fond of when Britain was still Celtic speaking (as I am as well), and has written superior works in that field.

His academics were and are an inspiration to me on my own Celtic studies and direction to this day. His novel however, 'The Coming of the King' is part one of planed trilogy centered around the mythical and historical life of Myrddin Wyllt according to the early sources. The perspective in which he composed the novel is unique and is not as direct as it seems. Although essentially from Myrddin's perspective, it changes throughout as the story goes, and follows King Maelgwn of Gwynedd, Ceneu, and the Saxons as well. Ingeniously written and complex, it isn't something for a quick read on an afternoon, but is meant for a dedicated readership that will devote time to it, to better soak in the words and atmosphere.

Tolstoy wrote this in manner of sentence, grammar and logic that is inspired from the Welsh prose tales and poems, and it shows. Even in the section with the Saxons it captures the feel and style of the early Anglo-Saxon literature and helps to give the reader a sample of those worlds. It takes some getting used to when you are unfamiliar with those traditions, and in the beginning I was completely unfamiliar with it all. Now, twenty-four years later I am absolutely familiar with it all. So much that I have a Masters in the fields (Cum Laude) from Prifysgol Cymru Llanbedr-Pont-Steffan in 2007. 

This book was my gauge in my early years on how knowledgeable I was becoming in my studies, because in the early years of my research (1986-95) I was just acquiring the Celtic languages (Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Cornish at the time) and a complete understanding of the whole field. My focus was 'Arthurian' Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries after Rome's fall. As my knowledge base, so did my full grasp of Tolstoy's novel. He wrote it such a way that a scholar will gain marvelous insights if they do not have said data yet, and I did, eagerly. 

As he mentioned in his interview given to Rochester University not long ago about the first novel in the series:

RT: As an historian, how do you feel about your novel?
NT: I hope it's better than The Quest for Merlin as history, because I've done more work and I can do things in it which I could not in the other. After all, at the end of The Quest for Merlin what have I established? If I've established anything--if any historian establishes anything--there's always somebody who'll come along later, as no doubt I shall myself, and find things that are incorrect. Moreover you are establishing, especially in the Dark Age period, rather small points really. There's very little more you can establish.

The whole novel takes place around the year 556, when a battle is mentioned in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: "In this year Cynric and Ceawlin fought against the Britons at Beranburh." It doesn't even say who won. That's a mere footnote, and there's nothing you can add to it in a historical way. Yet it doesn't matter whether the succession of events I have described happened exactly in the way they did. Clearly they didn't because some of them I have invented. The inventions, the bricks, are all from the sixth century as I see it, however. Whether the edifice is sixth century is for the reader to judge but, as with all history, that's not altogether relevant, I think. 

On a more prosaic level, I would say that the novel is better history, because I actually have to find out things which the historian doesn't need to find out. I didn't realize that until I was writing the novel. To carry conviction, I must first believe, and because I enjoy it, I do more research for the novel than I would for a straightforward historical work. If I come up against something which I simply cannot understand, the whole novel grinds to a halt, as does my income, whilst I wrestle with the problem.

Tolstoy has planned, for the last twenty years since this novel, to publish the other two in the trilogy, 'The Thirteen Treasures' and the final where Myrddin meets his fate of a Triple Death in Coed Celyddon. I had been hoping and looking for these books for two decades and there are not out. I recently find out that he has denied publishing them over some matter concerning War Crimes that concern England and the Russians during WW 2. I suppose that until that is resolved he will not release them. It is a shame.

This novel is one of the few that I completely adore because it is a good story, brilliant academically, and defines what I am and the field of studies that I am into, all wrapped up in one book. I haven't dug out my large hardback edition until recently, when I began to resume my Celtic British works and novel project, and now I am shocked that I have withheld from reading it for so long. My own trilogy planned around the same period of history and myth isn't out to establish historical elements but to tell a good story with a new view on the Otherworld, that in my opinion has been poor for so long. 

Read a copy of it if you can, and enter into Tolstoy's book with an open mind ready to be see 'Arthurian' Britian closer to how the Dark-Age Celts did that is closer to its reality, or what it would have been.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like one for the collection, thanks for the recommendation. I saw it mentioned on the Wikipedia page about Merlin too, and if it's good enough for Wikipedia...