Legend to Novel: Our Man on Earth

What was from the original legend of Merlin’s birth, and what was developed for the novel? Author Scott Telek breaks down the differences between the Middle English source legend and how the story was told in the first novel in his Swithen series… the one that sets his knowingly modern retelling of the Arthurian legend in motion.

In the legend, none of the women are named
In case you don’t know, the novels of The Swithen remain faithful to the original Arthurian legends while filling the psychology and character development that are missing from the Middle English sources, laid down from 1136 to 1485 AD. The rule is that I can only add characters and scenes, but am not allowed to change anything from the original legend. For this novel, Our Man on Earth, the entire story that was made into this 300-plus page novel fills only 20 pages in the longest existing telling. So what did I change and add from the original source legend?

The writing was also very focused on the males, and in this story, very focused on Merlin.  So the first, and biggest change I made to the material is…

Merlin’s mother receives a name; Meylinde
In the original legend, our main character never even receives a name. She is referred to as “the mother,” and—get ready—vanishes completely once Merlin leaves her (at the beginning of Book 2). So of course the first thing to do was invent a name for her, and a story, and a voice for her. The bones of her story are the same, but I had to flesh out her personality and discover who he was as an individual woman of indomitable strength and fortitude. I knew from the start that the book would depict the formation of Merlin’s young mind (not covered in the old legend), and I knew that I wanted Meylinde to be instrumental in the formation of his sense of morality. This is what gave me the key that allowed me to keep her in the story past the end of Our Man on Earth.

I had thought at first I might follow the legend, and roughly leave her behind, to show how harsh the world (and view of women) was in the old sources. But her status as Merlin’s moral advisor (as one of two people whose advice he seeks) gave me a key as to how to keep her around in the series—which you’ll have to discover for yourself. She will be with us for a while, and her influence will linger much longer.

Read Reviews of the novel at Amazon

Most tellings of the Arthurian legend begin just before Arthur’s birth. This one begins with the story of Merlin as an attempt for Satan to get one up on God. This skews the whole story of King Arthur as a failed attempt by the devil, which is a completely different reading! And because of that, none of it could happen without Meylinde… which makes her sort of the “Virgin Mary” of this series. And as such, I knew she had to have a very important place. That’s why I gave her a prophetic dream in which she meets the Lady of the Lake, sees Excalibur, but makes an important choice that will have reverberations all throughout the series.

Her dream, her personality, and her importance to the story are all new in this telling.

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Let’s get that family out of the way
In the legend, the killing of Meylinde’s family takes up two pages. In mine, it’s the first half of the entire book! None of her parents or siblings receive names, and the details of their deaths are very slim. So all of that is invented by me, as a way of getting us to understand who Meylinde is and what she truly goes through, as well as what her family meant to her—and what it means when she is finally all that she has left.

Maven, the marvelous, mercurial sister
The character of Maven never receives a name in the old legend. She does meet a woman in the market, she does make a surprising change of vocation, and she does bring a party of men back to tempt Meylinde into abandoning her spiritual protections, but that’s about all. Her entire close relationship with Meylinde is invented by me, as is her dislike of Blaise and the writing she makes in the house. I wanted to show how deeply Meylinde loved her family, and what a harsh betrayal that would be if it were to be taken away.

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Blaise, paragon of faith and protection
The character of Blaise is largely unchanged from the legend, but greatly expanded. Most of his scenes in the novel do occur, but I have expanded them massively from their inspirations, especially to give weight to his relationship with Meylinde. Blaise will be with us for several novels to come, and has a close, jokey relationship with Merlin, while also serving as one of the few people Merlin will listen to.

Rossa and Farah, Meylinde’s trusty midwives
The two midwives that attend Meylinde in the tower and assist in the birth of Merlin—fighting him down when he’s still a vicious little devil baby—are almost entirely invented by me. They appear in the story, but they are not given names, and no personalities. Everything about who each of them is, Rossa patient and helpful and Farah selfish and petty, was invented for this novel. Merlin’s entire plot revolving around Farah at the end of the novel was entirely invented by me, in order to show the way his mother Meylinde influences his sense of morality.

Norris, the spiteful, angry judge
In the legend, Norris is referred to as “the judge” and nothing more. So his name, history and personality is entirely invented for this novel. His earlier appearance, taking away Raisie, was invented by me to depict the common views of women, and “women’s lechery,” at the time. He does receive the surprising revelation about his own lineage at the end, but his emotional reaction to it—which forms the climax of the novel—is entirely invented for this story.

Imagining Merlin as a baby
All we know about Merlin from the legend itself is that he was born with all knowledge of the past and future, and that he can shape-shift—although he never changes his appearance in this part of the legend. The most important thing to me in this novel was to depict the formation of Merlin’s mind, as well as his sense of morality. So, using what little we knew about him, I embellished his mental journey greatly.

We know that Merlin was born with all knowledge of the past and future. But what does that mean, when you have no experience to make sense of it? For me, that was the crux of Merlin’s development. Since we know that he can shape-shift, it occurred to me that he could become an animal that could leave the tower they are imprisoned in, which gave me a way to have him gain some experience of the outside world. The sequences in which Merlin’s mind is forming, and knowledge and connections coming together in his intellect, is entirely created by me.

Another thing that I added for the novel is Merlin’s inability to deal with emotion, which is something that is going to have big ramifications on the series going forward. I mused that since he can see all events of history, past and future, it is probably difficult for him to see the value, and feelings, of one person.

This thread was invented by me, just to give him some personality, but I kept following where it led, and in Book 2 and especially Book 3, this aspect of Merlin’s character will become a major issue in the story, and a defining characteristic of how my depiction of Merlin differs from almost every other. And it’s all leading toward an arc for Merlin, new to this series, that will play out over the first ten or so novels.

The result?
It’s been very gratifying to me to see the way Meylinde has been embraced by readers, and to hear how they have been touched by her story… especially as she has been developed so greatly from the sources. That is really the guiding principle of the series, to bring the characters to life and make them seem like real people–not just blankly noble and just historical figures–so to have readers respond to her is greatly gratifying and motivated me to do right by the rest of the incredible characters that populate the story.

View Our Man on Earth at Amazon

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One Comment on “Legend to Novel: Our Man on Earth

  1. Pingback: Adapting the Merlin legend into a novel – The Swithen

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