[(essay date 1991) In the following essay, Dean argues that a successful literary representation of the character Merlin requires that modern readers be able and willing to suspend their skepticism and accept Merlin as half human and half divine.]
In medieval times, the problem of presenting the supernatural was easier than it is today. The dominant form of medieval fiction was romance, and there, the naturalistic existed very comfortably side by side with the supernatural. Havelock the Dane, for example, who earns his living by day in the most humdrum manner, catching fish and selling them in the market town of Lincoln, goes to sleep at night and has a light as bright as a sunbeam play magically about his head as an indication of his royal rank.
It is the newly respectable genre of fantasy literature which carries on this tradition today. Ursula Le Guin begins A Wizard of Earthsea with the disarmingly frank statement: "The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-wracked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards." Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings has gone no more than five pages before we meet "an odd-looking waggon . . . driven by outlandish folk, singing strange songs: dwarves with long beards and deep hoods . . . [and] an old man . . . [with] a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf . . . the old man was Gandalf the wizard."
But most of our fiction today is realistic and deals with the people and the facts of the everyday world about us. The supernatural cannot easily appear in such a context. If realistic fiction takes Arthurian themes as its subject matter, the supernatural should not enter the story. It can be hinted at or invoked as superstition, but in the end, there always has to be a rational explanation. Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset is a good illustration of the point.
When the birth of Guenhumara's daughter comes on unexpectedly at the height of a great storm, Arthur in desperation finds her a place of safety in the village of Druim Dhu, the leader of the Old Race, the Little Dark Ones. Guenhumara begs not to be left in the Fairy Hills, and later when her baby dies, she accuses the Dark People of having drawn the life out of it to save a weak child of their own. But Arthur will not accept this, protesting that her fear was nothing but an "ill dream." In the same way, when Arthur lies with Ygerna, he talks of "the magic mist," he finds the air filled with the "bloom of enchantment," and he calls her "a witch," but the rational explanation is clear enough. Ygerna drugged his wine, and it was under the influence of that that the seduction took place. Sword at Sunset is realistic fiction albeit that it is set in the distant past. There is no magic in...