H. Warner Munn’s Merlin’s Ring is one of the odder fantasies I have come across in my reading, but also one for which I have a deep affection. The book is equal parts pseudo-Arthurian Romance (in both the medieval and modern sense of the word), era-spanning historical fantasy à la Edwin Arnold’s Phra the Phoenician, and epic hero’s journey; there is even some mild pulp sci-fi thrown in for good measure. Despite (or maybe because of) all of this melding and mixing, Merlin’s Ring manages to be something all its own.
Written by one of the old standbys of the Weird Tales pulp magazine (Munn was an associate of H.P. Lovecraft and Seabury Quinn) Merlin’s Ring was probably Munn’s masterwork. It is actually the second volume in a series of stories that purport to tell the tale of what happened to Arthur’s followers after the great King’s fall, but it can be read on its own quite easily. All one needs to know from the first volume (collecting two original novellas under the title Merlin’s Godson) is that it describes how the wizard Merlin and the Romano-British centurion Ventidius Varro fled Britain with their followers and sailed in Arthur’s ship Prydwen to the New World. There they became kings among the Aztecs and a son is born to Varro, Gwalchmai, who has for godfather none other than the famous Merlin. Varro sends his son back to the Old World on a quest to find the current emperor and offer to him overlordship of Varro’s new domain. On the way across the Atlantic Gwalchmai has many adventures and even comes across an ancient Atlantean Swan-Ship which houses a strange robotic statue inhabited by the transmigrating spirit of an undying Atlantean princess. The two of course fall in love, but as the tale ends Gwalchmai is trapped beneath a glacier with his love, Corenice, promising they will meet again.
This volume opens several hundred years later as Corenice, now inhabiting the body of a Viking maiden, forces her family to steer their ship towards the glacier that houses Gwalchmai’s body. Thanks to having drunk his godfather’s elixir of life, as well as having possession of his magical ring, Gwalchmai has been able to weather the centuries in the ice unharmed and no older than when he was first frozen. He is freed from the ice by Corenice and so begins his renewed quest to find the emperor to whom he can give the message of his father. What follows is a meandering journey from western Europe to the far East and back again which spans centuries (Merlin’s elixir exacts periods of a death-like sleep in order to pay for long life) and takes Gwalchmai into a variety of adventures. These adventures include a somewhat admittedly twee stay in Faery where he retrieves Arthur’s sword Excalibur, a journey to China (initially in search of the supposed Christian King Prester John) in a humourous style reminiscent of Ernest Bramah’s Kai Lung stories, a voyage to feudal Japan, and a return west where he comes across Joan of Arc (an apparent descendant of his and Corenice’s) and ultimately tangles with an old foe, the alien-god Oduarpa who had been responsible for the fall of Atlantis.
In many ways Merlin’s Ring is a strange tale and not every element of it works as well as others. Still, Munn has an easy prose style and was a meticulous researcher who brings vivid life to the era-spanning adventures of his hero. Gwalchmai’s ostensible quest is really little more than a MacGuffin meant to propel the hero forward through time and across space as he lives out his not-quite-immortal term. The lynchpin of the story is the romance between Gwalchmai and his transmigrating love Corenice. Sometimes this romance can be stretched to the point of excess, but ultimately Munn is able to pull the story back and make us care about these characters whose fate as semi-supernatural heroes seems to always get in the way of their true desire to simply live a simple life with each other. Munn creates an interesting world populated both with real historical figures (among them Kublai Khan, Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais and Christopher Columbus), alongside mythical figures such as King Arthur, the Norse god Thor, and the Fae, as well as his own inventions in the form of Corenice, last daughter of high-tech Atlantis, and their alien foe the dark lord Oduarpa.
I imagine this book will not be to everyone’s taste, but if you like historically flavoured fantasy with a strong dose of romance and optimism then I’d recommend giving Merlin’s Ring a try (either with or without the companion volume Merlin’s Godson).