This book is set in post-Arthurian times when Merlin was still bound by Nimuë’s enchantments and the Grail still something a knight might reasonably set out in quest of. It is a period of which I am very fond, but the only other time I had tried to read a Judith Tarr novel, I gave up after a few pages! I expected the same thing to happen here.
It did not. Far from it. After the first few pages, I could not put Kingdom of the Grail down.
It is the story of Roland, hero of the epic poem La Chanson de Roland in which Roland dies when he is ambushed by Saracens in the pass of Roncesvalles in the high Pyrenees. Only here he does not die: the story goes on, made wonderful, made mythical, by Judith Tarr’s own brand of magic. Roland, a descendant of Merlin, is both enchanter and shape-shifter – it is in his blood – and warrior – he is Count of the Breton Marches and one of the King’s Companions of Charles the Great of France.
A beautiful woman, Sarissa, appears at the court in France, bearing a magical sword, Durandel, and offers it as a prize. Roland wins it and becomes both her champion and her lover. But what does she represent? What force, what kingdom, is he now champion of?
As the story moved on, I noticed how much Tarr has been influenced by such writers as Tolkein and Lewis. Everything leads up to a final battle between the forces of Good and Evil that is the best I have come across since the closing chapters of Lord of the Rings and The Last Battle which brings the Narnia books to a close. And her wizard (Merlin = Gandalf) and wicked sorcerer (Ganelon, tool of the Dark Lord) are the real thing, as is her man born to be king (Roland) of the enchanted land whose ancient king (Parsifal) is dying, waiting only for his successor to take up the sword and fight the great war that he himself no longer can – though before that can happen, Roland, not fully trusted yet by Sarissa and blaming her for the massacre of his friends at Roncesvalles, flees in the form of a hawk and is for a while lost to mankind, his home the wilderness, the wasteland. “He had been human once. He had no particular desire to wear that shape again …”
But this is not mere imitation. It is great writing of the same genre. It has everything, and I cannot recommend it too highly.