The Magician of Brittonia

Merlin and Company
by Álvaro Cunqueiro.
Merlín e familia i outras historias (1955)
translated by Colin Smith.
J M Dent / Everyman 1996.

Don Merlin, the Magician of Brittonia and King Arthur’s counsellor, has retired to Galicia in the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula. Here, with Queen Guinevere, at a mansion called Miranda, he is visited by both high and low from the Old World for magical advice, dispensed spells and medical solutions. Surrounded by his books and furnace, well served by his household, he has a path beaten to his door even though it’s a rare occasion when he himself does travel a little further afield.

How do we know all this? Old Felipe the ferryman recalls his time as Merlin’s young page in a series of anecdotes and personal recollections collected together in 1955 by the esteemed Galician writer Cunqueiro, along with later additions published in 1969 included in this translation.

Told in an unadorned and rather rustic fashion, Felipe’s memoir may appear superficially whimsical; but its gentle tales of human hopes and anxieties are touching as well as enchanting, and they fit well into a long oral tradition of stories within stories, like The Arabian Nights, The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales.

Image of Merlin from the Nuremburg Chronicles

Merlin and Company may at first appear disjointed but the more one reads the more it’s evident that the stories are branches and twigs from a main trunk. Felipe’s personal recollections, looking retrospectively at a period which must refer to the mid-nineteenth century, provides the frame for this ragbag of short narratives; when we come to the appendices, written in the third person, we get the bigger picture where Merlin’s career is concerned: Merlin, born in Devon to a bearded daughter of an Irish blacksmith, holds a candle for Arthur’s widow; after the French Revolution he is set on making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; an English lawyer is trying to trace him for a Cardiff court because Merlin is a legatee.

On this showing Cunqueiro is a master storyteller, and this early work of magical realism is a wonderful farrago of invention, diversion, anachronism and imagination. The author’s affinity with Celtic lands — Galicia was for long part of a culture that stretched from here across to Brittany, Wales and Ireland — means that he draws freely on its medieval lore and literature to concoct his tall tales, full of bogus facts, asides, and matter-of-fact magic. Merlin treats with equal courtesy mermaids and dwarfs, flautists and watchmakers, Moslem raconteurs and secularised monks; they come asking for favours or trailing richly-tapestried back stories behind them. And all the while we tell outselves that these anecdotes, told with great earnestness and brio, would surely be true if we could but believe them.

A word about ‘company’ in this translation’s title: familia in Galician can mean not just close family but also the wider household and even associates, which the late Colin Smith as translator must have thought was best rendered by ‘company’. As well as a translation of the novel from Galician and the appendices in Castilian this edition includes biographies, a chronology, a preface and a very informative introduction; as a coda there is Cunqueiro’s own index of proper names in the novel.

I’m very glad to have read this witty and compassionate piece of fiction. As someone who has only dipped intermittently into Don Quixote I nevertheless saw Merlin and Company as a kind of colour negative of the great Spanish classic. Where Cervantes’ protagonist is deluded Merlin is still on top of his game; whereas Don Quixote quests abroad Cunqueiro’s hero mostly works from home, having done his travelling early in life; while the former starts from an unnamed village in La Mancha south of Madrid the latter stays at home in the Lugo province, not too far from Cunqueiro’s own birthplace of Mondoñedo.

But the two figures also have much in common besides each being very old: a faithful squire or page, for example, and an affinity with old Arthurian romances; and it is significant that it’s only half in jest that Merlin alludes to Guinevere as Lady Dulcinea del Toboso, Don Quixote’s imaginary beloved.

The Spanish leg of my continental tour for the European Reading Challenge 2021 hosted by Gilion at Cunqueiro was born 110 years ago this December.

One thought on “The Magician of Brittonia

  1. Pingback: 13 February 2022: Mask-wearing; Higher min wage; SERGAS challenges; Unmacho men; & Other stuff. – Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

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