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And Oh So Bright

The Merlin of St. Gilles’ Well  (Joan of Arc Tapestries, volume 1)

By Ann Chamberlin 

29 Sep, 2022

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1999’s The Merlin of St. Gilles’ Well is the first volume in Ann Chamberlin’s Joan of Arc Tapestries series. 

Joan of Arc is a legendary figure; author Chamberlin has used her legend as a setting for a heroic fantasy. This story begins with a boy named Yann (by Bretons, Jean by the French) Le Dapier and his boyhood associate, Gilles de Rais.

The story begins with a violent incident in the woods.

Yann’s attempt to prevent the needless slaughter of a great and holy Stag leaves the boy a cripple, thanks to the arrow that pierced his hand. His brave act has two consequences: his family becomes entangled with the de Rais family, aristocrats whom the humble Le Drapiers would never have met otherwise. Also, Yann is drawn into the circle of the Hermit, a holy man who calls the woods home. 

Yann is clearly marked for a special destiny. As is so often true, special and enjoyable are quite different things. Yann suffers mystical visions, which look like fits to those around him. Christian priests might be inclined to see this as evidence of demonic influence. The Hermit of the Wood serves a much older religion and he sees in Yann a possible heir to the position of Merlin1.

Gilles de Rais, born to Marie de Rais soon after the incident in the woods, is also marked for a special destiny. Whether this will be a great destiny or a very terrible one is unclear; best for those close to Gilles to do their best to steer him away from poor life choices. 

The two boys’ fates are part of a much larger struggle. The land’s prosperity depends on certain important figures playing out their roles in cyclic ceremonies dating back thousands of years. Alas, not only has the invasion of Christianity eclipsed the old, true religion, the fact that the rituals demand powerful men willingly sacrifice themselves for the good of their land does not endear those rituals to the 15thcentury French aristocracy.

In fact, the aristocracy is not at all self-sacrificing and intensely self-serving. Which does have a cost. Charles VI, having rejected his ordained role, was struck mad. 

Without a strong monarch, French aristocrats are free to scheme with, conspire against, and murder each other according to their whims. This would be unfortunate at the best of times. This is not the best of times: the Hundred Years War still rages and French division is English opportunity. 

While the Merlin of the woods educates the boys in fields of which the priests would disapprove, the French aristocracy charges towards the reward for their collective poor judgment: Agincourt.


It must be very frustrating for great pagan forces of nature to be forced to rely on the French aristocracy. Not that the French sort are any worse than the aristocracy of other regions, but they’re also not any better. Even when provided with a script, they insist on improvising. 

Despite the frequency with which she is mentioned in the promotional material and despite providing the name of the series, Joan of Arc barely appears in this work and not in person. She is from an entirely different region of France. In fact, for much of the book she has not been born yet; she is just an infant when the volume concludes. 

This being a historical fantasy, it’s possible to make educated guesses as to the long-term fates of various characters, although the common folk, having been left out of history books, have much greater freedom of action than those whose lives were deemed important enough to record. Among fame’s rewards is the obligation to appear for one’s recorded encounter with an arrow at Agincourt. Presumably, once she does appear on stage, Joan of Arc will still be burned by the English and Gilles de Rais will murder his way through a surprising number of children. 

There are at least two structures an author can use for a trilogy: one in which each volume stands on its own while being part of a larger whole, and the one where each volume is an installment. This would be an example of the second. The plot, which in this volume is composed of a mix of pagan education, local aristocratic machinations, and ominous developments elsewhere in France, does not conclude. It halts. Not having read the later volumes, I don’t know if it’s all tied up in a nice knot at the end, although since history generally isn’t, and this is a historical fantasy, it might not be possible to provide a conclusive ending. To quote noted physicist Jon Osterman:

Which describes my feeling with this book, which felt much longer than its actual page count. I suspect this is a case where having the other books to hand (to continue as a complete narrative) would have been an asset. Unfortunately, one is limited to the works in hand. 

The Merlin of St. Gilles’ Well is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), and here (Barnes & Noble). I did not find it at either Book Depository or at Chapters-Indigo. 

1: Which, like Caesar,” can be both a name and a job title.