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

Written by Ann Chamberlin
Review by Ilysa Magnus

In the early 1400s, Jean le Drapier, a maimed Breton seer, awaits the birth of La Pucinelle, the girl he has seen in his visions who he believes will liberate France. Le Drapier’s best friend as he grows up is Gilles de Rais, the person who will one day fight heroically next to Joan of Arc and later be known as Bluebeard, committing unspeakable crimes. Although his is a culture outwardly Christian, Le Drapier is being immersed by his mentors in the “old religion,”a form of Celtic paganism where his connections to nature and to the universe form the very foundation of his existence. In that Celtic religion and lore are elements of the Arthurian legend — hence, the references to Merlin, who was to have prophesied the birth of Joan of Arc.

Chamberlin, a respected historical novelist, deftly crafts a story which combines elements of fantasy and of historical fiction. Through Le Drapier, a fascinating and complex character, we can almost sense Joan of Arc as a flower about to bloom, a savior about to be born into the world. While instilling the story with fantastical elements, Chamberlin is careful not to let us forget that we are reading about France in the throes of political turmoil, a country whose people desperately need a unifying force. Clearly, Chamberlin has done her homework about Breton daily life, which is vividly depicted, and the historical characters of De Rais and others are impeccably researched. What is a bit unclear is to what extent the “old religion” was generally being practiced by the people and whether that was a source of conflict with the Christian church.

Chamberlin makes us feel as if we have been permitted to be present at the creation of one of the most powerful legends in history. Indeed, by ending the first book as Chamberlin has — anticipating Joan’s birth into an obscure family in an obscure village — we are left breathlessly awaiting the next installment of Joan’s story.

This is a wonderful book by a talented writer. Highly recommended.