Book 1: Taliesin (New York: Avon Books, 1987); Book 2: Merlin (New York: Avon Books, 1988); Book 3: Arthur (New York: Avon Books, 1989.); Book 4: Pendragon (New York: Avon Books, 1994); Book 5: Grail (New York: Avon Books: 1997).
The Pendragon Cycle is Stephen R. Lawhead's magnificent re-imagining of the Arthurian legends. Stripped of the moral mess in which these legends have wallowed for centuries and placed back into the post-Roman British-Celtic culture in which Arthur lived, the ancient tale soars to a new height.
The story begins with Taliesin, in which Lawhead marries the legend of Atlantis with that of Britain's greatest Bard. Found by Elphin in a wier, Taliesin grows up in obscurity among the Cymry where he studies to be a bard under the patient tutelage of Hafgan. Meanwhile in the west Princess Charis watches as Atlantis collapses, first in chaos and war, then by sinking into the ocean. Charis and a few hundred survivors from Atlantis travel eastward to the Island of Prydain, where they are welcomed by the inhabitants and settle, becoming the fabled Fair Folk. But the Atlanteans are of a weak constitution and the Island begins to claim the lies of many.
Taliesin and his tribe are forced from their homelands in what is modern-day Wales and travel south to the Summer Kingdom where Charis' father Avallach rules. There Taliesin meets Charis, the Lady of the Lake, and her half-sister Morgian. But much more importantly, he meets a Christian priest named Dafyd who teaches him about the One God and his son Jesu. Faced with the Truth, Taliesin must decide whether to accept it and Charis must decide whether or not to accept the love offered her by Taliesin, a love which will cut her off from her family for years.
After the death of Taliesin and Charis' return to her father, the tale picks up in Merlin . The son of Taliesin and Charis, Myrddin is the Soul of Britain. Still-born, he is sung into life by his father, who soon after is assassinated. Merlin grows up, learning both to be bard and king. As a child he is stolen by the bhean sidhe to be a sacrificed, but then is raised as one of them, learning the secrets of the earth, of fire-gazing, and much more. Then, released to return to his family, Myrddin encounters Ganieda, the daughter of another Atlantean and his British wife. Their wedding and Myrddin's elevation to king of the Cymry makes all seem well, but the Saecsen are invading the island and they put an end to the dream as the Darkness truly begins to claim the Island of the Mighty. And Myrddin Emrys, the eternal Bard of Britain has locked himself away in the forest, mourning for his wife.
Returned to civilization by a miracle, Myrddin takes up his task as Bard of Britain once more to find Vortigern on the throne, a cruel and ruthless man, whose only desire is to enrich himself. Myrddin then champions Aurelius ap Cornelius, elevating him to high king. Aurelius takes Ygerna as his wife, but then is slain in battle. His brother Uther is forced to take the throne, but is somewhat pleased as he's been in love with Ygerna for some time. Ygerna bears Uther Aurelius' child – Arthur. But upon Uther's death, the kingdom splits again and Myrddin must make a decision to accept the High Kingship or to save it for another.
The third book, Arthur, chronicles the life of the most magnificent king Britain ever had. Arthur grows up under the tutelage of Myrddin Emrys and is able to draw the Sword of Britain from the stone into which Myrddin set it. With his steadfast friends Cai and Bedwyr by his side, Arthur becomes Dux Bellorum of Great Britain, the only title the petty kings will allow him. Gathering a band of mighty young warriors around him, Arthur begins the arduous task of uniting Great Britain and setting up the kingdom of summer. We are introduced to Arthurs Cymbrogi, or heart companions, Cai, Bedwyr, Gwalchavad, Llenlleawg, Rhys, Bors and Ban, Pelleas, Myrddin, and to the mighty queen Gwenhwyvar, Arthur's true love. All of the dark intrigue has been stripped away from the sunny character of Arthur, and while his demise at the hands of the son of Morgian, the Queen of Air and Darkness is inevitable, the tale rises to new heights. The true high point of Arthur is the Battle of Baedun Hill, where Arthur defeats the Saecsen and their allies once and for all.
Pendragon tells the story of Arthur's war against the Vandali and Grail, told by Gwalchavad, tells of the quest to rescue the Grail from the hands of the hands of the faithless Llenlleawg and the evil Morgaws.
Some consider Avalon: The Return of King Arthur to be the last book of the cycle, as it is based upon it, but can also be a standalone work. There is a separate review of that book available.
To my mind the best book of the series is Merlin, as it is written in the most lyrical style and the character of Merlin, also known as Myrddin Emrys, comes most to the fore. The book that least fits the series is Grail and sometimes I wonder if Lawhead wrote it simply because his publisher wanted another book to add to the saga. All in all, this series takes Arthur back from the tales that have been entwined about him. Whether or not he was a real person, the key battles described in the series did happen and the Kingdom of Summer reigned for a time in the Island of the Mighty and we see its effects even today.