Robert Nye, poet and sleight-of-hand artist, undertakes roughly the same service for magician Merlin that he performed for Shakespeare's hill of flesh in Falstaff (1976). His narrative is a pastiche of dazzling incongruities, linked by the ghostly consciousness of Merlin as Heine envisioned him, a mere voice from the ""singing grave"" of his last imprisonment. There Merlin tells his own story to the mute companions of his incarceration. After the manner of Tristram Shandy, he spends a good while merely getting born, an event monitored by ""my father the devil"" and a couple of brother fiends with an alacrity worthy of Walter Shandy and Uncle Toby. Begotten with much ado on a virgin by the pansified and reluctant Lucifer, Merlin was destined for the role of Antichrist in his father's scheme of revenge for the harrowing of hell by the Other Side. This plan being jinxed by a last-minute wild card from heaven, Merlin turns out ""half man, half devil."" His career is a sequence of efforts to counter the designs of his infernal relatives, who never lose hope of wresting him to their ends and keep crossing his path in new guises; while Merlin brings up the child Arthur, Lucifer and cohorts are hard at work on the education of Morgan le Fay. The Arthurian endeavor, an ambiguous good at best, finally disintegrates into another of the running gags kept up throughout the action--again Shandy-fashion--by the inventively scabrous Greek chorus of Father, Uncle Astarot, and Uncle Beelzebub. Nye can be and often is a pretentious exhibitionist. But there is no gainsaying the savage elegance of these japes--funny, painful, erotic, bursting with manic erudition. Just don't try this one out on Mary Stewart fans.