Fantasy Classics: “The Hollow Hills” (by Mary Stewart)

As promised, I’m back to talk about the second volume of Mary Stewart’s classic series of novels about Merlin, The Hollow Hills.

This book picks up right where the last one left off, with Merlin having conspired with Uther to Merlin goes on many journeys in the course of the book, even going as far east as Constantinople before returning to Britain. Ultimately, he both discovers the ancient sword Caliburn and plays a key role in ensuring that Arthur ascends to the throne that is rightfully his.

Once again, Stewart demonstrates her tremendous command of language. Though her prose does tend to be on the formal side, it nevertheless has an elegance and sensuousness about it that conjures up the world of Late Roman Britain in all of its dying splendour and brutality. As always, I was particularly struck by the powerful way in which she describes Merlin’s experiences with the divine, not just the magic itself, but the way that his body responds to these encounters.

I noted before that Merlin is a bit of a prig, and Stewart doesn’t go out of her way to mitigate that through most of The Hollow Hills. Until, that is, he finally comes face-to-face with the boy who will be king. One can detect just the slightest shift in the way that Merlin dictates his story once he meets Arthur, and it’s clear at once that here, for the first time since the story begins, he might actually feel something approaching warmth for this young man who will become his most important charge. And it is just as clear that Arthur returns that love in kind, and the tight relationship between the two characters is one of the novel’s most endearing charms.

What I also enjoy about Stewart’s Merlin books is the extent to which they so deftly weave together the fantastical and the historical. There is no question that magic plays a significant role in the book. It’s not just Merlin’s ability to see the future (and events in the present for which he is not present), but also his ability to command some elements of nature (especially fire) to bring about the miraculous. Given the novel’s historical setting, it should come as no surprise that magic is still very much a part of this world, though there are hints that, with the rise of Christianity, it will gradually fade away.

At the same time, we get a very real sense of history in this book. By this I mean not just the setting–the years immediately following the withdrawal of Rome from Britain–but also the ways in which the past continues to influence the present and impacts the future. Merlin, as the one person who can see the way they relate to one another, has to shoulder an unusual burden. As a result of this knowledge, Merlin must do all that he can to see to it that the inevitable forces of history, made manifest in the repeated invasions by the Saxons, are beaten back.

As much as I really do love this book, I’m not blind to the fact that, like Mary Renault (with whom, I’ve noted elsewhere, Stewart has many similarities), Stewart’s book do have a faint whiff of misogyny about them. It gets less true as the series goes on, but there’s no question that women play either a marginal role in the story or are outright villains. Even this early, we get a sense that Morgause (here the bastard daughter of Uther by one of his many lovers) has aspirations that Merlin deems unseemly in a woman and that this will play a role in her ultimate villainy. Despite the novel’s attempts to paint her as a villain, however, IMHO she comes across as one of the novel’s most compelling and dynamic characters, a worthy foe of Merlin (though he doesn’t seem to think so).

That little quibble outside, I found The Hollow Hills to be a mesmerizing exploration of the ways in which one man can be both the agent of historical change and also its object. As such, it is very much worthy of its accolades as one of the finest additions to the Arthurian legend to come out of the 20th Century.

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