Fantasy Classics: “The Last Enchantment” (by Mary Stewart)

The book picks up where The Hollow Hills left off, with Arthur newly ascended to the throne. He is immediately confronted with the continuing menace of the Saxons, his need to procure a wife and an heir, and, of course, the permanent threat of Morgause, his villainous half-sister, who ultimately poses the greatest challenge to his life and his kingdom. She also bears Merlin a grudge both because his powers are so much greater than hers, but also because he outmaneuvered her and banished her from court after he discovered her seduction of her half-brother and the child that she would one day bear. Ultimately, Merlin falls victim to her drugs and magic and, though he survives, it ultimately sows the seeds for both his eventual replacement by his student Nimuë and Arthur’s later fall at the hands of his son Mordred.

This book is by far the most elegiac and melancholy of the three Merlin books. By the time that Arthur takes the sword from the stone, Merlin knows that his days of greatness are numbered. Thus, as the novel progresses, he retreats ever further from the day-to-day functioning of Arthur’s court; as the king’s might grows, so Merlin’s ultimately diminishes. Nevertheless, he still manages to play a prominent part in the affairs of the kingdom, most notably by rescuing the king’s second wife Guinevere (his first was named Guenever) from the depredations of the villainous King Melwas. And, of course, hovering over all is the inescapable knowledge that not only will Merlin ultimately be buried alive, but also that Arthur will victim to his own son.

As with the other volumes in the series, Stewart’s prose is as enchanting as the magic of her narrator. It’s not just that she brings is into this world with her lush descriptions of landscapes, manners, and clothes (though she does that with a grace that is truly extraordinary), but also that she has such a keen eye for those parts of the myth that are necessary for any Arthurian tale to work. Thus, we have the abduction of Guinevere, the doomed love between her and Bedwyr (this novel’s Lancelot), and even Arthur’s sister Morgan and her traitorous attempt to steal the sword Caliburn. Stewart knows just how to tread the fine line between being true to the heart of the Arthruian story and adding enough of her own personal touch to make it a unique story.

What really struck me, however, is Merlin’s acceptance of his fate. While part of him no doubt wishes that he could once more enjoy the intimacy with Nimuë that they once shared, as he says, you cannot enjoy the same draught twice. It’s a startling confession, all the more so because it is so phenomenally true. We tend to resist the idea that anything is truly gone; we always yearn for the possibility that a lost love might be regained. Merlin’s tale gives us a way of thinking beyond that, of embracing the inevitability of loss and the peace that can come from accepting it.

Merlin’s story, however, reminds us that such endings needn’t necessarily be sad. Indeed, there can be something quite liberating about accepting the finitude of various aspects of our lives. The novel ends, not with his death, but instead with that final moment when, after a lifetime, he finally hears the music of the spheres and, content at last, he returns to his warm hearth and the peace that it promises. The novel invites us to see this, not as an unhappy conclusion to a life spent in royal favour, but instead as the rich reward for one who has done so much to bring about this brief golden age in Britain before the descent of the Saxon darkness.

There are few novels that leave you feeling utterly satisfied with their resolutions. I’m happy to say that Mary Stewart’s The Last Enchantment is one such novel.

Now that I’ve finished the three books focused on Merlin, it’s time to move on to The Wicked Day, which tells the tragic story of Mordred, Arthur’s bastard son who is doomed to bring about the destruction of all his father has built.