Fantasy Classics: “The Wicked Day” (by Mary Stewart)

And so we come at last to The Wicked Day, Mary Stewart’s masterful retelling of the story of Mordred, the ill-fated bastard son of King Arthur by his half-sister Morgause. It’s a novel full of all of the lyrical (almost poetic) prose that we’ve come to expect from Mary Stewart, coupled with a truly tragic tale of two men bound together by the relentless weaving of fate.

The novel opens with Mordred, having been raised by two fisherfolk in the Orkney Islands, encountering (by chance, it seems) Prince Gawain, which sets in motion a chain of events that sees him drawn closer and closer to power. First it is to Morgause and, after he finally meets his father and learns his parentage, it is to Arthur and the court at Camelot. Unfortunately for them both, however, the wheels of destiny are set in motion, leading them both to the desperate day when they shall be one another’s bane.

It’s worth pointing out at the outset that Mordred is not, as Merlin was, a hero. The novel doesn’t shy away from pointing out his less than savory qualities, and he is a rather difficult character. Some of this stems from Stewart’s choice to tell the story in third person (rather than the first of the Merlin books), but it also comes from the fact that Mordred, with his troubled past and upbringing, is necessarily a damaged soul.

Many of Mordred’s essential problems arise, of course, from his mother (one can tell that this was a book written in the 1980s). As was the case with the Merlin books, Morgause emerges in The Wicked Day as the chief villain, a woman determined to wreak havoc on all of Arthur’s kingdom, no matter the cost. Despite the novel’s attempt to paint her as a witch and a cunning schemer who gets her comeuppance (when her own son kills her in the middle of an amorous liaison), I actually found her to be one of the novel’s more interesting characters. Say what you will about her, but Mordred’s story would be a much duller affair without her in it (thankfully, the novel also gives her several interludes where we get her own perspective on what’s happening).

Throughout The Wicked Day, Mordred maintains a sort of clinical detachment from the world around him and the dramatic events that unfold. His troubled relationship with Morgause ultimately stains everything he attempts to do, and though he loves his father Arthur, he gradually grows to resent him and, as is inevitable when a young prince starts to stretch his wings, he attracts followers. Stewart does a fine job showing us the ways in which Mordred, often despite his own wishes, becomes the architect of not just his father’s demise, but the ultimate downfall of the golden age of Camelot and all that it represents.

For, of course, neither Arthur nor Mordred are able to subvert the fate that has been woven in the stars for both of them. Stewart is actually quite brilliant in how she brings this to pass. Rather than taking the easy route of painting Mordred as a villain maddened by his brush with power, she instead situates the entire tragedy against the politics of the period: the resurgent Eastern Roman Empire (led by Justinian), the political fragmentation on the continent, the avarice of the Saxon invaders and, not least, the dissatisfaction of Arthur’s own subjects. When, in the end, both Mordred and Arthur are fatally wounded, we are led to see it as not just the tragedy of a son and father turned against one another by the brutal illogic of chance, but also as the end of the last gasp of Rome in the British Isles, a moment of light before the shadow of the Saxons descends on everyone.

The Wicked Day is one of those books that leaves you with a profound feeling of melancholy, a mourning for a world that might have been (but maybe never really was). That seems entirely appropriate, as there has always been a little bit of that about the Arthurian legend in general. In Mary Stewart’s capable hands, we at least get to embrace a little bit of the beauty of the sun before the dusk falls.