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.

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 NimuĂ« 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 NimuĂ« 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.

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.