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.

Fantasy Classics: “The Crystal Cave” (by Mary Stewart)

There’s always been something about the Arthurian legends that call to me. I can’t precisely say why, except that they have a quality about them that is at both timeless and yet bounded within that uncanny realm between the historical and the fantastic.

For a long time, I was content to read the straightforwardly fantasy interpretations of the myth, and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King remains one of my favourites.

Then, around 1999 or so I was introduced (by, of course, an honors English teacher) to Mary Stewart’s trilogy. All of a sudden I discovered a whole new way of thinking about the legends surrounding King Arthur. Now, he was not merely a mythical king, but someone who might actually have existed in Dark Age Britain, in that crucial period of time between the exit of the Romans and the Saxon conquest. I was instantly hooked, and I’ve re-read Stewart’s Merlin books several times in the subsequent decades, gaining new sorts of pleasure each time.

The first volume, The Crystal Cave, narrated in first-person by Merlin himself, follows him from his youth as the bastard son of the daughter of a Welsh king who ultimately discovers that he is, in fact, also the son of the general (and exiled king) Ambrosius. Gifted with the Sight, he aids his father as he sets about reclaiming the kingship from the deceitful Vortigern and, ultimately, helps his uncle Uther onto the throne and facilitates the conception of the baby who will one day grow up to be King Arthur.

Stewart has a phenomenal grasp of the evocative power of language. As I’ve been re-reading the book, I’m struck by the similarities between her style and that of one of my other all-time favourite authors: Mary Renault. Both have an uncanny ability to construct sentences that are, for lack of a better word, beautiful. She somehow manages to be both economical and lush in her descriptions of landscapes and settings, of the trappings of royalty and the brutality of warfare.

At the same time, because she uses first person perspective to get us inside Merlin’s mind, she also has to convey the complicated spiritual and intellectual movings of a brilliant mind. This she also accomplishes with grace. The sequences in which Merlin encounters the power of the God are some of the most exquisitely and intricately wrought in the entire book, and they come very close to transporting us to exactly the same sort of magical space that Merlin himself inhabits.

Thus, what I particularly enjoyed about the story was its ability to create a Merlin who is both thoroughly human and also uncanny. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he is a particularly sympathetic character; he’s far too mystical and preternaturally gifted for that. Nevertheless, his words have a hypnotic beauty that draw us into the story and keep us there. This is the world that is always on the brink of collapsing into barbarism, and it is Merlin’s mission to see to it that there is at least a brief period of beauty before the ultimate fall.

Stewart manages to breathe fresh life into some of the most enduring of legends in the history of English literature. That is no small accomplishment, especially given how many interpretations there have been of Merlin. Her main character is a mystic, it is true, and he has more than a touch of magic, but he is far more human than he typically appears in the myths.

What’s more, Stewart somehow still manages to keep to the familiar beats while infusing them with her own flare. There are also all of the requisite characters of the myth: Niniane (here Merlin’s mother rather than the woman who seals him away), Uther (here Merlin’s uncle and brother of is father Ambrosius), the villainous king Vortigern (here a misguided king who is brought down by his own misguided efforts) and, near the end, Duke Gorlois and his wife Ygraine (both of whom become pawns in the delicate game Merlin must play in order to bring about the vision bequeathed to him by the gods).

Fate, it this world, is inexorable, for better and for worse.

Stay tuned for my review of the second volume, The Hollow Hills!