by Mary Stewart
Set in Britain in roughly the second half of the fifth century AD, Mary Stewart's take on the familiar King Arthur legend is narrated by Merlin the enchanter.
The first novel, The Crystal Cave, introduces Myrddin Emrys (Merlin) as the illegitimate son of the unmarried Princess of South Wales and an unknown father. His lonely childhood, tolerated rather than accepted at his grandfather's court, takes a turn for the better when Merlin encounters the wise Galapas, a hermit living in a cave above the town. Galapas teaches the young Merlin not only medicine, music, natural history and languages, but also how to use his strange spiritual gifts of vision and prophecy. The Crystal Cave of the title refers to a crystal-lined geode off Galapas' cave, where Merlin first experiences his power of second sight. His grandfather's death and his uncle's ambition send Merlin, aged 12, in flight for his life. Chance - or fate - takes him to Brittany where Aurelianus Ambrosius, rightful King of Britain, is living in exile and building up an invasion force to reclaim his throne. Ambrosius (Latin form of the name Emrys) is revealed as Merlin's real father. Merlin joins his father's cause, and his powers of prophecy and vision place him at the centre of tumultuous events as Ambrosius challenges the usurper Vortigern for the throne of Britain and Ambrosius' brother Uther burns with illicit passion for another man's wife.
Beginning at the point where The Crystal Cave left off, The Hollow Hills traces Merlin's fate-driven quest for the great sword of Emperor Magnus Maximus, known in Welsh legend as the hero Macsen Wledig. As the hermit of the Green Chapel in the Wild Forest in England's Lake District, Merlin is tutor and guide to the young Arthur, born as a result of King Uther's illicit tryst with Ygraine of Cornwall and being brought up in anonymity as the ward of Count Ector at Galava (modern Ambleside). Once again Merlin's powers are called upon to bring the young Arthur to his destiny as Uther's heir and successor - but not even Merlin can guard Arthur against the dark seed of destruction sown by Uther's daughter Morgause.
The last in the trilogy, The Last Enchantment, tells the story of Merlin during Arthur's reign. Having brought Arthur to the crown and the sword of his destiny, Merlin's powers are fading and he is growing old and ill. Arthur's two sisters Morgause and Morgan are brewing poison and treachery, and as the danger gathers Merlin seeks a pupil who will be able to take up his role as Arthur's enchanter when he is gone. In the lovely Nimue Merlin finds his heart's desire and recognises her as an enchantress with powers as great as his own. But how is she connected with Merlin's foreknowledge of his own fate, entombed alive in his own cave in the hollow hill?
The trilogy is beautifully written in limpid prose. Landscape, wildlife and the changing seasons are especially well conveyed in vivid descriptive detail, bringing the world fully to life. The author says in the Author's Note to The Crystal Cave that all the places described are authentic. There is no equivalent statement in the Notes to the other two novels, so I am not certain whether the same philosophy was carried throughout the series. Some of them can be pinpointed on a map, such as the Roman forts in the Aire Gap, while the site of the Green Chapel seems to be somewhere near Grasmere in the English Lake District but I wouldn't like to say exactly where.
A series of novels with Merlin as the central character is always likely to contain magic, and sure enough there are some fantastical elements. Merlin has magic that works, can call fire from the air, can see events far removed in time and place, and fate or destiny dictates some episodes that would otherwise be outrageous coincidences. An interesting feature, perhaps connected with the importance of fate as a driver of events, is that Merlin's magic is not entirely under his control. Whatever its nature, his power ebbs and flows, and Merlin interprets this as showing that he is being used as a tool by the god. God, singular, in Merlin's world view. He accepts and honours numerous religions and deities, but believes, "All the gods are one God."
The characters are complex and interesting, rarely either entirely bad or entirely good. Good people do bad things, and even the evil Morgause is accorded some measure of understanding for her actions. Merlin himself is an attractive character, which is just as well since the trilogy is narrated by him in first person and so the reader is perforce in Merlin's company throughout. I often find first-person narratives frustrating, restricted as they are to a single character's experiences and values. Fortunately Merlin is observant, curious, tolerant, a traveller in both body and mind, ever eager for new knowledge whatever its source, and his second sight allows him to recount events beyond his own experience. This has the effect of widening the scope of the narrative and allowing the story to unfold on a broader canvas than might otherwise be the case.
Most readers will, I would guess, be familiar with the Arthur legend in general terms before reading the trilogy. In a way this perhaps mirrors the experience of the storytellers of old - a Welsh bard getting up to recount The Dream of Macsen Wledig or an English scop reciting Beowulf must have recognised that most of the audience already knew the ending. Some stories seem to have an indefinable narrative life that makes them absorbing even when you know the ending, and the Merlin trilogy manages to achieve that. At least it did for me - the episode of the entry into Tintagel and subsequent escape at the end of The Crystal Cave remains gripping no matter how many times I read it, even when I know perfectly well what happens to everyone involved.
The starting point for the trilogy was Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regium Brittaniae) (online translation available here), according to the Author's Note to The Crystal Cave. This immediately gives you fair warning not to get pedantic about historical accuracy (insofar as there is any such thing in an era with so few sources and so few facts as post-Roman Britain). Geoffrey's tale has the same cheerfully cavalier approach to history as the film Braveheart. In her Author's Note, Mary Stewart describes Geoffrey as a "master of romance" (with which I would agree), and says of his book, "...he produced a long, racy hotch-potch of "history" [...] arranging his facts to suit his story, and when he got short of facts (which was on every page), inventing them out of the whole cloth. Historically speaking, the Historia Regium Brittaniae is appalling, but as a story it is tremendous stuff." In the note to The Hollow Hills, she quotes Geoffrey Ashe and goes on to say, ".... any given episode of my story can be 'taken as fact or imagination or religious allegory or all three at once'. In this, if in nothing else, it is wholly true to its time." The trilogy is best read in that spirit.
The novels can be read independently but work better if read in order. I found The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills to be the most compelling. The Last Enchantment did not work so well for me. This may be because The Last Enchantment deals with the period of Arthur's reign around which many legends have accreted - the twelve battles, the Round Table, Guinevere's abduction and adultery, the massacre of the innocents, the theft of Arthur's sword, Camelot, the Holy Grail, the Lady of the Lake, Merlin's affair with Nimue, Merlin's imprisonment, Arthur's two sorceress sisters, Merlin's madness in the Caledonian Forest, and so on. The Last Enchantment has to touch on all these, which makes it rather meandering. By contrast, The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills cover Merlin's early life and Arthur's boyhood, which have far less legendary material attached and consequently allow a freer rein for the author's imagination.
Enthralling retelling of the Arthur legend from Merlin's point of view.
For a readable and balanced non-fiction account of the early Arthurian sources and a discussion of whether there may have been a historical Arthur underlying the legends, see The Reign of Arthur, by Christopher Gidlow.
Mary Stewart also wrote a follow-up novel, The Wicked Day, which tells Mordred's
story. Review here.