I didn’t really intend to read The Hollow Hills last weekend. I have books on my library pile, review copies to catch up with, and books to read for various other projects, but something made me yearn for Mary Stewart and I picked up the second of her Arthurian novels on Saturday morning. I was immediately pulled into the story and had finished the book by Monday.
The Hollow Hills is part of a series of five books set in Arthurian Britain, although the first three are usually described as the Merlin Trilogy. The first book, The Crystal Cave, introduces us to Merlin and his world; The Hollow Hills continues the story, beginning just before the birth of Arthur. As the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon and Ygraine of Cornwall, the young Arthur is sent into hiding, not only as protection against Uther’s enemies but also to keep him conveniently out of the way until another legitimate heir is born. But Merlin, with his gift of prophecy and visions, knows that it will be Arthur who will one day raise the legendary sword Caliburn from its resting place and become King.
Like The Crystal Cave, the story is narrated by Merlin himself and as Arthur is only a baby throughout much of the novel (and still only fourteen at the end) this book is more about Merlin than it is about Arthur. While Arthur is growing up in safety, ignorant of his true parentage, Merlin is having adventures of his own as he travels throughout Europe, takes on new identities, and explores the legends behind the great sword Caliburn (which until now I have always known as Excalibur). I loved the book from beginning to end and was never bored, but there is always the sense that the whole novel is building towards the moment when Arthur will learn who he really is and be ready to reclaim his heritage.
The plot means that Merlin and Arthur are kept apart for most of the novel, but I enjoyed the scenes that they do have together. I like the way Mary Stewart portrays both characters and the development of the bond between the two of them. It’s disappointing, though, that there are no strong female characters in this book: Ygraine only appears briefly and while Morgause (in this version Arthur’s half-sister) does have an important role in the story, she is hardly portrayed very flatteringly. Apart from that, I loved everything else about this book, and of course, it’s very well written with lots of beautiful, vivid descriptions. It’s Mary Stewart, after all!
While I don’t have a lot of knowledge of the Arthurian legends, I do know the basic details, so some parts of the story felt familiar to me – but even where I thought I knew what was going to happen, this didn’t lessen the enjoyment of the book for me. There is not just one version of the legend, of course, but lots of them which all differ slightly, and in her notes at the end of the book, Stewart explains some of the choices she has made. Some readers may be disappointed that there is so little actual ‘magic’ in this novel, but that’s one of the things I like about it; most of what happens has a rational explanation and there’s only a touch of the supernatural.
I think of the two books in this series that I’ve read so far, I did prefer The Crystal Cave, but only slightly, and I’m now looking forward to reading the next one, The Last Enchantment.