The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

The Last Enchantment The Last Enchantment is the final part of Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, which began with The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills. I have been reading it this week for Lory’s Witch Week, a celebration of fiction based on fairy tales, folklore, myths and legends, but I’m sure I would have picked it up soon anyway as I loved the first two books and was looking forward to reading the conclusion of Merlin’s story.

The Last Enchantment picks up the story where The Hollow Hills ended, with Arthur beginning his reign as High King of Britain after pulling the sword Caliburn (Excalibur) from its stone. Almost immediately, Arthur must begin a series of battles against the Saxons before he can achieve peace and security throughout his kingdom. But Arthur is not the main focus of the novel; like the previous two books, this one is narrated by Merlin…and Merlin is facing a battle of his own. Arthur’s half-sister, the witch Morgause, has given birth to a son, and Merlin has foreseen that this child, Mordred, could pose a threat to the King.

In the first half of the novel, Merlin tells us of his journey north in search of Mordred, as well as several other events, such as the building of Camelot and Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere, which will be familiar even to readers who, like me, only have a basic knowledge of the Arthurian legends. In the second half of the book, there is a growing sense of sadness and poignancy as Merlin ages, his magical powers begin to fade and Arthur, while still valuing his friendship, no longer relies on him as he used to. Merlin takes on an apprentice, Nimuë, whom he hopes will eventually take his place as the King’s enchanter, but he soon discovers that his new assistant has some surprises in store for him.

Maybe because I found this such a sad story, I didn’t love it quite as much as The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, but I do think all three are wonderful books. I was slightly disappointed with the portrayal of the female characters (I think I mentioned that in my review of the previous novel too). Arthur’s sisters, Morgan and Morgause, are both evil witches, while Guinevere is pushed into the background and never really comes to life at all. Then there’s Nimuë, whose storyline I really disliked and found quite painful to read at times. Merlin’s relationship with Arthur, though, is one of the highlights of the book and I found myself looking forward to all of their scenes together.

Before reading this trilogy my knowledge of Arthurian myth was limited to T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and one or two television adaptations which I can now barely remember watching; I think this was an advantage, because it meant I was kept in suspense, only vaguely aware of the outline of the story and the role each character would play. I was surprised that there was no Lancelot (his part in the story is taken by Arthur’s friend, Bedwyr, instead), I had no idea that Arthur was thought to have had more than one wife called Guinevere and I knew nothing of the involvement of Nimuë in the later stages of Merlin’s story. Mary Stewart discusses all of these things and more in her author’s note at the end of the book, explaining how she chose to interpret various sources and to decide what to include in her version of the legend.

I was sorry to reach the end of Merlin’s story, but I can definitely see myself wanting to re-read all three of these books in the future – and, of course, I would also like to read Mary Stewart’s other two Arthurian novels, The Wicked Day (the story of Mordred) and The Prince and the Pilgrim. I think it’s fascinating that there are so many different variations of these legends and now that I’ve read this version, I’m interested in reading interpretations by other authors. If you can recommend any good ones, please let me know!

The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart

Hollow Hills 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.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave With only four of Mary Stewart’s suspense novels still to read, I decided that for Anbolyn’s Mary Stewart Reading Week I would try one of her Arthurian novels instead. The Crystal Cave is the first in the series and introduces us to Myrddin Emrys, better known as Merlin. I should begin by saying that I have previously read very few novels that tell the story of Merlin or King Arthur (T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone is the only one that really comes to mind). I wasn’t sure that The Crystal Cave would be my type of book and I wondered if I would regret not picking up another of the romantic suspense novels for the reading week. Well, I can assure you that I didn’t regret my choice at all!

The book is set in 5th century Britain, a land of several warring kingdoms held together by Vortigern, the High King. Vortigern has invited the Saxons to Britain to help him rule, but they are disliked by the people and Vortigern’s throne is soon under threat not only from his own son, Vortimer, but also from two other princes – Ambrosius and Uther who are exiled in Less Britain (Britanny). This is the world into which Merlin is born.

Our story begins with six-year-old Merlin living in the home of his grandfather, the King of South Wales. Merlin’s mother is the King’s daughter, Niniane, but the identity of his father is unknown as Niniane has refused to reveal his name. Merlin is a lonely child, despised by his grandfather, but he is also very intelligent, quick to learn and has a special gift known as ‘the Sight’. One day he rides out into the hills near his home and discovers a cave inhabited by a man called Galapas. Inside this cave is a second, smaller cave filled with crystals in which Merlin has visions when he looks into the light of these crystals. When fate takes him across the Narrow Sea to Less Britain several years later, Merlin meets the exiled Ambrosius and makes some important discoveries about both the past and the future…

The Crystal Cave is a great book and is now one of my absolute favourites by Mary Stewart. It obviously has a different feel from her contemporary suspense novels, but there were also some similarities and I could definitely tell it was written by the same author! Whenever I read a Stewart novel I expect a strong setting with vivid descriptions and I certainly got that with this book. Merlin’s travels take him through England, Brittany and Ireland, to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, to the wonders of Stonehenge and, of course, to Wales:

There were rain clouds massing in the west, but in front of them, like a bright curtain, the slanting sunlight. One could see on a day like this why the green hills of Wales had been called the Black Mountains and the valleys running through them the Valleys of Gold. Bars of sunlight lay along the trees of the golden valleys, and the hills stood slate-blue or black behind them, with their tops supporting the sky.

One thing that surprised me about this book is that it does not have such a strong fantasy element as I’d expected. While Merlin certainly does have visions which foretell the future, many of the things he does have very little to do with magic and more to do with his observations and understanding of science and of human nature. I loved the way his character was portrayed; he felt so believable and real. It probably helped that I don’t have a lot of previous knowledge of the myths and legends surrounding Merlin which meant I had no preconceived ideas and could just concentrate on enjoying Mary Stewart’s version of the story. I’m so pleased I chose The Crystal Cave for the Reading Week and am now looking forward to meeting Merlin again in The Hollow Hills!