Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Less enchanted with Merlin's story

The Last Enchantment, Mary Stewart

I am reading for Jane's Margaret Kennedy reading week, but this is a carry-over from Anbolyn's Mary Stewart reading week.  As much as I love the first book in her Merlin trilogy, The Crystal Cave, which I have read and re-read over the past 30 years, I have no idea why I never got around to reading this one until now.  I do have a vague memory of starting it at one point.  Re-reading The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills last year inspired me to add a copy to the Mary Stewart section of the TBR stacks, and this year's reading week nudged me into picking it up.

There will be spoilers below.

I didn't grow up with the Arthurian legends.  I may have seen the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone - I know I read the book at one point.  So what I knew of Arthur was mainly about the finding of the sword, and some vague ideas about Guinevere, The Knights of the Round Table and Camelot, and the search for the Grail (some of which I may or may not have picked up from Monty Python. Ni).  From the end of The Hollow Hills, I knew that Arthur unknowingly slept with his half-sister Morgause, who would bear his son Mordred.  And I knew that Merlin had for many years foreseen his own end, alone in his hills.  But otherwise I came to this book, which begins just after Arthur claims the sword and the throne of the High King, pretty much as a blank slate.

The cover of my Fawcett paperback has a line, "The Magnificent Arthurian Legend."  This book, though, seems to be more about Merlin than Arthur, which isn't a complaint.  It covers the early years of Arthur's reign.  He spends most of it off fighting rebellious nobles and the Saxons who constantly push against the borders in the east and south.  Meanwhile Merlin travels to the north of Britain, in search of the King's infant son, and then turns to building, first Caerleon in Wales and then Camelot in the West Country.  He has lost most of his power, spent in preparing the sword for Arthur, so much of what he does only looks magical, through his gifts for engineering and medicine - and also because people who know him as the King's Enchanter take his power for granted. Conscious of his lost power and his advancing years [at 40], Merlin hopes to find an apprentice, someone he can train to take his place at Arthur's side.

I have conflicting feelings about this book. Merlin himself is an old friend, and I enjoyed watching Arthur grow into his kingship.  He reminded me a little of Dorothy Dunnett's Thorfinn, another young man fighting to bind and hold his kingdom. But while Merlin says at one point, "It was never my intention to give details of the years of battle," there are still a lot of battles.  I found it hard to keep the nobles and the battlefields straight (especially because Stewart uses ancient names, which I had trouble placing despite the handy map).

My bigger problem was with the female characters in the book.  I had never heard the legend that Arthur married two women, both called Guinevere.  Here the first, a beautiful young innocent, dies shortly after their marriage of a miscarriage.  The second is the more familiar Queen I know from the legends.  At one point she is kidnapped by a minor king named Melwas, who has seduction if not rape in mind; and she falls in love with Arthur's best friend Bedwyr (I had an idea it was Lancelot).  Arthur is pretty calm about both these events, at least her role in them (Melwas is not so lucky).  In discussing the Melwas episode, he says to Merlin,
"You have told me many times that you know nothing of women. Does it never occur to you that they lead lives of dependence so complete as to breed uncertainty and fear? That their lives are like those of slaves, or of animals that are used by creatures stronger than themselves, and sometimes cruel?  Why, even royal ladies are bought and sold, and are bred to lead their lives far from their homes and their people, as the property of men unknown to them."
For a 5th-century male, that almost sounds enlightened.  But in historical fiction, women can elide or escape those limitations, and I prefer stories where they do - as real women have done throughout history.  Dorothy Dunnett wrote women characters like that, as did Elizabeth Peters (on a less serious level), to name just two (of my favorites).  Merlin's mother Niniane did so in the first book, standing up to her father to protect her bastard son, and refusing to marry just to please him.  Here in this book there are six main women characters.  Two die early on: Arthur's mother Ygraine, who is terminally ill when the book opens, and whose life was completely wrapped up in her husband Uther; and the first Guenever, whose role is basically a walk-on ingénue who dies young and beautiful.  The second Guinevere, unable to bear children, fails in her queenly duty to provide an heir and is reduced to an ornament at court, trapped in a loveless marriage.  There are two women who try to seize power, Arthur's sister Morgan and half-sister Morgause.  They are witches, adepts of the dark powers, though their magic is also dismissed as weak and womanly, compared to the god-power that Merlin channels.  Both are presented as evil, especially Morgause, who poisons Merlin at one point.  They fail in their attempts to control or overthrow Arthur, punished with exile to in a distant monastery, their children taken from them.

And then there is Nimuë, who comes to Merlin as a disciple, to be taught and shaped.  In the first book of the series, Merlin learns that the power he has demands celibacy, which is why (as Arthur points out) he knows so little of women.  But everything changes with Nimuë, whom he can love both emotionally and physically.  I'm all for a good love story, but this one felt wrong from the start, and not just because of the twenty-year difference in their ages.  If I understood the story correctly, she uses his love to blind him to the fact that she is stealing what remains of his power from him, weakened as he still is from the poison.  Eventually he falls into some kind of coma and is declared dead, buried away in his crystal cave.  Meanwhile, Nimuë takes his place at Arthur's side, and marries someone else.  Apparently women don't have to give up sex for power?  And when Merlin is finally rescued, he and Arthur seem to accept her betrayal, which makes no sense to me.  Maybe it is explained in the other two books in the series.  Despite my lukewarm feelings about this book, I do plan to read the next, The Wicked Day.

I wish someone would explain the cover of this book to me. It shows Arthur on a white horse, which is standing on the banks of a roaring river.  In the background, a giant gold harp floats against a cloud-filled sky. I can't think of anything in the book to which this could refer.  Maybe there is something later in the saga?  I know at some point a hand comes out of a lake, but I thought it held or took the sword Excalibur, not a harp.  Maybe I need to read The Idylls of the King or Le Morte d'Arthur.


  1. I only read as far as your spoiler warning as I'm planning to read this at some point, but I'm sorry you were less than enchanted with it! At least I still have The Hollow Hills to look forward to.

  2. Helen, I realized later they might not be spoilers for people who know the Arthur saga! I hope you enjoy The Hollow Hills - and this one too.

  3. Re finding out more about Arthur & co., I have a total Arthurian block ever since someone forced 'The Mists of Avalon' on me and I was too polite to return it unread (obviously, this was when I was younger and politer *grins*). It was a huge book and seemed to get longer rather than shorter as I read it. I am sort of sad that I'll never read Mary Stewart's Arthur books, as I love her writing, but... better not risk my nerves... ;-)

  4. I wish I remembered this better, but your mention of the two Guineveres does ring a bell. Overall, I liked this series a lot, but not every book was equally good. From what I remember, though, The Wicked Day, which focuses on Mordred, was my favorite.

  5. vicki, that is such a sad story ;) That book has been enthusiastically recommended to me, but I have never been inspired to pick it up.

    Teresa, I am looking forward to Mordred's story. I don't know much about him, but Mary Stewart seems to take a sympathetic view of him.

  6. I know I read this one, I think I read it back when it first came out, but I recall very little of it. I know that I liked it but not enough to read the others in the series.

    The Arthur book I loved mose was The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlin by T.H. White. I think I have the right author. I read them when I was 13, so I wasn't much into romance at that point.

    I don't think we can read Arthur books as historical fiction. They were fantasies, even when they first appeared in the middle ages. The older stories can tell us about the times when they were written, but not much about the time when they were set. So writers should feel free to make the women whatever they want to make them, the men as well I don't see any need to aim for historical accuracy.

  7. James, I've read The Once and Future King, but I don't think I've come across The Book of Merlin.

    I like historical fiction that gets the settings right, but it doesn't have to be obsessive about every detail. But glaring inaccuracies might put me off - like say Arthur's troops using siege weapons. And a really good writer could get around that, in a book based on legends and myths :)

  8. I thought I would love Stewart's Arthur/Merlin stories because I like Camelot stuff and I like Stewart, but I lost interest mid-way through The Crystal Cave and never tried again. My Camelot is pretty much Once and Future King, Tennyson, and Mists of Avalon.

    Your analysis of the female characters makes me wonder what was going on with Stewart to make her go in this direction with them.

  9. Jane, I read T.H. White, but it didn't stick with me, the way Stewart's version did. I haven't read Tennyson yet, though I'm thinking now I should try The Idylls. I didn't read a lot of poetry growing up, so I'm less comfortable with it than with prose - and I should be getting over that by now!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!