The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart
My wife borrowed these books during my 21-day quarantine and I ended up reading them, too.
I’d never heard of Mary Stewart, but she was apparently a very popular author and her Arthurian trilogy was published in the late 1960s and early 70s. She drafted a fourth one in this series, which was published posthumously but which I couldn’t get hold of.
The novels chart the course of Merlin, in whose voice the books are written. He is a bastard son and, in the first novel, we chart the course of the young Merlin as he comes to terms with his family background and apprentices as a sorcerer. The second novel covers Arthur’s childhood as far as his recognition as king, and the third, the main part of his reign.
I found the first novel the most engaging. It saw the world through a child’s eyes and was full of wonder. The young Merlin is an unwanted child, and knows it. He takes advantage of that to rove the surrounding hillsides and, in his explorations, encounters Galapas, who becomes his mentor and tutor in magic. Treachery is afoot and, after the keep he lives in is burnt, Merlin escapes to Brittany, where he completes his apprenticeship. He returns to Britain, finds out that he is the son of the king, Ambrosius. Ambrosius dies and Uther takes over; the last part of the book concerns Merlin’s machinations to ensure that Uther’s son is born of a certain woman on a certain date.
The gift of prophecy can also be a burden. The Hollow Hills explores this as Merlin has to both keep Arthur safe and ensure that he becomes king. The Merlin we see in this volume is very confident of his powers and his own importance. He is not unlikeable for it, but the entire plot is a little depowered by the fact that we know the outcome. This is, however, the most magical of the three books: we see Merlin at the height of his powers, and the climax is fitting retelling of the Excalibur legend.
The Last Enchantment is the least enchanting of the three. The Merlin in this one is in decline and the fact that he knows it doesn’t make it any less depressing. There is one delightful twist in the plot, but by this time it’s Arthur who’s at the peak of his power, and the fact is that there’s very little for Merlin to do. He’s a trusted counsellor, but his magic is waning and we get the feeling that his power of prophesy no longer shapes events.
What most I liked about these books was their descriptive passages. There are times, especially in The Hollow Hills, when I was enchanted, when I was present in the forests, the hills and the castles. This is because Mary Stewart does not shy away from building the scenes; to the contrary, she can take a couple of pages to construct a place out of a myriad little details.
What I liked least was never being quite sure where I was. I don’t mind using a map, but the maps were not very well drawn and many important place names were missing. This became distracting as I attempted to piece together the geography from names that are no longer in use and transits that saw Merlin sometimes traverse the length of England in a couple of days, and sometimes take weeks to get from one town to the next.
Overall, though, well worth the read.