15 May, 2007

Merlin Trilogy, by Mary Stewart. Book review

The Crystal Cave
The Hollow Hills
The Last Enchantment

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 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), 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 a cheerfully cavalier approach to history. The author 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 alleged 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.

Has anyone else read this?


Bernita said...

I re-read it once a year.
To be accurate, I re-read the first two volumes.
I find the last fades into tapestry as Merlin's power and usefulness as a mover of events fades.
An excellent review, Carla.

Kathryn Warner said...

Good to see you back, Carla!

I can't believe I haven't read this trilogy yet, especially as I've been meaning to read it since I was a teenager.

Kailana said...

There's a fourth book too in case you didn't know. The Wicked Day I think is the title... I haven't read it yet, but I own it.

Carla said...

Bernita - yes, I found the first two more compelling than the third.

Alianore - it's very well worth reading, if you have even the slightest interest in the Arthur legends.

Kailana - yes, The Wicked Day is the title, and I've just started it. It's not quite a 4th book because it's told from Mordred's point of view in third person and Merlin doesn't appear, whereas the trilogy is very much Merlin's story. It's feeling a little like an epilogue to the trilogy.

Rick said...

I've also never read these - with this recommendation I will.

Interesting that you and a couple of commenters find the first two books strongest, where Stewart had the most free hand, hardly constrained even by legend.

A strange thing about Ambrosius Aurelianus - he is a solidly historical figure, not debateable like Arthur, yet he is far more shadowy. There are probably specific deeds traditionally attributed to him, but there's no "received" Ambrosius to speak of.

Constance Brewer said...

Welcome back. Haven't read those books, thanks for the review. I'm out of my Merlin phase for a while, but I'll keep these in mind when I return to Camelot. So to speak.

Carla said...

Rick - it's interesting that Bernita and I both had the same reaction to the third book, isn't it? I felt that the weight of legends it had to accommodate rather squashed Merlin and his story, so Merlin fades away into a sort of narrator rather than being a participant. I wonder if it might have worked better if it had been told by someone else who was more at the heart of the events, which is the line Mary Stewart took in The Wicked Day. Or it may just be that the legendary material is so fantastical and unwieldy that it's an impossible task to handle all of it in a single ordinary-length novel and so it all gets compressed and hasn't space to breathe.

Some of the 'Merlin' legends are actually told about Ambrosius in Historia Brittonum. In HB it's Ambrosius who's the fatherless boy with the gift of prophecy (although he also claims, a few lines later, that a Roman consul was his father, so the source isn't exactly internally consistent). Geoffrey of Monmouth cheekily pinched this tale with the throwaway comment 'also called Merlin' and thus Merlin the Magician evicted Ambrosius from that part of the legend. In Gildas and Bede Ambrosius is a military leader and 'the last of the Romans'. So Ambrosius is noble-Roman in one source (I roll Gildas and Bede together here because Bede's account is so similar to Gildas') and folkloric magician in the other, and there seem so few points of contact between those two that perhaps it was impossible for a received Ambrosius to develop as a single character. One of the attractive things about Mary Stewart's story is that it accommodates these two conflicting sources for Ambrosius very neatly, and makes him a major secondary character.

Constance - thanks, and I hope you enjoy these. They're very well worth reading.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I always found Mordred fascinating, so let us know if The Wicked Day turns out to be good.

I'm a bit out of an Arthurian mood, too, but those books sound interesting. And one day I'll feel like reading Arthuriana again. :)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

The Crystal Cave and the Hollow Hills are probably my all time favourite retelling of the Arthur story. I admire Mary Stewart's writing talent immensely and I am not surprised that she writes poetry too. I could take so many scenes from the Merlin trilogy and just hang them on the wall as paintings in words. I do agree that the first two are the most compelling. I don't remember much about The Last Enchantment and The Wicked Day, both of which I have read. The first two are books that I periodically go back and re-read. For me they have stood the test of time. I still love them as much now as when I first read them - which isn't always the case.
Mary Stewart also wrote some excellent romantic suspense novels which I read as I became an adult reader. The Moonspinners, Madam Will you Talk? Thunder on the Right, Nine Coaches Waiting... A favourite author for me. And thanks for the great review

Unknown said...

It has been a long time since I read these books. I really enjoyed them as well as almost anything having to do with Arthurian legend. I also read the fourth book.

I still like White's telling best.

Rick said...

Ambrosius has gotten a pretty raw deal from tradition, hasn't he? Not only did Merlin steal his magical attributes, but Arthur stole his great and primary role as victorious champion of the Britons. Even apart from the possibility that Ambrosius himself was the "historical Arthur," Arthur completely overshadows him.

You can tell the Arthur story and never mention him, but in any story about Ambrosius, Arthur is the skeleton at the feast. The reader would revolt - I would revolt - if he were never mentioned or at least implied.

And more reason for me to read the Stewart books - synologous King Ambrose is a great and honored figure in my world, though Arthur is still the touchstone.

You may be onto something that the Arthur story can't be tackled in a 100,000 word novel or even the final volume of a trilogy. You could tell an Arthurian story, but if your story is the fall of Britain there's not much you can cut. Loosely structured though it is, it holds together as a piece.

Is it the Britons' revenge that Arthur rules the Anglosphere? The other side of the story, Hengist and Horsa and all of that, has fallen into the memory hole. Well, you know that better than almost anyone. :) But it seems to me that the English have no popular foundation legend.

Well, they do. Isn't Robin Hood more or less the English foundation legend? In which the English have always been there, submerged by foreign rulers, but now getting their own back. It reads almost like a sequel of the Arthur story.

I know the recieved form is a late retcon, Ivanhoe and all of that; Robin Hood had no explicit political content when Henry VIII was dressing as Robin with his merrie men to "surprise" Catherine of Aragon. (Imagine an alternate history in which that is the Henry VIII we remember.)

But Robin Hood seems to embody some myth of Englishness that was readily taken up by people proud of their Norman descent.

I'll stop here because I feel a blog post coming on.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I'll write a review of The Wicked Day in due course. Mordred always interested me, too, which probably says something about my contrary nature :-)

Elizabeth - I'd be hard put to choose between these and TH White of the Arthurian retellings I've read. They stand the test of time for me, too - I first read them at school or college and still find them just as vivid now.

Seventh sister - hi, and thanks for dropping in. I'm very fond of TH White's version too as I've said elsewhere. It's completely different from Mary Stewart's butI'd be hard pushed to choose between them.

Rick - it's curious, isn't it? Several other characters in HB vanish from the legends too, like Vortimer and Outigern. Myself, I like the theory that Arthur was Ambrosius' colleague or successor and thus that they might both have earned a share of the military reputation. It's Geoffrey of Monmouth who makes Arthur the star, though presumably he was drawing on tradition as well as his own (fertile) imagination, and then the French romancers carried on from there.

Arguably every writer since the 6th C has told 'an' Arthur story of his/her choice, so by now if you add them all together there's a huge collection!

Tolkien is supposed to have set out to write a foundation legend for the English when he started LOTR, so if that's true you're not the first to have commented on it. The absence of a foundation legend is traditionally attributed to the wicked Normans obliterating the language and culture (which I don't buy; after all we aren't talking in French right now). I think it's at least as consistent with a culture that was very heterogeneous right from the beginning - "the English are a mongrel race" and all that - so that there were a multiplicity of foundation legends (one for every region? every village? every family?) none of which came to be dominant. Hengist and Horsa is a foundation legend for the kingdom of Kent, Cerdic could be something similar for the West Saxons, and arguably 'Ida fortified Bamburgh' is a truncated version of one for Bernicia. There's little if anything for Deira, East Anglia or Mercia, let alone the smaller kingdoms, but I bet they had stories (real or invented) about how they came to be who and where they were. The royal genealogies are consistent with a variety of foundation legends - most of them have Woden at or near the top, but the East Saxons have Seaxnot instead and the East Anglian dynasty cheerfully adds Caesar in for good measure.

Alfred the Great would be a better candidate than Robin Hood for a foundation legend, since he fought an invading force and won, but for some reason he hasn't become a legendary national hero. That might have something to do with the Norman and Plantagenet top brass, who'd find the comfortably mythical Arthur with no descendants a good deal more acceptable as a subject for storytelling than a solidly historical Alfred whose descendants were still around. But really popular stories are hard to obliterate, so I would think that for some reason there wasn't a great body of stories circulating about Alfred. Perhaps he wasn't a very charismatic man and didn't make a good 'character', or perhaps it's back to heterogeneity again and not all the English thought of Alfred as a hero. Certainly in later centuries some of the Anglo-Danish north of England resented West Saxon rule, and that may have been a continuation of a long tradition.

I have a feeling that Robin Hood evolved over time and that he may not ever have been a political/national figure. I associate him with resistance to tyranny, which can be extended to ideas about fair play and perhaps to ideas that all classes had rights and limits to those rights. (Which is not a bad set of values for a foundation legend :-)) But he also has associations with a sort of cheerful irresponsibility, having a jolly good time roasting someone else's venison and camping out in the forest, thumbing his nose at petty authority but doing no great harm and not being a mover of great events. A sort of Boys' Own adventure or an extended scout camp. I also have a vague idea that a figure called 'Robin Hood' or something like it was a sort of festive Lord of Misrule on holidays in the 13th/14th century. I wonder if that's the aspect that Henry was dressing up as?

As for being a sequel of the Arthur story, at a very broad-brush lebel you could say they are both variants of the victory-in-defeat narrative, which has likely been told by the losing side since the dawn of time :-)

Eigon said...

I love the Mary Stewart trilogy too. Some of the descriptions are just wonderful use of language.
I remember her being interviewed on Channel 4 years ago, where she said that, when she started the series, she had intended to make Mordred the traditional villian of the piece - but while she was writing about Merlin, she did more reading, and changed her mind about Mordred. He comes over as much more sympathetic in The Wicked Day, and it doesn't quite fit with the other books.

The BBC did a TV version of the story one Christmas, and it was a great disappointment. Some scenes were spot on, word for word, as the book - and other scenes just ruined it. They made Merlin into a trickster who didn't have any real power. I remember looking forward to the scene in the cave under the tower, where Merlin in the book has a huge vision of the red and white dragons fighting, and wakes up three days later wondering what he's said. In the TV version, he used a trick, and never had a genuine vision at all.
Mind you, it wasn't all bad - Robert Powell was Ambrosius.

Carla said...

Eigon - she says something similar in the Author's Note to The Wicked Day, too. You're right that it doesn't fit as a continuation of the Merlin series, but so far I think it works fairly well as a standalone. I'll write a proper review when I've finished it.

Now, why don't they repeat the TV adaptation? I didn't see the original showing, and I'd like to. Though making Merlin just a conjuror would annoy me intensely - I don't think even Robert Powell would be adequate compensation! I wonder why they chose to do that? It seems to undermine the point of the books.

Anonymous said...

My husband grew up with these and has a wonderful audio version of them.

Carla said...

Hi Kim, and thanks for dropping by. An audio version would be terrific with a good reader.