08 October, 2007

The Wicked Day, by Mary Stewart. Book review

First published 1983. Edition reviewed, Hodder, 2006, ISBN 0-340-35214-0

Set in Britain in the latter part of King Arthur’s reign, approximately the early sixth century, The Wicked Day tells Mordred’s story. The major characters are familiar figures from the legend: Mordred, Arthur, Guinevere, Bedwyr, Arthur’s half-sisters Morgause and Morgan, Morgause’s Orkney sons Gawain, Gaheris, Agravaine and Gareth, and Merlin’s successor Nimue. Some secondary characters, such as Morgause’s lover Gabran, the goldsmith and his slave/spy, and Mordred’s foster parents, are fictional. The story follows on from Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, but is not part of it.

Mordred is Arthur’s illegitimate son and nephew, the result of Arthur’s brief incestuous liaison with his half-sister Morgause. Merlin the enchanter prophesied that Mordred would be Arthur’s downfall (see the Merlin trilogy for this part of the story), and Morgause has raised Mordred in secret on the remote Orkney islands, waiting for the day when she can use Mordred to destroy her hated half-brother. When Mordred discovers his parentage, he loves and respects Arthur as both father and king. He defies his mother’s schemes and vows to serve Arthur faithfully – but Fate may not be so easily denied.

The story is told in third person mainly from Mordred’s point of view. Mary Stewart notes that she wanted to add some “saving greys” to the traditional portrait of Mordred the black villain, and I would say she has gone further than this and created him as a complex and fascinating character. Mordred is intelligent, ambitious, resourceful, quick-thinking and honourable. He is eager for power, cool in a crisis, self-contained, analytical and rather cold-blooded, a sharp contrast to his volatile and violent Orkney half-brothers. Although Mordred is attracted to Queen Guinevere, this seems to be something of an adolescent crush and isn’t reciprocated. It would be hard to imagine this rational and self-controlled Mordred falling head over heels in love with anyone; he is much more interested in running the country. Mordred has qualities that could have made him a worthy successor to Arthur, and his death at the ill-fated battle of Camlann is no less a tragedy than Arthur’s.

Mordred is the central character, and because he is not overly concerned with putting himself inside the skin of others, he dominates the book. The other characters are secondary, though they are still drawn as distinct individuals. Apart from the villainous Morgause, most of the characters are a mix of good and bad qualities. As with the Merlin trilogy, the novel is beautifully written, and the poetic descriptions of landscape and wildlife are especially vivid.

The plot is an interesting take on the traditional Mordred legend, which Mary Stewart has managed to turn into a halfway credible plot. This is no mean feat, because the story as it has come down in legend has some manifest absurdities of character and motivation (why would the wise and experienced Arthur leave his kingdom and his wife in the charge of his arch-enemy? Why would Mordred make an attempt at a coup when he knew Arthur was still alive and at the head of an army – surely a sensible villain would have thought to send an assassin first?). Mary Stewart comments that she wanted to “iron out the absurdities” and provide Mordred with some kind of reason for his actions. As with The Last Enchantment, there are so many episodes in the legend that have to be touched on that the story sometimes creaks a little under the weight. In particular, the series of coincidences that lead to the disastrous battle of Camlann would be outrageous without the context of an implacable destiny. Camlann has a place in later Welsh legend as the epitomy of pointless slaughter – it is listed in the Welsh Triads as one of the Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain – and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur refers to it as “the wicked day of destiny”. This sense of the working out of a malign Fate is very strong in The Wicked Day.

The novel is based on the Arthur legends as recounted in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which gives the reader fair warning not to get pedantic about looking for historical fact (insofar as there is any such thing in fifth and sixth century Britain). The only reference to Mordred prior to Geoffrey’s twelfth-century bestseller is in Annales Cambriae, “The battle of Camlan, where Arthur and Medraut fell”, which does not even say that the two were enemies. As Mary Stewart comments in the Author’s Note, “For none of the ‘Mordred story’, then, is there any evidence at all.” The novel works best when seen as a retelling of the legend.

The Wicked Day follows on from the Merlin trilogy and is consistent with it, but is not a continuation. Merlin does not appear and is hardly even mentioned. Apart from the sense of implacable fate, there are very few fantastical elements in The Wicked Day, consistent with Mordred’s rational character. The Wicked Day is very much Mordred’s story, and can be read as a standalone (though I should imagine that as the Merlin trilogy is much the more famous, most readers will already have read Merlin’s story before they get to Mordred’s).

An intriguing and attractive retelling of the latter part of Arthur’s legend from the point of view of Mordred, who is made much more interesting than the black villain of tradition.


Magpie said...

I read these books many years ago and somehow it escaped my recollection that there were actually four of them. I haven't read this one.
I would have been just a boy at the time and remember being very impressed with the idea of a Romano-British link with Arthur.

The idea of taking someone with a particular image in fiction and revealling him to be something with a tangible historical basis - that was quite different - was something of an epiphany to me.

Bernita said...

A very good review of a fin de seicle story.

Gabriele Campbell said...

That sounds an interesting book. I've always had a soft spot for Mordred and thought legend was too hard on him.

Ok, now try and find that book.

Carla said...

Hazel-rah - It's definitely a trilogy plus a standalone, so most people tend to think of the trilogy and miss Mordred's story. Which I think is a shame. If you're interested in the possible historical basis for Arthur, have you read Christopher Gidlow's recent book on the subject? I thought it was excellent.

Bernita - thank you.

Gabriele - It's well worth a read. I have a contrary liking for Mordred, too :-) It tends to be harder to find than the Merlin trilogy, so good luck. Ebay or interlibrary loan may be your best bets.

Constance Brewer said...

How does Mordred fare as a protagonist, considering a lot of people are predisposed to dislike him, having been won over by the Arthur propaganda machine? *g*

Carla said...

Constance - Propaganda machine? Can you expand on that, please?

Magpie said...

No I hadn't read Gidlow's book.
Thanks for the recommendation.

Constance Brewer said...

You know, the Arthur is all good, benevolent, wise, etc. image we've been spun.

Carla said...

Hazel-rah - Hope you find a copy and enjoy reading it! If you do, I'll be interested to hear what you think.

Constance - Arthur is still good, benevolent and wise. Mordred in The Wicked Day is not truly opposed to Arthur. Although they have their conflicts and differences, they are not enemies until a series of (outrageous, or Fateful) coincidences lands them on opposing sides of the last battle even though neither willed it so. Does that help?

Constance Brewer said...

Yep, that helps a lot. Just how I like my stuff. Nice and grey. :)

Carla said...

Constance - Apart from (possibly) Morgause, there's very little that's either black or white in Mary Stewart's Arthur novels. Makes a nice change :-)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thanks for the review Carla. I read this many years ago, so I've forgotten most of it. The general impression is that I preferred the first two and more especially The Crystal Cave, but I think it perhaps comes down to knowing what's going to happen - a sense of the inevitable. I think as a whole it was a good read - as are all of Mary Stewart's books.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - I read them a long time ago as well, and recently re-read them. They were still just as vivid on a reread as they were first time round, which for me is one of the markers of a good read. Like you, I liked The Crystal Cave best, which I think is because she was more or less completely unfettered by tradition, whereas with the later two there was such a lot of legend to shoehorn in that it tended to weigh the story down a bit. It's odd that even when I know what happens I can sometimes still be on the edge of my seat - the entry into Tintagel at the end of Crystal Cave has that power.