The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart

The second installment in Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy picks up just where book one, The Crystal Cave, left off. Young Merlin has assisted High King Uther Pendragon to bed Lady Ygraine, and a child has been conceived. Pendragon declares to Merlin and Ygraine that he will not claim the child as his, but that he also will not harm him (in case Uther has no other sons, the boy must be prepared and safe). Merlin is charged by Pendragon and Ygraine to take their son, Arthur, into hiding and to prepare him for his birthright, without allowing Arthur or anyone else know who he truly is and what might become of him. Emrys is given to a neighboring minor king to be cared for and raised in noble fashion, but with the burden of being labeled a bastard, as Merlin himself was labeled. As the boy grows, Merlin has taken an expedition abroad, following the path that his god has laid for him, in search of an ancient and powerful sword, Caliber (Excalibur). After his journey is completed, Merlin returns to England, where he disguises himself as a caretaker of a small chapel near to Arthur’s home. Eventually, Arthur (known as Emrys) meets the magician Myrrdin one day by “chance.” Merlin teaches the boy what little he can of magic, but also all he knows of history, culture, and legend. The time comes when Uther’s health begins to fail him and, left without a son, he must call the boy to his side.

Characterization in this particular installment of the series is more deeply explored and more effectively delivered than in its predecessor. Two major characters from The Crystal Cave, Merlin and Uther, are afforded interesting growth and development. Uther’s daughter, Morgause, also has a notable presence and, though explored rather briefly, is clearly presented as a character to watch: mysterious, cunning, and dangerous. King Lot, Uther Pendragon’s most powerful rival, and other minor characters, like Bedwyr, Arthur’s trusted friend (fashioned after Lancelot, perhaps?) also add exciting and meaningful levels to the plot, most intriguingly, at times, when they are not directly involved but referenced or alluded to. Arthur himself, as Emrys, is drawn quite well; there is something innately regal about him, though he is growing up as an orphaned boy in a relatively low-royalty home. Comparisons to Merlin and Ambrosius (Merlin’s father / Arthur’s uncle and former High King) do not go unnoticed; even as a child, Stewart writes his character in such a way as to believe that this boy could one day be a powerful and revered leader. The handling of the crux, where Emrys discovers that he is Arthur, son of Uther, is also quite nicely done and gives the reader further appreciation of Arthur’s and Merlin’s characters.

As with The Crystal Cave, I was not entirely enthralled with the story, nor was I truly excited by the magical elements, which I found to be rather lacking for a Merlin story. Still, Stewart is a good writer and a good storyteller, both of which are necessary for the effectiveness of fantasy stories in particular. Because she draws Arthur’s character so well, and because of the many ways she re-imagines the more recognizable elements of the Arthurian legend (such as the sword in the stone), The Hollow Hills remained interesting almost despite itself. Had I not been a fan of the legend already, I may not have appreciated the book as much as I did; however, even readers who are not familiar with Arthurian legend will still appreciate how well the story is written; the pace is conducive to the experience, the language is appropriate and adds fascinating elements in its own right, and the prose is fluid in an enchantingly mystical kind of way (imagine taking a lazy raft down a slow-moving river, but with vividly wonderful views of a vibrant and blooming forest on either side).

It is clear that Stewart does her research. Not only does she know the legend inside-out and back-to-front, but she also takes the time to appreciate the difficulties that readers might have in interpreting the more elusive facts or in keeping track of ancient, extinct locations and kingdoms. She recreates the story in a more linear, accessible way, but with all of the deeper, permanent elements in tact (though changed to fit a modern, skeptical reader). Stewart does away with the majority of the true fantasy elements and reinterprets the magic of Merlin as legend which is based in fact and which grew exponentially over time; the reader witnesses perfectly reasonable, scientific, and creatively man-made events give birth to the well-known stories which have stimulated young minds and imaginations for centuries. In a way, it could almost be compared to an atheist’s reading of the Bible, wherein foundations of fact would be located and re-written to explain the more divine elements. It is a commentary on the human experience, on superstition, and on man’s struggle between his desire for fact and his fascination with the inexplicable.

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“To remember love after long sleep; to turn again to poetry after a year in the market place, or to youth after resignation to drowsy and stiffening age; to remember what once you thought life could hold, after telling over with muddled and calculating fingers what it has offered; this is music, made after long silence.”

“Every life has a death, and every light a shadow. Be content to stand in the light, and let the shadow fall where it will.”

“I was left kneeling there in the choking cloud of dust, with the shrouded sword held fast in my filthy and bleeding hands. From the apse, the last of the carving had vanished. It was only a curved wall, showing blank, like the wall of a cave.”

“You and I between us, Merlin, we will make such a king as the world has never known.”

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Review: The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 14 


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Last Enchantment is the third book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy (which later became the Arthurian Saga, with the inclusion of a fourth book, The Wicked Day).  This portion of the trilogy concerns the waning of Merlin’s power, the fulfillment of his final prophesies, and the rise of Nimue as King’s enchantress.  Like its predecessors in the trilogy, this book reinvents some of the major elements of the Merlin legend, such as Merlin’s entombment in the crystal cave, Morgause & Mordred’s lives, and Arthur’s betrayal by Gwenevere and Lancelot (Bedwyr).   


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

What this installment of the series does better than its predecessors is that it allows for growth and development of the characters.  King Arthur’s leadership style and personality are given more attention and some of the minor characters (such as Gwenevere and the lesser Kings) are also clearly drawn, though in a subtle, understated way.  The greatest achievement in this regard is with the character Merlin.  This, his final phase, is both sad and noble.  The relationship he builds with Nimue is touching and heartbreaking.  As Merlin’s early prophecies about his own demise begin to come to fruition, the reader cannot help but hope for Merlin’s success, though it would ironically prove him a failure.  


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the story.

Stewart is a good writer and satisfactory storyteller.  The book is constructed in such a way as to progress the story fluidly and rapidly, without it seeming rushed or impatient.  Most of the chapters are short, though there are lengthier portions where more time must be spent on a single subject – these choices are made consciously, however, and prove necessary to appreciating and understanding the more important aspects of the overall plot.  The only downfall for this edition of the novel is that it is littered with proofing errors.  There are multiple instances (particularly nearer to the end of the book) where words are missing or incorrect (“if” instead of “of”, for instance).  These grammar and proofreading issues should have been caught prior to publication, so it is no fault of the others and does not necessarily take away from the reading experience (except for OCD English majors such as myself). 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

How does a man of power and consequence deal with the waning of that power and stature?  How does a man of supernatural gifts grieve their loss and find a new place for himself in the mortal world?  This final installment of the Merlin trilogy deals with the rise and fall of magical and godly powers, yes, but its message resounds with the common reader just the same.  This is a story about the circle of life, one which takes us from birth and discovery of the many wondrous, seemingly inexplicable things around us, to coming of age and learning to question what we see and what we think we know; it leads us to explore the power of healthy manhood and the wisdom that comes with elder years, then forces us to confront old age and a new dependency on others.  This is a story about love and friendship, war and peace, land and spirit – it is a story about mistakes made, lessons learned, and the very personal meaning of magic.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Merlin lore, Arthurian Legend, History, Ancient British History.

Review: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 11


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Crystal Cave is the first book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy.  She based the series on Geoffrey of Manmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) – a work of now-debunked “scholarship” from the 12th Century.  In her Author’s note, Stewart makes it quite clear that she based her story on this text because it was, to her, the most interesting – and because she was not interested in creating a work of scholarship (thus, she did not need to take Geoffrey of Manmouth’s work entirely seriously).  This is an important note and certainly asserts the credibility of the author, scholarly text or not. Ultimately, this is a story of Merlin’s boyhood – and it outlines the path he will soon take as prophet, rather than magician.  Stewart’s interpretation places all of Merlin’s power in the hands of the gods – making him simply a vessel, with no major magical ability of his own (though he is certainly clever and intelligent).  While I am a bit disappointed in the more spiritual / less mystical interpretation of the Merlin story (I much prefer the magic of T.A. Barron or Jane Yolen), I was still fascinated by tale and how Stewart interpreted the various mythological events, people, and places.  I am a great fan of Arthurian Legend and the Merlin story, and this solid, literary approach (even more literary than White’s Once and Future King, in my opinion) is an excellent addition to the lore.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The downside to Stewart’s approach with Merlin’s character is that it leaves much of the “magic” in the hands of a higher entity.  Thus, unlike the Barron or Yolen works, for example, Merlin’s character in The Crystal Cave does not spend much time training or developing in the magical arts, even though he does have a magician tutor (as well as engineering, language and other tutors).  To me, this is a disappointment because that type of learning is what I have come to expect with retellings of the Merlin tale.  Even without this element, though, the character development and dynamics throughout are so excellent, one becomes taken in and starts to appreciate the story for what it is – a more realistic, “historical” account of the man who was Merlin – and how the lore and legends might have grown exponentially over time.  Merlin’s characterization as a bastard prince, coupled with his relationships, then, with his mother (an unwed princess), his grandfather (the king) and his biological father – whom Merlin comes to discover later in the story, all make for interesting sub-plots and help to guide the story of Merlin’s development along.  The introductions of familiar characters from legend, such as Uther Pendragon, are also well realized and, though different from other interpretations, work very well in Stewart’s reimagining.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The crowning achievement for this story is without a doubt Mary Stewart’s writing style.  There are elements of this piece which hearken back to the epic poets – Virgil and Homer- and which make this story, though modern fantasy-fiction, feel like a weathered text of yore.  Simultaneously, though, the language and flow are current, making the story easy to read and easy to follow (Stewart herself explains in the Author’s note how she took great care to update town names and to limit herself linguistically: For instance, where there may have been three or four different names for one town, based on the different people who had settled the territory at the time, she would choose one name – the simplest to read, thus keeping the story moving and effective by not forcing readers to track the less important elements).  The Merlin legend is one which has been around for ages and thus which demands a certain respect in storytelling – it must be relevant, but also authentic;  it must be told in a way that is somehow reminiscent of ancient folklore, which means largely lyrical – respecting the way ancient stories were not written down, but retold again and again through song and the spoken word.  Stewart’s prose does this in a way that no other Merlin text does (at least, not since Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur).


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

In essence, this story is about a young boy who was born in a tumultuous time and who has seemingly everything stacked against him.  Myrddin Emrys is a bastard child, born without a father in a kingdom constantly threatened.  His royal status is ignored because his mother bore him out of wedlock; he is feared because of the tales his mother told about his conception (and because of certain small “talents” he has, which are misinterpreted by those around him; and he is treated with fear, disrespect, and abuse – both by his elders and by his young peers.  But it is soon discovered that Merlin is a prophet – a vessel for the gods’ (or God’s) power.  He is a seer, who foretells the future – which causes him to be simultaneously feared and revered.  Ultimately, he is a boy on a quest to find his father and to do the right things – the things he is guided to do by his conscience and by the higher powers, who are preparing him to be the tutor and caretaker for the greatest King of all Brittania.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Merlin lore, Arthurian Legend, History, Ancient British History.


Notable Quotes:

“… the gods only go with you if you put yourself in their path. And that takes courage.”

“But I have noticed this about ambitious men, or men in power, that they fear even the slightest and least likely threat to it.”

“I think there is only one. Oh, there are gods everywhere, in the hollow hills, in the wind and the sea, in the very grass we walk on and the air we breathe, and in the bloodstained shadows where men like Belasius wait for them. But I believe there must be one who is God Himself, like the great sea, and all the rest of us, small gods and men and all, like rivers, we all come to Him in the end.”