I first read Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy (The Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1973) and The Last Enchantment (1979)) about fifteen years ago. I’m glad to say that I enjoyed them just as much the second time around as I remember from the first.
Stewart’s reworking of the Arthur and Merlin legends is masterful. The atmosphere she evokes for her 5th Century Britain is both rich and convincing – you really feel that it could have been like this. By focusing on Merlin (Arthur himself is conceived at the end of the first book, becomes High King at the end of the second, and is off-stage for much of the third), Stewart ends up with a much more satisfying work. In my view, Merlin is a far more interesting figure by far than Arthur, and his sophistication and learning make him a good narrator. The books are cast as memoirs, written down late in life after Merlin has faded and the majority of his power left him.
This power is carefully done – subtle and capricious. For the most part, Merlin derives his day-to-day power from his reputation as a prophet and his learning in medicine and engineering. Even when at the height of his powers, he achieves most of his aims through craft and wit rather than by any spectacular feats of magic. The most striking events are the public moments of prophecy, when he is taken hold of by the god that he serves and speaks of things to come to audiences of fearful warriors and kings. Merlin himself believes that all his magic comes from the god he serves, but he never seems quite sure just who that god is – Dark Ages Britain are awash with the remnants of the old gods of place, the gods the Romans brought, and the new God of the Christians who is slowly replacing the older ways.
Stewart provides notes in each book, which briefly describe some of the ways she wove her tellings from the body of myth, legend and the fragments of history we have from the time. She has, of course, made some use of poetic licence with such aspects as place names, but has got the balance right – after all, historical accuracy in a book set in the Dark Ages is a bit much to ask, and so we have to settle for feeling, atmosphere and intelligibility.
You don’t need to know the Arthur/Merlin stories to read these, and if you are expecting a “typical” retelling complete with full plate armour, tournaments, Frenchified names and chivalry then you’ll be disappointed. But if you want to read of what Arthur and Merlin might actually have been like, and follow them through a world that feels like it might be somewhere close to how it was, then these books are great. They are also great if you’re about to set off for any of the wilder parts of the British Isles – the West Country, Wales, Scotland, Cumbria or Northumberland for instance. These places still retain some of the wildness that the whole of our country must have once had and even, perhaps, some trace of the gods and spirits of the hills and the air.