Better than I remembered: Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Saga

I read Mary Stewart’s bestselling THE CRYSTAL CAVE probably three or four years after it came out in 1970. I wasn’t impressed. Having reread it a few months back, it’s safe to say that says more about my teenage self than it does Stewart’s writing.

I picked it up because I loved Arthurian stories; how could I resist Merlin’s autobiography? I didn’t love it because it has few battles, very low level magic — in those days I wanted spectacle — and as it ends with the birth of Arthur, it’s devoid of any of the usual Arthurian cast.

Reading it now, it’s quite simply a great story. We open with Merlin, writing his story while trapped within the eponymous lair where he works his clairvoyance (the main magic). It starts with him as the bastard child of a Celtic noblewoman in post-Roman Britain, then follows him through into adulthood: education in medicine, engineering and mysticism, discovering he’s the son of Ambrosius, the British war leader and high king against the encroaching Saxons, using his visions to help his father, and, after Ambrosius’ death, helping Uther Pendragon begat Arthur.

To a large extent it’s a straight historical novel and that’s not a genre I’m fond of. Even Arthurian historicals don’t usually work for me, but this one does. Part of it is that like Lord Dunsany, Stewart does a great job capturing the natural world: “the hollow sounds of the horse’s hooves on the iron ground of winter; the crunch of leaves underfoot and the snap of brittle twigs; the flight of a woodcock and the snap of a startled pigeon” from the third book, The Last Enchantment, for instance. I’m guessing that like his lordship, Stewart spent plenty of times outdoors. If not, she fakes it well.

I was much more impressed by THE HOLLOW HILLS when I first read it, because now we’re getting into more familiar Arthurian material. The book has Merlin arrange Arthur’s fostering, then travel Europe, ultimately finding the sword of a legendary Roman leader which he hides for Arthur to draw when the time comes. Then he arrives in Lord Ector’s and becomes Arthur’s teacher. The story goes up to Arthur drawing the sword from the stone and thereby proving his kingship; we also get seeding in Morgause conceiving Mordred and Merlin’s foreseeing warning him that one named Guinevere will come between Arthur and his best buddy, Bedivere (filling the Lancelot role). Reading now, it doesn’t outstrip its predecessor but it’s still very good. Part of its strength is that Stewart makes young Arthur feel like a man of destiny, bound for glory, and many people try that and fail (charisma and leadership are hard to capture on the printed page).

I remembered THE LAST ENCHANTMENT finishing with the fall of Camelot but no, that’s in the fourth volume, The Wicked Day (I’ll get to that one soon). This is a relatively laid back story: Merlin, aging, sees his power going while Arthur establishes a kingdom where the common folk can walk in peace, without fear of violence or invasion. But Morgause, Morgan and King Lot are all scheming in various ways—and is Merlin’s new apprentice Ninian trustworthy? As my friend Ross pointed out when he first read it, Stewart backs out of Merlin’s doom from the first book to give him a happy ending. It’s still excellent.

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