Wonderful blend of legend and history Jul 25, 2013
The third book of Mary Stewart's Arthurian saga. As in the previous two volumes, Merlin is the narrator, picking up the story where “The Hollow Hills” left off, on the night of the day Arthur was proclaimed High King of Britain at the ripe old age of fourteen. Mary Stewart crafted each book as a stand-alone (although, clearly, it's best to read them in sequence) and so the first few pages contain a recap of the events that preceded the coronation. This makes the first chapter a little awkward but soon the action takes off and we are swept along into another 500 pages of fascinating reconstruction of the days of Arthur, Merlin and Camelot.
As in the earlier books, we get superb descriptions of places and events, in-depth character development done with honesty but also with a loving acceptance of human nature, terrific pacing, interspersing lots of action with contemplative passages and that quintessential thing that Mary Stewart does so well of educating without patronising. Much as I loved “The Crystal Cave” and “The Hollow Hills”, I feel that this book is even stronger as it deals with Merlin's decline and his ambivalence about the fulfilment of his life mission. Despite his stated “contentment”, the ending is very sad.
Quite apart from the quality of the narrative and the elegance with which some truly gruesome scenes are handled, the great achievement of this saga is that it successfully deconstructs the rather unlikely elements of the Arthurian legend and reassembles them into a believable and cohesive version of what really could have happened. In particular, the treatment of Guinevere's abduction is a stroke of genius. Perhaps less convincing is the apprenticeship of Ninian/Nimuë but this is where an acceptance of the magical element is required and, given that so much of the fantastical has been explained in human terms, I was happy to suspend belief and go with the flow.
I have just finished re-reading this book, taking my time over it, which allowed me to find so much that I had missed in my previous page-turning frenzy. This is Stewart's hallmark: her books work on different levels, as fast-moving adventures on first reading but offering satisfying depth on subsequent visits. I can't think of a better quality in a book.