|Title: The Hollow Hills|
Author: Mary Stewart
Publisher: Fawcett Crest
Synopsis: (from the 1973 hardcover published by William Morrow & Company, Inc.) Once again, as she did in her international best seller The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart uses Arthurian legend to tell a spellbinding story.
The Hollow Hills takes place in a fifth-century Britain fraught with superstition and fear, where no life is safe, no law is stable and where a kings risks accusations of murder and adultery to get himself an heir. For his own safety, the boy Arthur, rejected as a bastard by his father, is long kept ignorant of his parentage.
Dangerous rides through the deep forests of England and Wales, sudden battles amidst brooding mountains, and retreats into secret hollows in the hills provide the background for this take of Arthur's growth into manhood and his discovery of the strange sword that was to test his claim to power.
Behind and around Arthur always is the mysterious, strong, yet vulnerable figure of Merlin, who sees and knows so much but who, like Arthur, must also suffer for the safe of a nation being born. In this world of embattled kings and countries, hurried journeys, whispered anxieties and sudden death, we watch Merlin and Arthur follow their common destiny.
Merlin is the narrator and his prophetic voice communicates not only the bristling atmosphere of the ancient setting but also the profound relevance of this age-old take of our own time.
So I read the copy of the book picture above but it didn't have a blurb so I had to pull it from this one:
Which I also own
because something is wrong with me.
Warning for Spoilers
So, I was laughing hysterically while writing up the above blurb because it makes it sound like this book is filled with intrigue and battles! Where every corner turned is filled with danger as Merlin and Arthur try to navigate this hostile terrain. Oh noes! How ever shall they survive!
Not so much.
What lines like 'Dangerous rides through the deep forests of England and Wales, sudden battles amidst brooding mountains, and retreats into secret hollows in the hills' mean is that we spend a lot of time following Merlin in great detail as he travels from places to place (the bane of fantasy novels). And Merlin is only on one fight at the end of the book, so there's your sudden battle. Oh, and Arthur, who is made to be the main character by that blurb, doesn't show up until the last 150 pages. Like the last book, the beginning is the most boring thing ever. And it's worse in many ways than the last book because Arthur exists now. Where the promise of the last book was Merlin's history before Arthur, this book brings the promise of Merlin training Arthur. That the training of Arthur is glossed over in the span of 70 pages is disheartening to the point of infuriating. I don't need another book where Merlin is off on his own dinking around and making preparations. We did that already. I want to see Stewart's Merlin immersed in the legend overseeing events in a new and interesting light with a new and interesting perspective-- as he does in the end with Arthur retrieving Caliburn.
And the story Stewart weaves around Caliburn is fascinating which makes me even more angry about the worthless first half of the book. While he's dinking around not paying any attention to Arthur, Merlin begins to have visions of the sword of Macsen/Maximus. On his way back to finally go and teach Arthur, Merlin begins to receive signs from his gods that eventually direct him to the resting place of the sword. He takes it from its resting place (catching a brief glimpse of the Holy Grail before that is swept away by the gods) and continues on to Ector's holding where Arthur is being raised. He becomes the caretaker of the Chapel in the Green where an homage to the sword has been carved out of stone. Eventually Merlin takes the sword to Caer Bannog (and I giggled every time I read that), a mystical island said to be inhabited by
a killer rabbit Bilis the dwarf
king of the Otherworld and where men go and return mad-- babbling about how
they spent a year away when they've only been gone a day. Eventually
Arthur is sent to retrieve the sword, which Merlin watches from afar (as he
does everything interesting). They leave the sword on the monument
with the stone sword. After Arthur has been acknowledged by Uther,
Arthur, Merlin and the petty kings return to the chapel where Arthur lifts the
sword from the alter and is acknowledged by all as king. This was an
interesting twist in the legend that I enjoyed and wish the rest of the book
had more to do with this instead of just focusing on Merlin traveling.
Hollow Hills begins right where Crystal Cave ended. Merlin wakes up the morning after Uther's raid on Tintagel after spending the night unconscious on the ground. Not wanting to get too much further onto Uther's bad side, he retreats back to his cave and waits for a couple months until Ygraine summons him. Then Merlin, in great detail, describes his journey to Tintagel where he discusses with Ygraine what to do with the child Uther has sworn never to acknowledge and how they're going to slip this one by Uther. Then Merlin, in great detail, describes his journey north to meet with Uther in an attempt to pretend he was coming south to meet the king all along. Then everything works out exactly the way Merlin needed to and Arthur is given into his care. Then there is more waiting and after that we read with great detail about Merlin's journey to less Britain with baby Arthur and how they are almost attacked on the road but then not because god forbid we have an actual conflict in this book. After that, Merlin goes traveling and we are treated to ten pages on what Merlin did on this travels when a paragraph would have more than sufficed. He returns to Britain and finds that Uther has received a wound that has left him impotent and that he will bear no more children than the bastard daughter he had before he met Ygraine (Morgause) and his two children by Ygraine (Arthur and Morgian). Merlin goes to find the sword of Maximus, takes over caring for the Chapel in the Green and then finally, after 285 pages, meets and begins to train Arthur. When war comes to them, Merlin brings fourteen year old Arthur north where he fights alongside his father and wins the day, has sex with his half-sister, is acknowledged as Uther's son and becomes King after Uther dies right after proclaiming him. The story ends with Arthur raising Macsen's sword from the alter at the Chapel in the Green.
Merlin remains the unlikable asshole he was in the first book and has the added problem of being a lucky idiot to make things even worse. At the beginning of the book, Merlin learns his gods have left him and he has no power (he gets the power back mid book cause the time was right for him to have it back). For the first time, we see Merlin uncertain about what is to come as he worries he may have been wrong about everything. This doesn't make him any more likable as a character as he continues to push forward with his plans. The problem is that he no longer has the arrogance that allowed the reader to swallow it when building tension collapsed into an anti-climactic mess when everything goes Merlin's way. Here, it still collapses into an anti-climactic mess, but now instead of scoffing and saying he knew it was going to go that way all along, Merlin is relieved because he didn't know what was going to happen. An example of this is when he and Ygraine contrive to get Arthur into his care. Uther was originally going to send his son to Budec of less Britain who fostered himself and Ambrosius when they were in exile. Merlin rides north to meet with Uther and tries to avoid the king's troops so he can meet up with Uther at a specific point so it looks like he was riding south instead of north. This blows up when they accidentally end up running into a small squadron of Uther's troops at a river ferry. These troops were sent to fetch him and Merlin manages to convince them that he was coming south because he knew Uther wanted to speak with him. Then, in stark contrast to when he was taken by Vortigern in the first book and had to make up a lie about his parentage to protect both himself and his mother and then play at having greater magic than he actually possessed, Merlin pretty much goes to see Uther with no plan to talk Uther into giving him custody of Arthur prepared. He just waits and hopes for the best and by golly, it all works out perfectly for him without Merlin having to do a damn thing (Budec is dead and his son, Hoel, would make a terrible guardian). This is pretty much a standard for this book where, every time Merlin is met with something that could constitute a conflict, it melts away without any effort from him. It was maddening.
Arthur was awesome. I adored everything about him-- his eagerness, his willingness to learn, his love for others and fierce devotion to them, his recklessness... I could go on and on gushing about how adorable Athur was. And so heartbreaking too. Trying to delicately tell Arthur that he slept with his sister, Merlin tells Arthur that he's never had sex and Arthur is so angry. Which is confusing until Arthur confesses that he believed Merlin to be his father and my heart broke a little. It was such a moment of contrast between two characters. Merlin doesn't hope-- he has no sense of faith or belief. When he is with Ambrosius, he just wants to serve and learn and never considers that the other's kindness is based on a father's love for his son. He can't conceive the idea of Arthur secretly believing Merlin to be his father because the capacity to believe in such things is simply beyond him. Merlin acts on what he knows which is why he was so worthless without his powers (not like he suffered for it). There's an interesting division and dynamic between these two characters and I want to see it play out in the next book.
Uther is mad at Merlin at the beginning and never wants to see him again. Then he has to summon Merlin after Budec dies in order to find a safe place to keep Arthur in case he never has any more sons with Ygraine. Then he is injured and left impotent (there's something poetic in there). He slowly wastes away over the years until he has to be brought to his final battle on a littler since he is too weak to fight on horseback. He survives that battle and tells Arthur the next day who he is. That night, proclaiming Arthur to the other kings, Uther dies at the table and is just kind of left there why the other rulers decide what to do about Arthur.
Cador of Cornwall is the son of Gorlois (by someone other than Ygraine it appears in this although in some retellings he is Arthur's half-brother). It's his son Constantine who usually rules after Arthur and Mordred die at the battle of Camlann. In this story Merlin initially views him with distrust, figuring that Cador must be haboring a grudge after Merlin and Uther got his father killed. At the end of the story, it's revealed that Cador harbors no grudge and his more than willing to pledge himself to any king who can hold Britain together, and he believes that King to be Arthur. Arthur names Cador his heir after becoming king until he has children of his own.
Morgause is the bastard daughter of Uther from before his affair with Ygraine. In Crystal Cave, Merlin is about to have sex with a woman but then has a vision of her sleeping with Uther and backs out. Morgause is said to be a Breton woman's daughter but it is also alluded to that she is the daughter of Merlin's almost lover, which I rather like as it gives her and Merlin something of a history and him more reason to hate her. Merlin first meets her when he's trying to treat Uther's impotency. She has become a very apt healer, but Merlin is initially shocked because she is a girl and clearly girls can't do this sort of thing (later in the book he forgets that she's a healer and scolds her for coming to the healer's tent). Morgause begs him to teach her power and Merlin is wretched, telling her that girls can't learn his power. I really feel for Morgause. Like Merlin and Arthur, she is a bastard but unlike Merlin and Arthur, she really has no future. The option of power will never be available to her. She is desperately trying to grasp at something-- anything that will give her any bit of power over her own life. If Merlin had agreed to train her-- if he had offered to teach her they way he had gone on to teach Arthur... if he had offered Morgause even the slightest bit of hope for her future she probably wouldn't have gone on to rape her brother. But Merlin A- doesn't understand hope and B- hates women, so Morgause was pretty much doomed as far as he was concerned.
Ector is a good and loyal follower of Uther's and was a close friend to Ambrosius. It was to him Merlin ends up trusting Arthur's safety. He raises the boy as his own and clearly comes to care for Arthur as his own son. Cei is Ector's son by blood. He seems to have all the makings of a soldier and has little interest in spending any time with Merlin. Morgian is Uther and Ygraine's daughter and is only mentioned by others as the future wife of Lot (who must be like 20 years older than her-- yuck). At the end of the book, the marriage hasn't happened and, if Stewart's notes are anything to go by, won't ever happen. Lot is the ambitious northern king who is doing everything to get into a position of power. He is shrewd and seems willing to deal with anyone so long as it gives him power. Ygraine sees to it that Arthur is off somewhere safe and then never gives a thought to him. She also, from the way Merlin talks about her, seems to care little for Morgian.
I'm so torn. I hated the beginning of this book so much. So, so, much. If the book had stopped on page 275, it would have gotten a 1 star. But Arthur was so wonderful that I would give his section a four. So, I'm going to settle on 2 Stars for this book. I sincerely hope the next one sticks close to Arthur.
I also need to mention that there was some language in this book that I was not entirely comfortable with. And it's centered around Merlin's dealings with women. In my review of Crystal Cave I spoke about how disheartening the treatment of Rowena was, especially since none of the other female characters had much agency. This book is even worse. This is something just off in the portrayal of women and I don't know if that's because Merlin is being written as a character who has issues with women or if the problem is something deeper. But there's something wrong here. Arthur's wet-nurse never speaks and is described as dumb, Merlin looks down on Ygraine for her choice not to be involved with her children, women can't learn Merlin's brand of magic, Morgause is branded as evil for her ambition... these descriptions just didn't sit right with me. And then the weirdest thing was when, in telling Morgause she had to leave court after she slept with Arthur, Merlin referred to himself as air and darkness. The fact that he said it to Morgause makes me think this is a direct reference to T.H. White's book The Queen of Air and Darkness, which of course refers to Morgause. So first we have Rowena's role reduced to nothing and now we have Merlin taking Morgause's title. I don't know what's going on here, but this whole portrayal of women is making me uncomfortable.
On the Rape (Trigger Warning)
Morgause rapes Arthur because she is fully aware that they are related and his is not. I've gone over why that's problematic before and feel no need to do so again. But, also, Arthur is fourteen. And blah blah blah historically accurate, kids were having sex back then, fourteen is a man blah blah blah blah... I don't care. Part of the fun of these legends is watching how the context of the story changes as they move through history. Modern Arthurian authors have to strike a balance between staying true to the legend and offering the story context for our time. And you know what, for the whole book I got to read about how twelve year old Morgian was going to marry 30+ year old Lot. But, in the end, Stewart's not going to go through with that. And if an author is conscious enough to know that there are issues with a twelve year old having sex with a man twenty years her senior, then there should be the same consciousness about a fourteen year old having sex with a twenty-two year old. You wouldn't do that if the genders were reversed so it's so not okay in this case. And it's alluded to that this was a violation of some sort because Merlin knows that Arthur would kill Morgause if he knew she had been aware along that they were siblings. Since Merlin withholds this information (a violation against Arthur in its own right), he acts more horrified for Morgause than his own well being. I wonder if Arthur will ever learn that Morgause knew all along and what his reaction will be. Right now we're kinda in a holding tank waiting for the other shoe to drop. But I'm betting the end result will be disappointment.
Also, Merlin watched and didn't do anything because he didn't want to embarrass Arthur. Just... so many levels where that's not okay.