|Title: The Prince and the Pilgrim|
Author: Mary Stewart
Publisher: William & Morrow Co.
Synopsis: (from the publisher) A story of adventure, love and sorcery! Mary Stewart returns to the world of King Arthur and Camelot—the magic era which she depicted in her enduring and highly acclaimed Merlin Trilogy: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment.
The prince, our hero, is named Alexander. He is but a tiny infant when his father, Prince Baudouin, is brutally murdered by the King of Cornwall in a remote corner of England. Aided by a trusted servant, Alexander’s mother escapes the same fate by fleeing with her son to a safe and secret haven. When Alexander comes of age he sets out to Camelot to seek justice from King Arthur and avenge the death of the father he never knew.
The pilgrim is named Alice. We first meet her when she is a pretty child accompanying her father, a royal duke, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. While growing up into a beautiful young woman, Alice also experiences many adventures. Among them is the rescue of a young French nobleman who has in his possession an enchanted silver cup. Many believe the chalice to be the mysterious and much sought after Holy Grail.
Prince Alexander is diverted in his quest for justice by the enchantments of Morgan le Fay, the seductive but evil sorceress. She persuades him to attempt a theft of the Holy Grail so that she can own it and thus gain power over King Arthur and his court.
A wise man once said, “Everyone has their own grail.” Alexander’s search for the mysterious cup, Holy Grail or not, leads him to Alice. Together the prince and the pilgrim find what they’ve really been seeking: love, the greatest mystery of all.
I was interested to note that the blurb on this book makes no mention of The Wicked Day. I have no idea why the publishers would make this choice, as of the four previous books Wicked Day is the best, in my opinion. But people seem not to know what to call this series. Lots of people refer to it as The Merlin Trilogy even if they are aware of the existence of Wicked Day. No one seems to know Prince and the Pilgrim exists, even people who have read the other four and liked them. The reaction when I told people Story and I were reading all five Mary Stewart Arthurian books was usually: “Oh, I thought there were only three/four!” Thus, here is the review of the oft-overlooked fifth book.
Warning for Spoilers
This is a retelling of an obscure Arthurian story taken from Malory. Why Stewart chose this one over more well-known stories about King Arthur’s knights is beyond me, even if she didn’t want to use any of her main characters from previous books. Heck, there are a bunch of other Grail Quest stories that are more popular (Percival, Galahad, etc…). I can only guess something about this story caught her imagination as she was researching for the trilogy and Wicked Day.
This book was published about a decade after Wicked Day, and it shows. It is a completely different story than any of the previous four, in tempo, tone, and theme. This is not a big, sweeping epic. It is a small slice of life during Arthurian times focused on two very different people. It splits its time fairly evenly between Alexander and Alice rather than staying with one main character, though of course one senses from the beginning that they are meant to be together. It’s not really a “love” story, though it’s intended to be—again a departure from the other four, which dealt very little with love even when the subject came up. All in all, it is not a bad story. It reads almost like Mary Stewart writing fanfiction within her own universe—taking a smaller story and fleshing it out because it intrigued her.
The plot is exactly how it is described in the blub above. Alexander is a prince raised in exile because the crazed jealousy of King March (Mark) of Cornwall led the king to murder his popular younger brother (Baudouin) under the pretense of being drunk. Alexander’s mother Princess Anna escapes with her young son in a scene familiar to those who have read the four previous books—any potential threat turns out to be nonexistent. The riders sent to catch them turn out to be loyal to Baudouin and return home to tell March that Anna and Alexander are dead. The people who hold Anna’s hiding place in trust for her might be inclined to throw the fugitives out, but turn out to be nice old folk who are happy to let someone younger come in and rule the province. Thus Alexander grows up without ever really knowing danger. Eventually he learns the truth of his father’s death. Anna, who had earlier sworn vengeance, has had a chance of heart and sends him to Camelot to ask for justice legally. On the way Alexander is snared by Morgan le Fay (will her name never cease to change!) to be her latest lover. She sends him off to find the Holy Grail so she can use it against Arthur.
Alice is the daughter of a duke who likes to make pilgrimages. This is the first time we’ve really seen Christian characters and how they fit into this world of Old Gods and Fate and magic (aside from occasional mentions of bishops who don’t like Merlin, Arthur and Mordred because they’re bastards). Alice makes several pilgrimages with her father, meeting in the process one of the young Frankish princes briefly mentioned in Wicked Day. Two of the three boys are murdered by their power-hungry uncles. The youngest, who escapes, is escorted by Alice and her father in safety to a monastery in England. The boy carries a cup known as the Holy Grail as a tribute to the monastery. Alexander, who is pursuing the Grail for Morgan, hears about it and follows the party. He believes Alice is Nimuë, the woman rumored to be the keeper of the Holy Grail, until he meets her. They instantly fall in love, all the truth comes out about Alexander’s quests, and they are married within a few days. Alice’s former potential fiancé, meanwhile, has taken control of Alice’s home castle. He pretends to go quietly once Alice, her father, and her new husband arrive, but then tries to murder the duke in his sleep. Alexander is alerted by faithful servants and arrives in time to save his new father-in-law. The story ends happily with Alexander fulfilling neither of his two intended quests (conveniently, March turns out to be on his deathbed and vengeance against an old guy sick in bed isn’t much of a vengeance), but presumably finding something better: true love. Thus everyone “finds their grail” (insert snarky Spamalot joke here).
Alexander: He is kind of an idiot but relatively likeable. His thoughtlessness and hot-bloodedness are constantly blamed by the narrator on his youth. He is smart enough to realize that Morgan’s version of the events surrounding her banishment doesn’t add up with the story everyone else tells, even when he is so obsessed with her he takes up the quest for the Holy Grail naively believing she will use the Grail just to free herself from “imprisonment.” It’s not really his fault he ends up Morgan’s sex slave—Morgan arranges to have him injured and then continually drugs him as long as he’s with her. This is not totally implausible, as other authors than Stewart have had female characters drug their men to make sure their sex slaves are compliant (Anne Eliot Crompton in Gawain and Lady Green, for example). He quests after the Grail and ends up meeting Alice totally by chance. He immediately declares his love for her, which made me want to faceplam because that trope should be dead and rotting by the early 90s when this book was published. Stewart is supposed to be one of the masters of the romance genre, and this is what we get?! Fate (with a capital F) isn’t mentioned at this point, but it’s pretty strongly implied. The story is pretty much over at this point; just a few loose ends to tie up. Oh, and Alice’s pesky almost-fiancé needs to be killed because he turns out to be working with Morgan le Fay and wants Alice’s castle for a rebellion they’re cooking up. Alexander then allows Alice’s father to talk him out of both his quests without too much protest and settles down to be husband and lord of the manor.
Alice: The more intelligent of the main pair, she is not only smart but brave as well. She manages to fight off an attacker who surprises her when they are escorting the young Frankish prince to safety. She is also much more worldly than Alexander, having spent a lot of her life on pilgrimage to Tours and Jerusalem. I really enjoyed her; it was nice to see a woman in Stewart’s universe who is smart and practical and not totally helpless without a man. I loved especially her discussion with Alexander about the nature of the Holy Grail when she mentions the real Grail was probably a simple clay cup, not a gold one studded with jewels. I thought “Ah, someone saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade!” (Mary Stewart, not Alice). Alice lives much more in the real world of history, meeting actual Frankish royalty and being a pilgrim to Jerusalem, than Alexander who lives more in the world of legend in his interactions with people like Morgan le Fay.
Morgan le Fay: I really don’t have much to say on this front other than still evil without motive. But it was nice to have more of a balance between her and the other women in this story rather than women=evil (except Niniane, Guinevere, and Nimuë). Merlin caused more problems for Arthur by refusing to teach women magic than he ever realized even with all his foresight—both Morgause and Morgan blame his refusal to teach them as their turning point of when they started hating him and Arthur.
Anna: Completely awesome. Probably the only woman in this whole series who jumps for a sword when threatened rather than staring stupidly or crying her eyes out. Again, this book was published in the 90s, and it shows. Anna acts boldly to save herself and her son and even has the guts to swear vengeance, although she changes with the times and realizes later that there is a legal way to get justice. I enjoyed her very much.
Baudoin: A good military strategist and loved by the people of Cornwall. He is murdered by his older brother March after he has a great victory against the Saxons where his force cleverly defeats a much larger force. He and Anna had long suspected March would go nuts and kill him for his popularity, and for the fact that he has an heir while March has no children. They tentatively planned an escape for her and their son awhile before his actual murder.
March (Mark): The typical portrayal of King Mark of Cornwall is an old man crazed by jealousy. There are rarely positive interpretations of him. This is not one of them. He is completely cracked, and yet supposedly everyone in his kingdom will say that it’s OK he killed his much more likeable younger brother because he was “drunk.” Give me a break. If people know he’s crazy, and clearly they do, why are they excusing him murdering people in cold blood? Especially since he just killed the next in line for the throne who people supposedly loved. There is hardly concern at all that the people will rise up in revolution; everyone will just understand that he was drunk. Because apparently this kind of thing happens all the time (not). It reminds me of in Last Enchantment where we are supposed to believe that everyone in Lothian will just understand that it’s Lot’s right to kill all the babies and no one will talk about rising up in revolution against such a cruel king. Same logic. And it still doesn’t make much sense. But we need things to happen this way for the story to play out, so happen they do.
Drustan (Tristan): He’s here briefly, as is his lover Isolde. He helps Anna and Alexander escape after Baudoin is murdered. It is to him Alexander is traveling when he leaves home to seek justice, so Drustan can corroborate to Arthur the story of Baudoin’s murder. Alexander never makes it, so we don’t see Drustan again.
It was so refreshing to read a Mary Stewart story that is told more through dialogue and less through direct exposition. Stuff still happens that doesn’t make sense, but overall the characters are more likeable than any of her other books and the story moves along at a good clip. Four stars.