|Title: The Hollow Hills|
Author: Mary Stewart
Publisher: William Morrow & Company Inc
Synopsis: (from the publisher) 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 king 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 tale 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 sake of a nation being born. In this world of embattled kings and courtiers, 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 tale to our own time.
So I went into this book not expecting much after how deadly dull most of Crystal Cave was. How did this next installment compare? Read on...
Warning For Spoilers
It almost feels like a twist that we are seeing Arthur’s growing up from the perspective of Merlin instead of in third person. In Crystal Cave that wasn’t so much of a twist because, hey, the main character is Merlin and it’s about him growing up. Here, the focus has shifted to Arthur even though we remain with Merlin throughout. Everything Merlin does in this book is for the sake of bringing Arthur to power, even if that means staying away from Britain for years. Merlin is a familiar narrator from Crystal Cave, but with the events that ended that book he has suddenly become a much more mature and responsible person, and that can be sensed through the new focus of the narrative. He seems to have finally grasped that his actions can have devastating consequences, even when doing the will of his god.
It’s also interesting that Stewart chose to have Merlin absent for Arthur’s earliest years. I had thought from the end of Crystal Cave that Merlin was literally going to raise Arthur himself in his cave in Wales. It’s like Stewart suddenly decided that it was beneath the great (supposed) sorcerer’s dignity to be changing diapers. I personally was looking forward to that.
A few notes on choices Stewart made about relationships: Morgause is Uther’s illegitimate daughter by a noblewoman, not the daughter of Ygraine and Gorlois. Morgian is Arthur’s full sister. Cador is Gorlois’ son by his first wife.
As a sidenote, Merlin hates having a beard.
The Hollow Hills picks up right where The Crystal Cave ended, with Merlin wounded after fighting to get Uther into Tintagel to conceive Arthur. Stripped by the gods of his magic Sight, Merlin heads for home in Wales, where he is forced to do his own chores since his last servant died in their little adventure with Uther. I was rejoicing at this because Merlin took his last servants for granted and it seemed a fitting punishment that he has to care for himself for awhile. Another servant appears almost right away, at which point I facepalmed and went “Not another person for Merlin to callously use and then get killed in a heartbreaking way!” All through the book he seems to be picking up servants who are fanatically loyal to him for no particular reason. Or if there is a reason, it’s not shown.
Apparently Uther’s blustering from the last book about how he can’t marry Ygraine was just hot air because he marries her pretty quickly (to my immense surprise). However, he still will not have their child raised as a prince because the timing of his birth means people will wonder whether the baby is Uther’s or Gorlois’ son. Either way he’d be in danger so both Uther and Ygraine separately beg Merlin to take the baby. Of course Merlin agrees. They plan that the baby will spend his first three to four years in Brittany with Merlin’s former nurse, then be taken to be raised somewhere else. Merlin chooses Count Ector for the task, a man Merlin knows is loyal first to Merlin himself rather than Uther. This is exactly what happens. Merlin stays out of the way for the first nine years of Arthur’s life, traveling the Mediterranean in order to lead people off the scent of where the child is hidden. The plot skips over these years, for which I’m grateful because it probably would have degenerated into a description of his daily routine in the hospital in the Middle East he ends up working at. Throughout the book there are hints that the Saxons are going to rise and try to take over Britain again as they did in the “Flood” years before Vortigern when a Roman—Maximus, Celtic name Machsen—was ruler of England.
At last Merlin receives signs it’s time to go home and become Arthur’s mentor. He also gets his Sight back. He stops off to see Uther, who has finally gotten around to wondering where his son is hidden but is more interested in Merlin curing his impotence. Merlin then makes a quick (and by quick I mean fairly drawn out and boring) detour to find Machsen’s sword Caliburn, a.k.a. Excalibur, and hide it so Arthur can find it when he’s old enough. He then settles down to be a hermit (without a servant, what what!) and finally meets Arthur in person. The two hit it off and Merlin becomes tutor to Arthur and Arthur’s best friend Bedwyr.
More years go by. Then events come together with stunning rapidity. Arthur finds Caliburn. He is found by his stepbrother Cador, Duke of Cornwall (son of his mother’s first husband) after fourteen years in hiding. The Saxons attack and Uther, who is very sick, finally summons Arthur to his side. All on the same day! Bonus points, we actually get to see the battle instead of having Merlin tell us about it after it’s over.
Things come crashing down when Arthur sleeps with his half-sister Morgause the night after the battle. This whole thing is incredibly gross and creepy, since not only are they siblings, she’s twenty-two to his fourteen. It’s not a rape, but it’s implied Morgause seduced him deliberately once she found out he is her half-brother. Merlin is faced with a choice: allow the panicked Arthur (who understandably freaks out when he learns he just slept with his sister) to kill Morgause and risk Arthur never wanting to use a sword again, or distract Arthur in the knowledge that Morgause will conceive a child. He picks the latter, and the wheels are set in motion for Arthur’s destruction before he ever becomes High King. Merlin banishes Morgause from court. She predicts a woman will be his downfall (duh).
Uther is about to declare Arthur his successor when he abruptly dies. The sword he had been about to pass on is discovered to be broken, which gives his enemies the chance to claim that it’s a sign Arthur should not become High King. Cador remembers seeing Arthur with Caliburn, and everyone agrees that if he lifts it in their presence, then he will be declared the rightful king. Merlin then has to rush back to his cave to protect the sword from men sent by Arthur’s enemies to destroy it. The scuffle is reminiscent of the one that ended The Crystal Cave. He returns home in time to get everything ready for representatives of basically everyone in Britain. They watch Arthur lift Caliburn from the stone alter and he is declared King.
Lots more familiar characters than in The Crystal Cave.
Merlin: He’s much more likeable in this book. With the loss of his prophetic powers, he appears to have grown a modicum of a conscience. He actually seems to feel bad about the death of his last servant, though whether he just misses the guy’s ability to keep his clothes neat is hard to say. He does try to protect his next servants and keep harm from coming to them. He makes all kinds of promises to lots of different people that if they’ll help him keep Arthur safe, Arthur will be the good and just king they need. I get the sense that he’s counting his chickens way before they hatch and if Arthur doesn’t deliver then the whole thing will fall apart. No idea if Stewart’s going to use this potential problem to bring down Camelot but it seems like a big danger in Merlin’s plan for world
Arthur: An incorrigible boy, obviously quick and smart and good at fighting from the beginning. Lots of not-so-subtle comparisons between him and Jesus Christ (born on Christmas, prophesied to be the savior of his people, had to flee as a child and live in hiding from people who wanted to kill him). He meets and is mentored by Merlin in basically the same way Merlin met his first teacher: finds a hermit living out in a cave and thereafter constantly comes out to him for training. There is a strong resemblance between him and his father Uther, his cousin Merlin, and uncle Ambrosius, leading him to believe he is Merlin’s son until he learns otherwise. The story begins at his conception and continues until he is nearly fifteen (Fifteen?! They don’t make leaders like they used to. Today you have to be in your mid-thirties before anyone will take you seriously, let alone let you lead a country).
Uther: Still a jerk and ruled by his, um, nether regions. Like a John Updike protagonist, he feels like his life is over when faced with the prospect of impotence. The depression he sinks into and the fear that people will find out is pretty funny, in a pathetic sort of way. Doesn’t really care about Arthur and would rather forget him, except for that pesky fact that he has no other sons. His relationship with Merlin is hilarious, because every time they meet he swears he’ll never speak to Merlin again, only to call him back when he has yet another problem no one but his genius clairvoyant nephew can solve.
Ygraine: A lot weaker of a character than in Crystal Cave even though she appears more. She is clearly upset at having to give Arthur up and does her best to get around Uther to ensure her firstborn’s safety. After the birth we never see her again and she is mentioned only as “the Queen”. This is kind of annoying since she had the potential to be really cool based on her brief appearance in Crystal Cave.
Cador: Gorlois’ son by a previous marriage. Duke of Cornwall and potential enemy of Arthur since Arthur’s conception led to Gorlois’ death. Turns out to be loyal to Arthur because he wants the High Kingdom to continue after Uther dies.
Ector: In legend, he has two portrayals: the good man who nurtures King Arthur like his own son, or the blustering idiot who treats the “foundling” like a slave. Stewart picked the first version. Portrayed as very shrewd and politically aware but hides it by being generally good-natured. Loyal to Ambrosius and Merlin before Uther. Dislikes Lot and Urien.
Cei (Kay): Arthur’s foster brother, who we never actually meet but is mentioned many times.
Morgause: Uther’s bastard daughter, and the only bastard child of his we know about. Beautiful, clever, and dangerous (typical for a Morgause portrayal), she wants to learn magic from Merlin. Merlin rebuffs her by saying his kind of power you have to be given. She is skilled with herbs and potions and has learned some magic, basically cloaking and seduction, because magic outside the Sight suddenly exists in this universe when it didn’t in Crystal Cave. Merlin has a sense that she is dangerous because she reminds him of the poisoned apricot his maternal uncle tried to give him when he was young. No surprise, her hair is also apricot-colored. Real subtle. I can only guess Stewart personally dislikes apricots and has thus chosen them as her symbol of ultimate evil rather than an apple or something more traditional like that. She seduces Arthur out of lust for power and jealousy that the legitimate royal children are given everything.
Morgian (Morgan): Arthur’s younger full sister, daughter of Uther and Ygraine and their only child conceived in wedlock. Like Cei, we never see her but she is mentioned frequently.
Lot: Ambitious lesser king under Uther who is prepared to betray him at any moment if it would benefit himself. Betrothed to Morgian, but it’s mentioned he ends up married to Morgause as is usual in the legend. Brother-in-law to Urien (though Urien is not married to Morgian).
Urien: Smaller king under Uther. Spies for his brother-in-law Lot.
Bedwyr (Lancelot/Bedivere): Arthur’s best childhood friend. The pair grow up together because Bedwyr’s father King Ban sends him to Ector’s household to be educated with Arthur and Cei’s tutors. Not very smart, but loyal and devoted to Arthur. An interesting twist because authors sometimes have Lancelot and Guinevere grow up together or meet while young, but not Lancelot and Arthur. They promise never to let a woman come between them the way Ygraine came between Uther and Gorlois, which is ironic in hindsight because this is exactly what happens when Guinevere arrives on the scene. Unusually for a Lancelot portrayal, he’s not devastatingly attractive.
Cabal (Cavall): The loyal white dog often seen at Arthur’s side while he is growing up. Leads Arthur to find the sword Caliburn.
I like this book much more than Crystal Cave. The action is better paced, and there’s only one boring section (Merlin locating Caliburn) that’s not terribly long. Merlin is also more likeable, and overall it makes me look forward to reading the next book instead of bracing myself. Four stars.