|Title: The Last Enchantment|
Author: Mary Stewart
Publisher: William Morrow & Company Inc
Synopsis: (from the publisher) Merlin, whom men call “enchanter” is the narrator of this magnificent and haunting novel of Dark Age Britain, which begins with Arthur now King by right, having drawn the sword Caliburn from the stone. He instantly plunges into fierce warfare against the Saxon enemy, fighting to achieve the “small miracle” of unity and independence that Britain alone attained among the dependencies of a crumbling Roman Empire.
But Merlin’s story focuses on a different kind of warfare against more subtle and dangerous enemies. Of these the chief is Morgause, rose-gold witch and half-sister to Arthur, whom she once snared incestuously to her bed, an act resulting in the birth of a son, Mordred, who will be the most dangerous of all. In fact, the book begins with the desperate and bloody attempt to find and murder this child. It fails, and one by one Merlin’s other prophecies are realized: the passion and grief of Arthur’s marriages; his betrayal by friends and kinfolk; Merlin’s overpowering but short-lived love.
The account of Merlin’s own enchanting is not, however, a tragic one. In the dark ebb-tide of his gift he finds that he is not totally deserted by the god who bestowed it. Struggling for resignation, he finds a fulfillment that even he had never dreamed of. His power and bright vision will be there at the King’s services as long as Arthur lives, and as he believes, long after.
The Last Enchantment is a richly woven tapestry peopled by princes and soldiers, grave-robbers and goldsmiths, innkeepers and peasants and witches, in a finely described landscape where each forest, lake and hill is charged, not only with the natural life of the countryside, but with the twilight spirits of older mythologies—multiple threads merging into the bright promise of the future, and linked through Merlin in the archetypal themes of a fast, exciting and powerful story. A magnificent novel to put beside Mary Stewart’s best-selling The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills.
Warning for Spoilers
There really isn’t one. Here we get a version of the legend of Arthur’s early reign, straight up, with Merlin as narrator. The only “twist” is that Merlin’s supposed “betrayal” that has been prophesied since Crystal Cave isn’t really a betrayal per se, it’s Nimuë taking Merlin’s power without his consent at the time because she thought he was dying. He doesn’t even remember her doing it, and forgives her right away when they meet up again. Oh, and Merlin escapes from his accidental entombment at the end but most people go on thinking he’s dead.
Takes us from Arthur’s early reign until Morgan steals Caliburn and Nimuë retrieves it. I believe a period of twenty years or so passes, but count isn’t as careful as it is in the first two books since Merlin rarely mentions exact ages of himself or Arthur. Arthur begins the story a fourteen-year-old lifting the sword from the stone and ends in his mid-thirties or so. Major events are: the May Day Massacre, which Stewart is careful not to put on Arthur or Merlin (though Merlin takes credit to keep scandal off Arthur); Morgan’s marriage and the death of Dowager Queen Ygraine; Arthur’s first marriage that quickly ends in death in childbirth; Merlin’s poisoning by Morgause and descent into a madness that plagues him off and on for the rest of his life (he has blackout periods that last for months); Arthur’s second marriage; Guinevere’s abduction by Melwas (Meliagant) and retrieval by Bedwyr; Merlin taking Nimuë as his apprentice and eventually lover; Merlin’s entombment in the crystal cave; and finally his escape and secret return to Arthur’s service after his “death.” Boy, was I worried when Merlin woke up in his tomb and we still had 100 pages to go. It was a relief that he escaped and we weren’t relying on other people telling him about what happened for the rest of the book.
Plot Sidenote: At this point, it is safe to conclude that Mary Stewart refuses to write rape. Even when she manages to bring herself to write the word, when it pops up in the legend her solution is to make the potential victim complicit and even willing. This happens with Uther/Ygraine in Crystal Cave, Morgause/Arthur in Hollow Hills (though this comes the closest since Arthur would never have slept with Morgause had he known they are brother and sister), and now Melwas/Guinevere in the kidnap in Last Enchantment. In each case, it does not speak well for the moral character of the female in the pair in particular. Ygraine comes the closest to being vindicated in Merlin’s eyes because she and Uther do get married and they have a relatively happy marriage. Each instance Merlin smugly sees as evidence of the superiority of the male over the female, and his own superiority in particular since he has chosen celibacy. Even when he does finally fall prey to mere human attraction (which could also have been interpreted as rape in either direction since Merlin is many years her senior but in some versions of the story Nimuë only wants his magic secrets), Stewart is careful to make both parties willing. This isn’t a judgment on Stewart or a wish on my part that she’d written something grittier, only an observation about a choice she makes again and again when retelling these legends.
Merlin: I cannot figure this guy out. I am pretty sure now that Mary Stewart deliberately wrote him not only as incredibly sexist but also with a very dim understanding of human nature in general, rather than because she herself is sexist or doesn’t “get” humanity. In the first two books I thought she was articulating her own beliefs on the differences between men and women. After reading this book, using as evidence conversations Merlin has with Arthur and various other people, I think I can safely conclude that she deliberately crafted Merlin as an almost alien being among the human race, but nowhere near as compassionate as Clark Kent. She goes to great pains to tell us Merlin is of human parentage, but his thoughts and actions suggest otherwise. Maybe not half-demon, but his grasp on what it really means to be human (in the poetic, not literal sense) with human emotions is tenuous at best. He might even be borderline sociopathic. He is purely driven by purpose: protect Arthur’s legacy as a great king by any means. It takes him a long, long time to have any regard for other peoples’ well-being. People’s actions are predictable to him, but he rarely seeks to know motivation. Yes, he does fall in love in this book, but he seems to feel almost no lingering attachment. When he finds out she married another man after his “death,” it’s just “that’s it, it was fun, but it’s over and that’s good by me.” All this adds up to someone very hard to relate to and like in a narrator. If Mary Stewart did manage to write a believable sociopathic character in first person, which I believe she did, I applaud her skill.
Arthur: The sole saving grace of this book. He provides the opposite of Merlin’s perspective on everything, and is in the book nowhere near enough. He is wise, empathetic, strong, and compassionate. He is everything a king needs to be. His forgiveness of Guinevere after she and Merlin both tell him she willingly had sex with Melwas after he kidnapped her is touching, yet his reasons are sound. The same goes for turning a blind eye to Gwen/Lancelot: he has sound reasons, but he also does it out of love for both of them. He loves wholeheartedly, but not selfishly. He even manages to accept Mordred when they finally meet at the end of the book, and seems to plan to make him his heir.
Nimuë: Merlin mistakes her for a boy with the potential to learn magic that he met early in the book and takes her in as his apprentice. She pretends to be a boy until Arthur figures it out and tells Merlin. She and Merlin become lovers despite their age difference which I guess is 20ish to his 50 or so. Merlin teaches her as much as he can before falling into another of his blackout periods, during which she forces him to tell her all his secrets of magic. Or actually sucks away his power. It’s sort of unclear. After burying Merlin she takes his place as Arthur’s seer and also becomes the Lady of the Lake, chief priestess of the Goddess. Even though she senses Merlin might still be alive, she follows her duty and retrieves Caliburn from Morgan after it is stolen. Creepily, her given name is Niniane, the same as Merlin’s mother. Her personality is hard to get a bead on since like Merlin she is deliberately enigmatic and Merlin is a really bad judge of women anyway. She seems to be loving and loyal, and willing to put her personal feelings aside to do what is necessary. If Merlin had chosen a successor it would not have been a woman since he has such disdain for them, but Nimuë makes herself pretty much indispensible to him so by the time he finds out she’s a girl it’s too late.
Guenever (#1): Ygraine’s handmaid and basically brought up to be Arthur’s wife. She dies fairly quickly in childbirth. Why Mary Stewart chose to include her confuses me because she adds virtually nothing to the story except to throw us off when the person we expect to become the famous Queen of legend dies almost right away. Stewart’s explanation seems to be that she found evidence of multiple Guineveres in the legend, so why not include them?
Guinevere (#2): This is the Guinevere we were expecting to see the first time. Beautiful and vivacious, she is also barren. Arthur refuses to put her aside for a more fertile woman. She is kidnapped by Melwas not long after marrying Arthur and willingly gives in to his seduction. Merlin is ready to condemn her as a simple unfaithful whore who is happy to betray any man, as he condemned Morgause and Ygraine, but then Arthur offers the explanation that she was scared and the only defense women have against the greater power of men is compliance or manipulation. Merlin feels much more sympathetic to her from then on and realizes he has been misjudging many women in his lifetime. He is therefore much more tolerant when he finds out Guinevere and Bedwyr are in love and tries to understand how hard it must be to be married to Arthur who is always off fighting. Gwen might love Arthur, but it’s Bedwyr who is always there for her.
Bedwyr/Lancelot: Stewart is well aware “Lancelot” is a French insert into legends that already existed. So she puts all the stuff Lancelot is known for doing, like rescuing Gwen from Melwas, on Bedwyr and pretty much leaves it at that. He loves Guinevere but as far as we know they’ve never actually acted on it.
Morgause: Still evil and manipulative. It is revealed she and Lot were lovers long before she slept with Arthur to conceive Mordred. They marry to cover Morgause’s pregnancy, and she manipulates him into committing the May Day Massacre while sending her real son into hiding. She gives birth three more times to Gawain, twins Gaheris and Agrivaine, and finally Gareth. She poisons Merlin at Morgan’s wedding feast and he is effectively crippled with bouts of madness the rest of his life. We then do not see her again until she is summoned to court with all five of her sons. Arthur takes charge of the boys, including Mordred, and intends to have her executed for killing Merlin. When it turns out Merlin is alive, he plans to exile her to a convent.
Lot: Still cruel and treacherous. He kills the baby Morgause got to pretend to be Mordred (in an even crueler twist it’s one of his own bastards by another woman) in the cradle, then orders all the children born in Lothian’s capital to be put out to sea to die. He dies before Gareth is born.
Morgan: Now called Morgan, when in the last book she was Morgian. No idea why. She’s sort of an ambiguous character. Merlin likes her more than Morgause, but doesn’t trust her because, let’s face it, she’s female and you know how they are. Dangerous and conniving, especially if they’re pretty. That’s pretty much all Merlin bothers to think about her until Nimuë mentions her name later. She randomly sends her lover Accolon to steal Caliburn for no particular reason at the end. Merlin guesses out of some sort of ambition to make herself High Queen, but given how bad he is at guessing motivation of anyone, especially women, I’m inclined to mistrust this assessment. We don’t get another possibility, however. Arthur intends to put her in a convent with Morgause for their treachery against him and let them rot there.
Ygraine: Here we see a glimpse of the strong woman we met at the end of Crystal Cave. She is ill when Uther dies but refuses to die until she sees both Arthur and Morgan safely married.
Melwas/Meliagant: King of the Summer Country and unable to marry because his mother is controlling and would never approve any woman he brought home. Again an example of how a too-powerful woman will make men miserable. So out of lust and jealousy he steals Guinevere when she’s out riding. He runs when Merlin and Bedwyr come to get her back. He and Arthur duel over the kidnapping some time later and Arthur of course wins. Being the gracious person he is and given the fact that there is no heir to the Summer Country, he leaves Melwas alive and we do not hear a peep from him again.
This book drags, though not as badly as the first one. Merlin’s long-awaited romance is nice in that it’s not tragic, but it’s not very exciting, either.
Overall for the trilogy:
Lots of stuff happens that could be exciting, but as is the problem with a first-person narrator who sees the future, it all feels like a foregone conclusion. The motif of Merlin losing his powers gets repeated so many times that by the time he loses them for good in the end it’s not even interesting anymore.