|Title: The Last Enchantment|
Author: Mary Stewart
Publisher: EOS (An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)
Synopsis: (from the publisher) Arthur Pendragon is King! Unchallenged on the battlefield, he melds the country together in a time of promise. But sinister powers plot to destroy Camelot, and when the witch-queen Morgause-- Arthur's own half sister-- ensnares him in an incestuous liaison, a fatal web of love, betrayal, and bloody vengeance is woven
Warning for Spoilers
Finally-- FINALLY!-- we have reached Arthur's reign. And so book three of Mary Stewart's five book Merlin Trilogy weaves itself through the beginning, oh, say about fifteen years, of Arthur's rule. The book starts by recounting the Massacre at Dunpeldyr (known as the May Day Massacre to those of us up with our Arthurian studies). In an odd twist that I have seen repeated in other books, Morgause has Lot round up all the babies born in Dunpeldyr after May Day and set them out to sea on a boat. I don't understand this at all and will discuss it more later in the review. We also see the story of Merlin's Madness drawn from Vita Merlin, Guinevere's abduction by Melwas, Nimuë's arrival in Merlin's life, his eventual death/not!death. The book ends with Mordred's arrival in Camelot, the beginning seeds of the Grail Quest being sown and Merlin's retirement to his cave where Arthur sometimes visits him while he waits for his final days.
This is pretty much your standard story of Arthur's reign and all the important stuff that occurs to it-- just told from Merlin's perspective. So instead of following Arthur out to his battles we get a nice long description of how Merlin built Camelot. Instead of an in depth look at the Guinevere/Bedwyr betrayal (if it even happens) we get an in depth look at the Merlin/Nimuë romances (which is never not gross in my mind). Although, I have to admit, how Nimuë came into Merlin's life and got him to teach her magic was pretty awesome (because Merlin is still a sexist twat and would never teach a woman-- I liked this book, I swear!).
I have to admit being less than pleased with how Merlin's not!death turned out. I mean, for two books Merlin has talked about how his end is going to be caused by a woman and how he's going to be locked in a cave. The insinuation that anyone familiar with the legend takes away is that Nimuë is going to betray him, steal his power and lock him in a cave. What happens is that Merlin goes into one of his fits left over from Morgause's poisoning and appears dead. Lucky for him (as he constantly reminds us) he's not burned or buried but sealed in his cave where he awakes a few days later. And while he spends several horrible months locked on the cave, he does eventually get out and while it was Nimuë's idea to seal him in there, it was a good thing and not a bad one. And, yes, after getting out Merlin retires back to his cave to live out the end of his days sometimes visited by Arthur, but this really isn't the horrible fate he had seemed so fearful of not only in the earlier books but in this book.
On the Rape Culture (Trigger Warning)
I like to put this segment at the end of my reviews because I know the discussion can be triggering. But my feelings on this book can't be adequately described without discussing the abduction of Guinevere. Just as a heads up-- there is no rape in this book. The word is lobbied around quite a bit, but seems to mean abduction in this case and not sexual violation. But there is a fascinating discussion of rape culture just waiting to be had.
So, Guinevere gets abducted by Melwas. Cei goes to Merlin to ask for help. Merlin looks into the fire and sees Guinevere playing chess by Melwas and is convinced that she has not, in fact, but abducted but instead has willingly run off with Melwas.
Now I would like to take a moment to pause and direct you all to an old, but never-the-less fantastic post by Harriet J.: Another Post About Rape. I first read this a couple years ago and it remains the best description of rape culture I have ever read. As a quick summary, women are socialized to act certain ways. We are socialized not to enforce our boundaries and especially not to enforce are boundaries where men and sexual objectification are concerned. Because of this socialization, women don’t always react the ways that society would expect in the lead up to, during the course or in the direct aftermath of rape. They may not fight back, they may not scream, and they may not act distraught because of this socialization (but really, go read that post. It's brilliant).
So then we have Guinevere's abduction by Melwas. We have Merlin seeing her in the fire playing chess with Melwas and because of that Merlin is convinced-- convinced that Guinevere is having an affair with Melwas. Because she's not acting afraid or distraught. Because when he and Bedwyr arrive to rescue her, she tells him and Merlin a different story of her abduction than what she told Arthur. She is not acting the way Merlin expects a woman abducted should act and so in his mind she was clearly asking for it.
I was ready to write the book off at this point. I could not believe that Stewart was taking this well-known abduction story and creating this ambiguous space where we don't know what happened but Merlin, the biggest misogynist in the whole book, was claiming that Guinevere was asking for it.
But then Arthur-- glorious, wonderful, amazing Arthur, spoke. It was a two page long speech and the gist of it was that Merlin doesn't know women, Merlin doesn't understand the hardships they live under and Merlin does not get to blame Guinevere for being abducted and then doing whatever she needed to-- even if that was a not-so-friendly game of chess with Melwas-- to not be raped.
Did that really just happen? Did Arthur really not only call out Merlin's sexism but the whole of rape culture as well? In a book written in 1979?
I didn't believe it either. Not even when Merlin apologized to Arthur and agreed with him. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop-- for Merlin to go on to prove that Guinevere was unfaithful. But he didn't. He believed her story. Arthur called him on his sexism and instead of getting huffy or mansplainy, Merlin realizes he's wrong and changes his ways. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the book and was the moment where I went from wanting to throw it in a fire to actually really enjoying it.
Merlin is still pretty horrible. The moment where I lost my cool and actually threw the book across the room occurred when Merlin insinuated that all men have the personality of a serial killer. It was right after Lot and Morgause had had all those babies murdered and first Merlin was like 'shut up you wailing women! Stop wailing it's so annoying!' and then moved on to 'at least the men totally get why all these babies had to be murdered. Cuckolded king--best excuse ever'. Um, NO! But he does get better as the story goes along especially after Arthur calls him on his sexism. And while I personally will forever find the Nimuë/Merlin romance squicky, I did like how he grew as a person with her around. And it was actually rather sad to watch him slowly age into obscurity.
Arthur is the best thing ever. This is my Arthur. The good king who understands people. Who understands justice and rape culture. Who is loyal to those he loves above all else no matter how much it hurts and is always willing to give others a chance. I love Stewart's portrayal of Arthur and despite my now better feelings of the series so far I think it would have been a far more fascinating series if it had been told from Arthur's perspective. Maybe I'm alone in this, but I would love to see an Arthurian tale told from the perspective of an Arthur who is this good. I know a lot of people find characters like Arthur boring, but I find the idea of someone so good endlessly fascinating.
Morgause: On the other hand, I find the idea of someone this evil really freaking boring. Early on in this book, during a conversation Merlin has with Ygraine, she tells him that Morgause was always tainted. Oh, how convenient. I love how this totally and completely takes all the blame away from Merlin because it doesn't matter that he refused to teach Morgause magic. She then goes on to murder a bunch of babies just cause. You know, shits and giggles. Which, as I said earlier, I don’t get. I understand in the original text while Arthur has all those babies murdered—he needs to get rid of Mordred and Morgause has hidden him. I understand an author not wanting to stain Arthur with that. What I don’t understand is Morgause goading Lot into ordering this for no real reason beyond she things it would be fun to murder a bunch of babies and pin it on her brother. This, like Merlin’s conversation with Ygraine, is just another way to prove that she is rotten to the core and as I said, it’s borning.
I did like when she went on to poison Merlin with apricots (at this point, that will never not be funny). She then fades from the text until Merlin's not!death when Arthur summons her and her sons south to execute her for murdering Merlin. Of course, Merlin gets Arthur a message right before the deed is done and Morgause is instead put away in a nunnery.
Nimuë was awesome. Her part in the story starts at the beginning when Merlin is traveling to Dunpeldyr to figure out what to do about Mordred. He is joined by a goldsmith and his servant, Ninian. Merlin feels that the boy Ninian is special and decides to train him in magic. His plans are foiled though when Ninian drowns before Merlin can teach him anything. Later in the book, Merlin sees a young boy on a lake and mistaking him for Ninian, offers to teach him magic. This young man is actually a young woman-- Nimuë, but Merlin doesn't figure that out until long after he's taught her most of his tricks (Arthur has to tell him). Having most of his sexism smacked out of him by this point, Merlin reacts to the news that Ninian is Nimuë by promptly falling in love with her (yuck) and then two go along happily for several months until Merlin's not!death at which point Nimuë marries someone who is not a father figure and continues to serve Arthur as an adviser.
Otherwise, Morgan is pretty boring. She gets out of her marriage with Lot (yay!) to go on to marry Urbgen who is older than Lot (boo!). She seemingly spends several years happily married and then for no reason given decides to overthrown her brother with the help of her lover Accolon. Her plan fails and she is sent to the same nunnery as Morgause.
Guinevere is split into two queens; both named Guinevere (Guenever in the first case). Guenever dies in childbirth early into her marriage with Arthur and Guinevere is the barren Queen who is kidnapped by Melwas. By all accounts from Merlin, Guinevere is pretty damn awesome-- a good horsewoman (always) who is a dear friend of Arthur's whose council is always wanted. This is why Merlin's slut shaming up until Arthur called him on it was particularly egregious. Nimuë hadn't been introduced yet and it would have been one more powerful woman defined completely by her sexuality. So I was very glad when she proved to be more than that. At the end of the book, her affair with Bedwyr is ambiguous and I am of the opinion that while they are in love, they haven't acted on their feelings beyond maybe kissing. And they basically have Arthur's permission to find comfort with each other so it's not really a betrayal.
Ygraine appears at the beginning of the book to tell Merlin how evil Morgause is and then dies due to illness. Bedwyr is a faithful friend to Arthur's even after he falls in love with Guinevere and is completely torn between his love for both his king and queen. Geraint makes a brief appearance as a commander of a fortress-- sent their by Uther and then forgotten. Merlin discovers him and he proves an invaluable member of Arthur's army. Cei is Arthur's seneschal and the one who goes to get Merlin's help when Guinevere is kidnapped. Melwas at first shows himself to be a good and loyal ally of Arthur's until he kidnaps Guinevere and tries to rape her. Then Arthur defeats him in battle and they're mostly okay after that. Lot ends up marrying Morgause instead of Morgan and murders a bunch of babies because he can. Somehow he remains and ally of Arthur's before he dies in battle while Morgause is pregnant with their fourth child. Accolon escorts Morgan north for her marriage, becomes her lover and her champion in her attempt to overthrow her brother. Arthur kills him. The Orkney brothers make a brief appearance at the very end of the book and we will soon be seeing more of them. Pelleas marries Nimuë. Ector is still around and it's at his holding where Merlin recovers from his madness. Cador is still around too as a loyal soldier and dies near the end of the book just before Merlin's not!death.
So... I leave this book with the overwhelming sense that I enjoyed it. It had its problems and I don't have any trouble pointing those out. It was a rather emotional roller coaster ride with Merlin being so horrible at the beginning. But something happened midway through that I honestly wasn't expecting-- Arthur called out his bad behavior and Merlin listened and changed. Ultimately I think that emotional roller coaster was the emotional response Mary Stewart was trying to elicit from her readers. And on the whole, in spite of everything, I leave this book feeling good about it. And so, even though I can probably list more things I disliked about the book than liked, I'm giving it four stars. Overall, this story worked.