|Title: The Wicked Day|
Author: Mary Stewart
Publisher: William Morrow and Co
Synopsis: (from the publisher) The Wicked Day is the gripping story of Mordred, bastard son of King Arthur by incest with his half-sister Morgause, witch-queen of Lothian and Orkney. Morgause sent the child to the Orkney islands to be reared there in secret, in the hope that one day he would become, as Merlin the Enchanter had prophecied, the doom of her hated half-brother.
When Mordred is taken from his rude life as a fisherboy in the islands and suddenly thrust into the full panoply of the High King Arthur’s court, he learns of his true parentage and rises to a position of trust in his father’s kingdom. But, as the plots and counterplots of the last part of Arthur’s reign unfold, Mordred is drawn into a tangled web of tragedy that is the climactic drama of Arthurian legend.
The Wicked Day breathtakingly displays Mary Stewart’s extraordinary gift for bringing the obscure past to life. Her characters are unforgettable: the young Mordred, whose close bond with his father arouses dire jealousies in the High Court at Camelot; his malevolent mother; her four unruly sons by King Lot; King Arthur himself, his Queen, Guinevere, his trusted friend Bedwyr; and the warring factions that seek to bring down the bastions of Arthur’s new confederation of Britain.
As she did in her earlier Arthurian novels, Mary Stewart challenges the accepted legends in this stirring and danger-ridden tale. Was Mordred in truth a traitor—or the victim of implacable fate? Mary Stewart’s view brings tremendous emotions impact to the drama, as Merlin’s prophecy hangs broodingly over each moment and the action plays itself out inexorably to the final, wicked day…
I recently joined goodreads.com and on a whim looked up Mary Stewart's Arthurian books. The number of resoundingly positive reviews is astounding. People seem to think these books are the greatest thing since sliced bread; a lot of them called them their favorite books ever. I do not understand this attitudes. This book was the best of the four so far by far, but that doesn't make them great. They summarize far too much and the characters are barely sympathetic at best. They're certainly not very lively. I feel sorry for anyone reading fantasy in the 70s and 80s if this was the best there was to offer.
Warning for Spoilers
The story of Arthur’s reign, as told (in third person) from Mordred’s point of view. He is a sympathetic character and never betrays Arthur; the end of Camelot happens through a series of misunderstandings rather than Mordred traitorously joining the Saxons as in most versions.
The first 270 pages or so are a repeat of the events of The Last Enchantment, except focused on Mordred. We see him rescued from the sea by a peasant couple, being found by Morgause at ten after he saves Gawain’s life, and raised for a few years as “Lot’s bastard” with his half-brothers in Orkney castle. Finally, we see Morgause’s arrest and Mordred and his siblings spending the rest of their growing-up years at Arthur’s side. Last Enchantment ended here. The rest of the book is the slow downward spiral towards the end of Camelot, all caused by the recklessness of the Orkney brothers (not counting Mordred, who keeps a cool head always and becomes Arthur’s right hand after Bedwyr). Gaheris catches Morgause with a lover and kills her. A lot of time is spent trying to smooth this over as her lover has powerful diplomatic ties and if he is honor-killed by the Orkney brothers it will present all kinds of political problems, which of course in their simplistic worldview of “Fight! Kill!” they don’t understand. Eventually Gaheris and Agrivain do kill him but careful diplomatic maneuvering by Arthur and Mordred prevents major problems. Then they all (except Gawain) participate in a plot to kill Bedwyr by catching him with Guinevere and in the process Gaheris, Agrivain, and Gareth die, which causes even more rifts and strife. Finally Gawain is sent on a diplomatic mission and ends up causing the war that divides Arthur and Mordred through a series of mixups. Mordred gets a note that Arthur is dead and takes over the kingdom to prevent it all from falling apart and to protect Guinevere, only to have Arthur become convinced by a dying Gawain that Mordred was a traitor all along. Father and son nearly reconcile on the advice of Nimuë, but both their armies are too primed for battle and the scene that happened when Bedwyr killed Gareth and Agrivain is repeated on a grand scale where no one can tell friend from foe in the total chaos. Arthur and Mordred, as we’ve known, well, forever, end up killing each other. Well, you know, Arthur isn’t “dead”, per se, but he might as well be. The book ends with him being carried to Avalon to be nursed.
Sidenote: you can tell this book was written later than the other three. There is actually non-consensual sex. A very minor character is raped, and actually dies from how rough her attacker was during the act. But this is big step for Mary Stewart who until this point has stalwartly had all rapes in the legend be at least partially consensual in her versions.
Mordred: A way better main character than Merlin. Has some of Merlin’s sociopathic tendencies (seems to run in the Pendragon line but missed Arthur, thank goodness). Unlike Merlin Mordred truly cares for his adoptive peasant parents, Arthur and Guinevere once he meets them, and to some extent Gawain and Gareth. This ability to care makes it easier to relate to him. He tends to be emotionless, but because he hides his emotions rather than not really having them the way it is with Merlin. Cool and calculating, he rarely loses his head and always acts with rational thought even as a young child. He refuses to be used by anyone and resents that he is prophesied to destroy Arthur, which is a refreshing change from everyone else in this series that accepts their destiny so passively. Eventually he makes his peace with the prophecy but is still always mindful of it. He also never falls for Morgause’s ploys after he is duped by her once, which was also refreshing from the Orkney brothers’ total blindness to her manipulation of them. The only gross thing about him is his crush on Guinevere which grows into a quiet but intense obsession. However, being ever in control of himself Mordred never acts on these desires. Um, yuck because she’s much older and his father’s wife. He’s also pretty callous towards the women he takes as sexual partners, dismissing any emotional connection they might have sought with him as sentimental female nonsense. Other than that, he’s a guy you want to root for because he really doesn’t want to do the awful thing looming over his whole life. He wants to do the right thing but ends up getting tangled in his half-brothers’ misguided plots and schemes and often pays the price for their stupidity. In the end he pays the ultimate price for the distrust they create.
Arthur: Here we see Arthur’s goodness backfiring on him a little. Not in trusting Mordred, who turns out never to be a traitor, but in being too nice to Morgause. His willingness to give her one last chance to see her sons in an act of pity allows her to get her hooks back into them and divide their loyalties. Other than that, it’s nice to see more of him in this book. He allows himself to be momentarily confused by Gawain’s dying accusations of Mordred as a traitor because, like Mordred, the prophecy has always hung over him, but in the end allows his good sense to prevail. Unfortunately, it is not to be and in the end he seems to get lost in bloodlust a moment too long. He doesn’t even hesitate when he cuts Mordred down.
Morgause: Even creepier than the last few books. She manipulates everyone to her own ends in order to bring down Arthur. She murders Mordred’s foster parents, never tells him who his real parents are and lets him think he’s a bastard of Lot rather than her son and Arthur’s. She even tries seducing Mordred. Not only is this gross because he’s thirteen to her nearly forty but she’s his mother. She knows it, he doesn’t. Ugh. Lucky for him, Mordred figures out something’s not right and backs off. I love Arthur’s reaction when he finds out from Mordred: “My God, you too?” Why Mary Stewart has to prove to us once again that Morgause is pure evil without motive I don’t know. There are few sexual sins this woman doesn’t commit, and worse, none of it is out of lust. It’s just for control over people.
Guinevere: We don’t see a lot of her, but when we do she proves to be strong and capable. She lives in fear of Arthur’s death because she has a line of suitors who will try to use her for power, each more terrifying than the last. She stands by Mordred when they get news of Arthur’s “death” and supports him as regent but doesn’t suspect he wants to marry her himself. She is fond of Mordred since she is unable to bear children and seems to look on him as a son.
Bedwyr: He and Guinevere are in love but they never do anything to consummate their relationship. When Gaheris, Agrivain and their crowd go to catch them in some sort of romantic tryst, it is immediately obvious that nothing happened. He remains loyal to Arthur to the end. He and Mordred have a little bonding adventure together rescuing the kidnapped princess who dies being raped. He is wounded fighting in the battle against the invading Romans and we don’t hear his fate at the end of the story.
Gawain: Usually my favorite character, it makes me sad when an author falls for the Malory trap of making him bad. He has some good points and bad points. Like all of Lot and Morgause’s sons, he’s an idiot and a hothead. He threatens a lot but unlike his middle brothers allows his temper to cool most of the time until the very end. He and Mordred coexist but since they are rivals to an extent—Gawain is legitimate but Mordred is older—they never quite trust each other. It is Gawain’s final words that seals the end as he randomly calls Mordred a traitor and Arthur chooses to believe Gawain has some knowledge of Mordred Arthur doesn’t possess. Who knows what Gawain actually meant by his deathbed ramblings. He and Gareth were very close and something broke in him when Gareth died; maybe secretly he blames Mordred for not stopping it.
Gaheris: A complete idiot and Oedipally in love with Morgause. He kills her out of insane jealousy when he finds her having sex with Lamorak. He then has to hide for awhile so no one will kill him and he can search for Lamorak. He eventually kills Lamorak in a crazed rage and nearly causes all kinds of diplomatic problems for Arthur were it not for the goodwill of Arthur and Lamorak’s relatives. He is part of the group that hates Bedwyr and tries to catch him in infidelity with Guinevere. He tries to kill Guinevere and is knocked out by Mordred before he can do any harm. He dies of the wounds from that night.
Agrivain: Gaheris’s twin and shadow in everything, except for the Oedipal stuff. He is killed in the assault on Guinevere’s room.
Gareth: The baby of the Orkney brothers and in this version the nicest of them. He is indulged by Morgause but manages not to be corrupted by her. He has the least to do with his brothers’ antics and is on his way to leading a normal, happy life with his fiancée when he is killed by accident in the assault on Guinevere’s room. He and Gawain always paired up against the twins, leaving Mordred the odd one out.
Nimuë: Functions solely as Merlin’s successor. She persuades Mordred that he can’t escape being Arthur’s doom even if he kills himself. The only personal thing we see is her waking up with her husband after a vision of Arthur and Mordred’s final battle. They share a sweet moment that I liked very much.
Morgan: The most we see of her in any of the books. Like Morgause, she is also inexplicably evil and is hostile to both Arthur and Morgause. How she got so bitter I have no idea because she really doesn’t have a reason. She was raised by a loving mother and even though her husband was old he doesn’t seem to have mistreated her. She is also rumored to be a more powerful witch than Morgause but we get no evidence. We never hear what happens to her in the end.
I liked it most of the Mary Stewart Arthurian saga I’ve read so far. I liked Mordred way more than Merlin and I actually came to care about the outcome even though I knew how it had to end. I kept waiting for Mordred to slide to the dark side but in the end it turned out to all be a misunderstanding, so Stewart kept me guessing up until the last few pages. It didn’t blow me away as the greatest book ever but it was more of a page-turner than the other books. 4 stars.