Joined: 28 Dec 2005
|Posted: Fri Dec 29, 2006 9:11 pm Post subject: 49. The Last Enchantment: Mary Stewart (some spoilers)
|"You could feel the stars like frost on the skin."
The third and last in her Merlin series. Book 4, as it turns out, is told from Mordred's POV, and there's even a fifth book!—see below. But we've reached the end of Merlin's part, at least.
This book, unlike the earlier ones, is crammed full of interesting secondary characters: Beltane, Gereint, Ninian, Gereint, Blaise, Casso, Melwas, Stilicho, Niniane, etc. There's even a charming bit about a baby pig. This is fun, but structurally kind of unusual—we spend a lot of time with Merlin tooling around among the peripheral people, and so witness very little of what King Arthur is up to on his campaigns and at court. I guess this is keeping with the earlier books, where the peripatetic Merlin is forever wandering away from the big political happenings, but it's still a little frustrating. As well, the book ends before a lot of the major Arthurian stuff crops up, like the Grail quest or Guenievere's betrayal.
Once again, though, Stewart's strengths are evident, particularly in the slow detail, and the offstage accumulation of mythologies. By this time in Merlin's life, most of the details of the earlier books have passed into legend:
"'There was a king once who set out to build a stronghold. And like the kings of old, who were strong men and merciless, he looked for a hero, to kill and bury beneath the foundations, and hold them firm. So he caught and took Merlin, who was the greatest man in all Britain, and would have killed him; but Merlin called up his dragons, and flew away through the heavens, safely, and called a new king into Britain, who burned the other one to ashes in his tower, and his queen with him. Had you heard the tale, master?'"
Yes, I've heard it—in a slightly different form, back when it was called The Crystal Cave. This is a great literary device, this mythic repetition, and it really makes the reader feel like he's been around for the long haul. Along with this Stewart casually but deliberately ties the events of the story into much earlier myth-patterns—Merlin and Arthur both have something of Christ about them, and in a brilliant sequence, Merlin, as part of a political action, equates Guenievere with Persephone in order that the people will view her abduction and possible rape by Melwas in a sympathetic light.
Merlin is ecumenical, but still a classicist at heart; when Gereint quotes the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings: "Behold, the half was not told me"), he doesn't recognize the line. Merlin is, as ever, indifferent to Judeo-Christianity, and completely clueless when it comes to women.
The events of the book and their overtones, though, are not exclusively pagan. For example, when Merlin, presumed dead, is entombed alive in the Welsh cave he calls his home, his old servant Stilicho is the one to rescue him; hearing Merlin playing his harp, he's at first terrified, and runs away. But with almost Biblical poignancy, he returns, and frees Merlin:
"'Yes. I couldn't sleep all night. You remember when you left me once to guard the cave, and you showed me your harp, and how it played sometimes by itself, just with the air moving? And how you gave me courage, and showed me the crystal cave and told me I would be safe there? Well, I thought of all that, and I thought of the times you were good to me, how you took me out of slavery and gave me freedom and the life I have now. And I thought: Even if it is my lord's ghost, or the harp playing by magic, alone in the hollow hill, he would never harm me.… So I came again, but this time I came by daylight. I thought: If it is a ghost, then in sunlight it will be sleeping.'"
Like the rest of the book, that's stirring and emotionally fine, but fortunately not completely without humor. Stewart isn't even above a little bit of self-parody; this next line could describe the unhurried style of the previous two books:
"Now when you get a black Welshman on his feet and ready to talk, it is like inviting a bard; the thing is done in order, in cadence, and at very great length; but such was this man's way, and such the beauty of his speaking voice, that after the first few minutes men settled back comfortably to listen, as they might have listened at a feast."
Nor is she above the occasional inside joke, as when Merlin is told about "some young man who had recently come to court, a noble fighter, and a cousin of March of Cornwall." I had to look that one up, but it turns out to be Alexander, hero of her later novel The Prince and the Pilgrim, which she must have been plotting out at the time.
So that's it for this eloquent, literary and occasionally dull trilogy. It's better than 95% of the fantasy literature out there, which I realize isn't saying much, but it's a very good series outside of any genre considerations. For those with patience, it's a better choice than R. L. Salvatore or Mercedes Lackey, or whatever thinly-emprosed Basic Edition module is posing as fantasy fiction these days.