When I wrote up my review of The Crystal Cave, I said I had read the first two books in this Arthurian series by Mary Stewart years ago, but I think I may have been wrong. None of what I read in this second volume felt at all familiar to me (except in the general Arthurian sense), so I’m not sure I ever read it after all. Of course, it’s only been a short time since I finished it and it’s and is already fading from memory, so who knows?
The only distinct impression I have after reading The Hollow Hills is that I really didn’t like Merlin at all. Since he’s the first person narrator it makes it difficult to enjoy the book as a whole. His self-righteous assurance that everything is going to happen exactly as it’s supposed to not only leeches any tension from the narrative, but it makes him rather unsympathetic as a character. He has no doubts, no conflict between his own desires and what his God wants him to do, nothing that makes him feel like a person instead of a divine tool. He never even expresses the least bit of discomfort at the near-legendary status he’s already achieved in his life. Confidence is sexy, sure, but he just comes across as an entitled prick, naturally deserving of the accolades and honors that come his way, even though (he freely admits) he really didn’t have anything to do with it, since he was just a tool for his God.
I actually cheered when Morgause seduced the young Arthur, right under Merlin’s nose, because it’s the only thing that happened that threw him for a loop. Poor Morgause. We’re not supposed to like her, I know, but I couldn’t help feeling empathetic towards her. She’s one of only two women in the book given a voice.* We first meet her at age 14, when she asks Merlin to teach her magic. His response is pretty much to pat her on the head and say, “Pretty young girls like you don’t need to learn magic, go make us some tea.” is it any wonder she goes “bad”? She wanted power and influence in her world, and since legitimate channels were refused her, she had to take some less savory routes to achieve it. It’s hard to get excited by a world view that automatically assumes that women who want power must be evil.
As a side note, this is the first literary version of the legend where I’ve seen Morgause and/or Morgan depicted as Uther’s children, instead of related to Ygraine (sisters or daughters). I had wondered where the two recent TV series came up with that idea!
Aside from not liking the main character, and the book’s lack of positive female characters, I didn’t actually hate it – I’m just not that enthusiastic about it. The writing is good enough, though the story is weaker than in the first book, largely because of the aforementioned lack of tension. It covers Arthur’s birth through his ascension to the throne. Arthur’s youth and education is not nearly as entertaining as it is in The Sword and the Stone (book or movie), unfortunately, but Arthur is likable enough. It does some interesting things with the historical and legendary sources, weaving in the tale of Macsen Wledig, and suggesting that the “fay folk” are actually the non-Romanized early Brits who hide in the hills and mountains (but not necessarily without magic). The actual discovery of the sword Caliburn (Excalibur) feels a bit contrived, as Merlin has to do a lot of maneuvering to set up events that will generate both the sword in the stone legend as well as the Lady of the Lake** origin story, while still preserving a historical sensibility for the event instead of something that is purely mythical or magical. I still like the blend of history and legend – I just wish the historical viewpoint was not so narrow-minded when it comes to women.
All in all, I’d say this was worth a read for someone interested in the literary Arthur, but it’s not something I can see myself coming back to read again in the future, and it wouldn’t win a space on my bookshelves. It’s just not that compelling.
Definitive, Unofficial Ranking of Arthurian Novels (that I’ve read):
- The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart (1970, Book One of the Merlin Trilogy)
- The Hollow Hills, by Mary Stewart (1973, Book Two of the Merlin Trilogy)
* The other is Merlin’s old nurse, and all she really does is praise him.
** Of course there is not actually a lady involved, because we couldn’t have that any powerful females in the story. There’s a grim bit where Merlin is cleaning up an old chapel, and as he is restoring many of the pagan icons that the previous caretaker had removed, he mentions that he’s glad a bloody, curved knife has been disposed of permanently, because nobody ever wants to invite the goddess’s presence into things.