Julia Margaret Cameron's Viven and Merlin

To say that I was unenthusiastic when I started reading the third book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy would not be an understatement. It is also true to state that I was largely unenthusiastic when I finished reading the book, too, proven by the fact that it’s taken me about two weeks to get around to writing this post about it.

Let me start by saying that there are definitely some things I like about The Last Enchantment – the writing is clear and engaging, for starters, and I continue to appreciate the deftness with which Stewart weaves legendary source material into a historical setting. She tackles all the major plot points that typically follow Arthur’s ascension to the throne: themassacre of the babies in a misguided and failed attempt to remove Mordred as a threat; the twelve major battles Arthur wins, including Badon; the two Guineveres; the kidnapping of the Queen by Melwas; the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot/Bedwyr; the four sons of Morgause who are Arthur’s greatest knights (Gawain, etc.); Morgan le Fay’s attempt to steal Excalibur; and finally the “entrapment” of Merlin by the sorceress Nimue/Niniane.

That’s a lot of plot to try and fit in one novel, but most of it doesn’t directly involve Merlin – which is, ultimately, the biggest problem with the book. Imagine, if you would, if the first Star Wars movie had been focused on Obi-Wan Kenobi instead of Luke Skywalker, and you can begin to understand how the approach of telling a classic Hero’s Journey tale from the Mentor’s point of view just doesn’t work. We are just too far removed from the main characters to really be touched by the drama of it.

A stronger character arc for Merlin himself could have compensated for this, but the book fails to achieve that. When the story focuses on his personal trials and tribulations (instead of him guiding Arthur through his) there doesn’t seem to be any significant challenge or growth to his character – his period of madness in the forest, for example, doesn’t seem to highlight any personal defects, or cause him to change his course of action in the future. It’s just something that happens to him. His relationship with Niniane is only really compelling at the beginning, when she’s disguised as boy and the (knowledgeable) reader gets excited about what could have been a really interesting twist to the tale. But Stewart takes the conventional route (if having a 50+-year-old man fall passionately in love with an 18-year-old girl is conventional), and then pulls all the teeth out of Merlin’s betrayal and entombment by telling us that it never really happened. Yes, Niniane traps him in the crystal cave, but it’s only because she thought he was dead, and he gets out later, so everything is okay. Consequences: none.

I do have to say that one of the things I liked the most about the books was the relationship between Merlin and Arthur. When they are alone together, you can really feel strength of the relationship between them, and for me that’s key to engaging with a story. When the characters care about one another, I care about the characters. Unfortunately, there are too few of these scenes, and Merlin’s relationships with other characters don’t carry the same weight, coming off as flat and perfunctory instead.

Julia Margaret Cameron's Vivien and Merlin

Fortunately, the book ends with Merlin and Arthur together, so the book ends on a high note. Not only are we left with a warm feeling from observing the deep friendship between these two men, but Merlin tells the king, “I’ll be here when you come back” – which resonates with the whole “once and future king” legend in just the right way. And that’s the whole point in reading Arthurian fiction anyway, right?

Definitive, Unofficial Ranking of Arthurian Novels (that I’ve read):

  1. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart (1970, Book One of the Merlin Trilogy)
  2. The Last Enchantment, by Mary Stewart (1979, Book Two of the Merlin Trilogy)
  3. The Hollow Hills, by Mary Stewart (1973, Book Two of the Merlin Trilogy)

Photos by Julia Margaret Cameron, courtesy the Victoria & Albert Museum.

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