Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy is a well-written, but ultimately troubling take on the Arthurian mythos . Stewart took great pains to give her historical fantasy a realistic, early Medieval backdrop, but her meticulous reinterpretation of the legendary source material has an agenda contrary to that material’s chivalric heart. Through the eyes and mouth of her ethically and spiritually ambiguous protagonist, the author exchanges the charming anachronism of Arthurian proto-chivalry for a far less believable Arthurian realpolitik. The result is an historically fascinating, but morally hollow series.
Before delving in, let us note that the three books of the trilogy, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment, despite being marketed as youth novels, are most definitely written for adults. Multiple sexual situations, some fairly graphic, allusions to perverse behavior, and a general atmosphere of moral grayness, make the books poor reading for anyone at a formative stage. Merlin, the trilogy’s narrator and chief protagonist, is not especially good; only interesting. Even Arthur, when he finally appears, is more of a symbol of honor and light than an actually virtuous man. Finally, the story’s dramatic tension depends more on the revelation of secrets than on action or romance, which might be disappointing for young readers seeking a tale about heroism and love.
The basic plot is as follows: The Crystal Cave covers Merlin’s boyhood in a Britain divided by political machinations, and always under threat of invading Saxons. Physically weak, of uncertain parentage, and subject to sudden bouts of psychic/prophetic vision, Merlin comes under the tutelage of the wizard-like Galapas. When circumstances force Merlin to leave his home, he eventually meets Ambrosius, a man who should be king, and Ambrosius’ brother, Uther. Along the way, Merlin discovers his true parentage, and comes to understand that he is a special instrument of “the god.” By the novel’s end, Merlin has grown into a wise political and psychological manipulator, the god’s instrument for engineering the rise of Arthur.
The Hollow Hills picks up where TCC leaves off, and tells the story of Merlin’s further god-guided intrigues. By watching over the boy-king (who is in hiding,) arranging for the pseudo-miraculous sign that will confirm his true birthright, and helping to guarantee his accession to the throne despite bitter political opposition, Merlin works to make the future certain. When the same strange god arranges for Arthur to unwittingly sleep with his half-sister, fathering the child who will someday be his downfall, Merlin helps Arthur to mitigate the damage without thwarting the god’s will.
The Last Enchantment details Merlin’s continued maintenance of Arthur’s rise to greater power, a power that will help shape the West. While the latter builds Camelot and fends off competitors, Merlin works behind the scenes to protect the legacy he helped arrange. Along the way, he takes on a new apprentice, Niniane, with whom he eventually falls in love. Merlin briefly finds the love always denied him, but all is not well. His power is waning, along with his usefulness to the world he helped create. There’s a slow, sad changing of the guard. Merlin’s role as Arthur’s personal wizard and trouble-fixer declines, while Niniane sees her star rise. In the end, Merlin, having passed through a kind of death and rebirth, ends his days peacefully, but alone.
The overall plot is interesting. Telling the story from Merlin’s perspective allows Stewart to engage in a kind of creative historiography in which Merlin himself consciously weaves history and myth together. In a sense, but not to the degree found in The Sword and the Stone, this Merlin also breaks the fourth wall. Stewart’s Merlin does not live history backwards, but he does fashion it deliberately in light of his foreknowledge. It’s a clever way of re-imagining T.H. White, while still paying homage to his famous work. She pulls off similar tricks with the Arthurian stories of the red and white dragons, the sword in the stone, and the lady in the lake. Judged purely in terms of the quality of the writing, and of the overall cleverness of the Stewart’s story-structure, this reviewer would be inclined to give the books fairly high marks, complaining only of Merlin’s tendency to summarize rather than tell the most interesting parts of the action. The books have a certain realism, which pays more than lip-service to the magical source material, while repurposing it. Perhaps the best example of this is Merlin’s own strange Sight, a real, but restrained magic that resembles more the alleged phenomenon of remote viewing* then it does fairy-tale magic. Yet for all its brilliance, Stewart’s trilogy is positively marinated in moral relativism, and in a self-contradictory spiritualism. The latter makes little historical sense, and laces the whole tale with confusion, darkness, and unintentional anachronism.
Merlin’s god is ambiguous. He is, and is not God, the gods, a force of light, a force of darkness, and a nameless, driving agent of fate. He is not all-powerful, for Merlin once insists that the gods cannot defend themselves. He is not all good, for he commands Merlin to do evil for the sake of his mysterious will.
“He knew how little I cared for Uther’s lusts,” says Merlin, speaking about a loyal duke whose cuckolding Merlin helped arrange. “He could not guess that my gods demanded that I should help him satisfy this one. Even though I could not help myself, it was still treachery, and we shall suffer for it, all of us.”
By “could not help myself,” Merlin means that the god that directs him also controls him. The god has decreed that Arthur be the offspring of a certain married woman, and so Merlin obeys. There is no suggestion that God, being God, could not command evil. Though the god whom Merlin serves is a god of light, one manifested at different times according to different faces, he has a dark side. Merlin himself explored that dark side in a disturbing scene in The Crystal Cave. While witnessing a group of druids practicing their “forbidden” religion — performing human sacrifice — Merlin experiences a physical episode whose description, while not graphically detailed, is unfit to mention here. And speaking of this, who has forbidden Druidism anyway?
The answer is, apparently, the Church. The problem with this answer is that it makes no sense in the world Stewart has constructed. While priests and bishops are alluded to, from time-to-time, with the accompanying suggestion that they exercise some pronounced role in shaping law, almost none of the important characters, hero or villain, British or Saxon, merchant or commoner are Christian. Ambrosius and Uther serve Mithras — of whom it is none too gently implied that Christ is either a copy or a new manifestation — yet they are compelled to practice their rites in secret. Meanwhile, the Church is almost invisible in Stewart’s work, aside from the occasional aging female convert, the young woman caught tragically in a suffocating nunnery, one intolerant bishop who barely appears on the page, and some priests — presumably Christian — who share space at court with magicians and pagans. For the most part, Stewart seems to go out of her way to keep this (somehow culture-shaping) institution invisible in her story. Even the country folk share in this narrative confusion.
The author seems torn between the Enlightenment trope of Christians as ignorant country-bumpkins, and the new age trope of country folk as wise practitioners of natural magic. Unable to square this circle, she shows us countryside Christian/pagan hybrids of the sort that probably existed in 450 A.D., and then quickly moves on, never dwelling too long on Christianity’s actual purchase in the region. When the question of Arthur’s baptism arises, it’s discussed as a matter of “paying service” to the common religion, despite there hardly being evidence of the Christian faith actually being the common religion. And if practically every interesting, powerful, and influential person is pagan, why must they worship their old gods in secret, cultic rites? It’s a huge hole in her world-building, but Stewart doesn’t bother to fill it. Instead, she pulls the curtain closed, and keeps our eyes on her interesting wizard.
Merlin himself is a man above the religious fray. While privately serving his god, he is willing to accommodate any divine entity, changing his vocabulary to suit his audience. As with morality, so with theology, all is fair game in service of the god’s designs. Even so, the fact that the books dwell lovingly on the secret ceremonies of the enlightened Mithraists makes it clear where Merlin (and Stewart’s) sympathies lie. In the end, the book’s theology could be aptly described as gnostic syncretism moving toward a politically expedient monotheism. Its religious practitioners — all the fleshed-out ones at least — do not so much resemble ancient pagans as eighteenth century freemasons; the sort of men who believed in “decency” and would take care to appear in church, but whose actual beliefs were a carefully guarded secret. These are the great men of Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, of whom Merlin is the wisest, and the least sectarian.
Finally, there is Arthur, whose appearance on earth is, in some way, the entire point of Merlin’s life. Stewart makes him a charming, brave, and ruddy youth. Yet his goodness is tarnished for the reader almost immediately. After sleeping unwittingly with his half-sister, the witch Morgause, and after discovering that he’s impregnated her, Arthur does not hesitate to order Merlin to have the child murdered. Merlin refuses, but not because the act itself would be wrong. As he sees it, the god willed both things, Arthur’s rise, and his eventual undoing through Mordred, Arthur’s bastard son. In either case, the methods of Merlin’s god are beyond good and evil: his will must be obeyed. Stewart is a talented enough writer that Arthur remains a compelling character even after this. He becomes a wise and just king, and one who, in time, is able to show great forbearance toward his enemies. Yet it’s hard for the reader to glean what, apart from pure power, and greater political unity, actually compels him, or Merlin toward their fated ends. Arthur is the sign and symbol of great things to come, of a new and more unified Western order. But are these great things good things?
Aside from the general sense that light and civility are on the side of Arthur and Merlin, the Merlin Trilogy offers the reader a hollow reality overseen by a hollow god, one too formless to be known, but too powerful to be resisted. “It is the same quest,” muses Merlin, thinking of the relationship between power and the quest for the grail, “because what use to anyone is the sword of power without the fulfillment of the spirit? All the kings are now one King. It is time the gods became one God…” Yet Merlin’s god – Mithras, Brahaman, the Spirit of the West, the Cosmic Christ; whoever or whatever it is supposed to be – seems just the sort of national “God” to whom outwardly pious statesmen, making their appearances at Sunday service, might appeal in times of war, or disaster, or when an opportunity for widespread social engineering suddenly presents itself. A god of lofty sentiments, indeed, but sentiments undefined, and unrestrained by limits; by any merely human notion of morality.
Near the end of his life, Merlin speaks of, “The god, who was God,” seemingly connecting his own mystery god to the Christian notion of the One True God. And yet, the matter is never really nailed down. On the one hand, Merlin’s God is a central player in history, driving it toward some kind of general greatness, weaving order out of chaos. On the other, this God is not above making direct, deliberate use of evil to achieve his ends. Again, one thinks of the convenient piety of the revolutionary or of the nation state, invoking God as justification for any means toward its notion of the common good. For this reason, throughout my reading of Stewart’s trilogy, the words “Masonic” and “mystery cult” kept popping up unbidden.
In the final assessment, Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, though beautifully composed, rings false. Its value as a contribution to Arthurian tales notwithstanding, the trilogy’s primary motive seems to be refounding the western story on the vague tropes and platitudes of Enlightenment liberalism. God is indeed a major player here, but only the sort of God who works for enlightened causes. Personal morality, whether human or Divine, is of only secondary importance in the grand scheme of things. In Stewart’s world, it is power, and not goodness, that makes all the difference. The books are moving, but it is perhaps worth noting that the most enduring emotion they evoke is sadness. That is why, despite their structural brilliance, and the immense work that must have gone into producing them, this series left this reviewer hollow.
*Remote viewing is the alleged psychic ability to see events or objects at a distance. During the Cold War, both the United States, and the former Soviet Union spent considerable sums of money attempting to develop remote viewers for purposes of intelligence gathering.