Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Hollow Hills

The Hollow Hills
by Mary Stewart
Recommended Ages: 14+

In fifth-century Britain, the last remnants of the declining Roman Empire are all that hold together a coalition of kings and dukes against the encroaching Saxon invaders from across the German Sea. At this fragile moment, the best hope for keeping Britain whole is the High King, Uther Pendragon, who lately inherited the crown from his brother Aurelius Ambrosius. But Uther has badly fumbled a love-affair with the wife of the king of Cornwall, conceiving a son with her on the very night her husband died in battle. Driven by a mixture of guilt, insecurity about the child's chances being accepted as his heir, and a cold-blooded measure of the men around him, Uther fobs the child off on his bastard nephew - a prince, doctor, musician, prophet, and magician whose beard you may have heard characters in the Harry Potter universe swear by.

At this time, to be sure, Merlin is barely in his twenties and doesn't wear a beard. In spite of a long-strained relationship with his royal uncle, the hermit is eager to be of service to the unwanted baby because he knows - rather, because it has been revealed to him - that Arthur will be the king who unites all Britain, and who holds back the darkness of the Dark Ages for just a little longer. In that unsettled time, when the old gods of the all-but-vanished hill people have not quite disappeared into their hollow hills, and when the pagan gods of the Romans and Saxons are still abroad even while Christianity has begun to drive them out, Merlin doesn't have a clear idea which God (or gods) he serves. He only knows He (or they) likes the taste of human sweat; another way of saying that, even with a prophetic vision lighting his way, he cannot be certain things will turn out as planned. There are a lot of dangers to protect the boy from, and a lot of miracles that need to be carefully prepared for the time when Arthur will be ready to defend his claim as heir of the High King. So Merlin must put forth a lot of effort to make sure of the prophecy by hiding the boy, by setting guardians for him, and for a while at least, by putting himself as far as possible from him, so that no one guesses who and where Arthur is until the moment is right.

There are a lot of familiar things in this story. I could tell you everything that happens in this book without spoiling much - not just because the book is as old as I am, but because the legend it retells is at least as old as the English language, and well-known to boot. But there are unexpected touches as well, where the shape of the story seems a little different from how you may remember it. It is a grown-up version of the story, with believable political complexities, personal motives, scenic details, and such a high-resolution picture of historical events that you will find yourself surprised, at the end, to realize how much of it came out of the author's imagination.

By the phrase "at the end," I mean to draw your attention to the afterparts of the book, in which a true literary magician reveals how she did her trick, with a synopsis of the original legend and a bibliography of her scholarly sources. It's a tale of imagination that succeeds in counterfeiting real history by being based on thorough research. It's a memoir of Merlin in which the enchanter explains what really happened before all the down-to-earth facts became embellished with superstitious fancies - yet far from being stripped of its enchantment, the truth, as Stewart's Merlin tells it, has as much of the miraculous and the mysterious about it as the version you already know.

This is the second book of the five-volume Merlin/Arthur saga by the late Mary Stewart (1916-2014), an acclaimed author of romantic thrillers and magical stories for children whose career spanned more than 40 years. Told from in the style of the memoirs of a learned fifth-century prince named Merlin, the series begins with The Crystal Cave and continues with The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day, and The Prince and the Pilgrim. While straying from the Arthurian legends as usually told, these books present an alternative vision of that mythology - one that both works dramatically and captivates the senses. It plants Arthur at a definite moment in British history, makes him a vivid and lovable character (yet without the Disney-cartoon cuteness of T.H. White's "the Wart"), gives his relationship with Merlin a poignant and plausible new dimension, and hardly ever relaxes its grip of action, tension, intrigue, and the creepy mysteriousness of the dimension from which Merlin draws his power.

Some of Stewart's other novels are Madam, Will You Talk?; Nine Coaches Waiting; This Rough Magic; Airs Above the Ground; The Little Broomstick; Touch Not the Cat; and A Walk in Wolf Wood.

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