Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Last Enchantment

The Last Enchantment
by Mary Stewart
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the third installment of Mary Stewart's Arthurian Saga, Merlin - prince, prophet, polymath - narrates the early years of High King Arthur's reign after his sudden rise to power in Book 2, The Hollow Hills. In fascinating scenic and quasi-historical detail, he guides us through the consolidation of the parts of England still ruled by petty kings descended from Roman legionnaires, their defense of the land against encroaching Angles and Saxons, the construction of Camelot, and the establishment of a great era of peace and prosperity. But while Arthur achieves one victory after another and grows into a wise king, Merlin's power is on the wane, and he feels the fate he foresaw long ago - being "buried quick" (i.e. entombed alive) - stalking him ever more closely.

There is plenty of trouble in Camelot. Some of those petty kings aren't so loyal. Arthur's half-sister Morgause, an evil sorceress, is married to one of them. She bears a son - Arthur's bastard son, conceived by treachery - and Merlin suspects the son survived King Lot's Herod-like attempt to wipe out every boy born about that time and place. He foresees, too, that Mordred - if he lives - will somehow become Arthur's bane; but he cannot bring himself to do anything to prevent it.

Then there's a hint of danger from Arthur's other sister Morgan, who also practices some dark arts, though her husband is a king more loyal to him. After Morgause, it is a certain Guenever, or perhaps Guinevere, whose name vibrates in Merlin's mind with a certain doom. But as with the lad Ninian, whom Merlin would like to make his disciple, there is a grim surprise in that quarter, and a sort of second coming - Guinevere and Ninian doublets, or doppelgangers, or something like that. The magic is weird. And just because this retelling of the ancient saga is photo-realistic and rich with historical color, does not mean it is stripped of magic. Far from it!

This story is ultimately about Merlin accepting that he must decrease while Arthur and others increase; about a legendary sorcerer making peace with his fate, and finding mercy in it. It is rich in emotional depths and multi-dimensional characters, abounding in lyrical description as well as intense passages of suspense, mystery, intrigue, and danger. It hints at things yet to come (Gawain and his brothers becoming Arthur's knights; the quest for the grail; etc.) and throws unexpected interpretations on stories whose shapes have become tediously familiar (such as Lancelot and Guinevere, Nimuë and the crystal cave, and more). It conjures strong feelings of foreboding, regret, longing, and excitement. It is all that a legend of King Arthur should be, except trivial, bizarre, preposterous, or cloaked in archaic language. It is like the great last act of a three-part memoir of a great epoch in history, as seen by one of its crucial but peripheral actors; and yet it leaves open the door for two more Arthurian novels: The Wicked Day and The Prince and the Pilgrim.

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