I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Fall of Arthur. I’ve never been a fan of Tolkien as poet and, as a rule, skim through the examples that crop...moreI was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Fall of Arthur. I’ve never been a fan of Tolkien as poet and, as a rule, skim through the examples that crop up in his prose or that are reproduced in the History of Middle-earth volumes. But I was intrigued by the subject and by what Tolkien may have made of the Matter of Britain (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight doesn’t count since it’s a translation of an existing poem).
Unfortunately, The Fall of Arthur is incomplete. Tolkien only completed four cantos (in several versions which Christopher Tolkien exhaustively presents) but what’s there suggests an original retelling of the war between Arthur and his son Mordred. The first cantos opens with Arthur fighting in the unmapped east when he learns of Mordred’s treachery; the second introduces Arthur’s son, his motivations for rebellion, and the queen and her motivations; the third cantos takes us to Lancelot, who languishes in Benwick mourning his fate; the fourth cantos describes Arthur’s initial landing at Romney in Kent and the ensuing battle with the rebels (not Camlann, though; Tolkien never got that far).
I was especially interested in Tolkien’s portrayal of Guinever. As I read the poem, she’s a cold, grasping, shallow woman who even in the face of the ruin of the king’s dreams shows no remorse:
/ His heart returned To its long thralldom / lust-tormented, To Guinever the golden / with gleaming limbs, As fair and fell / as fay-woman In the world walking / for the woe of men No tear shedding….
In her blissful bower / on bed of silver Softly slept she / on silken pillows With long hair loosened, / lightly breathing, In fragrant dreams / fearless wandering, Of pity and repentance / no pain feeling, In the courts of Camelot / queen and peerless, Queen unguarded…. (II.25-30, 32-38)
/ But cold silver Or glowing gold / greedy-hearted In her fingers taken / fairer thought she, More lovely deeming / what she alone treasured Darkly hoarded. / Dear she loved him With love unyielding, / lady ruthless Fair as fay-woman / and fell-minded In the world walking / for the woe of men….
From war she shrank not, / might her will conquer, Life both and love / with delight keeping To wield as she wished / while the world lasted; But little liked her / lonely exile, Or for love to lose / her life’s splendour. In sorrow they parted. / With searing words His wound she probed / his will searching. Grief bewrayed her / and greed thwarted; The shining sun / was sudden shaded In storm of darkness…. / In pain they parted…. (III.49-56, 97-106, 109)
I would recommend this for the Tolkien and/or Arthurian lit reader.(less)
I like Kage Baker's Company books (Mendoza, before she's reduced to a simpering, love-sick nonentity, is one of my favorite characters in any series)...moreI like Kage Baker's Company books (Mendoza, before she's reduced to a simpering, love-sick nonentity, is one of my favorite characters in any series) and I love C.J. Cherryh's Union-Alliance future history (Signy Mallory of ECS Norway ranks as one of the most brilliant characters in SF (IMO) and Downbelow Station is a masterpiece). But I can't stand their forays into fantasy. I couldn't finish The Anvil of the World and Cherryh's fantasy tends to bore me.
Sarah Zettel joins that band of authors whose SF I like but whose fantasy leaves me cold. I first met Zettel in her SF author guise - Fool's War, Kingdom of Cages, etc. - and enjoyed her writing. (Though, being reasonably honest, I confess to not remembering anything about the stories; all I remember is that I liked them.) And perhaps I should have known better: I hated A Sorcerer's Treason. But this was a tale of King Arthur, and because I didn't like one book didn't mean that I wouldn't like this one.
But that turned out not to be the case. I gave Zettel 117 pages to convince me to go on but her arguments weren't good enough. The writing felt awkward and forced; there was never a point where I could lose myself in the story. I was always aware that I was lounging in a chair reading a book. Even in Mary Stewart's Arthurian saga, which I recently finished rereading and had issues with, I was engaged enough in the story and the characters to want to continue reading. Every few sentences, In Camelot's Shadow's clumsy prose jarred me back into reality.
If I had time or inclination, it might be interesting to reread Zettel's SF novels to figure out why she fails for me in a fantasy setting.
But in this case, I can't recommend the book. I can see where others might find interest in it, however, and wouldn't want to discourage anyone from trying it.(less)
The Wicked Day is the final volume in Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga, which began with The Crystal Cave. Unlike the first three books in the series, wh...moreThe Wicked Day is the final volume in Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga, which began with The Crystal Cave. Unlike the first three books in the series, where Merlin is the first-person narrator, The Wicked Day is told in the third person but focuses on the life of Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son, born of his incestuous tryst with his half-sister Morgause. In Stewart’s vision of Arthur’s Britain, he and his son are hapless pawns in a tragic fate that neither desire. It would make for a great story – two decent, well-meaning men who love and admire each other but who cannot overcome circumstance and find themselves mortal enemies. And in Stewart’s hands it’s a decent enough story but it lacks any passion.
That – in retrospect – is the problem with the entire series. Only rarely did I feel any emotional connection to the characters. Even in this book, where you might expect a more direct connection to events, so much happens that is mere reportage. The first third, the best part, recounts Mordred’s life as a foster child, unknowing of his heritage, in a fisherman’s hut in the Orkneys. When he’s of age, Morgause plucks him from obscurity to raise him in her court, and we get a sense of how the later man developed.
But then we get to the later sections and it’s "well, several years pass, and Mordred ...." And the ending feels rushed, as if the author crammed into the last 100 pages the equivalent of all the material she had lingered over in the first three books.
I want pathos in my tragedies. I want to feel the agony of Arthur, Guinevere and Bedwyr’s love; the friendship between Arthur and his son; the despair when, despite all, Arthur’s dreams collapse in bloody ruin.
I wanted the entire book (the entire series) to read like Merlin’s visions on Bryn Myrddin or Mordred’s as he lay dying at Camlann:
Then the rain, and the creak of rowlocks, and the sound of women’s weeping fading into the lapping of the lake water and the hiss of the rain falling.
His cheek was on a cushion of thyme. The rain had washed the blood away, and the thyme smelled sweetly of summer.
The waves lapped. The oars creaked. The seabirds cried. A porpoise rolled, sleek in the sun. Away on the horizon he could see the golden edge of the kingdom where, since he was a small child, he had always longed to go. (pp. 404-5)
But it wasn’t there.
I still like the books enough to recommend them to readers interested in Arthurian mythology, if no one else. I’ve always liked the Mordred character and Stewart creates a plausibly good-but-flawed man in her version. And she writes luscious, vivid descriptions of place and people when she has a mind to.(less)
The Last Enchantment covers the first decade or so of Arthur’s reign. While I found myself enjoying it more than The Hollow Hills, it suffered from th...moreThe Last Enchantment covers the first decade or so of Arthur’s reign. While I found myself enjoying it more than The Hollow Hills, it suffered from the same flaws I found in that book – namely, the second-hand nature of much of the narrative. Nearly everything is related to Merlin by a third party with the exception of Melwas’ abduction of Guinevere and Merlin’s tutelage of Nimuë, whom he believes is a boy in the beginning. Yet even in the latter episode, Merlin spends much of the time in a dreamlike trance, then falls into a coma and is buried alive in his hermitage at Bryn Myrddin; and, in the former, he’s the rower who takes Bedwyr to where Guinevere is held, he doesn't do anything.
I can’t blame Stewart entirely for this. In the Arthurian romances and in many modern interpretations, Merlin is not the focus (if he’s incorporated into the tale at all). Traditionally, he’s the power behind the throne, the advisor to the crown, the uneasily tolerated enchanter of an ostensibly Christian king, and it’s hard to make him the center of any tale. Thus, in this series, most of the great tales of Arthur’s court are narrated after-the-fact by couriers and visitors to wherever Merlin is: The 12 battles that secure Arthur’s kingdom, the massacre of the innocents when Mordred is born, Guinevere and Bedwyr’s adultery, Accolon and Morgan’s plot to murder the king, etc.
Reflecting on my comments in my review of The Hollow Hills, I had decided I was unfair in criticizing Stewart for her depiction of women. It was told from the POV of a man of 6th century AD Britain, a period not noted as a highpoint in feminine empowerment. The author was reflecting the reality of the times – women were seen as irrelevant except in their capacity to breed boys. Yet I was again astonished at the level of misogyny in The Last Enchantment, and I’m leaning back toward my original assessment. All of Arthur’s serious problems stem from the machinations of women – or they do in Merlin’s eyes – primarily his sisters, Morgause and Morgan, both of whom are "corrupted" by their flirtations with witchcraft (a suspect manifestation of the Power that acts legitimately through Merlin). Alternatively, women are silly creatures who let themselves be swayed by emotions (like compassion or fear), e.g., Guinevere. And then there’s Nimuë. In The Hollow Hills review, I suggested that Merlin is a supremely unreliable narrator, and I raise it again based on the wizard’s account of his affair with the Lady of the Lake. It’s too fairy-tale like and sentimental to ring true, and one can only wonder how delusional Merlin is when he so calmly accepts Nimuë’s explanation of his interment:
She lifted her head. Her face was tragic. "Yes, and how you gave it! I only pray that you cannot remember! You had told me to learn all that you had to tell me. You had said that I must build on every detail of your life; that after your death I must be Merlin.... And you were leaving me, slipping from me in sleep ... I had to do it, hadn’t I? Force the last of your power from you, even though with it I took the last of your strength? I did it by every means I knew – cajoled, stormed, threatened, gave you cordials and brought you back to answer me again and again – when what I should have done, had you been any other man, was to let you sleep, and go in peace. And because you were Merlin, and no other man, you roused yourself in pain and answered me, and gave me all you had. So minute by minute I weakened you, when it seems to me now that I might have saved you." She slid her hands up to my breast, and lifted swimming grey eyes. "Will you tell me something truthfully? Swear by the god?"
"What is it?"
"Do you remember it, when I hung about you and tormented you to your death, like a spider sucking the life from a honey-bee?"
I put my hands up to cover hers. I looked straight into the beautiful eyes, and lied. "My darling girl, I remember nothing of that time but words of love, and God taking me peacefully into his hand. I will swear it if you like."
Relief swept into her face. But still she shook her head, refusing to be comforted. "But then, even all the power and knowledge you gave me could not show me that we had buried you living, and send me back to get you out. Merlin, I should have known, I should have known! I dreamed again and again, but the dreams were full of confusion. I went back once to Bryn Myrddin, did you know? I went to the cave, but the door was blocked still, and I called and called, but there was no sound –"
"Hush, hush." She was shivering. I pulled her closer, and bent my head and kissed her hair. "It’s over. I am here. When you came back for me, I must have been drugged asleep. Nimuë, what happened was the will of the god. If he had wanted to save me from the tomb, he would have spoken to you. Now, he has brought me back in his own time, and for that, he saved me from being put quick into the ground, or given to the flames. You must accept it all, and thank him, as I do." (pp. 490-92)
Contrary to what one might think given all these negative things I’ve had to say about the series, it is reasonably engaging, and Stewart is a fine writer. My disappointment arises because I think she could have pushed the envelop a bit more in developing more interesting characters or letting Merlin be more engaged in the events he narrates.
It’s on now to the final book – The Wicked Day – which is told from Mordred’s point of view, and I’ve always been sympathetic to him (e.g., “Chichevache”).(less)
The Hollow Hills is the second book in Mary Stewart's Arthurian saga and covers the fifteen years between Arthur's birth and his acclamation as High K...moreThe Hollow Hills is the second book in Mary Stewart's Arthurian saga and covers the fifteen years between Arthur's birth and his acclamation as High King as experienced by Merlin, who spends much of it avoiding the limelight and traveling to Asia Minor and Constantinople. In a word, not taking a role in Arthur's life whatsoever until a few months before the boy's acclamation.
Which is the primary problem. We can't engage with either the chief character of the novel or with his ostensible ward. We're observers to events that are happening far away to people we have no connection with. A feeling deliberately enforced by Stewart, whose Merlin consistently emphasizes his passivity (and other's) in the unfolding of events - everything that happens is the will of the God (who may manifest as the Christian God, Mithras or any other divine being) and all we can do is accept it.
It drains the saga of any dramatic tension.
Another distraction I found was Arthur himself. The boy is simply too good to be true. Not just in a moral sense but in all ways - he has wisdom, ability and charisma far beyond that of a fourteen-year-old boy. Which I might have accepted more readily if Stewart's retelling were more mythological/fantastical. There the "chosen one" can display all manner of miraculous abilities (i.e., Jesus' performance in the synagogue when only thirteen or Herakles' exploits in the crib). But she chose a mostly historical mode, which means - in order to accept Arthur's precosity - we need to spend more time with the boy.
The feminine continues to receive shortshrift. Women are either Madonnas (Merlin's mother, Ygraine (sort of), Drusilla), whores (Morgause) or dismissed as irrelevant (Morgian). And the few allusions to a feminine divine principal suggest a blood-thirsty, savage, evil entity.
So why three stars? Partly for nostalgic sentiment; a reflection from my earliest days as a serious reader and a love of the Arthur myth in pretty much any form. Another is that Stewart has an eye for colorful detail and - despite my complaints about the nature of the story - an excellent sense of pacing. We may feel like observers but we're observers of an exciting story.
And then there's the notion, which I realized after finishing the novel, that the narrative's passivity is a deliberate strategy on Stewart's part and that Merlin is a most unreliable narrator. This is, after all, the purported memoirs of Merlin who lies entombed in the Crystal Cave (how we are reading them is unclear but moot). It's understandable, then, why Merlin doesn't portray himself (or any other "good" guy) as culpable for anything but rather tools of a higher purpose; and it explains why the motives of everyone else are consistently portrayed as political or military machinations to achieve simple, mundane power. It also explains the misogyny - Merlin has been terrified of women since a boy and he is brought low by a woman. Things that would color anyone's perception of females.
I may be reading too much into the text but I will be heading down to the library today (July 28) to check out the third and fourth books and complete this tale left unfinished from my youth.(less)
Alas, The Crystal Cave has lost the glamour that it had exercised over my mind since I first read it when I was around 12 or 13. I can remember posses...moreAlas, The Crystal Cave has lost the glamour that it had exercised over my mind since I first read it when I was around 12 or 13. I can remember possessing the Science Fiction Book Club edition, one of the first books I (ahem…mom) bought after joining the club, and I remember being enthralled by the story of Merlin’s early life and the telling of Arthur’s story from a mostly historical, nonfastastical point of view.
And I still enjoyed reading it this time. I recalled many scenes from my first reading (which does suggest the impact it had on me as a kid) and I still appreciate Stewart’s version of “what really happened.”
But I’m no longer that 13-year old, and I would likely have given it a reserved, not enthusiastic three stars if I were rating it today.
I rapidly lost interest in the story in the midst of the second book. Upon reflection, I believe it came about because Merlin – even over the course of this first book – rapidly began to lose his humanity and the tale turned to Arthur, whom I found boring at the time. The first part of The Crystal Cave is interesting precisely because we’re watching a little boy trying to come to grips with the absence of his father, his own genius and an unreliable ability to See. By the time Merlin grows up and returns to Britain to prepare the way for Ambrosius’ – his father’s – invasion, he’s become something of a self-righteous fanatic and misogynist.
A second reason the The Crystal Cave has lost its “magic” is that I’m far more knowledgeable about the period than I was at 13. The physical evocation of late-5th century Britain remains believable but the politics and the ethos of the Britons doesn’t ring as true. For example, did the Britons ever consider themselves “Britons”? I recently finished a book (UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia) that argues not only did the Britons never fully assimilate into the Roman Empire, they never forgot the tribal associations of their pre-Roman history.
I’m going to go ahead and reread The Hollow Hills to see if my reactions this time are similar or whether my growth as a reader will have changed my perceptions. If they have, I’ll finally have the incentive to finish the series with The Last Enchantment and The Wicked Day.(less)