Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Matter Of Britain

posted by Tim Walters @ 11:18 PM

Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave/The Hollow Hills/The Last Enchantment/The Wicked Day.

As far as I know, this was the first "realistic" historical-fiction treatment of the Arthur legend, and as far as I know, it's still the best (although I should probably read The Mists Of Avalon before coming to a firm conclusion). Making Merlin the first-person narrator is an ingenious device, and allows Stewart to begin her story completely outside the legend, with Merlin's childhood. Not only does she handle this brilliantly, but it allows her to develop a highly credible post-Roman Britain (complete with beautiful landscape descriptions) against which the events of the legend can be set (and to some extent subverted; although she's no tiresome rationalizer, the story is of a believable seed for the legends rather than a strict recounting thereof).

The Crystal Cave ends where the legend begins, with Uther sneaking into Tintagel to beget Arthur. The Hollow Hills then takes the place of The Sword in the Stone, albeit with Merlin still the focus rather than Arthur; The Last Enchantment takes us to Merlin's final destiny. The Wicked Day then completes the tragedy; it must, perforce, do without Merlin's narration. She substitutes a third-person omniscient viewpoint, which is rather less effective. Also, for some reason, the Grail legend is never dealt with, despite having been set up in TLE. It may be that she wrote TWD more out of obligation than inspiration.

I first read The Crystal Cave when I was 10 or so; I'm pleased to report that I still love it. The next two books have slightly more political intrigue and slightly less wonder, but are still first-rate. The Wicked Day is worthwhile, but not strictly necessary.


At 7:52 AM, Blogger Todd T said...

Curse you for making my to-be-read pile build up again!

I have had the fist couple of these for 20 years (gulp) without even taking them up. No particular reason. But I must rectify this now. If I can't read deeply in most subgenres, I should at least take care of the highlights.


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